After taking an Oxford degree in Oriental Studies and working for the British Council in Japan, Peregrine Hodson recently returned to Japan as an investment banker for the Tokyo branch of a London Bank. During his stay in Tokyo, he kept a diary and recorded his impressions of contemporary Japanese life. Hodson uses the Japanese literary forms of the shosetsu, or “I-novel” and the zuihitsu or “random notes” to offer an unflattering portrait of contemporary Japanese culture.
To Western eyes, Japan has always seemed to be a rather closed, insular society, even for the gaijin, or “foreigner,” fluent in Japanese. Behind the facade of inscrutability, however, Hodson found not the wisdom and serenity of Shinto or Zen, but a self-absorbed, status-conscious society in which the pursuit of materialism has all but vanquished traditional values. From within the corporate world of a Tokyo investment bank, he observes the conformity, rigidity, joyless hedonism, and spiritual emptiness of his Japanese colleagues. His travels to the Japanese countryside, with its traditional way of life, heighten the contrast with urban life in Tokyo.
There is a tone of disillusioned idealism in A CIRCLE ROUND THE SUN that may account for Hodson’s dreary view of modern Japanese culture. Despite his apparent sophistication, Hodson’s view of Japan seems constrained, for Tokyo is by no means all of modern Japan, nor is the Japanese corporate world limited to international banking. Hodson gradually comes to realize that no matter how fluent he becomes in Japanese, he will never know the culture from the inside without thinking like the Japanese. Though his observations are perceptive, one might wish for a more balanced assessment of Japanese culture.