I finished two memoirs about Japan recently -- Pico Iyer's THE LADY AND THE MONK and Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's HIROSHIMA IN THE MORNING.
Granted, these writers went to Japan at different times -- Iyer in the 1980s and Rizzuto in 2001 -- and for different reasons. Iyer didn't have any family connection with Japan at all but had been fascinated with the country ever since a brief stopover with his mother when he was young. And his interest in Zen led him to choose Kyoto for his stay as well as to contact many people practicing Zen. He even lived in a temple himself for awhile. From my point of view, I have to say, I think his interest was much too intellectual to really lead anywhere, but nonetheless it was a focus for him.
Rizzuto went for completely different reasons. She is half-Japanese and she wanted to explore the impact the bombing of Hiroshima had on Japanese Americans who were caught up in that event. Perhaps these unfortunate people were visiting relatives in Japan at just the wrong time or had left the States rather than live in a relocation camp. Naturally, she chose Hiroshima as her base. She didn't know people personally ahead of time but she had several connections, and she had also received a grant to write a book based on her research -- a novel that seems to have been abandoned in favor of the memoir she finally published.
But, although these differences are very real, what strikes me more is the difference in tone. I have been trying to pin this down, to put in words this difference which I've noticed again and again in memoirs of men and women, and maybe I'm getting close. I think it is that the main question around which men form their narrative is, "How did this experience change me?" while the main question women ask is, "How did this experience help me discover who I really am?"
Maybe this seems like a subtle difference but, really, I think it makes all the difference. It seems that men, as a rule, already assume that they know who they are. Their experience, especially in a foreign country, will add to who they are and perhaps cause them to reconsider things they have always considered true, but the self who is having those experiences is never basically in doubt.
But with women, the result seems almost always to be, "I thought I was this sort of person, but through this experience I have now discovered that I am not that person I always thought I was: I am a quite different person, or maybe I am someone I have not yet completely discovered." So, for example, with Rizzuto, she went to Japan leaving her family in New York, but her research into the effect of the bomb on the lives of survivors could not be separated from the effect of those she interviewed on her own personal life. She had thought she was one kind of wife and mother but before long began to question the roles she had played so naturally up until that time.
Iyer's outcome is more modest. There is no doubt that he has been affected deeply by his experience -- and especially by the "lady" with whom he became involved -- but he goes home with his basic "self" in tact. Of course, if he'd taken Zen more seriously, that might not have been the case, but one doesn't usually find what one doesn't know one is looking for, and Iyer does not seem to have thought he was looking for a deeper, truer self.