It has been 28 years since Pico Iyer wrote The Lady and the Monk, he being the “monk” and the “lady,” Hiroko, the Japanese wife of a “salaryman,” and mother of two young children. The setting was Kyoto, and their unusual romance was subtly told. We did not learn, by the end of the book, of Hiroko’s taboo-breaking divorce or of the marriage of the lady and the monk.
Many books later — some of them set in exotic locales in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America — Iyer now returns to Japan and his life with Hiroko in Autumn Light. If anywhere is home for the author, it is Japan, even though he lives there on a tourist visa, and even though he questions the very concept of home in a Ted Talk viewed by millions, “Where is Home?” Iyer is the son of parents from India, and he grew up in the United States and the United Kingdom.
By comparison to other rich countries, Japan has an extremely low percentage of immigrants, and it can be challenging for many Japanese to accept a dark-skinned foreigner living in their midst with a Japanese wife. Japan is the opposite of a melting pot, and Iyer knows that he will always be an outsider in his country of residence.
The author is a celebrated travel writer, and his ability to shed light on other cultures serves him well in writing about life in Japan. His wife Hiroko is his entry point into this enigmatic world, and Iyer’s participation in ping pong games at the local health club allows him to find a place in a land where the group is more important than the individual. To an extent, he is an “insider” in an otherwise closed society, and he uses that position to provide close-up and intimate views of the people in his life.
Indeed, from a Japanese point of view, Autumn Light might be considered as an invasion of privacy. Sad and painful stories are told of Iyer’s brother-in-law, who cuts off all communication with his parents and Hiroko after he returns from studying abroad and learns of his sister’s marriage to a foreigner. Hiroko’s ex-husband has no contact with their son and daughter. Hiroko’s mother is in tears when she first meets Iyer, unable to accept the reality of a foreign son-in-law. However, the author is not writing a Romeo and Juliet tragedy. He goes beyond the particular to provide a larger view, and in the process reveals some of the hidden realities of life in Japan.
For the Japanese, the dead are very much present in life, gods are everywhere in nature and in things, and the seasons are regarded in a worshipful way. Iyer’s sense of interpersonal relations amongst the living can leave the reader with the kind of feelings and emotions that are evoked in the films of Yasujiro Ozu.
Hiroko and he live in a tiny two-room apartment in one of the newer suburbs of Nara. According to the author, even when they have guests, their place can feel larger than the five-bedroom home that Iyer’s mother owns in California. However, Iyer writes,
What makes the air feel thronged is the presence of household deities and ghosts, the spirits that for my neighbors inhabit every last desk or box of chocolates. Nothing essential ever seems to die in Japan, so the land is saturated with dead ancestors, river gods, the heavenly bodies to whom Hiroko gives honorifics, as if they were her country’s CEOs.
Hiroko, in spite of being unconventional for a Japanese woman of her generation, takes responsibility for her father’s existence in the afterworld. She leaves food and a cup of his special green tea on the family altar, and pays a Buddhist monk the equivalent of $1000 for her father’s posthumous Buddhist name. For Obon, the Shinto Festival of the Dead, she and her family members gather together to welcome the return of the ghosts of deceased loved ones.
Pico-san, as he is fondly called by the elderly ping pong players, comes to be accepted by them, the only foreigner who has earned that honor. As a result, he is able to understand some of the intricate social codes of group behavior in Japan. The new arrival of a player is quickly noticed, and an active player will withdraw so that the new person can play. At the end of a session, everyone cleans up the room meticulously. The first person to leave apologizes to everyone else. Of this experience, Iyer writes,
I sensed that it was everything silent, as always in Japan, that bound us together. […] Playing with each other was their strength, treating each other as a part of themselves, as in a dance or an act of love. Playing against each other never would be.
Participation in the ping pong group and in his Japanese family — which consists of his wife, step-children, and in-laws — along with his skills as a travel writer and keen observer, allow the author to approximate the feeling of an Ozu film. To quote Brittany Kennedy,
Through various techniques, [Ozu] creates a bond between the viewer, the setting and his characters — a bond that allows the viewer to see the importance of intimate relationships. He shows that if we take the time to stop, think and listen, we can understand more about others, our setting and the world around us.
Suffering, death, and estrangement are very present in Autumn Light, with estrangement being another kind of death. Yet the overall mood of the book is not one of sadness, but rather of the acceptance of life’s vicissitudes. Buddhism stresses the impermanence of life and the inevitability of suffering. Shintoism, the native religion of Japan, can be seen as a countervailing force, since, as stated earlier, “Nothing essential ever seems to die in Japan.”
And yet, in Japan, Shintoism is not entirely separate from Buddhism, and the combination of the two religions allows for a simultaneous impermanence and permanence of people and things. Monotheistic religions are either/or propositions: one is Moslem, or Jewish, or Christian. The Japanese are able to be both Buddhist and Shinto, following both paths, even though they are different.
Nature is revered in Japan, and every season is deeply felt. Autumn has its diminishing days, blazing leaves, brilliant skies, and increasing cold. It is the “season of fire and farewells,” to quote the subtitle of the book.
Iyer reflects on the fire that destroyed his parents’ house in California, which had been his home base. The fire led to his decision to move to Japan to live with Hiroko. The farewells in the book are brought on by the inevitability of disease, decay, and death that all of us face.
Hiroko asks her husband,
“You writing autumn story?” […] “Not so much story,” I say. […] “Like Ozu movie? […] Your book, nothing happening? […] Little no-action movie[:] Rain come down window. Car stuck in traffic jam. Quiet music playing. Autumn light.” […] Exactly.
Hiroko does not need to read the book. She understands what her husband is trying to convey.