Pico Iyer: Outside Man


Friday, January 30, 2009

Travel writer Pico Iyer has lived in Japan for 20 years. And while he knows the locals still see him as an outsider, he told Kurt that this status helps him pay attention to his surroundings. Iyer says Japan is like a "2000-year-old person wearing a micro-skirt, with an artificial tan and carrying a surfboard." Special thanks to Matthew Cavnar.

Iyer tells Kurt about Buddhism in Japanese daily life

    Music Playlist
  • Amagoi Bushi
    Artist: An Chang Project
    Album: Monkey Harmonizing Songs
    Label: Tropical Music
    Purchase: Amazon


Pico Iyer

Comments [13]

Vishnu Sharma from India

I find Pico Iyer's observations interesting when he talks about the Old and the New being juxtaposed without much fuss in Japan.

It is the same case in India where, old values and new values have produced a blend which does not discard the old.

However, even though Japan and India are crowded societies, i find the Japanese sense of aesthetic in how they organize the space around themselves and any task they do to be far more pleasing, refined and rigorous while at the same time being at ease with the modern world than the way Indians do things.

The important thing to know here is that Japan was NEVER dominated by a foreign culture and NEVER will and whatever foreign influence that is visible in Japan is because the Japanese allowed it in, in the first place.

Nov. 21 2010 03:25 PM
Momotaroo from Alexandria, VA

I think his comments on his Japanese language level are just the way most of Japanese refer to their abilities. "It is not that great....I have much more to learn" even they are very good at something. I am guessing this as he is aware the importance of being humble and listening and being attentive to others, which is indeed, the essence of the Japanese culture.

Feb. 25 2009 12:31 PM

As a Japanese, I found Mr. Iyer's experiences with Japan very interesting. He says he is an outsider, but in a different perspective, maybe he is not totally an outsider. In order to know Japan, I don't know how important it is to speak Japanese well or not . He has his own way to connect himself with Japan, and I think that is wonderful :)

Feb. 22 2009 01:44 AM
Iris from Edmond, OK USA

I find it extraordinary that Mr. Iyer has been married to his wife for 20 years and they don't understand each other's language. "If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, better make a native woman your wife"! One gets the feeling that if they ever do figure each other out, it's the end...

Feb. 10 2009 10:07 PM
Justin from USA

I lived in Japan for one year and felt very comfortable there. It was a truly amazing experience; mostly positive. One thing that I found very admirable about the culture was that no matter how low some one was on the economic ladder, they all seemed to take pride in what ever it was that they were doing to support themselves. At least it appeared so, superficially, in terms of all wearing clean and pressed uniforms or suites. This was the case from the business executive down to the people working at convenience stores. I enjoyed the feeling of safety from violence and most petty crime which isn't what I feel here. We are lucky on the one hand that we are a nation of immigrants and assimilation can be achieved in one or two generations. We tend to judge one another as being American according to what we contribute to society and how much we can succeed.

Humbly speaking, Justin

Feb. 08 2009 08:43 PM
Alan from Tokyo


I haven't read his books, but the interview does not lead me to think that he has a good grasp of Japanese culture. He can observe all he wants, but if can't have a serious conversation, then he is incapable of asking people why they do the things they do. Nor can he overhear conversations and understand how people speak to each other. He only has impressions to imagine what Japan is. Hence, he finds Buddhism in McDonalds.

Here's an example of his ignorance that doesn't even deal with language. See 9:10 or so on the audio. Japan did not recover and "embrace" American ways within a year after losing WWII. Nor was their recovery quick--starvation was not uncommon for years after the war ended. Also, the American authorities initially allowed Japan to write their own constitution after the war, but it was deemed inadequate because it was too much like the Meiji Consitution. So, Americans wrote a new constitution--the one that is currently on the books.


Feb. 04 2009 12:26 AM
Sabira from New York

I saw in another interview that Pico Iyer speaks "rudimentary Japanese". In general, I do think its a sound principal to be skeptical of those who don't speak (well) the language of the people they are discussing. On the other hand, sometimes observant outsiders can read and articulate aspects of culture embedded in body language, facial expressions, behavior etc. that are not always apparent to those born into the culture. Might he not be such a one?

Feb. 03 2009 08:50 AM
Michael Ignatov from Tucson, AZ

I'm not sure how a man who has lived in Japan for 20 years can hear silence, perhaps if he never leaves the confines of a deer park. Really though, are we supposed to believe that a mother teaching her child in a quiet voice to put down a french fry is a Buddhist concept because it stresses social harmony somehow? First of, social harmony is a rather Confucian concept to begin with, but leaving that aside, this kind of stereotype reinforcement endorsed by a supposed authority is sadly just the kind of nonsense that has dominated most popular discourse about Japan. Bring on the Brooks Brothers samurai...

Feb. 02 2009 02:41 PM
Alan from Tokyo

I don't understand why anyone would trust someone to be an expert on a culture if that "expert" does not speak the language(s) of the culture. I found Iyer's opinions are culturally essentialist and hopelessly skewed by his linguistic laziness. It's easy to feel like an outsider if you can't carry on a conversation with 99% of the people around you. It's easier to hear "silence" when words don't register. It's easy to think people really pay attention to you because that's a cultural value (which must, undoubtedly, stem from Buddhism) rather than that they may be struggling to understand someone who hasn't bothered to learn Japanese.

To each his own, but I hope people consider the source before they consider themselves educated.

Feb. 02 2009 04:28 AM

Jasper, right on. I felt exactly the same way.

Feb. 01 2009 11:35 PM
prudence hand from kittery maine usa

Thank you for Kurt's interview with Pico. Heard it on radio,..then again on web. Wonderful programing; like a rush of fresh air to the neurons in brain and heart. I'll be listening,..sometimes following up here. BRAVO Also loved Obama inauguration gathering video. Prudence Hand

Feb. 01 2009 10:09 AM


I fail to see the disparaging terms this interview. If you ever visit Japan, or stay for a year or more, you'll realize that it is a very closed society. Many people are very welcoming and kind, but after a point Japan is for the Japanese. Even families who have been here for generations are in many ways (including officially) considered outsiders. I don't think making this observation--at least in the way it was discussed in this interview--is any cause for offense.

Sadly, your comment reminds me of the sensitivity and distance still prevalent here when it comes to the outside world, especially when it comes to the observations of westerners.

Jan. 31 2009 11:08 PM
Jasper from Chicago

I just heard this piece on NPR. I have to say, I find this man infuriating. He seems to be a lazy hippy freeloading on a cultures loopholes; understanding little, while pretending to understand everything. Remaining aloof from the Japanese culture but always, always describing other cultures in disparaging terms, as if he's part of the Japanese culture.

Jan. 31 2009 12:37 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.