What a charming, charming book!
Burton Watson (b. 1925) is one of our finest translators of classical Chinese and Japanese literature, so it can hardly surprise that he writes beautifully, nor that he provides valuable insights into Japanese literature, history and culture in these essay/articles composed for various periodicals over the decades of his life in Japan, beginning with his first experiences as an uneducated sailor on a U.S. Navy ship in Yokosuka harbor in 1945. But what a pleasant surprise to find in his little stories of personal encounters with ordinary and not so ordinary Japanese that he is also an intensely observant lover of humankind, the stories therefore suffused with the wry humor and poignancy that often characterize the writings of those who know and accept the way our species behaves, at least when it is not acting at its extremes of horrifying, abhorrent repulsiveness... He kept me laughing until way too late last night as I told myself "just one more" again and again.
Watson also gives us more than 20 pages of translated Japanese poems by Sugawara no Michizane, Jakushitsu Genko and others for which he provides context and background. As a taste, here is a poem written in Chinese in 902 by Sugawara no Michizane (845-903) in the middle of an exile in which he was being starved to death slowly. (His garden in Kyoto is referred to in the first line.)
The ones newly planted north of Sempu Ward,
the ones at banquet time west of Jiju Palace:
different plums, though the same man sang to them -
how the flowers must have laughed at all my grieving!
The Rainbow World (1990) is an expanded re-publication of Japan: First Impressions, Second Thoughts (1984). I wish it were four times longer.