John Nathan arrived in Tokyo in 1961 fresh out of Harvard College, bringing with him no practical experience, no more than two connections, no prospects, and little else to recommend him but stoic, unflappable pluck. Japan at that time was still in the shadow of the Occupation, and only a handful of foreigners were studying the country seriously. Two years later, Nathan became the first American to pass the entrance exams to the best school in Japan, the University of Tokyo. He went on to translate two of Japan's greatest contemporary writers, Yukio Mishima and Nobel laureate Kenzaburõ Õe, and direct several series of films in and about Japan in collaboration with world-famous directors and businesses; earn an advanced degree at Harvard and a professorship at Princeton; and become a Hollywood screenwriter. Nathan was given unprecedented access to the inner sanctum of Sony for his book Sony: The Private Life, and he explored the damaged psyche of postbubble Japan in his acclaimed Japan Unbound.
During his decades of passionate engagement with Japan, Nathan became close friends with many of the most gifted people in the land -- politicians and business leaders as well as painters, novelists, directors, rock stars, and movie stars -- and was privileged to travel, in their very special company, inside domains of Japanese life not normally open to foreigners then or now. In his unique chronicle of that journey, Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere, he details the adventures sublime, profane, and uproarious, many of a distinctly Japanese nature, that characterized his career, which was singular in its success as much as in its chaos. Along the way, he brings the most exciting era in recent Japanese history vividly into focus with wry humor, penetrating insight, and pathos.
John Nathan is not the only foreigner to have developed a rich, full, deeply nuanced understanding of Japan. But his experiences are certainly extraordinary and in fact irreproducible, and his memoir is the most personally satisfying story yet told of Japan (and elsewhere). From Nathan's lifetime of wisdom, compassion, and brazen resolve, we learn the value of traveling within our own mental and emotional borders as well as without the many places we call home.
When Nathan arrived fresh out of Harvard in 1961, he had little inkling of all that Japan would offer him. In short order he found a Japanese wife and eventually parlayed his language skills into wide-ranging projects as an interpreter of Japanese culture, becoming a translator and biographer of celebrated novelists Yukio Mishima and Kenzaburo Oe and a film documentarian of Japanese life. He also gained entree to Tokyo's glitterati of writers, artists and movie stars, which furnishes him many a droll anecdote juxtaposing Japan's formality, reticence and clannishness with its geisha-filled excesses and frenzied love-hate relationship with America. Worried that his success there depended on his novelty as a hulking, hirsute Western barbarian, Nathan abandoned Japan to try to make it in the States as a screenwriter and director of commercials and business documentaries. Here the narrative meanders into a somewhat aimless account of a mediocre showbiz career, with the requisite tales of Hollywood phoniness and philistinism and encounters with celebrities from Francis Ford Coppola to New Kids on the Block. Nathan is an engaging raconteur and a sharp-eyed observer of the Japanese-Western culture clash, but the whole has the slapped-together feel hinted at in the title.