36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan Summary

Cathy Davidson

36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan

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36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan Summary

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Published by Dutton in 1993 and in an expanded edition by Duke University Press in 2006, American academic and author Cathy Davidson’s memoir, 36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan, documents Davidson’s 1980 move to Japan, where she accepts a job teaching English at an all-female university. This is only the beginning of several travels to the country, a land whose culture and people capture the author’s heart and imagination, her hopes and dreams, and, sometimes, her frustrations and her sense of humor. 36 Views of Mount Fuji is a travelogue of both the Japanese landscape and the interior journeys Davidson embarks upon as a result of her experiences there.

In a preface, Davidson explains that she drew the title for the book from a series of famous woodblock prints by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. Hokusai’s vividly rendered and brightly colored prints depict various, occasionally contradictory, facets of Japanese life. The moods engendered in these depictions reflect Davidson’s own experiences of the country, ranging from the carefree to the reverent, from the lofty to the humble. Also, each of Hokusai’s prints portrays a different scene in an almost episodic display, and this is how Davidson structures the book, a compilation of vignettes that encompass the heart of her Japanese adventures.

The episodes comprising the first part of the book largely center on Davidson’s efforts as an outsider as she settles into a country foreign to her. She makes conscious attempts to not fit into the mold of the stereotypical American tourist. It is, at times, difficult, given Davidson’s physicality; as a tall Caucasian woman, she visibly stands out in a society that places great emphasis on assimilation and not rocking the boat. She practices great patience with herself and others as she tries to make sense of even the most mundane and routine aspects of navigating Japanese life. She focuses much of her energy on mastering the language, and she gradually learns to welcome all the doubts and ambiguities, the annoyances and the unexpected thrills, that come with attempting to integrate oneself into a different culture.

In the second part of the book, the vignettes zero in on a single, devastating event and the ripple effects it has on Davidson’s life. While she is in Japan, several family members back home die in a car accident. The monumental nature of such a tragedy not surprisingly takes its toll on her and is only compounded by the fact that she lives half a world away. With no other option, Davidson must wade into her grief in an environment that, while one she respects and even cherishes, is not one that can replace her innate sense of home and belonging. Much like the colors in Hokusai’s woodblock prints, Davidson describes the shifting hues of her grief, processing these complex emotions while finding comfort in the rituals and the everyday goings-on of living in Japan.

The final part of the book finds Duke University offering Davidson and her husband teaching positions. They are living in the States at the time, and while they consider declining the offer and moving to Japan instead, they ultimately choose to stay in the U.S. and move to North Carolina, the home of Duke University. However, they bring a touch of Japan with them to their living situation in the American South. They custom build a classic Japanese home in which to live. The couple understands that the home is no substitute for Japan itself, as they grapple with an age-old question: What is it that makes a home a home? A custom house with all the right Japanese designs, furnishings, and other bells and whistles will never truly be an authentic Japanese home. For that, it would need to encapsulate the unique, impossible-to-replicate qualities only found in Japan. Yet, at the same time, examining ways she can make her home into something distinctly her own, Davidson sees the dwelling as an opportunity to blend her love of Japan with those sensibilities she recognizes in herself as distinctly American.

Each chapter of 36 Views of Mount Fuji opens with one of Hokusai’s prints, serving as an entrée into the chapter and the themes explored in it. From waterwheels to ocean waves, from morning scenes to majestic renderings of Mount Fuji, these images add further depth to the narrative and to the journey the author is on.

The 2006 version of the book includes an afterword in which Davidson returns to Japan some ten years after the devastating Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. The quake nearly destroyed the small town where the author lived and worked during most of her time in Japan. She reconnects with friends and sees how the town has rebuilt itself after such a large-scale catastrophe, further adding to her pride in her friends, her community, and the place she considers a second home.