Japan as Pilgrim and Peasant : ON THE NARROW ROAD Journey Into a Lost Japan by Lesley Downer (Summit Books: $19.95; 288 pp . ) : THE PEASANT SOUL OF JAPAN by Shoichi Watanabe; translated by Shoichi Watanabe (St. Martin's Press: $19.95; 203 pp . )

Rosenstone's most recent book is "Mirror in the Shrine: American Encounters With Meiji Japan" (Harvard University Press )

Since the opening of Japan to the West in the mid-19th Century, commentators both Western and Asian have stalked that nation's soul with the relentlessness of bounty hunters. Foreigners have often made their quest a literal one, tramping off to remote regions of the country where, presumably, remnants of the culture in its pristine form resist the encroachments of modernization. Natives have tended to travel in the mind, roaming freely across 2,500 years of legend and history.

All these efforts have led to little in the way of a unified notion of the culture. Explanations as to what makes the Japanese tick remain diverse and contradictory. Some have found the nation's soul in such traditional elements as Bushido (the Way of the Warrior), or Zen Buddhism, or Shinto, or Confucianism; others in psycho-social notions such as impersonality, lack of ego, psychic dependency, or the structure of clan and household.

That this tradition of searching remains alive and well is shown by two new books: Lesley Downer's "On the Narrow Road" and Shoichi Watanabe's "The Peasant Soul of Japan." Each is a splendid addition to a genre--Downer as the foreign sojourner on the road, Watanabe as the native ruminating over tradition.

To be fair, the British-born Downer, who has lived in Japan, does not proclaim herself a seeker. But some notion of finding "the real Japan" must underlie her decision to follow the footsteps of the famed 18th-Century poet Matsuo Basho on that arduous five-month journey through the Rohoku region that became the basis of his masterpiece, "The Narrow Road to the Deep North." Surely it is a quest that points Downer toward finding the Yamabushi, hermit priests whose asceticism and magic powers are legendary. And this despite the fact that before she sets out, her Japanese boss snaps: "They don't exist. Haven't existed for 500 years."

She will prove him wrong, of course. But finding the Yamabushi, or their modern incarnations--alas, not mystical creatures but ordinary people who go into ascetic training once a year or once a lifetime, or who make a living by leading others on difficult pilgrimages--is not really the point. Travel is the point, and what splendid and smart travel this is. Splendid because Downer is a keen observer of urban and natural landscape, of human speech and behavior. Smart because of the richly textured Japan she creates, first by mixing her observations with those of Basho on the same sites, and then by adding a third historical layer in which she recounts the adventures of the famed hero Yoshitsune, who fled as a fugitive across this same territory in the 12th Century.

Downer journeys by train, car, truck, river boat and, whenever possible, foot from the ugly industrial sprawl of the plains around Sendai into sparsely populated hill country, and then to the top of sacred mountains and into villages whose residents have never travelled much beyond the next range of hills. She lingers at inns, temples and farmhouses, sometimes hosted by people whose dialect is so thick her Japanese is almost useless. She records conversations with farm women, priests, laborers, students, artists and small-town scholars who keep alive Basho's poetic tradition. When she finally must descend again into the urban world, Downer attempts no summation. By now she understands what Basho well knew: Pilgrimages are like life; one must focus on the quality of the going rather than on the place one reaches.

In contrast to Downer, Watanabe rides a thesis on every page. There are two kinds of state, he proclaims, the peasant state and the equestrian state. Each has its particular mentality, traditions, modes of operation and virtues. Peasant states are based on small agricultural communities where individualism and competition are not valued, leadership skills are unimportant, harmony is the chief virtue and survival depends upon one's relation to a small patch of land. Equestrian societies are mobile, unstable and aggressive; thus they survive by valuing competition, conflict and leadership.

Watanabe's chief peasant society is (surprise!) Japan; his equestrian exemplars, the United States and the Mongols of Genghis Khan. (A hardly accidental linkage, for under Genghis' grandson Kublai, the Mongols in the late 13th Century attempted the only invasion of Japan prior to 1945.) Such a dichotomy underlines his subtext: Japan's intellectual, social and political traditions may be scorned for fuzziness, group orientation and lack of creativity, but they have made the nation prosperous and the likely leader of the world in the next century.

The bulk of the book presents the notion of peasant culture to explain much in Japanese history: religious tolerance, the success of some Shoguns and the failure of others, Japan's recent economic and technological successes. Skipping across centuries, Watanabe is capable of both historical error (an amendment to the U.S. Constitution kept Japanese from becoming citizens) and vast, meaningless statements ("People in general could not have been unhappy in an epoch when such a popular drama as Chushingura was written"). Yet the value of the book ultimately does not depend upon either the truth of its details or the validity of its thesis. One reads a work like this for sharp insights and illuminations, and on these there are many. For example, when Watanabe claims that some major problems of the Japanese military in World War II were due to a leadership that was more concerned with maintaining harmonious internal relationships than with defeating the American enemy, one has a momentary glimpse of how startlingly different the basic values of another culture can be.

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