Sake & Satori: Asian Journals-Japan

Sake & Satori: Asian Journals-Japan

By Joseph Campbell
Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002. Hardback, xvi + 350 pages.

During the mid-fifties, the great American mythologist Joseph Campbell took an extended trip to Asia-his first--while on leave from Sarah Lawrence College. An assiduous journal keeper, Campbell kept detailed notes of his experiences and impressions. Sake and Satori, the second of two volumes and recently released by the Joseph Campbell Foundation, is primarily concerned with his time in Japan. (The first, Baksheesh Brahman: Asian Journals-India, chronicles his sojourn on the subcontinent.) This book conveys about as well as a book can a sense of being there, and it can be read, on one level, as a guide on how to travel well.

Campbell is an enthusiastic and highly energetic travel companion: observant, insightful, and sometimes a bit petulant. He doesn't just sightsee, he absorbs the culture he experiences. Spending five months in Japan, mainly in Tokyo and Kyoto, Campbell immerses himself in the study of Japanese, conversations with people from all walks of life, and as much of the culture as possible. He visits shrines, temples, colleges, and museums; attends a multitude of theater productions and folk and religious ceremonies; and also finds time for a few randy adventures in some Tokyo strip clubs and geisha houses. Ever the able synthesizer, he makes good use of these experiences, and it's his ideas, seen in various stages of development, that provide the meat of this work. His ruminations focus mainly on Japanese religion and mythology but include healthy doses of philosophy, sociology, geopolitics, East/West cross-cultural comparisons, and the boorish ways of some Americans abroad.

There are surprising, paradoxical revelations as well. At one point, Campbell observes, despite his obvious love for Japan and the rich spiritual traditions of the East, that "Asia has not contributed and cannot contribute a single helpful technological or political thought to the contemporary world." And, his relentless diatribes against the poverty, squalor, anti-Western sentiment, and what he considered to be spiritual arrogance that he found in India border on the obsessive.

Indeed, in a moment of self-awareness, Campbell remarks "as a contemporary Occidental faced with Occidental and contemporary psychological problems, I am to admit and even celebrate (in Spengler's manner) the relativity of my historical view to my own neurosis (Rorschach formula)."

His neuroses notwithstanding, any Joseph Campbell book is an intellectual feast. This book, though rough around. the edges as any journal would be, does not disappoint.


March/April 2004