Prologue

In 1991 I was given a two-year scholarship by a Japanese foundation. The idea was to give seven young English people with diverse professional interests – engineering, journalism, industry, ceramics – a grounding in the Japanese language at an English university, followed by a year in Tokyo. Our fluency would help build a new era of contacts with Japan. We were the first intake on the programme and expectations were high.

Mornings during our second year were spent at a language school in Shibuya, up the hill from the welter of fast-food outlets and discount electrical stores. Tokyo was recovering from the crash after the bubble economy of the 1980’s. Commuters stood at the pedestrian crossing, the busiest in the world, to catch sight of the screens showing the Nikkei Stock Index climbing higher and higher. To avoid the worst of the rush hour on the underground, I’d leave an hour early and meet another, older scholar – an archaeologist – and we’d have cinnamon buns and coffee on the way in to classes. I had homework, proper homework, for the first time since I was a schoolboy: 150 kanji, Japanese characters, to learn each week; a column of a tabloid newspaper to parse; dozens of conversational phrases to repeat every day. I’d never dreaded anything so much. The other, younger scholars would joke in Japanese with the teachers about television they had seen or political scandals. The school was behind green metal gates, and I remember kicking them one morning and thinking what it was to be twenty-eight and kicking a school gate.

Afternoons were my own. Two afternoons a week I was in a ceramics studio, shared with everyone from retired businessmen making tea-bowls to students making avant-garde statements in rough red clay and mesh. You paid your subs and grabbed a bench or wheel and were left to get on with it. It wasn’t noisy, but there was a cheerful hum of chat. I started making work in porcelain for the first time, gently pushing the sides of my jars and teapots after I’d taken them off the wheel.

I had been making pots since I was a child and had badgered my father to take me to an evening class. My first pot was a thrown bowl that I glazed in opalescent white with a splash of cobalt blue. Most of my schoolboy afternoons were spent in a pottery workshop, and I left school early at seventeen to become apprenticed to an austere man, a devotee of the English potter Bernard Leach. He taught me about respect for the material and about fitness for purpose: I threw hundreds of soup-bowls and honey-pots in grey stoneware clay and swept the floor. I would help make the glazes, careful recalibrations of Oriental colours. He had never been to Japan, but had shelves of books on Japanese pots: we would discuss the merits of particular tea-bowls over our mugs of milky mid-morning coffee. Be careful, he would say, of the unwarranted gesture: less is more. We would work in silence or to classical music.

I spent a long summer in the middle of my teenage apprenticeship in Japan visiting equally severe masters in pottery villages across the country: Mashiko, Bizen, Tamba. Each sound of a paper screen closing or of water across stones in the garden of a tea house was an epiphany, just as each neon Dunkin’ Donuts store gave me a moue of disquiet. I have documentary evidence of the depth of my devotion in an article I wrote for a magazine when I returned: ‘Japan and the Potter’s Ethic: Cultivating a reverence for your materials and the marks of age’.

After finishing my apprenticeship, and then studying English literature at university, I spent seven years working by myself in silent, ordered studios on the borders of Wales and then in a grim inner city. I was very focused, and so were my pots. And now here I was in Japan again, in a messy studio next to a man chatting away about baseball, making a porcelain jar with pushed-in, gestural sides. I was enjoying myself: something was going right.

Two afternoons a week I was in the archive room of the Nihon Mingei-kan, the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum, working on a book about Leach. The museum is a reconstructed farmhouse in a suburb, which houses the collection of Japanese and Korean folk crafts of Yanagi Soetsu. Yanagi, a philosopher, art historian and poet, had evolved a theory of why some objects – pots, baskets, cloth made by unknown craftsmen – were so beautiful. In his view, they expressed unconscious beauty because they had been made in such numbers that the craftsman had been liberated from his ego. He and Leach had been inseparable friends as young men in the early part of the twentieth century in Tokyo, writing animated letters to each other about their passionate reading of lake and Whitman and Ruskin. They had even started an artists’ colony in a hamlet a convenient distance outside Tokyo, where Leach made his pots with the help of local boys and Yanagi discoursed on Rodin and beauty to his bohemian friends.

Through a door the stone floors would give way to office linoleum, and down off a back corridor was Yanagi’s archive: a small room, twelve feet by eight, with shelves to the ceiling full of his books and stacked with Manila boxes containing his notebooks and correspondence. There was a desk and a single bulb. I like archives. This one was very, very quiet and it was extremely gloomy. Here I read and noted and planned a revisionist history of Leach. It was to be a covert book on Japonisme, the way in which the West has passionately and creatively misunderstood Japan for more than a hundred years. I wanted to know what it was about Japan that produced such intensity and zeal in artists, and such crossness in academics as they pointed out one misinterpretation after another. I hope that writing this book would help me out of my own deep, congested infatuation with the country.

And one afternoon a week I spent with my great-uncle Iggie.

I’d walk up the hill from the subway station, past the glowing beer-dispensing machines, past Senkaku-ji temple where the forty-seven samurai are buried, past the strange baroque meeting hall for a Shinto sect, past the sushi bar run by the bluff Mr X, turning right at the high wall of Price Takamatsu’s garden with the pines. I’d let myself in and take the lift up to the sixth floor. Iggie would be reading in his armchair by the window. Mostly Elmore Leonard or John Le Carre. Or memoirs in French. It is odd, he said, how some languages are warmer than others. I would bend down and he’d give me a kiss.

His desk held an empty blotter, a sheaf of his headed paper, and pens ready, though he no longer wrote. The view from the window behind him was of cranes. Tokyo Bay was disappearing behind fort-storey condominiums.

We’d have lunch together, prepared by his housekeeper Mrs Nakamura or left by his friend Jiro, who lived in the interconnecting apartment. An omelette and salad, and toasted bread from one of the excellent French bakeries in the department stores in the Ginza. A glass of cold white wine, Sancerre or Pouilly Fume. A peach. Some cheese and then very good coffee. Black coffee.

Iggie was eighty-four and slightly stooped. He was always impeccably dressed; handsome in his herringbone jackets with a handkerchief in the pocket, his pale shirts and a cravat. He had a small white moustache.

After our lunch he’d open the sliding doors of the long vitrine that took up most of one wall of the sitting room and would get out the netsuke one by one. The hare with the amber eyes. The young boy with the samurai sword and helmet. A tiger, all shoulder and feet, turning round to snarl. He would pass me one and we’d look at it together, and then I’d put it carefully back amongst the dozens of animals and figures on the glass shelves.

I’d fill the little cups of water kept in the case to make sure the ivories didn’t split in the dry air.

Did I tell you, he would say, how much we loved these as children? How they were given to my mother and father by a cousin in Paris? And did I tell you the story of Anna’s pocket?

Conversations could take strange turns. One moment he would be describing how their cook in Vienna would make their father Kaiserschmarren for his birthday breakfast, layers of pancakes and icing sugar; how it would be brought in with a great flourish by the butler Josef into the dining-room and cut with a long knife, and how Papa would always say that the Emperor couldn’t hope for a better start to his own birthday. And the next moment he would be talking about Lilli’s second marriage. Who was Lilli?

Thank God, I’d think, that even if I didn’t know about Lilli I knew enough to know where some of the stories were set: Bad Ischl, Kovecses, Vienna. I’d think, as the construction lights on the cranes came on the dusk, stretching deeper and deeper into Tokyo Bay, that I was becoming a sort of amanuensis and that I should probably record what he said about Vienna before the First World War, sit at his elbow with a notebook. I never did. It seemed formal and inappropriate. It also seemed greedy: that’s a good rich story, I’ll have that. Anyway, I liked the way that repetition wears things smooth, and there was something of the river stones to Iggie’s stories.

Over the year of afternoons I’d hear about their father’s pride in the cleverness of his older sister Elisabeth, and of Mama’s dislike of her elaborate language. Do talk sensibly! He often mentioned, with some anxiety, a game with his sister Gisela, where they had to take something small from the drawing-room, get it down the stairs and across the courtyard, dodge the grooms, go down the cellar steps and hide it in the arched vaults under the house. And dare each other to get it back, and how he lost something in the dark. It seemed an unfinished, fraying memory.

Lots of stories about Kovecses, their country house in what would become Czechoslovakia. His mother Emmy waking him before dawn to go out with a gamekeeper with a gun for the first time by himself to shoot hares in the stubble, and how he couldn’t pull the trigger when he saw their ears tremble slightly in the cool air.

Gisela and Iggie coming across gypsies with a dancing bear on a chain, camping on the edge of the estate by the river, and running all the way back terrified. How the Orient-Express stopped at the halt and how their grandmother, in her white dress, was helped down by the stationmaster, and how they ran to greet her and take the parcel of cakes wrapped in green paper that she’d bought from them at Demel’s in Vienna.

And Emmy pulling him to the window at breakfast to show him an autumnal tree outside the dining-room window covered in goldfinches. And how when he knocked on the window and they flew, the tree was still blazing golden.

I washed up after lunch while Iggie had his nap, and I would try to do my kanji homework, filling one chequered paper after another with my jerky efforts. I’d stay until Jiro came back from work with the Japanese and English evening newspapers and the croissants for tomorrow’s breakfast. Jiro would put on Schubert of jazz and we would have a drink and then I’d leave them be.

I was renting a very pleasant single room in Mejiro, looking out over a small garden filled with azaleas. I had an electric ring and a kettle and was doing my best, but my life in the evenings was very noddle-focused and rather lonely. Twice a month Jiro and Iggie would take me out to dinner or a concert. They would give me drinks at the Imperial and then wonderful sushi or steak tartar or, in homage to banking antecedents, boeuf a la financiere. I refused the foie grass that was Iggie’s staple.

That summer there was a reception for the scholars in the British Embassy. I had to make a speech in Japanese about what I had learnt during my year and how culture was the bridge between our two island nations. I had rehearsed it until I could bear it no longer. Iggie and Jiro came and I could see them encouraging me across their glasses of champagne. Afterwards Jiro squeezed my shoulder and I got a kiss from Iggie and, smiling, complicit, they told me that my Japanese was jozu desu ne – expert, skilled, unparalleled.

They had sorted it well, these two. There was a Japanese room in Jiro’s apartment with tatami mats and the little shrine bearing photographs for his mother and Iggie’s mother, Emmy, where prayers were said and the bell rung. And through the door in Iggie’s apartment on his desk there was a photograph of them together in a boat on the Inland Sea, a mountain of pines behind them, dappled sunshine on the water. It is January 1960. Jiro, so good-looking with his hair slicked back, has an arm over Iggie’s shoulder. And another picture, from the 1980s, on a cruise ship somewhere off Hawaii, in evening dress, arm in arm.

Living the longest is hard, says Iggie, under his breath.

Growing old in Japan is wonderful, he says more loudly. I have lived here for more than half my life.

Do you miss anything about Vienna? (Why not come straight out and ask him: So what do you miss, when you are old and not living in the country you were born in?)

No. I didn’t go back until 1973. It was stifling. Smothering. Everyone knew your name. You’d buy a novel in the Karntner Strasse and they’d ask you if your mother’s cold was better yet. You couldn’t move. All that gilding and marble in the house. It was so dark. Have you seen our old house on the Ringstrasse?

Do you know, he says suddenly, that Japanese plum dumplings are better than Viennese Plum dumplings?

Actually, he resumes, after a pause, Papa always said that he’d put me up for his club when I was old enough. It met on Thursdays somewhere near the Opera, with all his friends, his Jewish friends. He came back so cheerful on Thursdays. The Wiener Club. I always wanted to go with him, but he never took me. I left for Paris and then New York, you see, and then there was the war.

I miss that. I missed that.

Iggie died in 1994 soon after I returned to England. Jiro rang me: there had been only three days in hospital. It was a relief. I came back to Tokyo for his funeral. There were two dozen of us, their old friends, Jiro’s family, Mrs Nakano and her daughter, clouded in tears.

There is the cremation, and we gather together and the ashes are brought out, and in turns a pair of us pick up long black chopsticks and put the fragments of unburnt bone into an urn.

We go to the temple where Iggie and Jiro have their interment plot. They had planned this tomb twenty years before. The cemetery is on a hill behind the temple, each plot marked with small stone walls. There is the grey gravestone with both their names already inscribed on it, and a place for flowers. Buckets of water and brushes and long wooden signs with painted inscriptions on them. You clap three times and greet your family and apologise for the delay since you were last there, and clean up, remove old chrysanthemums and put new ones in water.

At the temple the urn in placed on a small dais and a photograph of Iggie – the photograph of him on the cruise ship in his dinner jacket – is placed in front of it. The abbot changes a sutra and we offer incense, and Iggie is given his new Buddhist name, his kaimyo, to help him in his next life.

Then we speak of him. I try to say, in Japanese, how much my great-uncle means to me and cannot because I am in tears and because, despite my expensive two-year scholarship, my Japanese isn’t good enough when I need it. So instead, in this room in this Buddhist temple, in this Tokyo suburb, I say the Kaddish for Ignace von Ephrussi who is so far from Vienna, for his father and his mother, and for his brother and sisters in their diaspora.

After the funeral Jiro asks me to help sort out Iggie’s clothes. I open the cupboards in his dressing-room and see the shirts ordered by colour. As I pack the ties away, I noticed that they map his holidays with Jiro in London and Paris, Honolulu and New York.

When this job is done, over a glass of wine, Jiro takes out his brush and ink and writes a document and seals it. It says, he tells me, that once he has gone I should look after the netsuke.

So I’m next.

There are 264 netsuke in this collection. It is a very big collection of very small objects.

I pick one up and turn it round in my fingers, weigh it in the palm of my hand. If it is wood, chestnut of elm, it is even lighter that the ivory. You see the patina more easily on these wooden ones: there is a faint shine on the spine of the brindled wolf and on the tumbling acrobats locked in their embrace. The ivory ones come in shades of cream, every colour, in fact, but white. A few have inlaid eyes of amber or horn. Some of the older ones are slightly worn away: the haunch of the faun resting on leaves has lost its markings. There is a slight split, an almost imperceptible fault line on the cicada. Who dropped it? Where and when?

Most of them are signed – that moment of ownership when it was finished and let go. There is a wooden netsuke of a seated man holding a gourd between his feet. He’s bending over it, both hands on a knife that is half into the gourd. It is hard work, his arms and shoulders and neck show the effort: every muscle concentrates on the blade. There is another of a cooper working on a half-finished barrel with an adze. He sits leaning into it, framed by it, brows puckered with concentration. It is an ivory carving about what it is like to care into wood. Both are about finishing something on the subject of the half-finished. Look, they say, I got there first and he’s hardly started.

When you tumble them in your hands there is a pleasure in finding where these signatures have been placed – on the sole of a sandal, the end of a branch, the thorax of a hornet – as well as the play between the strokes. I think of the moves when you sign your name in Japan with ink, the sweep of the brush into the ink, the first plosive moment of contact, the return to the ink stone, and wonder at how you could develop such a distinctive signature using the fine metal tools of the netsuke-maker.

Some of these netsuke carry no name, some have bits of paper glued to them, bearing tiny numbers carefully written in red pen. There are a great number of rats. Perhaps because they give the maker the chance to wrap those sinuous tails around each other, over the pails of water, the dead fish, the beggars’ robes, and then fold those paws underneath the carvings. There are also quite a lot of rat-catchers, I realise.

Some of the netsuke are studies in running movement, so that your fingers move along a surface of uncoiling rope, or spilt water. Others have small congested movements that knot your touch: a girl in a wooden bath, a vortex of clam shells. Some do both, surprising you: an intricately ruffled dragon leans against a simple rock. You work your fingers round the smoothness and stoniness of the ivory to meet this sudden density of dragon.

They are always asymmetric, I think with pleasure. Like my favorite Japanese tea-bowls, you cannot understand the whole from a part.

When I am back in London I put one of these netsuke in my pocket for a day and carry it round. Carry is not quite the right word for having a netsuke in a pocket. It sounds too purposeful. A netsuke is so light and so small that it migrates and almost and almost disappears amongst your keys and change. You simply forget that it is there. This was a netsuke of a very ripe medlar fruit, mad out of chestnut wood in the late eighteenth century in Edo, the old Tokyo. In autumn in Japan you sometimes see medlars; a branch hanging over a wall of a temple or from a private garden into a street of vending machines is impossibly pleasing. My medlar is just about to go from ripeness to deliquescence. The three leaves at the top feel as if they would fall if you rubbed them between your fingers. The fruit is slightly unbalanced: it is riper on one side than the other. Underneath, you can feel the two holes – one larger than the other – where the silk cord would run, so that he netsuke could act as a toggle of a small bag. I try and imagine who owned the medlar. It was made long before the opening up of Japan to foreign trade in the 1850s, and thus created for the Japanese taste: it might have been carved for a merchant or a scholar. It is a quiet one, undemonstrative, but it makes me smile. Making something to hold out of a very hard material that feels so soft is a slow and rather good tactile pun.

I keep my medlar in my jacket pocket and go to a meeting at a museum about a piece of research I am supposed to be doing, and then to my studio and then to the London Library. I intermittently roll this thing through my fingers.

I realize how much I care about how this hard-and-soft, losable object has survived. I need to find a way of unraveling its story. Owning this netsuke – inheriting them all - means I have been handed a responsibility to them and to the people who have owned them. I am unclear and discomfited about where the parameters of this responsibility might lie.