At first glance, James May: Our Man in Japan is yet another travel show set in a “foreign” and “exotic” Asian country that’s hosted by a white man. He eats some noodles, talks about samurai, and rides a train. But that doesn’t mean the show’s ingredients necessarily affect its final flavour, which is refreshingly honest, wholesome, and utterly delightful.
When it comes to your typical American (or British) hosted or produced travel show, I’m always wary. I’ve seen far too many that play into outsider-enforced cultural stereotypes, exhausting tropes and monolithic conclusions based on, effectively, minimal evidence or exposure. It’s tiresome and really only serves to exoticise and fetishise an entire nation or culture into a segment of television that packages neatly in its time slot. Japan, especially, suffers from this problem.
James May: Our Man in Japan isn’t like that. It’s because James May, forever wearer of great shirts, isn’t like that. Over the course of his life, May’s been to Japan a great number of times, but throughout the show, he never lets his personal biases lead his narrative; rather, he allows Japan to lead him. Indeed, he starts the whole thing off by telling us his central thesis up front—that he is spending many weeks in Japan in order to better understand it.
“My actual purpose in coming here, because I’m fascinated by the place, is not to simply look at all the tourist sites and go, ‘Ooh, isn’t that lovely and isn’t that unusual,’” he says. “It’s to actually find out what Japan and being Japanese is about because it is, quite possibly, the most abroad place you can go as a British person.” It’s an idea of seeking active discomfort, which is a far better way to travel and experience things abroad over sticking to the comfortable familiar.
This also sets the tone for the sort of respectful open-mindedness that guides the rest of the show. It’s rare that May is alone at all in most episodes. The producers clearly worked hard to tap into ingots of Japanese culture all throughout the country and then brought on local guides and experts to walk us viewers (and May) through it all.
He hangs out with calligraphy masters, monks, micro brewers, train enthusiasts, master bladesmiths, J-pop stars, samurai, and octopus fisherman, but what unites all these people is the pride, friendliness and welcoming nature they openly display toward May and his crew. I know this is obviously still a TV show and everyone involved wants to it to be cast in the most favourable light possible, but the show makes it a point to give all the guests a good amount of air time to speak and teach May something he didn’t already know.
It gives much agency to Japan to speak about itself, a very important lesson to keep in mind when attempting to understand another culture that has thousands of years of history. (Mostly, just Shut the Hell Up And Listen.) May, for example, gets to don traditional samurai garb while being taught the cultural significance of the samurai and what each piece of the garment means.
JMOMIJ is charming in its presentation and engagement. May frequently breaks the fourth wall, making jokes about Amazon and chatting frequently with his off-camera crew. This is a style that might be familiar to anyone who watched a lot of British presenters, including the equally long-haired celebrity chef of the ‘80s, Keith Floyd, whose popular BBC shows did the same act on the somewhat less-distant shores of France.
Everyone delights in the foods and the sights and seems perfectly content to be the students and take cues from the local guides. This is all set against the backdrop of Japan’s incredible natural wonders and diverse urbanscapes.
And despite the smooth and polished filming style, the show fully owns up to mistakes, stumblings and things not going as planned. We’re all familiar with seeing May falling on his arse, but when the team goes out for octopus fishing, they don’t catch anything and are forced to return empty-handed. In a more scripted show, perhaps the producers would have procured a pre-caught octopus from somewhere and faked it. But that didn’t happen here.
This show is everything I wanted The Grand Tour to be, just without the cars. I wanted to see sights, I wanted to get as close to experiencing some local culture as I could without having the ability to be there myself. May is the perfect vessel for this. He set out on this trip to see beyond what typically comes to a Western mind when they think of Japan, and as a result, he can present us with a more unknown, nuanced view of the place.
Most importantly, though, he recognises Japan is no longer the same place he visited a quarter of a century ago. “The thing I’ve always loved about Japan is that it is so Japanese and everything about it is completely Japanese—normal everyday things, like having your breakfast, going to the shop to buy something—that’s what makes it so intriguing, so exciting,” he muses during a solo drive back to Tokyo from the countryside.
“But what I’m actually doing there is celebrating monoculturalism,” he continues. “So by that token I also ought to be the sort of person who says, ‘Britain should remain British!’ But I don’t think that, I like Britain being multicultural… Because it improves the food, obviously.”
That sentiment, steeped in today’s increasing xenophobia and racism, is particularly crucial to bear in mind. Currently, the United Kingdom’s own prime minister, Boris Johnson, is a walking, talking celebration of racial bigotry, monoculturalism and anti-foreign attitude. Make Britain Great Again, and all that.
It does not do, however, to forever seek out the comforts of the known and the familiar and condemn the rest. The answer to May’s thesis is very obvious because he branches out from the beaten path and makes a concerted effort to meet and talk with actual Japanese people. He sought to find out what it is to be Japanese. He discovered Japan and its people are vastly diverse, coming from all walks of life and all working to find their place in their world. And when you take away the language barrier and the food, you could really say the same about all of us.
James May: Our Man in Japan is available for streaming on Amazon Prime now.