Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan by Bruce Feiler (1991)
This was the first book I read before going to Japan myself, and, simply put, it is not very good. Feiler taught with the JET program in Japanese public schools back when this was a new thing, and this book was the result. There is nothing wrong with the book, per se; Feiler accurately recounts the realities of both Japanese society and the Japanese school system while injecting his own reflections and anecdotes in a work that is polished, dignified, and teeming with poetic haikus that show Japan’s spiritual, insightful side.
Maybe that’s why I found the book so uninspiring: it’s too polished, too perfect. Feiler spends more time summarizing research unearthed for a thesis paper on Japan and less time recounting his struggles to adapt to Japanese life, leaving the reader feeling detached from him as a narrator. This book would have found a far better home as a series of informative nonfiction essays, but as a story unto itself it falls disappointingly short. When we do get Feiler’s personal experiences, they almost always consist of him having long conversations with Japanese people about Japanese-related topics, with occasional glimpses of him bumbling through the culture around him. Both narrative tactics get old very quickly. His attempts at self-deprecation aren’t self-deprecating enough, and his funny stories (the one exception being his discovery of Love Hotels) aren’t that funny.
Simply put, it’s an informative introduction to the fundamental differences in their culture, but readers looking to find the real Japan won’t find it here.
The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer (1992)
Unnecessary subtitles aside, The Lady and the Monk is an insightful, beautifully-written, more personal look at Japan, this time through one of its most beautiful cities (i.e. one of the few not destroyed during World War II). Iyer has a keen sense of prose that makes this a pleasurable book to read as his words form a conscious melody complimented by the observant eye of the travel writer. Instead of boring us with abstract facts and information, Iyer shows us vivid images of Japan: the autumn trees of Kyoto, the deserted back alleys, the neon lights of the city, the quiet monks hidden in the temples.
There’s actually a bit of a plot, too. Iyer meets Sachiko, the dreamy wife of a workaholic Japanese salaryman, and tells the story of their friendship. Sachiko is fascinated by the world outside Japan, firing off pop culture references in her unique brand of garbled English that is all the more entertaining contrasted with Iyer’s otherwise careful prose. Sachiko is a living, breathing Japanese character who lets us into her world by sharing her hopes, frustrations, and reflections on the society around her, and this one character proves more valuable than a thousand textbook lessons.
If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous (2010)
I’m ambivalent about this book. Marina (an apparently fictional narrator, though I spent half the book thinking this was just the Japanese mispronunciation of the author’s first name) and her girlfriend Carolyn come to rural Ishikawa as JET teachers as their relationship is strained by the challenges of the move and Marina struggles to deal with her father’s suicide. This has all the makings of a good story that could take place almost anywhere, and at times (especially when Watrous shares long, detailed flashbacks of her narrator’s family life back in America) the Japanese setting feels almost inconsequential. The difficulties of Japanese life (garbage laws, indirectness, avoiding confrontation, and blatant sexism) are covered well, but they almost seem an archetype for the difficulties of fitting in with any culture. Most of the writing is also overly sentimental, though after Marina commits several egregious blunders her pain and discomfort become almost painful to read.
Watrous’s world of dilapidated small-town Japan is described with bitter realism, though her background characters are mostly forgettable and underdeveloped to a point where a seemingly climactic and shocking incident is left on the backburner by happening to characters that readers aren’t really familiar with. Where Watrous shines is in her spot-on rendering of the way Japanese speak English: her Nihon-jin characters confuse their r’s and l’s, make realistic grammatical mistakes, interweave their conversations with Japanese words, and end sentences with ne? It’s just a shame that Watrous blurs the line between spoken English and translated English as Marina, who claims to struggle with basic Japanese grammar, is often seen conversing flawlessly with characters whose English is supposedly very poor. Thus, her ability to write realistic conversations spoken across cultural barriers is marred by their inconsistency.
This book is a decent read, but its numerous shortcomings kept me from enjoying it more. That’s a terrible shame, because I really wanted to.
Charisma Man: The Even More Complete Collection, edited by Neil Garscadden, character by Larry Rodney (2010)
Back in print after a frustrating hiatus, this new collection brings together the Charisma Man comic strips that first appeared in The Alien (later rechristened as Japanzine) with some new stories illustrated by different artists. The premise is a superhero spoof of the clueless gaijin: Charisma Man was once a burger-flipping nobody back in Canada, but after arriving in Japan, he gains incredible confidence and good looks that make him irresistible to Japanese women (accompanied by a physical transformation reminiscent of Calvin and Hobbes). The setting for Charisma Man is the world of the young eikaiwa teacher: a world of late nights, city streets, tedious English lessons, unpaid overtime, wild parties, binge drinking, and beautiful women. In their finest panels, the strips comment on both the darker moments and glory days of this life, along with the reoccurring theme that any bum can teach English in Japan and become a hero.
Sure, a lot of the gags are cheesy and the jokes repetitive, but maybe I enjoy Charisma Man so much because this was the life I lived for two years, as opposed to the life of the small-town JET teacher or the carefree wanderings of the meditating traveler. The writers know how boring English lessons can be, and don't disguise that the true purpose of hanami is to get blackout drunk in the middle of the day. They capture the zany moments with a humorous spin that makes me lol while beneath the surface there always lurks the harsh truth about the gaijin existence: no matter how great the Japanese may think you are, as far as the Western women are concerned, you’ll always just be a burger-flipping geek.
Read this book. I’ll loan you my copy if necessary.