Review: The Bells of Old Tokyo

As a fairly new expat living in the land of the rising sun, it’s always interesting to hear the perspectives of seasoned expats who have called this place home for several years.

Anna Sherman moved to Asia in 2001 and The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations of Time and a City is her first book. In this part-memoir/ part travelogue, Sherman retraces the steps taken by composer Yoshimura Hiroshi in his book, Edo’s Bells of Time, listening for the chime of the old city’s bells in the silent spaces of her loud, 21st century metropolis. Her prose is both lyrical and clipped, as she meditates on seasonal time-keeping in old Edo and contrasts it with digital time-keeping in modern-day Tokyo.

She shows how the traditional Japanese conception of time as non-linear is constantly at odds with Japan’s adoption of progressive, mechanical Western time, a push and pull struggle that mirrors Japan’s juggling between its slick, contemporary image as a postmodern mecca and its ancient Eastern roots. This conflict is also evident in Tokyo’s constant reinvention of itself, forever destroying and rebuilding its spaces so that nothing ever remains permanent, even the author’s beloved coffee shop in the bowels of the enigmatic capital city.

Overall, The Bells of Old Tokyo is a fresh take on a much-admired and much-misunderstood city and highly recommended for anyone who wants to probe into what really makes the Japanese capital tick.

Disclaimer: I received this book as a digital Advance Reader Copy (ARC) from the publishers in exchange for my honest review.

Review: What I Talk about When I Talk about Running

“In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.” Haruki Murakami

The book translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel describes itself as “equal parts travelogue, memoir, and training log” and after reading it, it certainly slots into all these categories. Murakami details key episodes in his running life including his long-distance feats in Athens, Boston, Hokkaido, New York, Tokyo, Kanagawa, and Niigata. Before reading this book, I had no idea the Japanese novelist was even a runner. Also, forget the self-destructive writer stereotype. Murakami proves that writers have to be healthy in order to write better. He writes in a very conversational style so the book is very easy to get into in the beginning. However, he confesses that the book was written in snatches over two years and as it unfolds, it does feel piecemeal at times. Overall, however, I think the book gives great insight into the man called Murakami as well as the rigors of running and the writing life.

Review: The Last Children of Tokyo

Published by Portobello Books in 2018 and translated by Margaret Mitsutani, The Last Children of Tokyo (also published as The Emissary) by Yoko Tawada is speculative fiction that imagines what can happen in an ageing society that is affected by a major environmental catastrophe.

The story is set in futuristic, dystopian, environmental wasteland Japan that has once again retreated into self-isolation, cutting itself off from the rest of the world. Things are so bad that foreign words are banned and people get into a lot of semantic arguments. There are food shortages in Tokyo even though food is produced abundantly in Okinawa.

In this post-catastrophe world, great grandparents outlive their great grandkids. Tawada focuses on the relationship between Yoshiro and his great grandson, Mumei. The grandfather’s care is palpable, particularly how he fusses over what the boy can and cannot eat. However, things get weird when the author starts shifting from one narrative perspective to the next.

Deeper into the chapter-free story, more characters are added but Tawada does not deal with them in as great depth as how she handles Yoshiro and Mumei. The plot starts well but then meanders into some strange direction and by the end of the story, I was so confused.

Meandering plot aside, Yoko Tawada is a skilled writer who clearly loves to dabble in word play. Also, her writing is distinctive from the spare, minimalist style of her literary peers like Sayaka Murata and Hiromi Kawakami. I think it may have to do with the fact that she writes in both German and Japanese and lives in Berlin rather than Japan. She is also able to satirize Japanese culture and language and use this story as a cautionary tale of what could happen if Japan behaves in an increasingly insular and environmentally destructive manner in the future.

Bonus: the book recently won the US National Book Award for Translated Literature.

Review: Strange Weather in Tokyo

Strange Weather in Tokyo (2014, Portobello Books) by Hiromi Kawakami and translated by Allison Markin Powell starts with the informal reunion of Tsukiko and Sensei, her former high school Japanese teacher, at a bar in the city. The narrative slowly traces the development of their relationship from friends to something more than friends. In this novel, Kawakami, like Sayaka Murata in Convenience Store Woman, is able to pin down the ennui, loneliness, and alienation single people of all ages face in urban Tokyo. A good read, although sometimes, I found the narrative focused too much on quotidian details.

Review: Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman (2018, Portobello Books) by Sayaka Murata and translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori focuses on Keiko, a woman past her prime who has been working part-time in a convenience store for the last 18 years. She is different, to say the least, and her individualism shines through during early childhood. However, every time she “misbehaves” as a child, she is scolded and told that she needs to be “cured” of her eccentricities.

As she gets older, she learns that the easiest way to live in contemporary, capitalist Japan is to adapt to her surroundings and to the people in it. She is “reborn” as a convenience store attendant, the perfect job for a self-effacing cog in society. The mask she wears, however, slowly slips when she meets Shiraha.

Murata’s writing style is clean and darkly comic. I also liked that the author was able to capture the undercurrent of urban life in Tokyo, where the convenience store becomes a microcosm of the artificiality and alienation of everyday life in the mega city. The novel is extremely readable – I was able to blaze through it in a couple of hours before bed.

Have you ever read Convenience Store Woman? What did you think about it?

A tale of two flowers

Here’s an excerpt from, A Tale of Two Flowers, an essay I recently wrote for Caribbean Beat, Caribbean Airlines’ in-flight magazine:

“In the Caribbean, we often take the flowers for granted. They seem to be always there: hibiscus, bougainvillea, or frangipani blending incongruously into the tropical landscape. I only realised how much I missed them during the long, bleak winter months I spent teaching English in Japan.

The Japanese are obsessed with hana or flowers. Although cherry blossoms can be found in many temperate regions of the world, they tend to be synonymous with the land of the rising sun. Every spring, hanami or cherry blossom viewing becomes a national ritual, and an almost religious experience. In almost every newspaper or website, you will find meteorological reports tracking the sakura zensen or cherry blossom front across the Japanese islands, starting in Okinawa to the south and ending in Hokkaido to the north.”

To read more, please click here!

Review: Learning to Bow

Oshieru wa manabu no nakaba nari.

Half of teaching is learning.

If you’re thinking of travel meaningfully by teaching in Japan, you may want to try this memoir.

On the other hand, I was happy to read this book in retrospect, after completing a year teaching with the JET Program (a Japanese government initiative that pairs native English speakers with public schools), so I could compare and contrast our shared experiences.

In Learning to Bow (1991), the author becomes a JET and spends one year (1989-1990) teaching at a junior high school in Tochigi Prefecture. During his time, he tries to understand Japanese society primarily through its education system and his interactions with his Japanese colleagues and their friends and families.

At the start, Feiler sometimes writes in a rather hyperbolic and high-handed manner:

“I came to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Ministry of Education, to teach English language and American culture in Japanese schools as part of a program to bring native English speakers into the heart of Japan.”

Many of his initial interactions with Japanese people emphasize his difference to them: his white skin, his brown hair, his physical height, and his perceived inability to use chopsticks and speak Japanese.

Feiler often gets exasperated when he hears statements like this:

“Only a Japanese person can understand the heart of another. You can’t figure us out because you are a foreigner.”

Similarly, although I am not Caucasian like Feiler, many students would often remark and gesture about my “small face.” Also, because I come from a tiny, largely unknown country of Trinidad and Tobago, they couldn’t figure out my nationality and often thought I was Indian, Filipino, or Brazilian.

I also experienced repetitious questions about whether I liked Japanese food, whether I could use chopsticks and speak Japanese, and why I chose to come to Japan over any other country in the world, particularly “America.”

Despite his sometimes arrogant writing style, Feiler makes some astute observations about the Japanese education system which I can corroborate. Like him, I also saw how the system prepared students for life only in Japan by emphasizing community spirit and Japanese pride and patriotism over internationalization.

 “While Japanese schools prepare their students to be citizens of Japan, they fail to teach them to be citizens of the world.”

I can also confirm his observation that the hidden curriculum promotes Japanese values like the general intolerance of diversity (especially of burakumin and returning Japanese expats), gaman (endurance), the sempai code (respect for your superiors), and amae (dependence on others). These concepts largely underscore the sacrifice of individualism in favor of conformity and groupthink. In fact, Feiler’s comparison of the Japanese education system to the art of controlling nature through bonsai is spot on:

If you would form a tree, do so while it is young.

Like Feiler, I also identified with the challenges of team teaching and using a Western approach to pedagogy in the Japanese classroom. On another note, I don’t think his kissing a female student’s hand to illustrate different ways to say hello would fly in the 21st century school in Japan!

One sore point I have with Feiler’s memoir is that it sometimes reads like a boring textbook, littered with overly-generalized statistics and Japanese history/culture tidbits. Also, in many cases, the quotes at the start of each chapter appear to bear little resemblance to the content and seem to exist only to demonstrate that the author is “well read.”

All in all, this memoir, which is written from the perspective of an American Caucasian male, is an okay introduction to the experience of teaching in Japan but if you’re thinking of making this your next step, please read widely to get a more balanced picture. Thank God for blogs, eh? 🙂

Did you ever read Learning to Bow? What did you think?