Before journeying to the so-called “floating world” a little over a year ago, I hadn’t a clue what to expect upon meeting Japan, even though I’d read about 15 different travel guides that told me where to stay, what to eat, where to go shopping, and what not to do and not to say. These were all very helpful in a logistical sense, and certainly helped me to get around the city without too much effort or confusion. But none of the books I read really gave me a feel for the culture, a true depiction of what would it would be like to live there, and not just visit. Stories and anecdotes are the best way, in my opinion, to understand how life works in another country. Normal guide books might gloss over these ideas, but rarely dig deep enough to be considered insightful or properly prepare you for the daily struggles you’re bound to encounter. To be honest, I could care less what restaurant is the most posh or where the trendiest venues or clubs are. What I really want to know before visiting a new country are the hilarious and awful things that happen to people when they arrive. The misunderstandings that people manage to get themselves into make for much more interesting travel reading, I think. At the least, it’s more authentic.
Forty Stories of Japan totally quenched my thirst for cultural honesty. The book is a remarkable collection of first-person accounts of personal relationships with Tokyo. These stories are a perfect way for any gaijin to be introduced to Japanese culture and a great way for seasoned veterans to reminisce about their own beginnings.
Voices range from a visit to a Love Hotel called Happy Dreams to an expat convinced he’s sharing his apartment with the ghost of a Japanese woman, to an ode to the appreciation of Okinawans’ resilient health; an elementary school English teacher who discovers that children really aren’t the sweet angels they are portrayed in movies to be, and an impromptu encounter with a bear in Hokkaido with a reputation for mauling happy-go-lucky tourists. All offer uniquely witty and thoughtful memories that bring a different perspective on life. Reading Forty Stories of Japan made me feel more closely connected to Japanese culture, sparked my interest to continue learning on a deeper level, and made me laugh out loud at certain stories that mirrored my own experiences.
One story in particular I could relate to was written by a naïve American man who assumed that Halloween would be taken up by his students as a magical and wonderful way to celebrate Western culture. He was sadly mistaken, realising this only after dressing like a 100-year-old woman, which caused his neighbour to scream in terror and run away. My situation was somewhat similar. I was walking towards the train station but had forgotten which direction it was located. Approaching an older Japanese salaryman in a dapper looking suit, I asked him in polite, very wonderful sounding Japanese for a helpful push towards the right way. “Sumimasen, michi ni mayotta, eki wa doko desu ka?” To which he replied in a shocked and shrill voice, “Ah! Bikkuri shita!” and in a frazzled fury, actually ran away as fast as he could from me. Me: a very short, physically unimposing young woman wearing a t-shirt and jeans. For a moment I felt a bit offended, but then realised that perhaps I should instead appreciate the fact that in Japan it is possible to walk up to a complete stranger and not worry about being mugged! In fact, it’s pretty much taken for granted.
I got the chance to speak with the inspiration behind Graham’s collection, Naomi Arimura.
She moved to Japan for love—and settled in with the intention of relocating for life. With three stories featured in the collection and nearly forty years of experience as a gaijin married to a Japanese, Naomi certainly has a unique version of life here to share with the world. She first made a home out in the suburban area of Chufu, which, though just outside Tokyo, had the cultural makeup of a small rural town. It was a place where some women hadn’t even ventured out to Tokyo because their entire world was located inside their house. “Women cook, men make money.” It’s a cliché that seems hopelessly outdated to me, but is still very real to a large part of the world’s upbringing and culture. The gender lines in Japan, Naomi said, are very real and sharply defined. I wondered what it was like to be married to a Japanese man, and if this had affected the way she saw herself as a woman here.
“Fortunately for me, my husband is not an ordinary salaryman.” Naomi said. “He’s a musician, working at odd, unconventional times. I go to all his concerts if I can, but I don’t know another wife who attends her husband’s concerts. I think that is my greatest sadness in Japan, that women and men tend to live totally separate lives. I can’t count the times I have been invited to a group my husband is involved in and been the only partner there.”
Yes, being a foreign woman in Japan is a different experience than being a foreign man, and being a foreign wife is even moreso. Naomi became frustrated with the limitations placed on women here at first, yet attempted to conform to the society and fit in as best she could. That, she said, was a mistake.
“My apparent duty to conform to a rather rigid and limited society was not as strict or heavy as I first thought. Japanese people themselves didn’t expect it and didn’t want it. They didn’t want me to be like them, they wanted to glimpse possible expansion through me.”
Only through realising this was she able to break out of the idea that she had to be Japanese and from there she found freedom to explore her own identity. To her surprise, she found that Japan wasn’t as strictly conformist as she had thought. Her own country of England seemed to be just as conformist as Japan, just with different ways. This revelation allowed her to spread her gaijin wings, so to speak, and work with the culture to create her own version of how a woman should be in society. She discovered that being a foreigner worked to her advantage and was able to flourish with her positive revamping of what could have become a life of bitter resentment of a culture clashing with her own personal beliefs. But that’s the beauty of Japanese culture, in the end—it really is malleable, and is changing more and more towards embracing all things international. It’s a matter of finding the opportunities to flourish and then taking them, creating your own version of Japan.
Forty Stories of Japan isn’t just a book about Japanese culture, it’s a series of voices looking at Japanese culture from the outside. On the book, Naomi commented:
“Everyone’s story in the book is so different! Everyone’s style is so different. Despite its love of conformity, we have all encountered a different Japan because the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met are different and have touched us in different ways. I think that’s the charm of the book. I think it’s a unique thing that Graham has done, finding so many people with different eyes and experiences and bringing them together in myriad expressions in one book. Has anyone else ever done that before? I don’t think so.”
For purchasing in Japan, contact Allan Murphy (firstname.lastname@example.org).