Tuesday, 9 June 2009

I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so...

I don’t usually review non-fiction books, but couldn’t resist Ben Steven’s A Gaijin’s Guide to Japan. I’m fascinated by Japanese culture, not obsessed, but could certainly be called a Japanophile. Mainly because I adore Japanese animé and haiku, curiously aspire to be more Zen in my day to day life, and because of a crazy/awe inspiring three day stopover in Tokyo.

A Gaijin’s Guide to Japan is a cross-referencing A to Z guide to all things Japanese, ranging from historical figures to folklore, Karate to Sushi, Buddhism to Zen, and covering all kinds of trivia and oddness including electric toilets, capsule hotels, pachinko, and the meaning of the word Wa. It’s an introduction to Japan rather than an intensive guide, it gives starting points and brief overviews of big concepts, and I thought it was a bit scant in places, but overall is enough to whet the appetite and gives a flavour of many diverse and quirky aspects of Japan. Oh and a gaijin is a person born outside Japan (me and you, in other words.)

It’s easy to read, and has a quirky sometimes laugh out loud style, as Stevens explains things so the average English person can ‘get’ very Japanese concepts, for which there are no equivalent in Western culture.

There are so many interesting entries in this book. Two of my favourite entries were about historical people: Hiro Onoda, a Japanese Commando who refused to believe the Second World War was over for almost 30 years; and Masutatsu Oyama, a karateka who amongst other things ‘hit trees with his arms, legs and forehead, broke river rocks with his bare hands, ran up and down the mountainside, practised his kata beneath a freezing waterfall and generally gave himself a very hard time indeed.’

And I was fascinated by entries that translated and explained certain Japanese words, including Hibakusha which means ‘explosion affected person’, a name given to those who survived being in the vicinity of the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945. Hibakusha were discriminated against by other Japanese for many years due to fear of ‘radiation poisoning’, and Stevens gives the book a personal edge by telling us about two Hibakusha that he knows personally. These small personal anecdotes about his experience in Japan and his Japanese wife’s family, were aspects of the book which make it feel so much more than an A to Z list.

There were many things I encountered while in Tokyo that I didn’t fully understand at the time. It is such a culturally different country from England, it would have been useful (and entertaining) to have Ben Stevens (or indeed his book) as a cultural translator and to give insight into the dos and don’ts, the whys and wherefores, and so I could understand why blowing my nose on the train was not such a good idea.

It’s a great read, perfect for dipping into for brief bits of knowledge and insight, and made out of recycled paper for goodness sake. What more could you want?


Fran Hill said...

I'll pass this on to my daughter, doing Japanese Studies at Sheffield Uni. She was going to do History, but, as an anime and manga addict, as soon as she heard you could do a degree in Japanese, she changed options and never looked back. She'd like this book, I'm sure. Thanks.

Michelle said...

Annie, the other day I was browsing on the internet for some information about the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival. It's beautiful. Such an interesting culture.