Sunday, April 12, 2009

Book Review: Turning Japanese by Cathy Yardley + 13 of my own Japan memories

29 year old Lisa lives a comfortable life. She has a decent, if boring job, supportive friends and family, and a boyfriend she plans to marry. But Lisa’s life is turned upside down when she wins a contest to be an intern at a Japanese Manga publishing house for a year – in Tokyo. Does she dare to dream of a more fulfilled life doing something she is passionate about?

I am very impressed with how well Turning Japanese works as a character study. At the start of the novel, it is clear that Lisa is stuck in a rut. She’s letting others dictate her life choices, even to the point that she goes to Japan because her boyfriend wants her out of his hair so he can study for his MBA in peace. She’s never been adventurous, doesn’t like to travel, and mopes around Tokyo for weeks once she gets there.

But a funny thing happens once she is forced to make her own decisions – she discovers she actually likes having a say in her life. This frustrates not only her Japanese colleagues who value following orders to the letter but also her old friends and her boyfriend who aren’t used to an independent Lisa. I really enjoyed seeing her blossom and grow a backbone.

The setting is also highly entertaining, especially for someone like me who has lived in Japan and knows something about the peculiarities of the Japanese culture. So despite a slow start and an initial exasperation with Lisa’s passive and whiny personality, I found myself cheering for her in her quest to make the most of her internship and fulfill her dreams against all odds, cultural and personal. And I turned the last page with a very satisfied smile.

Turning Japanese will be released in paperback on Tuesday, April 14th.

Since I know you all love them, here are a few of my own Japanese memories:

1. Slept on a futon for the whole nine months I was in Japan on a University exchange program in Fukuoka. I had to roll it up every day and put it in the closet because it took up my whole little tatami mat room.

2. Had a teacher who said at the end of term, “I give you all As. We part as friends.” That kind of summed up how easy Japanese University classes are.

3. Bought Asahi beer from vending machines on the street. It is still my favorite brand of beer.

4. Wore a real kimono for my “graduation” from the international program. Even with professional help, it took over an hour for me to get dressed.

5. Started learning Nihon-buyo (Japanese traditional dance) but discovered quickly I didn’t have the necessary patience. I always wanted to break out into Latin dance moves.

6. Which I did get the chance to do because a friend was a translator for the Blue Note, a jazz club in Fukuoka. When a Cuban acapella band performed, we went out dancing with them afterwards until after dawn. They were amazing dancers!

7. Gave private English lessons to several clients, including a 13 year old girl who only responded to yes or no questions. We became pen pals after I left and she wrote me the cutest letters ever. Her parents always gave me “gift melons” called so because they cost $30 apiece, way too much for one to justify buying it for oneself.

8. Went bowling about once a week. Once got 6 strikes in a row and had the whole alley full of Japanese cheering for me. Ended up with my highest score ever – 198.

9. Visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Nagasaki and several smaller towns on Kyushu Island. I would have loved to have done more sightseeing, but travelling within Japan was prohibitively expensive.

10. Performed A LOT of karaoke. Mostly in smaller, private rooms in groups of Japanese friends who insisted I sing The Spice Girls. Once on a yacht where we were served shabu shabu.

11. Sat next to a sumo wrestler on a train.

12. Once dropped a large bill on the ground and had a Japanese man run after me to give it back. I felt so safe there, even walking down dark alleys in the middle of the night.

13. Was woken up every morning at 3 am by the bosozoku driving by and revving their motorcycles. The police followed behind blaring orders to cease and desist through a microphone.

28 comments:

Alea said...

Ah yes! I remember your post about this awhile ago. Yay for more memories. You sat by a sumo wrestler? That is awesome! One of our clients is a sake bar/restaurant so for months I was looking at sumo related things!

Diana Dang said...

Oh you are so lucky! I have been dreaming to go to Japan for so many years! Anything related to Japan perks my interest.

Lenore said...

Alea - I love going to sake bars/restaurants and eating Onigiri. I think you would really, really like this novel! You should get it.

Diana - Japan is an interesting country, that's for sure!

♔ jessica.marie said...

ooooh this book looks very interesting, I will have to add it to my "to buy" list.

I actually plan on either studying abroad or at least visiting Japan while I am in school. I am learning to speak Japanese and my university actually has a lot of Japanese exchange students that we get to interact with.

robin_titan said...

I had a similar experience in the two weeks I was in Japan. It was so great! And you really don't have to worry about walking down the street alone, I loved it there. Oh and I also ate shabu shabu, it was great! :D I saw some sumo wrestlers too but I unfortunately didn't get to sit next to one :) One of the hotels I stayed in had a sumo wrestling stadium across the street so we saw a bunch walking by every now and then.
I also got a chance to go to a kareoke place it was really different. They all have little private rooms like the ones you went to. It was pretty cool especially when I got to see some drunk business type people walking to their room haha that was very funny!

I am definitely interested in this book now hehe

Alea said...

Oooh it's a paperback release, it's on the wishlist!

bermudaonion said...

That book looks like fun. Wasn't there a song called "I think I'm turning Japanese." Our son spent some time in Japan after his junior year of high school and absolutely loved his time with a Japanese family.

Elizabeth said...

I'm jealous of all your travels. These are great memories.

caite said...

I don't know about the book, but I loved your remembrances!

Nora said...

Wow, sounds like so much fun. I can't quite picture buying beer from a vending machine.

Insert Book Title Here said...

The book sounds really cute! Great review.

I love how they gave everyone in your class As.

"We part as friends." I wish my teachers were more like yours! ;)

charley said...

This sounds like a good book, and I enjoyed reading your memories from Japan. I think I might have to use "we part as friends" in the future.

the epic rat said...

You have traveled far and have many cool stories!

And this book sounds great - I am keeping my eye out for its release! :)

Bunny B said...

Wow! You've lived in Japan?! Your life and travel experiences are amazing!!! I'm so jealous! :)

Jen said...

I love hearing about your travel experiences! Also the book sounds really cute ^_^

Great review <3

Linda J said...

The books sounds good, but your adventures in Japan sound better! HA!

Amy said...

Looks like a fun book! I love Japan and the small private karaoke rooms. Man, did I spend good many a night in those.

And shabu shabu...oh yum!

Kristen M. said...

Lady, when are you going to write these stories up into a set of travelogues? Now there's something I would love to read!

H said...

Have you done nothing in life but travel and have fun and make the most of it? :) It sounds amazing!

sarahcross said...

This post brings back memories. :) I spent a school year in Nagoya, and it was simultaneously one of the most fun & frustrating years of my life. I really miss the convenience stores ... *wistful sigh*

Turning Japanese looks great, I will have to check that out! Thanks!

Sadako said...

This looks like a fun read! loved your list!!

Silvia said...

Wow, I'm very jealous.
If all goes as planned, I'll go to Japan next year's summer, when I'm 18. I'm really excited because it has been a long time since I want to go there.
Of course, if my University has an exchange programme with Japan i'll aply for it!

Reader Rabbit said...

You're so lucky! I want to go visit Japan (and alot of other places..)

Staci said...

Loved this review...have to read this book. I was an exchange student in 1987 in Niigata. Loved your 13 things...again!!! I could so relate to your Japanese memories!!

Lorin said...

As always, great post! And I learned something new - I had to look up bosozoku.

Memory said...

I loved reading all your Japanese memories. It sounds like it was the trip of a lifetime!

Ali said...

Love your travel memory posts! I've never been to Asia, would definitely like to experience that someday. Maybe without the Spike Girls karaoke, though.

Ladytink_534 said...

My uncle lived and taught in Japan for a year when I was in middle school. It's always seemed so interesting! I would love to visit it one day even if it is via book :)