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.