Posted by debito on September 12th, 2011
Hi Blog. The thing a writer likes most, aside from (hopefully) the craft of writing itself, is to be read. The second thing is, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, is praise. But praise (or even agreement) is a huge luxury in my field. This is why whenever I put something on the market (as I have with six other books), I hope that reviewers, if they give a negative review, will at least do me the courtesy of reviewing the book, not the author. But in this small literary corner (i.e., books in English on Japan) where we have very few rewards (or awards) for quality, having a professional review one’s book professionally is also a huge luxury.
That’s why I’m pleased to mention Amanda Harlow’s review of my most recent book, novel “IN APPROPRIATE: A novel of culture, kidnapping, and revenge in modern Japan” (which just came out on Amazon Japan, so save shipping!), was featured on the Being A Broad website last week. She doesn’t really dig the book. But she actually DOES talk about the book both in terms of content and context, and offers ways in which the book might have in her opinion been better. The job of the reviewer is not simply to say what’s right or wrong about any work, but also to suggest improvements — offer the creator something he or she could learn from this experience to put into the next effort. Amanda does this, and I thank her for it.
Contrast this with hatchet jobs elsewhere — the mean-spirited and politically-motivated negative review of IN APPROPRIATE in the Japan Times (where the critic even “winces” at my very columns, and seems to think that my having the audacity to create Japanese characters for a book means I’m reducing all Japanese to stereotypes; no wonder — the JT editor in charge refused to review the book until ordered to by his boss, so I guess this is how revenge is sweet). Or this one of “JAPANESE ONLY: The Otaru Onsens Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan”, where the reviewer reviews the author far more than the book. Or this one of the same book, where the reviewer (with whom I had a falling-out with beforehand for an ambush of an interview) compares a work of non-fiction unfavorably with a comic book, and faults the former for not being as funny.
It’s a pretty nasty world out there, and it’s easy to be a critic. It’s harder to be a good critic, and people like Amanda Harlow I would like to salute and thank for a critique well done, even if she didn’t like the book much. I of course don’t agree with all her assessments, but I think this review is fair and I can learn something from it. Thanks. Arudou Debito
Book Review: In Appropriate
BY AMANDA HARLOW
Being A Broad.com review, September 8, 2011
Is it a novel?
Is it an opinion piece?
Is it a fact-packed academic essay?
Is it a thinly disguised auto-biography?
What is In Appropriate by Debito Arudou?
Unfortunately, all of the above.
Arudou, a former American and naturalised Japanese, is best (and worst) known as Japan’s most passionate non-Japanese residents’ rights campaigner–he of the struggles to highlight onsen and bars banning foreigners, worker rights, flyjins, and more.
Recently, he’s turned his attentions to When International Marriages Go Bad in Japan and, in particular, the many-headed monster of who gets access to, or custody of, the kids. In spring 2011, Japan finally caved to diplomatic and campaigners’ pressure and announced it would prepare legislation to bring the country in line for joining the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
Japanese divorcees have long been excluded from their children’s future by a deadly combination of custom and law, but the campaign around the Hague Convention signing arose when non-Japanese parents (mainly fathers?) started fighting the status quo.
So this book is timely, and, with the speed at which legislation tends to move in Japan, will sadly probably remain timely for a while yet. It’s also a first foray into fiction for Arudou, the busy blogger and commentator.
Here is a novel about a young American guy who marries a Japanese woman, comes to Japan, has kids…and then it all unravels. Along the way we learn all about the customs and laws of divorce and child access and custody…and a whole lot more.
Our hero, Gary Schmidt, a callow youth from small-town US, gets his Japanese girlfriend pregnant. He does the decent thing and comes to Japan to marry her and raise a family. Instead, he finds himself the unwelcome son-in-law of the Matsunaga family of Fukuoka. When the English teaching business is going well, life seems good, and Gary even becomes a naturalised Japanese. However, as the economy slides at the turn of the millennium and the shine wears off the internationalisation bauble, his business and then his family life suffer. Divorce and the threat that he may never see his kids again force Gary into a desperate plot to rescue/abduct them into the hoped-for haven of the American Consulate in Fukuoka.
There are strong similarities with the Christopher Savoie case, but I imagine with enough details changed to keep the lawyers at bay.
Using fiction to explore social/political/legal issues can be an excellent way to get across facts and opinion. The author draws us in with entertainment and weaves in nitty-gritty which we might skip over in a newspaper or documentary.
However, In Appropriate isn’t a seamless weave of fiction and fact. It’s more like a hastily tacked together patchwork of Arudou’s undoubtedly vast files on human-rights issues in Japan. Gary Schmidt can hardly make a move in the novel without unleashing a couple of paragraphs of facts or opinion or statistics concerning Life in Japan.
He arrives at Narita and we get a tsunami of information about “The Eye” that guards/guides public behavior in Japan; how foreigners are natural suspects; how airport staff work; immigration lines for aliens; government terrorism fears; Chiba police checks; lunchboxes; I.D. checks and the Foreign Registry Law, Section 13, Clause 2…
STOP! Stop already! The guy just arrived at the airport.
And so it continues. Facts drowning out the fiction is the main weakness of the book. Main characters such as Keiko, Gary’s wife, remain barely drawn. In Chapter two, she is the shy foreign-language student tasting independence in the US–and then just the obedient daughter under-parental-thumbs for the rest of the book. A story about a marriage and its problems needs more depth about its protagonists. Keiko’s parents too remain cyphers for the Japanese System rather than crafted characters in their own right. The book gives Keiko’s father, Katsumaro, a bonsai-size biography to explain his anti-American feeling and one set speech where he lambastes Gary for his failings–but for a relationship spanning 14 years, it is thinly drawn.
Did Gary and Katsumaro never have male-bonding time together in an onsen? Drink together? Did this family never have happy times? There isn’t space in the novel to find out. One page has Gary suggesting a move Stateside to Keiko…only a page or two later we are into locked doors and talks about divorce.
Among other things, the novel needs a sympathetic character who gives the justification for the opposing attitude to post-divorce child access: that being brought up by one parent is best for the child and less confusing. No, I don’t agree with that–but I have a few wonderful Japanese friends and students who actually do. In Appropriate only gives us the legal situation and there is no space for the view of ordinary people who just think a clean break with a painful past is better for children.
In the Author’s Note, Arudou refers to his own divorce and subsequent lack of contact with his children. Maybe that is all too recent and raw to let him write too closely a portrayal of a Japanese woman and a family in crisis. But a more likely scenario is that he could not control the free-flow torrent of facts from his office and computer files, via his brain and on into the computer screen draft of In Appropriate. I’m linked with Arudou through Facebook and I know from his status updates that he was polishing off chapters at a rapid rate through Golden Week. He’s a great marshaller of information.
The fiction vs. facts problem does matter, though, if we are to follow Gary’s misadventures in Japan with general interest. I live in Japan and am the happy child of divorced parents who both played a big part in my life, so I’m interested in this story. Not sure of how someone with only a passing interest in Japan would feel. There is a story to be told here: How does an ordinary guy end up being dragged through the legal and media glare in Japan? It could happen to you…yes you…the non-Japanese resident in Japan who thinks all is well in your expat world. Maybe this book could be handed out to young foreign grooms at wedding chapels throughout Japan–beware marriage to a Japanese woman and the power of her family! Hold your kids close!
The Japan of the book is not the Japan of JET program recruitment talks or Yokoso! tourist campaigns because, apart from bento boxes, Gary’s world doesn’t seem too happy. We leap from Japanese sex lives to citizenship, then the economy and post-Bubble recession, off onto a sidetrack of “relaxed education,” and eikaiwa in quick succession, and into the home straight with family life, child rearing, divorce, Japan police detention, and the courts. I was grateful that Arudou isn’t really into food preparations and safety standards, or the effects of plastics on hormones–otherwise Gary would not even be able to buy his beloved bento in peace.
Interestingly, the strongest section of the novel are those regarding child rescue/abduction at the American Consulate in Fukuoka. I don’t think Arudou is writing from personal experience here, but through his campaigning activities he has certainly absorbed the emotion and details from those fathers who have and it makes sad, painful reading. The facts are so bizarre they don’t need any fictional dressing.
Who is the book for? I have an acquaintance, a non-Japanese man going through marrital problems at the moment. Should I give it to him? Would he enjoy it? Learn from it? I’m not sure. Newbies in Japan? Would they enjoy the portrayal of the country’s dark sides? Those of us living her already may recognise many of Gary’s experiences, but probably hope that our own family situation could never descend into this hell.
In Appropriate is probably best viewed as a testament to the hundreds(?) or thousands(?) of foreign spouses, mainly men, who have lost their children after divorce with a Japanese national.
One day, many years from now, will Arudou’s own daughters pick up this book in the bargain bucket of a English-language bookshop and wonder–was Japan really still like this in the opening years of the 21st century? Will they understand their father’s anguish?
I hope so.