Book review of “Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me” (Pubs Simon and Schuster). Yes, that is the title.


Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan\Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association forming NGO\「ジャパニーズ・オンリー 小樽入浴拒否問題と人種差別」(明石書店)JAPANESE ONLY:  The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japansourstrawberriesavatardebitopodcastthumb
UPDATES ON TWITTER: arudoudebito
DEBITO.ORG PODCASTS now on iTunes, subscribe free

Hi Blog.  Another holiday tangent.  Enjoy.  Debito in Monbetsu



By Lisa Fineberg Cook.  Published by Simon and Schuster Inc 2009

Reviewed by Arudou Debito

Simon and Schuster sent me this book this month for review, and I know not why.  I am probably the last person to whom you’d send a “Chick Lit” book (defined by some as a genre where the protagonist is a young female trying to make it in the modern world, dealing with issues that women face, whether it be learning how to stand on their own two feet, or just about them being passionate about career, style, personal appearance, shopping…).  But I did sit down and get through it.  I agree with the reviews on — it’s “an easy read”.  That’s not much of a compliment, however:  If the most positive thing you can say about a literary work is that you got through it quickly, that’s damning with faint praise indeed.

So let’s get through this review and make it a quick read too.  Start with the obvious:  J.A.P.  Having a racial epithet cloaked as an ethnic slur (I hail from Cornell University, so am plenty aware of “Jewish American Princesses”) in the very title already puts me off — as very culturally insensitive.  What were you thinking, S&S?

In fact, insensitivity is the recurring theme in this tome:  The first-person narrator is so self-absorbed that there is no space for anyone else.  There are a few friends here and there (or one stellar Japanese student enlightened by the protagonist’s poetic guidance) that slot in at whim, but no particular impression is made on the reader.  In fact, aside of course from our narrator, we know more about her best friend overseas than anyone else who glides in and out of the work.  Even her newlywed husband is an undeveloped glyph who drops in occasionally, offering improbably perfect and concise bon mots designed to confirm or destroy her preconceptions.  But never mind.  The book is all about our J.A.P. girl empowering herself, moreover in a land where women apparently have no power of their own, and it’s her task to enlighten them.  You go girl, for all of us!  Feh.

Reviews are supposed to give a plot synopsis, so let’s get through that quickly too:  California Jewish girl follows her American husband to Nagoya (she even makes a “goy” joke about that) where they both teach English for one year.  She gets her comeuppance in quirky ways, as there is apparently no Starbucks in Nagoya (in 1999?  There is no date given but I place it then, since she mentions the US debut of TV show The Sopranos.), little English spoken, and few of the material or cultural creature comforts that satisfy her spoiled-girl whims.  She starts off, by design, as an unsympathetic character (hence the titled comeuppance).  However, like any newcomer in a predictable Hollywood flick, she not only learns to cope well enough (despite the natives) to stay in Japan and grow, but also to recommend to everyone (in a self-important interview in the back of the book) they try living overseas (I agree, of course, but one year abroad hardly makes one an authority on world travel).

After solipsistic battles with things like a washing machine and public transport, she finally takes us outside for some sightseeing in Japan (Hiroshima and shopping trips in Nagoya are highlights, of a kind).  But in the end the reader gets little impression of Japan beyond the stares, the crowds, some undeveloped allegations of anti-Semitism, and sundry interactions between her and some Westerners that could have taken place anywhere in the world.  Again, this character is so insensitive to anything beyond her sphere (she doesn’t even try to learn the language) that there’s no room left for Japan.  She and hubby leave after one year and return to the US to raise a family.  End of slide show.

In sum, the best I can say about the book is that the one character who counts in this book (guess who) is very well developed (if not overly so), and she has a very clear writing voice.  Hooray.  So why is she writing about Japan?  Because she has to get published by writing about something?  Hokay.  But this book is hardly something that can be advertised as a “memoir”.  Memoirs are generally an autobiography — something that give us some idea of the world people live in.  This barely gives us the world that one this one person briefly dwelled.  Japan is a difficult and time-consuming place to get to know, even when you have an interest in what’s going on around you.  Moreover even when you understand the language.  Neither happens in this book.  One year abroad — and as a functional illiterate at that — does not justify a “memoir” about a country published by one of the world’s largest publishing houses.

Good for Ms. Cook for putting one over on them.  You go, girl!  Now let’s hope S&S give some space to some more serious and knowledgeable writers about Japan.  There are plenty of them over here, trust me.  Ferret us out, Simon and Schuster.  We’ll give you something much more empowering.

Arudou Debito, author, “JAPANESE ONLY, The Otaru Onsens Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan”, and “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants” (Akashi Shoten Inc., editions 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009 respectively); columnist, The Japan Times, and Sapporo Source.


22 comments on “Book review of “Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me” (Pubs Simon and Schuster). Yes, that is the title.

  • Hi Debito:

    >apparently no Starbucks in Nagoya (in 1999?)

    As strange as it seems, I belive this is correct — AFAIK the first Starbucks in Nagoya opened in spring 2000 at the JR Central Towers.


    — Well, good, that much is accurate in the book. Now we get to the question of whether the existence of a Starbucks should matter to a measurable quality of life. It does in this tome.

  • Andrew Smallacombe says:

    Now we get to the question of whether the existence of a Starbucks should matter to a measurable quality of life.

    You’d be surprised. I remember an idiot from my eikaiwa days who believed that Starbucks was a vital piece of vocabulary, and that not knowing of it somehow demonstrated a poor level of English.

  • “Now we get to the question of whether the existence of a Starbucks should matter to a measurable quality of life.”

    That would depend on your level of coffee addiction and whether you consider Starbucks a good example of coffee (I don’t, but I’m a coffee snob, that being said I often frequent them simply because their overpriced burned coffee is at least consistent from store to store minus the taste of the local water).

  • Well, underlying anti-semitism (although extremely rare and not worthy of any attention) is really hard to gauge. Also, many people refuse to make a distinction between real criticism of Israel which some Jews have a problem with, and actual racism towards Jews as a group. I would think there’s a difference between the two? Most Japanese people do not know much about Jews or Jewish culture and many do believe certain stereotypes. I’ve rarely met Japanese who support Israel (although that has happened), but many support Palestinian causes. So go figure.

    — Before this sinks into the swamp of Israel vs. Palestine debates, let me confine the discussion, if any, to the presence or absence of anti-Semitism in Japan. All other tangents will be deleted.

  • Most of the Japanese people I know personally know or care very very little about religion at all. Aside from the handful of Tenrikyo recruiters that jump on me if I dare to set foot within 100 meters of the nearest train station, there aren’t all that many opportunities to even discuss religion with any of my Japanese friends, as it’s just not that big a deal to your average Japanese family… they may go to a shrine for New Year’s and Shichi-go-san, but religion’s not much a part of your average young suburban family life here. (Again, for most individuals and families anyway) I’m not Jewish, but I get the feeling that if I walked up to one of my neighbors tomorrow and told them that I WAS, the response would be something in the range of “Uh, okay?” If the author was having interactions that left her feeling hints of anti-Semitism, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that SHE initiated more than a few of them? Because really, I don’t think that most Japanese people CARE.

  • I haven’t read this book and probably will never read it. I mean, the “identity” of being a Jewish-American princess is meaningful in the U.S., but does it really mean something in Nagoya? Any more than being just a spoiled brat?

    I would be very interested to know the thought process behind the S&S decision to publish this sort of book idea. Last year I read through a book called “One Year Without Made In China”, which was easy to read, entirely too self-important, and about a shallow one-year experience. Same formula. Chick lit in Japan would probably annoy me more.

    Yawn, donate to public library, move on…

  • “Now we get to the question of whether the existence of a Starbucks should matter to a measurable quality of life.”

    Damn right it does. If it wasn’t for St Arbucks (I worship there regularly), Japan would still be stuck in the 70s with smoky dives full of hacking oyajis for cafes.

    The book still sounds like crap though.

  • You are right, Debito. Imagine the hue and cry if this were a book entitled “Japan took the J.A.P. out of her“.

    The Politically Correct Community never quite explained how in-group putdowns or slurs passed under the wire. Everyone should strive for the higher standard.

  • Wow, was there even a point of this book being written? What’s it trying to say, Japan is a place with crowds, weird things and people who don’t like Jews? Le sigh…

  • “…some undeveloped allegations of anti-Semitism…”

    Could you give an example or two? My first thought was that the author ran into some of the usual blocks foreigners run into over here and she interpreted them as anti-Semitism, but having not read the book (and I don’t plan to) it’s hard to comment on. My experience of religion in Japan is very similar to Kimberly’s (post 5). I’m an actively practicing Catholic, which all of my coworkers know, so I occassionally get asked questions, but I can’t say I’ve ever encountered any kind of negative reaction. In the US (my home country) on the other hand I encounter people all the time that either want to try and convert me to their faith and/or who begin yelling insults.

  • Wow, just looked at the reviews on Amazon, and most of the positive ones come from LA with exactly ONE review to their names. I wonder why… Oh, I’m Jewish-American, lived in Japan inaka for several years and did not experience any antisemitism from Japanese, quite different when I lived in Europe.

  • Well, there’s that extra incentive for me to not bother picking up the book. Thanks for the heads up. To be honest, I think the vapid “chick lit” genre is an insult to women’s intelligence.

    I still can’t quite fathom how she’d spot anti-semitism in Japan of all places, this being the country where I recently had to explain to someone what a Sikh is. My impression has been that no one really cares about religion, other than going through the motions with Buddhist and Shinto ceremonies.

  • I’ve read the book and it is bad so doesn’t warrant much of a defence but some of your criticisms are a little off beam.

    “Memoir” is exactly the right word for it. A memoir is autobiographical but not an autobiography. It is usually an account of a time or a certain emotional state in a writer’s life which is what this book is. As you say, she didn’t write well about Japan but it’s not a travelogue.

    Starbucks doesn’t mean much to me but people who live with it as a part of their daily life might well miss it. If you know they are in Japan but not in your patch, that might reinforce the feeling you are out of your comfort zone.

    An American who lives for a year in Japan has still got far more experience of living overseas than her average compatriot. There’s no level you have to reach before you can tell others about the benefits of living abroad.

    Living overseas as the wife of a foreign expat is not one of the greatest hardships in life but it is an odd existence and can be stressful. Relationships frequently break up, more so in Japan than many other countries. It can be solitary existence for some.

    If you don’t have children then you don’t fit in well with expat mothers. You can try and get a job but women don’t get a lot of respect in the workplace and if you don’t speak the language then opportunities are further limited. You can’t make plans because you are dependent on what happens to your husband.

    There’s plenty of scope to write a better book and Cook didn’t do that. Well done for correctly advising people not to bother with it but it seems like you wanted it to be a different book, not just a better one.

    — Not sure I can see the difference. Thanks for responding.

  • The difference is that you wanted her to be accurate about Japan. That wasn’t her primary goal: she was writing about her experience of Japan.

    — Sorry for wanting her to be accurate about Japan. That’s what we normally expect when a big publishing house publishes a person’s account about a place. I don’t see that expectation as something warranting criticism back.

  • Maybe her time there would have been better if she stopped trying to be a princess and learn the language and respect the people. Blech….I’m glad shes out of japan. [overstatement deleted]

  • I’m pointing out that it’s a memoir; a badly written and dull example of the genre but a memoir nevertheless. There are hundreds of memoirs set in Japan which have been written since the Meiji restoration (and some before from that time). The charm of many of them is nothing to do with how accurate they are about Japan. For anyone who knows about the country, there is even an added fascination in reading the misconceptions and misunderstandings which you can find in them.

    These books aren’t histories, travel guides, sociology or anthropology. If we demand of them that they represent Japan accurately or that they spend more time talking about the country then most would fail miserably.

    I get the impression you approached it as a book about Japan rather than about her life in Japan. Cook’s book is boring because her self analysis is trite, her characterizations are thin (you point out that we barely get to see her husband even though that is the central relationship) and her prose is hard going. That’s the real crime.

    — Then why would Simon and Schuster send it to me specifically for me to review if they didn’t want me to review it as a book about Japan? I have no reason for being selected to care about Chick Lit or Ms. Cook’s individual life in Japan. I did my job as charged.

  • There’s a fee paid for reviewers isn’t there?
    I’d review it too, if a big publishing house asked me…especially if they offered compensation for my time.

    — They refused to compensate. I asked specifically.

  • Tony In Saitama says:

    >The difference is that you wanted her to >be accurate about Japan. That wasn’t her >primary goal: she was writing about her >experience of Japan.

    Although I can’t for the life of me figure out why S&S sent it to you for review (odds on favourite is lack of understanding of who you are and what you do), I would agree that a memoir is most often a personal viewpoint, not an objective report. Admittedly I haven’t read it, but the title, and the fact that the subtitle refers to her as a “domesticated Princess” indicates to me at least some degree of (self) parody.
    To stretch the example, “Blazing Saddles” was hardly an accurate account of the frontier west, but nobody is jumping down Mel Brooks’ throat about it, are they.

    — Not the same thing, is it.

  • Tony In Saitama says:

    I admit my Blazing Saddles example was stretching things a bit, as I said, but my point was, Is it really the author’s fault that this book ( a memoir from a personal viewpoint, or even a deliberate parody) was not what you expected (some kind of academic review)? I would blame S&S first. I would at least question their motives for getting someone like you to review it. (Rather than, say, Dave Spector, who would seem more suited to commenting on its content.)

  • I wouldn’t say that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist in Japan, but it doesn’t go any further than being synonymous to anti-West, or specifically, anti-Western business and financial interests. If certain western special interest is given light to, the word “yudaya” magically comes to life, even if no actual connection with the Jewish religion is made with the special interest.

    It makes sense that Europe and America would include some anti-Semitism, since the religious conflict is rooted to “you don’t believe Jesus is the savior and the son of God, how dare you.” Japan is not a Christian country, thus having no reason to hate the Jewish people. The whole concept of anti-Semitism was imported from overseas during the early 20th century, back when everyone was talking all about it. It lingered on here because the anti-semitic image of Jews as money-hungry merchants fitted well with Japan’s social structure, where merchants are positioned at its bottom (okay, second to the bottom), and people making money and becoming “okanemochi” is seen as shameful (which is why popular culture has to come up with new words meaning rich people, such as “rich” and “celeb”).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>