(Disclosure: Your humble editor has known Nicholas Klar for over eight years and even makes a brief appearance in the book as a "cigar-chomping Kansas City boy." He agreed to review the book as a friend and post the review, along with this disclosure, only if he liked what he read. Also, because this is a review of the manuscript, some changes may have been made in the final published edition.)
Shunning thousand-mile walks, the martial arts, zen and forays into art and culture in favor of beer, day-trips and karaoke, Nicholas Klar's My Mother is a Tractor offers a disturbingly realistic look at life as an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan.
In the early 1990's, Klar, an Australian from Adelaide, came to Japan by way of California as a part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. His motives for deciding to come are never fully explained but one gets the sense that he came out of lack of anything more interesting to do. As a result of this, he brought with him surprisingly few pretentions about what he hoped to accomplish in Japan and what he expected to find. His book, rather than being an epic travelogue, is a quiet memoir that takes us on a day by day, drink by drink, yen by yen tour of his two years in the tiny town of Omi, a small, one company town wedged between the sea and the mountains at the Western end of Niigata Prefecture. Being trapped in a small, boring town that doesn't appear on most maps, inevitably sends him out on a series of adventures and parties with fellow JETs and the occasional drunk principal.
Klar's journey from ignorance to, well, a kind of deliberate ignorance (he refuses to learn Japanese for reasons he explains as he goes along) is salted with witty insights about Japan and the Japanese. Klar supplements his personal insights with those of other ALTs (he's apparently never deleted a single email he's ever received or sent) and an impressive amount of research about why things are the way they are in Japanese politics and history.
Despite a healthy dose of cynicism about his job as an English teacher in a system that neither rewards students for learning English nor punishes them for not, Klar manages to keep his views well balanced. Although often bewildered by, and critical of, the things he encounters, he manages to avoid being mean-spirited. He even manages to make the standard Japanese enkai (an overpriced, two hour drinking ï¿½partyï¿½ complete with speeches and myriad rules of etiquette) seem much more interesting than it actually is. He is also pleasantly self-deprecating as he explains how his efforts to get out of Omi at all costs often ended with his bag trapped in a train station and him sleeping in the bushes or on a concrete slab. The exceptions to all this ï¿½balanceï¿½ and ï¿½fairnessï¿½ usually involve his encounters with Japanese bureaucracy, including a delightfully funny tale about trying to fax a ministry when the office he needed had no fax machine.
Readers will also quickly notice that, although Klar was brought to Japan to teach English, very little of the book actually mentions what happens inside a Japanese classroom. (The book's title, in all fairness, does come from a student essay he had to mark.) While this may seem to be an oversight, it actually represents a kind of honesty: Almost no ALTs find satisfaction in their jobs (the better qualified they are as teachers the more this is true) and most ALTs in small towns sprint for the trains after school lets out in order to get to a bigger town with better drinking establishments. Klar makes no apologies about thisï¿½in fact, if his town had been more interesting the book would not be interesting at all.
Despite its charms, the book has a few weaknesses. Klar has a fetish with prices and often his journeys to Mount Fuji or Kyoto become accountant's logs of bus, drink and locker costs with little description of the places he's visiting. Although this is useful as a warning to travellers, readers quickly get the point. The misadventures involved in climbing Mount Fuji are more interesting than the prices of things along the way.
Also, the people Klar encounters are often reduced to capsule descriptions and names. No one, except an American dubbed ï¿½Fred,ï¿½ who maintains that the "biggest problem with Japan" is that ï¿½It ain't got no chewin' tabaccaï¿½ and who later acquires female companionship via enjo kosai (paid dates), is given anything resembling real development. Everyone else could be easily interchangeable.
Finally, at times, Klar's writing style leaves the witty and enters the overwrought and artificially sentimental. A scene where he describes the fate of his mountain bike is especially cringeworthy as he describes his hopes for its life without him.
Still, these are more annoyances than serious problems and, in Klar's defense, he does establish the importance of having a decent bicycle (as opposed to the ubiquitous, bulky mamachari bikes everyone else seems to have) when living in a small town. Some of the best scenes in the book, such as when he finds an abandoned elementary school in the mountains, involve his bike.
All in all, I found this book to be a refreshing break from the more epic and pretentious travelogues mentioned earlier and reviewed elsewhere on this website. Far from bashing Japan or overly praising it, My Mother is a Tractor is, in an odd way, a grand thank you from Klar to Japan for treating him so well for two years.
Early in the book, Klar quotes someone who said that ï¿½young Australians travelling abroad tended to see the world as an extended pub-crawl.ï¿½ This is an apt description of Klar's book. This is also what makes it a must read for anyone pondering signing up for the JET Program or any of Japan's fast-growing private ALT providers. The book's message, or warning, is simple: This is life in Japan. Enter at your own risk. Enjoy your stay.
Nota Bene: This book is available here.
Christine Miki's debut novel, Tokyo Stories, is a charming little farce that does a good job of cataloguing the various characters and neuroses of the expatriate community in Tokyo.
Central to the story is the hapless and morose Peter Jameson, a poor English teacher whose dreams of making his fortune in Tokyo are shattered by bad timing, personal ineffectiveness and stagflation. He lives in a gaijin house next to a man who plays his radio both too loud and all the time. Peter's social life amounts to having curry once a week with a fellow English teacher, a mysterious, workaholic older man who may or may not be a millionaire, depending on how you do the math. Peter had a Japanese girlfriend once but she left him for a rich investment banker.
After this introduction the story follows a remarkable game of "two-degrees of separation" that shows how inextricably linked the Tokyo expatriate community actually is. Everyone is somehow connected to everyone else whether they know it or not. What's more, the characters' interconnectedness inevitably leads the novel to a remarkably silly and funny climax at an onsen hotel in Hakone.
The characters themselves may, at times, seem ridiculous and absurd to a casual observer--and at times they are all that--but the character types and incestuous connections are more accurate than most expats would like to admit. Because expats see each other out of context, so to speak, no one is seen simply as a person; they are all Characters: the handsome diplomat, the struggling but talented maid, the divorcing British couple, the rakish investment banker, the female playwright who takes notes whilst others speak, the flamboyant metrosexual, and countless others.
The most original character in the novel is Stephanie, a shy, bored proofreader with bad hair and bad fashion sense and an unlikely connection to Peter. One day, when she learns how easy it is, she prints up a set of fake business cards and begins crashing Tokyo expat parties and conferences by presenting herself as a published writer, editor, investor and other personae. She does this not to increase her business connections and income but simply to ease her boredom. She often feels guilty about what she does, leading to a very funny series of RSVP phone conversations.
The novel, unfortunately, despite its charm, has some serious flaws. Miki tends toward summary rather than concrete portrayals of action, making many potentially funny situations seem rather bland, and the novel seems to take place on a blank set. Tokyo is never described and therefore adds nothing to the flavor of the novel. Except for references to a couple famous landmarks, the story could take place in any city. Any Tokyo expat will, in your humble editor's opinion, agree that Tokyo's rythms get into your blood. Summer heat, uninsulated apartments with heated coffee tables, crowded trains full of pomade-haired salarymen and overly perfumed office ladies, hundred dollar melons, four dollar cups of coffee, teenage girls with loose socks and gold hair, biker boys trying to act tough in day-glow orange track suits all begin to wear on you. This makes places like the National Azabu Supermarket, Starbucks, or any expat party oases where people speak and think the same way as you. It also creates a kind of brothers-in-arms attitude that allows English teachers to hob-nob with investment bankers, international lawyers and film makers.
By leaving any sense of Tokyo out of Tokyo Stories, Miki fails to take advantage of what could have been a major character in her novel. This makes the human characters seem more like players in a Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde farce than characters in a novel. They are rich, witty, charming and bored. And they are simply walking around on stage, reciting lines, and then exiting stage left.
Similarly, the Japanese are given short shrift. The only Japanese to get any description are Stephanie's gossipy boss, who also has a connection to Peter's radio playing neighbor, and the gold-digging Kiyomi, who dumps Peter for the investment banker who she then proceeds to stalk and torment when he dumps her. Kiyomi's portrayal as a psycho mercenary who never changes "except in her affections" (with apologies to Oscar Wilde) becomes so extreme it pushes the line of being offensive. (It should be added, however, that her telephone campaign against him is hysterically funny.) Although many expats flee to the parties to escape the Japanese, there are always English speaking Japanese who manage to turn up at any party or large gathering of foreigners. Many have lived overseas and they are granted a kind of honorary expatriate status and the "coveted" title of "Not Your Typical Japanese." Not all of them, it should be added, are psycho gold-diggers.
Finally, your humble editor has a long standing prejiduce against cute drawings in novels intended for adults. Each chapter in Tokyo Stories ends with an average, cutesy sketch that illustrates one of the events that's just happened. These, in your humble editor's opinion, are silly and unnecessary.
All in all, Tokyo Stories is a fun read that, despite its many obvious flaws, is never boring. The ending, where all the characters finally come together at a wedding in Hakone, and half of them seem to have dated Kiyomi, is surprisingly funny. Peter's job at this wedding is perfect as is his subsequent fate. He gets what he deserves and Miki's a good enough writer to show us why he deserves it.
Nota Bene: This book is available here.