After reviewing two book on the modern and geeky site of Japan (A Geek In Japan & Tokyo Geek’s Guide), I thought it was time to also highlight some book with some information and personal stories on the more traditional side of this fascinating country.
My favourite publisher on books about Asia, Tuttle, just had too many options, but I ended up choosing two books that both talk about the culture, traditions and etiquette rules of Japan and how you can fit in this unique world as a foreigner. While these books talk about the same type of subjects, I soon found out they couldn’t have been more different, so I think it will be great reviewing and comparing the two books.
Sit back, relax, and start making space on your book shelf, because today The Travel Tester reviews ‘At Home in Japan’ (A Foreign Woman’s Journey of Discovery) by Rebecca Otowa and ‘Etiquette Guide to Japan’ (Know the Rules that Make the Difference!) by Boyé Lafayette de Mente & Revised by Geoff Botting:
At Home in Japan Book Review
About the Writer
Rebecca Otowa is a writer, painter and teacher from California, who lived in Japan for over 30 years. She and her husband Toshiro have raised two sons and live in a family-owned 350-year-old farmhouse in rural Japan, close to Kyoto. In ‘At Home in Japan’, Rebecca describes her personal story of moving to Japan, getting accustomed to daily life there and her bond with the house and the culture of the country.
The Content of the Book
In this book, Rebecca describes a circular path from the basic details of life in her house and village, through relationships with family, neighbors and all the natural and supernatural entities in her world. From that, she zooms in on her inner life, sharing her memories of moving to Japan, meeting her husband and adjusting to the Japanese culture, her husband’s family and married life, as well as all the lessons these events have taught her. At the end of the book, she examines the ways she has changed as a person by living in Japan, as well as the ways she has resisted that change to remain her own person.
I loved how every chapter of the book was a short story on it’s own. The pace of each story was slow, but gripping, and with a lot of eye for detail. She even made her kitchenware sound interesting: “No matter how mundane their function may be, many household items effortlessly display that essentially Japanese touch of evocative, stylized beauty in color, shape, and design.”
Another thing I really liked about the book was how Rebecca drew me into her world of trying to understand and cope with the Japanese culture and its many (unspoken) rules and symbols and how she grew as a person and found a way to fit in, in her own way. From how Rebecca basically had no say in her own wedding and had to live with her mother-in-law who wanted her to be a perfect Japanese wife (a.k.a. mission impossible), to be brave enough to adjust parts of the ancient family home to suit her modern living standards and educating her own sons that they are unique individuals, even withing the strict Japanese group-oriented society.
In this book, you can really get a good glimpse into her adjustment into a completely different culture and learn so much from her years of humbling introspection: “As usual, the ordinary life that followed the wedding was a jarring descent to reality -but the sense of being swept up and carried away by my life persisted for years. It’s taken me a long time to own my life here in Japan. I’ve had to learn how to manage the otherness of my surroundings, and how to acknowledge, even to make friends with, the persistent specter of my own ignorance.”
Photos & Illustrations
With Rebecca being an artist, it might be no surprise that this book is full of wonderful little pen drawings of items in and around the house, as well as some of the more complex concepts she talks about in the book. The drawings really suit the charm of the book well and it’s almost a shame that the book has also has additional full-coloured pictures in the middle of the book, because it takes a bit of the mystery of the story away.
But, I understand this is not a fairytale book, it’s very real and the people in it actually exist, so the photos also give a bit of realization that somewhere in this world, this house can be found and the people in the book live their lives in and around it as described, which is kind of interesting as well.
While this book is mostly inspirational and definitely not a practical travel guide (even though you learn a lot about parts of the Japanese culture), I do think that if you’re an expat in a foreign country, or considering to become one, this book is a great read for you. Rebecca writes that she hopes that anyone who dreams of making their home in another land and culture can find a bit of courage from her stories.
Personally, there were so many things Rebecca describes that resonated with me. Like how she’d never considered it strange to be alone somewhere, until people started asking her if she wasn’t feeling lonely away from her family and friends and she gradually realized that she was ‘indeed alone in a sea of Japanese’. Or how she asks herself how she is different from what she would have been had she’d never come to Japan. That her behaviour seems clumsy and too direct to the Japanese, but equally inappropriate to relatives and friends abroad and how that results in coming across as a bit strange in both cultures. And that she realized that it’s alright to not like everything about her new home country. That she has the right to decide ‘which elements I would love, which I could live without, and which I would have to keep to a minimum in my personal life.’ Being an expat perhaps is really about finding your own boundaries in a new place.
I loved this quote she gave about expat life, which I can totally relate to, even though my culture shock moving to the United Kingdom from The Netherlands wasn’t even half as intrusive as her move from the USA to Japan, of course: “Probably only those who have elected to be similarly transplanted could fully understand the pain, the difficulty, the complexity of the period of acclimatization which followed. And we are a small band, we transplants, a very small percentage of humanity as a whole.”
“Growth always and only results from a willingness to change one’s thinking and entertain a different point of view.”
“In our modern world, there are many ways to experience life, and human beings are much more free to choose a life direction than at other times in history.”
“I now see that fitting it has to include all the parts of myself, and this has to be based on my own acceptance of all those parts. I also see that the people around me are ordinary human beings, just like me, full of fears and flaws, just wanting to feel good and to belong.”
“What supports us, for a short or long time as measured on this earth, is life itself. The grand outpouring of life, its seamless and abundant flow from moment to moment, is a force so strong we are unaware of it, as the fish is unaware of water. It is this force that overrides the problems and hardships and carries us, strong and true and sure, in the direction of our destiny.”
“For my identity to be honest, my acceptance of myself must include both the learning and the standing tall: it must be total.”
Etiquette Guide to Japan Book Review
About the Writer
Boyé Lafayette De Mente was an American author, journalist and adventurer who wrote more than 100 books mainly related to the culture of Japan and the Japanese language. Actually, he wrote the FIRST EVER books on the Japanese way of doing business and introduced the now commonly used Japanese terms wa, nemawashi, kaizen, tatemae-honne, shibui, sabi and wabi to the outside business world. During the 1950s, De Mente served in a variety of editorial positions with publications based in Tokyo, including Preview Magazine, Far East Traveler, and The Japan Times. Boyé Lafayette De Mente sadly passed away in May of this year in the US. He was 88.
The Content of the Book
‘Etiquette Guide to Japan’ is all about the written and unwritten ‘rules’ of Japan that will give you thorough understanding of Japanese etiquette. This will, as the writer puts it, ‘smooth your experiences and help avoid embarrassment‘ when visiting or living in the country. The book gives an insight into the customs of this fascinating society and is, apart from very educational, also entertaining to read as an outsider.
If you think about visiting Japan, whether as a tourist or for business, this book will give you a great understanding and appreciation of the many aspects of the Japanese etiquette and will make it just a bit easier for you to communicate.
Topics than are addressed vary from notes on the Japanese language and some historical background to the use of names, titles and all the public and business protocols of meeting people, dining and public transportation. The book also goes into typical Japanese customs, such as the importance of gift giving, the tea ceremony protocol and the etiquette around temple & shrine visits, as well as many other social and business interactions you might encounter.
I found the book well-researched (not a surprise looking at the writer’s history and line of work) and very interesting to read for anyone with an interest in the ‘real Japan’.
Photos & Illustrations
The chapters in this book are nice and compact and often preceded by a black-and-white page-wide photograph of the topic discussed. This makes the book easy to read, also because the clear writing style of the book makes it easy to digest the often complex etiquette of the country.
While you don’t specifically need this book to make your trip to Japan a successful one, it’s definitely interesting to read up on the background of some of the most common habits, rituals and etiquette rules. The Japanese are usually very open to foreign visitors and won’t blame you if you don’t follow exact protocol, but in my experience you’ll definitely score some bonus-points if you show you’ve prepared yourself and know how to show respect.
The book doesn’t just describe the rituals you’ll come across, but you get the change to read a bit about the ideas behind these rituals as well, so you’ll definitely get a good insight in Japanese life and behaviors. I did feel that often the book was a bit dated (it was published in 1990, and updated in 2008, so still about 10 years old) and that you could clearly read that the book was written by someone who is quite old (no disrespect meant here, but still…) and just not so up-to-date with life of the younger, and a bit less traditional, Japanese demographic.
There was one chapter where the author writes about the use of mobile phones in Tokyo, and this part just made me laugh out loud: ‘There is no word or short phrase for it except to say: when moving through crowded areas, like train stations, most people have their eyes affixed to screens of mobile devices, utterly oblivious to the pedestrians and traffic swirling past. Some of the violators ride bicycles with one hand on the handlebar, the other holding a smartphone… with their eyes only focused on the screen (…) Nearly every every Japanese urban dweller can recount their personal experiences’. And then he goes on about why people look on their phones so much and explains into details what smartphones are and what functions they have. Haha, ok, grandpa. Welcome to the 21st century!
At the back of the book, you’ll find a glossary of useful terms around the Japanese culture and etiquette, and there is an addition IT glossary, which takes you through the latest technology-related words and expressions used by Japanese today.
“Arriving in Japan for the first time is an unforgettable experience, exhilarating and enlightening – but at the same time confusing. Over the centuries, this island nation has developed its own elaborate set of formalities and manners.”
“Since Japanese etiquette is a product of the country’s culture and history, learning about it and interacting with the Japanese ‘inside’ their etiquette gives you an insight into their character and personality – which is the most valuable thing you can get from a visit to a new country.”
While both books give a fantastic insight into both historical as modern Japanese customs and daily life, there definitely is a big difference between the two books that would make me really recommend one of them over the other. And that difference has to do with PEOPLE.
Where Etiquette Guide to Japan to me was a well-researched, in-depth and easy-to-read book, there is a bit of soul missing that At Home in Japan compensates for 200%. Rebecca Otowa has written the book solely from her own experience (okay, one chapter is written from the viewpoint of the house, which is actually really cool), which makes her observations about Japanese life just so much more alive, so much more interesting to read. Boyé Lafayette de Mente hasn’t taken the opportunity to mention even one personal experience and that makes the whole book feel a bit ‘cold’. Very well-written, very analytical and factual correct, perhaps a bit outdated here and there, but NOT personal at all.
People are what make a good story and it’s through personal stories that we can truly transport ourselves to another place in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy reading the Etiquette Guide to Japan, as I am a bit obsessed with Japanese culture and loved how the writer was clearly very knowledgeable about the country and its customs, but if I’d had to recommend you one of these two books, I would definitely get At Home in Japan if you’re interested to feel a bit of the soul of the country instead of just the facts. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed!
Title: At Home in Japan – A Foreign Woman’s Journey of Discovery
Author: Rebecca Otowa
Publisher: Tuttle Publishing
Where to buy: Amazon UK or Amazon USA // Bol.com (Dutch Customers, English Book)
Title: Etiquette Guide to Japan – Know the rules that make the difference!
Author: Boyé Lafayette de Mente (Revised by Geoff Botting)
Publisher: Tuttle Publishing
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Disclaimer: I received both these books for review purposes from Tuttle Publishing all opinions are 100% my own, as always.