Living Japan, Essays on Everyday Life in Contemporary Society

edited by Harumi Kimura

Global Oriental, 2009
pages 251 including index, ISBN 978-1-905246-86-1

Review by Sir Hugh Cortazzi

The seventy short essays in this book deal with aspects of the everyday life of ordinary Japanese people. Even those of us who have lived in Japan for a few years will find in this book some descriptions and accounts of events which will help us to understand the reactions of ordinary Japanese people. They show us that while Japanese culture and ways of life differ in many ways from our own, Japanese have much the same human feelings as we have.

The essays were not written specially for this book but were produced over a number of years by Japanese whose ages range from their forties to their eighties. All the essayists have “taught how to write essays as lecturers at lifelong education classes or have written essays for various media.” In selecting the essays to include the editor tried “to introduce as many examples of Japanese traditional culture, events, life-experiences and human relationships as possible.” All the essays were originally written in Japanese.

The book is divided into eight parts. The titles of the sections are: “At the Foot of Mount Fuji,” “New Year’s Cards,” “Please Answer in Japanese,” “Call me Mummy,” “As if I were in Paradise,” “Those Days in Britain,” “From the Kitchen Window,” and “Living Alone Rehearsal.”  These titles do no more than hint at the contents. The titles of many of the essays give more of the flavour e.g. “The Mountains are Living,” “Seasonal Change of Clothing,” “What is Taught in Japanese Language Lessons,” “What I Regret about Bringing up my Children,” “At an Antique Market,” “Cleaning Leaf Vegetables,” “The Sherlock Holmes Club,” “Blue Daisies as a Mother’s  Day Present,” “My Husband is Cooking.”

The essay “Please Answer in Japanese” by Akiko Ohno deals with the irritation caused by responses such as “I don’t speak English” when we attempt to address an unknown Japanese in passable Japanese. “The simplest reason” she writes, “is probably because the Japanese wants to speak English with someone from overseas.” “Another most likely reason is that Japanese people have a perceived notion that it is impossible for foreigners to speak Japanese well.” She notes that in this respect the Japanese are not unique. “The Dutch are also convinced that foreigners cannot speak their language.”  Even we Brits who admit that we are not good at foreign languages know that these prejudices are unjustified.

This is a book about Japan which does not need to be read from cover to cover, but which contains illuminating thoughts and comments. It would be a good bed-side book to be dipped into from time to time when we are puzzled by Japanese attitudes.

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