I was 20 when I went to Japan (which I’m horrified to now realise was 10 years ago! Ugh! When did I get so old?!). But I had rather a mixed reaction to it. My mum and I travelled all over on the train: Toyko, Kyoto, Hakone, and somewhere by the sea (which I don’t remember the name of). It was beautiful, the people were kind and friendly and welcoming, it was peaceful even in the bustle of the city, and everywhere had this incredible blend of history and modernity. It was, quite frankly, like nowhere else I’d ever been – or have been since. However, I was probably in the wrong frame of mind to be travelling anywhere. I’ve always felt since that I spoiled that trip for myself by being too much of a misery guts to really appreciate it. Japan is on my list to go back to. So, I picked How to Live Japanese up thinking, firstly, I might learn something, and secondly, it might be a pleasant trip down memory lane.
The book starts on a rather odd (to Western ears) apology for the author’s partialities and opinions. In the UK, if you prefer the food or architecture of a particular place (possibly because you grew up there), that’s fine. You just say so. No-one feels the need to apologise for it. It’s considered perfectly normal. Expected, even. So this is a very quintessentially “Japanese” beginning to a book. As the author explains, this insecurity or need to justify oneself is a facet of the character of the Japanese people. What sounds jarring and strange to Western ears, is therefore actually a very interesting and clever device which opens the reader up to a whole culture.
Throughout the book, Yutaka segues beautiful photography and art work with short descriptions of the history, geography and culture of Japan. It’s informative, but in a very digestible way. If that sounds like the book might be encyclopaedic, and perhaps a little dry – fear not! How to Live Japanese manages to be simultaneously educational, funny, tongue-in-cheek, and full of character. I particularly liked the way it’s fused throughout with the author’s personal experiences and views. You get a sense of a person, in a very Michael Palin, travelogue, sort of way.
I definitely learned a few new things, had fun butchering their beautiful language by trying to pronounce the words, and even had a few moments of nostalgia looking at pictures of places I visited a decade ago (hold on while I inch forward on my zimmerframe to see the computer screen more clearly). It didn’t quite cover every subject, and it really isn’t an indepth view of the history or culture of the country. If you’re looking for something more comprehensive, this isn’t the right book for you. But what it is, is different, deeply personal, and very entertaining. All in all, I enjoyed How to Live Japanese immensely. It would make a good starter for 10 for people about to visit Japan, or a lovely coffee table book (if you’re the kind of person that collects those). I would definitely recommend it.