japan took jap out of me.
(photo credit: )
Six days after a snazzy Beverly Hills wedding, 29-year-old Lisa Fineberg Cook, self-styled Jewish American Princess, is on her way to Nagoya, Japan, with Peter, her new, non-Jewish husband. He has accepted a two-year contract to teach English in a Japanese high school. Lisa looks forward to this "exotic destination" without a clue as to what she is letting herself in for.
This light-hearted, honest account of her first year in Japan is filled with hilarity and joy but also with frustration and anger as her marriage is strained by the requirement for adaptation to difficult experiences. She and Peter eventually find their marriage strengthened as they work together to confront their problems. The clash of cultures experienced by Americans living abroad is candidly explored in plain and forthright language.
As is often the case with Americans working overseas, their arrangements include housing provided by their employers. This is frequently a source of tension since the expectations of expatriates may well clash with employers' ideas as to what constitutes acceptable housing. The walk-up flat assigned to the Cooks is dirty and poorly furnished. The small bed has "an ugly wooden frame and a dilapidated mattress." The stove, bathroom and washing machine are all inadequate. With great difficulty and at considerable expense, Lisa and Peter buy what they need to fix up the apartment. They adapt to the sketchy cooking facilities by eating out a lot.
Lisa starts teaching conversational English to several Japanese women and then gets a job as an English instructor at a school for girls. To get there, she has to cope with a bus and three subways. She is put off by the crowds and the men reading "porno comic books." Initially, she is also disheartened by her students. Gradually she adapts to the transportation problems and to the students. She becomes friendly with a few Japanese women and she learns to differentiate the girls in her class from each other.
Her adjustment is facilitated by the short trips she makes with Peter. They go to Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima. By and large, she is fascinated by these places, especially Hiroshima, which reminds her of the Holocaust stories on which she was raised. She feels a kinship to the Japanese who died at Hiroshima, forgetting that dropping atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war and spared the lives of many American soldiers who would have been killed had it been necessary to invade Japan.
Telephone calls to her mother and her close friend, Stacey, help to sustain Lisa but also are sometimes a source of irritation. She becomes less dependent on these opportunities as her adaptation to Japan is boosted. Her growing openness to Japanese culture helps her to respect and understand the cultural differences. However, she continues to disapprove of the unequal way in which Japanese women are treated and she is disturbed on learning that there is an underground anti-Semitic movement in Japan, despite the absence of Jews.
As globalization increases, more and more Americans will have opportunities for service in foreign countries. In preparation for these assignments, efforts are usually made to teach appreciation for cultural differences. This kind of formal instruction can be richly enhanced by such memoirs as this frank and light-hearted account of one couple's intensive experiences in Japan.
The writer is the founding dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and dean emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.