Book Review

I finished the book this past weekend.  So, I’ll give my book review of “For Fukui Sake: Two Years in Rural Japan”.  For those interested, you can find the book here: http://www.amazon.com/Fukuis-Sake-years-rural-ebook/dp/B005M9TF78/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1326942136&sr=8-1   (Yeah, I REALLY wanted to hyper-link that one but my horrible work computer doesn’t enable the option of hyperlinking.  Strange.)

I’m going to break the review up in to two stages.  First, I will give a typical review, second, and more importantly, I will review the book as to how I see it relates to reading it to understand Japan – which seems to be its purpose.

For Fukui Sake will henceforth be referred to as FF in this post.

FF is a book about a pharmacy assistant, Sam, and the way he uproots his life upon realizing life may be tedious and mundane if he hangs around in the lab the rest of his life.  Yes, they do offer great health benefits but it seems the fun is no longer there, if it ever was.  Sam does what any mid 20s person who already feels the soul-crushing weight of a dead-end job upon their strong, young shoulders does: decides he needs to move to a place with snow.  Naturally, this means Japan.

The first short segment of the book serves as a simple background to the author yet for many readers may serve as a reminder of their own droll life.  Sam takes the out where many people choose to stick around and play it safe.  Obviously he wrote a book with a shiny red cover, so the outcome of said decision isn’t exactly yet-to-be-seen.  Still, reading people’s motivation for life changing decisions is at the least entertaining.

Sam, the author, arrives in Japan and discovers it’s completely different from his homeland.  Then, he discovers the tiny town he will live in is completely different from the image outsiders have of Japan.  Far removed from the bright lights and casual sex ways of Tokyo, Sam is placed on the other side of the country in a small town called Fukui, which lies on the Sea of Japan.  He admits he had more than a few doubts as to whether he did the right thing after arriving.

However, Sam soon settles in.  He finds a bar with some foreigner loving locals and a dog to walk each day at school.  He spends most of his time checking out the scenery, hanging out with other English speakers, drinking beer, and generally doing fun things.  Along the way he shares stories, sometimes with alarming detail, of his adventures through the country.  This part makes one wonder if he didn’t just copy most the book from some journal he was keeping along the way. 

The writing is average.  Sentence structures are standard and vocabulary is normal, for the most part.  Think Harry Potter part 1.  The author does take time to jazzy up a few places with fancy words, usually to good effect.  At times he may be showing off, it’s hard to tell.  Where the book shines the most is in the author’s humor.  A reader will likely laugh more than a few times while reading through the book.  While knowledge of Japan does help with the jokes, the author is good at explaining things so that someone with no knowledge of the country will still find his wit funny.

The book itself is more of a travel book than it is a book about Japan.  Sure, it has smatterings of information about Japan here and there, but mostly it is filled with descriptions of nature and the different adventures Sam finds himself in.  There’s not much connection between these adventures other than “they happened in Japan”.  For this reason, while the book starts off entertaining it starts to wane after the mid-way point.  There is no central narrative, plot, or message.

Caution to readers:  The author is British and uses British spellings of words.  Also, he uses a British vocabulary (do you know what a bonnet is?  Hint: it’s part of a car.)  He throws some British slang in there for good measure, which may or may not be understood fully by American readers.

The book clocks in just short of 200 pages.  With its easy readability and short length it shouldn’t take more than a few dedicated hours to get through. 

Rating : 3/5

Ok.. Part one is over.

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FF seems to be written for people interested in Japan and possibly thinking about coming over.  For anyone without much knowledge about the country, or an insatiable appetite for all things Japan, it’s a decent book to pick up. 

I like that Sam dedicates most of the book to describing the more routine things about Japan.  There is very little in the way of famous temples, Tokyo, Osaka (absent completely), festivals and the like.  Most of what is contained in the book is mountains, hidden lakes, rivers, neighborhoods, food, local personalities and some culture.  I enjoyed finally reading something on Japan that didn’t need to spend its entirety talking about the Golden Pavilion, Osaka food, and Tokyo everything.  What Sam does is first explicitly tells his readers “I found out that the real Japan is actually a lot different than those things” and then sets about showing them.  This is very important for anyone thinking of spending any significant time in Japan.

Sam’s enthusiasm is hard to miss, however at times it seems misplaced.  I’m not sure he loved Japan so much or if he just loved the fact he finally lived somewhere he could commune with nature as much as possible.  He spends little time describing Japanese culture or customs, although he does include it.  Usually, in the middle of an adventure story you are treated to a paragraph on a Japanese ideal or custom.  I would have liked to see more of this as this is the kind of thing many newbies are looking for on Japan.  Still, what is included is entertaining and informative.

I think it’s a decent book that most people will find joyful.  However, I do have some issues with it.

First, Sam seems to spend most of his time around other foreigners.  That’s fine.  After all, I would say it’s what about 95% of foreigners here do.  They hang out with other foreigners.  Also, the Japanese people he hangs out with seem to have some English capability (at least most of them.  A few he goes out of his way to say they don’t).  Still, he has dialogue throughout the book or some descriptions of lengthy, detailed conversations.  This gives one the impression that Sam is banging his way through these topics in Japanese, learning all about the world around him as though he were taking a tour through San Francisco. 

Here’s my issue:  this doesn’t happen.  I’ve yet to meet any foreigner who has come to Japan with no Japanese ability (like Sam), spends their time mostly around foreigners (like Sam), and after a year has capable Japanese.  The book gives this impression.  Yes, I’m being a bit picky but learning a language is no joke.  Many people hit that 6 month – 1 year wall, see they haven’t progressed nearly as much as they thought they would, and cast the whole thing off.  At times in the book Sam and his friends have to do something in Japanese without help or a translator (buy tickets) and he describes his inadequate and broken Japanese along with the fact he can’t seem to get what he wants. 

I do know many people who have very good Japanese after 2 years, but they spend their time almost solely around other Japanese people speaking Japanese.  I’ve talked about this English bubble before.

Next, if someone were to read the book before coming to live in Japan they could be mislead.  Each situation in Japan is unique, usually drastically so.  Sam describes himself as someone who loves to meet new people, meaning he’s quite outgoing.  A less outgoing person is obviously going to have different experiences.  For example, Sam describes Fuji Rock and how much fun it was.  I was invited to go and know a bunch of people who did in fact go this past year, having a great time in the process.  I wasn’t totally sure what it was but after reading about it in Sam’s book I am very glad I did not go.  Likely, I would have been miserable.  Nothing sounds worse than camping with thousands of other people listening to iffy music for an entire weekend.  *shudder*  This goes for most things in the book.  A reader should know a lot of this stuff is personality based.  Yes, it sounds obvious but it becomes less so when talking about a foreign country and living there.

Sam says he had 8 weeks (!!!!!) off for vacation in the summer.  I was a JET 2 years ago, I didn’t have any time off in the summer outside of 3 days for Obon week.  I’m thinking he took some of his vacation time, but I can’t be sure.  Some JETs don’t work in August, others do.  Some get one school, others get 10.  Teaching English in Japan varies by case. 

The book is written in a personal style, like a blog, which I enjoyed.  However, at times it feels like parts of the book were more about Sam talking himself up rather than relating a story.  I guess this didn’t bother me so much, but I could see how it might bother others.

Overall, the weak point of the book is its lack of main narrative.  It’s simply one story after another in chronological order.  It’s worth checking out as it’s cheap and easily accessible language. 

Afterthough:  There’s something…. wussy about British words.  I mean, seriously, who the hell calls a swimsuit your swimmers after the age of 2?  I did have a good headshake a few times in the book.

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