Henry Holt, hardback, 257 p.
Kyoko Mori’s life falls into two halves: childhood in Japan, adulthood in the Midwest. In both places she has been an outsider, unable to quite mimic everyone’s polite lies. In twelve penetrating, painful, and at times hilarious essays, she explores the codes of silence, deference, and expression that govern Japanese and American women’s lives.I picked this up on a sale table in Munro’s in Victoria quite a few years ago so I’m glad the Non-Fiction Five challenge motivated me to finally read it, as it proved to be a very interesting look at the differences between two very distinct cultures. The author was born in Japan but has spent the majority of her adult life in the American Midwest. Having spent half of her life in one country and half in another (when this book was published in 1997 she had apparently spent exactly 20 years in one, 20 in the other), she brings to these essays the perspective of someone who has truly experienced both cultures on a personal level.
Throughout, Mori examines the paradox at the center of her own life: she is too Japanese to trust irrational feelings such as love or grief and too American to live a life built on denying them.
Standing in this painful place of perfect honesty, Mori explores the ties that bind us to family and the lies that keep us apart, the rituals of mourning that make death human, and the images of the body that make sex seem foreign to Japanese women and ever-present to Americans.
In Polite Lies Mori has created essays with the power of autobiography. In her hands, one woman’s life is a mirror of two very different cultures.
She had a difficult, traumatic childhood, which has no doubt influenced her feelings toward Japan, and some things have changed in the thirty odd years since she left Japan, and in the ten years since the book was published, but much of what she described is still relevant today. I’ve only lived in Japan for about 9 years now, off and on, however, growing up in Canada and now living in Japan, married to a Japanese man, I could certainly understand many of the cultural differences discussed in the book, and I found myself often nodding in agreement with what she had to say.
As often seems to happen when I read non-fiction about Japan, it left me feeling a little bit blue about some aspects of Japanese society. Of course no country is perfect, or without issues, but it reinforced again some of the reasons why we don’t plan to settle here permanently. Still, it was a very worthwhile read, and it was especially enjoyable to read about Japan through the author’s eyes and her experiences. Whether she was talking about language, education, rituals, safety, or health, her personal anecdotes made the essays highly readable. Recommended.
For me, crowded trains are the ultimate metaphor for Japanese society. Standing or sitting shoulder to shoulder, people sleep together, and yet they won’t make eye contact or start casual conversations. There is a forced closeness that doesn’t lead to true intimacy, communication, or even contact. Trains are also models of punctuality and orderliness – the high standard of Japanese discipline I was taught in grade school and rebelled against. (p. 236)Buy this book at: Amazon.com | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk | BookDepository.co.uk | BookDepository.com
My Rating: 4/5
(#45 for 2009, Non-Fiction Five Challenge, World Citizen Challenge, Reading Japan Project)
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