Friday, September 04, 2009

'Polite Lies: On Being a Woman Caught Between Cultures'

Polite Liesby Kyoko Mori
Non-Fiction/Essays/Biography, 1997
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.
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.
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.

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: | | | |

My Rating: 4/5
(#45 for 2009, Non-Fiction Five Challenge, World Citizen Challenge, Reading Japan Project)

Also reviewed at:
Naked Without Books!
If you've reviewed this title, let me know and I'll link to it here.


  1. Seems interesting. I have theories on the differences between the two cultures, but reading essays by someone, who has experienced both cultures, will definitely benefit me. Great review as always.

  2. This sounds very interesting, and I can imagine how it must have resonated with your own experiences.

  3. Interesting book. Seems quite insightful.

    I've chosen you as one of my recipients for a blogger award. I hope you pick it up from my site:

  4. I love reading books like this and will definitely have to look for this one. It's always interesting to step into someone else's shoes, however briefly, and experience the world through their eyes. Thanks for the great review, Nat.

  5. I will definitely add this to my tbr. I think your blog's gonna really send my tbr into a tailspin.

  6. Harry - I'm curious what your theories on the differences are. :)

    Nymeth - I could definitely relate to a lot of what she talked about, but I think it would be equally interesting to someone who only knows one culture or the other.

    Mark David - Thank you again for the award! :)

    Wendy - I really enjoyed seeing both Japan and the US through her eyes, and it made me think, which is always a good thing. :)

    Browngirl - Thanks for stopping by! I regularly have that problem visiting other blogs!
    But I hope that if you get a chance to read the book, you enjoy it as much as I did.

  7. Well I need to write a post on that as a discussion, but perhaps when the Japanese Challenge has ended and I have read more Japanese works. I have touched the subject about the differences, but it was more geared towards manga stories than anything else.

  8. Great idea Harry. I'm also thinking maybe before the Jap Lit Challenge ends we can start up discussions on books that we've read in common. Maybe we can check which books have been read by many participants and we can start discussions where it's okay to speak about everything in the story including spoilers :)

  9. Harry - I look forward to reading your thoughts on the cultural differences.

    Mark David - Getting together to discuss books that we've read in common is a good idea! Hmm, let me think about it, I might be willing to host it here if there's interest. Unless you already have an idea of how to do it that you'd like to run with.

  10. I'm thinking of posting a discussion thread for the book I'm currently reading, The Old Capital, but it's only Mel and I who's been reading it so far. Perhaps some time later during challenge. If you have a book in mind and have an idea for a discussion, please do host it! :) I guess we can check the challenge site for which books have been read by more people ;)

  11. Mark David - In line with having a bit more focus on Japanese Literature on my blog, I've been playing around with the idea of some kind of casual reading/discussion group. We could easily start off with books that several people have already read so that hopefully more people would join in. I wonder how much interest there would be. I think I might mention it, and ask for input, after BBAW is over.

  12. Yes good idea. Perhaps we can even check last year's readings to see which books have been read by many bloggers :)

  13. Mark David - I was thinking that too. I have lots of thoughts rolling around in my head, lol. If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them.


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