Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Review: Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me by Lisa Fineberg Cook

This memoir of a self-described pampered Jewish American Princess who marries the man of her dreams and immediately moves to Japan for his two year teaching job is an interesting look at culture clash and the sometimes difficult adjustment to married life. Cook is generally light and flippant about her experiences in Japan although she does touch on a few deeper issues here and there, mentioning the treatment and perception of women, the anti-Semitic movement in Japan, the evolution of long-standing friendships, and the every day challenge of living with another person.

Separated into sections headed by generally mundane domestic tasks, Cook uses the challenges she faced doing laundry in a small, ineffective, and completely foreign washing machine, shopping in the overwhelming, neon-lit shops, and mastering public transportation, to name just a few, to highlight her ex-pat experience. Her frustrations with tackling things differently than she is used to comes through the text loud and clear. And she is not only having to learn all of this in a foreign country where she doesn't speak the language, but she has to come to a sense of acceptance of herself as the person who will cook, clean, and sew. Eventually she does take on a group of Japanese women for English conversation lessons, teaches at a school, and gives well-received speeches but she never seems particularly happy living in Japan, not even allowing herself to open up completely for friendship with the one fellow teacher who shares her interest in films.

As much of an adjustment as it was for this tall blond woman to move to Japan, sticking out like a sore thumb, it is as much of an adjustment for her to adjust to married life. She doesn't think to call her husband when she is going to be very, very late, not understanding how frantic that will make him. They argue about how they will spend their money, cash or credit. But these and other petty squabbles are learning experiences that serve to make them closer in the end.

Also woven throughout the narrative is Cook's friendship with her best friend at home and the changes that it undergoes with the two of them living so far apart. In many of the exchanges between the two, Cook comes off as fairly self-centered, unhappy with living in Japan and wanting to vent but not reciprocating when her friend needs to discuss her shaky marriage or her own unhappiness.

Cook does grow as a person throughout this first year of their planned two years in Japan although I never did get the impression that she much liked Japan or the Japanese people. She connected with a few people but never more than superficially. And while she understood that she was trying to impose her idea of correct behaviour and cultural norms on them (as they were on her), there was never a sense that she came to understand and accept their norms as different but equal to hers. Her adjustment to marriage was a much smoother path and one more flexible in terms of give and take. Her husband, who had lived abroad before, seemed very understanding and compassionate with regard to all the life changes being thrown at her at once.

Overall this was a fast and mildly entertaining book. There were some cliches offered and some awkward transitions in the middle of the chapters but in general, for those readers not looking for an in depth exploration of Japanese culture or of a Western experience in Japan, most people will find this a light and fun read.

Be sure and visit these other blogs on the book tour to see their reviews as well.

The Life (And Lies) of an Inanimate Flying Object
The Neverending Shelf
Drey’s Library
A Sea of Books
Libby’s Library News
Bookin’ With Bingo
That’s A Novel Idea
Starting Fresh
Just Another New Blog
Blog Business World
My Friend Amy
Chick With Books
My Book Views
So Many Books, So Little Time
Keep on Booking
Reading at the Beach
Found Not Lost
Brizmus Blogs Books
I Read

Thanks so much to Sarah at Pocket Books for sending me the review copy of this book.


  1. I'm currently reading this right now, and do find it fairly funny so far. I have to agree, she really does not seem to like the Japanese a whole lot.

  2. This does look interesting. I will have to see about getting a copy at some point!

  3. I like memoirs with a bit of humor (Alan Alda's was good). They cover is cute too on this one. Great review.

  4. Mildly entertaining is probably not going to be enough to get me to pick this one up.

  5. i'm a huge fan of memoirs--especially if they are funny or snarky. i'm interested in reading this one because i've thought about teaching abroad but have yet to pack my bags.

    thanks for the review--i'm happy to add it to my ever-lengthening list...


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