The Eternal Outsider :Ten Years Black in Japan–a book review

by Kaori Shoji

Trevor David Houchen was an expat in Nagoya for about 8 years before getting divorced from his Japanese wife. He tried to get joint custody of his two young children but was defeated in court and went the way of other divorced dads in Japan i.e., a six-hour long, unsupervised meeting once a month. After some mental health issues and a string of failed relationships, Houchen decided that he was through with Japan and vice versa. He boarded a plane back to the US and in LA, started writing what would become “The Eternal Outsider – Ten Years Black in Japan,” and remarried another Japanese woman. (Editor’s note: The book bears some similarity to Black Passenger, Yellow Cabs, previously reviewed here).

Houchen and his wife now live in Atlanta. His book – a hefty 508 page volume packed with explosive sex scenes and lengthy, soul seaching monologue, came out this month via a self-publishing company in New York. Houchen hopes the book will provide a passage back to Japan that will lead to a reunion with his kids. He hasn’t seen or heard from them since leaving Nagoya nearly five years ago.

Houchen’s story is by no means unique – an interracial marriage gone sour followed by an exit out of the archipelago is a tale oft-told by foreign men. Ditto the separation from the children which has become a huge problem in the past 5 or so years, despite the Hague Convention. Barring extreme and/or extenuating circumstances, Japanese courts favor Japanese mothers when it comes to child custody rights. And foreign-born parents are almost always banned from taking their kids out of the country.

Houchen’s plight is sad but “The Eternal Outsider” isn’t out to invite reader sympathy, not least from the presumed target audience of American males interested in Japan. Many will pick up the book, just from the photo of the Japanese-looking young woman wearing that classic Japanese expression which can be both a come-on and a signal of distress. Once they dip into the pages though, resentment may come bubbling up like coffee in an old-fashioned percolator. Houchen is black American, and through the book he inducts the reader into a whole other world of foreigner male entitlement that exists in East Asia. For many Japanese (and other East Asian) women, dating a white man equals romance and prestige. But dating an African American – now that brings some SERIOUS cache. Among other things, it broadcasts that the woman is earthy, sassy and adventurous enough to try dreadlocks. It also means she rocks – mainly in the sack which is the most important place to rock anyway. A friend of mine who once dated Kevin-from-Bushwick gleefully declared: “I feel like my butt is now 10 centimeters higher than it used to be!” To get that effect the rest of us would have to spend 100 hours in a Cross fit class.

Which is part of the reason why Houchen was able to experience what he describes in the book – never saying no to a bevy of Nagoya beauties who literally break his door down in order to share his bed. Sometimes, he has to do the work and actually ASK a woman out, but hey, why bother when the answer is ‘hai (yes)’ every single time? Most of them have the good grace to proffer their bodies and ask nothing in return. Many of them pay for his meals and clothes or in one case, gifts him an electric piano. One lover whom he refers to as ‘H,’ plonks down her own cash to support his magazine and music business and picks up the check for everything else.

Houchen’s success rate is phenomenal and you almost imagine him grinning with nostalgia for those golden days or shaking his head in pity at the sorry state of dating in his own USA. Guys not getting any? Guys sending hopeful dick pics to Tinder dates? Seriously, Dudes, just hop on a plane to Japan!

The other part is that Houchen – for all his self-absorbed, sexual predator asshole-ness, is actually a stand-up kinda guy with a real love for this country. He’s nice to his numerous girlfriends, nice to his ex-wife, obviously loves his kids and even tries to get along with his in-laws. This is Nagoya we’re talking about, a region famed for its ultra-conservative attitude towards dating and relationships. Nagoya parents are known for laying down the law when it comes to their children’s marriages and will meddle in everything from baby names to the color of the bath mat in a newlywed’s home. Most of them are NOT thrilled by the idea that their precious offspring could be involved with a foreigner. The fact that Houchen was able to swing a marriage at all is a miracle but as he writes in the book, “No, I’m not Japanese. But I tried. So hard….I tried my best to be invisible, to compact myself into a smaller, paler, less amped and less woke version of myself.”

That worked for awhile until it didn’t. “International Marriages,’ as they’re called in Japan, is still frowned upon by many in the older generation and according to “The Eternal Outsider,” Houchen’s in-laws looked upon him as a sort of disease to which their vulnerable daughter fell victim. There’s a hilarious account of how one day, his mom-in-law showed up at Berlitz, where Houchen was in the middle of teaching, and demanded to see him. Houchen had to excuse himself from class to go out and placate an older Japanese woman who suspected  that he was unemployed and came to check if he was lying. The incident rattled Houchen and he couldn’t recover enough to keep teaching the student. Berlitz ended up firing him.

“The Eternal Outsider” is an engrossing read but speaking as a Japanese woman, many of the pages was torture to get through. Somehow, it reminded me of a news story that was floating around in the mid 1990s, about how easily Japanese women capitulated to foreign men. It goes like this: Six Japanese college students – all young women, went on a holiday trip to Rome. In a restaurant, they were picked up by a local man who invited them all back to his apartment. They went, and he proceeded to have his way with them – all at once, and all on his own. These women weren’t tied up. They simply lay there on their backs while the man whizzed his way from one to another, all through the night. How’s that for stamina?  Houchen talks about how humiliating the divorce was for him, but hello – there’s a sizable amount of humiliation on this end too, except no one wants to talk about it. Houchen’s book certainly doesn’t.

Speaking of humiliation, Houchen fell apart when he discovered that his ex-wife had installed a Japanese man in the apartment they had shared and who was “a good five inches shorter” than Houchen. She had her parents, their kids and this new man who was already being referred to as “Papa.” He describes her united front as “a team” whose very existence drained all joy out of his life in Japan. In the meantime, he never stopped sleeping with any woman who happened to drop in, including a former student whom he used to teach at a local junior high school.

On the one hand, this stuff could be fodder for a hit series on Netflix. On the other hand, you could shrug and say “shouganai (it can’t be helped)” – he got what was coming to him.

Still, I’m uncomfortable about leaving it like that. The book reveals in a deeply observant way how ultimately, Japan and Japanese women refused to be messed around with, particularly by a foreigner. And in the end, Houchen’s wife and copious lovers all vanish like smoke from a pack of Seven Stars: Houchen’s preferred cigarette brand in the land of the rising sun. Sure, he had the time of his life but it was just that – a time. And now it’s gone.

“The Only Woman in the Room”/ How The Amazing Beate Wrote Equal Rights For Women Into Japan’s Constitution

Unanswerable questions of the year: Is Japan really going to war? Is Japan’s peacetime constitution going to be trashed by the ruling party and returned back to the Imperial Constitution, which did not give suffrage or equal rights to women?

TheonlyThis question will be on the mind and haunt your waking hours after reading “The Only Woman in the Room” by Beate Sirota Gordon. In this memoir, she takes us through the various events in her life made remarkable by the fact that in late 1945, she became a member on the US Occupation team that drew up Japan’s National Constitution. Not only was she the only woman in the room, she was just 22 years old.

Her passport said she was an American citizen, but Beate Sirota had lived for 10 years in Akasaka, Tokyo with her Russian Jewish parents (her father Leo Sirota was a celebrated musician from Vienna and a close friend of Kosaku Yamada). For the past five years, she had been in the US while her parents had been in detention in Karuizawa. The only way to catch a plane out of America and into a ravaged, defeated Japan to see them again, was to get a job in the army. Beate’s Japan experience and the fact that she could speak, write, and read with fluency got her that position.

“The Only Woman in the Room” is honest, plain and straightforward – written not by a professional author but an extremely well-bred, cultured woman who had forged a career for herself in a time when women – even in America – were expected to marry, have babies and sink themselves in domestic bliss. Or just sink. Across the Pacific, American women her age were sizing up future husbands at cocktail parties. Beate was commuting from Kanda Kaikan to Occupation headquarters and working on the constitution 10 to 12 hours a day. She often skipped meals, since food was scarce and the work was so pressing. Her male colleagues pushed themselves harder and put in more hours – and Beate mentions that she admired and respected them for that. Her tone is never feminist, probably because she comes from a generation told to revere males and elders. Besides, she grew up in Japan where women shut their mouths and looked down when a male spoke to them, and that was exactly what she did when she first landed in Atsugi and an official asked to see her passport.

On the other hand, though her tone is consistently soft and modest, her voice is clearly her own – and when it’s time to stand up for the Japanese and their rights, she apparently didn’t give an inch. What an ally the Japanese had in Beate, especially Japanese women whom she describes in the book and in interviews she gave later on: “Japanese women are treated like chattels, bought and sold on a whim.”

Rather than change the whole world, Beate wanted to contribute to the building of a modernized Japanese society. Rather than yell out for women’s’ rights and organizing feminist rallies, she sought to raise awareness about the historical plight of Japanese women and children. And just as earnestly, she wished to help her parents, in particular her mother, who was suffering from severe malnutrition. Beate wasn’t a saint nor interested in being one. Without meaning to, she came pretty close. Her prose is never condescending, nor does it brim with self-congratulations as in the case of many memoirs. She had a story to tell and she told it and as far as she was concerned, when the story was over there was no reason for fuss or lingering.

 

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After the army stint, Beate Sirota Gordon returned with her parents to the US in 1948, married a former colleague in the Army and later worked as the director of the Asia Society and Japan Society in New York. She continued to give interviews about her work on the Constitution but only because she felt that the peace clause (the controversial Article 9) had to be defended repeatedly. She venerated her parents and remained very close to her mother until her death, while raising a family of her own, because family and love were precious and she knew first-hand the tragedy of losing them.

What culminates from her memoirs is her selflessness. Helping others, being fair, and maintaining a striking modesty in spite of her many accomplishments were the defining factors of Beate’s life. She died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer, four months after the death of her husband Joseph Gordon. The Asahi Shimbun printed an extensive obituary on the front page, lauding her work and reminding the readers how the Constitution had protected Japan all these decades, for better or worse. Mostly for the better.

We in Japan tend to take the Constitution for granted. Many people remember and harp on the deprivation of the war years but few bother to recall the dismal details of everyday life before that. Women couldn’t go to school; they were expected to serve their parents and male siblings before marrying into households where she continued to serve and slave her husband and his clan. These women brought up their sons in the traditional way – which resulted in an unending circle of entitlement and arrogance for men, and toil and servitude for females. In poor families, parents sold off their children. Soldiers and military policemen detained ordinary citizens on the slightest suspicion and beat them during interrogation. They were responsible for committing unspeakable atrocities in China and Korea.

There was happiness, peace, equality, and respect in the Sirota household when Beate was growing up, but she knew too well how the average Japanese in Japan fared; how women and children were cut off from beauty, culture, or anything out of the familial box. She wanted a magic wand that would somehow change all that, and her idealistic, 22-year old mind told her that if she couldn’t get a wand, the Constitution was bound to be the next best thing. The task was daunting – she was working for peace and gender equality in a country steeped in tradition and ‘bushido’ feudalism. At this point in 1945, not even American women had gender equality and there she was, giving her all to ensuring that Japanese women would get that right. And just for the reason, there wasn’t nor has there ever been, anything in the American Constitution that resembles Japan’s Article 9.

At the end of the book is an elegy by Beate’s son and part of it goes like this: “Your legacy is the art of living in beauty and truth, of speaking up and out for what is right, and of finding our best selves and sharing them.”

 

Put Tokyo in your pocket: Lonely Planet’s Pocket Tokyo is a great guide book

Tokyo may look small and insignificant on a map, but not even a week, much less an entire year, is not enough to explore what the city has to offer. Pocket Tokyo, published by Lonely Planet and written by fellow Japan Times food page contributor, Rebecca Milner, is a detailed guide that helps clueless and cultured shocked visitors find their way out of Narita Airport and into the city.

Most of the guide is divided into sections on different neighborhoods in central Tokyo such as Tsukiji and Ginza, Shibuya, and Shinjuku. These sections are lists of the most notable restaurants, shops, and tourist sights in the area, along with a short description under each place name. Although Milner’s descriptions are no more than two or three lines long, she brilliantly conveys in that short space the atmosphere of each sight just as well as, if not better than, any local in Tokyo. The shop names are also written in Japanese, perhaps to help out visitors when they stop to ask for directions. Each place is also shown on a detailed map of the area in each chapter.

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“The biggest challenge is definitely deciding what makes the cut! I always wind up over researching and having heaps more places that I want to include—especially restaurants,” author Rebecca Milner told The Japan Subculture Research Center in an email.

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In addition to a list of the best sights in each area, there is also a small box labeled “Understand” in each section of the guide that gives explanations on aspects of Japanese culture on everything from love hotels to religion to the Yasukuni Shrine controversy. There is also helpful advice scattered throughout the book. The best one: toward the back there is a tip on how to save money in this expensive city. Even I, a born and bred Tokyoite found the tip a helpful reminder that I should start putting those money-saving techniques into practice.

The best part of the guidebook is the handy Tokyo Metro map in the back, which shows all the station and line names in clearly printed English. The subway system in the city is difficult to navigate even for locals, and there are a variety and combination of routes that can be taken to get to the same destination.

There are two big issues with the guide. One is the size and the shape of the book. Previous editions of the Pocket Tokyo books were slimmer and taller to better fit in one’s back pocket. The latest edition by Milner is wider: ideal for slipping in a small purse, but for tourists who are going out to see the sights without any bags, the guide might be a nuisance to carry in one’s hand.

Another more serious issue is that there is no information on Western Tokyo. Although Central Tokyo certainly has an abundance of temples, restaurants, museums, and other major tourist attractions, the area outside of the 23 wards shouldn’t be entirely dismissed. For example, Kichijoji deserves some attention, especially because it has been voted the No. 1 place in Japan where people want to live since they started the poll in 2004. The area, known to be a popular hangout for the youthful, artistic crowd, is also home to must-see spots such as Inokashira Park, a zoo and Ghibli Museum next door in Mitaka. There are also other areas beyond Tokyo that visitors who want to avoid well-trodden tourist hotspots may want to see.

"I too am a fan of the Chuo Line—neighborhoods like Nakano, Koenji, and Kichijoji. But the Pocket Guide is designed to be a concise look at the city so it focuses on the main, central neighbourhoods," explains Milner. "Though I did manage to squeeze in Shimokitazawa!"

Despite these two shortcomings, you can’t beat Rebecca Milner’s guide to Tokyo. If you want to know more about the areas west of Shinjuku that are less traveled by tourists, check out Lonely Planet’s Tokyo City Guide, which Rebecca  Milner co-authored with Tim Hornyak the year before.

“There’s more coverage of the neighborhoods west of Shinjuku—including Kichijoji and the Ghibli Museum, plus bars and restaurants out that way—in that guide,” says Milner. “There’s more stuff east of the river, in places like Fukugawa, too.”

Her knowledge of the bars and restaurants in the city puts me to shame, since I happen to be a bar writer myself. If you read the guide from cover to back you’ll be able to navigate Tokyo just like a local in no time.  In fact, you may even get to know amazing places in your own neighborhood. I did.

 

Book Review: How to Use Fuck (For Japanese Students of Eigo)

Editor’s Note: This review contains several four letter words that our genteel readers may find offensive. If swear words and euphemisms for sexual intercourse make you uncomfortable, please do not read further. Thank you. 

How to Use Fuck Correctly: 99 Phrases Using Fuck, Shit, Damn, and Hell that Schools Won’t Teach You that Should be Used with Care (正しいFUCK 使い方学校では教えてくれない、取扱注意のFuck, Shit, Damn, Hellを使った99フレーズ) is a detailed guide for anyone who shit about learning the many nuances (and yes, there are many) between the four 4-letter curse words that any English speaker should know: fuck, shit, damn, and hell. Many students in Japanese schools give don’t give a shit about learning how to speak English (and the Japanese government is doing a shitty job at promoting English education), but learning to cuss out your taxi driver if you ever go to New York City is all you’ll ever need to know if you’re that lazy.

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But if you’re serious about becoming fluent in English, this guide is great for learning what your teacher failed to teach you in high school. The book is supervised by MADSAKI, who, according to the bio on the book jacket, is a “bad motherfucker with 25-years of experience in the United States (25年在米経験のあるバッドマザファッカー)” No kidding. It’s written like that.

The starts off with a section on how the book covers words that can’t be aired on television or radio in English-speaking countries. It advises beginners to stick straight to the model sentences provided in the guide and recommends using these words with very close friends, or better yet, by yourself. The section also comes with a chart ranking the various curse words from dirty to sort of acceptable to use with the f-bomb at the very top and “hell” at the bottom. Of course, the book fails to mention that if you’re a native English speaker from the United States, which is home to many conservatives, you’ll likely offend someone.

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The introduction ends up with a serious warning, which is unintentionally hilarious: “Incorrect handling of these words will cause hazardous conditions, and we assume that you will likely suffer from moderate failure or light injures, or serious injuries or death.”

But if you don’t give a fuck at all, then read on.

Each usage of one of the four bad words comes with an illustration of a celebrity, a movie scene, or something from Western pop culture. Some of them refer to incidents as recent as March when Ellen DeGeneres took a group selfie at the Academy Awards. Each chapter ends with a list of famous quotes or proverbs said by famous people which uses one of the four bad words taught by the book.

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The only issue with the book is that some of the translations of the phrases are not exactly accurate. Indeed, it is difficult to find a Japanese equivalent of the word “fuck.” However, there are pages that could use better translations. For example, the phrase “DAAAMMNN, She’s hot!” which comes with an illustration of Woody Allen, is translated as “信じられない、ちょーいい女じゃん(I can’t believe it! She’s a great woman!”) The book notes that the phrase should be used to when you want to say that something is amazing. However, I doubt that Woody Allen was thinking that his ex-girlfriend’s step-daughter, which he later began a relationship with, was a “great woman.” Sexy (セクシー) would be a more appropriate translation.

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The book comes with a CD that allows users to hear the correct pronunciation of each usage of f*uck. The announcer has a perky female voice commonly heard on children’s English language TV programs. I was disappointed that they didn’t have someone who could convey the feeling a native speaker would use in one’s voice to say a cuss word, especially in cases in anger.

In short, the book is pretty fucking awesome. Though, if you’re like me, you’d see this book as less instructional and more like something for cheap fucking laughs. I shit you not.

Tokyo Vice review by Dan Scheraga

Here they come, hopefully one in a long line of reviews!

“Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan” (Pantheon Books, 352 pages, $26), by Jake Adelstein: A journalist is supposed to observe and report his story, not become part of it. But by the time Jake Adelstein found himself face to face with an enforcer for one of Japan’s most vicious mafia gangs, it was too late.

“Erase the story or be erased,” was the yakuza’s message. “Your family, too.”

It was an offer Adelstein couldn’t refuse. As a Tokyo crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shinbun, Adelstein’s tirelessness and loyalty had won him respect and trust on both sides of the law as well as at Japan’s largest newspaper. But when an organized crime boss threatens to kill you and your family, it’s time to go, Adelstein reasoned.

He packed up and left Japan with his story. It was a fantastic one, too. Yakuza heavyweight Tamagata Goto had sold out his own gang to the FBI in order to receive a liver transplant in the U.S. ahead of ailing American citizens. But as juicy as the story was, it wasn’t worth dying over.

That changed when Goto came after Adelstein again, putting the two quite literally in a fight to the death. Writing his story could get Adelstein killed, but it was the only weapon he had that could stop Goto.

Review: When an American journalist gets too close to his story on Japan’s yakuza, all bets are off [Associated Press via the San Francisco Examiner]