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.

Published by

Kaori Shoji

Kaori Shoji

Kaori Shoji is a film critic for the Japan Times and write about fashion and society as well. 欧米の出版物に記事を執筆するフリーランス・ジャーナリスト。The Japan Times、The International Herald Tribune、Zoo Magazineへ定期的に記事を寄稿している。

6 thoughts on “The Eternal Outsider :Ten Years Black in Japan–a book review”

  1. this guy sounds like a wanker – but sometimes even wankers have at least a few redeeming qualities, right? an ethereal moment in an equally ethereal landscape – characters floating past in a universe of “opportunities”——this is the essence of life——-does everyone eventually ‘get what is coming to them’?—is their comeuppance a foregone conclusion? can lessons be learned and futures be…..altered?

    Land Of The Rising Son

  2. Interesting review, but what’s written in the book is not entirely indicative of real life . I knew Mr Houchen while he was living in Japan. While he certainly struggled with the culture here, a lot of it was self inflicted pain.
    He actually refused to learn the language, and the culture behind it.
    The reason why he separated from his wife, and why she pushed for custody in court, was because of his lifestyle. He got divorced because he cheated on his wife on numerous occasions.
    A textbook narcissist who literally only thinks of himself and craves fame and recognition above everything else in life.
    For those who actually read this book, please do not think that this is normal in Japan – especially for black people. It is written from the extremely biased perspective of only one individual, who refused to integrate into the country, and culture of Japan, and then complained about not being accepted.
    This book is nothing more than a self serving ego stroke to once again attemt getting five minutes in the spotlight. It is by no means indicative of actual life in Japan for those who truly want to be there, nor should he be pitied in any way, since all of his supposed suffering is self-inflicted.

    1. Mr. Enai~
      Thanks for commenting.
      However, i’d like to correct a few misunderstandings you seem to have about, well, me.
      Firstly, I didn’t become fluent in Japanese during my stay, but to say I ‘actually refused to learn the language and the culture’ are both flat out false assumptions. I did learn to communicate in Japanese, quite possibly not to the degree that you or others may have, but I learned enough Japanese to be able to have friendly conversations and comport myself in Japanese society in a productive way. The only way you could know that I ‘refused’ to learn the language was if I’d told you that, which I didn’t. Regarding the culture, what specific aspects of the culture, would you say, I didn’t “learn”? Is there a list of cultural values that you would like to “teach” me regarding Japan? I did my best to acclimate and “learn” how to navigate Japanese culture, the trials and tribulations, victories and failures in doing so are what make up the contents of the book.
      You mentioned the unfortunate outcome with my wife in Japan. The results you mentioned come from the struggle my ex-wife and I had culturally. I don’t deny not having been the model husband, but I also know the environment, cultural differences, and issues within my marriage led to unwise choices on my part, all of which I tried to dissect in the book. I was no angel, I am very clear and candid in my book about the whys and wherefores of the choices I made, which ultimately contributed to the downfall of my marriage.
      You called me a ‘textbook narcissist who only craves fame and recognition’, I assume since you claim to have known me when I lived in Japan, that I struck you as such. Why? When did you and I meet? Where? Under what circumstances? Are you aware of any of the numerous events I created in Japan in order to bring the different groups/nationalities in Nagoya together? Are you aware that I performed for orphaned children several times? Are you aware of the charity events I helped organize? The hours I devoted to teaching children and young adults? With RAN Magazine, I created a platform for artists in Nagoya to be able to showcase their work. I did my best to bring people of different ethnicities/nationalities together every chance I got. I saw that there was/were opportunities to create something thriving in Nagoya, and I took those opportunities and made something of them. Is this the narcisissm you are talking about? If so, so be it.
      You say that what I experienced was not “normal in Japan”, and you are exactly right. In fact, the exact reason I wrote the book is because my experience wasn’t “normal”, it was unique. What would have been the point in writing a book about a “normal” experience? You fail to understand the simple fact that the unique experience I had is what gave rise to the book’s very existence.

      Mr. Enai, “self inflicted” or not, my experience is my own. There isn’t a word in my book that suggests that my experience will be everyone else’s experience. Everything in life, as you know, is perspective, and my book is written from my perspective. I didn’t “refuse to integrate”, I tried and found it extremely difficult to do so in many cases, this created inner conflict, which I discuss in my book. Again, this is part of my story, the struggle to avoid/overcome/override/distance myself from/negate years of cultural conditioning in order to take on the behaviors/language/values etc of a starkly different culture. Kudos to you and those who have been able to completely adapt, I could not.
      Finally, I don’t expect, don’t ask for, and make no mention of “pity”. I told my story, there are no lies in my book, and it stands on its own. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  3. sounds like a good read … as a black guy getting ready to move to Japan I’m intrigued even if it is somewhat of a “I hope they serve beer in ….JAPAN” narcissistic perspective as the reviewer somewhat suggest.

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