Book Review: Living Abroad in Japan

Aside: This post has been long in coming. Also, I should really try to do these when I have the book in my hands or when it is super fresh on my mind.

End aside. Cue review.

Living Abroad in Japan is the second culture book I read in preparation for my departure. With a length of around 320 pages, it is quite a bit bigger (in length and dimensions) than Japan Culture Smart! and therefore more extensive in terms of the information it offers. Like Japan Culture Smart!, Ruth Kanagy’s book outlines important aspects of Japan’s culture, such as bathing and omiyage, and provides key statistics like population and current. Kanagy’s qualifications (25 years of living in Japan) are listed in the introduction, which provides her with more credibility. In addition to containing valuable cultural information, Living Abroad in Japan contains immense amounts of information about finding apartments, costs of living in different prefectures and cities (my favorite example of this was the table comparing the costs of common goods in New York City and Tokyo), and challenges pets and children face when transitioning to another country. Since my company set me up with an apartment and I have no children, I mainly skimmed portions dealing with such matters, but I did find it interesting that some apartment companies would not rent to gaijin and that Kanagy briefly emphasizes the unavoidable discrimination one could encounter.

In addition to extensive information about living conditions, Kanagy provides information dealing with specific regions of Japan and lists approximate figures for rent, as well as popular restaurants in the area (and their costs). Each regional section contains a map of trains and main roads running through the city. The maps in this book are spectacular; kanji is listed alongside the romanized versions of location names in most instances. Two color maps precede the table of contents, one a geographic map, the other highlighting regions that are ideal to live in (these are described in greater detail in the aforementioned chapters). The book wraps up with an extensive list of contacts (embassies and the like) and a phrase book that includes information on how to tell time and how to count.

Despite these strong points, there are a few things missing in this book. First, I remember noticing early on that the boxes containing bullet-pointed information were sometimes oddly placed, either in the middle of a paragraph or even mid-sentence, which at times made reading challenging because I would want to finish reading a paragraph before flipping back to the text box on the previous page. There are two important points of inconsistency which may have appeared earlier than I noticed them. The first deals with the order of units. At one point in the Kansai chapter near the end of the book, I noticed that the order of units appeared in the following order: metric (standard). However, several pages later, the order was reversed. Staying consistent would have made this easier for me to read. Another inconsistency I noticed occurred in terms of romanization. Initially, Kanagy romanized the Japanese word for “convenience store” as conbini. However, I later saw the variant combini. Again, staying consistent would sustain a greater amount of clarity; although most careful readers would likely make the connection, others may not. My last gripe comes with the ending. It may be the academic in me, but for me, the very end of the book was a bit abrupt. There was no conclusion; it simply shifted from a section dealing with the final region covered in the book to the contact list with no summary of the important information presented before that, no wrap-up chapter (perhaps something about the culture shock experienced upon reentering America).

Living Abroad in Japan has provided me with some invaluable information and some information that I simply find interesting. The depth of the information contained in this volume, as well as its numerous maps, will prove useful once I make the move, in part to help me adjust to the cultural things and to enhance my language skills. Although I bought my copy at Barnes and Noble, used copies are available on Amazon for a fraction of what I paid, and there is also a Kindle edition for those seeking to save valuable suitcase space.

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Book Review: Japan CultureSmart!

Shortly before I signed a contract with my company, they sent me an envelope containing information about company protocol, the contents of my apartment, my various duties as a teacher, the contract renewal process, and last but not least, a little volume on Japanese culture. At the time, I didn’t have time to pick it up since I was still deep in the throes of my Master’s thesis, and while I confess that I should have read it sooner, I’m almost glad I waited as long as I did to read it because the information will still be pretty fresh in my mind when I get on that plane August 16.

The book is part of a series called Culture Smart!, which offers similar books on at least twenty other countries, and its objective, as stated in the introduction, is “To broaden your perception and understanding of the Japanese people, to equip you to avoid the pitfalls of cultural understanding, and to make your visit… a rich and mutually rewarding experience” (9).

The prose in this book is accessible and straight-forward with a vocabulary level that would not confuse the average reader. A table outlining the basic information about Japan (language; government; population; currency, which included a list of bills and coins; and even current and voltage) appears at the very front of the book. Although only around 160 pages in length, it covers a wide variety of topics from history and climate to restaurant and bathing protocol. For me, one of the most helpful sections of the book was the chapter on お土産 (omiyage, or gift giving). Most chapters include a two-page spread of bullet points for the pertinent cultural topics, including those mentioned above. Additionally, at the very end, a list of basic Japanese phrases appear in romanized form for readers who are unfamiliar with the kana and kanji. In addition, while the section on language explains Japanese pronunciations, the Japanese words themselves appear only in their romanized forms, which prevents readers from becoming overwhelmed with unfamiliar characters. Instead, Japan Culture Smart! adheres to its objective of helping people deal with cultural encounters.

Although much of the information presented in the book was both interesting and necessary, I do have a couple of issues with the presentation. First, despite being a culture book, there is no map of Japan included. This feature would be helpful for those wishing to see the geography rather than read a description of it.* I do realize that maps are readily available on the internet, but the recruiters who interviewed me, as well as a friend of mine who has been to Japan, both told me that wi-fi is not as readily accessible as it is in America, so a map would be a good addition, even if it is just a small one. The other issue I have is, despite noting early on that Japan uses the metric system, standard measurements always appear first in statistics. Switching the numbers and presenting the metric units first would not only reinforce the Japanese use of the metric system but may also help readers begin getting used to the comparison between the two.

Despite these shortcomings, I plan to put this volume with a list price of US$9.95 (cheaper copies are available online, and Amazon.com even offers a Kindle edition) to good use. I have flagged all of the important points with post-it notes, including most of the bullet lists. It serves as a nice introduction to my next cultural read, and its small size makes it easy to slide into my pocket. Because of its focus and format, I recommend it as a starting point for anyone traveling to Japan for the first time, even if their planned stay is brief. It is also a nice book for people who simply want to know more about Japanese culture.

*Edit: Hikari (one of my reviewers) has notified me that there apparently is a map of Japan located just behind the table of contents. However, her review notes that its readability is somewhat confusing, as Nara is listed in two places. My suspicion is that one is for Nara-shi (the city) and one for Nara Prefecture, but I would have to see it to make that call. I will be sure to update this information once I have my copy back in my possession.