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Fiction The Mad Kyoto Shoe Swapper and other Short Stories

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"Otowa has woven a series of delightful vignettes of life in Japan, from a true historical story of feuding villages to a man who steals shoes at temples…and some highlighting the cultural differences between Japanese and American sensibilities, especially for women."
— Ginny Tapley-Takemori, translator of Convenience Store Woman

From the unique standpoint of an American woman who married into a Japanese family and has lived in Japan for more than thirty years, Rebecca Otowa weaves enchanting tales of her adopted home that portray the perspective of both the Japanese and the foreigner on the universal issues that face us all—love, work, marriage, death, and family conflict.

The collection includes:
  • A Year of Coffee and Cake—A young American wife in the Tokyo suburbs suspects her next-door neighbour of murdering an elderly relative.
  • Rhododendron Valley—An older man decides to commit suicide to deal with his terminal illness and to spare his family pain.
  • The Mad Kyoto Shoe Swapper—A reclusive young Japanese man enjoys the strange hobby of stealing shoes from temples, but it gradually consumes him.
  • Genbei's Curse—A downtrodden woman loses her temper with her demanding, sick father-in-law. Years later, old and ill, she can now empathize with him.
  • Trial by Fire—A true story passed down through the author's family of a gruesome practical to settle a land dispute in 1619.
  • Love and Duty—The Japanese custom of "duty chocolates" (chocolates gifted by women to men on Valentine's Day) has repercussions for an American and a Japanese woman.
  • Uncle Trash—Told in the form of newspaper articles, this is the story of an older man, his hoarding addiction, the annoyance it brings his family, and his eventual revenge.
  • Watch Again—A man starts stalking his ex-wife and learns something about himself.
  • Three Village Stories—A tea ceremony teacher, a vengeful son, and an older man ostracized by his community are the protagonists in three vignettes of village life.
  • The Rescuer—After meeting his death in a train accident, a young man rescues others from the same fate.
  • Showa Girl—Based on a true story from the author's family, a girl of fifteen has an arranged marriage with an older man who just got back from a POW camp in Russia in 1948.
  • Rachel and Leah—An older American woman reflects on her long and not always happy marriage to a Japanese man.
  • The Turtle Stone—Going from the 1950s to the present, this is the story of one man's efforts to keep the family cake shop alive in a Kyoto that is constantly modernizing.
Illustrated throughout with the author's black-and-white drawings, this captivating volume offers a unique and lovingly rendered insight into everyday life in modern Japan.

About the Author:

Rebecca Otowa
was born in California and studied the Japanese Language and Culture at the University of Queensland in Australia. In 1978 she went to Japan and never left. After graduating from Otani University in Kyoto with an MA in Buddhism, she married the 19th-generation heir to a country estate nearby. In the years since, she has brought up two sons, taught university-level English, played music, acted on stage and kept a vegetable garden. Still, she eventually returned to her two great loves—writing and drawing. Besides two books, At Home in Japan (2010) and My Awesome Japan Adventure (2013), she has been a translator and columnist and has organized two shows of her paintings.

Latest reviews

A collection of short stories, all set in Japan, by Rebecca Otowa, an American who moved to Japan in 1978 and stayed there. The stories are based on her own experiences, anecdotes of other foreign women in Japan, those of her Japanese family and their ancestors, and news articles.

I enjoyed all the stories and none were duds - I usually expect a few in a collection - and Otowa clearly has a talent for writing, managing to introduce characters, vividly describe their worlds, and tell an entire story within a dozen pages, often leaving the reader with a satisfying question to chew on - why did Saeko eat her son's giri-choco?

My favourite story was The Rescuer, in which a man who is killed by falling onto the subway track while absorbed in his smartphone becomes the ghost of the station, saving lives of similar people by blasting energy at them to startle them back to awareness of their environment. The title story, The Mad Kyoto Shoe Swapper, is about a young man whose obsessive-compulsive disorder involving furtively swapping his shoes with those of strangers gets out of hand. Interestingly, according to the Author's note, this is also based on personal experiences! However, most of the stories are more prosaic, though no less readable, with recurring themes such as the difficulty of fitting into Japanese society (for Japanese as well as foreigners), how things decay over time, and the conflict between one's own desires and duty. Japanese husbands come in for some criticism and elderly people with a sense of entitlement even more so.

This collection perceptively portrays Japan from the viewpoint of a person under-represented in the foreign literature about Japan: the mature foreign woman who as settled here and 'married the country'. Some of the writing is rather raw, particularly in the autobiographical Rachel and Leah: 'As well as the clean air and the good water and the quiet days [of rural Japan], I got the insidious time-theft of school and neighborhood and temple, the incomprehensible expectations that bled the heart out of me and left a performing monkey, dancing desperately to rhythms I couldn't feel, making one mistake after another and trying so hard to belong.' Ouch! Otowa has bravely revealed a lot of herself in this book, whose writing must have been cathartic.

This book comes highly recommended to anyone interested in Japanese society and will be an eye-opener even to jaded long-term residents.
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Rebecca Otawa's stories provide insights into modern and traditional Japan. They portray the country in a fashion that shows not only profound respect and a deep understanding but also critical reflections on a culture she had been immersed in for decades. From the very outset, it is evident that her stories are based on her own experiences and those that surround her - family, friends, and village. Ms Otawa is a sensitive observer who captures the inextricable linkage between traditional and modern life in Japan, never lecturing or criticising, but often spicing her keen observations with a pinch of irony.

Many of her thirteen short stories are touching, startling and melancholic and will haunt the readers well after they have closed the book. It is certainly not surprising that a recurring topic is the status of foreigners in Japan. In" Rachel and Leah " Mr Otawa tells the story of an American woman who, despite many years in Japan, still does not feel entirely accepted, and who is seen as an object of both admiration and criticism. Rachel tries hard to adapt and to "wear that mask" to attain a feeling of belonging. She - and probably by extension, the author - manages to bridge that gap between her two personae - the stranger who would never be able to adjust and the Model Japanese. She realised that her failed attempts at assimilation were meaningless: for Rachel, there would only be honesty henceforward. Food for thought for ex-pats living in Japan.

The book, however, does not primarily deal with the question of what it means to be a stranger in Japan. Instead, it depicts the many different facets of a traditional society that is confronted with the challenges of social and cultural change.

These are genuinely wonderful tales. I am still intrigued by the cover story ("Mad Kyoto Shoe Swapper") which, according to the author, is based on her very own experiences. I'd be more than curious to learn more about the events that led to this story.
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Additional information

Rebecca Otowa
Tuttle Publishing
Year of publication
24 Mar 2020
Number of pages
USD 14.99

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