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Fiction The Mad Kyoto Shoe Swapper and other Short Stories

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5.00 star(s) 2 ratings
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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