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Helping sisters do it for themselves

by Victoria James

BEING A BROAD IN JAPAN: Everything a Western Woman Needs to Survive and Thrive, by Caroline Pover. Alexandra Press, 2001, 518 pp., 2,858 yen (paper)

“Being A Broad in Japan: Everything a Western Woman Needs to Survive and Thrive” is a chatty and compendious handbook, covering topics from beauty care to birth control, from disaster haircuts to divorce, with anecdotal and expert opinions backing it up all the way.

Author Caroline Pover has combined thorough research with a style that’s easy to read. But it’s hard to help wondering whether, with her (literally) cradle-to-grave brief, Pover hasn’t set herself an impossible task. Some of the advice is unrealistic: If your Japanese isn’t such that “Shikyu shushuku ga juppun oki ni arimasu” (My contractions are 10 minutes apart) rolls off the tongue, then having the “Being a Broad” phrase section on hand isn’t, under the circumstances, likely to be of much use.

More seriously, some important areas are barely covered at all. Vegetarians receive a cautionary “beware,” with the one-line warning that food ordered as “vegetarian” in a restaurant is likely to come with “bits of bacon lying on top.” Equally, while Pover emphasizes that “being an African, Middle Eastern, South American, or non-Japanese Asian woman raises issues that justify books of their own,” the experience of non-Caucasian Western women — different again — receives not a line in the 515 pages of “Being A Broad.”

What there is, though, is Pover’s insight into, and abundant enthusiasm for, both women’s issues and aspects of life in Japan. The chapter on abortion, for example, is largely composed of an account of the Japanese practice of “mizuko jizo,” whereby a lost child or fetus, even an aborted one, is seen as being “returned to the gods . . . until such time as it is right for it to come into the world.” It is difficult to know how many of Pover’s Western readers might find solace in such an idea, but its expression of regret without self-punishment make it an appealing and humane alternative to many Western attitudes.

And then there are the 125-odd pages devoted to case histories. Marvel at the Ivy League graduate-turned-stripper; wonder if you’re in the right profession as you read of the investment trader earning 18 million yen a year with a 9 million yen bonus doing a job for which “qualifications are not so important as long as you’re numerate” (this, presumably, meaning the ability to add up the bottom line of your wage slip).

In a country where default career options for foreign women sometimes seem to be stuck on “English teacher” or “hostess,” this employment section may well be the book’s most useful. It’s a valuable reminder that the microcosm of expatriate life nonetheless offers pretty much the same opportunities as anywhere else: If you’re enjoying Japan but bored with the job that brought you here, you don’t necessarily have to go home to find a better one.

Also of practical value are the profiles of women’s organizations. Ranging from professional networks to cross-cultural clubs to groups for lesbians or online enthusiasts, this section also gives the book a certain built-in obsolescence. As Pover says, broads abroad have a remarkable “willingness to share their experiences to help prepare and support others like them”: The best advice you’ll ever get during your time in Japan will come from your very own sisterhood support group, not its paperback substitute.

But “Being A Broad” will keep you informed and enthusiastic until you find your feet — and some friends from among those 21,000 of us Western women who move to Japan each year.