JAPANESE FOR TRAVELLERS: A Journey Through Modern Japan, by Katie Kitamura. Penguin, 258 pp., 2006, £7.99 (paper)

When Katie Kitamura’s parents left Japan for the United States they left behind three different generations: Katie’s cousins, her aunts and uncles, and her grandparents. In “Japanese for Travellers,” Kitamura re-acquaints herself with these relatives while using milestones in Japan’s modern history to highlight their generational experiences. Pride wrestler Kazushi Sakuraba’s crushing defeat in 2001 to a Brazilian introduces a chapter on a drastically changing younger generation; the sarin gas attack is described before an analysis of the burst bubble economy and its consequential social decay; and the bombing of Hiroshima prefaces an account of a guilt-ridden and graying Japan.

All this is contemplated as she speeds toward her parent’s home on a bullet train, slipping in and out of past and present. It is a literary device that emphasizes not only Kitamura’s absence from some of the scenes she describes but her emotional estrangement from Japan.

“I always have a feeling of displaced recognition upon returning to Japan, a place that is not my home, and yet for which I often find myself feeling something more than homesickness,” she notes.

We might think that being Japanese in appearance would help her be accepted into society, but in fact it does quite the opposite. Kitamura is often expected to speak fluent Japanese as well as have a complete understanding of the culture; and when people realize her knowledge is limited, she senses disbelief or mocking disapproval.

Yet despite certain public humiliations, Kitamura is not bitter about her experiences. Instead she describes her faux pas’ with a charming self-deprecating humor. She irritates her cousin by failing to take her shoes off in a store’s changing room; she knows less about a popular Japanese film than her English friend; and to the horror of a Japanese acquaintance, she cannot help commenting on how “cool” it is to see a geisha in a pachinko parlor bathroom. “Christ — such a tourist,” he says, shocked.

Among these amusing anecdotes of being the foreigner, Kitamura adds her Japanese relatives’ experiences and stories, and her own memories and observations. This unusual perspective from both inside and outside Japan is the strength of “Japanese for Travellers” as an analysis of the country’s modern malaise. Kitamura’s mother’s comments on the breakdown of nuclear families, her interest in violent-crime news stories and her fear of the younger generation echo Kitamura’s earlier observations of Kinji Fukasaku’s film “Battle Royale.” For her, the movie is less about juvenile delinquency and more about adult fear and neglect: “The adults who reacted in fear and hysteria, the adults in their hollow sadism, the adults in their dogged, inexplicable absence.”

Her father’s comic obsession with Godzilla prompts thoughts on Japan’s involvement in World War II and how the creature has become an apt symbol of Japan’s shame and guilt: “If Godzilla was expressionless and lumbering, then that was because no amount of expression was going to capture the conflict of an intractable, shameful guilt that could not be reasoned with or hidden away. In the end dad was right — the awkwardness [of Godzilla], all of that had to be seen as nothing than intentional.”

Kitamura’s musings on Japan, however, are only as important as her personal journey. While she may describe and analyze social changes that she did not experience, it is as if she is trying to internalize these events that have formed a national psyche. She is deft at using her relatives as touchstones of history and the self, and her blend of history, anecdotes and memories bring more insight into the difficulties of being a woman of divided upbringing — a voice not often heard in literature on Japan.

After visiting her grandmother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, Kitamura is left wondering how a country can remember when “every day another memory falls to pieces, unreclaimed and unobserved,” but also what right she has to that memory: “As I sit in silence on this westbound train, I wonder also what claims I can have to the reading of that memory, when so many of my own memories of Japan are themselves forgotten . . . bartered for the continuity of my American childhood, for that longing to fit in that is so strong among children and then so senseless in retrospect.”

When faced with thoughts of the inevitable loss of her grandmother she expresses shame at not mastering Japanese and her inability to retrieve some of her grandmother’s memories. And as those memories are lost, she drifts further from her hope to understand what it is about Japan that makes it her parent’s home, but not quite hers.

At the end of her journey, she is no closer to self-revelation than before. She doesn’t find a convenient label and, appropriately, never once calls herself Japanese, American, Japanese-American, Issei (first-generation Japanese in America) or even gaijin (foreigner) throughout the book.

It is admirable that Kitamura does not try to manufacture a tidy revelation to her journey. Even if she is left questioning her visits to Japan, she has made a worthwhile introspection. Readers taking this trip with her will find that her skillful weaving of the personal with collective memory and humor with commentary makes for a very entertaining and enlightening read.

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