Books / Reviews

Sojourner of the mystical realm

by Steve Finbow

THE PASSING SUMMERS, The Japanese Mystique: Charm and Consequence, by Ivy C. Machida. Printed Matter Press, 2010, 280 pp., $20 (paper)

The 21st century has seen a proliferation of memoirs entering the book market — from James Frey’s memoir-fiction “A Million Little Pieces” to the slew of ghosted celebrity autobiographies that take up valuable space on bookshelves and in Kindle and iPad memories.

The personal histories of expatriates are commonplace, not only in the literary world but also on the blogosphere. So, how does a new edition to the genre add to our view of Japan?

After studying law at the University of Singapore, Ivy C. Machida moved to the United States to take postgraduate courses at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and then at Yale. Entranced by Japanese culture and history after a fleeting visit to Tokyo and Kyoto, she became obsessed with the “mystical realm” of Nippon.

Interested in international law and human rights during the Vietnam War and Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution during the late 1960s, Ivy was offered a position at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. While in Washington, she met her husband-to-be Jay, and her infatuation with all things Japanese intensified.

After working at an international law firm in Tokyo, Ivy found herself in Jay’s ancestral home in Iriso near Sayama. She struggled with the traditional servitude expected of a Japanese wife, striving to be unique when surrounded by conformity and familial hierarchy. Her husband became vice president of a powerful company and with their two boys — Ken and Hiro — the Machidas traveled the world, eventually moving out of the family home and into their own house.

There are insights into the world of Japanese family life, the confusion that occurs when a foreigner is not familiar with simple things like bento, or boxed lunches. Although katachi is something Ivy Machida sees as fundamental to the Japanese way of life, she questions its practicality when trying to make lunches for her sons.

Strong-willed and highly educated, the author provides wry commentary on the differences between Asian cultures, a refreshing take on the expatriate’s sometimes deer-in-the-headlights glare at all things Japanese.

After World War II, her father-in-law forged ties between the American occupation forces and the Japanese community and served as a modernizing mayor for the district, overseeing the transformation of the rural area into a major manufacturing hub.

Ivy educated herself in the complexities of Japanese culture — omochi-tsuki, hana-mi, chaji, and awa-odori — and slowly became embroiled in local politics.

In the mid-1980s, her father-in-law died and her husband ran for a seat at the prefectural assembly. Ivy became a political wife, campaigning and soliciting donations. After a defeat, Jay eventually became mayor.

In the descriptions of the Machiavellian intrigues of local politics, the hypocrisy of party members when faced with a woman who wanted to play an active part in her husband’s political strategizing, and the analysis of sexism, racism and elitism in Japanese society, Ivy’s accounts of her own treatment is honest, courageous, and poignant.

The memoir recounts the Machidas’ political lives as they push through their plans for Sayama until tragedy strikes this seemingly “golden” family. Ivy C. Machida writes with perception and precision about the contradictions, curiosities, and ceremonies of Japanese life. As an outsider, she creates a persona that is “more Japanese than the Japanese.”

Formidably intelligent, this autobiography balances politics with spirituality, the perception of Japan as an ancient spiritual realm with the stark realities of its economy and hypermodernity.

“The Passing Summers” provides a loving portrait of Japan infused with candor; a refreshing take on the experience of foreigners who are “sojourners” in oya-shima-guni — this parent island country.