An email memoir on a life in Japan


Life and Nihonjin: Dispatches From Japan, by Alex Kahney. Portland Books, 2011, Japan, 290 pp., $16.00 (paperback)

Japan’s habit of technological innovation alongside tradition has surfaced in recent literary fads such as the “Densha no Otoko” (Train Man) phenomenon. What started as an urgent plea for dating advice posted to an online forum morphed into a modern tale of boy meets girl with Horatio Alger-style success for the author, with film, TV and manga adaptations. Cellphone novels, e-books, Twitter haiku; it was inevitable that a book collecting emails would surface in this techno-creative stew of new lit.

Alex Kahney’s “Life and Nihonjin: Dispatches From Japan” is one such novel. “Dispatches” starts with an honest explanation: “What I’m doing is putting the emails together as a memoir of my life in Japan.” What follows, unfortunately for true literature, is an unflinchingly honest hodgepodge of emails lacking any of the covert workings of an author to pull the story into cohesion. The result: soaring philosophical passages and painful pithy observations of Japan on one side, with confusion, poor characterization and chaos on the other, for a final mishmash that reeks rancor as much as it rewards with ingenuous purity.

For Kahney’s pain is purely autobiographical as a betrayed international spouse who is denied access to his children. Yet the early pages of the book lull the reader with languid, serpentine quirkiness as Kahney, a musician, poet, dream-interpreter, looks for connections in life and dreams, retelling them through emails back home to England. Be warned: If you appreciate a cohesive plot, this book is not for you. It meanders, sidetracks, ambles, yet admirably captures the essence of one sensitive human.

There is a definite charm in the early sections. The reader cannot help sharing the wonder of the narrator as he explores metaphysical connections while slowly revealing a dissatisfied life in Japan, bound between a loveless marriage and a stifling job. The novel, however, leaves behind its whimsical tone abruptly as Kahney begins explaining the abduction of his children and his understandable bitterness against his ex-wife and her country.

Ultimately, the form itself also betrays Kahney. Personal emails only reveal one side of a story, and the novel ends up collapsing under the weight of this imbalanced perspective. Sympathy gradually gives way to uncertainty, and by the appendix, when the author includes a collection of essays detailing “nihonjin“, all readerly commiseration has fled.

These essays belittle and deride the Japanese. Skewed social commentary, full of unsupported generalizations, anecdotal proof and blatant racism, they speak more of the author’s pain and rage than Japanese people themselves. The pure idealism of the early prose shows Kahney’s potential as a writer and storyteller, and the reader can only hope he will rise above this tragedy instead of blaming all Japanese.

In the final analysis, Kahney does accomplish his goal: to provide the perspective of one foreigner who has found only pain in Japan.

He illuminates an issue that must be reformed, for Japanese and foreigners alike but mostly for the children themselves: the child custody debacle in Japan’s divorce courts.

There is no joint custody in Japan, and children of divorced parents are routinely denied access to the one parent not given custody, Japanese or foreigner alike. His novel unfortunately proves that some combinations of the modern and traditional do not work, namely the business of collecting emails as a novel.