“Tokyo” is an unsettling take on the “foreigner in Japan” trope


Special To The Japan Times

So-called foreigner-in-Japan novels can set cliche alarm bells ringing, so when a book as exciting and original as Nicholas Hogg’s “Tokyo” comes along, it takes a moment to recalibrate expectations. And it’s not the last time Hogg wrong-foots his readers — this slow-boil thriller is designed to unsettle.

Tokyo, by Nicholas Hogg
208 pages.
Cargo, Fiction.

Ben Monroe is a British psychologist at the University of Tokyo. He convinces his estranged daughter, Mazzy, to spend a semester at an international school in Tokyo. Dripping in teen-girl sarcasm, she flies out and quickly settles into a life of karaoke, multicultural friends and shopping excursions to Harajuku. On the surface “Tokyo” is a middle-class family drama, with its first-world problems set against a post-3/11 Tokyo, but bubbling underneath is a thick reservoir of noir.

On the flight out, Mazzy makes small talk with Koji, a passenger sitting next to her who is a cult survivor. Koji takes this brief contact as an indication he should recenter his life around this woman and begins stalking her. At the same time, Ben searches the seedier side of Tokyo for a hostess he once loved. An intersection is inevitable, but Hogg blind sides the reader time and again. When the climax finally arrives, it is as unexpected as it is disturbing. The ending — no spoilers — is initially confusing and it’s a testament to Hogg’s storytelling that such an audacious series of twists hangs together.

Written in staccato sentences, stripped down to bare meaning and raw emotion, his invocation of modern Japan is refreshingly well-observed. Like David Mitchell and David Peace before him, he portrays the multilayered nature of Japanese society that long-term residents will recognize perfectly. If only all “foreigner in Japan” novels were this good.

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    “Foreigner in Japan?” Shouldn’t it be “white guy in Japan?” Chinese are far and away the the largest group of foreign nationals in Japan followed by Koreans, Filipinos, and Brazilians.

    • Doubting Thomas

      That’s only if you go by the xenophobic Japanese definition of “foreigner.” Most of those people are either naturalized or were born in Japan.

      • Jonathan Fields

        This. A vast majority of those “foreigners” are natives by any reasonable definition of the word.

      • Sorry, but your data is old.

        Once upon a time that was true, but it hasn’t been true for a several years now. Chinese (counting PRC, TW, HK etc all together) now outnumber Koreans (counting KR, KP, and “chosen-seki” together), and PRs (permanent residents, those who were most likely NOT born in Japan and whom the majority are Chinese immigrants according to MoJ data) now outnumber SPRs (Special Permanent Residents, which are most likely born/raised completely in Japan — “natives” — and are “Zainichi”)

        Now, there are still many. many non-nationals who are born in Japan, but they are not (no longer) the “majority” (>50%), and their (SPR status NJ Zainichi) numbers are dwindling fast (primarily due to intermarriage with Japanese and their children inheriting/choosing Japanese nationality, but also due to the naturalization boom after Kim Jong-Il admitted to kidnapping JP children in 2002 and the financial collapse of Chongryon that followed).

      • Jonathan Fields

        I’m glad you had your gotcha moment, but in your zeal to defend the honor of your fair maiden, Japan, you have once again failed to miss the point of the conversation.

      • My bad; apparently being factually accurate isn’t a concern or priority of yours. Feel free then to continue to use incorrect assertions to “make your point”! ☺

      • Jrock

        I’m fascinated by the native v. non-native, who is a ‘foreigner’ dialogue.

        Clearly there are more non-Japanese, Asians in Japan than white people. But where is this animosity coming from? Is it because when one thinks of ‘foreigner in Japan,’ automatically we think white person? Whose fault is that? Where are the non-Japanese non-white Asian-Japanese narratives?

        Do you think that the literary community is somehow actively promoting white v. non-native Japanese Asian in Japan? Do you actually believe that there is some sort of conspiracy here to put down the Asian ‘foreigners’ living here?

        I’m not trying to be snarky, I would really just like to hear your opinions.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        Your comment makes no sense whatsoever. I based my comments on Japanese government statistics for foreign nationals in Japan. If you are a citizen by birth or a citizen by naturalization as I am, it makes no difference. You appear in government statistics as Japanese, not foreign.

        If you are born in Japan and have one parent who is a Japanese national, you are Japanese.

        There are roughly 360,000 special permanent residents of Japan, almost entirely people of Korean (DPRK and ROK) nationality who were born in Japan. They can naturalize easily if they wish. Many have. Their numbers are dwindling rapidly.

        At the end of 2012 there were 2.1 million registered foreign nationals in Japan. Of these 1.7 million were from other Asian countries. 654 thousand were Chinese. Few of these Chinese were born in Japan. 501 thousand were Korean of whom roughly 360 thousand are Japan born. Filipinos are another large group at 218 thousand.

        Just to show you how Asian foreigners are in Japan, Vietnamese outnumber Europeans (100 thousand vs 63000 and North Americans 64000).

        There are more Brazilians in Japan than North Americans and Europeans combined (175 thousand vs 127 thousand).

        In terms of numbers, the typical “foreign guy” in Japan is Chinese, Korean, or Brazilian, not the “white guys” of the “foreigner in Japan genre.”