On Writing a Book in Japan

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I’ve been writing this blog for three years, from the moment I knew I’d be living in Japan. Since then I’ve tried to write from an honest perspective about the things that have happened to me here, from figuring out the garbage sorting system all the way up to handling an existential crisis spawned by a bento box.

Initially I just wanted to keep a record of all the stuff I wish people had told me. A lot of people tried, but it’s difficult to understand just how profoundly stupid a lot of us are when we first arrive in Japan. By the time someone gets confident enough to explain it, they’re already littering their conversations with weird Japanese slang or assumptions that we know… anything.

Writing every week forced me to do my homework. As I stuck around, I found more fascinating stuff than I’d ever imagined. This country is a writer’s dream.

But I also started being more honest about what it felt like to really live here. This was a kind of homework, too — realizing my anxieties, I found that writing about them forced me to imagine solutions.

When I was was interviewed by The Japan Times a year ago about this blog, I had never really reflected on it. Being forced to bore someone about it for an hour meant finally having to articulate what I was doing. I came to understand that this wasn’t a site about Japan, per se. It was about tackling anxiety through Japanese traditions. Being in Japan and researching Japanese Zen and Shinto, I couldn’t help but connect my feelings of discomfort to the feelings of peace and calm that these Japanese traditions kept at their core. But more than that, everything I came to understand about Japan put me at ease – from understanding the history of sushi to why people drink so much to how people smoke — the more I understood, the more comfortable I was.

I ended up with about 880 typewritten pages.

Because anxiety is the blood that pumps through this blog, I decided to whittle it down to 221, which contains every post dealing with anxiety or culture shock. They are all included in this single volume so it’s easy to find in one place, should my kids ever decide to embarrass me, or if I someday become a spy and some foreign government wants to design a perfect form of psychological torture.

Or, of course, in case my three years in Japan can actually help someone else – maybe you! – if not with good advice (which I can’t guarantee) then at least with the knowledge that somebody else is going just as crazy as you are.

Because one of the things about living in an expat community in Japan is that nobody talks about what it really feels like to be here. Nobody talks about the tiny humiliations that add up to one big one, or the struggle to climb a mountain of assimilation that seems to always get steeper, or the way it feels like your entire personality has left and replaced the real you with a Japanese-influenced psychological doppleganger.

I get why nobody talks about it – it can be self-indulgent, it can seem whiny, we’re supposed to be happy to be here, etc. But the only thing crazier than saying these things out loud is never talking about these things at all.

So, this is all the longest preamble ever and it is leading to this: I have written a book. It is mostly stuff that is available on this site for free, but I’ve polished them up a bit, recombined a few things, added a sentence or two. This way you can have a book about this stuff. You can say things like “Here’s this book I really like,” which sounds better than “I like this guy’s blog.” Or hate it. Maybe you hate this blog! Then you should buy my book so you can sound like you hate literature instead of Web sites.

I think having a book is cool. Apparently, Kindles are even cooler, so there’s a version for them, too. I tried to make the prices reasonable, but who knows how much an e-book is worth? I decided to price it so I get paid the same, so I won’t try to manipulate you into buying one or the other. It would be awesome, though, if you used the links above, or here again to make it easy:

BUY THE PAPERBACK     BUY THE EBOOK

Some people have asked me if I will continue to make posts after leaving Japan. I probably will, though not as often or consistently, and I’ll probably start a blog dealing with London and Shanghai over the next few years. I’ll keep you posted. Literally.

I’d also like to say, in what might seem like shameless pandering, a real thank you to everyone who read this damn thing. It has been a hell of a lot of fun. The rush of watching my site stats every Wednesday, the thrill of your comments and Facebooking and Tweeting, gee whiz. I wish I was a more engaged blogger, but I was always asleep when you guys responded. When I was more or less alone and didn’t feel capable of accomplishing anything, knowing you were reading and responding to my writing was really comforting.

I hope you guys like the book, or the electric book or whatever the “e” stands for. Let me know what you think by leaving comments below – perhaps I’ll even be in your time zone.

And, just because I always promised myself this would be the last song I post from Japan:

If you want to know about any stuff I do in the future, you really should “like” This Japanese Life on Facebook

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27 Responses to On Writing a Book in Japan

  1. Adam says:

    Having only found this blog a couple of months ago, I am a long way off reading everything here. Enjoyed several of the articles I have had the time to read, so this book sounds great. Ordered! Cheers…

    • owwls says:

      Thanks! Congrats on being the first confirmed sale! I sure hope it isn’t riddled with formatting errors and spelling mistakes! I will wake up with cold sweats for the next week of my life…

  2. Mary says:

    Will defenetely see forward for more upcoming wonderful articles from the author! Will it be England, China or any other country. All sounds interesting for me ^^

  3. Danny Boy says:

    Congratulations man! I’ve really enjoyed reading the blog this whole time, so I’ll probably get the e-book (shipping physical books to Brazil is kind of expensive)! I hope you’ll be successful in what ever comes next in your life.

  4. FSX says:

    Cool. I’ll buy it if it’s available at a shop where I don’t need a creditcard.

  5. alua says:

    Grateful for the e-book version (being the global nomad that I am). Downloading it to my Kindle-on-Mac as I write.

    I’ve only been reading your blog for a short while, but have enjoyed enough to convince me that your book is must-read as well!

  6. FelipeP says:

    Man, congrats for your blog. You’re extremely talented. I will probably move to Japan next year, and believe me: this is already helping me a lot.

    Cheers from Brazil

  7. Sumo Joe says:

    Hey, forget about feeling like a “shill!” You are offering a product of value to people. And for those of us who self-publish, there’s no one else to do the marketing for us. If your blog has enough to offer to catch the eye of The Japan Times, it is head and shoulders above the blogs that most of us have out here in the blogosphere. And no doubt, the book that you’ve compiled out of it will be genuinely beneficial to other folks coming down the line. Peace. And thanks for sharing your insights.

  8. Amitra says:

    As someone who has been studying Japanese for a while now, this really made me think about whether or not I want to live there for any period of time. In the end, you both convinced me and made me feel slightly more secure in the knowledge of what I might have to face. Most of all, this blog was just plain enjoyable. I love learning. I love Japan. Together, those two things were what made this blog great. Thanks for all the fun times!

  9. Jae says:

    I loved reading your posts, and have always thought that you should combine them into a book. Clearly you had the same idea. Purchased for me kindle.

  10. Although I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog over the past few years, there is one question I’ve always wanted to ask you. As a white American (or, at least, white-passing), are you at all concerned about advancing potentially harmful stereotypes about Japanese culture though your, admittedly, limited perspective? Surely, as a white person, there are certain incredibly diverse aspects of Japanese culture which you couldn’t possibly discuss with any sort of accuracy.

    I’m sure you’re a nice guy. I’m not bringing that (or your intelligence) into question. But, like many other expat bloggers, you have consistently highlighted your difficulties with assimilation. Knowing that you have the privilege of being a white American male, knowing that you were born in a country that values your existence over people of color, how can you (and other expats like you) not feel as though, by highlighting your own struggles, you’re erasing the struggles that Japanese people face every day?

    Again, I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog, and I hope you’re not offended by my question. Do you intend to start a new one about your experiences in London? I lived in Essex for about a year (and miss it!), so I’m curious.

    • owwls says:

      Good questions. Of course I can only write from my perspective as a white American in Japan, and I say so. I’m concerned with stereotypes, which is why I feel like I spend as much time debunking them as I do acknowledging when there’s some truth to them. The approach I have always taken is “This is strange for me, as an American, but let’s find out why Japan does it this way.”

      As for the struggles of real Japanese people I have tried to cover some of these problems – my series on education emphasized students living in poverty; I have written about homelessness, bullying and stigmatized minority groups. I wish I could have done more to talk about people’s lives here or tackled them with greater complexity. But should I have avoided them completely because I’m white and “couldn’t possibly discuss them with any kind of accuracy?” Maybe. But then what would I do? Blog about AKB48?

      Yeah, I’m highlighting my struggles assimilating in Japan. If people were interested in reading about a non-white perspective on Japan they could read blogs written by a non-white writer. I don’t think I’ve been advocating against that!

      I’ve said more than once that as a white guy, I have the benefit of internalizing privilege to such a degree that I would never connect my experience in Japan to the experience of an immigrant to the United States. I’m aware that even in an “other” country, I instinctively see everyone here as “other” and myself as “default,” but I’m honest about that bias (when I’m aware of it) and I push myself to challenge it. Part of this blog is about learning to recognize internal biases and assumptions. Most of my writing is about tackling the default settings. On the whole, I think that’s a positive step for everyone. I’m going to write something, so I have tried to write as responsibly as I can from my limited experience.

      I hope I understood your question correctly. I’m not offended, and I hope my answer is, at least, the answer to what you were asking!

  11. x_stei says:

    I mentioned on Twitter that I saw many similarities between you and David Mitchell. Now there’s one more! You’ve both published book(s)!

    I was born in China. At the age of 10, I moved to Canada. At the age of 20, I moved to the United States. Since my teen years, I’ve been a Japanophile and hoping in the future to be doing JET someday. Your writing articulates factors and reasons why I have trouble finding my own Chinese-Canadian-American-Japanese identity in this hyper-individualized world; you write as if you knew my problems and sometimes internal monologue even better than myself. Reading your blog posts has been a strangely wonderful experience, almost like experiencing my own problems from a third person’s much more mature point of view.

    It has been a pleasure to read your writing. I look forward to more of your writings in the future!

    • alua says:

      I’m not sure if you are familiar with the term “Third Culture Kid”? It certainly helped me a lot understanding how I grew up in different countries & cultures and the in-between-identity that came with it.

      • x_stei says:

        No, I actually have never heard of that. I’ve always thought of myself as a cross-cultural person, but this might actually be much more fitting. Sweet. Thanks!

      • x_stei says:

        Wow. Thank you so much for introducing this to me. I don’t know why I’ve never come across this before. I just finished reading the wikipedia page on TCK, and it describes me more than I expected. Thank you! Seriously, this helps more than you know!

      • alua says:

        I’m glad it helped you.

        It’s the sort of term that one just stumbles across (though I’ve heard that now at international schools they try to educate families about this).

        Realising I was a ‘Third Culture Kid’ helped me a lot in understanding myself & who I was (right after high school, when I had a little existential crisis ;-) ), especially because my parents just couldn’t understand why I didn’t identify 100% with my passport country like they did. I found it difficult whenever I went ‘home’ that people would expect (and still expect) me to be a certain way, that I simply wasn’t. I’ve made peace with it now, and I know I’m happiest living somewhere abroad where I’m the ‘foreigner’.

  12. Gabi says:

    I want to thank you for this blog. I read just about every post every Wednesday and have to say it had a lot more information about the real Japan than the Japan I read about in my travel books. This blog has helped me to prepare for my year abroad in Japan. It’s been a priceless source of information and an insider look into what life is really like. I have my own anxiety issues si this truely will be and has been a great help. I’m going to order the book as soon as I can, and I can’t wait to read it!
    So thank you, for being a good guide and informant.

  13. James says:

    Is it just the page contents or are the comments below the piece included also?

    So pleased to see your work in print!

  14. zoomingjapan says:

    I’ve been in Japan for 6 years now and I could write 2 or 3 books about my life here, but I’m not a good writer, so I guess there will never be any books. And I doubt anybody would want to read it.

    Congrats on publishing your book! I hope you’ll sell a lot of copies! :)

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  18. Ven says:

    ! How did I not know until now that you had published a book? Definitely buying a copy, as I lived in Japan for just six months but can definitely empathize with some of what you’re saying. I love your writing style and am a little sad that you won’t be blogging from Japan any more. Anyway, great work on this blog and thank you for publishing your book as an eBook (I read the entire preview and didn’t notice one mistake, so don’t worry about it being ‘riddled with formatting errors and spelling mistakes’). I can’t wait to read the rest.

  19. I’ll definitely be buying your book! Ive been reading your blog all day, some great stuff! I plan on moving to Japan for a while, and I’d also like to go to London. My major is Japanese and English as a second language–I’m an American so I know all about “American English” but I want to also learn more about America’s mother country and the English spoken over there. Anyways, I guess I’m already preparing myself for the culture shock of being in Japan. Thanks for the laughs and insight–I’ll probably end up commenting on some of your other posts as well.

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