This book is recommended for my mother and stepmother 🙂
I went into reading this book with very mixed feelings. On one hand, I really wanted to read about what it would have been like for a Japanese wife one generation earlier than my generation in the United States written by somebody, like Margaret Dilloway, who had first hand knowledge (through her mother.)
On the other hand, I cringe alot at books that address certain stereotypes without providing the detailed depth of knowledge about a situation.
And in some ways, I think this book is both successful and not-so-successful at addressing certain stereotypes about Japan and the Japanese filtered through American-colored glasses.
Each chapter of the book starts out with a chapter from a fictional book with advice about “how to be an American housewife” written supposedly by Japanese women married to Americans. The advice I think rightly reflects the mores of those times, with advice about making sure your children speak only English and to not question the husband to closely about where he goes after work.
And one of the main characters, Shoko (a Japanese girl who left her own country post-WWII and married an American GI) is a living version of this advice. She labors an entire day to make spaghetti sauce, she pampers her son (as it says to do in the book, going with the Japanese way over the American) and tries to make sure her daughter is never embarassed over her potluck casseroles.
And this is one place where the book suceeds. We get the stereotypical “be a demure housewife” advice one would expect from a Japanese-written book of that time, but we get Shoko trying her hardest to fulfill that advice while silently rebelling at the same time, and failing to make friends with the Americans around her.
The book does a great job of showing both Shoko’s constant nagging to her daughter, Sue, from both sides of the equation: Sue’s feelings of failure and Shoko’s loving concern for her daughter.
It is the other parts of the book that don’t suceed as well for me. Both Shoko’s memories of her life before marrying her husband and then afterwards when her daughter, Sue, travels to Japan to make peace with Shoko’s estranged brother.
Sue and her daughter travel to Japan for the first time. And while many of their observations about southern Japan resonated with the ways I experienced Japan for the first time, what it didn’t get into were the juicy layers of emotional difficulty, of being an outsider in a culture where that is a very different thing than in the US.
Sue meets up with her gay cousin, another missed opportunity of exploring outsiderness, stays at his house with him (whoa there, hard for me to believe a gay japanese man would just blithely invite his never-before-seen cousin over to his house where it would be impossible to ignore his husband!) and then travels to see her uncle who has for all of Sue’s life repudiated and ignored Shoko because of her marriage choices.
And the uncle, Taro, caves, just like that. Again, another missed opportunity for juciy emotional conflict and for Sue to experience what it means to be half-Japanese and not know Japanese culture or language well enough. Missed. Everything works out like a fairy tale.
I felt that the story missed out on many opportunities to give detailed layers to the Japanese-American experience that would help explore the difficulties faced by people of mixed heritage in making a place for themselves in either culture.
However, I realize this is an dissatisfaction based on rather personal reasons, including my own situation as a parent of Japanese-American children. For many Americans without “first-hand” knowledge, I believe the parts about how Shoko struggled to fit in US society would be an eye opener about some less desirable aspects of US culture.
This Book’s Food Designation Rating: Niku jagga (Japanese meat and potato stew cooked with miso but based on Western stews) for the different viewpoints of Japanese in America, but that doesn’t quite go all the way into the juicy, spicy bits of outsiderness that a full blown Japanese curry would.