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The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan

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Book cover of the Broken BridgeAs the subtitle proclaims, The Broken Bridge is a collection of writing by resident foreigners in Japan. The thirty-six stories in this lively and eclectic collection, which range from several-page vignettes to stories of some twenty pages, span the first fifty years of the postwar period— 1945 to 1995—although the great majority are of recent vintage. In his excellent introduction, Donald Richie, who surely deserves the title of uncrowned monarch of Japan’s expat community, notes that the collection is “not definitive.” This ought to go without saying, for with the single exception of the Pacific War years, Westerners—both long-term residents and all manner of tourists—have been a fixed feature of the Japanese landscape since the 1850s. Their accumulated impressions, memoirs, travel sketches, and reminiscences constitute a noteworthy subgenre of Japanological narrative.

What immediately distinguishes the collection under review is that it consists of fictional narratives, rather than the more standard autobiographical fare of those who recount their Japan experiences. The fictionality here, though, is often rather thinly veiled, which is certainly understandable in such an anthology. And in view of the blurring of “fact” and “fiction” that distinguishes so much modern Japanese writing, it is not surprising that The Broken Bridge would provide moments when the story at hand felt like a Japanese work in English translation!

In any event, we have here something for everyone: the sexy, the sentimental, the satiric, the postmodern. If anything, the volume both confirms and confounds the enduring stereotype of Japan as remote and impenetrable. The thirty-six authors (a number traditionally associated with sets of Japanese poems, prints, etc.) do indeed represent a gamut of expat experience and expression. Readers with more than a casual acquaintanceship with Japan will sense an immediate camaderie with the collective voice of fellow outsiders for whom Japan represents the ultimate Other. But the volume deserves a wider audience than the implied readership of savvy and/or jaded gaijin. With few exceptions, these stories are interesting, entertaining, and instructive.

The collective authorship is a mix of nationalities—British, Australian, Canadian, but predominantly American. The gender bal­ance is tipped in the male direction. Some of the authors are names familiar to Japanologists, but most are not. Some are gifted writers; others rather less so. The appended biographical notes reveal, as one might expect, a mix of resumes: teachers, journalists, poets, Zen adepts, vagabonds. Some are permanent residents, some have returned regularly for extended stays, others have been there and come home, or gone elsewhere. Very few Asian surnames are represented, and not one that is Japanese. In other words, the volume does not incorporate the Nikkeijin experience; i.e., writing by individuals of Japanese ancestry. They will require their own anthology. In any event, the stories’ protagonists are for the most part gaijin, but even the collec­tion’s Japanese protagonists themselves figure as outsiders—for instance, the yakuza wannabe of Alex Shishin’s “Shades” (214–22).

With its free play of styles and narrative gambits, The Broken Bridge offers up variations on the theme of otherness and reveals rich possibilities for expressing the outsiderness that confronts famously “insiderish” Japan. Some of the stories form thematic clusters, the most prominent of which concerns mixed marriage and its attendant complexities and crises. The protagonist of Daniel Rosenblum’s “The Podiatrist” (273–80), for instance, plies her trade while husband Koji remains away on international business. In “Sum­mer Insects” (102–06), David Burleigh presents a series of Kawabata-like exchanges between Kenji and his foreigner wife, and Holly Thompson’s “Bloodlines” (285–93) concerns Akiko, disowned by her father for marrying Carl and thus polluting the family line.

Yet another cluster explores insider-outsider relations via the traditional arts. For example, in “The Circuit” (205–13), Michael Fessler details a biographer’s quest for O. J. Kendall, enigmatic haiku poet and (as it turns out) industrial spy. As its title suggests, “Enlightenment With Tea” (177–81), by Kate the Slops (!), utilizes tea ceremony as the occasion for her pro­tagonist’s musing on identity and otherness, and “Season’s Greetings” (321–27) by Joseph LePenta presents generational conflict in the confrontation between a traditionalist ikebana master and his son, who chafes against the arid conventionalism of the Nakamichi School.

In line with my own predilection for the comic, I especially enjoyed pieces such as James Kirkup’s “The Bonsai Master” (77–81), a send-up of traditionalism in which the aging protagonist is taken to task for tormenting defenseless dwarf trees, and there is “Mr. Robert” (236–42) by Viki Radden, which recounts the gala reception given to the newly-arrived English-language teacher in a small Japanese town, and the comic confusion that ensues when the young man turns out ‘not’ to be an obese Mexican, as the townsfolk had somehow come to expect.

The Broken Bridge owes much to the aforementioned Donald Richie, who was instrumental in the volume’s production. I should mention that the book begins with his fine introductory essay (9–16) and ends with his “Six Encounters” (342–53), a mini-anthology of vignettes that in effect recapitulates the entire volume.

In conclusion, one imagines any number of interesting applications of The Broken Bridge, either in whole or in part, in courses concerning Japan, cross-cultural relations, comparative literature, and the like. It is a decidedly “good read” and surely merits an audience larger than the circle of Asianist academe.