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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 2, 2002

An American learns to love life in Japan

• Meeting the heroine
• Advertiser Book Club
• Send your question to the author

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

When Sara Backer accepted a teaching position in Japan 11 years ago, she had no idea she would be the first woman and the first American ever to teach at the university in Shizuoka, a coastal city about 100 miles southwest of Tokyo. She didn't know that, although every Japanese child studies English, few venture to speak it. She didn't know that her hiring was a topic of controversy and political wrangling within the school.

"I didn't know anything," she recalled. "And I'm glad I didn't know anything, or I would never have taken the job."

Her experiences in Shizuoka would form the backdrop for Backer's funny, insightful novel, "American Fuji," the first selection for the new Honolulu Advertiser Book Club. A finalist for the James Jones First Novel Competition, "American Fuji" was first published by Marion Wood/G. P. Putnam's Sons in 2000 and is out now in paperback under the Berkley imprint.

Backer, 45, wrote the novel while living in San Luis Obispo, Calif., but is even now packing up for a move to Amherst, N.H., not far from where she grew up in Massachusetts. She laughingly says she is going to recover the "Woostah" accent that was teased out of her when her family moved west, and see if she can find a man to call her "sweethaht." Actually, she'll be working on her next novel, which, she said emphatically, is NOT set in Japan.

Backer doesn't think of herself as someone who has written a book about Japan but rather someone who has written a book about "compassion and understanding and being an outsider" — a book for which Japan is the backdrop and, in a sense, another character.

The book, in which an American teacher in Japan is reluctantly drawn into helping a visiting countryman solve the puzzle behind his son's death, is, like Japan, is not at all what it seems in the first, hilarious chapter.

"I love books where I feel one way about the character at the beginning and another way at the end, where the character grows and I grow ... That is what fiction can do: It can teach you empathy. And that's the kind of book I wanted to write," Backer said in a phone interview.

With her novel, however, she stepped unwittingly into our strange, history-haunted relationship with Japan and the Japanese. It is not a position with which she is entirely comfortable.

In general, two kinds of Americans go to Japan to live, Backer said: Businessmen intent on making money and scholars who are in love with the country before they get there. She was neither: "Japan was just someplace I'd never been before."

In 1990, positions were scarce for English literature majors just out of graduate school. When she heard that one of her teachers at the University of California at Davis, poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Gary Snyder, had found a job for a fellow student, she chided him: "Hey, where's my job?" The next week Snyder came back to her and said, "Sara, be careful what you wish for ... I've got a job for you but it's in mainland Japan and it's a three-year commitment."

Snyder assured her that her total ignorance of the Japanese language was no problem. "You'll pick it up," he said, blithely. She later learned that Western men have a standard technique for learning the language: the Japanese Practice Girlfriend. "You really do learn the language that way," she said in an almost admiring tone. "It just isn't an option open to women." An unmarried Western woman is — to put it mildly — an oddity in Japan, she said; Japanese men steer clear.

Backer arrived in Shizuoka 33 and single, knowing hardly anyone in the country and unaware that, in contrast to Osaka or Tokyo, she would often find herself the only Caucasian on the bus, so unusual that people would openly stare and point.

But Backer, an inveterate traveler who had previously lived in Costa Rica for a year, wasn't concerned. "I was confident in my ability to travel and learn a language and live as an expatriate, she said. "And I was up for the adventure."

What she was not fully "up for" was what she calls "the Japanality of it all."

Things like sidewalk scrubbing. No one told her — because they didn't know that she needed to be told — that in Japan, apartment dwellers take turns cleaning up the trash area and pathways around the building. It was only after a certain amount of smoldering resentment had built up that she discovered her social solecism. At which point, she said, "the only thing to do was apologize and get down on my knees with a scrub brush. Which I did, singing Italian arias the whole time," she said.

The incident — one of many humorous clashings of culture that later would provide the comic relief in "American Fuji" — illustrates a theme of the book: the assumptions people make, and how wrong we often are about each other.

Even at the risk of seeming to be a Japan-basher — and she has been accused of this — Backer said she was committed to telling the truth about what it feels like, and how it changes you, to be an expatriate, an outsider.

Some of it is funny and some of it painful, and it is very much a process. Her farewell speech to her colleagues at Shizuoka, delivered in Japanese and therefore necessarily brief, sums it up: "First year, confusion. Second year, frustration. Third year, affection."

Living in another country often felt, she said, "like I was playing a long game of Monopoly, and my apartment was the only safe square."

But in placing her characters on that sometimes howlingly funny and sometimes achingly uncomfortable Monopoly board, Backer had a broader aim. "I didn't want to whitewash the culture shock," she said. "But at the same time, I hoped to show what I believe: That what we have in common as individuals is far more important that what divides us."

Living in a culture so different from her own, she said, "helped me to expand my capacity to accept and love and forgive. That sounds corny, but it's true."

• • •

Meeting the heroine

Here, we meet Gabriela Stanton for the first time, as she makes a sales call for her oddball new job:

... Toilets and cars. That's what Mr. Eguchi had trained Gabriela Stanton to notice whenever she made house calls. She was to report the year, make, and model of the cars, and — her boss's pet obsession — whether the toilet seat was padded, heated, musical, or equipped with a panel of buttons that produced douche sprays of strengths and temperatures. Toilets tell the truth about people, Mr. Eguchi insisted. He might be right, but Gaby wouldn't want anyone to analyze her by her toilet.

• • •

Here, Gabriela has just met Alex Thorn, a fellow American who demands her help with a complicated matter, without realizing what he's getting her into.

... Gaby longed to go back home, crawl into her freshly aired futon. Obviously, Thorn wouldn't disappear ... He'd probably expect her to introduce him to every shipping agent in Shizuoka, unaware that introductions were favors that required payback. She couldn't blame him for this — after all, he was alone in a place where survival depended on connections — but she'd be stuck with him, a Thorn in her side.