||Atomic Sushi: Notes from the Heart of Japan
||2006 (hardback) 2007 (paperback)
Unfortunately I missed the launch of the hard back edition of this book last year at the Daiwa Foundation in London. Many members of the Society may have seen reviews in the Financial Times and the TLS, but some may have missed these. At any rate I think that it is worth drawing the attention of members to this amusing and ironic account of a year in Japan teaching philosophy at Tokyo University (the prestigious Todai). The book is declared to be a work of fiction. This allows the author to use poetic licence and to disguise names, but it is clearly a personal account of some of his experiences in Japan.
Anyone who has had to cope with Japanese bureaucracy will find May's accounts of his encounters with university bureaucracy amusing if somewhat exaggerated. They may see in his frustrations a reminder of some of their own experiences although we should remember that bureaucrats the world over suffer from lack of flexibility and a reverence for rules and precedents however stupid (Indian and some European bureaucrats have little to learn from their Japanese counterparts).
May notes the "stark contrast between the bureaucrats' insatiable appetite for empty procedures and their casualness over a vital educational matter" namely the university examinations. No clear standards were laid down for "setting or marking papers." There were no independent outside examiners and May was told that "graduate students' in his department 'were never failed.' 'Undergraduates did not have it too much harder' with 60% getting 'excellent' and another 30% 'good'. 'Todai, among the hardest to enter of the world's universities, must therefore be one of the very easiest to leave."
His comments on the Dome in Hiroshima will be familiar to most observers of modern Japan. May reiterates what others have said before that "the Japanese people and, in particular, the public bureaucracies…have never come to terms with the evil of the fascist policies of the 1930s. The criminal acts of a perverted regime and national spirit have not been confronted to even a fraction of the extent that Germans have so courageously managed." Walking round the modern rebuilt Hiroshima he "couldn't help wondering how a nation so innately receptive to beauty could live among such atrocious ugliness."
Among the many amusing sketches in this book I particularly enjoyed his account of New Year in Kyoto and of "gate-crashing" a wedding in Hiroshima where, of course, no one listened to the numerous speeches and instead pounced on the food. He is amusing about the ostentatious vulgarity of the wedding palace, the clothes of the bride and groom and the theatre of cutting the cake!
Simon May clearly enjoyed his year and derived much amusement from his encounters with Japanese, seeking wherever possible to meet people outside his university circle. Undoubtedly however Japanese food gave him his highest satisfaction especially sushi although he also admired Japanese kaiseki despite the huge cost at a high class restaurant such as at the Tawaraya inn in Kyoto. I was amused by how he was overcharged by a sushi master after he had lost face when May had drawn attention to a rat crossing the floor!
Well worth putting a copy of Atomic Sushi in your luggage for your next trip by air or rail!
(This review was produced in collaboration with the Japan Society, UK)