Book Review: Kobe Blue

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    The following book review was submitted by Scott Urista. The author of the book is Christopher Johnson, a freelance journalist who has threatened Japan Probe because our blog posts asked questions about confusing edits and inconsistencies in some of Johnson’s articles.

    Kobe Blue: Danger in the Land of Safety
    by Christopher Johnson
    Self-published (Smashwords)
    Published: Oct 18, 2012
    ASIN: B009T936HW
    270 pages (est.)

    Throughout history there have always been groups of people that have enjoyed positions of privilege, be it due to circumstance or mere good fortunate: The scribes in ancient Egypt, the manor lords of feudal Europe, the early capitalists in 18th century England.

    But you would be hard-pressed to find a more ridiculously (and completely unjustifiably) over-privileged class of people than the Caucasian male in 1980s Japan. Anyone that has set foot in Japan has either experienced first-hand or at least heard about the `easy money, easy women’ gigolo-esque lifestyles of the blue-eyed, fair-skinned lucky men living there during the Bubble years.

    In some respects, I don’t think this was mere happenstance: my (probably half-baked) armchair analysis goes like this: Japan spent the first few decades after WWII rebuilding itself, both physically (bombed-out cities) and psychologically (losing the war, the Occupation). Of course, we all know what happened next: the `Japanese economic miracle’; over 30 years of unprecedented economic growth. By the 1970s Japan trailed only the US and the Soviet Union in GNP.

    Here’s the other important part of the equation: By and large it was Japan’s women that did the interacting. Japan’s men were still away from home for long hours, `working’ (i.e., spending their evenings in a drunken stupor in hostess clubs or other establishments of ill-repute). It was Japan’s women that had the time and now the cash to spend, just as foreign goods and traveling overseas was getting cheaper and cheaper (see Accord, Plaza). It was Japan’s women that started taking tennis lessons, traveling abroad, first to Asia resorts then stretching their legs to Europe, then going back to Japan and deciding that they needed to learn English before their next trip. Bingo–you have your eikaiwa boom, and with it growing demand for English-speaking talking heads.

    No doubt it was heady times for the young Western male in Japan in the late 1980s. Some men, of course, started to believe their own press clippings about how sugoi they were because they happened to be born in an English-speaking country (they were in for a rude awakening when the bubble burst and the economy soured). But it’s perhaps no surprise (although still a bit sad) that so many gaijin veterans of the 1980s Bubble still look on that time as the best time of their life.

    Which, in a somewhat roundabout way, brings us to Kobe Blue, the second work of fiction by Christopher J. Johnson (self-published, Kobe Blue is the tale of not one, but two young American men and their experiences in Bubble and post-Bubble Japan.

    In some ways this was a frustrating book to read, and an even more frustrating book to review.

    Frustrating, because first and foremost, it is clear that as a writer of fiction, Johnson has talent and substantial (untapped) potential. He has a writer’s eye for detail and the chops to put what his mind sees to paper. In the best spots the writing has a sublime, natural flow. Johnson by all account is well-traveled, and apparently does a lot of travelog-related writing, and it shows: he excels at descriptions–sometimes just quick five-note riffs (`the funeral pyre of (Japanese grammar) books’, `Everyone’s meditating on planet me’), but Johnson is at his best in longer solo jams when he’s setting a scene, a place, a mood.

    Now, sometimes too much of a good thing is…too much. I fully understand that opinion will be divided on this, but I personally found that reading paragraph after paragraph of text dripping with metaphors and similes got tiresome after a while. (I was reminded somewhat of the `too many notes’ line from Amadeus; obviously a flawed analogy because while he has talent as a writer of fiction, Johnson is not yet a Mozart….but hopefully you get my point).

    Further, it must be said that if descriptions are Johnson’s strong points, he needs to work on speech: much of the dialogue lacked any sense of pacing or authenticity (at one point one of the Japanese characters calls himself `Yamaguchi-san’). This often broke the spell woven by the preceding paragraphs that had set the stage. There were exceptions, of course: one of my favorite scenes from the book was between Kurisu and Jonathan, talking about the contrast between random English conversation between two gaijin strangers on a train, and an English conversation between a gaijin and a Japanese. Equal parts ironic, humorous and poignant, it once again showed the author’s eye for interesting detail.

    But overall, I actually found the writing rather uneven…so uneven, in fact, that part of me wonders if Kobe Blue actually began life intending to be a book. Parts of it feel like bits and pieces from different times and places were cobbled together; that it still works as a story at all is testament to the underlying quality of the writing and the potential of the story.

    More problematic, however, was the story structure. The book is supposed to be about both a `nostalgic look’ at Bubble Era Japan and international relationships in `consumerist societies and over-crowded cities’, based on `real experiences’.

    As noted above, the book is about the experiences of two young American men that arrive in the late 1980s, right in the middle of the Japan bubble: `Jonathan’, shy and unpopular back home, finds he is a rock star with Japanese women as an English teacher in Japan; he spends most of the book bedding Japanese women, seemingly a different woman each night. `Kurisu’ – a Japanized version of the author’s name – is the upstanding citizen that doesn’t play around; a major chunk of the book is focused on his relationship with his girlfriend (or is she?). Given that they have the same names, it is tempting to equate Kurisu with the experiences of the author, although I suspect that the author is probably both Kurisu and Jonathan.

    Part of the problem I think starts right at the beginning: The book plops Kurisu down in Japan with almost no background story, no foundation to understand where Kurisu is coming from. In fact, much more background material is given for Jonathan than for Kurisu (another reason that I suspect Jonathan is perhaps more relevant to the extent that the author’s experiences made it into the book). There is even some back history for some of Jonathan’s one-night sexcapade partners, even when very little is given for Kurisu, who ostensibly is supposed to be the main character in the book.

    I say `ostensibly’, because it’s hard to tell if Kurisu is the main character or not. His story does account for the majority of the plot, and the book starts off in the first person, written from Kurisu’s point of view. But then it shifts to third-person for major chunks of the book, mostly relating to Jonathan’s sexual conquests – just how does Kurisu get to know the backstories of some of Jonathan’s numerous sex partners and the intimate details of what Jonathan does with each of them? In fact practically the entire middle third of the book reads like a soft-porn novel, a Fifty Shades of Japan Grey for the Bubble-era gaijin, profiling Jonathan’s conquests. If this was used as a contrast to some semblance of growth or development for either Jonathan or Kurisu, it would be understandable…but with no apparent purpose other than nostalgic titillation, it detracts from whatever underlying message the story was supposed to have.

    More frustrating is that Kurisu seems to land in Japan with a vast database of Japan knowledge and experience already intact: on his very first train-ride from Osaka to Kobe on just his second day in Japan, Kurisu talks about the `nostalgia’ surrounding Amagasaki, Nishinomiya and Koshien Stadium. He arrives in Japan determined `not to become an English teacher’. It rather begs some questions – why (how) did he have this preconceived notion of the eikaiwa industry in Japan? How did Kurisu intend on supporting himself in Japan? We don’t know, partially because we have no backstory (what did he study at university? For that matter, did he even go to university?) It’s hard to develop a story arch of the protagonist learning about Japan when he arrives in the country apparently having already lived it.

    Happily the latter question of how Kurisu can support himself is conveniently answered by having him, on the morning of his very first full day in Japan, meet an attractive, single Japanese women that is not only completely fluent in English, but that also immediately invites him to stay with her, rent-free, for apparently years on end, at her home where she lives with her mother. Because, you know, Japanese women did this all the time for guys that seemed to be `a decent sort’. These sorts of `plausibility fails’ definitely detract from the reader’s experience.

    The timeline of the story is equally confusing. Somewhat perplexingly, we learn how old Kurisu is near the end of the book, but we don’t really know how old he is when he gets to Japan. It’s perplexing, because based on the numerous historical events that are noted in the book, Kurisu apparently spends at least five or six years in Japan, yet the story is written as if it takes place in the span of a year or so. The timeline of the book is a helter’s skelter mess – in some parts of the book, years just melt away – not only with no explanation, but no mention of the shift in time or reference to what happened in the interim. It also sometimes results in clear timeline errors; at one point in the book Jonathan’s boss decides she can fire him because he’s still in the six-month probationary period, but by that part of the book Kurisu and Jonathan had to have been working at the eikaiwa company for at least eight months.

    Too often, the reader is jarred back to reality by some inconsistency, then has to do the mental gymnastics to keep everything in place. Rarely is it a good idea to force the reader to work at having to make the logical leaps of faith to save some semblance of plausibility for the book.

    Jonathan and Kurisu are polar opposites in terms of their personal relationships in Japan; normally you’d expect this to be the main story arch. But at the end of the book, both Kurisu and Jonathan appear to be the same persons they were on the day they got to Japan. Whatever momentary flashes of growth (particularly for Kurisu – climbing Fuji-san, a 10-day meditation retreat) are swallowed up by eikaiwa classes, going through the motions as a `sarariman’, or pachinko. Even Kurisu’s core relationship in the book with Aki fails to develop that much from the day Kurisu arrives at her house. The only exception being we get more background for Aki (more, in fact, than we get for Kurisu himself).

    It’s unclear just what Kurisu and Jonathan learned from their time in Japan other than `you can have sex with lot of Japanese women, and they make great wives because they’ll work hard in the home and won’t complain’.

    And ultimately it’s unclear just what message the reader is going to take from the book. There are at least three distinct storylines in Kobe Blue, none of them really work sufficiently well on their own, and ultimately the whole fails to add up to the sum of the parts.

    It’s a damn shame because Johnson clearly has the talent to do much, much better.

    Looking back at this review, I think it may come across a bit more negative than I had intended. Despite the numerous flaws, I still enjoyed reading the book, and still wanted to know more about Kurisu and Aki (both past and future). That, to me is the sign of a good book. Little can be done to save poor writing; that’s not Johnson’s plight. Rather, like a good catcher can help turn a good pitcher into a great pitcher, I suspect Johnson just needs a good editor to tweak and tighten.

    Intriguingly, the book ends with a fairly massive loose end, which suggests a possible sequel. So let me summarize by saying this: Would I buy and read another novel by Johnson?

    The answer is a definite yes. The potential is clearly there.

    Author Information: Scott Urista has a quarter of a century of experience in Japan. He is an executive director for a major Japanese investment bank. He currently lives in London with his wife, two children and Golden Retriever.

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