Jennifer’s Japan Stories

Big in Japan

It’s so great to be asked to blog for Adrienne’s awesome site today. Thanks, Adrienne.

It’s super exciting to have a novel come out, I have to say. My fourth published book, BIG IN JAPAN, is now making its attack on the reading world. The plot is this: big fat Texan guy, Buck Cooper, is invisible in his lame life, until he goes to Japan and accidentally becomes the first blond sumo wrestler.

People have asked me where this idea came from. I’m a short mom of five with no athletic ability. “Write what you know” didn’t come into play for the sumo parts of this plot. However, I did have a great time during college living in Japan for a year and a half, and I drew from those days to help craft this novel. Adrienne asked me to tell Japan stories. I could go on all day!

I fell head over heels in love with Japan. Chiba—home of Narita Airport and the Chiba Marins baseball team and Tokyo Disneyland—was where I lived first. Several different people told me Tokyo Disneyland was built atop a landfill—I guess meaning land dredged up out of the Tokyo Bay. Unfortunately, I never got to go, but I did see the Tokyo Bay on a long bike ride one winter night. Across the bay we could see, through the blood-red haze, the dark outline of Mt. Fuji, Japan’s most famous peak. Pretty stark!

Later I moved to downtown Tokyo. There were exciting things like slam trains—where officers down in the subway wear white gloves and shove additional passengers into crammed train cars at rush hour. The Japanese know how to capitalize on tight spaces. A house adjacent to my apartment building was so narrow I could stretch out my arms (all five measly feet) and span it.

One fun thing was reading the oddly phrased English words on merchandise. One t-shirt I saw had a picture of a cartoon tortoise with the caption, “His mustache is so proud of him.” Brilliant. Another gem was a Hessian-style black helmet (the kind with the spike on top) dangling from the handlebar of a motorcycle parked outside a ramen shop. It was decorated with a skull and crossbones and the words, “Speak English or die.”

Food! Japan has tofu and sashimi (the real name for raw fish, in case anyone cares), but easily the most exotic thing I ate (under peer pressure) was a cricket. They sold them in the grocery stores in a Styrofoam plate with plastic wrap over them. Never would I have dreamed of buying one to eat myself, but I was at an English class one night and someone brought them, probably to pressure the gaijins (foreigners) into tasting them. I was game. And yeah, it was crunchy. The taste was all soy sauce and sugar, which was what my particular cricket was fried in. But I have to admit the prickly leg did kind of stick to the back of my tongue and made it hard to choke down.

Afterward, I asked why on earth that was considered food, and I learned a good lesson. After World War II, the economy of the country was devastated. Their food supply had all gone to the soldiers, I was told, and the rice paddies weren’t producing. There was widespread starvation. For many, the only way to survive was to forage in the mountains for crickets. The protein in the insects kept them alive.

Eating that cricket made me pretty grateful for the huge abundance I’d always known and the people who sacrificed so much to keep themselves and their culture and their country afloat despite great hardship.

My grandpa lived in Japan with his wife and 6 kids during the 1950s. He was really excited when I told him I was going to Tokyo. He helped me overcome my fears of living there—especially when he pulled out his slide projector and his gorgeous pictures of the millions of autumn leaves and the zillions of pink spring cherry blossoms flittering down from the trees. The cherry blossom represents the fleetingness of life, and I reflect that even though my time there felt long, it was fleeting. Here’s hoping someday I’ll get to go back and show my own family the resilient and beautiful islands of Japan. Maybe everyone should! (Or at least read BIG IN JAPAN to take a reader’s trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.)

Jennifer Griffith

Jennifer Griffith lives in Arizona with her husband and five kids. You can read more about her novel at BIG IN JAPAN. She also blogs. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.