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Occupational Hazard

Over a bamboo fence an American looks at Japan. - Margery Finn Brown

This short book details Margery Finn Brown's adventures in Japan from 1947 to 1951. It's written at about a 6th grade level, so you can shoot through it in no time.


A lot of this book will sound very cliché, because there are a bunch of books floating around written by Westerners (Americans, mostly) who have lived in Japan, and they all sound alike. The gist of most of them is "Gee wiz!! Japan is different from America!!" They tend to go down a laundry list, describing the same differences in great detail, as if they are the first ones to ever make these observations:


1) Traditional Japanese toilets are different from Western toilets.

2) Eeek!  Some food is unfamiliar/gross!!

3) Yummmmm!  Some other food is tasty!!  (See?? I'm open-minded!!)

4) OMG!  Nudity at the public bathhouse!!!

5) First or secondhand observations about how marriage and courtships are different in Japan and the West.

6) Meaningful, potentially life-changing conversation in which open-minded Western author receives wisdom (preferably of palpable "Eastern" flavor) from an elderly Japanese person.





Brown is guilty of all these offenses, which -to be fair- might have been much fresher when the book was published in 1951.


If that was all she had to offer, I'd give this one star and warn you away. Over A Bamboo Fence is a little bit better than that, because Brown describes life in the postwar Occupation years (1945-52) in great detail. It's a world of hardship which can barely be believed, if you've only ever seen present-day Japan, in all its spotless, gleaming, high-tech glory. Where there are now modern skyscrapers of glass and tile, there were only 70 years ago crowded tin-roofed tenements separated by narrow, muddy alleyways, and endemic with tuberculosis. Even in the relative privilege of her spacious rented house in Kyoto (a city with comparatively less war damage than the industrial centers of Yokohama or Osaka), as the shattered infrastructure was slowly rebuilt, Brown's home only had running water for 2 hours a day, and frequent interruptions in the electricity. Homelessness and malnutrition are all appallingly common here.


Related to the war, the book visits several Japanese soldiers riddled with PTSD (back then called "shell shock" or "battle fatigue").  Many of the Japanese characters Brown meets reflect at some point on what the war, and its outcome, and (for the adults) their role in it -meant to them.  The stress for some people was enormous, and suicides were common, which I can definitely understand.  Beyond that, people deal with the day to day challenges of trying to find employment and build some sort of living ("career" is too hopeful a word for anybody to use in 1947) that will feed one's family, while raising a family, looking for love, and dealing with the foreign troops who now occupy the land (and who are meanwhile dealing with their own baggage and stress).


It's not Tolstoy, but Over a Bamboo Fence brings some value to the table, which makes the small time investment it represents worthwhile.