Although countless tomes on Japan' J-League flirtation with soccer have been published in
Japanese, this is the first book written in English by an outside observer. And very
entertaining it is, too.
British journalist and football (soccer) fan Birchall follows the fortunes of the Shimizu
S-Pulse J-League team home and away during the 1998-99 season that culminated in them
being robbed of the title by "the evil" Jubilo Iwata. En route, he gets to see
many of the ugliest cities in Japan and gradually becomes accepted into the many cliques
of obsessive supporters that trail the team around the country.
The book is a humorous, picaresque adventure with Birchall as its central character
spending much of his time tilting at the windmills of Japanese society as seen through the
mirror of soccer.
Despite the colorful cast of characters, the springboard for the book, however, is that
Shimizu are managed by Englishman Steve Perryman, once a fine defender with English
Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur. Perryman's dressing-room musings on the differences
between the British way of playing, with its emphasis on the individual, and the Japanese,
which relies on the concept of group harmony or wa, allows the author to extend
similar observations to what he sees around him.
This is particularly true of the behavior of Japanese supporters. While the average
British supporter is certainly not the thug portrayed in the media, he (they are still
predominantly male) is hardly likely to pause after a game to pick up the rubbish lying
around at his feet or to dismiss a catastrophic defeat with a philosophical shake of the
head, as do his Japanese (largely female) counterparts. Birchall starts bemused by the
behavior of Japanese fans, and then slowly comes to admire them, with reservations.
As often happens with books of this type, in which some degree of explanation for the
non-Japanese reader is necessary, the author occasionally veers off into "aren't the
Japanese weird?" territory, but usually manages to redress the balance with something
that's admirable, rather than just alien. It's also very funny, and anybody who's ever
lived in Japan will certainly identify with many of the author's astonished asides. NK
The Big Blowdown
By George P. Pelecanos
Serpent's Tail, cover price
This novel, part one of a quartet set in Washington DC, is actually a UK reprint of a book
that first appeared in the US over four years ago. If ever a book deserved a reprint, it's
Writer Pelecanos started out in the early 1990s with a series of well-written but
derivative Private Eye novels featuring a Greek-American detective called Nick Stefanos.
With this book he really broadens his canvas. The setting is still DC, but "The Big
Blowdown" pushes the boundaries of the crime novel. Simply, it tells the story, in
episodic fashion, of a pair of best friends who must decide whether to sacrifice their
friendship for the sake of their criminal careers. The repercussions of the decision last
for both men's lives, until fate brings them together again.
Unashamedly influenced by such movies as Once Upon a Time in the West and GoodFellas,
Pelecanos deftly weaves a tale that combines great characterization with compassion and a
feel for his period. Set in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the story depicts a time when
the children of '30s American immigrants were growing up in a country that was still
foreign to their parents.
By the end, you know the characters so well, and understand their motivations so
perfectly, that you have no idea which way they will leap.
This is one of those books that makes you head straight for the bookstore to buy
everything the author ever wrote. NK
Strange But True Strories from Japan
By Jack Seward
Tuttle Publishing, cover price
"Aren't the Japanese weird" has become such an established topic for writers
that it almost deserves its own section in a bookstore. However, if anyone has the right
to contribute to the "genre," it's veteran Jack Seward. The author of many books
on Japan and on the Japanese language, Seward grew up here and has a far deeper
understanding of his subject matter than most fly-by-night authors out to make a quick
The book itself is a mixture of highly personal recollections of life in Japan, such as an
eye-witness account of a kitten dying in traffic, and tales that have been documented
elsewhere, such as the penile amputation performed by Tokyo "mistress
extraordinaire" Sada Abe that later inspired the movie Ai No Corrida. Each
of the book's 23 chapters has its own largely self-explanatory theme, and throughout
Seward proves himself a genial storyteller whose idiosyncratic, vaguely old-fashioned
English and unswerving determination to avoid referring to the genital areas of the body
by their real names is somehow endearing - especially given the frequency with which
knobs, knockers and all points in between crop up in these pages.
The structure makes this a perfect book for dipping into: in fact, it would be almost
impossible to read it at a stretch and retain much of the intriguing information that's
imparted. Some of this, like the story of faithful Hachiko the dog, is standard issue for
Tokyo dwellers, but other stories, such as that of Japan's own atom-bomb test in Korea
days after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are quite chilling in their
implications. In between the two extremes is a host of amusing anecdotes and stories, the
highlights of which are the chapter devoted to Japanese English and the intriguingly
titled chapter "The Reincarnation of Christ in Japan?"
One of the book's many pluses is that, although it contains accounts of Japanese events
that seem strange or even unthinkable to Western eyes such as honorable mass suicides,
Seward's explanation of the background to the events makes them comprehensible-something
most writers from outside Japan cannot do.
While this book will do nothing to change your view of the country, neither does it do
anything to reinforce old prejudices. In Seward's case, familiarity with his subject has
certainly not bred contempt, and he has the happy knack of passing on his appreciation of
all facets of life in this country to even the most Japan-phobic of readers. NK