Ultra Nippon by Jonathan Birchall
Ultra Nippon

By Jonathan Birchall

Headline, cover price UK16.99 approximately: JY2630 at


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
The Big Blowdown

By George P. Pelecanos

Serpent's Tail, cover price $14.95
approximately: JY1585


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 this one.

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 Stories from Japan
Strange But True Strories from Japan

By Jack Seward

Tuttle Publishing, cover price JY1800


"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 buck.

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

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