Dave Barry Does Japan

August 7, 2009

dave barry japan Summary: Humorist Dave Barry took a three-week vacation to Japan with his family, ostensibly just for the purpose of writing this book. He didn’t have an inherent interest in Japanese culture or anything; he just thought talking about all the differences between that nation and America would provide lots of fodder for jokes and humorous observations.

What follows is a typical fish-out-of-water travelogue that touches on the various trials and tribulations Barry faced while trying to navigate this extremely foreign country. He laments the fact that he didn’t bother to learn to say anything beyond “thank you” prior to arriving, and that he can’t read the language in order to find train stations or whatever. He also talks extensively about how people stared at him and his family because they were gaijin (foreigners), though he’s quick to point out that this was driven by curiosity, not rudeness.

Other topics touched upon in this book include: baseball games, sumo wrestling matches, kabuki theater, strange Japanese delicacies, onsen (baths), Shinto temples, bowing, getting lost, trying to communicate through the language barrier, eating pizza and KFC, beer vending machines, slippers, karaoke, and more.

After this three-week journey, Barry comes to the stunning conclusions that A) the Japanese are different from us (Americans); B) some of these differences are good, some are bad; and C) nobody’s perfect. How profound.

Liked:

  • The book started off well, and I liked the anecdote of Barry trying to learn Japanese on the plane. Oh, and he got to fly first class on JAL — lucky bastard!
  • Some of Barry’s observations were funny, and I did laugh a few times during the course of the book.
  • This was a very short, fast read that doesn’t require a big time commitment or much mental focus to get through.

Disliked:

  • I listened to the audiobook version of this and thought the narrator was TERRIBLE! He butchered nearly every Japanese word he encountered, such as karaoke (he said “ka-ra-o-ka” instead of “ka-ra-o-kay”), yakuza (he said “ya-kutsa” instead of “ya-ku-za”), mizu (“mi-tsu” instead of “mi-zu”), geisha (“gee-sha” instead of “gay-sha”), and, stunningly, Hiroshima (“huh-rah-shim-a” instead of “hero-shima”). God, I didn’t expect the guy to be fluent or anything, but if you’re going to narrate a book about Japan, maybe you should take a few minutes to learn the VERY SIMPLE pronunciation rules of the language!
  • To make things even worse, the narrator tried to do an Asian-type voice whenever repeating something that one of Dave’s Japanese guides said. Thing is, the narrator sounded like a stereotypical Charlie Chan Chinese TV character instead of a Japanese person. It was awful. Again, he doesn’t have to be an expert on foreign accents, but … if you can’t do it, why even bother??
  • I was surprised at how critical Barry was of Japanese culture. He made fun of the Harajuku kids (sure, they might be ridiculous, but are they any more so than American youths who walk around with their jeans hanging halfway down their asses and their ballcaps turned sideways?), derided the sentiment behind the Hiroshima museum, and dismissed the whole idea of a society where conformity is valued over individuality. These Japanese notions aren’t wrong; they’re just different. The American way is NOT the be all and end all.
  • Some of the things Barry said were just plain wrong or were exaggerated for effect. For instance, while attending a baseball game, he said that there were designated cheering sections and that everyone outside the designated areas sat “stone silent”. Um, no, sorry, that’s not how it is. Yes, there are the main cheering sections in the outfield, but the rest of the crowd gets into the cheering as well, by clapping, hitting noisemakers together, etc. There’s no silence; it’s practically constant noise!

My Reaction:
I was expecting a humorous look at what it’s like to visit Japan, but instead got a rather juvenile travelogue filled with incredulity that a country on the other side of the world from the U.S. could be so *gasp* different than us. I’ve spent the last 9 years living in both the U.S. and Japan, and though some of Dave’s observations are spot-on, many are just misguided or plain wrong. I give Dave Barry Does Japan 2 stars out of 5.

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