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  • Belle Brett

Gaijin Women in Japan: Five Novels

After writing the first draft of Gina in the Floating World, I searched for other novels set in Japan with a young, female, and gaijin (foreign) protagonist. I didn’t want to do this too early and have what I read interfere with my creative process, but I was curious about the Japan they portrayed and how their characters reacted to that version of Japan. It’s important to know the competition, right? But also, to be able to talk about how one’s own book is the same or different from others out there. The marketplace loves “comps”—books that can be compared with yours as these comparisons help your book find its audience.

Several novels that fit the bill came out during the period in which I was heavily into my early revisions; another, when I’d put my novel aside for a while; and a fifth when I’d completed most of my edits. I present brief summaries of my five choices here in the order in which I read them. All the protagonists are in Japan either escaping or seeking something.

Sayonara Bar. Susan Barker (2005, in the UK, 2007 in the US).

Written by British author, this novel tells the stories, through alternating first person points of view, of three lost souls whose lives are connected by the bar of the title, in Osaka. Mary, a young English woman, abandoned by her own family, is a bar hostess there, in love with the mama-san’s (the matron of the bar) son, whose loyalty is to the yakuza (gangsters). Watanabe, the cook, has a crush on Mary, and through this higher power he believes he has is convinced that she is in danger. Mr. Sato, a salaryman, finds escape from his dead wife’s ghost in the fantasy life that the bar encourages. This novel is the only one of the five novels focused on the bar setting, like mine, with the customer interactions, the drinking games, the Mama-san, the behind-the-scenes-talk.

Lost Girls and Love Hotels. Catherine Hanrahan (2006).

Hanrahan’s Margaret teaches English by day but loses herself in the sex and alcohol-fueled nightlife of Tokyo. She, too, is escaping a painful childhood. The novel regularly flashes back chronologically to Margaret’s memories of her brother as he gradually loses his grip on reality. And like Mary in Sayonara Bar, she becomes involved with a member of the yakuza and the potential dangers that accompany this association. The response of Dorothy, my protagonist, to her situation is not so different from Margaret’s although Dorothy’s extra-curricular life is tempered by some of the more positive parts of Japanese life, especially the arts.

Amorous Woman. Donna George Storey (2007).

In her quest for good sex, Lydia, the “amorous woman” of the title, finds love, adventure, and heartbreak with all manner of partners, both real and imaginary. Storey takes us on Lydia's erotic journey from her first sexual escapade in the USA through her lusty years as a gaijin in Japan serving different roles, including bar hostess and high-class escort. There she not only satisfies her appetites and curiosities but learns about herself as she navigates the boundaries and complexities of a different culture through her interactions with her varied lovers. Storey’s obvious comfort with writing explicit, beautiful, and sometimes humorous sex scenes, inspired me to write my own.

If You Follow Me. Malena Watrous (2010).

In this dark comedy of manners and customs, Marina follows her girlfriend to Japan to escape her pain following her father’s recent suicide. There, she becomes an English teacher in a remote rural town in Japan and must master an intricate set of rules about every little thing, including garbage. Like Dorothy, Marina is a true fish-out-of-water, learning about herself as she interacts with a complex culture and the quirky, but endearing cast of characters she meets along the way.

The Salaryman’s Wife. Sujata Massey (1997).

Rei Shumata, a 27-year-old Japanese-American woman from California, teaches English in Tokyo and lives in a seedy suburb. On a getaway to an ancient castle town, she discovers the dead body of the wife of a powerful businessman and becomes deeply involved in solving the murder. Her quest leads her to an ever-evolving complex puzzle. Although worldlier than my Dorothy, Rei’s curiosity leads her into increasingly dangerous situations, too, in this suspenseful page-turner.

Maybe readers have encountered other novels that meet my criteria? I look forward to expanding my reading list as my book faces its launch into the world.

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