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Japan Book Reviews

My Mother is a Tractor: A Life in Rural Japan

Author : Nicholas Klar
Distributor: Trafford Publications
ISBN: 1-4120-4897-4
pp. 196

Reviewed by :

Dwayne Lively
Rikkyo University ( www.crazyjapan.com/CJGuide )

"a must read for anyone pondering signing up for the JET Program or any of Japan's fast-growing private ALT providers"

Shunning thousand-mile walks, the martial arts, zen and forays into art and culture in favor of beer, day-trips and karaoke, Nicholas Klar's My Mother is a Tractor offers a disturbingly realistic look at life as an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan.

Klar, an Australian from Adelaide, came to Japan by way of California as a part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. His motives for deciding to come are never fully explained but one gets the sense that he came out of lack of anything more interesting to do. As a result of this, he brought with him surprisingly few pretentions about what he hoped to accomplish in Japan and what he expected to find. His book, rather than being an epic travelogue, is a quiet memoir that takes us on a day by day, drink by drink, yen by yen tour of his two years in the tiny town of Omi, a small, one company town wedged between the sea and the mountains at the Western end of Niigata Prefecture. Being trapped in a small, boring town that doesn't appear on most maps, inevitably sends him out on a series of adventures and parties with fellow JETs and the occasional drunk principal.

Klar's journey from ignorance to, well, a kind of deliberate ignorance (he refuses to learn Japanese for reasons he explains as he goes along) is salted with witty insights about Japan and the Japanese. Klar supplements his personal insights with those of other ALTs (he's apparently never deleted a single email he's ever received or sent) and an impressive amount of research about why things are the way they are in Japanese politics and history.

Despite a healthy dose of cynicism about his job as an English teacher in a system that neither rewards students for learning English nor punishes them for not, Klar manages to keep his views well balanced. Although often bewildered by, and critical of, the things he encounters, he manages to avoid being mean-spirited. He even manages to make the standard Japanese enkai (an overpriced, two hour drinking “party” complete with speeches and myriad rules of etiquette) seem much more interesting than it actually is. He is also pleasantly self-deprecating as he explains how his efforts to get out of Omi at all costs often ended with his bag trapped in a train station and him sleeping in the bushes or on a concrete slab. The exceptions to all this “balance” and “fairness” usually involve his encounters with Japanese bureaucracy, including a delightfully funny tale about trying to fax a ministry when the office he needed had no fax machine.

Readers will also quickly notice that, although Klar was brought to Japan to teach English, very little of the book actually mentions what happens inside a Japanese classroom. (The book's title, in all fairness, does come from a student essay he had to mark.) While this may seem to be an oversight, it actually represents a kind of honesty: Almost no ALTs find satisfaction in their jobs (the better qualified they are as teachers the more this is true) and most ALTs in small towns sprint for the trains after school lets out in order to get to a bigger town with better drinking establishments. Klar makes no apologies about this—in fact, if his town had been more interesting the book would not be interesting at all.

Despite its charms, the book has a few weaknesses. The people Klar encounters are often reduced to capsule descriptions and names. No one, except an American dubbed “Ernie,” who maintains that the "biggest problem with Japan" is that “It ain't got no chewin' tabacca” and who later acquires female companionship via enjo kosai (paid dates), is given anything resembling real development. Everyone else could be easily interchangeable.
Finally, at times, Klar's writing style leaves the witty and enters the overwrought and artificially sentimental. A scene where he describes the fate of his mountain bike is especially cringeworthy as he describes his hopes for its life without him.

Still, these are more annoyances than serious problems and, in Klar's defense, he does establish the importance of having a decent bicycle (as opposed to the ubiquitous, bulky mamachari bikes everyone else seems to have) when living in a small town. Some of the best scenes in the book, such as when he finds an abandoned elementary school in the mountains, involve his bike.

All in all, I found this book to be a refreshing break from the more epic and pretentious travelogues mentioned earlier and reviewed elsewhere on this website. Far from bashing Japan or overly praising it, My Mother is a Tractor is, in an odd way, a grand thank you from Klar to Japan for treating him so well for two years.

Early in the book, Klar quotes someone who said that “young Australians travelling abroad tended to see the world as an extended pub-crawl.” This is an apt description of Klar's book. This is also what makes it a must read for anyone pondering signing up for the JET Program or any of Japan's fast-growing private ALT providers. The book's message, or warning, is simple: This is life in Japan. Enter at your own risk. Enjoy your stay.


Read more about My Mother is a Tractor at Trafford Publishing's web site: www.trafford.com My Mother is a Tractor is now being distributed by Trafford Publishers and it is available online.



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