by Jerry Waxler
The memoir “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” is based on a familiar premise: a young woman marries and moves to a different city to follow her husband’s job. From this raw material, Lisa Fineberg Cook takes us on a rich, complex journey. The title is an extraordinarily clever play on words, referring to the acronym Jewish American Princess, or JAP. It refers to the fact that her sense of privilege and entitlement were squeezed out of her by the realities of her move to Japan.
As the title suggests, Japan plays an important role, but an American in Japan is only one of several contrasting cultural realities that make this book so delightfully multi-dimensional. Lisa grew up in Los Angeles, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. In Japan, she lives in Nagoya, which feels insulated. When she takes a trip to Tokyo, an international city with more global connections, she contrasts it to Nagoya, with its dearth of designer clothes and modern hair stylists. The less outgoing social conventions of her adopted city combined with the clumsiness of crossing the language barrier force her to shift her cultural gears into speeds so slow she didn’t even know they existed.
Launching into Adulthood
The cultural transition that dominates this book is Lisa’s journey from the familiar world of a young adult to the strange new world of adulthood. Cook doesn’t just saunter into this transition. She catapults into it. Just before the memoir starts, the most important thing in her life was to beautify herself and attract boys. She marries and then flies to Japan where she must settle down and adapt to the adult world of compromise, when she actually had to work for things, and sometimes wait for gratification.
At the threshold of this new world, Cook describes adulthood through the eyes of a newcomer who is shocked that she must leave her entitlements behind. During her adjustment to marriage, she faces the mundane chores of house cleaning, laundry, and entertaining neighborhood women. The newlywed arguments are superb and insightful, offering a glimpse behind those closed walls at the way both partners are adjusting to their new roles. Just as Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball kept us engaged in newlywed problems thanks to humor and cultural contrasts, Lisa Fineberg Cook does the same thing. She keeps the story moving, thanks to excellently executed contrasts between L.A. and Japan.
Adapting to Japan While Growing Up
When Lisa meets her Japanese neighbors, she tries desperately to read social cues that are either absent or so understated as to be invisible to the American eye. The mismatch generates many opportunities for humorous misunderstanding and dramatic tension. There are also opportunities for insight.
For example, when she teaches English to Japanese girls, she encourages them to think independently. However, her efforts are frustrated by their social conventions. They seem to believe their highest social priority is to think exactly the same thoughts as everyone else. When one student furtively asks Lisa for help with an English poem, the teacher recognizes and admires the social risk the girl is taking. But like feeding a hummingbird, she must hide her excitement so she doesn’t scare the girl away. The situation highlights the contrast between American exuberance and Japanese reserve.
Tarnishing the Glow of Sexual Charisma
Another fascinating cultural insight in the memoir was the difference between beautiful women, head-turners who command the attention of a room, versus the rest of humanity, who walk into a room barely noticed. I sometimes wonder what it feels like to be a beautiful woman who attracts attention by simply looking good. Fortunately, I don’t have to reincarnate to find out. I can just read memoirs. In “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” Lisa Fineberg Cook explores the question through a sexy girl’s eyes. For example, she talks to her friend Stacy about how good it feels to walk past construction workers in L.A. in order to get an ego boost from a wolf whistle.
In Japan, Lisa discovers a fascinating twist to this experience of being stared at. When she commutes to her job on a crowded train everyone looks at her, a situation she is probably accustomed to at home, but this gaze is colder and more remote, as if the other passengers are examining a strange specimen. Her size, her shape, the color of her hair and skin, attract attention not because she is delicious but because she is different. Again, like so much of the memoir, this experience helps her grow beyond the entitlements of youth and move on to the next stage in her life.
Each time I turned the page, I learned more about how people must learn about and get along with each other. In each contrast, whether between sexy single and married adult, Japanese and American, charismatic and ordinary individuals, husbands and wives, I feel like I am peering into the heart of the human condition. Lisa Fineberg Cook’s life experience taught me many lessons about her in particular, about the people she encountered, and about writing memoirs. I’ll say more about these lessons in the next part of this essay.
(This is the first of a three part review. To see the second part, click here.)
Other Memoirs About Launching
Another book of a launching and pop culture is Jancee Dunn’s “Enough About Me” – Jancee left home to enter a career at Rolling Stone magazine, while she shifted her self-image from child to adult.
A similar transition takes place in “Sound of No Hands Clapping” by Toby Young, an excellent transition from a wild and often drunk single, to a married young father, looking to convert his attention from self to family.
Most of the drama of “Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls is about surviving mistakes made by her parents. When she is ready to take responsibility for herself, she emerges from poverty and into adulthood like a rocket.
Frank McCourt’s Coming of Age represents a dark difficult transition. Unlike Lisa Fineberg Cook’s “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” by the time McCourt reaches the end of “Angela’s Ashes,” he had no idea how to be an adult. He describes his launching in much greater detail in his second memoir, “Tis.”
For another article about launching into adulthood: How These Memoir Authors Emerged Into Adulthood
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.