Book Review: Re-discovering Japan with a Nordic Girl – 北欧女子オーサが見つけた日本の不思議 by Åsa Ekström

Book Review
‘Nordic Girl Åsa discovers the Mysteries of Japan’ by Åsa Ekström

Publisher: 株式会社Kadokawa

ISBN-10: 4040674235
ISBN-13: 978-4040674230

Language: 日本語・Japanese
Pages: 140
Price Tag: 1080 JPY

This is my first book review ever, or perhaps I shall say Manga review. It is an independent one, I just read the book, thinking to myself, this is something I want to share with other readers interested in Japan and learners of the Japanese language. The book goes under the genre comic essays and comes in the FOUR PANEL COMIC-STRIP format (also 四コマ; Yon koma). It was published in March 2015 and somehow picked it up from the shelves some months back to keep my Japanese going, while no longer in the country. While there are no kanji readings (furigana or ruby characters) provided, the stories are not too hard to follow. I suppose that everyone with a JLPT 2 level will read through fairly smoothly. I had to pull out the dictionary a couple times, but it didn’t hinder me from reading it all the way…やる気さえあれば (if only one has the motivation to do so). Even though there is no version other than Japanese (not yet), I think it is probably the most fun to read it in the one language because certain references and nuances of contents just come across best.

The is an episode also found in the book, however, this blog post though is not colored. Source: http://ameblo.jp/hokuoujoshi/
The is an episode also found in the book, however, this blog post is not colored unlike the printed version.
Source: http://ameblo.jp/hokuoujoshi/

北欧女子オーサが見つけた日本の不思議 (ほくおうじょし オーサ が みつけた にほんの ふしぎ), or Nordic Girl Åsa discovers the Mysteries of Japan, tells the story of Åsa Ekström, a Swedish lady (cute as a button) and MANGAKA, who moves to Tokyo to pursue and fulfill her dream of drawing manga in Japan. At this stage, it can be said that she well accomplished this goal as this book evidently proves – as a side note, a second volume is already in the making. This accomplishment needs to be well respected, given that the country is already affluent of artists that just wait for their chance to publish their own work. On the other hand, since foreign professionals in the industry are a rare sight – at least I don’t know of any well-known non-Japanese artist publishing regularly in Japan – I think, their is yet room for opportunity. The timing was right and Åsa made a great job by grabbing the bull by its horns to realize her project. Out of a simple blog grew a success story, as her posts found great resonance with readers.

Funnily, Åsa and I have the same age and we moved to Japan the same year, which was 2011. Perhaps, but not only, this might be a point, why I caught on so well to the story. The book is based on Åsa’s personal experiences, taking the reader on a journey of her fantastic discoveries and funny encounters as she lives and studies in Tokyo. The episodes are filled with wit, giving a couple good laughs along the way. Although Åsa likes Japan a lot as one can tell, she remarks also on things, she looks at more critically. So it is not all whitewashing. As for her drawings, they are gently lined, containing great attention to detail, which makes it a joy for the reader.

The book contains of 7 parts (incl. self-introduction and afterword) and the episodes play on various topics. The first portion of the book, which is all color up to page 32, introduces herself as well as mentions about the peculiarities of her everyday life (chapter 1). For instance, why she was worried about Japan’s safety (because actually it is almost too safe), how she took incredible six months to figure out how to correctly open a ONIGIRI (お握り, rice ball snack wrapped in seaweed…it remains her secret how she managed that ;)..) or why the hell banana is the cheapest fruit available in Japan (I always asked myself the same question, given it is not even a domestic produce).

The second and third chapter, from now on all in black and white print, go on about experiences in her shared housing and the difficulties she faced with the Japanese language, which offers a lot of finickiness for foreigners. There is a lot about reading between the lines, or as the Japanese would put it, reading the air (空気を読む事・くうきをよむこと). In this part she also introduces her share mates and friends she hangs out with, bringing more characters to the plot as they re-appear along the story. As she used to live in a housing with a more traditional interior, also her ‘romance’ with the SLIDING DOOR (障子・しょうじ) and FUTON (布団; Japanese-style mattress for sleeping)  gets its share.

The forth part, takes the reader away from Japan, shedding more light into Åsa’s background, also explaining how she felt being back home after an extended period of time in a country that is so different from hers. A personal reference here, I think it was well chosen to add such a chapter and actually I liked to get to know more about a country that is always mistaken with my own (for whatever reason) and that my grandfather used to love so much. To continue, it is probably true that once you savor Japanese food in Japan, the same dishes can’t quite live up when served in one’s own country. She also tells about Japan’s pop-culture that has made a remarkable impact on Sweden’s youth and how young people are crazy about COSPLAY. On the other hand, it sometimes leads to a distorted image of the country, and that in fact, the reality there is quite different.

The fifth chapter and the afterword, representing the final part of her story, are about what she personally loves about Japan, for example the kindness and discipline of locals, how well-tended and fashion-oriented Japanese men are, followed by thanks to supporters and readers of hers. A few pages prior to the afterword, she says something I can very well relate to. Why she is drawn to Japan is difficult to explain to others, but somehow she just felt very happy and grateful for the opportunity to be there. This sentiment might derive from the many things we got in touch with in younger years of our lives that connected us to the land far away East, kind a like following a feeling buried all the years somewhere inside and an inner voice saying: ‘I finally made it here!’.  

Hokuoujoshi 1-1

北欧女子オーサが見つけた日本の不思議 was an entertaining and delightful read, leaving me with a smile – and a bit of yearning. I’m glad I read the book, with it, I could re-discover Japan again by witnessing scenes much familiar two my own. If one visits Japan with an open mind and heart it can be a very rewarding experience and a great source of inspiration as I may personally confirm. Åsa seems to take this approach, carefully observing her surroundings to afterwards bring it skillfully to paper. At this point, I feel like to express my thanks to her for offering me this second opportunity, also wishing her all the best of fortune for her upcoming projects. It is admirable what she could achieve already and I hope she will be able to maintain that momentum going forward. I think the nicest thing of all, her works will be a constant memory for her personally that she may draw out at any time and look back on no matter where she is.

Herewith I conclude my first review. I just hinted on some of the contents, the rest, readers shall discover themselves. I hope it was nevertheless interesting and that you enjoyed what you read. I would be happy, if the one or the other picks up a copy of her book to page through in person (AMAZON.JP). She has also HER OWN BLOG over at Ameblo, where she regularly posts sketches, such as the ones in the book. There, you may follow her latest discoveries and insightful cultural references. Some of the newer episodes might show up in her next volume – check it out! I also shall look forward to her second creation with pleasant anticipation. It is already booked for my wish-list :).

Here a short introductory of the book and Åsa herself (Japanese only).

Tack så mycket ・ ありがとうございます ・ Thank you!

©MyLittle Dejima

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