Gaijin Book Review
The Japanese word gaijin means “unwelcome foreigner.” It’s not profanity, but is sometimes a slur directed at non-Japanese people in Japan.
Lucy is a budding journalist at Northwestern University and she’s obsessed with an exotic new student, Owen Ota, who becomes her lover and her sensei. When he disappears without explanation, she’s devastated and sets out to find him. On her three-month quest across Japan she finds only snippets of the elegant culture Owen had described. Instead she faces anti-U.S. protests, menacing street thugs and sexist treatment, and she winds up at the base of Mt. Fuji, in the terrifying Suicide Forest. Will she ever find Owen? Will she be driven back to the U.S.? Gaijin is a coming-of-age story about a woman who solves a heartbreaking mystery that alters the trajectory of her life.
I had never heard the term, gaijin, before and it is used in two different ways in this story. By Owen, the mysterious boy that our story is centred around, who feels like a gaijin with his family and not really fitting in with society and family standards, and by the people that Lucy meets that describes the way they feel against the Americans (and any foreigners that live in Okinawa).
Lucy seems to be a cautious, reserved person who loves her studies. She falls hard for Owen – who seems full of life, with a kind heart and a beautiful smile. She imagines her whole life with this young man and you can imagine how devastated she was when he just up and leaves her with no explanation. Lucy struggles with this lack of closure, something that her friends and Mother does not understand. She makes a huge decision to travel as close to Japan and Owen as she could get – Okinawa. She is desperate for answers and closure.
I was not familiar with the history of Okinawa, which we are exposed to in this story. I did look up myself some of the history while reading this story as I had no idea how many American soldiers call this ‘home’ and the struggles the people have had that we are introduced into the novel. Lucy is exposed to rape, sexism, protests and anger against the Americans as she begins her career in journalism. Lucy arrives in Okinawa as a naive, innocent young woman who is determined to find Owen. She quickly grows emotionally, mentally as she is exposed to the culture and politics of Okinawa and the impact that the army has had on these people.
This was an excellent story from start to finish. While I had my suspicions of why Owen left, it was the growth of Lucy that I loved the most. She first left for superficial reasons (finding her lost love) but instead we see this great growth in her character. I loved every moment!
You can purchase a copy of this book on Amazon.
About the Author
Sarah Z. Sleeper is an ex-journalist with an MFA in creative writing. This is her first novel. Her short story, “A Few Innocuous Lines,” won an award from Writer’s Digest. Her non-fiction essay, “On Getting Vivian,” was published in The Shanghai Literary Review. Her poetry was published in A Year in Ink, San Diego Poetry Annual and Painters & Poets, and exhibited at the Bellarmine Museum. In the recent past she was an editor at New Rivers Press, and editor-in-chief of the literary journal Mason’s Road. She completed her MFA at Fairfield University in 2012. Prior to that she had a twenty-five-year career as a business writer and technology reporter and won three journalism awards and a fellowship at the National Press Foundation.
Disclosure: I received a digital copy of this book in order to facilitate this review. All opinions expressed are my own.