Atomic Sushi : Notes from the Heart of Japan by Simon May (Alma Books)

I admit my title of choice may seem to be in poor taste because of the current nuclear power plant crisis in Fukushima Prefecture, but I assure you, this book was released long before March 11’s 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the tsunami which caused the nuclear disaster.  First published in 2006, this is a collection of essays that British national May wrote while serving as a visiting professor of philosophy at Tokyo University.  As the professor says in his own words when he was unexpectedly invited to teach, his first thoughts were – “The Sushi!”

First of all, we must acknowledge that Japan’s bastion of education – Tokyo University or Todai as it’s locally known—is one of the most prestigious and also the most difficult to enter of all Japanese educational institutions.  It is considered the training ground of Japan’s bureaucrats, the elite of the elite, a closed system that’s virtually impossible to penetrate, especially for foreigners.  May informs us that he was “…apparently the first British professor of philosophy since 1882.”

Since May becomes a part of this elite for the duration of his stay, I must admit that the ordinary traveler and even long standing expats would not be able to experience some of his adventures which were arranged by some of the Todai elites who befriended him.  We are given a glimpse into private “amusement” parlours (you will have to use your imagine as to what you can expect to see there), exclusive sushi shops, luxurious ryokan (Japanese inns) and  kaiseki dining with its price tag  at about $1000 a feast.

What I found most interesting were May’s dealings with the Tokyo University administrators before he was even allowed to teach.  He was expecting a warm welcome but found himself in bureaucratic hell, “…administrators began by demanding that I sign a declaration promising to be a loyal and honourable servant of the Japanese state.”  This seems rather reasonable, however he was soon burdened with further requests: “I needed health tests to certify that my body fluids were unobjectionable and my body solids in good order, a declaration from my landlady about my accommodation costs, a certificate proving that I had attended primary school, a document registering me as an alien, and a diagram to illustrate the exact route I intended to take when traveling from home to university, and then from home to university again.”  It’s an ominous start to his  life in Tokyo.

To illustrate May’s brush with bureaucratic red tape in more detail, you only need to read his response to one of the endless enquiries he had to endure – “When I replied by pointing out that in Britain there is no certifying authority that exists for the purpose of certifying that something is impossible to certify, they asked me to state this with a certificate, certified by myself.”  Perhaps those bureaucrats have just a little too much time on their hands.

However, not all of May’s essays are about the Japanese elite or their exclusive clubs.  He also writes about what he sees: things that may seem ordinary to the average Japanese but strange to most foreigners.  He observes people sleeping while standing or sitting on the trains for their commute home but having the uncanny ability to wake from their slumber at their stop.  He witnesses a man rubbing up his knees against a young girl and wonders what to do; groping in trains is a major problem in Japan which hardly ever makes the news.  May also attends and describes a Japanese wedding and a Japanese funeral—and as I have also been a participant in both, I can tell you it is nothing like what you would expect in the States. But you will have to read this book to find out just how different it is.

This is a must read for any Japanophile.  It will make you laugh, it will make you cry, it will make you want to visit Japan on your own as well.  Even expats will find this amusing – I should know, as I belong to that particular group.~Ernie Hoyt