“Death of a Salaryman” by Fiona Campbell

I didn’t like it.  I enjoyed reading it, of course.  But there was something about the whole experience that felt rather empty.  Perhaps it was due to Campbell’s use of her own experiences in Japan, and some pretty well-known TV shows, formats and stereotypes.  I have to admit that I read it all and fast, finished it in a day.  I might have thrown a lesser book out before I’d made it past the third chapter.

But it is terrible.  It shows no insight into any Japanese characters and plays up on empty soulless stereotypes.  In retrospect the entire story is meaningless and the main character’s motivation is confused.  It all seems just to be a bunch of pop-culture archetypes jostling for camera space as the author smiles and points out that she’s gone to pachinko during her stay in Japan.  And a ramen shop.  And a Mister Donuts.  Oh yeah, and a bank, too.

I suppose the book suffers from two things.  Firstly, from the stereotypes themselves; Japanese pop culture also perpetuates a lot of these, so it isn’t that hard to imagine one foreigner being blinded to real people by these glossy images.  Secondly, for all that it cites Japanese cultural activities and characters and draws heavily upon Japanese film and anecdotes, this isn’t about Japan.

It’s what I once heard said about The Mikado when I was about fourteen, and it’s pretty true here as well:  this isn’t a book about Japan, or about Salarymen.  It’s about a British woman writing a masters thesis.  The most fun one can have when watching The Mikado is not by being delighted by Japan, but by snickering over the very British identity and prejudices shown through the characters.  And though I’m sure Campbell didn’t intend for this to be the strongest part of Death of a Salaryman, the joy of seeing past the electric lights extravaganza and through all these characters into a very British person trying to make sense of it all made all the tedious prose worth it.

I think that a lot of other book reviewers have missed out on the most fun to be had here.  By all means, complain about the bias and bigotry and short-sightedness.  But don’t forget to have a bit of a chuckle about it all on your way out.  This one isn’t staying on my shelf, but I’ll be smiling all the way to the charity bins.


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