Book Review: Wasabi for Breakfast: A Poignant Exploration of Sexism and Racism Across Societies
Written for ANTHRCUL 202: Ethnic Diversity in Japan, taught by Professor Jennifer Robertson in Winter 2018
Wasabi for Breakfast is a lighthearted yet pungent look at issues ranging from identity to discrimination, both in the context of Japan and of the United States in the 1990s. The book is a collection of two novellas. “Family Business” tells the story of a woman in her fifties returning to Japan to visit her elderly mother after spending twenty years in America, highlighting the difficulties a Japanese emigrant has when trying to readjust to a constricting and rule-ridden Japanese society after living abroad. “1001 Pillars of Flame” focuses on Japanese immigrants in America, specifically looking at a middle-aged woman’s reaction and relationship to the Rodney King riots of 1992 and heavily focusing on the multifaceted and effusive nature of racism and how it can integrate throughout even the most intimate of relationships. The novellas were written by Foumiko Kometani, a Japanese-American painter who heavily mirrors the main characters in both novels, who are also artists with ties to both America and Japan. The novellas were published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2013 and were translated by Mary Goebel Noguchi.
In “Family Business”, upon arrival in Japan, fifty-eight-year-old Megumi states “I am in that uncomfortable yet familiar state of just having returned, stuck between nations, Japan and the United States, between languages, between cultures” (“Family Business” Ch. 1). Despite growing up entrenched in Japanese culture, Megumi both feels like and is treated as a foreigner. The novella constantly refers to the concept of yayakoshii, roughly translating to “complicated.” The word is used to describe everything from the organization of train stations to the complex family relationships that lead Megumi’s cousin, Ichiro, to run away from the family and create a stressful situation which leads to an examination of obligation, reputation, and tradition in Japanese society. Megumi’s unique position as a returning member of the Japanese diasporic community categorizes her as an outsider in contemporary Japan, and she has difficulty understanding the society she grew up in after spending so much time abroad. She repeatedly notes the formulaic nature of many of her interactions, particularly noting the constant switching between formal speech and casual Kansai-ben, her native dialect, when conversing with long-lost relatives. Such a phenomenon both highlights the attempt of the Japanese government to “nationalize” Japanese into belonging to one homogenous nation and the failure of this attempt, due to the regional nature of the family’s speech. Throughout the novel, Megumi acts as a disrupter of tradition: she questions why she must pay a large sum of money at a Buddhist temple for the death anniversary of one of her aunts; she refuses to use traditional tatami mats during the chanting of sutras, instead turning towards more comfortable Zen meditation stools; and she pursues abstract art rather than following Japanese traditional style, to the dismay of her former art teacher. Kometani tends to focus on these tiny acts of rebellion, not aimed towards a specific goal but still slowly unraveling a society where deep-seated traditions and values are rarely debated. Throughout the novella, Megumi exudes a free-thinking, resilient, and relatable nature that allows the reader to very easily follow her gentle yet complex train of thought.
“1001 Fires Raging” begins with the quote from James Baldwin, “Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality.” Sixty-one-year-old Yu is blunt and outspoken, especially about the racism and sexism that she faces in her everyday life. The story catalyzes with the occurrence of the 1992 Rodney King Riots, which followed the acquittal of three white Los Angeles policemen involved in a brutal beating of an African-American man. The riots created chaos in Los Angeles bordering on guerilla warfare: streets were burned, businesses were looted, and people were shot, regardless of their race, sex, or position in life. This anger brought forth a national conversation about racially-motivated police brutality and the skewed justice system in America (Sastry). Yu reflects on the riots as she begins to fear that they will reach her own home: she realizes that those who are rioting are venting their anger in a non-productive way that only set back minority communities further in comparison to the wealthy residents of an unscathed Beverly Hills: “[T]he minorities always end up doing battle with each other. Rioters always burn down their own neighborhoods, punishing no one but themselves” (“1001 Fires Raging” Ch. 5). Those responsible for the riots were out of reach, so black communities took their anger out on Koreans who lived close to black neighborhoods. Meanwhile, lawmakers, policymakers, and celebrities continued to enjoy a lifestyle of luxury and safety, tightening their control as minority communities further destabilized. As a Japanese woman, Yu ponders about her role in the riots: she disagrees with the violence, yet feels a strong connection to the minorities being wronged.
Kometani’s work touches on many serious and complex issues: particularly, it heavily addresses the relationship between sexism and racism. Speaking of American society, Yu notes that “When people said that women had gained in stature, they were mainly talking about white women, completely ignoring the status of minority women” (“1001 Fires Raging” Ch. 7). She repeatedly complains about being doubly handicapped due to both her race and gender. She wistfully remembers the “melting pot” version of American life that she had been presented as an immigrant, a life where anyone could live as glamorously as the celebrities in Hollywood movies. As minority groups turn against each other, this idealistic vision of American society becomes increasingly tainted in her mind. Despite the discrimination she faces, however, Yu is still passionate about her design work and continues to try to gain recognition for her artwork. Megumi also faces discrimination from the men in her previous cohort: as they age, they still claim that women can’t paint and react with incredulity and envy when they learn that Megumi ran an art show in New York City. The strength of both Yu and Megumi in the face of discrimination through their outsider statuses and their outspoken natures was quite inspiring to me, especially as a woman of color. Kometani artfully combines reflections on serious issues as aging and discriminations with simple personal emotions, such as the nostalgia effused by a Japanese song about love heard in a coffee shop. Weaving these thoughts together paints her characters as poignantly and sometimes painfully human. The collections of intimate reflections begin to form a commentary about an individual life as a process, subtly affected by the twists and turns of society as it constantly strives for survival.
Kometani, Foumiko. “1001 Fires Raging.” Wasabi for Breakfast. Translated by Mary Goebel Noguchi, Dalkey Archive Press, 2013.
Kometani, Foumiko. “Family Business.” Wasabi for Breakfast. Translated by Mary Goebel Noguchi, Dalkey Archive Press, 2013.
Sastry, Anjali. “When L.A. Erupted in Anger: A Look Back at the Rodney King Riots.” NPR, 26 Apr. 2017. Accessed 29 Mar. 2018.