Book Spotlight: Baishakunin, Inc. – Naomi Hirahara

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Baishakunin, Inc. chronicles the (mis)adventures of Caroline Mameda as she struggles to start her own Little Tokyo matchmaking business after unexpectedly losing her job.

What I liked:

  • This story is hilarious! I forgot how much I enjoy the occasional romantic comedy until I picked this up during some downtime at work. I had to make myself stop grinning so my colleagues wouldn’t ask what I was doing. Also, I think this would make a terrific manga because there are so many scenes which could be visually rendered. A good mangaka could probably do wonders drawing Jake, Oizumi-san, and Kyle, and I can just imagine Michele’s bitchiness in Japanese.
  • The Bean/Mameda thing made me think about other unique or unusual nicknames JA/Nikkei have created for themselves, and what sort of cultural space such names occupy. I’m thinking of other JA nicknames I’ve seen in literature, like Shig and Tak, and how these names embody a kind of ‘Japanese’ (or ‘English,’ depending on your perspective) which, paradoxically, is more intelligible to Nikkei than to Nihonjin. When I first saw the name Tak, I thought it was a weird English name until its origins were explained later in the text. Of course, then it seemed self-evident, but I think the reason I missed it is because my Japanese has been almost entirely lensed through my mom’s Nihonjin sensibilities, rather than through a JA/Nikkei or USian academic perspective. I could go on a tangent here about how my difficulty reading romanized Japanese probably stems from a similar place, but I’m getting off-topic!
  • Ginnie’s character is very interesting. I know there are non-Japanese Asians in Japan, but I’ve never met one who grew up in the US. The scene when Caroline notes Ginnie is ‘showing off’ her Japanese is such a concise, spot-on portrayal of imposter syndrome. Later in the story, when Caroline thinks Ginnie could almost be Japanese because of her wedding gift organizational system, I started thinking about the (uneasy?) balance between imposter syndrome and inclusivity. Considering the high (and maybe rising) rates of interracial/interethnic relationships among JA/Nikkei, I suspect this topic will be increasingly of interest to our community in the years ahead.

What I learned:

  • I’m a Bay Area JA rather than an LA/Little Tokyo/SoCal JA, but I also didn’t participate in many Nikkei community events growing up, so I’m not sure if the things I noticed in this story are SoCal-specific or JA/Nikkei-specific. For example, Caroline notes what generation the JAs around her are, which is something I don’t really think about beyond, ‘do they know Japanese or not?’ She also seems to view Yonsei in a less-than-flattering light, and I’m not sure if this is a commentary on intergenerational tensions or a quirk specific to her. At Ginnie’s wedding, she notes the presence of a Nisei couple, even though she doesn’t seem to know them personally, which was an interesting observation to me. I can usually distinguish Nihonjin/Issei/Shin-Issei from Nisei-and-later Nikkei by listening to how they speak, but I don’t think I could tell someone was Nisei just by looking at them. I wonder if Little Tokyo Nisei exhibit certain traits which make them easy to identify to other community members? I suppose Caroline might also be guessing based on the couple’s age…after all, while a Nihonjin/Shin-Issei couple could be similar in age to a Nisei couple, they would likely have different styles of dress…though this may depend on how long the former have been in the US. Fellow Nikkei who have observed the evolving fashion choices/behavioral patterns of a group of Nihonjin exchange students over the course of a semester or a year in the US might also know what I mean, ね?

Questions I had:

  • What happens to Oizumi-san? Elderly mentors are some of my favorite character types in Japanese/Nikkei stories and if Hirahara were to continue this story, I would definitely want to see how Oizumi-san’s arc progresses.
  • Are there other JA/Nikkei-written stories in the new adult/romance/contemporary genres? I can’t think of any offhand…all the ones coming to mind are mystery, historical fiction, or some type of YA/children’s lit…and of course there’s plenty of memoir and nonfiction out there.

Follow-up:

  • Hirahara has written two other serialized stories for Discover Nikkei and has a third in progress, so I have no doubt I’ll be reading those soon.
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