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Bringing Home the Sushi: An Inside Look at Japanese Business Through Japanese Comics. By various. Edited by Laura K. Silverman. Atlanta, GA: Mangajin, 1995. 209p. $19.95. ISBN 0-9634335-2-0.

<0963433520/rationalmagic">Bringing Home the Sushi cover

Business fiction; Japanese culture

Adults, teens; no objectionable characteristics

This book, a product of the lamentably defunct magazine Mangajin, contains nine excerpts from important Japanese business comics that appeared in that magazine. Originally intended as language-learning exercises, these comics have been pressed into service as illustrations of Japanese business practices and ethics, and of the behavior of salarymen and OLs (office ladies). Although all of the comics have been translated, they still read from right to left, and the original Japanese text is provided at the bottom of each page. Word balloons and important textual elements are numbered to help us Westerners read the panels in the correct order.

All of the excerpts begin with an essay about the comic and its importance, and the business elements depicted and how they are true to life (or not so true) in Japan. The excerpts are as follows:

  1. Human Crossroads/Ningen Kosaten: A young salaryman fears his life is going in the same direction as that of his father, a drunken, low-level "corporate warrior" who was never appreciated by his bosses and who was almost never home.
  2. Diary of a Fishing Freak/Tsuri-Baka Nisshi: An unambitious, unsocial salaryman discovers the joys of fishing, and places it above work and family. It's a fantasy for real salarymen, tied to those twin "burdens." The excerpt also deals with business etiquette: tatemae, or "public truth," versus honne, or "real truth"--i.e., bullshitting vs. plain speaking.
  3. Evolution of the Office Lady/OL Shinkaron: This is a series of strips about OL behavior. OLs do secretarial and similar grunt work. As described in the accompanying essay, they are usually women in their early 20s who expect to get married in a few years and who still live with their parents, so when they work they can spend most of their money on themselves, and they don't expect to stay at a job for very long, so "their OL years [are] a time of freedom and independence to enjoy life, to travel to foreign countries, and to shop with abandon."
  4. Director Hira Namijiro/Torishimariyaku Hira Namijiro: A rather unsettling encounter between "Chairman Icepocca" of "Chrosler" automanufacturers and several business leaders from "Daitoku Automobile Corporation" that illustrates the difficulties that the two cultures have in understanding the other's side in the ongoing trade dispute.
  5. Section Chief Kosaku Shima/Kacho Shima Kosaku: This is an excerpt from a manga depicting "Japan's Most Famous Salaryman," a character roughly equivalent in fame and popularity in Japan to, say, Dick Tracy at the height of his popularity, and with a storyline far more ambitious and complex. This excerpt covers Shima's gaffe when he criticizes the taste of the bread made by his company's bread machine, not knowing that the recipe for the bread was formulated by the OLs in his new office.
  6. Don't Cry, Tanaka-kun!/Nakuna! Tanaka-kun: Contrary to our Western beliefs about workaholic Japanese businesspeople, here is Takana: a goof-off and screw-up who strives to do as little work as possible and who takes petty revenge on his superiors whenever possible.
  7. Notes from the Frantic World of Sales/Eigyo Tenteko Nisshi: High-powered sales hijinks. Imagine a whole roomful of salesmen yelling "Yeah!! Sell!! One appliance sold is one appliance's worth of happiness!"
  8. I'm #1!/Toppu wa Ore da!: Featuring a very unusual automobile sales manager: a woman. She uses her sex in her work to great advantage, because her (male) clients are thrown off their guard by her gender and her good looks.
  9. Salaryman Seminar/Sarariiman Senka: The gender gap between older and younger salarymen.

Besides the essays that begin each excerpt, there are also profiles of the essayists and all the writers and illustrators of the various manga; a short glossary of terms; and a preface.

This work is both entertaining and highly frustrating--entertaining because these are unusual and well-done comics, and frustrating because they're merely excerpts from much, much longer works, and we're not likely to see any more translations from them because there probably isn't much of a market for them in the Western world. But even so truncated, they offer a glimpse into a business world that is very different from the one that U.S. readers are familiar with. Behaviors that U.S. readers would find insulting or demeaning, such as bowing to superiors or sexual harrassment, are part of the working landscape. If one doesn't understand what motivates OLs, their situation seems outrageously subservient. The kind of "my job is my life" attitude found in Section Chief Kosaku Shima tends to be ridiculed or looked upon with distaste in the Western world, and Hira's defense of his bosses (in Director Hira Namijiro) when they haven't treated him well is simply unfathomable. On the other hand, slackers and goof-offs can be found everywhere, and certain forms of office politics are obviously universal! And the essays are almost universally interesting and informative on both the comics and their meaning to the Japanese business world, and the Japanese business world itself.

The artistic styles range from cartoony-crude to highly realistic; there's little of the flashiness of more "typical" translated manga. Of course, the subject matter hardly demands it.

The convention of reading the panels and word balloons from right to left is awkward but can be forgiven given the original language-teaching purpose of these comics--as opposed to the merely "symbolic" use of right-to-left panels in the new publication of Dragon Ball. Also, the editor and translators didn't want to alter the comics in any significant way, and they felt that the right-to-left convention was a worthwhile compromise. One thing that I found irksome was the relatively limited utility of the table of contents; the chapter headings provide neither artist nor writer. Also, translators for the various comics are not listed at all. I can't tell whether these are the original translations from Mangajin or whether the comics were retranslated for this book.

Bringing Home the Sushi is highly recommended for those interested in Japanese culture and business, and for those who want a peek at manga that would be considered nonstandard in the US. It's not a terrific "pure read" because of the excerpted nature of the comics, but it's certainly entertaining. Oh, if only someone was interested enough to translate a full volume or two of these stories!


Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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