Bebe Taian: Book Review: Kickboxing Geishas, by Veronica Chambers

December 12, 2013

Book Review: Kickboxing Geishas, by Veronica Chambers

I bought Kickboxing Geishas: How Modern Japanese Women Are Changing Their Nation maybe mid-2007ish, read it once or twice, and didn't give it too much thought. I've since lent it to my sister to read, and given it another shot myself. As I've aged, I find myself more and more critical of works regarding Japanese culture and people, especially when not written by Japanese themselves. I hope I am as critical of myself as I am of others. Today, there are sections of this book that rub me the wrong way, but I can't quite put my finger on why.

At first, it was an interesting book; the cover put me off (being a typical geishafaced white woman in badly-fitting kimono), but the Table of Contents encouraged me to buy. It started out as a blog-like read about a POC woman working for The New York Times who got sent to Japan, hardly the country of her dreams. Veronica was aiming for France, but instead got a place with a lot of French restaurants (and the melon bread- really, who could turn down ultra-light, fluffy bread with a thin, sweet honey-melon glaze?) The premise was that within there were essays and interviews with Japanese women who were "modern" in the Euro/America-centric sense, although the ToC alluded to men's positions as well. I bought it on discount at Waldenbooks; at the original cover price of $25, there was no way I could afford to have it otherwise.

The sections where she is actually interviewing people and letting them speak for themselves is wonderful. I would have liked to see more of it. And while I appreciate the conversational, blog-like commentary on her own thoughts and feelings, I think Veronica might have written a separate book about them or even kept an online journal in companionship to this work, especially since there was all that ripe material about women who became geisha because of henshin booths and Japanese-American people living and working in Japan. But then, this book filled with only interviews of Japanese women might have only been one hundred pages long! I can't imagine how good this work could have been had she followed up on more women and their experiences instead of writing six pages about a breakfast she had at a hotel one day.

I think little things about the text get to me- the way she referred to a group of little girls as "traveling in packs like wolves", or the constant references to Japanese women being "tiny" and "pixieish"- even though she interviews a woman named Kazumi, who spoke of her shame at having to wear men's clothing due to her size (Bananas, pgs. 90-115). Part of it is, I think, a very America-centric approach to Feminism and applying that viewpoint to a non-American culture. I came to realize that much of this book does not approach Japanese feminism as defined by Japanese women; rather, it is an outsider's definition and her quest to fill it in by asking Japanese to lend their voices. I wonder if any of them have benefited from the proceeds made from this book. In one section, she tries to pin Kazumi for a xenophobe for rejecting an imperialist culture, while defining Japanese culture as "confining" (pg. 92). 

I am very happy, however, for the many references to Japanese writers, bloggers, and other influential people she has interspersed throughout the text. I was able to look some of them up on my own, and I hope to be able to obtain some copies of certain magazines and essays translated into English. Veronica did try to learn some of the local customs, and apparently makes visits back to Japan since; perhaps she's learned more about how things work in Japan and has gained a new perspective. Veronica Chambers is apparently quite popular and has written several other books, worked for TV shows, and been all over the place- perhaps she could write a new edition of Kickboxing, or a book in a more straightforward style on Japanese subculture. Considering her own life as a Black woman, I'd be interested in more on her perspective on the import of African-American culture to Japan, which was briefly covered in this book.

All in all, I'm glad I didn't pay full price for the book. I'm willing to overlook some of the more problematic parts of it to get at the perspectives of Japanese women and men woven between the anecdotes and observations. Authors frequently do not get control over what the cover of their book looks like (it appears to be the fault of one Eric Fuentecilla), so I give the racist cover a semi-pass *specifically* because I don't believe she can be blamed for it. However, if you're looking for an in-depth look at how societal rules affect women in Japan, centred on their lives and their opinions, without the fluff in between, don't bother.

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