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Mostly Fiction: "This novel is simple, light reading, but it contains important observations about the minefields of cultural misunderstanding that sometimes arise between even the most committed lovers."

Date: Jan 15 2009

“Love is such a very French elan that there are some who view it as a national invention. While I would not go that far, I do acknowledge that there is a genius for love in the language. It might be said that Rinri and I had each contracted the typical inclination of the other’s language: dizzy with the novelty of it, he played at love, and I delighted in koi. Which all goes to show how admirably open we were to each other’s culture.”

Acclaimed Belgian author Amelie Nothomb reminisces in this novel about her life in Japan in 1989. She was twenty-one that year, a recent college graduate seeking her emotional roots, and she had just returned to Japan, where she was born and lived with her diplomat parents for the first five years of her life. To earn some money while she studies business, she posts an advertisement offering language classes in French. She is immediately hired by Rinri, a twenty-year-old college student whose French is at the beginner level, despite several years of teaching by Japanese teachers. Before long, their teacher-student relationship becomes more intimate, and Amelie is learning more about Japanese culture than she ever expected.

Perceptively analyzing the communication problems faced by Amelie and Rinri because of their different cultures, the novel warmly and humorously explores their relationship, never taking the differences too seriously despite the confusions that sometime arise between them and with the outside world. When they first become acquainted, for example, she, as his teacher, refers to him as “vous,” instead of by the familiar “tu,” but Rinri is hurt because he wants a more intimate relationship. Amelie, in turn, is embarrassed, and even at a loss, when he insists on giving her a sealed envelope containing her teaching fee, even when they have just been out socializing with friends.

When she meets with him and some of his friends whom she has not met before, she knows that “the weather, an ideal topic for people who have nothing to say to each other, is the primary and obligatory topic of conversation in Japan. To meet someone and fail to talk about the weather is to betray a lack of manners,” yet she persists in trying to get to know them better and to find a subject of common interest for conversation, even though she may be intrusive.

Soon, however, Amelie and Rinri are spending time in the elaborate “concrete chateau” belonging to his wealthy parents while they are away. They spend a month living in the “technological marvel of an apartment” belonging to one of Amelie’s friends, and they visit scenic local places that attract lovers throughout the country. She eats quail eggs and sea urchins; he eats salami with mayonnaise. Rinri makes Amelie happy, and she genuinely likes him; he, however, is truly “in love.”

As one calendar year passes in the lives of these two young characters, the author incorporates other aspects of the culture into the novel—the educational system with its exams for pre-school, its hierarchy of colleges from the most elite to “train station universities,” and its lax requirements regarding attendance and assignments. “From the age of three to the age of eighteen, the Japanese study as though possessed. From the age of twenty-five until they retire, they work like maniacs. From the age of eighteen to the age of twenty-five, they are only too aware that they have been granted a unique interval: this is their chance to blossom. Even those who have passed the formidable entrance exam to one of the eleven serious universities can breathe for a while: only the initial selection process is truly important.” Family relationships, friendships, and leisure activities are also explored.

At times, however, Amelie needs to be alone, to discover new places by herself. A climbing trip to Mount Fuji—“these six hours are the most beautiful in my life”—is in many ways more fulfilling than Christmas spent with Rinri on the island of Sado in the Inland Sea, and when Rinri proposes marriage, Amelie encounters a serious linguistic problem different from anything she has ever before experienced.

Written as a diary by a woman who has gone on to become a popular writer with a wide audience in Europe and Japan, the novel is simple, light reading, but it contains important observations about the minefields of cultural misunderstanding that sometimes arise between even the most committed lovers. The relationship itself becomes the plot, and as it evolves, the author is especially careful to avoid making value judgments about either of the cultures as she explores complex issues of the heart.

Rinri, a well developed character, evokes sympathy, but the author offers fewer insights into her own behavior, which is sometimes selfish and, some may feel, even dishonest. Ironically, it is Rinri who is the more open of the two characters, despite his outwardly controlled and circumscribed life in Tokyo, and Amelie. Looking at the relationship in retrospect, Amelie seems to have written this story as a tribute to him, a way of honoring him for his integrity and whole-hearted commitment to love. Easy to read and perceptive in its insights into the cultural aspects of love, Tokyo Fiancée is an honest portrait of a relationship between two lovers in their early twenties—one Belgian and one Japanese—both of whom find they have much to learn. (Translated by Alison Anderson.)

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