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Sunday, Feb. 23, 2003


Book Bites

JAPANESE LANGUAGE, LIFE AND CULTURE, by Helen Gilhooly. Hodder & Stoughton, 2002, 242 pp., £7.99 (paper)

A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO LIVING IN JAPAN, by Jarrell D. Sieff. Stone Bridge Press, 2002, 224 pp., $16.95 (paper) Aiming to provide a broad overview of the main features of Japanese society, Helen Gilhooly's "Japanese Language, Life and Culture" acquaints the reader with areas ranging from Japanese architecture to government to religion.

Organized into clear sections, the book offers a simple but useful introduction to the country and its inhabitants, helping to equip foreigners with the tools they need to avoid embarrassing situations and begin to appreciate the culture.

Gilhooly addresses the "making of Japan" -- its geography, history and language. She explains the different kinds of Japanese script, the basics of pronunciation and grammar, and the influence of age, sex and status on levels of speech.

Japanese culture is explored through the arts, religion, food and fashion. The main strength of the book lies in this section, which includes plenty of interesting details. Haiku are translated into English, a synopsis of a famous Japanese play is given, and the subtleties of Japanese music explained to help those unaccustomed to it become more appreciative. Japanese films that may offer insight into the country and its society are even suggested.

In dealing with contemporary Japan, Gilhooly offers basic explanations of the political structures and issues facing the country today, and attempts to address some of the stereotypical views held of the Japanese. To achieve any real understanding of these issues, more reading would be necessary, but Gilhooly's book offers a good starting point for those with a general interest in learning about Japan.

With a different objective in mind, Jarrell D. Sieff is true to the title of his book, "A Practical Guide to Living in Japan." This is a book about basics. Immigration procedures, phone-line installation, garbage collection -- it's all explained here.

Little is left to the imagination. For example, Sieff provides step-by-step instructions for how to handle all ATM transactions. Should you need to deal with a bank clerk, he also includes diagrams with English translations of the various forms necessary to withdraw, deposit or transfer funds.

Much attention is paid to how to obtain a driver's license and buy a car, right down to what to take with you to the testing site when you go for your license and how to read car advertisements. Similarly, explanations of the kanji symbols used in bukken-harigimi (apartment fliers) are given to help house-hunters.

The content is dry, but anybody who has arrived fresh in Japan and tried to buy a train ticket, hook up to the Internet or pay a bill for the first time will appreciate just how useful the book's detailed explanations of such matters will be for newcomers.

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