The Mad Kyoto Shoe Swapper and Other Short Stories

Image of The Mad Kyoto Shoe Swapper and Other Short Stories
Release Date: 
April 25, 2023
Tuttle Publishing
Reviewed by: 

“Otowa has powerful tools to give the reader a rich vision of distinctive characters in a distinctive place.”

Rebecca Otowa writes from both American and Japanese sensibilities is this gem of a book, each story offering a glimmering, precise window onto a specific world, rich with insight and deep understanding.

Otowa uses her own personal experience to sharply etch different aspects of the two cultures. Some stories focus only on Japanese issues while others showcase the ways American and Japanese sensibilities confront each other with friction, appreciation, and a keen awareness of difference.

The writing is crystalline and deeply satisfying. Otowa gets at the marrow of each subject. The first story is about the way cellphones dangerously disconnect us from the world we move in. Describing people on a train platform, she writes:

"How oblivious they all were, as if they were each traveling in their own impenetrable bubble of space. I didn't see them this way; to me, they were all connected by tiny details—resemblances of hand or ear, bag or hat, print of shirt or blouse. They were like drops in an ocean of humanity. But they didn't understand this—they all thought they were alone and all-important."

Another story features an American teacher in a Japanese school, offended by a fellow teacher's request for a valentine offering to her son. It seems like an innocent favor to ask but it reverberates with layers of meaning:

"On her way home from the high school that evening, swaying from a hanging strap on the train, Joanne went over the conversation in her mind. So many things about it annoyed her. First, although a stranger, Ms. Kikuchi had used her first name. Joanne-sensei. Joanne knew it was common practice for foreign English teachers to be called by their given names instead of their surnames, even though no one would think of calling a Japanese teacher by her given name—probably no one would even know it. As a matter of fact, Joanne happened to have a perfectly good Japanese surname. It was Nozaki. She had been married for ten years to a Japanese man and they had two children. So how come she wasn't Nozaki-sensei to the teachers she worked with? Even her students called her Joanne-sensei. I can't get no respect, she whispered t

Many of the stories focus on women's roles in society, the way they must serve others. Saying no isn't an option for them. Otowa doesn't shy from the hardship but writes from a place of understanding compassion. There's a reason for the strictures, an emphasis on honor and tradition. In other stories, she shows the beauty and meaning these traditions give, from the tea ceremony to a shop making traditional sweets. Together the stories build a compelling picture of life in Japan, both centuries ago and today. Being an outsider allows Otowa a clear vision of the daily reality. Being an insider gives her a keen appreciation of it. Together, Otowa has powerful tools to give the reader a rich vision of distinctive characters in a distinctive place.

The short stories build on each other, creating a kaleidoscopic view. By the time the reader comes to the last page, they'll have traveled a journey they won't want to end.