My Mother is a Tractor - Reviews
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What the Critics and Readers are Saying
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Dwayne Lively @
“Shunning thousand-mile walks, the martial arts, zen and forays into art and culture in favor of beer, day-trips and karaoke, Nicholas Klar’s My Mother is a Tractor offers a disturbingly realistic look at life in Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan.
Klar, an Australian from Adelaide, came to Japan by way of California as a part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. His motives for deciding to come are never fully explained but one gets the sense that he came out of lack of anything more interesting to do. As a result of this, he brought with him surprisingly few pretentions about what he hoped to accomplish in Japan and what he expected to find. His book, rather than being an epic travelogue, is a quiet memoir that takes us on a day by day, drink by drink, yen by yen tour of his two years in the tiny town of Omi, a small, one company town wedged between the sea and the mountains at the Western end of Niigata Prefecture. Being trapped in a small, boring town that doesn’t appear on most maps, inevitably sends him out on a series of adventures and parties with fellow JETs and the occasional drunk principal.
Klar’s journey from ignorance to, well, a kind of deliberate ignorance (he refuses to learn Japanese for reasons he explains as he goes along) is salted with witty insights about Japan and the Japanese. Klar supplements his personal insights with those of other ALTs (he’s apparently never deleted a single email he’s ever received or sent) and an impressive amount of research about why things are the way they are in Japanese politics and history.
Despite a healthy dose of cynicism about his job as an English teacher in a system that neither rewards students for learning English nor punishes them for not, Klar manages to keep his views well balanced. Although often bewildered by, and critical of, the things he encounters, he manages to avoid being mean-spirited. He even manages to make the standard Japanese enkai (an overpriced, two hour drinking “party” complete with speeches and myriad rules of etiquette) seem much more interesting than it actually is. He is also pleasantly self-deprecating as he explains how his efforts to get out of Omi at all costs often ended with his bag trapped in a train station and him sleeping in the bushes or on a concrete slab. The exceptions to all this “balance” and “fairness” usually involve his encounters with Japanese bureaucracy, including a delightfully funny tale about trying to fax a ministry when the office he needed had no fax machine.
Readers will also quickly notice that, although Klar was brought to Japan to teach English, very little of the book actually mentions what happens inside a Japanese classroom. (The book’s title, in all fairness, does come from a student essay he had to mark.) While this may seem to be an oversight, it actually represents a kind of honesty: Almost no ALT’s find satisfaction in their jobs (the better qualified they are as teachers the more this is true) and most ALT's in small towns sprint for the trains after school lets out in order to get to a bigger town with better drinking establishments. Klar makes no apologies about this—in fact, if his town had been more interesting the book would not be interesting at all...
All in all, I found this book to be a refreshing break from the more epic and pretentious travelogues mentioned earlier and reviewed elsewhere on this website. Far from bashing Japan or overly praising it, My Mother is a Tractor is, in an odd way, a grand thank you from Klar to Japan for treating him so well for two years.
Early in the book, Klar quotes someone who said that “young Australians travelling abroad tended to see the world as an extended pub-crawl.” This is an apt description of Klar’s book. This is also what makes it a must read for anyone pondering signing up for the JET Program or any of Japan’s fast-growing private ALT providers. The book’s message, or warning, is simple: This is life in Japan. Enter at your own risk. Enjoy your stay.”
Dwayne Lively is a writer, editor and teacher who has been a resident of Japan for nearly a decade. He came to Japan “for just a couple of years” after stints in such third world locales as Albania and Mississippi. He is now in his tenth year in Ye Olde Nippon and teaches at Rikkyo Niiza Junior High and High School, a Protestant Episcopal school attached to Rikkyo University. Formerly resident in Niigata, near to where the book is set, he now resides outside of Tokyo. Dwayne’s popular ‘Crazy Japan’ site has won several awards.
Jan Dodd - Co-author of:
“My Mother is a Tractor contains the wry insights of a former JET- Nicholas Klar who has written about his experiences. Required reading for anyone contemplating JET-hood or thinking of teaching English in Japan.”
Jan Dodd is the co-author of several ‘Rough Guides’, including Japan and Tokyo. She also works for a number of other travel publishers, such as Lonely Planet and Insight. Additionally she writes for web sites, newspapers and journals, including National Geographic Traveler Magazine and the Independent on Sunday (UK).
C. Ogawa @
“My Mother is a Tractor is a witty and light account of one man’s time in Japan. It is neither an academic tome nor the last word on the topic--and it stakes no claim to either. Rather, it documents Klar’s own fortunes--and misfortunes--as he takes off for, adjusts to, and ultimately must bade farewell to Japan. Written in diary form, it is easy to follow and full of anecdotes that punctuate his time in Japan. Never pedantic, always open: a good summer read.” Japan Visitor
Katherine Buranapiyawong @
Nicholas Klar’s My Mother is a Tractor is a realistic look at the life of an Assistant Language Teacher in rural Japan. The author does not dwell on idealistic views of the beauty of Japanese culture we often find in Japan travel accounts like the quiet tea ceremonies, pristine Zen gardens, martial arts, or delicate cuisine. Rather, it offers cynically amusing accounts of what surprises lay around the corner for any foreigner visiting this unpredictable land.
Klar, an Australian from Adelaide with a bit of a case of wanderlust, came to Japan after his university studies, applying to the JET program after two of his university buddies were accepted into the program. Klar does not delve into where his wanderlust came from and the reader can discern that he brought with him surprisingly few assumptions about what he was going to accomplish in Japan and what he expected to find.
The book follows his daily experiences from mundane tasks associated with setting up housekeeping, to the amusing portrayals of the enkai experience. Nothing seems ordinary in the world Klar has just entered. Residence in this small town on the Sea of Japan in Niigata Prefecture sends Klar out on
numerous adventures and parties with fellow JETs and Japanese
Klar does touch on the difficulties of his job as an English teacher in a system that does not place a high priority for learning English despite the funding being poured into the program that supports his position. In his day to day accounts of his job, a sense of bewilderment and cynicism are expressed. Yet, the author maintains a good balance by ending chapters on a positive note or with a curious observation.
This book was a refreshing break from other analytical or epic travelogues on Japan. Throughout the story there were many funny insightful episodes which made me feel somewhat homesick for my own small town in Aomori. For those of you who are either nostalgic for your days in rural Japan or just looking for an entertaining laugh, this will hit the spot.
- Katherine Buranapiyawong (Aomori ’99-’02)
Recommended for: Those interested in the JET programme
A fairly unstructured travel account of an Aussie's experience with the JET programme. It is however quite easy and interesting to read and shows a multi-faceted, unromanticized account of living in small town Japan.
- Alex, Washington, D.C.
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What the readers are saying:
I have to stop reading your book at night before I go to sleep. Waking up a sleeping wife laughing at your antics isn't a good way to stay on her better side.
Great book. Great insight. Funny as all it could be. So enjoying the tale and honestly recommend it to all, not just those who might be thinking of heading over there to teach. For anybody thinking of the JET Program or doing any TEFL work this would be an essential manual on how things really work over there.
Ian, Adelaide (Australia): August 2012
Cool book...I was on JET for two years- your observations/research are spot on!
Heni (location unknown): February, 2010
I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your book. I love reading memoirs of people who have lived in Japan and the endless culture clashes that ensue. Dave Barry being one, which I remember you mentioned in your book. It's nice to read a more modern take on Japan and especially nice to read the experience of a former JET, which is something I've been considering for a few years now.
Matt, Oregon (USA): August, 2009
Just finished the book and enjoyed it. It's actually like listening to the author - very conversational in style. Quite a number of Japanese words for someone who never learned the language!! I get the very distinct feeling he is a very much loved teacher. Interesting insights into Japanese life that one would never get through being a tourist.
Frank, Perth (Australia): May, 2009
I picked up your book "My Mother is a tractor" and was thoroughly entertained. After reading sections of the book on Google books, and really liking it, I purchased it on Amazon. It's funny how, even with what little exposure I've had to Japanese culture, I've still been able to relate to many of your stories. At my Jet interview in Chicago I was asked if I knew any Japanese greetings and...the whole episode reminded me slightly of the "Chin-Chin" toast you mentioned in the book.
I've actually been doing some writing lately about my high school and college experiences and I really dig your style: honest, humorous, insightful and free of any pretense. I felt like I experienced someone's entertaining personal account of their time in Japan (like a good conversation with a friend) and also a window into the larger social, cultural and political landscape of the country. So again, thanks and well done. I've been recommending the book to a lot of friends...Thanks for your fresh stories and humor!
Ted, Oklahoma (U.S.A): March 2009
I was glued to this book! I thought it was a wonderful combination of an interesting insight into Japan, great anectodes and romantic suspense - all regaled light heartedly, humourously and yet with a real philanthropistic touch. It buzzes with a great spirit of adventure and I really loved it
Erika, Bristol (U.K.): December 2007
I think Nicholas's JET kids were fortunate to have him in their schools. His book does indeed show the Japanese to be both quirky and fun, which many people might find unexpected. He can tell a story that brings a tear to the eye, as well as one that brings a chuckle to anyone, familiar with Japan or not. Buy the book and have a good read. I gave this book four stars (please note I would only give five stars to John Steinbeck).
Dave, Kansas (U.S.A.): July 2006
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