The Only Gaijin in the Village

Iain Maloney

Polygon, £12.99

Review by Nick Major

Iain Maloney considers himself ‘in exile from the UK.’ He never intended to leave permanently. Now, however, the Scottish writer lives with his Japanese wife, Minori, on a half-acre plot in Gifu Prefecture, Japan.

In 2010, the UK government changed the visa rules for spouses, effectively forcing him to choose between his country and his wife. By contrast, applying for definite leave to remain in Japan cost Maloney a pittance.

The casual racism that Minori experienced in Scotland when they briefly lived here also played a part in their decision to leave. In 2016, Maloney and Minori bought a house in the country and became as self-sufficient as they could. The Only Gaijin in the Village is an account of his time living and working in rural Japan.

Maloney has chosen – or been forced to choose – an interesting life for himself. It’s a shame he hasn’t written a more rounded book about it. The Only Gaijin is stitched together from a light-hearted column Maloney wrote for a Japanese tourism website.

Gaijin is the casual term for a foreigner. As you might guess, the books centres on Maloney’s haphazard attempts to acclimatise to his new environment.

This involves taking part in the obligatory community chores: litter collection in the village and cleaning the meeting hall with suspicious elderly women.

He also has to deal with an abundance of beasts and birds, like the mamushi, a deadly beige pit-viper. On this latter problem, Maloney handles the matter with a shovel. But he is reprimanded by his father-in-law for burning the creature: “what you do is, you skin it then cook it over the fire. It’s delicious, particularly the tail. It goes really well with some saké.”

This is entertaining enough. But Maloney’s writing rather falters, with too many puns and confused metaphors along the way. In the first half of the book, scarcely a paragraph passes without Maloney piling up the similes. Here he is talking about peas: ‘When I was a child my grandfather grew row after row of peas and, unlike the town of Taiji in Mie, never harvested a single pod. His grandchildren (and his children it must be said) went at them like locusts upon ancient Egypt, zombies upon a half-shut gate, or me upon a free bar.’ The first one, although a little cliché, would have been enough.

The tone of The Only Gaijin is perhaps too casual. Maloney doesn’t vomit, he ‘upchucks’; his garden is ‘a bit bitey’; some things are just ‘simples’; and ‘food can be a pain in Japan.’ When he observes elderly men in the village growing vegetables, he mocks their adherence to precision: ‘when did farming get OCD?’ These are the same villagers who leave him free vegetables outside his door (he bemoans not knowing what to do with them). To be fair to Maloney, he mocks himself as much as others.

There is, of course, plenty to interest the reader in this book. We are introduced to the theory of Japanese garden design, namely the ‘borrowed landscape’, which ‘incorporates aspects beyond the boundaries to create depth’. In Maloney’s garden, the huge boulders dotted about ‘form a symbiotic relationship with Mount Ontake in the distance’.

Then there is the Hanami festival, a spring fertility rite where family and friends welcome in the new season with a feast under blossoming cherry trees. But I could have learnt all this in an encyclopaedia. That’s why a writer’s style is paramount. Without it, the contents of a book scarcely matter.

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