At first glance, the only thing linking the stories in Rebecca Otowa’s new book, The Mad Kyoto Shoe Swapper, is that they all take place in Japan. Yet although they span 17th-century Edo to the present day, two themes recur in most: women’s hardships and the fears of ageing. It quickly becomes clear how, in Japan at least, these two themes are closely related.   

When Emily Clements finds herself alone in Vietnam after her best friend suddenly departs for Australia, she tries to make the best of her opportunity to see Southeast Asia. Only nineteen, Clements quickly picks up the language and goes out of her way to meet Hanoians. This memoir of her year in Vietnam is not, however, a typical expat book about immersing oneself into another culture. Instead, it centers on the way women are conditioned to put our feelings last. 

Early in The Aosawa Murders, Riku Onda writes that “it’s impossible to ever really know the truth behind events,” setting the tone of the mystery surrounding a horrible mass murder in 1970s Japan in which seventeen people are poisoned by cyanide after drinking a toast with sake and soft drinks. What starts as a jovial birthday party for three generations of the Aosawa family ends in the family, their relatives, and friends dying in agony. The only survivor in the Aosawa family is Hisako, their blind teenage daughter.

When Chi Pang-yuan was a young girl, her father Chi Shiying was wanted by warlord Zhang Zuolin and his son, Zhang Xueliang. The crime was siding with a rival general, Guo Songling, at a time when the Republic was still relatively young and northeast China in constant turmoil. For most of her childhood and teenage years, Chi Pang-yuan would frequently be on the move, between Manchuria and all the major cities along the Yangtze River: Nanjing, Wuhan, Chongqing and Shanghai.

The story of the Jewish refugees in Asia during World War II almost always centers on Shanghai. Plenty of books, movies, and plays tell how twenty thousand German and Eastern European Jews found their way to Shanghai when most of the world had closed their borders to Jews. But there was another place in Asia that also took in Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and Poland in the late 1930s: the Philippines.