Lucy Tosch regrets her decision to relocate to Okinawa even before she leaves the United States. She applies on a whim for a reporting job at a newspaper catering to the American community in Okinawa after Owen, her Japanese college boyfriend, suddenly ups and leaves without so mu ch as a by-your-leave. Sarah Z Sleeper’s debut novel, Gaijin, brings Lucy—and the reader—to Okinawa, a road less traveled in English-language fiction.
Lucy is bemused by Owen’s sudden disappearance. He has interested her in Japan and she applies for newspaper jobs around the country, hoping to somehow find her way back to him. After receiving rejections from all of these papers, she answers an ad for a position at Okinawa Week; she knows Owen’s brother, Hisashi, works there. To her surprise, she lands the job.
Lucy could be just about anywhere in the United States by the looks of her first day on the island.
Clothing stores crammed the beach boulevard and English-language signs advertised sundresses, bikinis and toe rings. The people were mostly American, moms and dads with kids and beach towels, young men with short military haircuts. There were only twenty or so Japanese amidst the throng of Americans.
Okinawa is, of course, home to many American military bases.
Almost as soon as Lucy arrives, protests break out on the streets over an alleged rape of a fifteen year-old Japanese girl by a US soldier. Lucy, herself the target of sexual harassment just from walking alone on the street, can empathize with the victim, the girl from Tokyo.
Protests, it turns out, are commonplace, and the American military presence is resented by the bulk of the population.
Lucy experiences firsthand the tensions between mainland Japanese and Okinawans. Owen and Hisashi’s family originally came from Okinawa—and are of Ryukyu descent—but feel ashamed of those roots and work hard to pass as mainland Japanese in Tokyo. This shame is the reason Hisashi moves to Okinawa; he wants to rebel against his family’s erasure of their roots. Over 1.3 million people in Okinawa are of Ryukyu descent, yet by the orthodoxy of a homogeneous Japanese population, have yet to establish a definitively distinctive identity.
Owen’s whereabouts remain a mystery throughout most of the book. Lucy and Hisashi become close, which causes Lucy some consternation for he is, after all, the brother of her college flame.
The Okinawan setting provides a juxtaposition of racial and gender issues. Because the accused rapist is a Black American, Sleeper seems to tackle both #BLM and #MeToo in the story, yet whether or not this was international she only follows through with the latter.
Gaijin is the Japanese word for “foreigner”. Nominally it is race-neutral, but it probably isn’t. It is next to impossible for non-Japanese to lose their “gaijin” status, even if they are born in Japan, as if foreigners can never hope to understand Japan or fully integrate. Lucy tries her best to understand even though she knows she will never be accepted as anyone but an outsider.