Part graphic memoir, part travelogue, A Year in Japan offers a unique perspective on everyday life in Japan. In this charming, whimsical book, Kate T. Williamson adopts a counterintuitive approach to travel writing. Rather than striving to represent the grand, monumental aspects of Japanese culture and history, Williamson focuses on capturing the minutiae--fragmented memories, experiences, and revelations that emerged during the year she spent living in Kyoto. As a Westerner, Williamson has an outsider’s perspective on Japan. But because she had the opportunity to live there and become enmeshed in another way of life, Williamson was able to glean insights and perspectives that would be invisible to your run-of-the-mill tourist. Williamson’s artistic talent also helps concretize her observations, creating an enchanting combination of vivid, unexpected descriptions and beautifully rendered watercolor illustrations.
Williamson does describe some things one would expect to find in more general examples of travel writing. For example, she is fascinated by the different types of food she encounters. She also describes landscapes, forms of entertainment, and holiday rituals. However, most of A Year in Japan is dedicated to preserving fleeting impressions. I don’t think many travel guides would devote sections to the elegance of Japanese taxis, the best way to eat a mango, the performances of the Kyoto Rockabilly Club, or the astounding variety of socks one can find.
Aesthetically, A Year in Japan is highly reminiscent of a personal journal. However, one might argue that it doesn’t actually participate in the graphic memoir sub-genre exemplified by writers such as Alison Bechdel, David Small, and Marjane Satrapi. While it is true that A Year in Japan doesn’t include much biographical information, Williamson’s writing is intimate and indirectly revealing. Because A Year in Japan allows the reader to see the world through Williamson’s eyes, some of the basic components of her personality are revealed. I might not know what her parents were like or what she named her first pet, but I know her observational style. In other words, I know she’s the type of person who would notice and take the trouble to remember that Japanese mascara tubes bear messages like “Happy infinite romances occur in a newborn oasis. Wink your future.”
A Year in Japan is a quick and memorable read, so if you’d like to spend about thirty to forty minutes looking at gorgeous watercolor illustrations while learning about what it is like to live in Japan, this is definitely the book for you.