Editor’s pick: ICHIGENSAN The Newcomer

ichigensan

This novel was published in Japan in 1996, and was one of the first novels to be written in Japanese by a Westerner. In one of the original reviews, a Japanese journalist mentions that the Swiss writer, David Zoppetti, “writes better than 99 percent of all Japanese”. Now that is a big statement to make, and indeed, his beautifully flowing sentences make me as someone who writes in Japanese as well, feel jealous to say the least.

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The novel tells the story of a young exchange student in Kyoto. He finds it hard to integrate with the local culture as he is always judged by his appearance. Japan is generally known as a culture that does not easily open up to foreigners, which can especially be said for Kyoto. In Kyoto, even Japanese outsiders have a hard time becoming part of the local society. As to this day, Kyoto still has many restaurants that do not accept “Ichigensan”, or outsiders, which is also the title of this novel.
Life in Kyoto becomes harder and harder for the protagonist, but then, he meets a blind girl, who treats him as a normal person, as she can obviously not judge him by his foreign appearance.

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From “Ichigensan” the movie, released in Japan in 2000.

If you are dreaming of studying or working in Japan, this book will give you a realistic and honest impression on what living in Japan as a foreigner is like. In case you already live here, I’m sure you will identify with many experiences of the main character, and understand his frustrations.
Read it in Japanese if you can, as it will allow you to enjoy beautiful sentence structures and accurate metaphors that burst in character and creativity. For example, I remember I couldn’t help but laugh when the main character’s kitchen is described as “a place that makes even the most experienced cockroach want to commit suicide”.
The novel was made into a movie in Japan in 2000, but sadly no subtitled version has been released at the moment of writing this article.

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Novel details:

Title: ICHIGENSAN The Newcomer (Ichigensan)
Author: David Zoppetti
Year released: 1996 (Japanese) 2011 (English)

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