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Review: A Room Where the Star Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard
January 14, 2012

A Room Where the Star Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard
Levy Hideo

Originally published in Japanese in 1992, A Room Where the Star Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard is a novel written by Levy Hideo and recently translated by Christopher Scott. Levy (his family name) was one of the first non-Japanese Americans to publish in Japanese, and he is one of the most successful, having won several awards and received critical acclaim.

Set in the 1960s, when the frantic rebuilding years after the war had been successful and allowed the country to breath and find a voice in the post-war era, Levy’s novel is an exploration of his early days in Japan and the role language plays in his coming of age in a foreign land. That the book was written in Japanese is explained in the translator’s note: “Levy writes in Japanese to explore and articulate his own identity, which has been deeply intertwined with Japan and the Japanese language.”

In the novel, Ben Isaac, the seventeen-year-old son of an American diplomat in Yokohama, leaves the consulate to explore Tokyo, without letting his strict father know. Despite his worldly travels, Ben seems somewhat naïve and unsure of himself in a place where his blonde hair makes a target of staring and name calling. But he is excited by being in Japan and is also guided by the mantra of the late 1960s to “find yourself.” Ben often finds himself in a dingy boardinghouse room with a Japanese youth named Andō, who speaks English but refuses to in order for Ben to learn Japanese.

Ben takes Japanese lessons, finding the some students pretentious and others prejudiced against him because of his nationality and ethnicity. He joins an English Conversation Club only to find the Japanese members want to practice their English by bashing America with topics such as “The Vietnam War, American Imperialism, and White Supremacy.” He learns some of his Japanese by reading protest signs and graffiti, but mostly through conversations with Andō.

When his Japanese has improved, Ben takes full flight from his father, and takes a job in late-night diner in a grungy bar and red-light district. As he puts up with the scorn and repulsion of his co-workers, we also see the roots of his discontent through his memories of being raised in the circumstances of a largely absent father and unstable mother. And when they eventually divorce, Ben lives with her until he finds his father’s severity more appealing than his mother’s instability.

While Ben’s experiences in Japan may not be all that unique now, in the late 1960s they would have been exotic for an American audience. The novel also captures an interesting time in Japanese history when the country was rising from the ashes and turning into a global economic force. Then, there were the seeds of discontent with its new ally, the United States, although those seeds never fully blossomed into a rejection of the relationship. The novel is highly recommended for this historical snapshot as well as its exceedingly readable story and Levy’s distinctive point of view.

COMMENTS

Number of comments: 1
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Lee Witte
Just finished reading it, and enjoyed the coming of age story set in Japan. And I agree with your review. I think we are all affected most deeply by our environment most at that age.

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