“A young Japanese woman was running through Tokyo station screaming “Save me! Save me!” There was a Japanese man chasing her and closing in. He grabbed her wrist and caught her about 10 feet in front of me. The woman was still yelling “Save me! Save Me!” but the Japanese people in the crowded station ignored her, not wanting to get involved.”
After reading the intro, my curiosity for the book; No Pianos, Pets and Foreigners, written by Joe Palermo, was tickled since the intro created the idea that there will be an exciting story awaiting me.
The first thing that really stood out was the short chapters. This made the book read more like a journal describing the author’s journey to studying in Japan and eventually working there for a longer time and meet his partner to start a family with.
Joe tells the reader how he got in contact with Japan and how he came to decide to go back and make this country part of his life or rather, how he made himself a part of Japanese society back then. I say back then because most of his experiences take place in the ’80s of the previous century, a time when Japan had foreigners visiting but not as many as there are today let alone foreigners deciding to come live and work in Japan. He also explains how he was able to become fluent in Japanese at that time.
Of course, many challenging things would happen that were a lot trickier to get done in those years as there was no internet or other easy resources, something Joe mentions a few times too. You could feel like there was space to elaborate more on some of the topics or adventures described in this short book. My personal like is that one of his longest chapters describes the way he was able to marry his Japanese wife and that one of the others was about food. Very important topics in my opinion!
It is not a “How to live in Japan” type of book but more a view on experiences of an American guy that moved to Japan and started an unknown adventure with surprising turns of events that life provides for you. It’s also very casually written and that makes it easy to read if you’re not in the mood for a long story.
There is not much I can tell you about the story without spoiling, so you would have to pick up the book and check it out yourself to find out.
For those who have lived the ex-pat life in Japan, especially an English teacher’s life in the good ol’ days of the 1980s and 1990s, Joe Palermo hits the spot with the reminiscences of his time in Japan.
In 1981, Palermo was one of 124 Americans chosen for the Monbusho English Fellows (MEF) Program, which later became the well-known Jet Programme, a program that continues today but has expanded to now include 3,100 teachers annually from more than 50 countries.
Palermo’s remembrances of his time in Japan are pretty much all positive and good-natured, with of course the requisite number of humorous cultural difference stories.
He describes everyday situations that he encountered 40 years ago. Some of his recollections about Japan include his experiences at the dentist, on the trains, with a co-worker’s suicide, with airport security, and in restaurants.
The title of the book comes from when he first started looking for an apartment and
one of the prominent phrases in many or most of the apartment ads was “no pianos, pets, or foreigners.”
After a few years of teaching, Palermo moved from being an English teacher to being a part of the Japanese business world, but his education of Japan and its culture continued. Like most places around the world, Japan has changed in the last three or four decades. However, those with short-time experience or even a basic knowledge of the country can easily feel a connection to the stories, especially people who have lived in inaka, or the countryside.
The book feels a bit like a diary, something somebody would write to look at in the future. A more modern way to say that is that it feels like a blog. The author isn’t a professional, and that actually adds to the authenticity and charm of the book.
At only 135 pages, No Pianos, Pets or Foreigners would not bow your bookshelf with its weight, making it a truly light read. It can probably be read in one sitting by some.
The only real criticism of the book would be that it feels too short – the reader is left wanting a little bit more.
The book ends with the author penning, “Even with all of the obstacles I faced without the internet, etc., I would not trade my experiences in Japan for anything.”
That pretty much sums up the thoughts of many foreigners who came through Japan to teach English in the 1980s and 1990s.
I first arrived in Japan in 1998 to start my working career after graduating from university in Australia with a business degree. Japan was a vastly different place then to what it is now, and I was lucky to catch the very tail-end of the golden boom period. I was one of the few foreigners living in my small city in central Japan, and I can tell you that I had a lot of unique and interesting experiences as one of the only westerners in my area, but that is a story for another day.
Joe Palermo the writer of No Pianos, Pets or Foreigners arrived even earlier than I did, but we share many of the same Japan experiences and Japan stories.
The Book’s Content
No Pianos, Pets or Foreigners is a short, easy to read 87-page book full of interesting Japan experiences from the perspective of a foreigner living in Japan in the 1980s.
Many of the stereotypes of a foreigner in Japan from the 1980s still, unfortunately, remain today, such as “Wow! You can speak Japanese. How are you able to do that? ” and “Your chopstick skills are amazing for a non-Japanese!”
Here is a little from the book and the author.
“A young Japanese woman was running through Tokyo station screaming “Save me! Save me!” There was a Japanese man chasing her and closing in. He grabbed her wrist and caught her about 10 feet in front of me. The woman was still yelling “Save me! Save Me!” but the Japanese people in the crowded station ignored her, not wanting to get involved. This is the beginning of just one of the stories from my experience living in Japan in the 1980’s, where I had moved right after graduating university. It was still rare to see an American who could speak Japanese fluently. This book guides the reader though my many adventures navigating through Japanese culture while living in the outskirts of Tokyo, as well as Tokyo proper.”
This book is really easy to pick-up and read and is jam-packed with short entertaining stories about Joe’s eight-year journey of living in Japan in the boom of the 1980s. The writing style is easy to digest and I found myself sitting down wanting to read more and more each time I picked it up. The main interest for me was reading about Joe’s adventures in Japan and how he adapted to Japanese culture while living in his small town on the outskirts of Tokyo. I could definitely relate to this experience.
I really enjoyed the book as someone who has lived in Japan for a very long time. I could relate to many of the stories in the book and even went through quite a lot of them myself, so it definitely brought back a lot of memories about my start here in Japan.
About the Writer
The author, Joe Palermo grew up in Addison, Illinois in the United States. Upon graduation from the University of Illinois in Chicago, he moved to Japan to accept a position with the Japanese government as a Mombusho English Fellow (MEF). He spent 3 years working for Shimaden, a Japanese manufacturer of industrial temperature controllers, and then joined the Nielsen company (formerly A.C. Nielsen) locally in Japan. He is now semi-retired and lives with his Japanese wife in the suburbs of Chicago.
No Pianos, Pets or Foreigners! is an enjoyable read, outlining what it was like to live in Japan in the 1980s with many of the experiences still ringing true today.
No Pianos, Pets or Foreigners! is available on Amazon
Before the advent of the JET Program, there were Westerners who taught English in Japan. Joe Palermo was one of them, and he tells his story in No Pianos, Pets or Foreigners!: My Life in Japan in the ’80s.
Palermo arrived in Gunma Prefecture in 1982 as a Mombusho English Fellow (a precursor to modern-day JETs) and his book—whose title was inspired by a phrase he often saw in ads while looking for an apartment—is obviously a walk down memory lane, as well as a collection of “what I did in Japan” stories.
The book could best be described as a score of tales best told over a beer or two (like when he realized he left his shoes in a supermarket parking lot during heavy rain). Some of the anecdotes Palermo shares are products of their time, such as his self-introduction to students, “I am E.T.: English Teacher.” Much of No Pianos, Pets or Foreigners contains tidbits that might really only interest Palermo’s close friends (like the appearance of his house). However, the author excels with his observations of life in Japan, such as illuminating things you may not have been aware of or had totally forgotten, like the tendency of Japanese to rarely go to the dentist.
Touching on a Palermo rumination or two, you might think so that’s why such-and-such was the case, like why some Japanese sometimes mistakenly believe a gaikokujin is speaking English instead of Japanese (due to an English/Japanese switch in their hands, Japanese might expect to hear English upon meeting a gaikokujin). As a fluent Japanese speaker who encourages his students to not limit speaking English outside of the classroom, Palermo is obviously able to immerse himself in Japan better than some others, even if people mistakenly assume he understands all the nuances of Japanese culture.
In a sense, No Pianos, Pets or Foreigners is a book that could have been written by many other ALTs. It’s a journey documenting the ups and downs, the joys and frustration, and the “this doesn’t happen in my country” experiences. The difference here is, Palermo’s journey in Japan didn’t end when he finished teaching English in Gunma: he landed a corporate job and married a woman whom he first met on a study abroad tour of Asia during his university days. The second half of the book delves into the largely corporate, post-teaching part of his Japan life with a touch of humor, such as how the Japanese language made ordering a pizza an adventure.
If you spend enough time in Japan, or any place for that matter, there are interesting stories to be told; some of which can be educational. No Pianos, Pets or Foreigners does inform and amuse.