Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan

Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan

by Bruce Feiler


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Learning to Bow has been heralded as one of the funniest, liveliest, and most insightful books ever written about the clash of cultures between America and Japan. With warmth and candor, Bruce Feiler recounts the year he spent as a teacher in a small rural town. Beginning with a ritual outdoor bath and culminating in an all-night trek to the top of Mt. Fuji, Feiler teaches his students about American culture, while they teach him everything from how to properly address an envelope to how to date a Japanese girl.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060577209
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/11/2004
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 626,980
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

Bruce Feiler is the author of six consecutive New York Times bestsellers, including Abraham, Where God Was Born, America's Prophet, The Council of Dads, and The Secrets of Happy Families. He is a columnist for the New York Times, a popular lecturer, and a frequent commentator on radio and television. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and twin daughters.


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

October 25, 1964

Place of Birth:

Savannah, Georgia


B.A., Yale University, 1987; M.Phil. in international relations, Cambridge University, 1991

Read an Excerpt

Learning to Bow
Inside the Heart of Japan

Chapter One

He drew a circle that shut me out --
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.

-- Edwin Markham, "Outwitted," 1915

I dropped my pants and felt a rush of cool wind against my legs. Slower now, I slid off my remaining clothes to stand naked on the stone path, which felt warm below my feet. The smell of pine from the nearby hills lingered in the air. The sun had just set. It was a midsummer evening, my first night out of Tokyo, and standing bare on this mountain, I soon realized how quiet a body can be.

Unsure, I kept my eyes down, shifting first from my feet now white with the chill, to my clothes, which lay in a shy heap on the grass, my pants still clinging to the shape of my body. Then suddenly I saw the other feet, and the legs. They too were bare. And as I watched them shuffling in my direction, my eye told me what my mind had not time to know: these feet were looking at me.

Stepping back, I met the eyes that the feet belied and for a moment felt locked in a frozen stare. There were twenty-four eyes in all -- open, agape, peering! -- and despite all I had heard about Japanese eyes being narrow, these eyes seemed remarkably wide. As I stood on this mountain path, face to face with the twelve men who would be my hosts for a year as a teacher in their rural town, the only difference I noticed between them and me was that they were all wearing towels and I was not.

To my relief, one stepped forward. "Mr. Bruce," he said, offering a slight bow and a nervous laugh, "we are going to take a bath now. Perhaps you would like a towel."

I had never taken a towel into a bath or, for that matter, taken a bath with other people, but under the circumstances I agreed. "Thank you," I managed, trying to bow discreetly while drawing the small hand towel across my body.

As soon as I stretched it halfway across my waist, the others cheered, rushed forward, and with all the glee of a band of ten-year-olds parading a captured mouse, led me to the mouth of a nearby cave and the steaming, pungent fumes of a hot spring bath. As a newcomer in Japan, I would be welcomed into my office as I was welcomed into the world; with a bare body and a fresh bath.

Inside the cave, the bodies of other bathers emerged from the steam. They seemed to move slowly at first, as if muted by the weight of the thick white mist. Bare arms cut through the air drawing handfuls of water to splash over shoulders; heads bobbed in the murky liquid like croutons in a gray broth. Some of the bathers -- all men, I now realized -- stood half submerged in the round pool, nodding their heads intently and speaking in echo; others floated quietly by, suspended by shadows of steam that lingered above the surface. From above, the pale evening light sifted through the air, giving the space the eerie feel of a Roman bath. But instead of wearing a toga, each of the men wandering outside the water held a small white towel over his private parts. As I watched these men clutching their towels while splashing and chatting and strolling about, I wondered if I had discovered the secret reason behind bowing in Japan; to shake hands at a time like this and release the towel would mean a certain loss of face.

As we approached the water, the teacher who had earlier offered me the towel, a short, squat man with wiry black hair, cherubic face, and a waddle that rocked him from side to side like a penguin, pushed the others away, put his arm around my shoulder, and led me forward.

"I ... Mista Burusu boss," he said, tapping first himself and then me on the nose. "My namu ... izu ... Sakuragi. I Iamu Mista Cherry Blossom."

At this early stage in our relationship he spoke in English. Though my Japanese was far from fluent, I had the facility to understand most things when necessary and the ability to pretend not to when prudent. Both of these skills would prove vital to my survival.

Mr. Cherry Blossom led me to the wall of the cave and row of men seated with their backs to the water. We sat on two round stones facing the wall and, with our towels draped over our knees, proceeded to douse ourselves in warm, chalky water from a shallow trough at our feet.

"In Japan," he said, this time in his native tongue, "we clean ourselves before entering the bath. Then we just soak in the water. This is our Japanese custom."

After pouring water over our shoulders with buckets and wiping our bodies with our hands (no soap), we were ready to step into the bath. Moving from the wail to where the water splashed at the edge of the pool, we walked slowly down the steps, slid up to our necks in the warm liquid, and for the first time removed the towels from below our waists and placed them -- dripping wet -- atop our heads.

"Doesn't it feel wonderful?" he said, closing his eyes stretching his arms, and flashing a dreamy, self-satisfied grin.

"The water seems ... alive," I said as I struggled to keep myself afloat while pushing away the flotilla of bugs swimming past my head. Then slowly my feet began to sink, and I realize, that instead of being in a stone cavern, we were standing in an open mud basin with hot spring water bubbling up from the ground. With each burp from the earth, I would slide down further, until chalky liquid lapped at my mouth from below and dripped down my nose from above ...

Learning to Bow
Inside the Heart of Japan
. Copyright © by Bruce Feiler. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

James Fallows

“A hilarious and revealing book [that] marks the debut of a formidable talent.”

Robert Elegant

“A charming and incisive close-up of the most important part of the Japanese miracle- the making of a Japanese.”

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Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
DreamtReality More than 1 year ago
This memoir of a Georgia native who participated in the JET (Japanese English Teaching) Abroad Program in its earlier years (1980s) is written in a very organized, comprehensible, and beautiful non-fiction writing style. It also helps any reader understand many of the basic features of Japanese culture and making ties with the thoughts of the school system (and other items of wide range from the dating process to outdoor excursions to holidays to government) to the cultural philosophies of the people. Overall, this book is a good read for anyone who wishes to learn more about the Japanese culture and perspectives, but it lacks being an outstanding book due to Feiler's favoritism toward the American perspective in comparison to the Japanese perspective in many stories taking place in the book. Each time he draws a line that makes Japan seem a little "backward" in their ideas when he compares it to his American perspective. This makes the memoir become polluted with bias thoughts of the author that he writes in a way where it appears fact. However, one who actually have studied Japanese culture would notice these predjudices in the book immediately while those who do not know much about Japanese culture may believe that his thoughts are fact rather than opinions. One should read this book with care, attempting to determine when the author writes of fact or opinion, if the person has planned to read this book to further understand Japan (as well as remember that some of the information is a little dated as the education system and other aspects mentioned about Japan has changed since the 80s, especially so during the past decade). Other than these flaws the book is a fantastic read that I would encourage any enthusiast of memoirs and non-fiction pieces to read as well as encourage (with caution) to those who have an interest in foreign cultures and understanding their perspective on life such as Japan.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is fast paced and easy to read. I learned a lot of about Japanese culture from this book. However, I was kind of disappointed by the plain character development and portraits in this book. Sometimes, I can't even distinguish some of the characters. It would have been better if Feiler could have added more cultural and individual images and descriptions into each characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the book, especially the areas where the author brought to light the commmonality found in being friend, mentor, educator, and all around good person. The students desire (not ability) to support the "whole" was admirable at the same time that it was met with some regret.... a good read.
Klong More than 1 year ago
I was a little dismayed to discover that the events in this book are over 20 years old, and indeed, the book is a little dated. The author's ability to speak Japanese and insert himself into everyday Japanese life gave valuable insights unobtainable elsewhere. However, while it was quite interesting to read the descriptions of Japanese schooling, the author seemed to ignore many aspects of Japanese culture, such as the emphasis on beauty, ritual and perfection.
skinglist on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As a statement to how busy I've been lately, it took me nearly two weeks to read this book, shocking considering if a book takes me that long it's usually not worth it and this one was.While I was glad for the insight this book gave me into a non-city JHS in the 90s and the glimpse into the student's mindset before they're utterly brainwarped by the time I get them at 8-9 PM, it also made me doubly glad I opted not to do JET either time. I couldn't cope! I did enjoy how it was a mix of "Mr. Bruce"'s views as well as those of his colleagues and students.Living English may be alive in the hearts of government officials in Tokyo, but it has no life in Sano.Nor does it have much life even ten years later. While it's true that I don't generally enjoy JHS and HS students, I have gotten some interesting views on English from them. Also make me consider my motives for studying Japanese and its uses in my world.It, like Alex Kerr's Lost Japan, is one of those books that makes me really stop and think about the Japan I know v. Japan out of the cities. It's also one that's prone to making me stop and think and realise "I'm in Japan" a fact that I must admit escapes me more often than I'd have thought possible.His chapter on juku, and I like how he layed out the book according to his own experiences--and tied extra stuff in, like the juku around entrance exam time, as appropriate--got me thinking a lot on the business of English. For all the criticism about the Big4, they fill a demand in the Japanese market. Having had some JH and HS English teachers in my classes, it no longer surprises me about the state of English in this country. Still kudos for the effort.But what I thought as his central tenet came so late...Everybody says that our students have to learn to live in a world that is larger than just Japan. But first, our teachers have to learn that this world exists. 100% agreed, part of the cycle here as elsewhere in the world is that until the circle of 'how it's been done' is broken, it's hard to teach the unknown.
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What are Japanese schools really like? That's a question I'm interested in. Turns out, according to Bruce Feiler, Japanese schools are overcrowded and overly focused on discipline and structure. Why are they so successful, then? They are successful in producing students who work well in overcrowded, disciplined and structured situations. Japanese schools are remarkably bad in producing creative and self-motivated students. As a librarian working in the public schools, I found this a fascinating book.
Bibliotropic on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bruce Feiler takes us on an insightful and often humourous look at what it's like to teach English in a Japaese junion high school. He combines classic cultural research with his own personal experiences, giving the reader a good look inside a world that so many people both love and often misunderstand.It isn't just the Japanese school system that Feiler lets the reader explore in Learning to Bow. All aspects of Japanese culture are up for grabs, from dating to the proper way to eat lunch to fashion. He often makes comparisons between Japanese and American methods, drawing his own conclusions but still giving us a chance to form our own without his bias. While he may disagree with the benefits of some parts of Japanese culture, he doesn't say, for example, that those aspects are bad. Merely that he disagrees.I've read this book twice before, and still love it now as much as I did when I first opened the cover to page 1. Though Feiler's experiences recounted in the book take place in the late 80's, the words and story themselves have such a timeless feel that they could have been written yesterday.Most certainly, I'd recommend this book for anyone who's seriously interested in teaching in Japan (through the JET program, perhaps), or for those who are interested in another look into Japan's fascinating culture.
amorlibrorum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I thought this was a good book about an American's view of student life and compulsory education in early 2000 Japan. The author shares his successes and social errors from his one year teaching English in Japan.I would like to visit Japan and little things like being constantly asked, "Can you use chopsticks? Can you eat sushi?" strike me as right on in the innocence of a host country small town understanding of outsiders. Having lived two years in small towns in Puerto Rico taught much about having patience if one wants to truly understand a culture.Unlike other reviews on Amazon, I found the quotes and haikus that introduce the chapters to be charming and to help set the mood of the material.
ganbari on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very enjoyable reading that gives a pleasant taste of life in Japan.Special kudos to author Bruce Feiler for including a "Further Reading" section. Peter Hessler did the same in his book, River Town, and it is a useful addition to their work.
Keller-Reader More than 1 year ago
Bruce Feiler has a unique way of introducing the outside world to his readers in a way that makes you feel a part of his experiences. It is incredibly informative and interesting! It also explains some of my own questions about the Japanese culture.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I`m currently teaching in Japan, so this was a great primer! I don`t remember the writing style well, so maybe it wasn`t all that memorable, but the content has stayed with me!
WarrenA More than 1 year ago
I picked up this book after a friend recommended it to me. They found it engaging and interesting, which is a sentiment that I happy to share about the book. While some of the other reviewers like to point out the problems with the regalement being given, I found these points very intriguing. It gives an unique insight, not to mention, a look of Japan that few people get to see. I found the author's opinions and thoughts on various topics fascinating. While some parts of the book may have changed since being jotted down onto paper, they still have merit despite the age. I honestly enjoyed reading the book and could not put it down. After finishing the book in a matter of days once it arrived, I find my interest in Japan from it's people to it's culture refreshed. I found Feiler's account enlightening and invigorating, which is something I don't usually find in similar books of this category.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
First, understand that this was written a "few" years ago and some policies over in Japan may have changed. This is a great book to read for any English teacher who has ever considered traveling to Japan to teach. Bruce does a fantastic job sharing dialogue and experience while also keeping the entire situation as real as possible (no fluff added).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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TexasJo More than 1 year ago
Feiler goes to Japan to teach English for a year and tells about his experiences in a Tokyo suburb out in the country. The Japanese have a different view of many aspects of life than we do and it is interesting. It's a good book for those interested in other cultures, different perspectives.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Learning to Bow was an inspirational book. It really made me want to go across seas to Japan and learn as much as I could. It's funny, informative and interesting.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Interesting and funny, but very good book for beginners, even though it is far from revealing much about Japanese society and culture. To gain more insights, two other books should be read (1) Japan: Who Governs? (2)China's Global Reach: Markets, Multinationals, and Globalization. Both books take very serious look at Japanese economy and society in general, while (2) pinpoints what is behind the current Japanese economic and business mess.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
i had to read this book for school and it was so boring!!!! it took me almost 2 months to read because i couldn't focus because it was so boring!!! this book is awful. save yourself the misery and do not read this book ever!!!!!!!!!