“Never put your chopsticks upright into the rice, as this is part of a ritual conducted at funerals when offering rice to the spirits of the deceased.”
This helpful (and accurate) piece of advice on dining in Japan is delivered in the understated, everyman, often sarcastic but never sneering style of Chris Broad. It is one of the 12 Things Not to Do in Japan, a video warning of potential cultural faux pax on the Englishman’s Abroad in Japan YouTube channel that has been viewed no fewer than 17 million times.
A single comment on the video extolling Japan’s lack of a tipping culture has attracted 25,000 likes, a hundred times as many views as Broad’s first video, posted in late 2012. In the intervening decade, Broad has parlayed talking into a camera with his waggish stranger-in-a-strange-land observations and travelogues into a lucrative career, a YouTube channel with nearly 3 million subscribers, a podcast, and now a bestselling book.
Abroad in Japan: Ten Years in the Land of the Rising Sun chronicles the author’s journey from his introduction to Japan via teaching English on the government-run JET Programme in the northeast Tohoku region to becoming the country’s most popular foreign YouTuber.
"Tales of acclimation to his new home make up the first two-thirds of the book."
Those familiar with Broad’s channel and podcast will have an idea what to expect from its pages, and it is likely that few will be disappointed. He brings the same unforced and unpretentious style from his videos to recounting his adventures with the written word, though with an inevitably greater focus on his own experiences.
Indeed, tales of acclimation to his new home, struggles with both its language and teaching his native tongue alongside local teachers whose own proficiency can be sorely lacking, and exploration of an unfamiliar enough to feel exotic land, make up the first two-thirds of the book.
He charts his move from Sakata, the city of around 100,000 that was his first home in Japan, to Sendai, the biggest city in Tohoku, along with many of the low-key adventures Broad and friends (both local and foreign) enjoy along the way.
"As ever, Lady Luck played her part, something Broad readily acknowledges."
Broad’s success did not come completely out of the blue. Making videos was a passion from a young age and something he excelled at during his school days. He even considered studying filmmaking at university with the aim of becoming a director. Though he thought better of it, the production values he brought to his YouTube videos, alongside a staunch refusal to take himself too seriously, have turned out to be a winning combination.
As ever, Lady Luck played her part, something Broad readily acknowledges. While struggling to find an apartment in Sendai, a worker at the hotel he stays at tips him off to a French fries with chocolate sauce concoction from McDonald’s. Much to his own surprise, the video of him trying the unusual culinary delight goes viral and leads to both more viewers and offers of work on a documentary and other projects.
The following year, he is awoken during a trip to the mountainous Shirakami-Sanchi World Heritage Site by an alert for a North Korean missile launch. Recording a reaction video with his iPhone lying in bed, half-asleep and half-dressed, the result is not only online virality but global mainstream media attention.
“There was a potential conflict between North Korea and the West, and having been woken up by an air-raid siren apparently qualified me as a boots-on-the-ground geopolitical expert on the subject.”
The ludicrousness of his sudden, if short-lived, status as a talking head on the region is not lost on the self-deprecating Broad: “There was a potential conflict between North Korea and the West, and having been woken up by an air-raid siren apparently qualified me as a boots-on-the-ground geopolitical expert on the subject.”
For Westerners living outside Japan, who account for the vast majority of the author’s online audience and readership, the book delivers entertaining vignettes of the author’s experiences and insights into aspects of what make the country and its culture intriguing. For foreign residents and those familiar with Japan, many of Broad’s tales and observations will have less expository value and instead spark reminiscences of their own encounters in the country. Either way, Broad manages to remain eminently relatable.
Oscar Wilde famously wrote in an 1889 essay: ‘In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.’ He goes on to disparage the Japan-themed work of a contemporary artist recently returned from the East. Curiously, despite his assured deconstruction of others’ opinions on Japan, Wilde never visited the country.
In contrast, Broad has put his time in, and written an accessible and entertaining glimpse into life in the country he has made home, and with it recently topped the prestigious Sunday Times bestseller list in the UK.