By Rashaad Jorden (Yamagata-ken, 2008-2010) for JQ magazine. Rashaad worked at four elementary schools and three junior high schools on JET, and taught a weekly conversion class in Haguro (his village) to adults. He completed the Tokyo Marathon in 2010, and was also a member of a taiko group in Haguro.
For those who have lived in Japan, there were probably times when nothing seemed to be going right while struggling to get adjusted to a new culture. But eventually, or maybe miraculously, things take a 180 degree turn.
Well, that happened in Samurai Awakening, Benjamin Martin‘s work of fiction for young adults. Martin—currently a fifth year Okinawa Prefecture JET—tells the story of David Matthews, an exchange student spending the year in Japan. David is frustrated and unhappy due to the fact he can’t speak Japanese well and hasn’t made any close friends. Fittingly, very early in the story, he is bloodied in a fight with students at Nakano Junior High School.
But after attending a local temple ceremony, David learns a new god has created special powers in him. He is now able to speak Japanese fluently, fight incredibly well and turn into a cat. However, those are not the only surprises in the book. His host family the Matsumotos, who are famous sword makers, are also keeping a secret handed down to their ancestors by the Emperor of Japan. And it is with the Matsumotos that he must work to save his host sister Rie, as wolves have taken up residence in her body.
Perhaps because David has become a skilled fighter, the battles in Samurai Awakening are the best parts of the book. David and his family must defeat wolves and other monsters to save Rie, so there is a sense the end of the story will be exciting. And it is, as Martin does an excellent job of describing how skilled David is with swords. Because of all the ghosts and goblins lurking to do damage, you get the sense that Samurai Awakening would make a very good horror movie. Martin does do a good job of describing life at a Japanese junior high school, such as mentioning cliques, rivalries and after school activities (David played badminton) while giving readers a sense of Japan’s rich history regarding swords.
However, the first third of the novel seemed slow. While reading about swords and the importance of swords to the Matsumoto family was interesting, it didn’t seem like it was adding anything to the story at times. Samurai Awakening is supposedly geared towards young adults, but those a bit unfamiliar with Japan and the culture might find it a bit challenging as there are no footnotes explaining things readers might be unaware of.
Ultimately, Samurai Awakening is a fun read that makes you think you’re watching a movie.
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