When Sucheta Rawal told a friend of her plans to write a book on Japanese culture, Kazumi Fukumoto was wary.
“I was a little bit afraid,” Ms. Fukumoto said, in part because the Japanese are notoriously particular about how their nuanced culture is portrayed by outsiders.
While Japan’s people shares many near-universal values like respect for elders, veneration of ancestors and appreciation for nature, contrasts abound between the country’s rural and urban settings and ancient and modern elements.
“There’s a kind of overarching Japanese culture, but each region has a unique, interesting aspect,” said Ms. Fukumoto, who initially found it hard to adjust to life in America after arriving here to study more than a decade ago.
But somehow Ms. Rawal, a travel entrepreneur, writer and founder of the Atlanta-based nonprofit Go Eat Give, pulled off an entertaining and informative portrayal in her new book released June 5, Ms. Fukumoto said.
“I was amazed,” said Ms. Fukumoto, who works business analytics in Atlanta for Delta TechOps, the Atlanta airline’s maintenance arm.
Ms. Rawal has been active at libraries, schools and bookstores around Atlanta conducting readings and signings of her “Beato Goes To…”children’s books. The series follows her furry real-life cat as he travels the world, learning cultural insights and discovering new foods through adventures led by a local child guide. So far, the series has touched on Israel, Greenland, Indonesia and now, Japan. (A companion augmented reality app is also available on the Greenland edition.)
It’s not as if Ms. Fukumoto lacked a stake in the book’s success: Beato’s Japanese guide in the book, a little girl, is based off of her 7-year-old self. She also used the book as a favor at her recent wedding celebrations in Japan and Atlanta.
Beato takes a meandering route through the country, much as Ms. Rawal has done on three trips that provided the foundation for the book. She even spent time studying as a Yamabushi, a traditional ascetic dwelling in the mountains.
Of course, it also helped to have a friend like Ms. Fukumoto, who introduced Ms. Rawal to her native Okinawa, the southern island that once was an independent kingdom and now hosts a massive U.S. air base.
Ms. Fukumoto says her home is a little bit like Georgia in one important respect: warmth and hospitality.
“Whenever you meet people, they’re your friends.”
Global Atlanta caught up with Ms. Rawal by email as she traveled in Romania to talk about the writing process, how she chose Japan and what Atlantans should appreciate about the country — especially as Delta Air Lines Inc. prepares to celebrate 20 years linking Atlanta and Tokyo.
Why Japan, and what went into researching? How did you decide which of Japan’s cultural idiosyncrasies to include?
The culture of Japan is very unique and often misunderstood. Often people associate the country with only Tokyo, but the fact is that outside of Tokyo, Japan is very different. I wanted to share some of the old and new social and cultural norms that kids would find interesting through this book.
It took 3 trips & a lot of research to do this book. I spent a lot of time in the smaller towns, hiked around the Kunisaki peninsula, trained with a Yamabushi master, and visited all the known temples and shrines around the country. In fact, it is the most difficult one I have done so far as Japanese people are very particular about representing them absolutely perfectly.
How did you meet Kazumi, and why did you choose her as the lens? How is this angle different from Beato’s other adventures? Does he always meet with a local?
I met Kazumi through a friend in Atlanta. She introduced me to the island of Okinawa, a place I did not know much about. Kazumi and I became good friends over time and we share a lot of the same values including a love for travel and food.
She moved to U.S. from Japan on her own, has traveled the world and is up for an adventure anytime. Unlike most Japanese people I have met, she is not shy and willing to try anything at least once. She makes for a great guide. When I was looking for a character to base my book on Japan on, I used her pictures from when she was 7 years old.
Beato Goes To Japan has a lot of adventure where he sleeps in a capsule hotel, plays with snow monkeys and dances with robots, but it also teaches kids about respect. In Japanese culture, it is very important to respect seniors, elders, teachers and the environment (based on Shintoism), and the message is highlighted through the book.
In all Beato Goes To books, Beato meets a local kid who acts as his tour guide through the country. I felt it was important for kids across different countries to connect with one another and learn how differently they live.
Delta is about to celebrate 20 years linking Atlanta and Tokyo. What do you think are the main reasons Atlantans should go to Japan?
Japan is a beautiful country during all seasons. I feel Atlantans should spend a day or two in Tokyo, but really explore the countryside to see the scenery, gardens & temples. They should stay in ryokans (traditional inns), meet the local people and try foods that are not just sushi. The things that we know about Japan are mostly based on stereotypes — you will not find California rolls in Japan — and it is such a rich experience to truly understand what the country holds. I personally feel we can learn a lot about respecting the environment & each other from Japanese people as well.
Most adults and kids would agree that the colorful pages of “Beato Goes To Japan” are a good place to get inspired for your trip to Japan and get some ideas on where to go!
Buy the book on Amazon here.