Book review: The Only Gaijin in the Village, by Iain Maloney

In 2016, Iain Maloney moved from urban to rural Japan in search of space, greenery and solitude to echo his memories of growing up in rural Aberdeenshire. This memoir of his first year after the move is a classic tale of city mouse turned country bumpkin, kept fresh by Maloney’s skill for characterisation, his appealing sense of humour and his reflections on the state of the world.

Iain Maloney

Maloney had lived in Japan for more than a decade before moving to the village in question, having emigrated from Scotland in 2005 as an English teacher in his mid-twenties. As such The Only Gaijin – or foreigner –  in the Village gives an insight into various aspects of Japanese culture while avoiding many of the pitfalls of the stereotypical wide-eyed “Westerner’s First Year Abroad” yarn. The book also presents a much more consistent picture of another culture, as the people Maloney writes about are more often than not those he cares for and knows well – from his Japanese wife Minori’s family to their new neighbours. Indeed, these people look set to become his long-term neighbours following Maloney’s assertion that his new house in rural Japan is where he will live “until he dies.”

The book, based on a year-long series of columns originally published on Maloney’s website, is divided into four sections – one for each season, in line with Maloney’s newfound affinity with nature and penchant for growing vegetables. Within each section are short chapters of varying lengths, each named by music-loving Maloney after song lyrics, and each telling a different anecdote about his colourful neighbours, his early years in Japan, or reminiscences about his upbringing in Scotland. These are also interspersed with charming if occasionally existential pontificating on current affairs, immigration and the meaning of life in general.

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Maloney’s cheerful self-depreciation brings constant humour to his struggles to adjust to life in the countryside, from inept gardening activities to volunteer firefighting and community litter collection. These activities unfold under the watchful guidance of the non-gaijins in the village, mostly elderly men with strong ideas about the right way to do things and ample time on their hands for supervising the inexperienced. Maloney’s cheerful enthusiasm is complemented by the reactions of his wife Minori, eternally unimpressed by her husband’s efforts.

Amid reflections on Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency and racism back in Scotland, Maloney goes to great lengths to distance himself from those immigrants who fail to actively assimilate with their new country – for he is, he makes clear, an immigrant, rejecting the term “expat” as only applied to the white and wealthy.

Maloney and his wife moved to the countryside in search of peace and quiet, and their success in finding it gives the book a sense of escapism. Nobody reading it could fail to wish themselves in Maloney’s garden, sitting by his fire pit with a view of Mount Ontake through a gap in the trees – either alone in winter with a bobble hat and gloves, or surrounded by the chatter and laughter of new friends and neighbours at a summer barbecue.

The Only Gaijin in the Village is a delightful tumble into village life, complete with a vivid cast of characters and a beautiful sense of place. Maloney’s recollections of Scotland add a pleasant touch of nostalgia, but they don’t dampen his obvious sense of affection towards the new home he is determined to stay in for life. 

The Only Gaijin in the Village, by Iain Maloney, Polygon, 256pp, £12.99


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