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Almost Japanese by Sarah Sheard (Scribner's: $10.95, hardcover; $4.95, paperback; 125 pp.)

May 24, 1987|Georgia Jones-Davis | Jones-Davis is assistant Book Review editor.

Adear friend recently brought me a little gift from Japan: a schoolgirl's notebook with some odd English phrases scribbled across the jacket: "She is a saucy girl. She is fifteen years old. She has become of marriageable age." What's all this mean? I asked my friend. She was as confused and amused about it as I was.

But author Sarah Sheard evidently knows her contemporary Japan and captures this scene in her slender novel, "Almost Japanese": "On the street I've been passing teenagers wearing t-shirts chastely printed with English phrases like: 'Just good. Just now. Freckle.' Or 'Always being high spirits. Anytime keep lively.' Or, 'Impudent Company. . . .' "

It can only have to do with Japanese youth having a crush on anything they think is American teen-ager --rock, T-shirts and jeans, teen-age argot. Inevitably, in their way of expressing this passion, a few things do get lost in the translation.

Sheard's novella is about a Canadian teen-ager's crush on all things Japanese. She relates her skeletal, elemental story in language of the haiku. It's in English, but it feels as though its in Japanese.

" Almost full moon. I've been mute for days now ," Emma notes about her feelings of both alienation and joy while traveling in the land of her obsession. These are the only words, a single line, found on an otherwise empty, white page. Emma's aloneness and longing--visually, chillingly brought home.

This passion for all things Japanese started with the "Akira years." Toronto has inherited a new conductor from Japan--a man celebrated for his dashing good looks, turtlenecks and long hair as well as musical genius.

Emma, a gawky 14-year-old whose family lives next door to the house Akira Tsutsuma buys, gets herself invited into his house with an offering of brownies. Inside the house, Toronto is miles away; it is all white walls, a Buddhist shrine, eucalyptus branch arrangements, futons. Akira serves delicate green tea with Emma's chocolaty, chewy brownies. East meets West.

Emma attends his every concert; combs his trash; builds an Akira shrine in her bedroom, carries a picture of him in her wallet (Sheard captures perfectly an adolescent's intense embarrassment at having a crush on a disinterested party); she slowly evolves into a 6-foot-tall, wild-haired kabuki doll who wears a kimono bunched up under her school uniform and eats egg salad with chop sticks. Emma takes a job in a Japanese grocery store where Akira shopped before his move on to Europe to conduct. She dates a Japanese exchange student, who pathetically proves that he is no stand-in for Akira.

Emma finally falls for the un-Japanese Boris, a new-wave kid who cares enough about her to help her resolve her obsession. Go to Japan, he tells her. Go and meet Akira on his own turf. And go she does.

If your heart has skipped a few beats while you've watched Seiji Ozawa conduct, or if you, too, are smitten by the spare elegance and poetry of ways Japanese, you will find Sheard's novella a funny and extremely well-crafted divertimento.

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