Nonni in Japan: Around the World at 80 Years Old!
Chaos To Order Publishing (2022)
Reviewed by Dawn Colclasure for Reader Views (01/2023)
Everyone dreams of visiting a country, and for Icelandic author Jon Svensson, who is often called “Nonni,” his “dream country” to visit was Japan. He was fascinated by Japan as a boy and learned everything he could about it as he grew up. It is when he is in his elderly years that he finally makes that dream come true, and his book, “Nonni in Japan,” is about his adventurous sailing trip to Japan, as well as his many experiences there.
When I started reading this book, I thought it was set in the present day. However, it was when I was reading about how Nonni shared his birth information with a passenger on the ship that I realized this story took place in the mid-1930s. Once I realized this, I was filled with a sense of dread, because I know Japan attacked the U.S. in 1941, and because of this, mostly everything in Japan has changed since then. Realizing this information, it was difficult for me to appreciate the Japanese culture in the same way that Nonni did, because he was seeing Japan as someone unaware of what lay ahead. I had a sense of foreboding during the time the ship he was on docked in Hawaii, and the Japanese military would not allow him to take notes or pictures of certain locations on the island. This only made me wonder if they were already plotting the attack at that time.
Despite this, I was still very interested in Nonni’s adventures. The first part of the book is about his experience on the ship as he sails to Japan. You might think this would be boring, but it certainly is not! The stories of his many experiences during his travels are interesting, from how he shares about the many conversations he has with a “young Japanese boy” to a performance by acrobats.
When Nonni arrives in Japan, he is greeted by members of a local university, where he will be staying for the year that he will be in Japan. They take him to the university, where he meets the dean as well as other staff. He gets settled in his room but they soon have him busy, requesting his presence to give talks to schools, be interviewed by the local paper and appear on radio. Nonni speaks other languages besides English and Icelandic, but he does not speak Japanese. There are many people in Japan who speak English, so this is how he is able to communicate with them. Still, in some cases, the audience he speaks to do not also speak English. In some cases, they know other languages, such as German, and since Nonni knows German, he gives his lectures and speeches in that language. However, in the cases where Japanese is the only language, an interpreter is provided to translate what Nonni says into Japanese. Nonni’s grasp of the German language is helpful here too, because there is an occasion where his interpreter’s only other language is German, so Nonni speaks in German and the interpreter translates his words to Japanese for the audience.
I liked the part where Nonni comes across a view of the Imperial Palace. When he first sees the palace, he does not recognize it. However, he notices many citizens bowing to it as they pass. So he asks someone about the place: “I noticed the men coming and going would bow very deeply as they passed along the bridges from the land to the island. There had to be something unusual and mysterious connected with that place! In the end, I asked a passer-by in English” “What kind of island is this? And who lives in the big buildings behind the trees?” The man seemed to be astonished by my question. He answered in English: “This island has been built and fortified strongly, for in the palace behind the trees lives His Majesty the Emperor of Japan!” (ppg. 317-8) When I got to that chapter, I anticipated reading about Nonni meeting the emperor. But Nonni tells the director at the university that he would not ever dream of it, thinking himself a lowly citizen not worthy of the emperor’s presence. It was interesting to read about his visit to the palace.
There are many times in the book where Nonni says that his visit to Japan was a lifelong dream of his and how he was so happy that his dream finally came true. That he was finally in Japan. I noted how he was 80 years old and also how, later in the book, it is noted by an anonymous source that Nonni later became ill and passed away before he could complete the writing of his book. After I learned of this, I was sad that he could not see his work to completion. However, the anonymous source(s) culled together all of his notes and made the best effort to put them into print, all at the last part of the book. These notes are about his other travels. He was able to see his dream to the end, but not write more fully about the last part of it or see all of his work published.
I mention his age for a reason here, though: The visit to Japan was what Nonni wanted for a very long time. I had to wonder why it did not happen sooner, before he was 80. Did he not try to make his dream to visit Japan come true sooner in his life? Or was his aging a reminder that he better try to work on a dream that kept being put on the back burner because he would not have much more time to make it come true? Nevertheless, it is a reminder of how very fleeting life is. If there’s one thing I took away from my reading of this book, it is this very important reminder: we cannot keep putting our dreams on hold. If you have a dream, then do what you can to make it come true. Don’t wait until you are too old to do it or have very little time left to do it.
“Nonni in Japan” was an interesting look at life in Japan when citizens had no cares about the tragedies of war that lay ahead. It is a book filled with historical information I found valuable to read. Here was Japan pre-WWII and reading about one visitor’s experiences in this country was a pleasant experience.