Set in 1980s Tokyo, Don Lee’s Country of Origin is a detective novel that brings together a troupe of characters who are all half-heartedly searching for something or someone. Tom Hurley, a Junior Officer at the American Embassy in Tokyo, receives a call from Susan Countryman, who has not heard from her sister in a month. Her sister, Lisa, is a graduate student studying anthropology, who nominally came to Japan in order to conduct fieldwork on Tokyo’s sex industry. Kenzo Ota, an assistant inspector at Azabu-sho and one of the madogiwazoku (window tribe, those who have failed to receive promotion repeatedly), is assigned to this missing person case that no one cares about. Tom and Kenzo’s joint investigation narrated in the third person unfolds chronologically. However, their narratives are interspersed with Lisa’s, which is purposefully nonlinear. This structure keeps tantalizing the readers until the very last page. Surprisingly though, Lisa’s fate is revealed fairly early in the book, which makes me believe that more emphasis is put on the allure and dangers of red light district of Tokyo (Monica Chiu has a chapter in Scrutinized! on “racial playgrounds” and Country of Origin).
“Why hadn’t he noticed them before, the contradictory facial features, the parts that didn’t quite fit together, as on his own face? She was revealed to him now.”
Regarding character development, Lee stays true to the title and packs every page with discussion of each character’s origins however minor their appearances in the novel are. No one is who he or she seems to be at first. Lisa is a mixed-race transnational adoptee who is presumed to be half-African American and half-Japanese (Her parentage becomes even more complicated as her mother turns out to be a Zainichi Korean); Tom is half-Caucasian and half-Korean, born between a GI and local Korean woman, who pretends to be Hawaiian (or prefers to be identified as hapa haole); Kenzo is a Japanese returnee from the United States, who is haunted by the possibility that his ex-wife might have raised his biological son to be a nisei Japanese American. All three of them are progeny of complicated military entanglement between United States, Korea and Japan. This intricate web comes more fully into view when other supporting characters such as CIA officer Vincent Kitamura, a sansei Japanese American, are introduced.
Side note: Who is supposed to be the woman on the cover?
Personally, I found several scenes emotionally difficult to read through as characters continue to hurl racial slurs and sexist insults at each other. Also, I don’t know what to make of the fact that major female characters, including Julia Tinsley and Lisa, disappear towards the end of the novel. What kind of hope is left for women in this novel, who are doubly burdened by their race and gender?
Yet, the unexpected brotherhood formed by the three male characters — Tom, Kenzo, and Vincent — is a refreshing take on pan-ethnicity and alternative kinship. Moreover, Lee’s ruthless exposé of both Japanese and American racism does effectively show how single-axis approach to ethnicity, race, gender, class, and nationality offers a limited and obscured view of an individual. It is definitely worth a read if you are wondering about how racial formation in different geographic contexts collide.