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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 223

East Is East is a novel that tells the story of Hiro Tanaka, the illegitimate son of an American father and a Japanese mother. After his mother's suicide and social isolation over his mixed-race background in Japan, he heads to the United States to search for his father. Tanaka thought...

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East Is East is a novel that tells the story of Hiro Tanaka, the illegitimate son of an American father and a Japanese mother. After his mother's suicide and social isolation over his mixed-race background in Japan, he heads to the United States to search for his father. Tanaka thought that America was similar to Tokyo and had a core ethnic identity, but he learns that many races co-mingle among one another.

He lands on Tupelo Island and embarks on a series of misadventures as he struggles with broken English and local prejudices. He accidentally causes the death of a black man, sparking a manhunt from a town sheriff and his racist sidekick.

Tanaka flees to a writing house within the island and receives help from Ruth, one of the house's writers. Ruth's intentions are noble in the beginning, but she uses his story as inspiration to get ahead of her fellow writers. Despite Ruth's help, Tanaka gets captured but escapes to Okefenokee Swamp and struggles to survive. He realizes that America was not the utopia he imagined.

Ruth helps him again, but she only wishes to use his story to salvage her reputation. At the end of the story, Hiro realizes that being half-Japanese makes him a social outcast in America, just as being half-American made him a social outcast in Japan.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s fifth novel, East Is East, satirizes the intransigence of the American and Japanese cultures, exposing the ignorance and ethnocentrism fundamental to their mutual misunderstanding.

Hiro Tanaka, the illegitimate son of an American musician and a Japanese mother, jumps ship off the coast of Georgia, hoping to escape the stigma his half-breed heritage has earned him in his native Japan, and perhaps to track down the father whose act of abandonment drove Hiro’s mother to suicide. Hiro has a romantic image of America: “He envisioned a city like Tokyo, with skyscrapers and elevated trains and a raucous snarl of traffic, but every face was different—they were white and black and yellow and everything in between and they all glowed with the rapture of brotherly love.” His identity as a Japanese, however, has been shaped by the writings of nationalist Yukio Mishima, who extolled a code of personal conduct tragically untenable in the West.

Hiro washes up on the shore of Tupelo Island, where his contact with the locals leads to a series of comic misadventures aggravated by his poor grasp of English and their prejudices. When he accidentally scares a black man to death, he becomes the object of a manhunt led by the local sheriff and his bigoted assistant.

Hiro seeks refuge at Thanatopsis House, a writers’ colony on the island, and is hidden away by Ruth Dershowitz, one of its writers-in-residence. Ruth’s intentions are humanitarian at first but the competitive environment of the colony and her personal insecurities as a writer lead her to exploit her relationship with Hiro for raw material for a story.

Hiro is captured by the authorities but escapes into the nearby Okefenokee Swamp, where the primordial struggle of nature comes to symbolize the hell he has found the West to be. Reduced to primitive survival instincts, Hiro realizes he has been betrayed by his illusion of America as a place of brotherly love. He also feels betrayed by Ruth, who helps rescue him from the swamp but who schemes to write a journalistic account of Hiro’s ordeal and recover the reputation that she has lost through her association with him.

At the novel’s end, Hiro understands that being only half-American makes him as much an outcast in his adopted home as in Japan. In a final affirmation of his identity, he follows the samurai code to its inevitable extreme. His action acknowledges the implacable truth of the aphorism from which the title is taken: “East is east, west is west, and never the twain shall meet.”

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