Tsundoku Reader

A blog on Japanese books, mostly untranslated, that deserve a wider audience outside of Japan

The Way of the Japanese Runner

「風が強く吹いている」、三浦しをん、 2006

The Wind Blows Hard, by Shion Miura (no English translation available)

Reading Shion Miura’s books is always an exhilarating experience. I think it’s her sheer enthusiasm for her subjects, which usually involve a deep dive into crafts and occupations that we don’t usually think about much—the painstaking process of compiling dictionaries in 「舟を編む」 (The Great Passage, which I wrote about here), 「神去なあなあ日常」 (”Kamusari Naanaa Nichijo,” here) about the timber industry, the まほろ駅前 series of three books about handymen, and 「仏果を得ず」, a novel about bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet theater), among many others (she is quite prolific). And 「風が強く吹いている」(“The Wind Blows Hard”), a novel about long-distance running no less, definitely falls into this category.

 

The novel begins as Haiji Kiyose, coming home from the public baths one night, is nearly bowled over by a young man, running all out but breathing as evenly as if he were out for a stroll. He is being chased—ineffectually—by the storekeeper he has just robbed. Haiji gives chase too, not to recover the stolen property, but because he has been looking for someone who can run like this. He realizes that “if there is happiness, beauty and virtue in this world, they are embodied here in this stranger.”

Kakeru and Haiji, played by Kento Hayashi and Keisuke Hoide in the film version of the book

Haiji, a runner himself, finally catches up to the young man, and essentially rescues him. Kakeru (written with the kanji for “run”) Kurahara is starting at Kansei University, but doesn’t have any money left for food (thus the stealing) or rent until his parents send his meager monthly allowance. Haiji offers him refuge in Chikuseiso, a rundown boarding house where he lives with eight others. But Kakeru is right to be suspicious when he hears how low the rent will be (with meals thrown in as well)—Haiji has been looking for one more person to move into Chikuseiso so that he’d have the 10 people needed to form a team for the Hakone ekiden, arguably Japan’s most famous relay marathon.

The origins of the ekiden date back to the Edo period (1603-1868), when couriers running messages between Tokyo and Kyoto would stop for breaks at stations along the route and pass the message on to another courier to carry to the next leg. The name “ekiden” is made up of the characters for “station” and “pass on.” The runners represent this history by wearing a sash over one shoulder that they pass on to the next runner. Ekiden take place throughout the year, run by all age groups, but the Hakone ekiden, run by university students over two days on January 2-3, is probably the most popular (the TV viewing rate was 29.5% for the 2018 ekiden).

All of the Hakone ekiden’s 10 stages are close to a half-marathon in distance, and generally about 30 students of university age run a half-marathon equivalent time of under 63 minutes. For comparison, only one British man ran a half-marathon in less than 63 minutes in all of 2013, and that was the Olympic champion Mo Farah.

The 10 members of the Chikuseiso team

This is the caliber of runner Haiji’s team will have to compete against, and the first half of the book details Haiji’s efforts to whip his motley crew into shape. The goal of qualifying for the Hakone ekiden seems like a pipe dream at first, given that other than Haiji and Kakeru, none of the residents are runners. Nicotine, who lives up to his nickname, and Oji, a manga fanatic who claims that even a paramecium can run faster than he can, are probably the most difficult cases. However, Haiji maintains that long-distance running is the sport that most rewards effort, with talent having less significance than in other sports. This is really the only hope that the scrappy Chikuseiso residents have against other university teams.

Haiji also has to break down Kakeru’s resistance to competitive running. He had quit his high school team in disgust over the competition, jealousy and intense focus on times. His running team had been bound by hierarchy—the more senior members of the team ate before the younger team members and used the bath first. Now he only wants to run for himself. However, at Chikuseiso, Kakeru can finally breathe. No one cares about birth order or race times, and everyone speaks their minds. Haiji, as coach, simply hands out individualized training plans and offers advice when asked. Kakeru felt like he was watching magic at work—he never imagined such a coaching style could exist.

The second half of the book covers the actual Hakone ekiden. At first I thought 250 pages devoted just to the two days of the race would get tiresome, but Miura uses this as a chance to delve into the background of each of the 10 residents as they run their segment of the race. The course follows part of the old Tokaido road from Tokyo into the mountains to Hakone and then back again the next day. This means that each section is different, challenging the runners in different ways. For example, the first section is flat, but so closely watched by TV crews and crowds of supporters gathered at the starting line that the runner must be able to withstand the psychological pressure. The fifth section is the most intense as runners climb a steep mountain, but the sixth section is mentally challenging as it is primarily downhill and runners must pace themselves. The tenth section is almost flat, but the strong winds blowing between the city skyscrapers often create challenges for runners. Miura tells us in exhaustive (but fascinating) detail how each runner tackles the segment Haiji assigned to them, with flashbacks that add to their back stories and make it clear why Haiji made that choice.

The Way of the Runner by Adharanand Finn (Pegasus Books, 2016) is the perfect accompaniment to The Wind Blows Hard. Finn brought his family to Japan for about a year so that he could explore the story behind statistics showing that Japan has some of the best runners in the world. For example, in 2013, the hundred fastest marathon runners were all from Africa, with the exception of six, and five of these were Japanese. In the same year, no British runner completed a marathon in less than 2 hours and 15 minutes. In the US, 12 men ran under that time, but in Japan, with half the population of the US, 52 Japanese men ran a marathon in under 2:15.

Despite these impressive undergraduate records, by the age of 25 there are few top athletes in Japan and their times are less impressive. Finn attributes this to over-training at an early age, with coaches emphasizing short-term results. He concludes by noting that Japan’s “inward-facing running culture” and its focus on ekiden also limits the success of Japanese runners in international races. Japanese women, who do not face the same pressure as men in ekiden, are more competitive in Olympic marathons because they and their coaches focus more on competing internationally than at home.

Finn is also fascinated by the marathon monks of Mt. Hiei, Tendai Buddhists who use running as a means of reaching spiritual enlightenment and as a form of meditation. They run the equivalent of a thousand marathons in a thousand days spread over a seven-year period. The monks even carry a rope and knife so that they can take their own lives should they fail to complete the challenge. This trial is so intense (they fast throughout the fifth year) that it is often called a living funeral.

A marathon monk in the handmade straw sandals that they wear for their runs

Finn, who is an avid runner himself, describes running in a way that applies equally to these monks and Miura’s characters: “I often think to myself, just before a race, that I’m about to head down into my well. Down there it is dark, difficult, perhaps even a little bit scary, but it is pure sensation, brute simplicity. Down there, with everything else stripped away, life, the core of life, the breath itself, fills you entirely.”

I think this is what makes Shion Miura’s novel so fascinating—she uses the Hakone ekiden as a literary device that allows her to strip away everything extraneous and get to the core of her characters. As these 10 men run their section of the ekiden, we get to witness these internal struggles, which are far more dramatic than anything bystanders will see as they watch the race. And yes, I even started running again.

Nominees for the 2018 Japanese Booksellers Award

The 10 books nominated for the 2018 Booksellers Award were announced on January 2018. One of the reasons I look forward to this list so much is the sheer variety of the selections. After all, the titles are chosen by bookstore clerks who are eager to promote their favorites, so I think this is as close as we can get to an award given by people who are readers first and foremost. This year the list is as eclectic as ever, with novels about zombies, the intersections between Japanese art and French Impressionism, the struggles of the publishing industry, a murder involving the game of shogi, bullying, a professional assassin, a modern-day scribe, a mysterious brain cancer patient, and a failing department store (with a cat thrown in for good measure).

『AX アックス』、伊坂幸太郎

AX, by Kotaro Isaka

Isaka, a mystery writer who has won many awards, has said that he writes to deal with his constant fear that something horrible is going to happen and that these catastrophes will change Japan irrevocably. “AX” is about a highly skilled professional assassin who continues to take jobs until he has enough money for retirement. In contrast to his professional mien, he cannot stand up to his wife at home and doesn’t even have the respect of his son. While you’re waiting for this to be translated, you could try Isaka’s novel, ゴールデンスランバー, published in an English translation by Stephen Snyder under the title Remote Control, about a young man who is framed for the murder of the Japanese prime minister and tries to escape.

『かがみの孤城』 、辻村深月

The Solitary Castle in the Mirror, by Mizuki Tsujimura

This long novel is about a young girl who has stopped going to school because she is being bullied. One day, she notices that the mirror in her bedroom is glowing, and as she reaches out to touch it, she is pulled through the mirror and into a game, supervised by a young girl wearing a wolf mask. Kokoro and six other children in similar situations have one year to search a castle for a key that will grant the finder a wish. I will read anything Tsujimura writes. I don’t read her books for the plots, I read them for her vivid characters and their relationships with each other. This book is worth reading if only for the back-and-forth between the prickly young girl leading this group and the fragile kids she tries to guide in their search.

『キラキラ共和国』、小川糸

The Sparkling Republic, by Ito Ogawa

This is a sequel to last year’s “Tsubaki Stationery Store,” also nominated for the 2017 Japanese Booksellers Award. This book continues Hatoko’s story and her life in Kamakura, interspersed with the predicaments and letters of the people who come to her for help writing letters.

『崩れる脳を抱きしめて』、知念実希人

Hold Tight to the Collapsing Brain, by Mikito Chinen

Chinen is a practicing doctor who writes mysteries and thrillers set in hospitals. This rather bizarre title is no exception—his other books have titles like “How to Keep a Pet Guardian of Death” (優しい死神の飼い方)and “Hospital Ward: The Masked Bandit” (仮面病棟). This novel is about Usui, a young man completing his medical residency when he meets Yukari, a young girl with brain cancer. They become close, but when he returns to his hometown, he is told that she has died. Billed as a love story wrapped in a mystery, Usui struggles to discover why Yukari has died and whether she ever existed in the first place.

『屍人荘の殺人』、今村昌弘

Murderers at the House of the Living Dead, by Masahiro Imamura

Members of a university’s mystery club travel together to stay at a pension, and find themselves forced to barricade themselves inside on the very first night. The very next morning, one of their members is found dead, in a locked room. This mystery takes some of the elements of a locked-room murder, but adds zombies to the mix. Reviews have been mixed, with my favorite being from someone who wrote that he felt like he had ordered curry rice, and was served with curry udon instead.

『騙し絵の牙』、塩田武士

The Fang in the Trick Picture, by Takeshi Shiota

This novel follows Hayami, a magazine editor at a major publisher, as he desperately tries to keep his magazine from being discontinued. Hayami struggles with internal politics, but also faces the fight within the entertainment industry for our attention. I plan to read this one on the strength of Shiota’s previous novel based on the unsolved Glico-Morinaga case, “The Voice of the Crime” (also shortlisted for the 2017 award).

『たゆたえども沈まず』、原田マハ

“Fluctuat nec mergitur,” by Maha Harada

(The title refers to the Latin phrase used by Paris as its motto since 1358, meaning something like “tossed by the waves but never sunk.”)

In this novel, Harada has used the historical figure Tadamasa Hayashi, a Japanese art dealer who went on to introduce ukiyo-e, woodblock prints and other forms of Japanese art to Europe, as a way to explore the question of why Japan is so fascinated with Vincent van Gogh. Harada believes that the explanation lies in elements of ukiyo-e in van Gogh’s paintings, and although there is no evidence that Hayashi and van Gogh ever met, this novel imagines a friendship between Hayashi and and Theo and Vincent van Gogh that changed Impressionism.

Harada was also nominated last year for『暗幕のゲルニカ』(Guernica Undercover), about Picasso’s Guernica painting.

『盤上の向日葵』、柚月裕子

“The Sunflower on the Shogi Board,” by Yuko Yuzuki

The book starts in 1994 with the discovery of skeletal remains buried with a piece from a famous shogi set (shogi is a Japanese game similar to chess). Naoya Sano, a policeman who had aspired to be a professional shogi player, and veteran detective Tsuyoshi Ishiba try to identify the body. Their search alternates with the story of Keisuke, starting in 1971. Keisuke’s mother has died and his father abuses him, but a former teacher recognizes his unusual talent for shogi and encourages him to leave for Tokyo and become a professional.

This book is especially timely as shogi has been in the headlines a lot lately thanks to the amazing wins of fifteen-year-old Sota Fujii, Japan’s youngest professional shogi player. There has actually been a run on shogi sets, which has to be a first!

『百貨の魔法』、村山早紀

The Department Store’s Magic, by Saki Murayama

This book is a series of interlinked stories about the people who work at a local department store: the elevator girl, the concierge, the jewelry department’s floor manager and the founder’s family. As rumors about the store’s impending closure begin to go around, they all come together to try and save the store—with the help of the white cat who lives there. Murayama’s The Story of Ofudo (about a bookstore, and also involving a cat) was nominated for last year’s award, and I’ve been reading it when I need a respite from my current read, Fuminori Nakamura’s R帝国 (Empire R)—its fairytale atmosphere is a welcome contrast to Nakamura’s dark vision.

『星の子』、今村夏子

Child of the Stars, Natsuko Imamura

The narrator of this novel (which was also nominated for the Akutagawa Prize) is a third-year middle school student, Chihiro. She was born premature and began suffering from eczema when she was a baby. Her parents tried every treatment recommended, but with no effect. Finally, her father’s co-worker gives them a bottle of water labeled “Blessings of the Evening Star,” with instructions to wash her with it. This completely cures her, and her parents become wrapped up in this co-worker’s cult as a result. Although Chihiro’s older sister runs away, Chihiro is able to separate her home life from life outside—at least until she reaches adolescence.

And there you have it. The booksellers have spoken, and now we must do our part and get reading.

Winners of the 158th Akutagawa Prize and Naoki Prize

The 158th Akutagawa Prize and Naoki Prize were announced yesterday in Tokyo. I am always interested in this award, but not always excited to actually read the winning books. This year’s winners—both the authors and the books—seem like a breath of fresh air, and make me excited about where Japanese literature is going, and surely that’s the whole point of literary prizes?

Yoshinobu Kadoi and Chisako Wakatake at the award ceremony Source: NHK

The Akutagawa Prize was awarded jointly to 石井遊佳 (Yuka Ishii) for 「百年泥」 (“Hundred Year Mud”) and 若竹千佐子 (Chisako Wakatake) for 「おらおらでひとりいぐも」 (“I Go As I Go By Myself”).

Yuka Ishii
Source: Shinchosha

Yuka Ishii (54) began writing in college and has continued writing and submitting her novels and stories to new writer competitions ever since. Although she did not have any success until 「百年泥」won the Shincho New Writer’s Award in 2017, in an interview Ishii said that she never grew impatient because she felt that no matter how many times she was reborn, she would always be an author. She (reluctantly) moved to Chennai, India, in 2014 with her husband, who studies Sanskrit, and now teaches Japanese in an IT company. Ishii used her own experiences during the flooding in Chennai in December 2015 in her novel.  The main character of “Hundred Year Mud,” also a Japanese teacher in Chennai, gets caught up in a hundred-year flood that releases mud and a stream of missing people and objects. With elements of magical realism (Ishii is a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez), the narrator vicariously experiences the past of the various objects dug out of the mud. However, she also intersperses memories of her experiences teaching Japanese and recollections of her mother and ex-husband in this novel, which begins as the narrator starts to cross a bridge and ends as she steps off the bridge.

Chisako Wakatake, who won the literary journal Bungeishi’s award for new writers and now the Akutagawa Prize for her debut novel,「おらおらでひとりいぐも」, is 63 years old, making her the second oldest person to win this award (Natsuko Kuroda won in 2013 at age 75). Wakatake focused on raising her two children and running her home until her husband died when she was 55, at which point she began taking writing classes. The narrator of her novel, Momoko, is a widow in her 70s who misses her husband and is estranged from her children, but also enjoys her new freedom. Written in Tohoku dialect, Momoko talks to herself and those in her past as she looks back at her life and strives to enjoy the time she has left. The title, also in dialect, seems to quote a line in Kenji Miyazawa’s poem, 永訣の朝 (The Morning of Last Farewell), on the death of his sister. (There is more information on Kenji Miyazawa and a translation of this poem by Roger Purvell here.)

This connection to Kenji Miyazawa continues with the winner of the Naoki Prize,「銀河鉄道の父」 (“Father of the Milky Way Railroad”) by 門井慶喜  (Yoshinobu Kadoi). Kadoi writes historical novels and mysteries, and has been nominated for the Naoki Prize three times. His novel tells the story of Kenji Miyazawa, one of Japan’s greatest writers, from the perspective of his father, who could not understand why Kenji did not want to take over the family pawn shop and was mystified by his passion for writing, but supported him anyway. The novel also depicts Kenji’s struggles to become independent economically and emotionally.

These selections—a novel by a woman who kept writing until she finally found acclaim at age 54, a novel by a woman who didn’t even begin writing until age 55, and a novel about the life of one of Japan’s best-loved author—show that writing and books have a strong pull in Japan.

Kikuko Tsumura’s “Wandering Spirit in Brazil”

浮遊霊ブラジル、津村記久子、文藝春秋、2016

Kikuko Tsumura, Wandering Spirit in Brazil, Bungeishunju, 2016

Tsumura begins her first story in this volume, “The Water Tower and the Turtle,” with a man standing outside a temple and realizing that udon is flowing through the gutters. Steam is rising from the hot water carrying the udon past his feet, but he is not taken aback, simply noting that the gutters carry less udon than they had in his childhood. The explanation for this strange phenomenon is simple—there is an udon manufacturer across the street—but it is characteristic of the uncanny flavor of Kimura’s stories. This story, for which she won the 2013 Kawabata Yasunari Prize, essentially serves as fair warning of what is to come in the seven stories making up this volume.

In the title story, “Wandering Spirit in Brazil,” Mita dies of heart failure at age 72, but instead of joining his wife in the afterlife as he expects, he finds that he is still wandering as a spirit in this life. He had been planning to travel to the Aran Islands with other men in his neighborhood association, and this unmet desire seems to have tethered him to earth. Unfortunately, he discovers that he can’t actually get on planes and trains himself. To assuage his disappointment, he decides to take advantage of his invisibility to visit the women’s section of the public baths, but every time he goes, all the women are his age or even older. With so much time on his hands, he drops in on the neighborhood association meetings and ends up getting sucked into his old friend Nakai’s ear. When that proves boring, he makes several other jumps until he makes it to the ear of a wealthy Brazilian businessman, Ronaldo, and travels with him back to Brazil. Ronaldo has so many girlfriends that Mita’s modesty is quite overwhelmed, and he has to jump back and forth between Ronaldo, his doorman and his housekeeper. After all this back-and-forth, he is ready to join his wife, which he doesn’t seem able to do until he can make it to the Aran Islands. Luckily the Olympics are being held in Brazil, giving Mita the chance to find an Irish athlete.

A poster made for a book signing event with Kikuko Tsumura, showing Mita departing someone’s ear.

The only story without this element of fantasy and strangeness is “Aitor Velasco’s New Wife.” In this story, Tsumura writes from the perspectives of both a bully and a bystander, about two decades after the incident. The narrator recognizes her former classmate Yukiko in the picture of the new wife of an Uruguayan soccer player. This sets off memories of Yukiko’s bullying at the hands of her classmates, all masterminded by Aya. Aya had recognized the baseness in her classmate’s hearts and simply encouraged them to to let it out. She was particularly skilled at identifying the weakest members of the class and authorizing others to torment them, who rewarded her with their gratitude. The narrator remembers how the world inside the classroom felt like a microcosm of the entire world at that age, impossible to escape.

The narrator’s recollections are interspersed with the problems Aya faces in the present day as an adult with her own daughter. Compared to Tsumura’s other stories, this one feels spare and straightforward, almost as if any embellishment would diminish the horror of Aya’s behavior and the knowledge of our own.

I was happy to return to Tsumura’s whimsy with the story “Hell,” which begins as Nomura and her childhood friend Kayo are killed instantly in a bus accident. Everyone else is rescued, but Nomura is killed when she is hit on the head by the sharp edge of a tin box of rice crackers she had bought on their trip. They find themselves in hell, although they are shepherded to different sections by the devils assigned to them. Kayo is being punished for talking too much, while the narrator is there for her gluttonous consumption of stories in all their forms. At her peak, she had watched at least three soap operas and one documentary a day, consumed three movies a week, read ten novels a month, watched sports avidly, including the Tour de France, barely slept during the Vuelta a Espana, and eavesdropped on other people’s conversations in cafes. Writing novels was her profession. The demon in charge of her would set up situations in which she would be killed, over and over, as punishment for watching so many crime dramas. Another typical punishment was to read a 400-page novel only to reach the end and find that the last page was missing!

With the exception of “Aitor Velasco’s New Wife,” there is a sweetness to these stories. The newly retired man in “The Turtle and the Water Tower” rides his new hybrid bicycle to the supermarket chanting “beer, beer” (it is much catchier in Japanese, something like “bii-ru, bii-ru”) to the point that the rhythm takes over his brain and he forgets what he meant to buy (other than beer, of course). Then there’s the fondness between the two old school friends in “Hell,” who find ways of helping each other in that grim setting, even sending encouraging text messages to each other (yes, apparently cell phones even follow us to hell). Mita yearns for his wife in the title story, and in “Individualism” the narrator is genuinely concerned for her friend when she trades in her beige wardrobe and begins showing up to school in an afro wig, Aloha shirts, and a jacket with a skeleton print.

Tsumura’s characters are also quite nonchalant about their predicaments. When told that the previous tenant died in the apartment he has just moved into and, by the way, would he take in the deceased tenant’s pet turtle, the narrator of “The Water Tower and the Turtle” shows no discomfort. In “Hell,” Nomura expresses no sadness at her own death, simply regrets that she hadn’t had the metal box of rice crackers that killed her mailed to her house instead. Mita figures he has had a long life and is ready to join his wife anyway, but since he’s stuck on earth he might as well try to get a glimpse of nubile young women in the baths while he can.

Kikuo Tsumura herself Source: Kodansha

Although Kikuko Tsumura has won many prizes for her work, including the Dazai Osamu Prize, the Akutagawa Prize and the Oda Sakunosuke Prize, and was named as of one of the best young Japanese novelists by Granta in 2016, as far as I can tell none of her work has been translated into English. This is a shame, as she has a quirky sense of humor that kept my eyes glued to the page so as not to miss any of the incongruities she hides in her words.

The Island Stays with Us

島はぼくらと、辻村深月、講談社 2013

The Island Stays with Us, by Mizuki Tsujimura, Kodansha 2013 [no English translation available]

Elementary school graduates on the island of Saejima have a tradition of drawing pictures (Doraemon, Hello Kitty, Pikachu) and slogans all along the embankment facing the ocean. Kinuka, Genki, Akari and Arata wrote 島はぼくらと(the island stays with us) with a picture of a whale when their class of four graduated.

This graduation is more of a milestone than it would be for other children because Saejima has no high school. If a child wants to attend a high school that is not close enough to the ferry landing, they have to board or live with relatives on the mainland. These four all attend the high school near the ferry, but the rush to catch the ferry means that they are not fully part of high school life. Arata wants to become a playwright but cannot even be a full member the drama club.

Their travel to the mainland every day and the compromises they make mean that these four are not innocents, secluded in some island paradise. Nor is the island itself isolated. In the first chapter, the four handily foil a brash writer who has come to the island to find the “phantom play,” a lost masterpiece that a famous playwright is rumored to have written when he lived on the island. They are not taken in by the writer’s talk of celebrities and night clubs nor his fake alligator bag, and manage to dispose of him before he can make the connection between Fukiko, a young single mother living on the island with her daughter, and the Olympic gold medalist who abruptly disappeared from the public eye several years ago.

Single mothers like Fukiko are a key part of island life. The mayor spends much of his time off the island, appearing on TV and in newspapers to market Saeijima. His role is to encourage both U-turns—one-time locals who return to their hometown—and I-turns—people who leave cities and try to establish roots elsewhere—to move to the island. Although his frequent absences earn him criticism, he believes that the island will close off and collapse as soon as it forgets the outside world. There doesn’t seem much risk of that—the island’s residents seem almost painfully aware of the outside world, both the safety net it provides and the threat it represents in drawing away its children.

One of Japan’s maternal and child health record books

This acknowledgment by both children and parents that they face an early parting is poignantly reflected in the maternity health record book, used in Japan by women and their doctors from pregnancy to record a child’s health and growth. Genki’s mother, a graphic designer who lived on the island only briefly before she left Genki and his father for another man, noticed that island mothers had filled the margins of their books with what were essentially parting words for their children. She redesigned the book to allow more room for these messages before she left.

However, Kinuka does not have the option of leaving the island. She is the daughter of the amimoto, a traditional role passed on through generations. Literally “net owner,” the amimoto is the boss of a team of fishermen who risks his own capital in the form of boats and nets and also supports his amiko (“children of the net”), the households who form the fishing team, during bad seasons. An Internet search led to several academic journals that told me that this system has been around since the late middle ages, when large (and expensive) fishing nets began to be used, requiring more capital, labor and strategy. Even though there are fishing unions now, in (fictional) Saejima, Kinuka’s family has continued to occupy a special place in the island’s hierarchy. Especially among the older generation, people tend to go to the amimoto with their problems before the mayor (which he is not happy about).

Researching amimoto led me to some great archived photographs like this one, taken in 1964. Source: Shikoku Shimbun

Akari’s father died at sea, but the mayor was her father’s “brother,” a custom that the island has had for generations in which young men pledge to be brothers (Akari always thinks it’s a little like yakuza). They can be brother to more than one person, and when they pledge to another brother, this relationship then expands to include their other brothers. These relationships are all interlinked like the mesh of a net. Akari lives with her mother and grandmother, and the island’s aunties and uncles—her father’s “brothers”—helped to raise her. Everyone plays a role in raising the island children, and Akari figures this must be why the island is such a good fit for single mothers.

Such ties within a fixed population developed naturally on an island where this kind of lifeline for emergencies can be crucial. This is particularly true on Saejima, which has an active volcano. The volcano last erupted when Akari’s grandmother and Kinuka’s grandfather were teenagers, just 10 years after World War II. No one had expected anything worse than the war to happen. The amimoto stayed until everyone had been evacuated, and was the first to return when the evacuation order had been lifted. For that reason, the amimoto family members can never leave the island. Not everyone came back after the volcano—some had lost their houses and started over again elsewhere—and the island’s population fell by half.

I don’t mean to give the impression that this book is a social studies lesson in island traditions. The picture comes together gradually over the course of the book through Tsujimura’s stories about Akari, Kinuka, Genki and Arata. In addition to the mystery of the phantom play, which is resolved by the end of the novel, there is the search for a friend of Akari’s grandmother who left the island after the volcano erupted and never returned; the mystery of why Motoki, an I-turner, received an envelope with information about Saejima and an empty house there when he was still living in Tokyo; and the drama around plans to film a documentary about Saejima’s small company of housewives who make and market island specialties. The way Tsujimura ties up the mystery of the phantom play at the end of the novel and links it to Fukushima, where evacuees are just now returning after the nuclear plant disaster, was brilliant and so touching.

Tatobi Island in the Seto Inland Sea; this would just be a completely gratuitous picture of beautiful islands except that Tsujimura set fictional Saejima among islands in the Seto Inland Sea.

Breath of Words

ツバキ文具店、小川糸、幻冬舎、2016

Tsubaki Stationery Store, by Ito Ogawa, Gentosha, 2016

Hatoko lives in a traditional Japanese house in Kamakura that does double-duty as a stationery store (the Tsubaki Bunguten of the title). She was raised by her grandmother in this house, but escaped her high expectations and rigidity as soon as she could. When the novel begins, Hatoko has returned from several years living abroad to take over the family business after her grandmother’s death, which includes work as a scribe in addition to running the stationery store.

Hatoko’s grandmother had taught her how to write using ink and brush as soon as she was old enough to hold the brush, starting her off with circles, zigzags and helixes. When other children were playing after school, Hatoko was at home learning calligraphy under her grandmother’s strict tutelage.

Ito Ogawa, the author, working at her home in Kamakura Source: Croissant magazine

Hatoko writes a letter pretending to be the deceased husband of a woman with dementia who still waits for his letters; she captures his handwriting perfectly.

Although writing letters for other people had seemed deceitful when she was younger, Hatoko gradually realizes that scribes are essentially writing letters for people who cannot express their feelings in words themselves—her grandmother described it as being a 影武者 (kagemusha), a body double or someone working behind the scenes.

Now she writes goodbye letters, letters encouraging people unable to find jobs, apologies for disgraceful behavior when drunk—words that are hard to say face to face. Over the course of this book, she writes a letter announcing a divorce that also manages to convey the couple’s happiness over 15 years of marriage, a condolence letter after the death of a friend’s monkey, a letter refusing to loan money, a birthday card to the mother-in-law of a woman with horrible handwriting, and a letter to a woman with dementia purporting to be from her long-dead husband.

A letter Hatoko writes for a man refusing to loan money; the handwriting captures his brash personality

Hatoko tries to convey a person’s personality in the letters she writes, using handwriting that fits them. She is scrupulous about every last detail of writing letters, choosing the perfect ink, paper and stamp. When writing a letter to break off a relationship between two friends that has become poisonous, she searches for paper that can’t be easily torn and settles on parchment. For the letter announcing the break-up of a 15-year marriage, she finds a stamp issued the year the couple were married.

Hatoko lives her life at a deliberate, slow pace that belies her young age. In the morning, she dresses and washes before putting water on for tea. While she waits for the water to boil, she sweeps the floors and wipes them down with a damp cloth. And while her tea steeps, she polishes the floors. After drinking her tea, she puts fresh water by the 文塚 (fumizuka), a burial mound where poems and other manuscripts are buried to memorialize or commemorate them.

The fumizuka Hatoko cares for commemorates letters. From the third day of the new year, mail begins to pour in from all over Japan and even overseas from people who can’t bear to throw away letters themselves. Many of these letters are love letters that the recipients are unable to give up until just before they marry someone else. Some people even send all the letters they receive over the course of the year. On February 3, according to the lunar calendar, she burns the letters and preserves the ashes. This aligns with her family’s belief that letters are essentially an offshoot of the writer, the words infused with their breath. (Lest this sound too solemn an occasion, I should mention that a friend joined her for this winter bonfire and they roasted potatoes, Camembert cheese, rice balls and French bread in the embers.)

The book is divided into the four seasons, and as the reader moves from summer to spring, Hatoko seems to be taking on the mantle of scribe and the traditions of her home. I could say that she is “coming to terms with” a childhood lacking in affection, but this phrase is too trite after overuse in misery lit and doesn’t convey the quiet of this novel. There is none of the navel-gazing that I often find in contemporary American novels. Her conflicts (even that word seems overblown) lie below the surface, revealed briefly when, for example, an old friend brings her a bag of the seven spring herbs used to make rice porridge on January 7. Growing up, Hatoko’s grandmother always soaked these plants overnight on January 6 and made Hatoko dip her nails in the water the next morning before cutting them for the first time in the new year in the belief that this would prevent colds all year. She realises that she hasn’t observed this custom since her rebellious period as a teenager, but now that she’s back she gradually returns to many of these traditions.

Hatoko finally finds her own handwriting in this letter she writes to a little girl who lives next door.

As a scribe, Hatoko is very skilled at imitating other people’s handwriting and writing in a script suited to the letter’s subject, and yet she doesn’t know what her own handwriting might look like. She had never written a letter to her grandmother nor received a letter from her. Her grandmother did have a writing style all her own, however, and that’s why Hatoko has never taken down the scrap of paper hanging in the kitchen on which her grandmother had written a proverb: Eat food to match the seasons—bitter foods in the spring, vinegary foods in the summer, pungent and spicy foods in the autumn, and oily and fatty foods in the winter. At the end of the book (and I don’t think this gives anything away—after all, as with any good book, the end is not the point), Hatoko takes down the yellowed paper and rewrites it in her own handwriting, for herself.

I was initially drawn to this book because it was about a stationery store, which is almost as good a setting as a coffee shop or bookstore (at the moment I’m reading a book set in a shop that makes onigiri, or rice balls). If anyone else loves Japanese stationery, you might be interested in this news story about a stationery store that only opens at night called Punpukudo (the article is only in Japanese but the pictures are worth a look). The store, opened by a woman who has loved collecting pencils with different designs since she was little, is open only 5-10pm on weekdays.

Punpukudo, a stationery store in Ichikawa, Chiba prefecture
Source: Asahi Shimbun

The Great Passage

舟を編む、三浦しをん、光文社、2011

The Great Passage, by Shion Miura, Kobunsha, 2011

[The English translation is due to be published in June 2017.]

The Great Passage is an unabashedly romantic book—romantic in the sense that Shion Miura is telling a story about lofty goals and a pursuit that is almost heroic in its aspirations.

An underfunded and understaffed department at Genbu Publishing is compiling a dictionary covering 230,000 words—a project that has subsumed the lives of Professor Matsumoto and Kohei Araki. When the book begins, Araki is looking for his successor so he can take time off to care for his ailing wife. Told that there is a strange man in the sales department with an advanced degree in linguistics, Araki searches out Mitsuya Majime (whose last name means “serious”) and, after testing him by asking him to define the direction “right,” rescues him from the sales department.

Majime joins the small team working on the dictionary they have named 大渡海 (Daitokai, literally “great passage across the ocean”), reflecting their vision of dictionaries as boats that cross the ocean of words. Araki explains to Majime that people sail on this boat to gather the small specks of light floating on the surface of the dark ocean, searching for the word that will most accurately and faithfully convey their thoughts to other people. Without dictionaries, people would just stand, wordless, in front of the ocean’s wide expanse.

Surrounded by sympathetic colleagues on the same wavelength and faced by an intriguing young woman in his boarding house, for the first time Majime finds that he wants to find the right words to convey his thoughts. He has no friends and has always been seen as eccentric in both his school life and work life. He found refuge from this sense of isolation in books, which in turn fed his interest in linguistics and led him to the dictionary department.

Majime (played by Ryuhei Matsuda) with his cat, Tora

Asked about his hobbies at his welcome dinner, Majime replies that if he had to pick something, it would be watching people get on the escalator. Greeted by a deafening silence, Majime explains that when he gets off the train, he purposely walks slowly and lets the other passengers overtake him. They all rush to the escalator, but there is no confusion or shoving. As if someone is controlling their movements, they sort themselves into two lines and board the escalator in order. People on the left stand still, and people on the right walk up—a beautiful sight that makes Majime forget the crowds around him. Matsumoto and Araki know exactly what he means—clearly Majime is suited to the work of compiling dictionaries. Just like commuters sorting themselves into queues, words are collected, classified, put into groups and organized in order on the pages of a dictionary.

This is the kind of episode that makes Masashi Nishioka, another member of the department who is Majime’s complete opposite, feel out of place. He has no talent for dictionary work, but earns his keep by collecting the gossip that leads Araki to Majime and gives them warnings of impending funding cuts to the department, and using a combination of flattery and threats to get academics to contribute dictionary entries. Nishioka had never met anyone like Majime, Araki and Matsumoto. Professor Matsumoto’s bag is always packed full of old books. On his way to work, he goes to the secondhand bookstores in Jimbocho and buys first editions of novels to search for new words, their first usages, and example sentences for the dictionary. When he eats lunch, Araki has to make sure Matsumoto uses his chopsticks to eat and not his pencil because he becomes so absorbed in writing down the words he hears on TV that he is liable to eat his noodles with his pencil.

Watching them so absorbed in their work made him feel that his life was lacking in passion. How do you find a goal that is worth such single-minded dedication? Nishioka watches Majime and Matsumoto spend their own money on reference materials and become so absorbed in their research that they miss the last train. Although he doesn’t understand this devotion, he likes being a part of this work, almost as if hoping that a bit of their enthusiasm would rub off on him.

After initial resistance, Midori Kishibe also finds her own way into this world. Joining the department over 10 years after Majime first joined the department, she initially dismisses Majime as a bumbling eccentric and the dictionary as a worthless obsession. She had been working for a department that published a

Rows and rows of cards with words, their meanings and usage inscribed

fashion magazine for young woman when she was transferred to this dusty department located in a ramshackle outbuilding. But despite her skepticism and even derision, she is no more immune to the lure of this grand endeavor than Nishioka was. She becomes fascinated with the process of developing paper for this dictionary. Paper is being developed especially for this dictionary, as it must be thin enough to ensure that the dictionary is not too bulky, but not so flimsy that the words on the opposite side of the paper seep through. When flipping through the dictionary, the pages should turn like sand through your fingers. The paper should have a warmth to it, and Majime insists that it have a slight stickiness so that the user’s fingertips can gain purchase on the pages. Every last detail is considered.

Majime’s boarding house

One of the most appealing aspects of this book is the fact that the first half is set in the early 1990s, which might as well have been a century ago in terms of the way we use technology now. A clunky computer is used for data entry, but they use cards to write up word definitions and keep boxes and boxes of them in a storeroom. Majime lives in a rundown boarding house, where the landlady has retreated to the second floor so that Majime and his books can take over the whole first floor. There are no gleaming white surfaces, no stainless steel, no screens anywhere in this book, and the film based on the book is faithful to this (you can watch a trailer for the film with English subtitles here, and a longer trailer without subtitles here). This is a sepia-tinted world of dusty books and wood (on Kishibe’s first day in the department, her heels catch on the old floor boards and she sneezes constantly). The book ends in the early 2000s, but for the most part Matsumoto, Araki and Majime stick to their old methods. They are intensely curious about new words and usages, but only so they can capture them in their dictionary.

I have read this book three times since it was first published in 2011, and have often wondered why it appeals to me so much (although it’s not just me—it won the 2012 Booksellers Award). We are all intrinsically drawn to fairy tales and legends, and there are certainly echoes here of the holy grail, the ugly duckling, and the pursuit of a seemingly unattainable princess. But I think that most of the appeal for me comes from the idea of a small department working with utter concentration and conviction for almost twenty years on a grand project. When my days are interrupted by breaking news stories flashing across my cellphone screen and the hours are broken down into neat blocks of time in my planner, a life in which you can miss the last train to keep researching a word seems like the ultimate luxury.

Winner of 156th Naoki Prize and the 2017 Japanese Booksellers Award

蜜蜂と遠雷、恩田陸、幻冬舎 2016

Honey Bees and Distant Thunder, Riku Onda, Gentosha, 2016

 

Honey Bees and Distant Thunder, which follows contestants in the Yoshigae International Piano Competition, has won both the 156th Naoki Prize and the 2017 Japanese Booksellers Award (the second time that Riku Onda has won this latter award). This is quite an achievement for a novel about the nature of genius and the role of music in the world. The Booksellers Award is determined based on votes by bookstore clerks around Japan who are asked to nominate three books that they would most like to recommend.

Booksellers Award ceremony; Source: Ibaraki News

Michiko, a judge in the Yoshigae Competition, is painfully aware that musicians invest so much time and money in their profession that no monetary compensation they earn during their career could make up for it. What they seek is a single moment of such perfect happiness and transcendence that it cancels out all of their struggles. The entire cast of characters in Honey Bees and Distant Thunder is caught up in the search for that moment.

The sheer number of characters, and the ways in which they are linked together and inspire each other, is one of the pleasures of this book. First there is Aya, who heard music in the sound of rustling leaves and the sound of galloping horses in the rain hitting the corrugated iron roof before she could even talk, and realizes that the world is always filled with music. She was a child prodigy, performing from a young age, but she ran off the stage in her first concert after her mother’s death and has kept her distance from the professional world ever since. Now in her last year of music school, she is returning to the stage for the first time, shepherded by her piano teacher’s daughter, Kanade.

Masaru Carlos, a Juilliard student with a Japanese-Peruvian mother and a French father, lived in Japan briefly as a child. It was Aya who essentially picked him up off the streets and dragged him with her to her piano lessons. When he moved to France, she made him promise that he would take piano lessons. They were so young that they didn’t even know each other’s full names, and their reunion in Yoshigae feels like a miracle. Masaru’s teacher and Kanade are both troubled and bemused by their lack of competitiveness and their respect for each other’s musicality.

Atsushi is the oldest competitor. He is married with a young child and works in a music store, but has been unable to forget his dream of playing professionally. He has stretched his finances to their limit to buy an upright piano for his home, build a soundproof room and pay a teacher for occasional advice, but the hardest part has been remaining motivated. All too often it seemed like a pointless exercise.

The pivotal character is probably Jin Kazama, who accompanies his bee keeper father around the world on his travels and doesn’t even own a piano. And yet he has a recommendation from one of the most eminent pianists in the world, the recently deceased Yuji Hoffman, which has earned him a place in this competition.

I bequeath Jin Kazama to all of you. He is a true gift, a gift from heaven for all of you. But don’t misunderstand. He is not the one being tested—it is myself, and you, that are being challenged. You will understand what I mean when you experience him yourself, but he is not an easily-digested bequest. He is a powerful tonic. Some of you will find him threatening, some of you will detest him and reject him. But this is part of his truth, and reveals the truth inside his listeners. It is up to you whether you accept him as an authentic gift or as a calamity.

A full lineup of supporting characters rounds out the cast. Michiko’s ex-husband, Nathaniel, is also at the competition, both as a judge and Masaru’s teacher. Michiko and Nathaniel serve the function of a Greek chorus, meeting in a bar at the end of the day to rehash everything from Hoffman’s intentions to the future of classical music. Then there is a documentary film maker, the piano tuner who works with Jin to recreate the sounds he hears in his head, the stage manager who ushers the competitors onto the stage and witnesses their nerves, and the ikebana teacher hosting Jin in Yoshigae.

Jin serves as a catalyst for all of these characters. His music touches on emotions that listeners had buried below the surface and forgotten. To some listeners, this feels like an invasion, while to others it is more like an awakening that reminds them of the beauty of music—not music as a profession or a commodity, but as an ideal that they’d lost sight of.

When Michiko heard him play, she sensed that there was something fundamentally different between him and the other contestants. They recreated the music and strived to play what was buried in the score, but Jin seemed to be trying to blot out the score and reach down to the core of the music. Initially, some listeners—and judges—see this as an insult to composers and musicians, but no matter how visceral their reaction, they all want to hear more. Jin’s gift—the gift that Hoffman left all of them—seems to have been his effect in drawing out everyone’s talents.

This is a placid group of geniuses, egos all well under control if they exist at all. Aya, Masaru and Jin walk on the beach together, Jin looking for the Fibonacci sequence in shells while they muse about whether there might be Mozarts and Beethovens on other stars. They fret about the growing commercialization of music and debate the fine line between entertainment and populism. The eccentricities of these musicians were charming and occasionally thought-provoking, but much of the book—which clocks in at over 500 pages—consists of long descriptions of every piece that Aya, Jin, Atsushi and Masaru play in each stage of the competition, followed by their reactions to each other’s performances. We are even treated to a long Gothic story involving revenge and twins separated at birth that Masaru imagines as he plays a Lizst sonata. And they all have what can only be described as out-of-body experiences as they play, flying among the stars and seeing visions.

This was all heady stuff, and after a while it reminded me of a hot scented bath—relaxing at first but leaving you dizzy and off balance if you stay in too long. It left me wanting an astringent tonic. But given that a book about a piano tuner won the 153rd Naoki Prize in 2015, it seems that Japanese readers are craving something as distinct from the daily news as they can get. This is very understandable, as the top news stories in Japan this week have been about the emperor’s abdication, the deteriorating relationship between the US and Russia, and the possibility that North Korea is preparing its sixth nuclear test. In that sense, this book reminds us of what remains after the panel of experts has submitted its report, the foreign diplomatic missions are completed, and the games of brinkmanship subside.

Yokomichi Yonosuke

横道世之介、吉田修一、毎日新聞社、2009

Yokomichi Yonosuke, by Shuichi Yoshida; Mainichi Shimbun, 2009

[not available in English translation; Yoshida’s mysteries Villain and Parade have been translated, but are quite different in tone and subject matter than this novel]

This exuberant novel tells the story of one year in the life of Yonosuke Yokomichi, who leaves the small town he grew up in to attend college in Tokyo in 1987. He is neither especially good-looking nor particularly smart, but a combination of fortuitous events and his eagerness to grab them shape his life. A student he meets during college orientation forces him to join the samba club with him, which in turn leads to a referral from a fellow member for a job at a luxury hotel, delivering room service on the night shift. An employee there gives him a box of porn videos, which he then uses to convince a friend to take a kitten he finds abandoned in the alley. On Valentine’s Day, a box of chocolates is delivered to his mailbox by accident, and he resolves to visit every apartment in his building until he finds their rightful owner. This leads him to a photographer, who ends up lending him an old Lycra and thus essentially launches Yonosuke’s career as a photographer. He agrees to go on a double date with a friend and meets Shoko, a young girl from a wealthy family who falls for him. As she says much later, Yonosuke is not particularly impressive, but he was the “kind of person who said ‘yes’ to everything.”

The poster for the 2013 film of Yonosuke Yokomichi, starring Kengo Kora as Yonosuke and Yuriko Yoshitaka as Shoko

Yonosuke can be quite unaware, and doesn’t always know when he’s not wanted. He spends half of his summer vacation at his friend Kato’s air-conditioned apartment, immune to Kato’s not-so-veiled hints that he is not entirely welcome. There’s a particularly funny scene when Kato announces that he’s going for a walk, even though it’s almost midnight. Without waiting to be invited, Yonosuke picks up half of a watermelon and announces that he’ll accompany Kato, even though he’s obviously not wanted. He follows the half-disgruntled, half-resigned Kato, cradling the watermelon and eating it with a spoon. Their conversation is a perfect illustration of Yonosuke’s mix of obtuseness and good nature.

After walking about three minutes, Kato suddenly stops and asks, “You remember when I said that I’m not interested in girls?”

“Oh yeah, I remember that.”

“And then you said this was the first time you’d ever met anyone your age like that and asked what I was interested in.’”

“Sure, that sounds right.”

“Well, I like men better than women.” Kato spoke brusquely, and yet he was surprisingly nervous.

“Oh, yeah?”

“What do you mean, ‘oh, yeah?’ That’s all you have to say?” Kato was more taken aback than Yonosuke seemed to be.

“Wait, hold on… Did you ever mess around with me while I was sleeping?”

“Of course not! You’re not my type.”

“Geez, that’s so rude!”

“That’s just the way it is. What I’m trying to say is, if you don’t want to hang out with me anymore, I’ll understand.”

Kato begins walking again.

“Is that a roundabout way of telling me not to stay over anymore?” Now Yonosuke is alarmed.

“That’s not what I’m saying! But hold on a minute here– you’re not even a little disturbed?”

“Of course I am! For a minute there I thought I was going to lose my access to air conditioning!”

“And that’s all you’re upset about?!”

“Yup.”

“Well, that’s what I wanted to say.”

“Got it. So I can still stay at your place, right?”

It turns out that Kato is going to a park, well supplied with bushes and trees, where men go for illicit trysts. When Kato finally makes Yonosuke understand this, instead of going home, as Kato had expected, Yonosuke sits on a park bench, finishes off his watermelon and waits for Kato.

Yonosuke in one of his clueless moments

In an interview, author Shuichi Yoshida said that he is more attached to Yonosuke than any other character in his books. He is even jealous of Yonosuke, since he gave him attributes that he doesn’t have himself, such as a total lack of pretense. Completely unselfconscious, he manages to draw the best from others. Yoshida shows this by interspersing the main narrative, set in 1987-88, with the reflections of people who knew him. They recall him with nostalgia and even a sense of yearning from a vantage point of 20 years. His friend Kato muses, “His life probably wouldn’t have been any different if he hadn’t met Yonosuke. But most people in this world had never had the chance to meet Yonosuke in their youth, and this made him feel that he’d been lucky.” By itself, this would be a very entertaining story, but these voices make it achingly tender at times.

Shuichi Yoshida was inspired to write this book by an actual event, and so I cannot do justice to his writing without “spoilers” (although the reveal comes about halfway through the book). However, in this case I don’t think that knowing Yonosuke’s fate spoils the reading experience—if anything, it lends the story more poignancy.

This book was modeled on an accident at Shin-Okubo Station on the Yamanote Line, one of Tokyo’s busiest train lines, on January 26, 2001. Seiko Sakamoto, a 37 year-old plasterer, was drinking on the platform with a friend and fell onto the tracks. Lee Su Hyon, a 26 year-old South Korean exchange student who attended language school in Tokyo, and Shiro Sekine, a 47 year-old photographer, jumped onto the line to try and rescue Sakamoto, but all three were killed by an oncoming train. I was living in Japan at the time, and have never forgotten these two men. The news coverage was extensive, in part because of the soul-searching it inspired across Japan. Newspaper editorials and panels of experts convened for Sunday news shows asked why it had been a South Korean man (whose grandfather had been a forced laborer in Japan’s coal mines, no less) and a photographer (who had spent much of his career overseas) who tried to save Sakamoto, and not any of the other people on the train platform (not even the friend who was with him). The following week two men dragged a schoolboy attempting suicide off the railway in Nagoya, and a pregnant woman who fell onto the tracks was also rescued in Tokyo*. Yoshida said that although this was a terrible event, it had left him with a “refreshing sense of hope,” and perhaps this is what he was hoping for.

Plaque erected at Shin-Okubo Station to honor Lee Su Hyon and Shiro Sekine

We find out about Yonosuke’s death midway through the book. Yoshida slips in a reference to the recent collapse of Lehman Brothers to alert us that we have left 1987 and jumped ahead to 2008. Chiharu, a woman rumored to be a high-end call girl whom Yonosuke had pursued, now has her own show on a radio station. Her assistant director comes in during her show with breaking news for Chiharu to announce: a fatal accident at Yoyogi Station has forced the closure of the Yamanote line’s inner loop, with severe delays on the outer loop. Driving through the city in a taxi later that night, she hears a more detailed news report on the radio, and learns that Park Seung Jun, a 26 year-old South Korean exchange student, and Yonosuke Yokomichi, a 40 year-old photographer, had jumped onto the tracks to save a girl who had fainted and fallen onto the tracks, but were hit by an oncoming train. When her companion asks her why she has become so silent, Chiharu says she is trying to remember something, but it keeps slipping away. With that, Yoshida returns the reader to 1987 and Yonosuke, practicing samba in a laundromat to the rhythm of the driers.

Yonosuke in his samba costume

Yoshida also seems to foreshadow Yonosuke’s death. Yonosuke recalls the first time he had a clear perception of death. Standing on the platform of Shinjuku Station for the first time, he walked along the white safety line and heard the announcement for the incoming train. As the train swooped past, just inches away from him, he sensed that just a few inches to the left would put him over the dividing line between life and death.

Even more strikingly, close to the end of the book, Yonosuke bumps into an acquaintance, a young Korean exchange student. As they wait at Shin-Okubo Station together, a hat blows off a woman’s head just as a train approaches. Both Yonosuke and Kim dash after the hat as it careens down the platform. Before they fall off of the platform onto the tracks, one of them grabs the other—in all the confusion, it is not clear who is holding who back. Everything seems to move in slow motion as the train enters the station and, miraculously, the wind pressure from the incoming train blows the hat right to their feet.

I read this book last summer, but the story and the Shin-Okubo accident left such an impression on me that since then I have struggled to do the book justice. I had to prune several pages off of this review as my enthusiasm for this book got the better of me. Maybe Yonosuke (and Lee Su Hyon and Shiro Sekine) didn’t get to live out his life, but if this book is anything to go by, in his 40 years he lived more fully than many who are granted the full threescore and ten do.

I can’t do any better than leave the closing words to Yonosuke’s mother, who writes in a letter to Shoko:

Lately I’ve realized that I was lucky to have Yonosuke as my son. Maybe it’s a strange thing for a mother to say, but meeting him was the best thing that happened to me. I still envision the accident in my head a lot. I can’t figure out why he jumped onto the tracks even though there was no way he could save her. But lately I’ve realized that Yonosuke must have been convinced he could help. In that instant, he thought “I can do this,” not, “it’s no use, there’s nothing I can do.” And I’m very proud to have a son who thought in this way.

The parents of Lee Su-hyon, Lee Sung-dae and Shin Yoon-chan (right), pray on the platform of JR Shin-Okubo Station in Tokyo at a ceremony to honor their son in 2013, attended by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye; Photograph by Yoshiaki Miura for Japan Times

*Since this accident, safety barriers and doors have been installed at many train stations, but only about 30% of Japan’s 250 largest train stations had these safety measures as of 2016. Emergency stop buttons have also been installed at thousands of train stations. After discovering that Seiko Sakamoto, the drunk man who fell onto the tracks, was drinking sake he had bought at a vending machine in the station itself, authorities decided to remove alcohol from “some” vending machines.

Haruki Murakami’s “Killing Commendatore”

騎士団長殺し、村上春樹、新潮社、2017

Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami; Shinchosha, 2017

Fans finally get their hands on Murakami’s “Killing Commendatore” at midnight on February 24 in Tokyo; Source: Sankei Shimbun

Details about Haruki Murakami’s first multi-volume novel in seven years were more carefully guarded than state secrets are these days. The eager public was only given the title of the two-volume work and pictures of their covers, and it was only after the book’s release that we even had a basic plot summary. The Japanese TV show Close-up Gendai dedicated an episode to the enthusiasm a new book of Murakami’s creates, interviewing fans waiting outside bookstores in the pre-launch hours and reporting on a group of fans who got together to discuss their theories on the book’s story based solely on the title and cover.

Many bookstores began selling the book right at midnight, pulling down sheets draped over the piles of books with great fanfare. Sanseido’s Jimbocho branch held an event from midnight in which customers could buy their copies and then stay and stay up all night reading together in the store. The store even provided soft drinks and lap blankets. Fans in Hokkaido were forced to wait an extra day as the release date was delayed due to the derailment of a JR freight train.

Staff preparing for the release; Source: Asahi Shimbun

Although I have not made my way through all 1,000 pages of this book, my general impression is that this is a great introduction to Murakami for someone who has never read him before because all of his favorite themes and motifs are packed into this book. After abandoning this approach in his recent novels, Murakami has returned to the use of an unnamed narrator who simply refers to himself with the first-person pronoun “watashi” (in the past he has often used the more informal “boku”).

 

Eager fans reading Murakami’s latest just after its release on midnight on February 24; Source: Asahi Shimbun

The narrator is a 36 year-old portrait painter whose life is thrown off kilter when his wife announces that she wants a divorce. Trying to figure out where things went wrong, he travels through Hokkaido and Tohoku, ending up at a mountaintop house built by his friend’s father, a famous painter named Tomohiko Amada. Here he encounters two mysteries: a painting by Amada called “Killing Commendatore,” and a stone hut carved out beneath a rock in a nearby forest. Moreover, real blood drips from the picture, and in the middle of the night our narrator hears a bell that seems to come from this cave, as if someone is signaling for help. By this point we are firmly in Murakami’s world, complete with caves and walls and estranged wives.

Rounding off the main cast are Menshiki, a middle-aged man living in a large house in the opposite valley who offers the narrator an exorbitant sum of money to paint a portrait, and Marie Akigawa, a mysterious and beautiful thirteen year-old girl (she reminds me of the girl with the mysterious ears in “Wild Sheep Chase”). The story line also includes accounts of wars in Europe and China, an interest of Murakami’s that has made its way into his recent novels. And for a little narrative relief in between his Alice-in-Wonderland adventures, our narrator cooks pasta and listens to jazz and classical music.

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