Tsundoku Reader

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

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.

Japanese comfort reads

森崎書店の日々 (2010)、続・森崎書店の日々 (2011)、八木沢 里志、小学館

Days at Morisaki Books and More Days at Morisaki Books, by Satoshi Yagisawa

[no English translation available]

 

Writing about comfort reads, author Sherwood Smith says, “I think it’s safe to say that everybody knows what is meant—the books we turn to for rereads, always knowing exactly what we’ll get. The anticipation of the expected comfort—the lack of surprise—is part of the appeal.”

Days at Morisaki Books and its companion volume, More Days at Morisaki Books, by Satoshi Yagisawa certainly fit this definition—Japanese comfort reading leavened with books and coffee. This is not what you would pick up for complex sentence structures or beautiful turns of phrase; it would likely fall into the “hot water bottle” category of book, like a hot cup of tea with a hit of lemon. But surely we all need books like that once in a while?

Our heroine, Takako, finds refuge in her uncle’s bookstore when her boyfriend tells her he is marrying someone else. Having quit her job, she spends her days idly sitting in her uncle’s shop, located in Jimbocho, the biggest secondhand book market in the world.

Picture of Jimbocho drawn by Bob Eckstein, from “True Tales and Lost Moments from Book Buyers, Booksellers, and Book Lovers”

Takako is bored at first and hates the smell of musty books, but is gradually intrigued by the eccentric customers. She has never been much of a reader, but living in Jimbocho, surrounded by bookstores and literally encircled by piles of books in her room above the bookstore, it seems almost inevitable that she will become an avid reader. One night, she picks up a book and just keeps going.

The novel starts like this:

I lived in Morisaki Books from the start of summer to early spring of the following year. I stayed in an empty room on the second floor, living almost buried by books. The room was cramped and didn’t get much sun, the musty smell of old books permeated everything and it was always damp. But to this day, I’ve never forgotten the days I spent there. This place was the start of my real life. If I hadn’t had this time here, my life would have been less vibrant, more monotonous and lonely.

Days at Morisaki Books focuses on Takako’s recovery from her first love affair, aided by a satisfying comeuppance for the philandering boyfriend, her discovery of books, and meandering conversations in a neighborhood coffee shop. By the second book, Takako has found her feet again, and this story focuses on her efforts to help her uncle and his ailing wife, support a troubled friend and build a relationship with a new boyfriend.

The film of this book has a scene that lasts about 10 minutes long in which Takako is simply reading and perusing the shelves of secondhand bookstores, sometimes with no music in the background, just the sound of pages being turned and the traffic outside (you can watch a trailer for the film here that gives you some idea of the overall mood of both the books and the film). The scene was strangely engrossing and calming, rather than boring, and in fact this stripped-down approach seems to reflect the two books’ philosophy—when you pare away all the noise, what matters most are friends and family, time to read, and time to think.

Takako, as played by Akiko Kikuchi in the film of the book

Uncle Satoru, played by Takashi Naito

 

 

 

 

 

If we want more people to read Japanese literature in translation, then a wider variety should be available, including books with storylines that would appeal even to people who don’t read the New Yorker or Granta. Perhaps this is the role that middlebrow literature—easily accessible but of solid quality—can play. The crime genre seems to be over-represented among Japanese novels in translation, and there are plenty of highbrow books too that someone has decided represent the best of Japanese literature. I enjoy all of these, but surely there is room for novels that satisfy a different need, novels that would entice both a 16 year-old girl and an 80 year-old man?

Chinese translation of the first book; almost 1,000 Japanese books were translated into Chinese in 2014 so the US has a lot of catching up to do.

And even the second book has been translated into Chinese.

Japanese Booksellers Award 2017

The 10 books nominated for the 2017 Booksellers Award were announced on January 18, and I have to admit I was repeatedly refreshing the website around the time the official announcement was due. I was not disappointed by their selections (and the gorgeous book covers of many selections are also impressive). The winner will be announced on April 11. (If you are curious, I wrote about last year’s nominees and the winner here and here.)

『i』、西加奈子(著)、ポプラ社

i, by Kanako Nishi, published by Poplar Publishing, 2016

Kanako Nishi was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1977 and was raised in Osaka and Cairo, earning a law degree at Kansai University, a background that she uses in her novels. i is her first novel since “Saraba!” (Farewell), which won the 152nd Naoki prize in 2015. It follows the life of Ai from her birth in Syria in 1988 until she is 26 years old. She is adopted by a couple in America, and lives in New York until elementary school, when she moves to Japan. The novel begins with an assertion by the professor of her theoretical math class that “i does not exist in this world.” He is speaking of the imaginary number “i,” but of course it is also the protagonist’s name, refers to the “I” denoting our personal identity, and means “love” in Japanese. This neatly sums up the running theme in this book of Ai’s search for the value of her own existence. She tracks the number of deaths in disasters like the Tohoku earthquake, terrorist attacks like the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the outbreak of the Ebola virus and wars in the Middle East, and searches for reasons that can explain why she has escaped such disasters.

『暗幕のゲルニカ』、原田マハ(著)、新潮社

Guernica Undercover, by Maha Harada, Shinchosha Publishing, 2016

Maha Harada studied art at university and made this her first career, even working at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She published her first novel in 2006, and often weaves art history into her novels. In Guernica Undercover, the tapestry copy of Picasso’s Guernica, displayed on the wall of the United Nations Building in New York City, disappears one day in 2003. The story moves between Paris before the war, current-day New York, and Spain in a thrilling art novel, a genre that Harada seems to have created singlehandedly.

『桜風堂ものがたり』、村山早紀(著)、PHP研究所

The Story of Ofudo, by Saki Murayama, PHP Institute, Inc., 2016

Issei Tsukihara worked in a bookshop located in a department store and gained a reputation for finding treasures among the stacks of books. However, he takes responsibility for a shoplifting incident and has to quit his job. Hurt and at a loss, Issei travels to meet an elderly man he had met on the Internet, who is struggling to run a bookstore in a rundown village. I can easily understand why booksellers would nominate this book for the Booksellers Prize!

『コーヒーが冷めないうちに』、川口俊和(著)、サンマーク出版

Before the Coffee Cools, by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Sunmark Publishing, 2016

This book is about a seat in a coffee shop called Funiculi Funicula that can bring you back to the past. You would think this would attract a steady stream of customers to the coffee shop, but it is usually almost empty because several annoying rules ruin its appeal, including the limitation that you can only go back and visit people who have been to the coffee shop before; you can’t change the present, no matter what; and your time in the past starts when your coffee is poured and ends once the coffee has gone cold. The book cover promises “heart-warming miracles” in this story, which would normally have made me lose all interest in reading this book. However, since it has been nominated I’m giving it a chance, and halfway into the book, I think Kawaguchi’s punchy sense of humor redeems it from the status of Hallmark greeting card sentiment. [Edited to add that I have now finished this book and am sad to report that, while I initially enjoyed it as something light to read while I brushed my teeth, it quickly descended into bathos, with obvious attempts to manipulate readers’ emotions and make us cry.]

『コンビニ人間』、村田沙耶香(著)、文藝春秋

Convenience Store People, by Sayaka Murata, Bungeishunju, 2016

I wrote about this book, which won the 155th Akutagawa Prize, in detail here. This short novel is about Keiko, a young woman who has worked at a convenient store for 18 years and finds comfort in the routine this job offers. She has never understood how to act like everyone else, but the manuals spelling out every movement in a convenient store are a lifesaver for her. The turning point comes when Shiraha, an abhorrent misogynist, begins working at the convenient store. Keiko’s unusual perspective allows us to feel sympathy even for him, and highlights the strange ways in which identity is constructed and we become constricted within them.

『ツバキ文具店』、小川糸(著)、幻冬舎

Tsubaki Stationery Store, by Ito Ogawa, Gentosha, 2016

The main character, Hatoko (named after the hato, or doves, that flock to the famous Shinto shrine Tsurugaoka Hachimangu), is only in her 20s but has now succeeded her grandmother to become the 11th in a long line of scribes. She lives in the old family house that does double-duty as a stationery store, where she writes new year’s cards, love letters, letters breaking off relationships, and anything else her customers request. This is a quiet book that clearly conveys Ogawa’s love for Kamakura, where she lives. The book starts with a description of how Hatoko spends her mornings, sweeping in front of the store and carefully polishing the house’s floors while the water for her tea comes to a boil. After taking a break with a cup of bancha, she puts fresh water by the stone marking the grave in which old letters are buried. This slow pace continues throughout the book, which is broken up into a section for each season.

『罪の声』、塩田武士(著)、講談社

The Voice of the Crime, by Takeshi Shiota, Kodansha, 2016

This novel is a fictional attempt to solve the Glico Morinaga case, an extortion case targeting the major candy companies Glico and Morinaga that was never solved. In 1984, Katsuhisa Ezaki, the president of Glico, was kidnapped, and a ransom demand was made. Ezaki managed to escape, but company property was set on fire and someone calling himself “The Monster with 21 Faces” began sending letters claiming that Glico candy had been poisoned. The extortion efforts subsequently targeted Morinaga and Fujiya, and only ended with the suicide of the Shiga Prefecture police superintendent, apparently worn down by harassing letters from the Monster with 21 Faces and shame at his failure to find the culprit.

This novel begins 31 years after the incident as a newspaper reporter tries to find the criminal. At the same time, a man realizes that the voice of the person demanding the ransom was his own voice as a child and also tries to solve the crime. The police ended up conjecturing that yakuza groups were involved, so I’m curious to see how Takeshi Shiota solves this puzzle, which  would be familiar to an entire generation growing up at the end of the Showa era.

『みかづき』、森絵都(著)、集英社

Crescent Moon, by Eto Mori, Shueisha, 2016

This novel starts in 1963 and covers the evolution of juku, a private school offering tutoring after regular school hours, through the story of Goro and Chiaki and their children. Although he does not have a teaching certificate, Goro offers supplementary education in an elementary school. Chiaki recognizes his talent for teaching and convinces him to start a juku with her in a rented house in Chiba. During WWII, Chiaki saw how public education was harnessed to the ends of the state in teaching children patriotism, and this sends her searching for alternatives. With the baby boom and Japan’s economic growth in the background, Chiaki and Goro look for the “ideal” form of education while their children question whether such a thing even exists.

『蜜蜂と遠雷』、恩田陸(著)、幻冬舎

Honeybees and Distant Thunder, by Riku Onda, Gentosha, 2016

This book won the 156th Naoki Prize this month, so it has already become a bestseller in Japan. The story follows four musicians as they compete in an international piano competition, but also brings in the voices of the judges, piano tuners and reporters. The publisher even has a playlist of all the pieces mentioned and planned in the book.

『夜行』、森見登美彦(著)、小学館

Night Travels, by Tomihiko Morimi, Shogakukan, 2016

This fantasy novel incorporates elements of science fiction and horror in a linked series of five stories. The narrator and his five friends met during school days in college. Ten years earlier, when they had all gone to the Kuruma Fire Festival, Hasegawa had suddenly disappeared from amongst them, and now the remaining five have gathered again in Kuruma in the hopes that they will meet her again. As the night deepens, they talk about the strange experiences they had had as they travelled to Kuruma. Morimi said that he chose to set this story in Kyoto because it has so many side streets that would not draw a second glance during the day but become strange and mysterious in the dark of night, which stimulates the imagination.

 

TPP, Abdication and Curry Stains

Arakawa Kyokei’s Day Catch news show on TBS Radio is always entertaining, but the juxtaposition of news stories in their ranking of the day’s top stories (collated in Internet surveys and on-the-street interviews) is an intriguing snapshot of our interests and can be quite illuminating (you can listen to it here). For a few weeks, the breakup of the boy band SMAP was in the top three, beating out all geopolitical news. Today, the top three stories were Trump’s announcement that the US would pull out of TPP, followed by Prime Minister Abe’s request that the Diet discuss the emperor’s abdication, and then the news that Panasonic had developed a washing machine for the Indian market with a special function that will wash curry out of clothes (I found out more here). The show’s host and guest seemed particularly happy to abandon the serious tone apparently required for political punditry to delve into this exciting development. They hoped that Panasonic would also come up with washing machines that could tackle Japanese curry and soy sauce.

I was also amused yesterday to hear guests on both Day Catch and TBS Radio’s Session 22 try to explain the meaning behind the pink pussyhats that showed up in all the footage of the women’s marches… This kind of diversion makes all the years of studying Japanese worthwhile.

Convenience Store People

コンビニ人間

村田沙耶香

文藝春秋、2016

Convenience Store People

Sayaka Murata

Bungeishunju, 2016 [not available in English translation]

コンビニ人間 (Convenience Store People) won the 155th Akutagawa Prize in July. I usually pass over the Akutagawa Prize winners as they tend to be “serious literary works” that leave me depressed. However, many of the comments on bookmeter about コンビニ人間 ran along the lines of “This book may have won the Akutagawa Prize, but it was interesting,” so I thought it was worth a try.

I was also drawn in by the Japan Time’s description of Sayaka Murata as a “convenience store worker who moonlights as an author.” Murata plans to continue her part-time work at a convenience store because the job provides her with both book ideas and a routine.

(If you’re imagining the typical American convenience stores with their grungy floors, stale food and oversized drinks, think again. You can read about what convenience stores in Japan are all about here.)

The novel starts when Keiko is in her late 30s or, more importantly in her mind, 19 years after she was “born as a convenience store worker.” Although her memories of the period before this rebirth are vague, Keiko does know that she was born into an “ordinary home and raised lovingly in the ordinary way.” Nevertheless, she has always been strange and felt out of place.

When she was in kindergarten, she found a dead bird in the park. The other children cried over the bird, but Keiko grabbed it up and took it to her mother, suggesting that they grill it for her father since he likes grilled chicken. Her mother tries to redirect her by acting out a burial with the other children, but Keiko can only think of how wasteful this is, and how hypocritical it is to cry over a dead bird and then “murder” flowers to put on the grave.

In first grade, Keiko intervenes in a fight between two boys by grabbing a shovel and hitting one of the boys over the head until he couldn’t move anymore. She explains to her shocked teachers that the other children were yelling for someone to stop the fight, and her approach was the fastest way. After several similar episodes, she realizes that she is just worrying her parents and always ends up having to apologize for things she is not sorry for, so she decides to talk as little as possible outside of her home and either imitate others or wait for instructions. This seems to relieve everyone concerned.

Working in the convenience store, where everything has its proper place and a manual standardizes every movement, gives her a kind of contentment. Keiko learns how to greet customers and make the right facial expressions by studying a store poster showing smiling faces. She models her behavior, her clothes and her mannerisms on her co-workers, looking in their lockers to check the tags on their coats and labels on their shoes and then buying the same. This strategy lets her pass in “normal” society, but doesn’t allay the concerns of her high-school friends and sister over her unmarried state.

A poster for convenience store employees telling them how to dress for their job. Nail polish and fake nails are out, and nails must be cut short enough so that they are not visible when holding your hand out palm up. I particularly like the instruction to smile “with your whole face,” including your eyes. (Source: Wikipedia)

Rows of onigiri (rice balls) at a convenience store in Japan (Source: Wikipedia)

When Shiraha, a sullen and awkward young man, joins the convenience store staff, he upsets the store’s equilibrium. Keiko tries her best to train him, but when she teaches him how to neatly arrange products on the shelves, he protests that men are not suited to this kind of work: “Ever since the Jomon period [14,000 – 300 BCE], men have gone out to hunt and women have protected the home and gone out to collect berries and wild grass. Women’s brain structure makes them suited for this kind of work.” Keiko doesn’t take this personally and, true to form, just tells him that “Convenience store employees are not men or women, but just store employees.”

Needless to say, Shiraha does not last long in this line of work, but Keiko decides that a paper marriage with Shiraha would satisfy social norms, reassure her family and friends, and give Shiraha a refuge at the same time. We know from the beginning that there is no way this will end well. Keiko and Shiraha respond to their sense of isolation in opposing ways: Keiko by mirroring those around her and Shiraha by ostracizing everyone around him with his inflated sense of self-importance so that, when he is inevitably isolated, he can blame others for it.

He is an unabashed misogynist, and yet even when he calls Keiko a dried-up, middle-aged virgin, his insults just bounce off of her. This is exactly what makes the book so interesting. Murata’s use of a first person narrative together with a narrator who has little self-awareness creates a sense of dislocation—we watch Keiko from a distance rather than with the sense of intimacy that a first-person narrator usually creates. We cannot quite relate to her, and yet the “normal” people in the story seem like horrific caricatures as they push her to conform to standards that seem arbitrary as seen from Keiko’s perspective. I was aghast at Shiraha’s views of the world, but gradually found that my disgust was tempered by an inability to relate to Keiko’s co-workers and friends, the supposed exemplars of normal society.

One of Shiraha’s pet theories is that the modern world is still stuck in the Jomon period:

I read history books to try and figure out when the world went wrong. You look back at the Meiji period, Edo period, Heian period, no matter how far you go back, the world is just on the wrong track—even if you go all the way back to the Jomon period! … And then I realized: the world is no different than it was during the Jomon period! People who are no use to the village are eliminated, both men who don’t go out hunting and women who don’t have babies. We keep talking about modern society and individualism but all along, people who don’t try to fit in are interfered with, forced into shape and ultimately pushed out of the village.

Keiko claims that “Unlike Shiraha, I just don’t care about most things. I don’t really have my own will, so I don’t mind just following along with village principles.” Even this modest ambition seemed to be beyond her reach, and in the end I couldn’t help but sympathize with Shiraha’s assertion that “This world does not recognize foreign objects. I’ve been forced to suffer from this for my whole life.” This novel serves as a condemnation of a society in which there is no place for people like Keiko and Shiraha.

So as not to end on too somber of a note (and there’s plenty of humor in this book), have a listen to the Konbini Store song!

Comfort of Daily Routine

takayama

Naomi Takayama’s Chikutaku Shokutaku, Volumes I and II, and some of her other cookbooks, essays and journals

I have a pile of books that I’ve been meaning to write about, but –whether it’s the earlier drawing in of the night or despair over political inanities –it is these two volumes that I’m turning to at the moment.

Naomi Takayama (高山なおみ), a chef, cookbook author and essayist, kept a daily record of her meals for one year, from January 6, 2005 to January 7, 2006 in the two volumes of Chikutaku Shokutaku (チクタク食卓 上、下). Her husband took the pictures of their meals, and some of his output is endearingly blurry. She notes in her introduction that she usually sleeps 10 hours a day (!), so she usually only eats lunch and a late dinner.

Takayama records the weather and a simple note of what she did that day, and occasionally even gives instructions for her recipes.

For example, for her record of January 8, Takayama draws pictures of the vegetables and abura-age (fried tofu skins) that she bought for lunch, and even notes the price and where they were grown. Dinner was simmered daikon and abura-age; chives in vinegar and miso; gobo (burdock root) pickled in vinegar; miso soup with tofu and green onion; brown rice; salted salmon; nameko mushrooms cooked in brown sugar, sake and shoyu; pickled goya, cucumber and daikon; lotus root; and a salad of salted kabu (turnip).

chikutaku-1

 

On the page for November 11, Takayama provides recipes for two of the dishes she cooked that day–although her meals look impressive spread out on the table, this is home cooking at its best, as you can see by the brevity of the instructions. She even  notes that she made bento (shown at the bottom of the right-hand page) for her husband and herself while cleaning up!

img_0952

 

 

Takayama does not cook every meal. Her record for January 3, 2006, includes pictures of food she has received as New Year’s gifts and–one of my favorite details–her friend lying drunk on the floor! After all, New Year’s celebrations go on for several days…

img_0951

 

Imagining Naomi Takayama and her husband sitting late into the evening over these meals slows my heartbeat after the sometimes frenetic pace of daily life and reminds me of the real comfort to be found in the daily round.

Winner of Japanese Booksellers Award

羊と鋼の森

宮下奈都

文藝春秋、2015

A Forest of Sheep and Steel

Natsu Miyashita

Bungeishunju, 2015 [no English translation available]

 

The Japanese Booksellers Award is one of the only prizes that I follow closely because both the short list and the winning book are chosen by bookstore staff, who nominate the books they enjoyed the most and recommend to others. This method seems to ensure the selection of books that offer readability and sheer enjoyment. 羊と鋼の森 (A Forest of Sheep and Steel) was no exception. Natsu Miyashita’s story of Tomura’s all-consuming ambition to become a piano tuner was beautifully written, with a languid pace that matched the story’s tone.

The novel starts with a refrain that runs throughout Tomura’s story:

He could smell the forest, the way it smells in the fall when night is near. The trees are swaying in the wind, and the leaves are rustling. That smell of the forest as night is closing in…

But Tomura is not anywhere near a forest—he is standing in his high school gymnasium, watching a piano tuner, Soichiro Itadori, work on the school piano. Age 17, Tomura (whose name is written as 外村, the characters for “outside” and “village”) is from a mountain village whose school does not go beyond junior high, so he had to leave home to attend high school. Lacking much ambition, he is simply biding time until he can graduate.

Hearing Itadori as he worked on the piano changed all that. Itadori, perhaps bemused by the spellbound boy, tells him that this piano produces beautiful sound because it comes from the mountains and fields–sheep ate the grass on the mountains and in the meadows, producing the wool that was made into felt for the hammers. Itadori demonstrates the way the hammer, encased in felt, hits the steel strings, and again Tomura hears the sound of the forest in early autumn, just as the light dims.

Although he’d never even been aware of the existence of pianos until then, Tomura cannot forget the sounds he has heard and seeks out Itadori to ask to be his apprentice. Instead, Itadori gives him the name of a school that trains piano tuners.

Tomura spends two years at a school on Honshu, with just seven students in his year. From the start, he is overwhelmed by the difficulty of his chosen profession. He feels as if he has braved the forest that he had always been warned against entering as a child, told that once he loses his way, he will never find his way out.

This picture of Kamishikimi Kumanoimaso Shrine in Takamori, Kumamoto Prefecture, is how I imagined the forest Tomura refers to.

This picture of Kamishikimi Kumanoimaso Shrine in Takamori, Kumamoto Prefecture, is how I imagined the forest Tomura refers to.

After graduating, Tomura gets a job at Itadori’s studio, but still believes that mastering the craft of piano tuning and achieving the sound Itadori is able to produce is beyond him. He stays late every night practicing tuning on the studio’s pianos. He also begins to listen to classical music for the first time, and falls asleep listening to Mozart or Beethoven or Chopin.

Much of the novel revolves around Tomura’s misgivings as to his own abilities and conversations with his colleagues debating the role of a piano tuner. This is not a book filled with dramatic plot twists. Welcome diversions from Tomura’s self-doubt, which can seem rather tortured after a while, come from the other piano tuners he works with, whose back stories we learn, and his friendship with twins Kazune and Yuni. These two gifted piano players and their different styles of performing are pivotal in helping Tomura find his own approach to piano tuning.

I admit I got a bit tired of the use of the forest as metaphor, but Miyashita’s descriptions of Tomura’s growing awareness of the beauty around him were lovely. When he has a free moment, Tomura opens the lid of the piano and gazes inside at the 88 piano keys and the strings attached to each one. The strings stretched out straight and the hammers lying ready to strike look like an orderly forest to him. He sees beauty here, something that had just been an intellectual concept to him before.

His eyes and ears were first opened by the piano, but now that his senses have been awakened, he dips back into his memory for more beauty:

For example, the milk tea his grandmother would make when he was home. Adding milk to the small saucepan in which she steeped the tea turned it the color of a muddy river after heavy rains. He could almost imagine fish lying hidden at the bottom of the pan in his hot tea. He would gaze, mesmerized, at the liquid swirling into his cup. Yes, that was beauty.

When Tomura goes home after his grandmother dies, he walks in the forest. He hears spruce needles falling to the ground, a sound with no corollary on the musical scale. And then it all came together:

I knew it all along! I get it. I felt like yelling out loud. I recognized that sound the spruce makes. Is that why [the sound of the piano] made me nostalgic? Is that why it drew me in? I had known the archetypal sound of the piano all along. The first instrument probably originated in the forest.

However, there were times when Tomura’s world was so far from the banal everyday tasks of washing clothes and cooking meals that it seemed too rarefied. This was exacerbated when, on the day I had set aside a few hours to write about this book, my refrigerator’s control panel gave out and the washing machine began leaking water onto the floor. As I cleared out the refrigerator and mopped up stagnant water, I have to admit that Tomura’s single-minded pursuit of the perfect pitch almost irritated me.

However, reading the comments on bookmeter, a Japanese site where readers record the books they’ve read and post comments and reviews (http://bookmeter.com/b/4163902945), I was struck by how many readers loved this book precisely because it took them away from their workday and daily stress. There might be no mention of cooking meals, paying bills or washing up in A Forest of Sheep and Steel, but we can always turn to Haruki Murakami for such quotidian details (his descriptions of bread-making and pasta were a high point of A Wild Sheep Chase for me). Miyashita’s novel serves another purpose, perhaps as a reminder that a protective layer of abstract thought or an all-aborbing interest just might prevent us from allowing our minds to become numbed by banalities. Whether that means that we are puzzling over the geometry of fractals, going over the steps of a perfect judo throw, or marveling at the intricacy of Schubert’s quintets as we scrub dishes and sit in traffic, surely we need more of it as a refuge against the mundane. So here’s hoping that we can all be a little bit more like Tomura.

*Although A Forest of Sheep and Steel has not been translated into English, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: The Hidden World of a Paris Atelier by T.E. Carhart might be a good substitute. Here is a review by one of my favorite bloggers and also a standard newspaper review.

 

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