Tsundoku Reader

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

Winner of Japanese Booksellers Award




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.


Books, Moss, Cats and Turtles Under One Roof




My Little Secondhand Bookstore, by Miho Tanaka

Yosensha, 2012 [No English translation available]


蟲文庫 (Mushi Bunko) can be found on a street in Kurashiki, Okayama lined with warehouses built in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and sporting the traditional white walls and black tiles. Visitors are not always sure that it is in fact a bookstore, since Miho Tanaka has also filled the shelves with moss collecting kits and CDs reflecting her own eccentric tastes, and holds occasional readings and concerts in the evenings. Turtles and cats sun themselves in the small backyard, which also shelters a telescope and her moss samples.

Mushi Bunko in its current location

Image source

Reading her book of essays on her 20 years as a secondhand bookseller, it was hard for me to imagine Miho Tanaka ever doing anything else, but the first 10 years seem to have been rather touch-and-go. When she was just 21, Tanaka quit her job of two years, and before she was even fully aware of what she was doing, she found herself announcing to the owner of a secondhand bookstore she frequented that she was going to open her own bookstore. She had begun working right after high school, but her employer’s indifference to labor laws resulted in Tanaka reaching her physical breaking point after just 10 months. Since then she had been working odd jobs on a part-time basis.

Image source

Tanaka’s decision to open her own secondhand bookstore was based solely on her love of books and her lack of capital. It was sheer luck that she found her first store front (she stayed here from 1994 and moved to her current location about six years later) since no one wanted to rent to such a young, inexperienced girl who could only pay 50,000 yen a month in rent (about $455 at today’s exchange rate).


The 蟲 (mushi) in the store name means “bug or insect,” although a simplified version of this character is used now.

When she went back and checked her diary as she was writing this book, Tanaka was surprised to find that in a single day she had quit her job, made the decision to open a secondhand bookstore, begun her search for a store to rent, and bought a primer on running secondhand bookstores. Her budget was only 1 million yen ($9,111), and her stock consisted of her own personal library and her father’s contribution of a 39-volume set of Japanese classics.

Since she started the bookstore with barely any books on the shelves, she couldn’t live off the proceeds and had to work part-time jobs after she closed the bookstore in the evening. Tanaka worked at a coffee shop and a bakery, served as cashier at a convenience store and sorted mail after hours at the post office for 10 years until her father’s death left her so exhausted and emotionally depleted that she couldn’t keep up this pace. Around the same time, she wrote an article about observing moss for a small magazine, which led to profiles of her store in the magazines “Brutus” and “Kunel.” This publicity, playing up the eccentric lady shop owner who loves moss, has helped to sustain the store ever since. These two events enabled Tanaka to focus her energies on the bookstore.

Miho Tanaka behind her desk at Mushi Bunko

Image source

Tanaka compares her day sitting behind a desk to the life of sea anemones, attached to rocks in tide pools, waiting for their prey to come to them. I found this metaphor to be quite apt because reading this book was similar to watching a tide pool as a vivid miniature world opens up before your eyes. At first glance, sitting at a desk all day might look boring, but Tanaka says that life comes to her in the form of peculiar customers and unexpected events. There was the older man who fell into the habit of stopping by the bar for a pick-me-up after work and then visiting her store, red-faced and tipsy, to buy a book on religion before heading home to his wife. There were the people who asked her to watch her children for them as if she were a daycare service, and the two unattended dogs that dropped by for the day once (she decided they must be her deceased grandparents, checking up on her). And then there was the community she created through the readings and concerts she held in the bookstore.

A live event at Mushi Bunko

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Over the years, the stock in her bookstore has come to reflect this community since about 90% of her stock consists of books she buys from her customers. People with similar interests buy books in her store and sell their books to her in turn, occasioning comments from customers that visiting her store is like looking at their own bookshelves.

Before writing this book, Tanaka had published another book,「苔とあるく」(Walking with Moss), a primer on observing and collecting moss. She feels an affinity with moss and its preference for shade and corners. People don’t usually notice moss, but Tanaka finds that when you look closely, the diversity of its forms and its ecology are surprisingly dramatic.

I was told that I must look at moss under the microscope to appreciate its beauty, and this has proven to be true. Peering through the lens, I slowly bring the image into focus, and the instant the picture sharpens, I am flooded with an indescribable, intoxicating sensation similar to dizziness, relieving me of any sense of my own physical size and weight. I can hardly bear it. I dream of one day dissolving into this slow-moving ocean of green cells.

Image source

Secondhand bookstores seem like a losing proposition through the lens of conventional economic theory, at best a harmless if penurious way to pursue one’s hobby at work. Just as the humble moss was left behind in the “upward progression” of more sophisticated land plants such as ferns and seed plants, Tanaka recognizes that secondhand bookstores diverge from the main road of commerce. I think Miho Tanaka deserves the last word.

But even though I know there is no future for secondhand bookstores, occasionally I break away from the high-speed freeway pace of this world and stand in one place. And maybe secondhand bookstores and moss collecting grant us moments like this. This bare-bones bookshop where time seems to have stopped is my mainstay precisely because it allows me to entertain the illusion that a single book in the great wide ocean of books and the words inside of it can be passed on far into the future, just as the moss growing here now has survived through the ages.


Image source

I was relieved to find that, four years after she published this book, Mushi Bunko is still thriving, and she occasionally updates her blog. She also followed up her book on moss with a book about turtles (「亀のひみつ 」, 2013), an anthology of stories and poems that feature moss, ferns and other life forms that grow from spores (「胞子文学名作選」, 2013) and an illustrated reference book on moss (「ときめくコケ図鑑」, 2014), so she really seems to have found her niche.

Image source

Don’t-Want-to-Get-Married Syndrome




Don’t-Want-to-Get-Married Syndrome

Kaya Hojo

Seishun Publishing, 2016


プリンセスメゾン 1 と2

初学館、 2015 and 2016

Princess Maison, Volumes 1 and 2

Aoi Ikebe

Shogakukan, 2015 and 2016

Kaya Hojo wrote 「本当は結婚したくないのだ症候群」 (Don’t-Want-to-Get-Married Syndrome) as an attempt to figure out why so many Japanese woman seem uninterested in marriage, even as the government bewails the falling birth rate and sets target fertility rates (goal of 1.8, compared to 1.42 children per woman in 2014). Interviewing single women living in Tokyo, Hojo found that the women she spoke to want to get married in a vague way, but are reluctant to give up their freedom or relax the conditions that any prospective husband must meet. They have full lives with satisfying work, friends, hobbies and money to spend on themselves. And yet, the idea of “marriage” continues to exert a strong hold on them.

Coincidentally, around the same time I was reading this book I picked up a manga that illustrates Hojo’s reporting. Aoi Ikebe’s プリンセスメゾン (Princess Maison) tells the story of Numa-chan, a young woman who works in a pub and yet, despite her low wages and unmarried status, wants to buy her own apartment. Impressed with her persistence, the employees of a real estate company she frequents befriend her and help with her search.

I’m probably not qualified to judge since I don’t read manga very often, but this was a very strange manga. Ikebe intersperses episodes about Numa-chan with advice on apartment searches, covering practical issues such as how to calculate monthly payments, what to look for when viewing model rooms, and the importance of checking for storage space. Aoi Ikebe also includes vignettes about single women who have achieved Numa-chan’s goal and have bought their own apartments. These are generally such gloomy visions that I wondered if Ikebe has a dark view of the life of single women in Japan.

This woman, also living on her own, stares at the ceiling and wonders when she can die.

This woman, also living on her own, stares at the ceiling and wonders when she can die.

An older woman, living on her own, listens to the family living in the apartment below her.

An older woman, living on her own, listens to the family living in the apartment below her.

The statistics Hojo provides in her reporting indicate that Numa-chan and her friends (all of whom are single) are no exception

Numa-chan on her search for an apartment.

Numa-chan on her search for an apartment.

in modern Japan. Statistics can be dry and boring, but these were really intriguing because they revealed such significant changes. The 2010 national census found that one out of every three women and one out of every two men ages 30-35 had never been married. The rate of men and women marrying late in life or not marrying at all has been rising, but the increase has been particularly sharp for women. Since the 1980s, the number of women who marry in their 30s has plummeted. This trend is especially pronounced in Tokyo, where a 2015 survey found that the percentage of unmarried women across all age groups was 10 percentage points higher in Tokyo than the nationwide average.

Nippon Life Insurance Company carried out a survey in 2015 that found that 24% of single people had no interest in getting married. However, the breakdown is particularly intriguing as it shows that 31% of women did not want to get married, compared to only 16.3% of men. The Cabinet Office conducted a survey of 7,000 men and women ages 20-39 and found that about 40% of the respondents who were unmarried and weren’t in relationships were happy on their own. The most common reasons cited were that “relationships are a pain” and “I want to concentrate on my hobbies.”

Numa-chan, surrounded by books on buying apartments and real estate fliers, revels in the numbers adding up in her bank book.

Numa-chan, surrounded by books on buying apartments and real estate fliers, revels in the numbers adding up in her bank book.

Hoya’s interviewees provide the background to these statistics. Many of the women Hoya interviewed enjoy having the extra time and money to spend on their interests. Several are fans of K-pop singers and follow these idols with devotion, something they know they wouldn’t be able to do if they got married. One woman spoke about how much her favorite K-pop singers motivate her—she feels that they give her more energy than a real-life love affair would. Another woman, a fan of boy bands, agreed, asserting that romance in the real world is tough. One woman is putting off marriage because she wants to enjoy her independence for longer, and figures that she can just get married once she decides to have children.

These women know that, although they still feel like they are waiting for the “prince” who appeared in every manga they read growing up, marriage is hard work. This is especially true in Japan, where gender equality is a work in progress. An OECD study shows that Japanese men are in the lower ranks of industrialized nations when it comes to sharing childcare and housework, and another OECD study concludes that “more than elsewhere, Japanese parents have to choose between their career and raising children.” So it makes sense that Japanese women would see marriage as a bad deal in which they have to exchange fulfilling careers for household drudgery.

Indeed, many of the women Hojo interviewed said that their married friends were constantly complaining, and there were no happy families around them to tempt them into marriage. The family structure itself has undergone several transformations in just a few generations, shifting from extended families living under one roof, to nuclear families and then to smaller families with both parents working outside of the home. This has no doubt introduced a great deal of uncertainty. One of Hojo’s interviewees described this rapid change in the structure of families:

My father is really busy with work, and he’s the type that gets married just because he wants to hand over all the household stuff to someone else. My mom was a housewife, but there aren’t really any marriages like that anymore. Men’s annual salaries have decreased, so we’re no longer in an era in which women get married, stay at home and do all the housework. So given that, marriage doesn’t really offer any advantages to either men or women. When I talk to my parents, I really sense this gap—our views on marriage just don’t match up.

Numa-chan, a girl who obviously knows what truly matters, always checks the size of the bath when she views apartments.

Numa-chan, a girl who obviously knows what truly matters, always checks the size of the bath when she views apartments.

It was only after World War II that a family consisting of a “salaryman papa,” a mother who stays at home, and two children became the image of the standard household. Lifetime employment meant that the wife could stay at home and raise the children, while a man’s salary could cover a home mortgage and college tuition. This stability is now gone. Writer Izumi Momose wrote that during the period of high economic growth, happiness for women was equated with the 3K of 結婚 (kekkon=marriage), 家庭 (katei=home) and 子供 (kodomo=children), but now women are instead being boxed in by the 3K of 家事労働 (kaji rodo=housework), 子育て (kosodate=raising children) and 介護 (kaigo=caring for the elderly).

Hojo’s interviewees are enjoying their freedom and intend to get married if they meet the right person, but are torn by the sense that they are not real adults unless they get married and can provide their parents with grandchildren. I think Aoi Ikebe illustrates this difficult position well in Princess Maison. When a real estate agent asks if she takes marriage into account when choosing an apartment, Numa-chan sternly reprimands him, telling him “First I will take care of my own life, and then I can think about living with someone else.” Her face softens as she adds, “But that’s probably just an impossible dream.”

But Numa-chan has a soft side too, and dreams of finding a partner as well as an apartment.

But Numa-chan has a soft side too, and dreams of finding a partner as well as an apartment.


Numa-chan sternly reprimands Date-san, telling him “First I will take care of my own life, and then I can think about living with someone else.”

To end with some happy statistics, an Asahi Shimbun survey of 18-19 year-olds published in the 8 April edition of the newspaper found that 59% are optimistic about the future, and a total of 89% replied that they are either “very happy” or “somewhat happy.” And although the pundits almost immediately began to explain this away as a sign that young people are just lowering their expectations, this is one statistic that I’d like to take at face value.

This young woman stretches out on her futon, saying "living alone is the best!"

This young woman stretches out on her futon, saying “living alone is the best!”

Nakano’s Secondhand Store

古道具 中野商店


新潮社, 2005

Nakano’s Secondhand Store

Hiromi Kawakami

Shinchosha, 2005

[Not available in English]

If I was looking for the antithesis of the glossy j-dramas* I love to watch, I think I’ve found it in 古道具 中野商店 (Nakano’s Secondhand Store) by 川上弘美 (Hiromi Kawakami). Nothing is wrapped up neatly with a bow by the end of the book, there is no penultimate scene in which the characters realize how they “truly” feel, and there are no episodes of recrimination and reconciliation. I am not giving anything away here because I don’t think anyone reads Kawakami’s novels for plot twists and reveals, but rather for the mood she creates from the first page to the last.

Haruo Nakano opened his secondhand goods store about 25 years ago on the outskirts of Tokyo when he got tired of life as a salaryman. He always stresses that this is not an antique store, and Kawakami’s descriptions should quickly erase any pre-formed image of a charming store full of treasures the reader may have had.

This is the set for “Biblia Koshodo no Jiken Techo,” a j-drama set in a bookstore, and provides the perfect example of what Nakano’s Secondhand Store does NOT look like (and you can never have too many pictures of bookstores).

This is closer to my idea of what Nakano’s shop looked like.

Nakano’s store is crammed full of everything that would have been standard in a house from the middle of the Showa era (1926-1989)—low tables, old fans, air conditioners, pottery and kotatsu. Every day, Nakano would open the shutters in front of his store, cigarette dangling from his mouth, and arrange items that he thinks will bring customers in—old-fashioned typewriters, the prettier crockery, lamps with a little artistic flair, and paperweights in the shapes of turtles and rabbits. As he works, ash falls from the tip of his cigarette onto his stock, but Nakano just brushes it off with the edge of his apron. Reflecting his slapdash style, his “Open” sign is just a scrap of cardboard with a few characters scrawled in black marker on it.

A secondhand store in Tottori prefecture

Nakano runs the store with the help of Hitomi, our narrator, and Takeo. As Hitomi is telling the story, we hear her observations about everyone around her, but get few details about Hitomi herself, leaving the reader to guess from context that she is in her early 20s and drifting a bit in this dead-end job. Takeo, who is in charge of replenishing the store’s stock, is another lost soul. He was bullied in school and stopped going entirely after he lost half a finger when his tormentor slammed it in a door. His loss of faith in people prevents him from leaving his shell much, but he is gentle and kind when he can spare the energy.

Masayo, Nakano’s sister, stops by nearly every day, and her charisma always boosts sales. In her mid-50s and with an independent income that enables her to style herself as an artist, Masayo holds exhibitions of the rather creepy dolls she makes, or cloth she has dyed shades of brown using leaves. Although they are past middle age, Masayo and her brother are more free-spirited than Hitomi and Takeo, who seem buttoned-up and scared of life in comparison. Ironically, Masayo and Nakano, who is on his third wife and also has a mistress, come to inexperienced Hitomi for advice and commiseration. Nakano even asks Hitomi to read the erotic novel his mistress has written and give her opinion.

Each chapter has a title like “Paperweight,” “Celluloid,” “Sewing Machine” and “Punching Ball,” and it becomes a bit of a game to spot each of these objects in the chapter as you read. Sometimes they are tangential to the story, sometimes they play a central role. The chapters were initially serialized in the literary magazine 新潮 (New Tide) from 2000 to 2005, and are each centered on a different episode, often involving the store’s unusual clients. “Paper Knife” is about a deranged woman who “stabs” Nakano with a paper knife. “Big Dog” relates Takeo and Nakano’s visit to a yakuza to buy a helmet and armor in a deal that they seal with whiskey and chocolate cake. “Bowl” is about a man who brings in a beautiful bowl that he believes his ex-girlfriend has cursed, bringing him a wave of bad luck. In “Paperweight,” Nakano sends Hitomi to check up on Masayo after an elderly relative reports that she is living with a man.

The thread running through all of these chapters is Hitomi’s yearning for some kind of relationship with Takeo. She’s not always sure what she wants from him, and yet she feels attached to him by a thread that draws taut when he’s nearby and snaps when he leaves. They tentatively reach out to each other, but after several awkward dates and even more awkward sex, Takeo apologizes to Hitomi, admitting that he’s just not that interested in sex. Later, he tries explaining again:

“Hitomi, I’m sorry that I’m not good at this,” Takeo said quietly.

“That’s not true! I’m not good at this either.”
“Really? So…”

For once, Takeo looked me straight in the eye as he spoke.

“So you’re not any good at this whole living thing either?”

Takeo took a cigarette from the crumpled package Nakano kept in the back of the shelf and lit it.

I took one too and tried taking a puff. Takeo spat into a tissue just like Nakano always did. Instead of answering Takeo’s question, I asked when he thought Nakano would come back.

Takeo said, “Who knows.” Then he pursed his lips and breathed in the tobacco smoke.

This passage is a good example of the way in which Hitomi and Takeo—and indeed, all the characters here to some extent—keep their distance, even as they make tentative forays toward each other. And Kawakami preserves a distance between the reader and her characters—even though Hitomi is our narrator, we do not know any more about what she is thinking than Takeo does.

But I don’t mean to suggest that this book leaves the reader out in the cold. Hitomi’s decision to forget Takeo and “eat vegetables and seaweed and beans and be healthy and sparkling every day” made me laugh even as I sympathized. Kawakami is particularly good at juxtaposing comedy and poignancy in this way so that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. In “One Piece,” Hitomi is fretting because Takeo isn’t answering her phone calls. Going right to extremes as usual, Masayo suggests that maybe he has died, but Hitomi thinks it much more likely that when she called, Takeo was eating a cream-filled pastry and his fingers were so greasy he couldn’t press the right button. Or his phone is in his back pocket but he’s gained so much weight that his jeans are too tight and he can’t pull the phone out of his pocket. Or he’s rescued an old lady who fell and is taking her to the hospital.

And then there’s Masayo, eating pie and cream puffs in her garish hand-printed scarves as she asks Hitomi how she can keep Maruyama, her boyfriend, interested when her libido is waning with age. One moment Kawakami is painting a picture that almost seems to encourage us to look down on Masayo, and then the next moment she upends our comfortable assumptions as she describes Masayo confessing to Hiromi that she loves Maruyama best in all the world. Hitomi is struck to the core as she realizes there is no one about whom she can say the same thing. Although Hitomi and Takeo frequently shake their heads at Nakano and Masayo’s irresponsibility and impetuousness, at least they seem to have gotten something from their gambles.

The final chapter is set about three years after the events of the previous chapter. Hitomi wakes up confused, thinking she is back in her old apartment by Nakano’s store, even though she moved two years ago. The relatively short time she spent working there was so intense and luminous that she is still partly reliving those days. And don’t we all have periods like this, bookended by the less vivid days that came before and after?

Although Kawakami’s writing style always keeps the reader at a modest distance, she lets the reader stand just outside Nakano’s store, peering through the window, as it were, at her four characters. In the hands of such a skilled author, this does not feel alienating. Standing alongside Kawakami, we keep a respectful distance and sigh with exasperation when Nakano is enticed by yet another woman, blush for Hitomi’s awkward attempts to approach Takeo, squirm in embarrassment when Masayo gives Hitomi inappropriate advice, and fear for Takeo. And just like Hitomi, the world seems a little greyer when we leave their company.


You can read more about Hiromi Kawakami here. She has won numerous literary prizes, and at least two of her novels are available in English translation: 先生の鞄 (The Briefcase) and 真鶴 (Manazuru). The Briefcase would be a good entry point. This tender novel is about a woman and her relationship with her former teacher as it shifts from friendship to love, with food and the changing seasons as a running theme.


* If you didn’t immediately know that “j-drama” refers to the wonderful world of Japanese dramas, then you’re missing out. I’m sure many people—with more refined taste than myself, no doubt—would disagree about that, but they’re worth a try if you’ve never seen one. All of the major TV channels broadcast these dramas consisting of 10-12 episodes, with a new line-up starting in the fall, winter, spring and summer. The storylines cover a huge range, with everything from crime and high school angst to period dramas and the search for a husband. Try ホタルノヒカリ (Hotaru no Hikari) seasons one and two for a mix of comedy, romance and office life. This past season’s 家族の形 (Kazoku no Katachi) is a genuinely good family drama with excellent acting (with English subtitles here and with Japanese subtitles only here). And for a decidedly non-glossy j-drama with a slow pace, お菓子の家 (Okashi no Ie) is a bittersweet drama with fine acting from Joe Odagiri (with English subtitles here and with Japanese subtitles only here).

“Wash away your stress in the bath again today”



文藝春秋, 2001

Goddess of the Sento, by Hiromi Hoshino

Bungeishunju, 2001

[No English translation available]

Reading essays can be like putting together a puzzle that leaves you with a picture of the author. This was certainly the case with the 39 essays that make up 銭湯の女神 (Goddess of the Sento). Hiromi Hoshino, a freelance writer and photographer, wrote these essays after her return from Hong Kong, where she lived from August 1996 to October 1998. Her essays, which cover everything from how to read a newspaper and 100 yen shops to Japan’s garbage system and paper marriages, are not, ostensibly, about herself, but the little details I picked up formed a picture that explained where Hoshino’s perceptive and sharp views come from.

Hoshino mentions in passing that throughout her life, people have been unable to tell whether she’s male or female, and her height and large-boned frame meant that there were never school uniforms in her size. This may go some way in explaining that outsider perspective that pervades her essays. She never tries to appear more feminine—she keeps her hair short and chooses clothes based on comfort and durability. Hoshino loves sento (communal bath houses), but doesn’t feel comfortable in onsen (hot springs that tend to be travel destinations rather than part of a daily routine). Even though it’s more expensive, she always buys the smallest bottle of shampoo because she can’t imagine having the time to use up a bigger bottle before the urge to travel hits her again. She went through a punk phase, and yet is scathing about Japanese punks who  imitate British punks with their t-shirts depicting Queen Elizabeth with her eyes masked by “God Save the Queen,” instead of finding something of their own to rebel against.

This is about the extent of the personal details the reader is given. These essays are really an attempt to readjust to life and grapple with Japanese society after her years in Hong Kong. Although she’d lived there when she was 21 and easily melted back into her old routine after returning to Japan, this time she was never able to fully adjust. What she used to take for granted no longer seems universal, and she begins to doubt where she had never doubted before. She always feels slightly uncomfortable.

This is the Hong Kong neighborhood in which Hiromi Hoshino lived in 1996-1998, described in her book「転がる香港に苔は生えない」.

After the noise and crowds of Hong Kong, Hoshino craves a quiet apartment with good light. This means compromising by renting an apartment without a bath (showers are not standard in Japan), still common in older parts of Japan and cheap apartment complexes. Her regular trips to the sento become an essential part of her life, depicted in the seven essays in this book that are devoted to sento. Her days follow the same pattern: apartment, family restaurant (her “office”), sento, apartment. She uses orange crates as tables and bookshelves in her apartment rather than spending money on furniture, and works at all hours. This explains why her New Year’s goals one year were to “wake up in the morning, go to bed at night and go out to buy the newspaper in the morning” (once she had the hang of this, she refined these goals to include washing her face when she woke up and went to bed, taking a bath as much as possible and brushing her teeth before bed).

The entrance to a sento; the ゆ printed on the noren (curtain) means “hot water.”

Hoshino’s almost monkish life explains her impatience with young people who ask her advice on how to become freelance writers or photographers. She knows that there is nothing romantic about being a freelancer, and she is confounded by the tendency to confuse the “free” in “freelance” with “freedom.” The young people seeking her advice want to be free, but they also want stability; they want to create art, but also buy the latest fashions and live in a comfortable apartment. There are too many things they are not willing to give up.

Hoshino works at family restaurants (casual, inexpensive restaurants similar to Denny’s in the US) because she wants that connection with people, and yet she doesn’t want to actually talk to them or interact on a deeper level. She describes herself as the epitome of the “lonely modern Japanese person.” Having travelled throughout Europe, Hong Kong and China, she notes that every country has places where you can go and sit all day and get a sense of the community, the distance between people and how they spend their time. In Tokyo, family restaurants function as this proxy.

When I see the gaggles of ebullient housewives gather after tennis school, I can’t help but feel sympathy for their husbands who are at this moment being worked to the bone by their companies. And yet I hold my tongue because I can’t even imagine the depression of women under the pressure of housework and child-rearing. Couples come to the restaurant and spend the whole time talking to other people on their cell phones, leaving me overcome with the sense of their loneliness. But aren’t I lonely too? So I say nothing. Then there are the young fathers who, unable to quiet their screaming child, simply hand the child over to their wives as if he were a parcel, demanding that the wife keep him quiet. And I have to desperately hold back my urge to tell the young mother, as she wordlessly tries to comfort her child, to grab the child and escape while she still can. I’m not sure who began calling these restaurants “family restaurants, but surely you can hear the irony in the abbreviation “family resu,” which sounds all too close to “family-less.”

In one of the darkest essays in her book, Hoshino writes of biking to a family restaurant late at night to finish some work before flying to Hong Kong the next day. On her way home, just as the last train of the night has arrived in the local station, she is attacked by two teenage boys who throw her off her bike and against a storefront, kicking her before running off. She is bruised and upset, of course, but what really scares her is that no one came to her aid, even though the streets were full of people leaving the train station. Hoshino lay sprawled on the ground for some time, petrified by the conviction that this indifference and reluctance to get involved means that she could be killed at any time for no reason at all. Despite her injuries, she leaves for Hong Kong the next morning as planned. After all, although in Hong Kong she was occasionally accosted on the streets by complete strangers blaming her for Japan’s behavior in WWII, other strangers would immediately come to her defense, resulting in a heated argument that left everyone invigorated.

Sento become an essential antidote for Hoshino after a day working in family restaurants. On the wall of a neighborhood sento, campaign posters for the Tokyo Sento Association proclaimed, “Wash away your stress in the bath again today,” which is exactly what she did.

This picture shows the Tokyo Sento Association’s promotional poster recommending that we all “wash away our stress in the bath again today.” The clock in the picture indicates that it is just after 5pm, and the OL (office ladies) here are holding their sento gear (wooden bucket and all) as they study a map. There is a sento in the background–you can just see its tall white chimney.

Hoshino can’t quite figure out why she is so happy going to the sento, but her mother claims that it is because people who go to the sento regularly are more “real.” According to her philosophy, Japan’s prosperity has spoiled people so that the thought of living in a house without a bath has become an unimaginable inconvenience. People are consumed by the desire to earn as much as they can so they can buy brand names and the latest technology. “But people who go to the sento have turned their backs to this—they know what they really need and what they can go without.” Here are people who don’t care about the latest fashion, and are not attached to their cell phones. Refreshingly, the women at the sento are not particularly thin either—their extra flesh is comforting to Hoshino after the sight of young girls walking in heels on stick-thin legs. These are the type of women who can survive an apocalypse, she feels, giving her hope again after a day working in family restaurants.

A typical sento, with the traditional picture of Mt. Fuji painted on the wall; patrons sit on stools in front of the faucets to wash before entering the bath (photograph from the Tokyo Sento website).

In the afterword to the hardcover edition of this book, Hoshino writes that just after finishing these essays, she had decided to move to an apartment with a bath in an attempt to put her life on a more even keel. She had been working such late hours that she couldn’t make it to the sento before closing time, and she’d fall into bed unwashed and without having eaten properly. She writes of feeling guilty for “abandoning” sento, and sure enough, by the time she wrote the afterword to the paperback edition, she had moved again, this time purposely choosing an apartment near a sento.

Hinode-yu, an historic sento in Kyoto (photograph by Stuart Gibson)

About the author: Born in Tokyo in 1966, Hiromi Hoshino grew up playing in her father’s workshop, where he made molds for industrial products. After graduating from college, she worked for a shipping company but only lasted eight months. She became the assistant of photographer Joji Hashiguchi and began to work independently in 1994. Hoshino wrote about her experiences in Hong Kong in『転がる香港に苔は生えない』(A Rolling Hong Kong Gathers No Moss), for which she won the 32nd Oya Soichi Non-fiction Prize. In 2012, she won the Second Ikeru Hon Prize and the 63rd Yomiuri Prize for Literature (travelogue category) for『コンニャク屋漂流記』(Adventures of the Konnyaku-ya), in which she traces her family’s roots as fishermen. In 『戸越銀座でつかまえて』(Caught in Togoshi-Ginza), published in 2013, Hoshino writes of returning to live with her parents as an unmarried, childless daughter with two cats.

Mountain Life



徳間書店, 2012


Kamusari Naanaa Nichijo

Shion Miura

Tokuma Shoten, 2012

[No English translation available]

The title of this book, Kamusari Naanaa Nichijo, presents a perfect case study for the difficulties of translation. Yuki, the narrator, begins the story of his first year in Kamusari by trying to dissect the nuances of なあなあ (naanaa) as it is used in Kamusari. Although it means “take it easy,” and “just relax,” this single word can also be used to say, “the weather today is calm and pleasant.” It is a constant refrain in the speech of people in Kamusari. In fact, the soft “na” is peppered throughout their speech to such an extent that even when they are angry, they still sound relaxed.

Kamusari is a fictional town modeled after 美杉村 (Misugimura), a village nestled against the mountains in 三重県 (Mie Prefecture). Misugimura was merged with nine other towns and is now part of 津市 (Tsushi), an administrative decision that demonstrates the plight of villages like these with dwindling and aging populations.

A location shot from the movie of this book, entitled “Wood Job”

A year in Kamusari is enough to show Yuki that the mellow attitude epitomized by “naanaa” has likely emerged alongside the lumber industry, which follows a 100-year cycle. Rushing about will not help the trees grow any faster, and there is nothing to do once it gets dark but sleep anyway, so the pace of life has adjusted to match the slow growth of trees.

It took Yuki months to adjust to life here. Yuki’s mother and high school teacher colluded together to sign him up for a government program aimed at getting fresh blood into dying industries, of which Kamusari’s lumber industry is a prime example. Having graduated high school with no plans for either college or anything other than a part-time job, his mother uses blackmail to force him to go along with the plan and his teacher literally tosses him onto the train. I found this to be unrealistic, and I can’t have been the only one because in the film of the book, it’s the pretty girl on the promotional poster that gets Yuki to join up. However, once the story line had shifted to Kamusari, I was so charmed that I didn’t care what literary device Shion Miura had used to get Yuki there.

After a few weeks of basic training, Yuki is sent to work under Seiichi Nakamura, whose ownership of 1,200 hectares of forests and mountains makes him the head of the village and one of a dying breed of large landowners in Japan. Yuki works in Seiichi’s crew with three other men: Yoki, a young man whose name actually means “axe” and is a kind of genius when it comes to his work in the mountains; Iwao, a 50 year-old man who passes on much of what he knows about the mountains to Yuki; and Saburo, a 74 year-old man who is still a key member of the crew despite his age.

Yuki boards with Yoki, his wife Miki and his grandmother Shige, who for the most part (with a few notable exceptions) sits in a corner like a plump dumpling. I wouldn’t say this book has a plot in a strict sense; instead, Miura builds up the entire world of Kamusari until the reader has soaked up this atmosphere through the pages. It is the little details that create this world, like the 五右衛門風呂(goemonburo) in which Yuki has to learn to bathe and the massive onigiri (rice balls) that Miki makes for their lunch in the mountains. To Yuki, Kamusari is straight out of Japanese folk tales, a place where the threat of the kappa (a river sprite) is enough to keep children from playing in the river without adults.

The kind of 五右衛門風呂 Yuki would have bathed in.

I don’t think I have ever read a book in which the natural environment is such an imposing presence, a character in its own right. The splendor of the night sky makes Yuki dizzy and all his problems seem insignificant. The technicolor display of his first spring in Kamusari takes his breath away and, true to the vocabulary of a teenager, he can only conclude that even computer graphics would be incapable of recreating such brilliant colors. The sound of the trees groaning under the weight of snow makes Yuki so anxious about the fate of the young trees that he can’t sleep.

Yuki in the movie “Wood Job” as he learns to prune the branches of these massive trees

And yet Shion Miura succeeds in avoiding the common pitfalls and tropes too often seen in stories that drop characters into entirely new environments. She doesn’t glorify nature nor does she dwell on the ostracism that Yuki occasionally experiences in this insular village. As if in exchange for the beauty of the seasons, the crew suffers from leaches, ticks and hay fever, and is visited by an earthquake and sudden all-enveloping fogs.

All of the men (and it is all men here) working on the mountains recognize that they are at the mercy of the mountains, and ultimately must rely on the favor of the gods. This means that they avoid killing whenever possible. When Yoki’s dog kills a snake, the crew lays the snake out on a tree stump with a bit of rice, while Saburo pours tea over it and they all bow their heads. This seems strange to Yuki at first, but he gradually senses the strange powers of the mountain for himself. This is a key motif of the story, I think, played out as Yuki begins to participate in the rituals and ceremonies that pacify and honor the mountain and its gods and give the year its structure and rhythm.

An example of the kind of small wooden shrine (hokora) Shion Miura describes.

Although there is certainly some drama in this book—the search for a missing child, a festival that occurs only once every 47 years—I would say that the plot of this book is built on the events that cause Yuki to jettison the vague unease that he is missing out on the life of a typical teenager in a city and instead slide into the slow pace of Kamusari. As he finishes narrating his year, Yuki concludes, “All I know is that Kamusari has never changed and never will.” I cannot help but worry that Japan’s aging population and dying rural industries threaten places like Kamusari, and I’m glad that its atmosphere has been preserved in the pages of this book.

For anyone wanting a further look, there are some beautiful pictures of Misugimura here.

Note on the author: Shion Miura has an impressive list of books to her name, especially considering that she is only 40. The daughter of a classics scholar, her talent was recognized straight out of college and she began writing book reviews. She has won several awards, including the Naoki Prize forまほろ駅前多田便利軒  (The Handymen in Mahoro Town) and the Booksellers Award for 船を編む (The Great Passage), a novel that makes the compilation of a dictionary seem like a grand endeavor. You can read more about Miura and some of her other books here. Unfortunately, none of her novels have been translated into English yet.

God of Cinema



文藝春秋, 2013


God of the Cinema

Maha Harada

Bungeishunju, 2013

[No English translation available]


One reviewer of this book said she become so caught up in this book that she started reading it at 11pm, read it until she heard the sound of the motorbike delivering the morning newspaper, slept a few hours and then read to the end. But what convinced me to pull this book off my shelves was her comment that this book made her glad that she was born Japanese so that she could read this book.

The story centers on Ayumi Maruyama and her father, known as Go. When the story begins, Ayumi has just quit her high-ranking position at a development company, rather than accepting a transfer that is essentially a demotion, and Go is recovering from heart surgery.

Ayumi has always followed her father’s advice to find what you love and stick to it, no matter how hard it is, and as a result she was able to work at a large company developing theater complexes. At the same time, her single-mindedness made her enemies at work and left her single at age 40.

Go was dealt a lucky hand of cards when he was born. He was born to parents who lost their house but survived the Kanto earthquake, spent his childhood in Manchuria, made it through WWII without a scratch, married a dependable woman, and was always able to rely on his wife and friends to bail him out from his gambling debts. However, his heart surgery and his wife’s discovery that he has the equivalent of about $30,000 in debt from playing mahjong and gambling on horse races seem to suggest that his luck has run out. Ayumi and her mother consult experts on gambling addiction, and are told that by always paying off his debt, they have been enabling him and must cut him off from any source of money. They sequester his pension and, left with only enough money for a few visits to the movie theater and DVD rentals, Go falls into a depression.

Despite all of his failings, Go’s enthusiasm for life has earned him a few constant friends. Terashin, the owner of a meigaza theater that shows classic films and holds retrospectives, loves Go as he is. Telling Ayumi that he knows Go has used the money he loaned him to play mahjong, he says, “I like that about him. He may be a bit of a charlatan, but he’s big-hearted. These days, there aren’t many people who are that joyfully irresponsible. … When I see how dogged he is in living life his own way, it makes me feel that as long as there are movies in this world, there’s a reason for me to keep this theater going. The God of the Cinema hasn’t abandoned me yet.”

It was Go that told Terashin about this “God of the Cinema.” He writes,

Movie theaters are actually temples to entertainment. One step into these temples and you have entered a sacred area occupying a different dimension. Movies are an offering to the gods living in this temple. Ever since I was a child, I have sensed the presence of the god of cinema watching the movie together with me somewhere in the theater. This god might enjoy the movie, but more than anything else, he finds joy in the pleasure of all the people watching the movies. … I keep talking about these gods, but in reality I’m not a religious person. And yet still, I sense a strength that I cannot see with my own eyes and a presence that is beyond human knowledge. When I watch a truly great movie, this feeling is particularly strong.

While Go is in the hospital, Ayumi finds stacks and stacks of notebooks that her father has filled with notes on the movies that he has seen. Although he writes in an unsophisticated way, it is his frank pleasure in movies that draws her in. On a whim, Ayumi scribbles an entry of her own on a piece of scratch paper and tucks it into his notebooks. Inspired by a recent visit to Terashin’s meigaza, she likens these meigaza to village temples:

Snug, simple places with a good atmosphere. No gaudy shrines or showy events here, just the kind of temple that hosts a quiet summer festival with cotton candy and cold soda and goldfish catching games. That girl you’ve had your eye on will come in her yukata. Those short summers have a poignancy so sharp it makes your heart ache. And yet these places are dying out, one by one.

It is these hastily scribbled words that finally result in a new job for Ayumi at Eiyu, a movie magazine. Hoping to keep her father away from the temptations of mahjong and horse races, Ayumi had taught her father to use the Internet to read movie blogs and check on theater showings (he even keeps a glass of sake by his computer, just as you would leave an offering in front of a shrine). Finding her notes in his notebook, he posts it on Eiyu’s blog. This magazine was originally just one of the assets of a large company, one of the first companies to obtain distribution rights for Western movies in Japan. Now only the magazine is left, and it is also on its last legs. The editor is hoping that Ayumi will be a fresh new voice for the magazine.

However, it is really Go that rescues the magazine. He becomes the main blogger for the magazine’s website, given the title “apostle of the God of Cinema.” His posts bring in comments from all over Japan, and they even post English translations with help from Ayumi’s former colleague. And this is where the storyline takes another turn. Somebody only identifying himself as “Rosebud” begins responding to Go’s movie reviews on the English site, and his erudition and deep knowledge of movies reveals that he is not your usual blog commentator. The back-and-forth between Go and Rosebud draw in large audiences, and their arguments about the merits and shortcomings of “A Field of Dreams,” “Roman Holiday” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” are part of the pleasure of this novel. We finally learn Rosebud’s identity when Go asks for his help in saving Terashin’s movie theater, which has been threatened by the construction of large movie complex nearby.

This book could easily have become maudlin and marred by a series of convenient turns in the characters’ fortunes, but luckily (for the reader), Go’s failings and Ayumi’s prickliness always stand in the way of tidy resolutions. And as Terashin says, “The God of Cinema does not grant miracles that easily. Gods are actually quite heartless, you know.”

In the end, though, Maha Harada gives us an ending worthy of all those great movies Go and Rosebud discuss, bringing the characters together in a movie theater. Because after all, “no matter what the movie is, if you are watching it with the person you love in a theater you love, that is the best movie of your life.”

(To see a favorite scene from the movie they watch, click here.)

Japanese Booksellers Award 2016

A glance at the list of nominees for this year’s 本屋賞, or Booksellers Award, provides an interesting counterpoint to the books translated from Japanese to English, a disproportionate percentage of which seem to be mysteries (with many of the blurbs claiming that here is the next Stieg Larsonn).

The Booksellers Award is a fairly young prize, launched in 2004. Booksellers and bookstore staff nominate three books that they would recommend, with a list of nominees compiled from the results. Booksellers must read all ten of the nominated books to vote in the next round. Looking through lists of nominees from past years is one of the ways I choose what to read next, and I’ve yet to be disappointed.

You can read more about the prize and descriptions of the past winners (in English) here. The winner of this year’s award will be announced on April 12, 2016.

Books Nominated for the 2016 Booksellers Award

[None of these books have been translated into English yet.]

『朝が来る』Morning Will Come
辻村深月 Mizuki Tsujimura
文藝春秋 Bungeishunju

A couple raising their child suddenly get a phone call from that child’s biological mother, saying that she wants her child back. This is described as a mystery with social themes, dealing with motherhood and what it means to be a family.

『王とサーカス』King and Circus
米澤穂信 Honobu Yonezawa
東京創元社 Tokyo Sogensha

A former journalist, now working for a travel magazine, is visiting Nepal when the royal family is massacred in 2001 (a true event). She begins reporting on the event, and comes across a body with the word “informer” cut into the skin.

『君の膵臓をたべたい』”I Want to Eat Your Pancreas”
住野よる Yoru Sumino
双葉社 Futabasha

A boy finds a diary written by his classmate, who it turns out is suffering from a fatal disease of the pancreas and doesn’t have long to live.

『教団X』Cult X
中村文則 Fuminori Nakamura

集英社 Shueisha

In this story of cults, madness and global terrorism, the main character tries to find his girlfriend, only to discover that she belongs to a cult. In the process of his investigation, he is abducted and ordered to spy on another religious group. Meanwhile, the cult is planning an attack…

『世界の果てのこどもたち』The Children from the Other Side of the World
中脇初枝 Hatsue Nakawaki 
講談社 Kodansha

This novel tells the story of three little girls who meet in Manchuria during WWII and become close friends. Their lives take very different paths after the war, with one orphaned during China’s civil war, the Korean girl experiencing prejudice in Japan, and the third losing her family in air raids in Yokohama.

『戦場のコックたち』Battlefield Cooks
深緑野分 Nowaki Fukamidori
東京創元社 Tokyo Sogensha

Set during WWII, this is a series of linked stories about Tim, Ed and Diego, cooks in the military who also solve everyday mysteries, such as who stole 600 boxes of powdered eggs.

『永い言い訳』The Long Excuse
西川美和 Miwa Nishikawa
文藝春秋 Bungeishunju

This novel covers a year in the life of a successful author following the death of his wife in an accident, together with her friend. He copes with his guilt and his grief by helping the bereaved husband of his wife’s friend raise his children, with mixed results.

『羊と鋼の森』Forest of Sheep and Steel 
宮下奈都 Natsu Miyashita
文藝春秋 Bungeishunju

This is a coming-of-age story about a young man so fascinated by the piano that he trains to be a piano tuner. He learns as much from the customers as he does from his teachers.

『火花』 Sparks
又吉直樹 Naoki Matayoshi
文藝春秋 Bungeishunju

This novel tracks the careers of two struggling comedians, one of whom eventually gives up and gets a day job. However, he continues to follow his friend, whose absolute dedication to his craft leads him into a downward spiral. The author is himself a comedian, and won the 153rd Akutagawa Prize for this novel.

『流』  Flow
東山彰良 Akira Higashiyama
講談社 Kodansha

This novel, which won the 153rd Naoki Prize last year, is a coming-of-age story based on the author’s grandfather’s experiences during the Communist uprising in mainland China. The author was born in Taiwan and came to Japan when he was five, and he explores that search for a sense of identity in his writing.


Notes in Idleness

管の穂をゆらす: つれづれノート26


角川, 2014

Swaying spikes of grass: Notes in Idleness 26

Natsuo Giniro

Kadokawa, 2014

[No English translation available]


Natsuo Giniro is a poet, artist, photographer and author with a huge backlog of books, many with her characteristic illustrations. She has been publishing her journals for decades now, and this is her 26th volume. They are perfect bedtime reading as they are bite-sized. Giniro writes with great humor about her 14 year-old son Sako, who is ostensibly studying for his high school entrance exams, and her 22 year-old daughter Kaka, who attends vocational school and has her own apartment but finds her mother’s house much more comfortable. The entries are sometimes funny, sometimes more meditative and sometimes just a catalogue of what she ate that day, but always entertaining.

I have translated a few excerpts from January and February 2014 below because I found myself wanting to read bits aloud, and when you find yourself reading aloud to your dog (who doesn’t understand much English, much less Japanese), you know you need to find a better audience.


January 7, 2014

Afternoon. Kaka is sleeping, as usual. Sako is playing video games. I watched a TV show about how to make a fish tank, and then did various tasks.

I went out and got some takoyaki [fried octopus balls], which the three of us ate together.

Reading a book at the kotatsu,* I said to Kaka, “I always used to think that something good was suddenly going to happen, but I don’t think that way anymore. Now I know good things don’t happen in that way. Lying about like this is my definition of happiness.”

Kaka (completely uninterested): “Hmmm.”


January 16, 2014

I’d like to travel again. When my time is my own again, I’ll travel all over. I can’t travel now since I have Sako to take care of, but once he graduates from high school I’ll have time. In fact, I could probably travel when he’s in high school a bit. Something to look forward to. But when I remember that now is the only time I have to take care of Sako, I realize I’d better just enjoy it.

Now that I think of it, it’s very strange that my cute baby turned into this clumsy Kaka. I asked Kaka, “Where did that baby go?” Children are really just a limited-time phenomenon. Actually not just children, all people are temporary. Too temporary. It’s a waste to just let time slide by without noticing it. Good times, bad times, they’re all precious.


February 14, 2014

It’s snowing today. It looks cold. The weather forecast says it will keep snowing.

Sako says he doesn’t want to go to school and he’ll just study at home instead.

I’m not sure what to do, but I figure he’ll study more at home so I tell the school he has a cold and let him stay home.

Sako: X from my class has been absent from school for, like, ever to study for the [entrance] exams.

Me: Since when?
Sako: Just forever.

Now he’s studying at the kotatsu. Sometimes he looks at videos and plays around with his guitar for a change of pace. When I tell him that he seems quite suited to studying at home at his own pace, he readily agrees.

Studying at the kotatsu: iIlustration by Natsuo Giniro

Studying at the kotatsu: iIlustration by Natsuo Giniro

*A kotatsu is a low table with a heavy blanket draped over the frame and the table top laid on top of that. A heater is attached to the underside of the table so that when you sit at the kotatsu, with your legs underneath the blanket, you stay warm. Kotatsu just might be Japan’s most clever invention.

My kotatsu

My kotatsu

On the Train



幻冬舎, 2010

Hankyu Railway, by Hiro Arikawa

Gentosha, 2010

[No English translation available]


Hiro Arikawa is a best-selling author in Japan, and after reading 「阪急電車」 (Hankyu Railway) I can certainly see why she is so popular. And “best-seller” is no denigration in this case—Arikawa has succeeded in creating mass appeal while not losing sight of the heart of her story. Hankyu Railway reminded me a little of the best romantic comedies of the 1980-90s. They might seem light and frothy on the surface, but making a truly great romantic comedy like When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle that still resonates 20 years later is a difficult feat.

Hankyu Railway uses the clever device of a train line in Osaka as it travels between eight stations to tell the story of the people whose lives intersect on the train. Each chapter represents one train station along the 15-minute trip from Takaurazuka Station to Nishinomiya Kitaguchi Station, but the return trip is set one year later. This meant that I had to wait until the very last chapter to see what had happened to the characters introduced in the first chapter.


The book covers the eight stations from Takurazuka Station to Nishinomiya Kitaguchi Station and back again, shown here along the vertical blue stretch.

Arikawa has assembled a cast of characters from a wide range of ages and backgrounds. It’s almost as if she wanted to toss completely disparate characters together in one train car and stir the pot to see what would happen. On this one train line, Arikawa has packed in an elderly woman and her granddaughter, whose innocent (and loud) questions about other passengers set off some of the book’s incidents; a young man and woman who vie for the same books at the library without acknowledging each other’s existences; a woman dressed all in white who has just gone to her former fiancé’s wedding to seek revenge; a woman with her abusive boyfriend; two shy college students; a little girl who is being bullied by her classmates; a middle-aged woman who makes herself ill with anxiety; and a high school student trying to figure out what to do with her life.

One character’s actions trigger another, with a ripple effect among the other train passengers. Tokie, an elderly lady who speaks her mind, sees Misa’s boyfriend kick her to the ground and tells her to leave him. Still wavering, Misa hears Etsuko, a high school student, telling her friends about the kindness of her boyfriend. The realization that a teenage girl has a better romantic relationship than she does hurts her pride enough to convince her to break it off. Later, she helps a housewife who becomes ill on the train, and Misa’s straight-talking advice helps this woman see her own situation more clearly. This is just one chain of events, but almost all of the characters end up connected in one way or another.

One of the most appealing aspects of this book for me was the way in which the characters have their eyes and ears open to any quirky or unusual sight or conversation. Keiichi, a shy college student with a keen interest in the military, strikes up a conversation with Miho over the Self-Defense Force helicopters flying near the train. Instead of being repelled by his fascination with helicopters, as most people are, she is impressed because he’s given her one more unusual sight to add to her “collection.” She returns the favor by showing him a red torii (a traditional gateway marking the entrance to a Shinto shrine) on top of an apartment roof—one of those puzzles you sometimes see in cities. A year later, on the same train, she is imploring him to come pick the wild bracken she can see growing on the steep slope leading off of the train tracks.

Similarly, a young woman uses a curious sight from the train window as an excuse to talk to the man she regularly sees at the library. On the embankment by the river their train is crossing, stones are piled to form the character 生 (which means life, but also raw, fresh or genuine), and soon they are vying to figure out its meaning. She thinks it refers to draft beer, while he thinks it might be a sort of prayer—it turns out to be a sort of temporary art installation commemorating the community’s restoration after the Kobe earthquake in 1995.

Hiro Arikawa actually lives along this Hankyu train line (as of this book’s publication), and her affection for this area of Osaka shows. Although the characters and their interactions kept me turning the pages, I think what will stay with me are the images of a quiet train station in which swallow nests are protected by the train station staff, wild bracken growing on the railway sidings, the incongruous sight of a red torii on an apartment building’s roof, and messages shaped with rocks. It made me wonder if I might find something similar if I looked hard enough.

Note: Although there is no English translation of the book, there is a movie based on the book and you can watch it here with English subtitles. There are a few embellishments, and they’ve left out the couple from the library, but otherwise it follows the book closely and I quite enjoyed it.

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