Tsundoku Reader

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

Category: Miura, Shion

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.

Mountain Life

神去なあなあ日常

三浦しをん

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.

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