Tsundoku Reader

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

Category: Miura, Shion

The Way of the Japanese Runner

「風が強く吹いている」、三浦しをん、 2006

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The 10 members of the Chikuseiso team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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