Tsundoku Reader

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

Category: Ogawa, Ito

Nominees for the 2018 Japanese Booksellers Award

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

『AX アックス』、伊坂幸太郎

AX, by Kotaro Isaka

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

『かがみの孤城』 、辻村深月

The Solitary Castle in the Mirror, by Mizuki Tsujimura

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

『キラキラ共和国』、小川糸

The Sparkling Republic, by Ito Ogawa

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

『崩れる脳を抱きしめて』、知念実希人

Hold Tight to the Collapsing Brain, by Mikito Chinen

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

『屍人荘の殺人』、今村昌弘

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

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

『騙し絵の牙』、塩田武士

The Fang in the Trick Picture, by Takeshi Shiota

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

『たゆたえども沈まず』、原田マハ

“Fluctuat nec mergitur,” by Maha Harada

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

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

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

『盤上の向日葵』、柚月裕子

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

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

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

『百貨の魔法』、村山早紀

The Department Store’s Magic, by Saki Murayama

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

『星の子』、今村夏子

Child of the Stars, Natsuko Imamura

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

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

Breath of Words

ツバキ文具店、小川糸、幻冬舎、2016

Tsubaki Stationery Store, by Ito Ogawa, Gentosha, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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