Tsundoku Reader

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

Month: January 2016

Food Nostalgia


文藝春秋, 2014

My Darling Food, Noriko Morishita

Bungeishunju, 2014

[No English translation available]

In the introduction to「いとしい食べ物」, Morishita notes that “The taste of food always comes with the spice of memories.” Blowing on a hot bowl of ramen calls up memories of Tajima, a college student who lodged with her family when she was young. He had a very particular method for eating ramen that entranced Morishita: he’d carefully pick up noodles with his chopsticks, and then raise and lower them several times before slurping them up enthusiastically.

Tajima returns to Hokkaido to take over his family’s ryokan (traditional inn), but life does not go smoothly for him. After a few new year’s cards announcing his marriage and the birth of children, they hear no more from him until one of Tajima’s friends tells them that his family had declared bankruptcy and Tajima was now divorced.

Tajima comes to visit many years later, and Morishita’s mother makes ramen to mark the occasion. Watching him lift and lower the noodles before inhaling them, Morishita notices that he’s crying unreservedly. Morishita’s parents pretend they don’t notice, and Morishita, feeling that she’s seen something forbidden, slurps up her noodles exaggeratedly, as if to cover for him.

The 22 foods Morishita describes in corresponding essays all carry similarly vivid memories for her. She uses food to position her generation, describing オムライス (omelet over ketchup-flavored rice) as the defining food for children who grew up from about 1955-1975. Bulldog sauce and Kagome ketchup were on every table, and she couldn’t possibly consider eating tonkatsu (breaded and fried pork) or オムライスwithout them.

オムライス (omelette rice); picture drawn by Noriko Morishita

オムライス (omelette rice); picture drawn by Noriko Morishita

Tonkatsu; picture drawn by Noriko Morishita

Tonkatsu; picture drawn by Noriko Morishita

Curry was also gaining popularity around this time. As a little girl, Morishita eats dinner at a friend’s house and is amazed to find that they put chunks of beef in their curry, while her family’s curry was full of vegetables and a few thin slices of pork. This taught her that the ingredients families used in their curry revealed their economic station.

Curry and rice; picture drawn by Noriko Morishita

Curry and rice; picture drawn by Noriko Morishita

Morishita’s love of food is so all-consuming that she makes associations between food and movies and books that surely wouldn’t have occurred to anyone else. In one essay, she compares the dangerously enticing sex appeal of Antonio Banderas to くさや (kusaya), a kind of fermented fish from the Izu Islands that some people find irresistible, despite its overwhelming smell.

Kasuya; picture drawn by Noriko Morishita

Kasuya; picture drawn by Noriko Morishita

Eating 水羊羹 (mizu yokan, a soft sweet bean jelly) reminds her of the geisha Komako from Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country. Both mizu yokan and Komako are fresh, cool, and cling tightly (the mizu yokan to its case, and Komako to her lover), and once their resistance has been broken down, their seductiveness overwhelms the senses. And I’m sure there’s no precedent for her comparison of eggplant to the movies of Yasujiro Ozu, but for her, both of these were an acquired taste she didn’t gain until she was much older.

Although she loves the traditional Japanese sweets made with the same methods and equipment for generations, Morishita is no food snob. Two of her essays are about instant noodles. Sapporo Ramen helped her get over her first breakup and an argument with her boyfriend over whether Donbe Udon tasted artificial led her to realize he wasn’t right for her.


Morishita writes with a wry sense of humor that, as often as not, she uses to skewer herself. She apparently feels no embarrassment in describing her childhood gluttony in an episode during which she ate so much Castella (a cross between pound cake and sponge cake that was originally brought from Portugal) that she made herself sick. Her love of food even spreads beyond mealtimes. After her grandmother gives Morishita her first taste of salted fish, she dreams of the taste and the crackling skin to the point that she sees its shape in a map of South America at school and can’t take her eyes off of it.

Salted and grilled salmon; picture drawn by Noriko Morishita

Salted and grilled salmon; picture drawn by Noriko Morishita

Map of South America resembling salted salmon; picture drawn by Noriko Morishita

Map of South America resembling salted salmon; picture drawn by Noriko Morishita

In one of my favorite essays, Morishita writes about Ochugen and Oseibo, a custom of giving gifts to people that you are indebted to in some way in July and December, respectively. Although her mother always insisted they were poor, during these two seasons of the year Morishita always wondered if they were rich after all. At this time, they lived in a one-floor house with a single room about the size of six tatami mats that they used as bedroom, living room and dining room.


Gifts for Oseibo and Ochugen; picture drawn by Noriko Morishita

Her father worked in the material procurement department of a shipbuilding company, and during a few weeks in July and December, the flood of gifts delivered by department stores threatened to overflow their house. These were generally gifts of canned fruit, Pelican soap, vegetable oil, Twinings tea, and Suntory whiskey that they would share with neighbors once deliveries reached such a frenzied pace that the boxes blocked the windows. She describes this period perfectly:

The world was so full of vigor that even a child from a salaryman’s household, growing up jammed into a single six-tatami mat room, could mistakenly assume that her family was rich. None of us doubted the saying that “tomorrow would be more prosperous than today.” We all looked upward, just like airplanes taking off into the sky. At that time, companies were growing fast, and salaries and bonuses were climbing straight up.

One day, a basket of matsutake mushrooms are delivered, a gift from a steel company. Still covered with dirt from the mountains in Tanba, they had been picked that morning and then flown to Tokyo on a JAL plane. Morishita’s father declares that these will not be shared with their neighbors. That was the last time that she ever ate matsutake from Tanba. When she was an adult, she ate matsutake several times, but they were never anything like the matsutake that she remembered from that day in 1964. That had been a once-in-a-lifetime luxury redolent of that particular period of rapid growth and change in Japan.

Basket of matsutake; picture drawn by Noriko Morishita

Basket of matsutake; picture drawn by Noriko Morishita

For all Morishita’s humor, food also evokes the people she has lost and the changes she has seen. Eating カレーパン(rolls stuffed with curry) reminds her of the roughness of her father’s face when he hugged her. And although she had disliked ohagi (a ball of sweet rice covered with sweet azuki beans) as a child, her father always loved the ohagi his mother would make him. Now that both her father and grandmother are gone, Morishita is occasionally overcome with a hunger for ohagi that is clearly akin to her longing for her family.

Half-eaten ohagi; picture drawn by Noriko Morishita

Half-eaten ohagi; picture drawn by Noriko Morishita

In her final essay, Morishita writes of finally beginning to learn to cook herself once she realizes that her mother is too old to cook anymore. Fittingly, she uses the memories of all the food she’s eaten to recreate dishes.

In the Afterword, Morishita describes the effect that food has on her:

The very instant I begin to eat something, I’m overcome by a strange sensation. The taste and smell of that food triggers the joy and painful longing that I experienced at some point in the past…. When we put food into our mouths, we are also consuming our mood and impressions at that time, in that place. They enter our mouths together with our food and build up somewhere deep within us until one day, when we encounter the same or similar tastes, we are brought back to a vivid memory, just as when you pull out your bookmark and open the pages of a book.

In her essays, Morishita succeeds in passing her food memories on to the reader. Somehow, she made me nostalgic for foods I have never eaten, and places in which I have never lived. She evoked the spirit of optimism in Japan during the 1950s to 1980s, but also the sheer enthusiasm of a child presented with new tastes and experiences. Although Morishita has had disappointments in her life, her essays suggest that food and its associations will always be a lifeline for her.


The Pathos of War for the Little People

「木かげの家の小人たち」いぬいとみこ (1924-2002), 中央公論社, 1959

The Secret of the Blue Glass, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Published by Pushkin Press in January 2016


By using Yuri Moriyama and the Little People—Balbo and Fern and their children Iris and Robin—to tell a story of Japan and World War II, Tomiko Inui brings into sharp focus the vulnerability, as well as the strength, of people in the face of war. Any review of this book will almost inevitably mention The Borrowers, but it has none of the cozy comfort of Mary Norton’s story. For me, Inui’s account of Yuri and the Little People is too sad to be a children’s bedtime story.

「木かげの家の小人たち」(The Secret of the Blue Glass) was first published in 1959, when the children who grew up during the war were starting to have children of their own. Reading this, I wondered how children responded to the Japanese edition when it was republished in 2002, and how children will react to the English translation, given that the war is a much more distant memory than it would have been in 1959.

I have attempted to give a taste of the story below without any spoilers, and focus primarily on the first half of the book here.

The Moriyama family has cared for the Little People since Ms. MacLachlan,

a20160122_204349n English teacher, entrusted Tatsuo with them and returned to England. Tatsuo and Toko’s children had taken over the task of bringing the Little People their daily milk in a blue glass every day in their turn, and now that Tetsu is away at school in Kyoto and Shin is busy with kendo practice and school, little Yuri has sole responsibility for them.

The Little People live on the top of a bookshelf in a quiet room. No one outside of the Moriyama family has entered in decades, but the first signs of the turmoil in the outside world have begun to invade their lives. During a school break, Tetsu warns Yuri that the job of bringing milk to the Little People will be much harder in the future. Later, two men burst into the library and pull books off the shelves, with “eyes like hawks looking for prey.” They take Tatsuo off with them.


One day Shin and Yuri begin fighting in the library. Shin yells that their father is a liberal and only respects foreign things. He believes that Japan’s war is wrong, which to Shin means that he is unpatriotic and thus deserves to be imprisoned. Shin distresses Yuri further by insisting that it’s wrong to be giving the Little People milk when ill soldiers don’t have enough. Although the idea that “luxury is the enemy” is drilled into Yuri at school, she never thought it could have anything to do with the Little People.

Japanese sign reading “Luxury is the Enemy!”

Meanwhile, the Little People are reacting to the turmoil around them in their own ways. Fern begins using some of the milk Yuri to make cheese as a backup food supply. Robin and Iris are beginning to explore outside and make friends with a pigeon named Yahei. Their parents try to ignore this unpleasant knowledge for as long as they can, unable to adapt to so many changes to their quiet lives. Balbo is making shoes as fast as he can, which gives Fern the uneasy sense that he is preparing for the day when they can no longer live there.

Yuri and Shin’s relationship crumbles further when Yuri becomes dizzy and falls as the students practice running in formation. Ordered to take her home, Shin calls her unpatriotic and Yuri makes her way home herself. Yuri’s mother, Toko, explains to her that, although neither Yuri nor Shin can understand this yet, sometimes masses of people can all be wrong about something, all the while claiming that their actions are for the sake of the country. But Toko knows that a country that can lock up a free man for “dangerous thinking” is wrong itself. She will stay in Tokyo so that she can visit Tatsuo, but it is becoming too dangerous for children, so Yuri and the Little People must go to the country to live with distant relatives. Yuri promises to take care of the Little People, saying that she can’t help but feel that if she can protect such vulnerable creatures, she will be helping to save her father in some way.

For the Little People, the milk that Tatsuo and Toko brought them when they were children, and that their children now bring them, is not just food, but a sign that humans love them and value their lives above anything else. However, their vulnerability really comes home to Robin when the pigeon Yahei tells him that all of the animals living in Ueno Zoo in Tokyo have been shot in case they became violent during air raids. Some of the zoo keepers protested but it was a government order (more information about this actual event can be found here). Robin is horrified, thinking of the tiger in his favorite book, a miniature book about all the animals in the zoo that he had used to learn to write Japanese. That night he cries himself to sleep, thinking of the animals and sobbing that he doesn’t want to be killed; he wants to live.

Balbo realizes that he and his family must go with Yuri, despite their reluctance to leave their home—something, someone has changed Shin from a gentle boy into a “patriot” and some invisible force has stolen their peaceful lives. This same force is mentioned a few pages later as the culprit that is tearing apart Toko’s family in the space of just one to two years. And yet Toko knows that it is not just her family—all over Japan, children and parents are being separated from each other.

[Two photographs above are both from this site.]

Tetsu escorts Yuri and the Little People to their new home in the country, but their train breaks down and all of the passengers have to walk—only the soldiers are picked up in a truck. Watching women and children walking along the railway tracks without complaint, Tetsu can’t help but wonder about this stolid acceptance. Even he finds himself glorifying their struggles as the “burdens of war,” but in 10 years, will he realize he was wrong to think that way? He breaks off this thought because he knows that in 10 years, he won’t be alive—he’ll be sent off to war, he’ll kill the enemy, and then he’ll be killed himself.

I had thought that everything would be better for sickly Yuri once she was living in the country. I was imagining a version of Heidi, the story of the little girl who goes to live in the Swiss Alps with her grandfather and becomes rosy-cheeked and strong on the fresh air and wholesome food. But Tetsu quickly realizes that life in the country would not be easy for Yuri. Her Aunt Toyo tells Tetsu straight out that Yuri is another mouth to feed, and also means more firewood to gather and more water to bring from the well. She is not unkind, but in the country they have to work constantly just to achieve the bare minimum needed to survive. Rationing might be in force in Tokyo, but Toko could sometimes get butter and sugar at least.

Twice a week, Yuri’s school goes to farms to help cut grass and hay. She sees this as an opportunity to get to know the farmers who might be willing to give her some goat milk for the Little People. She has powdered milk, but it won’t last forever, and she plans to work in exchange for goat milk.

Picture from late June 1944; with the men gone to war, women had to take on the farm work. Here, villagers worked together to plant rice.

Yuri makes friends with Tsutomu, a boy whose father and eldest brother have died in the war. His sole aim is to become a soldier himself and take revenge for their deaths, and he is envious of Shin, who will go to a military preparatory school. This convinces Yuri that she is better off not telling Tsutomu about the Little People in case he calls her unpatriotic too.

School children harvesting rice in March 1944

When Tetsu comes to visit Yuri, he gets caught up in a heated debate with a young woman who has left Tokyo for the duration to live in the country. Not realizing that the farmers working in their fields can overhear him, he talks about how his father has been locked up just for criticizing the authorities, while ordinary people were sacrificing themselves for the sake of those reaping profits from the war. News of this spreads, and everyone turns against Yuki. Tsutomu is no longer allowed to play with her, and this endangers the Little People as well as milk sources are now closed to her. At the same time that snow piles up around Yuri’s house, the coldness of people’s hears begins to reveal itself to Yuri.

One of the saddest moments in the book—both touching and pathetic—was when tiny Iris vowed to knit a ribbon long enough to go around the world so that the war would stop and children like Yuri would no longer suffer. She knows that Yuki will not be happy unless the entire Moriyama family is happy, but for that to happen, Japan must be at peace, which means that the whole world must be at peace.

Japanese people kneel and listen to the radio as Emperor Hirohito announces Japan’s surrender in August 1945 (photograph from New York Daily News)

The English translation of this book has been given the title The Secret of the Blue Glass, but I prefer Yuri and the Little People, the English title listed on the copyright page of my Japanese edition. Although plain, it sums up the story for me, which is centered on Yuri’s efforts to keep the Little People alive, even as she and her family are battered by the war. “Secret” makes it sound as if this is a story of magic and mysteries, when really the only secret power that might play a role in this story is the force that Toko, Balbo, and Tetsu see tearing apart families and blinding people, or the sheer grit that fuels Yuri’s determination to bring milk to the Little People. And in reading this, I couldn’t help but feel that it is not just Balbo, Fern, Iris, and Robin that are the “Little People,” but rather everyone in this story who was hurt in this war by this “invisible force”—Yuri, the zookeepers forced to kill their charges, and the farmers struggling to get by and left with decimated families, like Tsutomu’s mother.

Maybe Iris’s determination to knit until the war ended did have some magic in it—I don’t know what Inui’s intentions were—but for me, this book was not about fairies and magic. If there was any mystery or secret here, it was not in the blue glass, but in how Yuri managed to live for two years, isolated and essentially alone, and take care of the Little People, how Tetsu could accept the probability that he would die in the war and yet stay sane, and how Tsutomu’s mother could loser her husband and several sons in the war and then be robbed of the certainty that it had been for a worthy cause. That’s a mystery I’ll never solve.


Living Books



新潮社, 2005

Sagashimono, by Mitsuyo Kakuta

Shinchosha, 2005

[not available in English translation]


The title of this book of short stories, 「さがしもの」, literally means “something missing,” or “something one is looking for.” I initially thought of translating it as “Lost and Found”—those dim corners in school basements where children’s lost sweatshirts and lunchboxes pile up—but this would be misleading. The characters in these stories do not usually find what they are looking for, but perhaps find something different instead. If they do find what they were seeking, they usually no longer need it in the same way, and have gained something else in the search.

The first story, 「本の旅」(A Book’s Journey), is worth summarizing in detail because it includes many of the themes that run through the stories in this collection. The main character in this story (we never know her name) goes to Tokyo for university, living by herself for the first time. Quickly discovering that the allowance her parents send her quickly disappears on beers and movie tickets, she decides to sell her books and records to a bookstore. The bookstore owner, sitting on an elevated platform and using an abacus for his sums, stops short at one book, looks sharply at her, and asks her if she really wants to sell it. It wasn’t a first edition, nor was it out of print, just a novel in translation that could be found in any large bookstore.

[I imagined the bookstore looked something like this (image found here).]

She asks if it is valuable, but the bookstore owner shakes his head emphatically and tells her, “You don’t ask other people whether something has value, you decide that yourself.” She sells the book anyway, and by the time she had graduated college, she’d already forgotten this episode.

After graduation, she travels to Nepal by herself. On a rare rainy day in Pokhara, she visits a used bookstore, where books sold by travelers from all over the world are piled up on shelves. Nothing is separated by language or genre, but all jumbled up, with a German translation of “Around the World in Eight Days” next to a thick paperback in Italian, next to a Thai cookbook and the Lonely Planet guide to Tibet. She notices Japanese books too—a tattered copy of a book by Kobo Abe next to a Stephen King novel, a brand new Shusaku Endo novel next to a Chinese book with unrecognizable kanji. Then she is caught up short as she glimpses a familiar title from the corner of her eye. Stuck between the Lonely Planet guide to Mexico and a French translation of “Mother Goose”, she finds the book she had sold in her first year of college.

She is sure it can’t possibly be the same book, but she checks the last page, and finds the letter “K” and a small picture of a flower, which she herself had drawn to mark her books. There are enough Japanese tourists in Pokhara that it’s not impossible that one of them had bought this book in Tokyo and brought it here on their travels. She decides to buy it because it must be fate, and besides, she realizes that she has forgotten more than half of the story.

Reading it later, she finds that not only has she forgotten most of the story, she’d completely misunderstood the storyline: this was not a coming-of-age story describing the calm passage of days, but a tense mystery. And through the words, she catches sight of her teenage self, someone who didn’t know that a country named Nepal even existed, and who had never experienced love. She sells the book on again to a backpacker in Kathmandu.

She finds the book again in a bookstore in Ireland. She goes in to kill time, observing that bookstores all over the world have the same smell—“a smell leftover from the rain a few days earlier, the smell of words soaking up the silence, that deeply familiar smell.” She had so completely forgotten finding the book in Nepal that she didn’t make the connection when she saw the book again, but there it was, with her mark on the last page.

Feeling as if she is in a dream, she buys the book and reads it in a pub. She realizes that the story has changed again. She had remembered it as a mystery, but instead, here was a quiet story weaving together fragments of daily life. She had recalled a slipshod writing style characteristic of a young writer, but instead the sentences were stripped away to their essence, leaving a concise beauty. And then she realized that the book had not changed, she had changed. She had experienced love with all of its messy aftermath, lost friends and found new ones, learned how to come to terms with difficult situations and accept what she couldn’t change. This had changed the book’s meaning.

As the book seemed to want to travel with her, she decided to sell the book again in London on her way home from Ireland.

Just as the main character in 「本の旅」(A Book’s Journey) glimpses her teenage self behind the words of her book, in 「だれか」 (Someone), the main character envisions an entire life between the pages of her book. Ill from a bout of malaria, she lies in a bed on a small island in Thailand and reads books left behind by other tourists. As she reads a book by Yoshio Kataoka, she imagines the man who had left the book in Thailand—every detail of his life, from his empty job to the pizza boxes piled up in his bare apartment to the girlfriend who sweeps in and cleans up the pizza boxes and then leaves him. He might be wearing a suit in an office somewhere, but his doppelganger was still here in Thailand. She imagines passing him as they cross the Shibuya Station intersection, neither one knowing of their connection.

Shibuya Crossing; photo by Les Taylor

Shibuya Crossing; photo by Les Taylor

In 手紙 (The Letter), a woman goes to the coast to stay in an inn by herself after a quarrel with her boyfriend. She finds a book of poems by Richard Brautigan, and remembers reading them when she was about 20 and saw herself in his loneliness. Now she reads them again and sees a self-imposed loneliness, someone who has shut himself behind a fence he put up himself and then whines about his solitude. Here is Kakuta’s recurring theme: books change as we do.

I think 「彼と私の本棚」 (My Boyfriend and My Bookshelves) was my favorite story in this collection, although it’s hard to pick just one. The story starts as a woman is sorting through books, dividing her books from her boyfriend’s now that he has met someone else. (I particularly liked that when he tells her he has met someone else, her first question is whether this other girl reads; she doesn’t.) When they had first moved in together, the only furniture they bought was a bookshelf. Once that was full, they bought another, and once their room became too cramped, they moved.

As she’s unpacking her books in her new apartment, she starts remembering the conversations they had had about books, and the way she has volumes 12-22 of a manga, while her boyfriend has volumes 1-11 and 23 to the end, and how they had both snuck off to cry when reading volume 15. They had used the same bookshelf and read the same books, leaving them with the same memories, so that even though these books had been forcibly separated, she is comforted to think that she and her former boyfriend carry the same memories of them.

In「不幸の種」(Seed of Unhappiness), the main character blames a spate of bad luck on a book that has appeared on her shelves. After consulting a fortune teller, she gets rid of the book for a few years, but when she gets it back and actually reads it, she has a realization: “The meaning of this old, difficult book that came out of nowhere changes as I get older. The meaning changes when something sad happens, when I have a new relationship, and then again when I’m worried about the future.”

「引き出しの奥」(The Back of the Drawer) will stay with me for a long time. Shino is a university student who sleeps with any man who takes her out, and has gained a reputation for it. It’s not that she wants to sleep with these men; she just doesn’t know how else to thank them. She hears from one of these men about a “mythical book” that makes its way around all the used bookstores near campus. There’s nothing special about the book, but on the back pages, people have written phrases like “the smell of curry in the alley early on a summer afternoon” and “at 6pm, the light in the opposite apartment was flickering.” Exactly what these phrases mean is not clear, but when Shino talks to a classmate about the mythical book, they speculate that the writers are describing their first memories, or their most important memories, or maybe the time when they were most content. They decide to look for the book, and Shino stops sleeping around, because she realizes she hasn’t had moments like that yet, and she wants to know just what to write if she ever finds the book.

Map of bookstores near Waseda University; the numbers all indicate bookstores, lining both sides of the street

「ミツザワ書店」(Mitsuzawa Book Store) concerns a young man who has just won a literary prize for his first novel, and decides to finally apologize for stealing a book when he was younger. This bookstore was run by an elderly lady who seemed more interested in reading her stock than in running a business. When the narrator was a kid, he had seen the bookstore as a kind of library of all the books in the world. The descriptions of the bookstore itself were wonderful. 

In the title story, 「さがしもの」(The Search), a young girl’s dying grandmother sends her on a search for a book, a collection of essays long out of print. She continues searching for this book for years, even after her grandmother has died, gradually expanding her search from large city bookstores to used bookstores in the country. She finally finds it years later when she’s not even looking for it and understands why her grandmother had wanted it. She becomes a book concierge, making very little money but helping people find books.

The last story, 「初バレンタイン」 (First Valentine), was so good at portraying a young girl’s trepidation at giving her first real boyfriend her favorite book—a book that she feels has changed her life—that I was nervous for her too. And I was crushed when she realizes that he would have preferred to have a box of chocolates like everyone else.

Mitsuyo Kakuta sees books as living beings, suddenly appearing in our lives but just as liable to disappear. Their meanings change over time as we do, so that they come to encompass all of our previous incarnations.

51LobrW8MRL._SX354_BO1,204,203,200_Her love of bookstores also comes through in her vivid descriptions of the bookstores her characters visit. In fact, she has written a book,「古本道場」, with Takeshi Okazaki (岡崎武志) about used and antiquarian book stores.

Kakuta has written over 40 books, very few of which have been translated into English. (I can only find two—both out of print—and some short stories available in digital format.) She won the 132nd Naoki Prize in 2004 for her book 「対岸の女」, which has been translated as The Woman on the Other Shore (published in 2007).



Small Pleasures

小さな男*静かな声 吉田篤弘 中央公論新社, 2011 Small Man, Quiet Voice, by Atsuhiro Yoshida Chuokoron Shinsha, 2011

中央公論新社, 2011
Small Man, Quiet Voice, by Atsuhiro Yoshida
Chuokoron Shinsha, 2011

I have a new favorite book, 小さな男*静かな声 (Small Man, Quiet Voice) by吉田篤弘 (Atsuhiro Yoshida). Luckily, it took me a long time to read, and not just because it was almost 500 pages long. As Kiyoshi Shigematsu (重松清) writes in the afterword, “I remember very clearly that as I was reading, I’d often find myself nodding without even being aware of it, or snickering, or pulling back from the story and falling deep into thought.” And that’s exactly how it was for me, too.

The book can be read as a long self-introduction by the two main characters, full of detail. The atmosphere of their quiet lives, the very feel of their modest habits and beliefs, are all depicted here in shorter stories—the kind that you think about as you fall asleep. The book is divided into 20 sections, ten for the “Small Man” and ten for the “Quiet Voice”. These sections start in first person, and then switch to third person, which was a little confusing at first, but becomes rewarding as you realize you are being given a view of the main characters from two perspectives.

We never find out the Small Man’s real name, but this seems right since so much of his personality seems defined by his size, for better or worse. He describes a product he bought called a “secret seat booster,” primarily intended for use in movie theaters, that promised to raise your seated height by 20 centimeters. The difficulty is in putting it on, as it is almost impossible to put on in the cramped and dark seats of a movie theater. But if he put it on before leaving the house, his backside protruded to such an extent that he attracted stares in the street. Needless to say, he only used it twice.

In another interlude, the Small Man is late for his book club, and bounds up the stairs of the train station, feeling like a light and graceful flamenco dancer. He takes such pleasure in this sensation that, far from feeling that he is a bit ridiculous, I wished that I could dance up the stairs too.

The Small Man works in the bedding department of a department store, and in his free time, he works on an encyclopedia, studying the origins of hammocks and trolleys, for example. Much is made of the way the character for 100 (百) is part of the words for both department store (百貨店) and encyclopedia (百科辞典)—this kind of word play is one of the pleasures of this book. At one time, 百 signified “everything,” so by definition a department store sold everything under the sun, while encyclopedias were intended to “encompass everything in the world to create the perfect book”. This makes it singularly appropriate that he works in a department store and writes an encyclopedia.

His life is made up of small pleasures that are none the less satisfying for all that. One of these is reading the Sunday newspaper. Every Sunday morning, when he picks up the heavy Sunday edition, he lets out a sigh that, “when broken down, is 25% ‘another week, already over,’ 15% ‘it’s going to be a busy Sunday’ and 60% ‘but I have the Sunday edition.’” Slowly and leisurely reading the special sections and the large volume of ads has become one of his small pleasures. Indeed, “this kind of ‘small pleasure’ was very important for the Small Man and his small life.” After all, “big pleasures can be capricious, but small pleasures will never betray you.” Here, the narrator jumps in and warns us that we are not to become sentimental about the Small Man—he likes his solitary life, and it is precisely because of this solitude that he has his small pleasures.

One of his pastimes is the Lonely Heart Book Club. He decided to join when he saw a pamphlet for the group that said, “Readers all have lonely hearts” and “If you’re not lonely, you don’t need to read,” followed by, “and then life goes on.” The reading list was full of classic humorous novels such as P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels and Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men In a Boat.” Miyato, one of the members of this club and a friend of Shizuka’s, is one of the few connections between the Small Man and Shizuka in this book.

Shizuka is the owner of the quiet voice. She works for a radio station and has just been given her own show, which will be called Shizuka na koe (The Quiet Voice), a play on her name since the word for “quiet” is also “shizuka.” This two-hour radio show will be one-third music, but the rest will be filled by Shizuka’s calm voice. Her boss wants her to improvise because just listening to her voice alone is reassuring. He tells her, “We all just want some relief. You know how people put little lamps by their pillows? It’s just like that—it’s enough just to turn on the radio and hear a quiet voice.”

Shizuka is very worried about what she will talk about, and goes regularly to a restaurant near her house where the other customers’ conversations inadvertently give her ideas. This restaurant doesn’t seem to have an official name, just a sign outside that always reads “preparations currently underway.” This is a typical sign that restaurants put in front of their restaurants to indicate that they are currently prepping and will open soon, but in this case the sign is never removed, effectively turning away all but the regulars. The owner’s rationale is that customers can never complain if he is slow because, after all, he is still preparing.

The book has little plot as such, but rather a string of episodes like this. However, momentum does pick up somewhat—although we’re talking about a change equivalent to the shift from a placid lake to a trickling brook—when the Small Man begins to listen to Shizuka’s radio show, broadcast at midnight on Sunday, and hears her talk about how her younger brother (remember him?) had recently set off on a long bike trip, on a whim. The Small Man realizes that he has always wanted to be a younger brother, not the older brother that he actually is, to have that freedom to set off on long trips without a care in the world. He figures that if “little brothers are creatures that take long bike trips on a whim,” then simple math would suggest that if he were to take a long bike trip, he would gain the freedom that goes with being a little brother. And so he decides to get a bike too, which turns out to be a turning point in his life.

Wanting to collect material for her radio show, Shizuka begins writing down everything she notices around her in a bright red notebook, a color that she dislikes intensely but chose for that very reason—she reasons that the color is so bright that she will just feel it glowing in her bag and remember to record her thoughts. At night, she pulls out her notebook and reads aloud in her quiet voice, laughing at the ridiculous things she writes, sometimes not even sure what she had meant.

One typical record was of a conversation at her local restaurant. One of the regulars, Nijino, suggests that they all have a fireworks party. She dismisses the objection that it would be too expensive by explaining that what she intends to use is sparklers: “We’ll collect different kinds of sprinklers, and gaze at the tiny lights, and think about the old days and complain and laugh.” The others complain that that would be boring, but Shizuka agrees with Nijino because fireworks in the old days didn’t go “bang,” they “crackled.”


One day Shizuka tells her brother Shin that she had read about the lamplighters that used to go around the city lighting each gas lamp, and now finally understands why he likes his work making desk lamps. But Shin says that it’s actually Shizuka who is like the lamplighters.

Just as people are going to sleep, people listening to your voice flip the switch on their radios, right? All over the city. And when they flip that switch on the radio, a red light comes on, right? That red light is just like a street light for people lying awake in the dark night. So you’re the lamplighter, not me.


The last section about the Small Man describes how he buys a copy of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (because he’s been told it has a great scene of Paul Newman on a bike) and buys a cheeseburger for take-out. These simple things give him such a thrill that he is shaken out of his usual ways: “I’ve forgotten all about the world for so long now. …If I really want to write an encyclopedia, I have to begin paying more attention to cheeseburgers and ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’ Of course, I can’t forgot about hammocks and trolleys either.”

As the book draws to a close (which I dreaded), both Shizuka and the Small Man are beginning to pay more attention to the world around them, and finding themselves happier for it. The ending is perfect, and no, this is not an American rom-com. In the afterword, Kiyoshi Shigematsu writes that this book shows us our own “lonely hearts,” but this book did not make me feel lonely. Atsuhiro Yoshida is writing about the “small pleasures” of two (perhaps four, counting Shin and Miyato) people who enjoy their solitude and find recompense, in their own way, for the occasional loneliness. They were both brave in small and endearing ways.

This novel left me with images of the Small Man dancing up the stairs, people all over Tokyo listening to Shizuka with only the small red light on their radios glowing in the darkness, a man on his bike delivering desk lamps throughout the city, and an eccentric seller of poems teaching his customers to find poems in everything.


There’s always time to read

I recently read an interesting post entitled “Do you like books? Do you like bookstores?” The author, Takayuki Nakayama (who apparently works for IBM in digital sales), observes that it seems like most people he sees on trains are playing with their smartphones, rather than reading books. He makes a habit of reading if his train ride will last more than 10 minutes, and is able to read about a book a week this way (and he only reads on the train). Nakayama doesn’t think of himself as a reader, but he always has about 10 books he wants to read. One reason he has this “backlog,” as he calls it, is because there is a big bookstore in the train station nearest his house, open past midnight, which makes it so tempting that he stops by every day, pulled in by the piles of books. He notes that even though the publishing industry is said to be in a slump, and e-commerce is having an impact, brick-and-mortar bookstores still have a real presence.

This reminded me of a short passage in 読書の腕前 (The Craft of Reading) by 岡崎武志 (Takeshi Okazaki)*. This book lives on my nightstand. I’ve written about him before, and will again, because his is one of those books that puts into words what you can’t quite capture yourself. Also, Okazaki quit his job as a high school teacher to become an editor, and then a freelance writer, making reading and writing (and visiting used book stores) his livelihood, so I feel he has the credibility to say what might sound obnoxious coming from me.

Translated from page 34:

Most often, I read on the red sofa in my study, or in bed. But I also read sitting in the chair in front of my computer, or on the sofa in my living room. I read at the table while I eat, I read on the toilet and in the bath.

If I’m out, I read on the platform while I wait for the train. I sit and read in the train if there are any seats available, otherwise I hold on to a strap and read. I read while waiting for someone at a cafe. Once they arrive, I will pull out my book if he or she leaves the table, even if it’s just for two or three minutes. After all, you can read a short essay in that amount of time.

Many people say that they don’t have time to read, but that’s a lie. If you want to read, you can find intervals throughout the day and read quite a lot. For example, even just a space of two to three minutes can add up to 20 or 30 minutes for the day, and assuming one page takes one minute to read, you could read almost 30 pages every day. Carve out some space for reading on the weekend, and you could finish a book a week. So the real question is really whether you want to read or not.

*Takeshi Okazaki writes nearly every day on his blog, all about what he’s reading, writing, eating and watching (most recently, a Ridley Scott movie–he wasn’t impressed).



Everything is a poem, everything is a book

I have just finished 小さなおとこ、静かな声 (Small Man, Quiet Voice) by吉田篤弘 (Atsuhiro Yoshida), a charming, funny and disarming book. I will write about it in greater detail later, after I have let my thoughts marinate. For now, I will share one of my favorite episodes from this book.

This side story concerns Shin, the younger brother of Shizuka, one of the two main characters. Shin is a self-styled あかり屋(“light man”—this is not a real Japanese word so you can’t expect a smooth English translation!), and his catch phrase is “delivery of a single light”—not that his business is on any kind of scale that would justify a catch phrase, as Shin says himself. He barely makes enough money to pay his rent, heat and electricity, buy a little bit of food, and get a hair cut now and then, with enough left over to buy two or three books every month. (I love that books are included in his budget.) Sometimes he doesn’t make enough to buy the materials needed to make his lamps, and has to deliver newspapers on the side.

As his catch phrase says, Shin delivers “light” (really, lamps) all over Tokyo, making them from scratch once orders have been placed with his friend, Hakuei. Hakuei runs a used bookstore in the outskirts of Shimo-Kitazawa that only sells poems (needless to say, his business is as hand-to-mouth as Shin’s is). And yet, if you looked closely at the shelves, you would find books that certainly do not contain poems (in a strict sense)—a train timetable from the late 1950s, an illustrated reference book for tropical fruits, even an advertisement for luminous paint. Confronted with this, Hakuei insists that they are also poems. This is his own particular magic—he can convince you that a reference book or a train schedule is a poem (and indeed, surely I’m not the only one who thinks that the BBC’s Shipping Forecast is a prose poem of sorts?).

When Shin visited the store for the first time, he picked up a pamphlet entitled “Practical Guide to the Production of Desk Lamps”. He had thought this was simply a used bookstore, so he was taken aback when Hakuei told him it was a book of poems. Flipping through it, the pamphlet seemed to be no more than a manual on how to build desk lamps, and he thought Hakuei must be a little crazy. But when Shin read the manual at home under the light of his own desk lamp, no less, he felt that he might understand what Hakuei meant.

books and lamp-page-003


Following the guide, Shin made a desk lamp and brought it to show Hakuei, who was quite impressed, asserting, true to form, that this was also a poem. He insisted on buying it from Shin, and kept it on the desk at his bookstore. There was enough interest in the lamp from customers that Hakuei essentially became Shin’s middleman and printed up a small sign to put by the prototype lamp that read: “This is a desk lamp. As you can see, this is a modest lamp, ideal for those who devote their precious evening hours to reading. It is only 16 centimeters high and 8 centimeters wide. This small lamp uses a 30 watt bulb. It only has an on/off switch. There is no dimmer function, it does not come with an alarm clock, nor FM/AM radio. It does not have a calendar function, nor a timer, nor any automatic controls. There are no redundancies; it is simply a lamp. Orders accepted.”

Shin didn’t really understand Hakuei’s definition of a poem, but somehow, when he gazed at the light from his own desk lamp, it seemed soft, and witty, and fleeting, even lovable. Reporting this to Hakuei, Hakuei nodded and said, “Exactly, that’s what a poem is: soft, witty, fleeting and loveable. All the poems I like best are like that.” And looking over his shelves, he added, “But there are also poems that are hard, and full of life, and audacious, and provoking. Yes, and there are also poems that are inhuman, colorless, sharp and droll. But if I had to pick one type, I’d have to say that poems resembling desk lamps are the best.”

After Shin came back from delivering a lamp, he would make a red mark on a blank map he kept on his wall, gradually creating a constellation of sorts showing all the places to which he’d delivered his lamps. Gazing at this, and imagining all the 30 watt lamps spreading their quiet light all over Tokyo, Shin felt a modest satisfaction and contentment. He figured that, even if he wasn’t quite sure that his lamps were poems, he would keep making them for as long as he could.

Around the same time that I was reading this book, I came across a poem by Hiroshi Osada (1939-2015), who seems to have seen the world as Hakuei does.

I have translated it below, but you can follow along with the Japanese text as it is recited.



The World is a Single Book

By Hiroshi Osada


Read books!

Read more books!

Read more and more books!


Books are just words printed on a page –

Sunlight, the twinkling of a star, the chirp of a bird,

The murmur of the river, are all books.


The quiet of a beech grove,

The white flowers of a dogwood,

The imposing, solitary keyaki tree, are also books.


Everything is a book.

The world is an open book,

Written in words we cannot see.


Far-off cities in far-off countries

That are just dots on the map—

Urumchi, Messina, Timbuktu—are books.


The books of the people living there are cities.

The unfettered crowds are books.

Each light shining from a window at night is a book.


The quotes on the Chicago futures market are books.

The sand storms in the Nefud Desert are books.

The two closed eyes of the Mayan rain god are books.


You hold the book of your life in your heart.

Each person is a single book.

The expression on the face of an old person who has lost her memory is a book.


A meadow, clouds, the wind.

The gazelle and the gnu, dying in silence, are books.

Dignity without authority is the only kind that matters.


A tiny star within the span of 200 billion light years.

Being alive means being able to think—

Nothing more, nothing less.


Read books!

Read more books!

Read more and more books!



A Reinterpretation of 積ん読 (tsundoku)

Wikipedia defines tsundoku (積ん読) as “the constant act of buying books, but never reading them.” However, in his book 読書の腕前 (The Craft of Reading), 岡崎武志 (Takeshi Okazaki) notes, “If you look closely, you will see that 積ん読 includes the character for ‘to read’ (読む). By simply having the actual book in your room, it is always being read, a little at a time. A professional baseball pitcher always keeps a baseball by his side, and even if he’s not throwing it, he reminds himself of its feel by simply touching it every now and then. So people who avoid 積ん読 will never improve their reading skills.”



In that spirit, I interpret 積ん読 as meaning something more like “the accumulation of books in the happy anticipation of reading them and for the sheer joy of owning them”. Some people are proud of their “just-in-time” inventory strategy when it comes to books, and get rid of their books as soon as they’ve read them. This minimalist style is appealing to me in theory, but I think there are people (myself included) whose lives are so centered on books and reading that they like to be surrounded by books.

They offer up chains of memories that makes us happier people. I walk by a bookshelf on the way to the kitchen and my eye catches on my favorite book by Miyuki Miyabe (火車), setting off a memory of reading amidst the noxious fumes of a kerosene heater in my derelict apartment in Yokohama. Brushing my teeth for the regulation two minutes, I wander out to the bookshelf in my bedroom and plan what to read next, while the sight of しずかな日々(Quiet Days) by 椰月美智子 (Michiko Yazuki) reminds me of the scene where the grandfather makes his slight, lonely grandson an onigiri that is as big as his massive hands, filled with a plump umeboshi. Without my piles of books, read or not, my days would be emptier, I think.

Book-lovers naturally like to read books about books and reading, and Takeshi Okazaki’s book is one of the best I’ve read in this genre. Reading confirms how much I don’t know, which is stimulating rather than discouraging in the hands of the right author. I’m not talking about facts or vocabulary, but the experiences that have been lived in the wider world. Nothing concrete has changed now that I have this fragment, but my own life has gained something intangible.

Okazaki understands this, and he likens this feeling to a long staircase stretching up to the ceiling — climbing to the top improves the view of the world below. Just having progressed from school-aged child to middle-aged man, the view has improved so much for him that he wants to climb even further for a wider view.

I find that reading in Japanese has expanded this view for me. When I began studying Japanese in the early 1990s, the only translations available in even large city bookstores were works by Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata, and Yukio Mishima. Later, Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto joined their ranks on the shelves, and now mysteries by Natsuo Kirino, Miyuki Miyabe and Keigo Higashino are gaining fans. But this is jus a small proportion of what you will find in Japanese bookstores, and I have found authors and books that might never be translated into English, but that make every hour spent studying kanji more than worthwhile.

I reach for the Naoki Prize (awarded to works of popular fiction) winners more than books given the Akutagawa Prize (for “pure” literature). A book with 本屋 (bookstore) — or better yet, 古本屋 (used or antiquarian book store) — or 食堂 (homestyle restaurant or cafeteria) in the title will always find a place on my shelves (and the number of books meeting this description in Japanese bookstores always surprises and charms me). The majority of the books I will write about here have not been translated into English, but I hope that the stories I share stand on their own and expand perceptions of the lives lived in Japan.


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