Tsundoku Reader

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

Month: March 2016

Nakano’s Secondhand Store

古道具 中野商店

川上弘美

新潮社, 2005

Nakano’s Secondhand Store

Hiromi Kawakami

Shinchosha, 2005

[English translation by Allison Markin Powell will be published in the US in June 2017]

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

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

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

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

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

A secondhand store in Tottori prefecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

“Wash away your stress in the bath again today”

銭湯の女神

星野博美

文藝春秋, 2001

Goddess of the Sento, by Hiromi Hoshino

Bungeishunju, 2001

[No English translation available]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mountain Life

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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