Tsundoku Reader

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

Month: April 2017

Winner of 156th Naoki Prize and the 2017 Japanese Booksellers Award

蜜蜂と遠雷、恩田陸、幻冬舎 2016

Honey Bees and Distant Thunder, Riku Onda, Gentosha, 2016


Honey Bees and Distant Thunder, which follows contestants in the Yoshigae International Piano Competition, has won both the 156th Naoki Prize and the 2017 Japanese Booksellers Award (the second time that Riku Onda has won this latter award). This is quite an achievement for a novel about the nature of genius and the role of music in the world. The Booksellers Award is determined based on votes by bookstore clerks around Japan who are asked to nominate three books that they would most like to recommend.

Booksellers Award ceremony; Source: Ibaraki News

Michiko, a judge in the Yoshigae Competition, is painfully aware that musicians invest so much time and money in their profession that no monetary compensation they earn during their career could make up for it. What they seek is a single moment of such perfect happiness and transcendence that it cancels out all of their struggles. The entire cast of characters in Honey Bees and Distant Thunder is caught up in the search for that moment.

The sheer number of characters, and the ways in which they are linked together and inspire each other, is one of the pleasures of this book. First there is Aya, who heard music in the sound of rustling leaves and the sound of galloping horses in the rain hitting the corrugated iron roof before she could even talk, and realizes that the world is always filled with music. She was a child prodigy, performing from a young age, but she ran off the stage in her first concert after her mother’s death and has kept her distance from the professional world ever since. Now in her last year of music school, she is returning to the stage for the first time, shepherded by her piano teacher’s daughter, Kanade.

Masaru Carlos, a Juilliard student with a Japanese-Peruvian mother and a French father, lived in Japan briefly as a child. It was Aya who essentially picked him up off the streets and dragged him with her to her piano lessons. When he moved to France, she made him promise that he would take piano lessons. They were so young that they didn’t even know each other’s full names, and their reunion in Yoshigae feels like a miracle. Masaru’s teacher and Kanade are both troubled and bemused by their lack of competitiveness and their respect for each other’s musicality.

Atsushi is the oldest competitor. He is married with a young child and works in a music store, but has been unable to forget his dream of playing professionally. He has stretched his finances to their limit to buy an upright piano for his home, build a soundproof room and pay a teacher for occasional advice, but the hardest part has been remaining motivated. All too often it seemed like a pointless exercise.

The pivotal character is probably Jin Kazama, who accompanies his bee keeper father around the world on his travels and doesn’t even own a piano. And yet he has a recommendation from one of the most eminent pianists in the world, the recently deceased Yuji Hoffman, which has earned him a place in this competition.

I bequeath Jin Kazama to all of you. He is a true gift, a gift from heaven for all of you. But don’t misunderstand. He is not the one being tested—it is myself, and you, that are being challenged. You will understand what I mean when you experience him yourself, but he is not an easily-digested bequest. He is a powerful tonic. Some of you will find him threatening, some of you will detest him and reject him. But this is part of his truth, and reveals the truth inside his listeners. It is up to you whether you accept him as an authentic gift or as a calamity.

A full lineup of supporting characters rounds out the cast. Michiko’s ex-husband, Nathaniel, is also at the competition, both as a judge and Masaru’s teacher. Michiko and Nathaniel serve the function of a Greek chorus, meeting in a bar at the end of the day to rehash everything from Hoffman’s intentions to the future of classical music. Then there is a documentary film maker, the piano tuner who works with Jin to recreate the sounds he hears in his head, the stage manager who ushers the competitors onto the stage and witnesses their nerves, and the ikebana teacher hosting Jin in Yoshigae.

Jin serves as a catalyst for all of these characters. His music touches on emotions that listeners had buried below the surface and forgotten. To some listeners, this feels like an invasion, while to others it is more like an awakening that reminds them of the beauty of music—not music as a profession or a commodity, but as an ideal that they’d lost sight of.

When Michiko heard him play, she sensed that there was something fundamentally different between him and the other contestants. They recreated the music and strived to play what was buried in the score, but Jin seemed to be trying to blot out the score and reach down to the core of the music. Initially, some listeners—and judges—see this as an insult to composers and musicians, but no matter how visceral their reaction, they all want to hear more. Jin’s gift—the gift that Hoffman left all of them—seems to have been his effect in drawing out everyone’s talents.

This is a placid group of geniuses, egos all well under control if they exist at all. Aya, Masaru and Jin walk on the beach together, Jin looking for the Fibonacci sequence in shells while they muse about whether there might be Mozarts and Beethovens on other stars. They fret about the growing commercialization of music and debate the fine line between entertainment and populism. The eccentricities of these musicians were charming and occasionally thought-provoking, but much of the book—which clocks in at over 500 pages—consists of long descriptions of every piece that Aya, Jin, Atsushi and Masaru play in each stage of the competition, followed by their reactions to each other’s performances. We are even treated to a long Gothic story involving revenge and twins separated at birth that Masaru imagines as he plays a Lizst sonata. And they all have what can only be described as out-of-body experiences as they play, flying among the stars and seeing visions.

This was all heady stuff, and after a while it reminded me of a hot scented bath—relaxing at first but leaving you dizzy and off balance if you stay in too long. It left me wanting an astringent tonic. But given that a book about a piano tuner won the 153rd Naoki Prize in 2015, it seems that Japanese readers are craving something as distinct from the daily news as they can get. This is very understandable, as the top news stories in Japan this week have been about the emperor’s abdication, the deteriorating relationship between the US and Russia, and the possibility that North Korea is preparing its sixth nuclear test. In that sense, this book reminds us of what remains after the panel of experts has submitted its report, the foreign diplomatic missions are completed, and the games of brinkmanship subside.

Yokomichi Yonosuke


Yokomichi Yonosuke, by Shuichi Yoshida; Mainichi Shimbun, 2009

[not available in English translation; Yoshida’s mysteries Villain and Parade have been translated, but are quite different in tone and subject matter than this novel]

This exuberant novel tells the story of one year in the life of Yonosuke Yokomichi, who leaves the small town he grew up in to attend college in Tokyo in 1987. He is neither especially good-looking nor particularly smart, but a combination of fortuitous events and his eagerness to grab them shape his life. A student he meets during college orientation forces him to join the samba club with him, which in turn leads to a referral from a fellow member for a job at a luxury hotel, delivering room service on the night shift. An employee there gives him a box of porn videos, which he then uses to convince a friend to take a kitten he finds abandoned in the alley. On Valentine’s Day, a box of chocolates is delivered to his mailbox by accident, and he resolves to visit every apartment in his building until he finds their rightful owner. This leads him to a photographer, who ends up lending him an old Lycra and thus essentially launches Yonosuke’s career as a photographer. He agrees to go on a double date with a friend and meets Shoko, a young girl from a wealthy family who falls for him. As she says much later, Yonosuke is not particularly impressive, but he was the “kind of person who said ‘yes’ to everything.”

The poster for the 2013 film of Yonosuke Yokomichi, starring Kengo Kora as Yonosuke and Yuriko Yoshitaka as Shoko

Yonosuke can be quite unaware, and doesn’t always know when he’s not wanted. He spends half of his summer vacation at his friend Kato’s air-conditioned apartment, immune to Kato’s not-so-veiled hints that he is not entirely welcome. There’s a particularly funny scene when Kato announces that he’s going for a walk, even though it’s almost midnight. Without waiting to be invited, Yonosuke picks up half of a watermelon and announces that he’ll accompany Kato, even though he’s obviously not wanted. He follows the half-disgruntled, half-resigned Kato, cradling the watermelon and eating it with a spoon. Their conversation is a perfect illustration of Yonosuke’s mix of obtuseness and good nature.

After walking about three minutes, Kato suddenly stops and asks, “You remember when I said that I’m not interested in girls?”

“Oh yeah, I remember that.”

“And then you said this was the first time you’d ever met anyone your age like that and asked what I was interested in.’”

“Sure, that sounds right.”

“Well, I like men better than women.” Kato spoke brusquely, and yet he was surprisingly nervous.

“Oh, yeah?”

“What do you mean, ‘oh, yeah?’ That’s all you have to say?” Kato was more taken aback than Yonosuke seemed to be.

“Wait, hold on… Did you ever mess around with me while I was sleeping?”

“Of course not! You’re not my type.”

“Geez, that’s so rude!”

“That’s just the way it is. What I’m trying to say is, if you don’t want to hang out with me anymore, I’ll understand.”

Kato begins walking again.

“Is that a roundabout way of telling me not to stay over anymore?” Now Yonosuke is alarmed.

“That’s not what I’m saying! But hold on a minute here– you’re not even a little disturbed?”

“Of course I am! For a minute there I thought I was going to lose my access to air conditioning!”

“And that’s all you’re upset about?!”


“Well, that’s what I wanted to say.”

“Got it. So I can still stay at your place, right?”

It turns out that Kato is going to a park, well supplied with bushes and trees, where men go for illicit trysts. When Kato finally makes Yonosuke understand this, instead of going home, as Kato had expected, Yonosuke sits on a park bench, finishes off his watermelon and waits for Kato.

Yonosuke in one of his clueless moments

In an interview, author Shuichi Yoshida said that he is more attached to Yonosuke than any other character in his books. He is even jealous of Yonosuke, since he gave him attributes that he doesn’t have himself, such as a total lack of pretense. Completely unselfconscious, he manages to draw the best from others. Yoshida shows this by interspersing the main narrative, set in 1987-88, with the reflections of people who knew him. They recall him with nostalgia and even a sense of yearning from a vantage point of 20 years. His friend Kato muses, “His life probably wouldn’t have been any different if he hadn’t met Yonosuke. But most people in this world had never had the chance to meet Yonosuke in their youth, and this made him feel that he’d been lucky.” By itself, this would be a very entertaining story, but these voices make it achingly tender at times.

Shuichi Yoshida was inspired to write this book by an actual event, and so I cannot do justice to his writing without “spoilers” (although the reveal comes about halfway through the book). However, in this case I don’t think that knowing Yonosuke’s fate spoils the reading experience—if anything, it lends the story more poignancy.

This book was modeled on an accident at Shin-Okubo Station on the Yamanote Line, one of Tokyo’s busiest train lines, on January 26, 2001. Seiko Sakamoto, a 37 year-old plasterer, was drinking on the platform with a friend and fell onto the tracks. Lee Su Hyon, a 26 year-old South Korean exchange student who attended language school in Tokyo, and Shiro Sekine, a 47 year-old photographer, jumped onto the line to try and rescue Sakamoto, but all three were killed by an oncoming train. I was living in Japan at the time, and have never forgotten these two men. The news coverage was extensive, in part because of the soul-searching it inspired across Japan. Newspaper editorials and panels of experts convened for Sunday news shows asked why it had been a South Korean man (whose grandfather had been a forced laborer in Japan’s coal mines, no less) and a photographer (who had spent much of his career overseas) who tried to save Sakamoto, and not any of the other people on the train platform (not even the friend who was with him). The following week two men dragged a schoolboy attempting suicide off the railway in Nagoya, and a pregnant woman who fell onto the tracks was also rescued in Tokyo*. Yoshida said that although this was a terrible event, it had left him with a “refreshing sense of hope,” and perhaps this is what he was hoping for.

Plaque erected at Shin-Okubo Station to honor Lee Su Hyon and Shiro Sekine

We find out about Yonosuke’s death midway through the book. Yoshida slips in a reference to the recent collapse of Lehman Brothers to alert us that we have left 1987 and jumped ahead to 2008. Chiharu, a woman rumored to be a high-end call girl whom Yonosuke had pursued, now has her own show on a radio station. Her assistant director comes in during her show with breaking news for Chiharu to announce: a fatal accident at Yoyogi Station has forced the closure of the Yamanote line’s inner loop, with severe delays on the outer loop. Driving through the city in a taxi later that night, she hears a more detailed news report on the radio, and learns that Park Seung Jun, a 26 year-old South Korean exchange student, and Yonosuke Yokomichi, a 40 year-old photographer, had jumped onto the tracks to save a girl who had fainted and fallen onto the tracks, but were hit by an oncoming train. When her companion asks her why she has become so silent, Chiharu says she is trying to remember something, but it keeps slipping away. With that, Yoshida returns the reader to 1987 and Yonosuke, practicing samba in a laundromat to the rhythm of the driers.

Yonosuke in his samba costume

Yoshida also seems to foreshadow Yonosuke’s death. Yonosuke recalls the first time he had a clear perception of death. Standing on the platform of Shinjuku Station for the first time, he walked along the white safety line and heard the announcement for the incoming train. As the train swooped past, just inches away from him, he sensed that just a few inches to the left would put him over the dividing line between life and death.

Even more strikingly, close to the end of the book, Yonosuke bumps into an acquaintance, a young Korean exchange student. As they wait at Shin-Okubo Station together, a hat blows off a woman’s head just as a train approaches. Both Yonosuke and Kim dash after the hat as it careens down the platform. Before they fall off of the platform onto the tracks, one of them grabs the other—in all the confusion, it is not clear who is holding who back. Everything seems to move in slow motion as the train enters the station and, miraculously, the wind pressure from the incoming train blows the hat right to their feet.

I read this book last summer, but the story and the Shin-Okubo accident left such an impression on me that since then I have struggled to do the book justice. I had to prune several pages off of this review as my enthusiasm for this book got the better of me. Maybe Yonosuke (and Lee Su Hyon and Shiro Sekine) didn’t get to live out his life, but if this book is anything to go by, in his 40 years he lived more fully than many who are granted the full threescore and ten do.

I can’t do any better than leave the closing words to Yonosuke’s mother, who writes in a letter to Shoko:

Lately I’ve realized that I was lucky to have Yonosuke as my son. Maybe it’s a strange thing for a mother to say, but meeting him was the best thing that happened to me. I still envision the accident in my head a lot. I can’t figure out why he jumped onto the tracks even though there was no way he could save her. But lately I’ve realized that Yonosuke must have been convinced he could help. In that instant, he thought “I can do this,” not, “it’s no use, there’s nothing I can do.” And I’m very proud to have a son who thought in this way.

The parents of Lee Su-hyon, Lee Sung-dae and Shin Yoon-chan (right), pray on the platform of JR Shin-Okubo Station in Tokyo at a ceremony to honor their son in 2013, attended by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye; Photograph by Yoshiaki Miura for Japan Times

*Since this accident, safety barriers and doors have been installed at many train stations, but only about 30% of Japan’s 250 largest train stations had these safety measures as of 2016. Emergency stop buttons have also been installed at thousands of train stations. After discovering that Seiko Sakamoto, the drunk man who fell onto the tracks, was drinking sake he had bought at a vending machine in the station itself, authorities decided to remove alcohol from “some” vending machines.

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