Tsundoku Reader

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

Month: August 2017

The Island Stays with Us

島はぼくらと、辻村深月、講談社 2013

The Island Stays with Us, by Mizuki Tsujimura, Kodansha 2013 [no English translation available]

Elementary school graduates on the island of Saejima have a tradition of drawing pictures (Doraemon, Hello Kitty, Pikachu) and slogans all along the embankment facing the ocean. Kinuka, Genki, Akari and Arata wrote 島はぼくらと(the island stays with us) with a picture of a whale when their class of four graduated.

This graduation is more of a milestone than it would be for other children because Saejima has no high school. If a child wants to attend a high school that is not close enough to the ferry landing, they have to board or live with relatives on the mainland. These four all attend the high school near the ferry, but the rush to catch the ferry means that they are not fully part of high school life. Arata wants to become a playwright but cannot even be a full member the drama club.

Their travel to the mainland every day and the compromises they make mean that these four are not innocents, secluded in some island paradise. Nor is the island itself isolated. In the first chapter, the four handily foil a brash writer who has come to the island to find the “phantom play,” a lost masterpiece that a famous playwright is rumored to have written when he lived on the island. They are not taken in by the writer’s talk of celebrities and night clubs nor his fake alligator bag, and manage to dispose of him before he can make the connection between Fukiko, a young single mother living on the island with her daughter, and the Olympic gold medalist who abruptly disappeared from the public eye several years ago.

Single mothers like Fukiko are a key part of island life. The mayor spends much of his time off the island, appearing on TV and in newspapers to market Saeijima. His role is to encourage both U-turns—one-time locals who return to their hometown—and I-turns—people who leave cities and try to establish roots elsewhere—to move to the island. Although his frequent absences earn him criticism, he believes that the island will close off and collapse as soon as it forgets the outside world. There doesn’t seem much risk of that—the island’s residents seem almost painfully aware of the outside world, both the safety net it provides and the threat it represents in drawing away its children.

One of Japan’s maternal and child health record books

This acknowledgment by both children and parents that they face an early parting is poignantly reflected in the maternity health record book, used in Japan by women and their doctors from pregnancy to record a child’s health and growth. Genki’s mother, a graphic designer who lived on the island only briefly before she left Genki and his father for another man, noticed that island mothers had filled the margins of their books with what were essentially parting words for their children. She redesigned the book to allow more room for these messages before she left.

However, Kinuka does not have the option of leaving the island. She is the daughter of the amimoto, a traditional role passed on through generations. Literally “net owner,” the amimoto is the boss of a team of fishermen who risks his own capital in the form of boats and nets and also supports his amiko (“children of the net”), the households who form the fishing team, during bad seasons. An Internet search led to several academic journals that told me that this system has been around since the late middle ages, when large (and expensive) fishing nets began to be used, requiring more capital, labor and strategy. Even though there are fishing unions now, in (fictional) Saejima, Kinuka’s family has continued to occupy a special place in the island’s hierarchy. Especially among the older generation, people tend to go to the amimoto with their problems before the mayor (which he is not happy about).

Researching amimoto led me to some great archived photographs like this one, taken in 1964. Source: Shikoku Shimbun

Akari’s father died at sea, but the mayor was her father’s “brother,” a custom that the island has had for generations in which young men pledge to be brothers (Akari always thinks it’s a little like yakuza). They can be brother to more than one person, and when they pledge to another brother, this relationship then expands to include their other brothers. These relationships are all interlinked like the mesh of a net. Akari lives with her mother and grandmother, and the island’s aunties and uncles—her father’s “brothers”—helped to raise her. Everyone plays a role in raising the island children, and Akari figures this must be why the island is such a good fit for single mothers.

Such ties within a fixed population developed naturally on an island where this kind of lifeline for emergencies can be crucial. This is particularly true on Saejima, which has an active volcano. The volcano last erupted when Akari’s grandmother and Kinuka’s grandfather were teenagers, just 10 years after World War II. No one had expected anything worse than the war to happen. The amimoto stayed until everyone had been evacuated, and was the first to return when the evacuation order had been lifted. For that reason, the amimoto family members can never leave the island. Not everyone came back after the volcano—some had lost their houses and started over again elsewhere—and the island’s population fell by half.

I don’t mean to give the impression that this book is a social studies lesson in island traditions. The picture comes together gradually over the course of the book through Tsujimura’s stories about Akari, Kinuka, Genki and Arata. In addition to the mystery of the phantom play, which is resolved by the end of the novel, there is the search for a friend of Akari’s grandmother who left the island after the volcano erupted and never returned; the mystery of why Motoki, an I-turner, received an envelope with information about Saejima and an empty house there when he was still living in Tokyo; and the drama around plans to film a documentary about Saejima’s small company of housewives who make and market island specialties. The way Tsujimura ties up the mystery of the phantom play at the end of the novel and links it to Fukushima, where evacuees are just now returning after the nuclear plant disaster, was brilliant and so touching.

Tatobi Island in the Seto Inland Sea; this would just be a completely gratuitous picture of beautiful islands except that Tsujimura set fictional Saejima among islands in the Seto Inland Sea.

Breath of Words


Tsubaki Stationery Store, by Ito Ogawa, Gentosha, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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