Tsundoku Reader

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

Tag: Mizuki Tsujimura

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.

Japanese Booksellers Award 2016

A glance at the list of nominees for this year’s 本屋賞, or Booksellers Award, provides an interesting counterpoint to the books translated from Japanese to English, a disproportionate percentage of which seem to be mysteries (with many of the blurbs claiming that here is the next Stieg Larsonn).

The Booksellers Award is a fairly young prize, launched in 2004. Booksellers and bookstore staff nominate three books that they would recommend, with a list of nominees compiled from the results. Booksellers must read all ten of the nominated books to vote in the next round. Looking through lists of nominees from past years is one of the ways I choose what to read next, and I’ve yet to be disappointed.

You can read more about the prize and descriptions of the past winners (in English) here. The winner of this year’s award will be announced on April 12, 2016.

Books Nominated for the 2016 Booksellers Award

[None of these books have been translated into English yet.]

『朝が来る』Morning Will Come
辻村深月 Mizuki Tsujimura
文藝春秋 Bungeishunju

A couple raising their child suddenly get a phone call from that child’s biological mother, saying that she wants her child back. This is described as a mystery with social themes, dealing with motherhood and what it means to be a family.

『王とサーカス』King and Circus
米澤穂信 Honobu Yonezawa
東京創元社 Tokyo Sogensha

A former journalist, now working for a travel magazine, is visiting Nepal when the royal family is massacred in 2001 (a true event). She begins reporting on the event, and comes across a body with the word “informer” cut into the skin.

『君の膵臓をたべたい』”I Want to Eat Your Pancreas”
住野よる Yoru Sumino
双葉社 Futabasha

A boy finds a diary written by his classmate, who it turns out is suffering from a fatal disease of the pancreas and doesn’t have long to live.

『教団X』Cult X
中村文則 Fuminori Nakamura

集英社 Shueisha

In this story of cults, madness and global terrorism, the main character tries to find his girlfriend, only to discover that she belongs to a cult. In the process of his investigation, he is abducted and ordered to spy on another religious group. Meanwhile, the cult is planning an attack…

『世界の果てのこどもたち』The Children from the Other Side of the World
中脇初枝 Hatsue Nakawaki 
講談社 Kodansha

This novel tells the story of three little girls who meet in Manchuria during WWII and become close friends. Their lives take very different paths after the war, with one orphaned during China’s civil war, the Korean girl experiencing prejudice in Japan, and the third losing her family in air raids in Yokohama.

『戦場のコックたち』Battlefield Cooks
深緑野分 Nowaki Fukamidori
東京創元社 Tokyo Sogensha

Set during WWII, this is a series of linked stories about Tim, Ed and Diego, cooks in the military who also solve everyday mysteries, such as who stole 600 boxes of powdered eggs.

『永い言い訳』The Long Excuse
西川美和 Miwa Nishikawa
文藝春秋 Bungeishunju

This novel covers a year in the life of a successful author following the death of his wife in an accident, together with her friend. He copes with his guilt and his grief by helping the bereaved husband of his wife’s friend raise his children, with mixed results.

『羊と鋼の森』Forest of Sheep and Steel 
宮下奈都 Natsu Miyashita
文藝春秋 Bungeishunju

This is a coming-of-age story about a young man so fascinated by the piano that he trains to be a piano tuner. He learns as much from the customers as he does from his teachers.

『火花』 Sparks
又吉直樹 Naoki Matayoshi
文藝春秋 Bungeishunju

This novel tracks the careers of two struggling comedians, one of whom eventually gives up and gets a day job. However, he continues to follow his friend, whose absolute dedication to his craft leads him into a downward spiral. The author is himself a comedian, and won the 153rd Akutagawa Prize for this novel.

『流』  Flow
東山彰良 Akira Higashiyama
講談社 Kodansha

This novel, which won the 153rd Naoki Prize last year, is a coming-of-age story based on the author’s grandfather’s experiences during the Communist uprising in mainland China. The author was born in Taiwan and came to Japan when he was five, and he explores that search for a sense of identity in his writing.


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