Japan Fiction V


Japan Fiction 5

Dragon of the Mangroves

Dragon of the Mangroves.

by Yasuyuki Kasai


ISBN: 0-595-39026-9
152 pp

Based on real events, first-time author Kasai pens a tale of Japanese soldiers at the end of the war, at the edge of the front, and on the wrong side of history.

Having been routed in 1944 in a misguided offensive into India - losing 55,000 men in battle - Japanese troops are stuck in Burma as British and Indian forces close off every avenue of escape.

Second Lieutenant Yoshihisa Sumi is ordered to save a surrounded garrison; this is the starting point of a psycho-drama. And it slowly but inexorably wends its way to the crocodile attacks.

Much of the novel is internal: Kasai takes the reader inside the heads and hearts of the soldiers.

The novel is written in the author's second language, but reads smoothly. There are a few places in which a native speaker editor might have been helpful; however, for the most part, this is not an issue.

C. Ogawa

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Losing Kei

Losing Kei: Buy this item from Amazon

by Suzanne Kamata


ISBN: 0972898492
107 pp

Suzanne Kamata touches a nerve, something that may be too painful for some to read. In Losing Kei, she tells the tale of a young mother far from home fighting to regain a son lost permanently due to divorce.

In Japan, divorce represents the severing of two "ie," or households. If there are children, they almost always are awarded to the mother. The children will henceforth have nothing to do with their father; he is literally "dead" to them. (A very public example is the case of former Prime Minster Junichiro Koizumi, whose now grown children did not see him for more than a decade following his divorce.) In the case in which the mother is foreign, however, custody is nearly always awarded to the father - and the mother is now the one who no longer exists.

Shared custody or visitation rights remain unheard of.

Jill Parker is a painter living in rural Japan, an American woman far from home. To support her art she works as a bar hostess. It is in this seedy setting in which she meets Yusuke, an art gallery owner. This leads to marriage, which in this world - Yusuke is the eldest son - is fraught with duty and guilt and submission for the erstwhile artist Jill. Yusuke must uphold the "ie," and the roles assigned to all within are clearly and rigidly defined. Jill is placed below and at the mercy of Yusuke's mother.

In spite of the birth of a son, the greatest prize, the marriage cannot succeed. Jill ultimately must choose between abandoning her son and life, freedom.

The first ten pages are painful to read. Jill is waiting in a park for a glimpse of her son on his way home from school. Even this small act of defiance - and tenderness - is utterly crushed. She is supposed to be "dead," and is failing to uphold that illusion.

Nothing is lost in translation in Losing Kei. Kamata knows whereof she writes. A very impressive work.

C. Ogawa

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Tokyo Year Zero

by David Peace

Vintage Crime

ISBN 0-3072-7650-3
368 pp

The first book of a promised "Tokyo Trilogy" which also includes Occupied City, former Tokyo resident David Peace's Tokyo Year Zero is an exuberant and poetic murder story set in a bleak and desperate Tokyo in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The murders and subsequent police investigation are based on actual events of the time.

The angst-ridden Detective Minami leads the investigation into a serial killer of young women, who rapes and strangles his victims. Readers of Peace's previous Red Riding Quartet will be familar with many of the themes addressed in this book, the murder of prostitutes and lonely women, shady underworld characters and corrupt police officers.

The power of the book lies in Peace's brilliant evocation of crime-ridden, poverty-stricken, US-occupied Tokyo in the summer of 1946. The author captures the noise, smells and heat of the city with incessant use of italicized incantations, repetition and Japanese onomatopoeia: gari-gari, ton-ton, za-za.

As the protaganist Detective Minami continues on the case, he suffers a mental breakdown of sorts, brought on by his recollections of his own wartime actions and his increasing drug habit, which leaves him in the power of a local gang boss.

Minami's breakdown mirrors the seeming breakdown of Japanese society in the early post-war period as the nation struggled to regain its balance after the shock and trauma of war and defeat.

Tokyo Year Zero is a challenging read and the frequent stylistic repetition may not be to every reader's taste, but the book's conjuring up of a period most people wish to forget is worth the cover price alone.

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Occupied City

by David Peace

Vintage Crime

ISBN 0-3072-7651-1
368 pp

Occupied City, the second book in David Peace's "Tokyo Trilogy" following Tokyo Year Zero with Tokyo Regained to be published in 2012, concerns the true story of the Teigin Incident, in which sixteen employees of a branch of Teikoku bank were poisoned by a man claiming to be a government health official and ten of them died.

Sadamichi Hirasawa, an artist, was later found guilty of the crime after confessing (probably under torture) to being the poisoner and duly sentenced to death. Hirasawa later retracted his confession and spent the rest of his life on death row as his family and legal team struggled to prove his innocence.

Much of the evidence used to convict Hirasawa was circumstantial and later analysts of the case pointed the finger at Unit 731, the secret biological warfare division of the Japanese army that operated in Manchuria.

Occupied City is structured as a series of occult ghost stories told to the writer by people connected to the case, each character (a Soviet soldier, a journalist, an American military scientist, the dectective on the case, a yakuza boss, a survivor) telling their version of story before snuffing out a candle. The author quotes Rashomon and In a Grove by Akutagawa Ryunosuke as his inspiration.

The repetition and Japanese onomatopoeia, so evident in Tokyo Year Zero, are here again along with other stylistic devices such as scoring through text, translated newspaper reports and capitalization. Experimental, beguiling and a thoroughly absorbing crime story.

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Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Gangster's Daughter

by Shoko Tendo

Kodansha International

ISBN 4770030428
192 pp

For the last person out there who finds something, anything, vaguely romantic about the Japanese mafia demimonde: please read this book.

First time writer Shoko Tendo writes a diary-like work about growing up the daughter of a small-time mob boss in Sakai, south of Osaka.

There is no self-pity or false mythology or anthropological analysis about why men choose this life; rather, the book is merely a document of her horrific life.

Tendo was a "yanki," which is roughly the eqivalent of teenage "white trash." In Japan, yanki are the school dropouts you see riding scooters without a helmet going up a one-way street the wrong way at 4 am, revving the engine as loudly as possible.

She started sneaking out at night young, sniffing glue and partying hard. This lead to various addictions: drugs and sex the most pronounced.

She is beaten constantly by the men in her life, once nearly to the point of death. The book cover presents us with an attractive women, which can only be the work of skilled plastic surgeons or someone quick with photoshop.

She works as a hostess and attempts suicide twice, gets a full body tatoo and is arrested. The act of being tatooed, however, frees her--and allows her to make new kinds of decisions.

In places the work is repetitive, but you won't be able to put it down.

C. Ogawa

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The Teahouse Fire

by Ellis Avery

Riverhead Hardcover

ISBN: 1-59448-930-0
400 pp

Anyone who has ever spent time in Japan knows that tea is more than simply a kind of refreshment. Chado, or The Way of Tea, embodies a philosophy, a way of life. Ellis Avery studied tea ceremony for five years in New York and Kyoto. She brings a wealth of knowledge and insight to her first novel.

Like Arthur Golden's Memoirs of Geisha, The Teahouse Fire brings the reader into a world that was once closed to Westerners. However, while Golden wrote in the voice of a geisha--an insider--Avery chooses to observe the world of tea during the volatile Meiji Era through the eyes of a foreigner. Aurelia Corneille was born in New York to an unmarried French maid. When she is orphaned, she immigrates to Japan with her missionary uncle, Charles, a man she dislikes.

One night, she leaves the house and ventures out to a Japanese shrine. She makes a wish for any life but this one. When she goes back to the house, she finds that it is in flames. Aurelia takes refuge in a Japanese teahouse, where she is discovered by Yukako Shin, daughter of Japan's leading tea master, and a descendant of Rikyu, the founder of tea ceremony. Aurelia manages to pass herself off as a Japanese (some believe her unusual face to be the result of a botched abortion) and lives with the Shin family as a maid for the next 25 years.

Most of the novel takes place during the reign of the Emperor Meiji, a time of great reform and heavy Western influence in Japan. Samurai were required to lay down their swords; lowly merchants were suddenly given status. Electric lights and glass windows were introduced, along with the bustle and education for women. This period also saw many changes in the world of tea.

Although the ceremony was once performed only by male tea masters for other men of high social ranking, it gradually became a mostly feminine pursuit. Avery weaves these historical elements into a riveting story of love and betrayal. As in tea ceremony itself, there are many moments of great beauty. This is an impressive debut.

Suzanne Kamata

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A Zen Forest: Zen Sayings

translated by Soiku Shigematsu

foreword by Gary Snyder

White Pine Press

ISBN: 1-893996-30-1
119 pp

Zen sayings run from the accessibly profound:

On the saddle, no man; underneath it, no horse

To the archly counter-intuitive:

Drive off the ox from a farmer! Snatch the food from a hungry man!

To the downright poetic:

Shattered and split - shimmering, dancing - the moon on the rapids.

What these different 'incarnations' share is the intention of shaking the mind out of its obsession with ratiocination and into a Zen state of intuitive understanding that can lead to satori, or the bliss of enlightenment. This collection, excerpted from two famous Japanese anthologies, is part of the Companions for the Journey series that White Pine Press has released - modest-size, tastefully presented volumes of Asian poetry that will entertain and provoke you on your travels. Ink-brush illustrations by Zen artists further enhance the sojourn into one's own heart that these works represent.

Richard Donovan

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Tokyo Stories

by Christine Miki

ISBN: 4-90242-500-9
196 pp

Tokyo Stories is a light reading soap opera of coincidence and degrees of separation and if you enjoyed the movie Four Weddings and A Funeral, then Tokyo Stories may well appeal. It is the foreigners-in-Japan version that portrays a microcosm of what life is like in the gaijin enclaves of the capital.

Each chapter takes up the story of a new character, drawn from a set of privileged expatriates - each with some kind of connection with the last. As the stage becomes more and more crowded, we build up to a frenzied, punch-up-at-a-wedding finale -- the inevitable consequence of such an incestuous web of relationships.

There's no doubt about it: the author, like most of us, loves a bit of gossip, and has stayed up late at the loom spinning as long a yarn on the narrow weft of the foreign community and its village mentality as she can. But if fault were to be found, it would be in this narrowness. While foreigners certainly do not make up much at all of the Tokyo population, it is nevertheless a vast city; yet the scope of the place not to mention the distinctive Japaneseness of it all - somehow fails to come across in its fullness. The lone Japanese protagonist gets short shrift as a ditzy, gaijin-chasing girlfriend with broken English.

This is a book primarily for expatriates. However it is surely of interest, too, to those who have never been to Japan but are curious about the 'desert island' of expatriate life afloat on the non-English-speaking ocean. Great to bury your big nose in on the train especially on those days when you've had enough of the curious glances.

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Woman on the Other Shore

by Mitsuyo Kakuta

Kodansha International

ISBN: 4770030436
272 pp

Judging by most of the Japanese novels that make it into English, you might think that modern Japanese lit is all about wild sheep chases, forked tongues, and chopped up bodies. But there's more. Thanks to translator Wayne P. Lammers, we now have Woman on the Other Shore, a novel about two relatively normal 35-year-old women - a stay-at-home mom, and a single woman who has her own business.

Sayoko, the mother, can't seem to fit in with the other moms when she goes to the park. She winds up "park-hopping," changing venues every time the moms start to get cliquey. The other woman, Aoi, was bullied throughout her school years, and finds it difficult to forge close relationships. When Sayoko decides to give up park-hopping and begin a job at Aoi's company, the two form an unlikely friendship, which is threatened by the latter's dark past.

This carefully constructed novel starts out slow, but tension builds as secrets are revealed. Kakuta brings a wealth of knowledge and insight to her first novel, presenting a vivid, albeit sometimes disturbing portrait of women in contemporary Japan.

Suzanne Kamata

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Sun and Steel

by Yukio Mishima

Kodansha International

ISBN: 4770029039
107 pp

Sun and Steel is a critically acclaimed treatise on the estrangement of body and spirit. It is essential reading for anyone interested in what motivated Japan's most (in)famous writer, Yukio Mishima.

Words came early to Mishima, earlier than a conscious recognition of the body. Cosseted by his manipulative paternal grandmother until his early teens, he was kept inside and denied physical activity. His isolation as a child continued into his teenage years when his literary talent distinguished him from his peers.

In Sun and Steel words are white ants eating away at a pillar; writing a 'medium that reduces reality to abstraction for transmission to our reason.' In contrast to the abstract mind and the corrosive nature of words Mishima extols the virtues of the physical, tangible body. The dichotomy between 'ideas of the flesh and the loquacity of the body' was perennial in his work but by middle age, in his mind at least, the physical had triumphed. He had started exercising when he was 25 and did so obsessively until his ritual suicide.

Mishima was intrigued by boundaries and frustrated by their limitations. The physical expression of consciousness through pain was real to him; the subjectivity of the mind indolent. But his real frustrations lay within the inability to combine the two elements into one.

Ultimately, does Mishima merely tire of his own imagination? Tire of the subjective? 'How many lazy men's truths have been admitted in the name of imagination?' he writes. If death is the ultimate mystery and suicide a fast-track conduit through which to realise it, Mishima deems existence a fair price for the experience. To such a vain person suicide also offered an escape from decay freedom from the imperfection of aging.

By his life's end Mishima had founded a group within which he could subsume himself; the Tate-no-kai (Shield Society), the private army he formed in 1968. He sublimated his imagination into 'duty,' and burnished it 'in preparation for death as much as he burnished his sword.'

The transition from the fiction of Patriotism, a short story written by Mishima in 1966 about a lieutenant who commits ritual suicide, to the non-fiction of Sun and Steel in 1968 is telling. By 1970 Mishima is addressing troops from the balcony of the Eastern headquarters of the Ground Self Defence Forces in Tokyo, having taken the army commander hostage and besieged his office.

The troops assemble below to jeer at Mishima and ridicule his speech, after which he disembowells himself. The nation thought his ritual suicide retrograde and indulgent at best. Whether Matsukazu Morita, the student leader of the Tate-no-kai was his lover, as hinted at in Confessions of a Mask, is a matter of conjecture. There is no doubt, however, that Sun and Steel is the ultimate autobiographical prophecy.

Justin Ellis

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Midori by Moonlight

by Wendy Nelson Tokunaga

St. Martins

ISBN: 0312372612
340 pp

Though a few details in the novel don't jibe, Midori by Moonlight is a fun and perceptive read. The story begins with 30-year-old Midori having just arrived in San Francisco from Fukuoka - to live in the US "for good" - at the magnificent home of her fianc Kevin, and only barely competent in English. The first sign of trouble comes in the form of an ex-girlfriend at their engagement party--with whom Kevin disappears for most of the party.

By Japanese standards, Midori is already a bit long in the tooth. When Kevin, a monolingual English teacher who spends a year in Fukuoka to "forget," proposes, she almost immediately accepts - following a devious attempt at omiai (arranged marriage) on the part of her worried parents backfires.

Back in San Francisco at the party, Kevin dumps Midori for the former girlfriend, leaving her with nowhere to go, sixty days left on her visa, and her life plan in tatters. Fortunately for her, the one Japanese person she met at the party passed along a business card - and thus the novel continues.

Kevin's aristocratic and efficient mother puts Midori up in a swish downtown hotel until her return flight, thus cleaning up the mess her son has created. What will Midori do? A return trip to Japan, tail between her proverbial legs, would bring shame on both her and her parents. It would be a complete failure, and doom her to returning to the omiai circuit in perhaps a distant city where the news of her failed non-marriage to a gaijin would not be discovered.

Without giving away too much, Midori, through pluck and luck and a talent at making desserts, finds her way. And the reader is pulled along by her winning combination of innocence and determination.

The "problems" in the book are minor. However, they grated a bit. First is Kevin. There are many Kevins, to be sure, both in Japan and abroad. However, this Kevin was born into a multi-millionaire family. He lives in a house in San Francisco with an elevator, many rooms, and a maid. This is all fine and well; however, his future plan is to "become an English teacher at a university."

In the real world, this would mean teaching classes part-time at San Francisco State for $9 an hour, no benefits. In his world, this is never going to happen.

Second is a pivotal conversation Midori has with her post-Kevin roommate, who is also Japanese. Like her, he fled Japan for the US. His reason for doing so was mainly because of the suicide of his older brother. The brother did not pass his university exams and threw himself under a train. As a result, the family is - on top of its grief - forced to pay the train company for the inconvenience the death caused other passengers. Midori is stunned by this.

Anyone in Japan over the age of 15 is aware of this fact of life; it is part of "common sense" in Japan that if you commit suicide by jumping in front of a train your family will be forced to pay the railway company. If you do so at rush hour, you will pay more.

Third are the details of Midori's life. For someone who knows little or nothing of modern Japanese women, her character is illuminating; for anyone, however, who has spent time in Japan, she comes pretty close to the staple characters of tv shows and women's magazines, gaijin bars and online dating.

Having said that, though, this book was thoroughly enjoyable and would be perfect as a film.

C. Ogawa

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Osaka Heat

by Mary Claire Mahaney


ISBN: 1425990827
256 pp

A familiar feeling of dread came over me when "Osaka Heat" arrived on my desk. Another story of an American/British/Australian woman who goes to Japan in search of something. Culture, food, a Japanese man, freedom from the dictates of her own culture.

The book begins with the main character on the flight over to Japan. Anxiety. Some regrets. Loose ends back home. Many paragraphs devoted to the art of talking to oneself.

American teacher Ginger O'Neill goes to Osaka to convince a local school to become a sister school of her elite Washington school.

Ginger's husband died some 12 years ago, and she has spent the ensuing years raising her daughter and with no romance.

In Osaka, Ginger stays with an English-speaking family. It is mid-summer in Osaka, a time when breathing takes effort because of the heat. There are issues, a bit of tension within the family. Her presence, perhaps, is not helping this.

Highly moral, packing twelve years of sexual frustration, and far, far from home--this is a recipe for trouble.

What ensues is a journey of self-discovery, or rather of redisovering who she is.

In spite of the initial wariness, the book won me over. Mahaney does not speak Japanese, she is not an expert on things Japanese, but she narrated well the inner life of a woman whose moment of truth happens to take place in a Japanese setting. And that is more than enough.

C. Ogawa

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The Devil's Whisper

by Miyuki Miyabe

Kodansha International

ISBN: 4770030533
256 pp

Following up on the success of All She Was Worth, Japan's bestselling mystery author Miyuki Miyabe has penned another creepy, Tokyo-based crime novel.

The Devil's Whisper continues in the same vein: it is a horrific tale that borders on the supernatural. The protagonist, Mamoru Kusaka, has lost both of his parents. His father simply disappears after a scandal; his mother dies under more normal circumstances, twelve years later, due to a stroke.

Mamoru is now starting anew and living with relatives in Tokyo. At this point, though, his uncle is arrested after hitting a woman with his taxi.

In attempting to prove his uncle's innocence, Mamoru comes across evidence that the victim may have been involved in two recent deaths ruled as suicides by the police.

Mamoru keeps peeling back the onion, an amateur dismissed by the pros as he gets closer and closer to the truth.

If you like creepy works that will leave you guessing - Miyabe is the writer for you. Full of twists and turns and lots of surprises.

Her portrayal of average Tokyoites, the police included, is excellent.

C. Ogawa

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