Japan Fiction VI

Books on Japan: Japan Fiction VI

When I Whistle

When I Whistle

by Endo Shusaku

Peter Owen Publishers

ISBN: 0-7206-1437-6
Softback, 277 pp

Endo Shusaku's magical story telling ability is on display in this novel which compares and contrasts traditional and modern day values (the book was written in 1974) in Japan. As usual, Endo doesn't tell you what he thinks, he tells you a story and lets you ponder its implications.
This is perhaps the only Endo book where neither God nor Christianity is explicitly mentioned, although the comparison between good and evil, or at the very least a people-focused life and a things-focused life, is made.
Throughout the book, Endo jumps back and forth between the past, war-era school life of protagonist Ozu and the present, in which Ozu is a middling businessman with a young doctor son, Eiichi, who is laser-focused on quick career climbing, no matter what the cost or collateral damage may be. Ozu is proud of his son, but can't agree with some of his son's tactics.
The other two major characters are Ozu's childhood friend, Flatfish, and Flatfish's out-of-his-league love interest, Aiko. There are really not many additional characters the reader needs to carefully remember.
The reader may wonder at first how the two stories will eventually mesh. Keep reading, ultimately the story is masterfully tied together and you can feel the depth of both Ozu's pain and his son's "nothing-is-going-to-stop-me" attitude.
The main conflict in the story, at least through the first half of the book, is caused by Ozu's son, who is antagonistic towards his father because he sees the father as worthless in that he can't help him up the ladder of success. Eiichi wishes he had a father who could pave the way with bribes and connections in his medical world.
One interesting side note is that on several occasions Endo writes of Japanese people giving potted plans to patients in hospitals. Most foreigners living in Japan are told to avoid this as it is said to indicated the patient will "take root" in the hospital, ie not recover quickly. Perhaps this anomaly was a result of the book's translator not knowing Japanese culture well.
Like Endo's other books, the ending is powerful and forces the reader to reflect on one's existence and on what is really important. There are no easy, tidy finishes in an Endo book, and this is no exception. It is worth your time.

Marshall Hughes

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The Sound of the Mountain

The Sound of the Mountain

by Yasunari Kawabata

Tuttle

ISBN: 0-6797-6264-7
Softback, 276 pp

In the early stages of reading this classic novel, one is likely to identify with the general sense of confusion that surrounds the elderly protagonist, for it is populated with an extended family with very similar names, which for a time trip over each other in the reader's mind. Shingo, the ageing patriarch (actually only in his early-to-mid 60s, but portrayed as considerably older), is angry with Shuichi, his son, for treating his wife, Kikuko, shabbily by having an affair with the widow Kinu (actually Kinuko in the original, but the translator has taken mercy on us and received permission from the author himself to shorten the name). Shingo and his wife Yasuko share their house in suburban Kamakura with Shuichi (when he is not with his mistress), Kikuko, their daughter Fusako and her two daughters Satoko and Kuniko, since Fusako is estranged from her husband.

Kawabata delineates character so deftly through clipped dialogue and physiognomic sketches, however, that soon enough one finds oneself immersed in the familial drama. Shingo obsesses over the failures of his son and daughter, finding comfort only in the seasonal manifestations of nature and his pretty, wronged daughter-in-law Kikuko's appreciation of his concern for her. In Shingo, Kawabata strikingly depicts the churning emotions of someone whose failing body still harbors the yearnings of a younger man, particularly through the twisted forms that nature and human - particularly females - assume in Shingo's dreams.

The eponymous sound of the mountain is a terrifying, unknowable force to Shingo when he awakes in the middle of the night early in the novel. As time passes, however, it seems to settle into the distance and assume a more paternal benignity.

Yet the human realities are harsher. The Sound of the Mountain was Kawabata's second postwar novel after A Thousand Cranes, and explores a fractured social landscape littered with the corpses of suicides and aborted children. It is also one within which innumerable war widows have to get by without a dependable man, but in the process perhaps gain a new sense of independence. Shingo senses that a new era is upon the world, but still he yearns for men to be gallant and to take responsibility for those around them. Despite his frailties, he is the craggy, benign peak that looms over the other characters in this novel, seemingly unable to help them in their difficulties, but a powerful presence in their lives nonetheless.

Richard Donovan

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

by David Mitchell

Random House

ISBN: 0-8129-7636-3
512 pp

This is the fifth novel from the well regarded author, David Mitchell, and it is a fantastic complement to his previous writing. The story of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet revolves around the lives of a selection of the population of the manmade island of Dejima, a trading post created close to the shores of Nagasaki, Japan. We join Dejima, a port of the Dutch East Indies Company, in the last year of the eighteenth century and the first two decades of the nineteenth.

The Dutch fly their flag on this little island with the permission of the Shogun at a troubling time for both the Netherlands and the Japanese. The Dutch are the only nation permitted by the Japanese to trade with them and Jacob de Zoet, our story's hero, has been ordered there to help rid this small but politically important trading post of increasingly rife corruption (and to try to make his fortune at the same time!). Jacob's life quickly becomes entangled with those around him and he is drawn into a strange new world with a very different language, different customs, and different social boundaries. He does his best to survive on this little outpost but can't escape the reality of his confinement and resigns himself to his fate, until one day he is captivated by a young girl he meets by chance and who irrevocably changes his life.

The book completely draws the reader in with this transfixing story. The author has an incredible ability to place you in the story in this distant time and place, and he researched the most intimate details of Japanese life at a unique time in history, enabling the reader to grasp the magnitude of the global movement of a newly-industrializing world and the effect this has on the variety of characters in the story. It is the author's meticulous research and certain love for his subject matter that shines through, providing not only a well thought out story, but an education.

My only disappointment with this book lay when I reached parts 4 and 5 and I had to confront my own self-realization that the world was such a place at that time and that, despite my own internal protestation, the conclusion arrived where it did because it had to. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and well researched read.

David White

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Tokyo Year Zero

by David Peace

Vintage Crime

ISBN 0-3072-7650-3
368 pp

Inspector Minami is a tortured soul living in a Tokyo devastated by the Second World War. Haunted as he is by his military past, the only thing that gets him up in the morning is his compulsion to bring order to chaos by solving violent crimes as part of the understaffed and under-resourced Tokyo police. At the end of the day, the drug Calmotin is the only thing allowing him to sleep, be it at his office desk or at his lover's side, amid the unforgiving summer heat and its ravenous insects. The only way he can get hold of the drug in this city of shortage is through his underworld connections - and the payment they demand is not monetary.

Welcome to Tokyo Year Zero, the first in Peace's trilogy about Japan in the aftermath of World War II. Peace perhaps borrows Ishiguro's first-person narrator from An Artist of the Floating World, but the voice is more anguished than self-justificatory, and instead of Ishiguro's writing-between-the-lines, Peace uses endlessly repeating motifs to trace the memories and obsessions of a mind pushed to the edge of sanity by what he was forced to do in war and now must confront in 'peace'.

This formal repetition is the strongest aspect of Tokyo Year Zero, if the reader is able to stomach it (and for some it will seem overly mannered, if not domineering). Through it Peace aims for nothing less than to lead the reader's train of thought along with that of his protagonist, introducing whispers of ideas that a few hundred pages later, after a hundred repetitions, peak in a crescendo of revelation: the mental equivalent of the placing of clues in plain sight in a conventional detective novel, but much more insistent. This is the micromanaging of an 'auteur author'. His adumbrative phrases are indeed reminiscent of another tale of US-Japanese conflict, the postwar crime-mystery film Snow Falling on Cedars, in which the sound of a creaking rope or the image of a flapping fish are slipped into the narrative apparently out of context, prefiguring a later devastating denouement.

If novels such as Ishiguro's demonstrate the power of deflective language to hint at greater truths left unsaid, Peace's prose presents the power of repetitive language to instantiate unwanted, unbidden, but undeniable memories and associations - of the things we wish we could unthink or unexperience, but that end up defining our identity. Many pages of Tokyo Year Zero consist of an interplay of two voices: a prosaic description of the physical, observable world of a police inspector, in counterpoint with Minami's urgent inner whispers, printed in italics, the paired sentences growing shorter and shorter as they taper to what is either a sigh of resignation or a sharpened point of revelation. It is rare that form reflects content to such a degree in English prose.

Much of this so-called 'programmatic' style of Peace's, with its obsessive, ever-tightening loops, seems designed to convey a mind trying, and failing, to reconcile horrifically parallel realities: the prior Japanese occupation of China, and the current U.S. occupation of Japan. These realities are personified by two laughing-death's-head characters - Kodaira, an accused murderer, drawn from the real-life pages of Japanese newspapers of the time, who thinks he remembers Minami from his 'other life' in the army, and Senju, the opportunistic, GI-friendly head of the Tokyo criminal organisation from whom Minami begs his pills.

Kodaira is accused of preying upon innumerable young women left vulnerable by the deprivations of war. Peace appears to be using his crimes to represent the inhumanity of man in general, though the risk with this approach is that it polarises male and female positions, with the man portrayed as active and evil, the woman passive and victimised: a reductivism common to almost all procedural fiction, indeed, whatever the era. The idea of women as props in a man's story extends to the repeated depictions of the two women in Minami's life: his long-suffering wife, and his languorous, rain-soaked lover. They are literally shut in, waiting dutifully for him in their musty, decaying rooms. His lover in particular becomes an essentialised everywoman in his mind, her submissive pose often morphing into that of a particular murder victim's. Such parallels imply how Minami, being a man, is somehow equally implicated in violence, a violence that has followed him back from the war overseas.

The deliberate exclusion of the female viewpoint is telling, for instance, when Peace rather brazenly reworks the central event from Satomi Ton's short story "The Camellia" - which has only female characters, and indeed succinctly portrays women coming to terms with death and womanhood in the wake of the Great Kanto Earthquake - into that of two male detectives woken by an ominous and literal 'deflowering' in their hotel room. Overall, Peace can be seen as simply conveying the reality of life for women in a male-dominated world - a reality that was, and still is, certainly not unique to Japan - but as their body-count rises inexorably, the absence of empowered women's voices in the story is deafening. Less suggestible readers may even suspect that Peace is in a similar way trying to bludgeon them into submission with his hypnotically relentless reiteration, rather than allowing them to come to their own conclusions about the human struggle between good and evil.

If the reader can accept the rampant brutality and misogyny that underpin the story, and submit to its analogously domineering and initially confusing repetition of motifs, they will be rewarded with a psychologically compelling portrait of a watershed moment in Japanese history, when it is grappling with the near-destruction of its identity as a nation and struggling with its rebirth in the image of its occupiers, a violent transformation indeed.

Richard Donovan

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Occupied City

by David Peace

Vintage Crime

ISBN 0-3072-7650-3
275 pp

Peace's follow-up to Tokyo Year Zero is the second part of his so-called 'Tokyo Trilogy'. Its mannered, rhythmic, repetitive style will be familiar to readers of the first volume, and for those that found its endless variations of motifs and typographical quirks fascinating, it should again provide powerful insights into the way the human mind works in the face of great evil and trauma. But those after a straightforward, fast-moving crime novel will be bewildered, a little bored, and probably unenlightened as to the 'truth' of the motivation for the crime.

Indeed, I don't think Occupied City is successful as a crime novel - if that is indeed its objective - as it's attempting to do too many things simultaneously (and given that in some sections, each sentence contains three different 'narratives', this is a literal use of the word). With the acknowledged influence of the narrative technique of multiple subjective viewpoints of Akutagawa's stories Rashomon and Yabu no naka, it is part detective story, part indictment of war crimes, part confessional memoir, and, given its title and role in a trilogy, most of all an elegy for a city devastated by war, with its bereaved citizens becoming something like stand-ins for all the world's victims. The attempt to achieve the last comes off as overreach and undermines the first: the end of the book has strayed far from the initial incident, although of course it remains within the ambit of the trilogy as a whole.

Yet the key crime itself - all the more chilling in that it was a real incident - is powerfully depicted, and revisited throughout the book like an unshakeable nightmare. On 26 January 1948, a man claiming to be a doctor enters a Tokyo bank and has its employees drink two liquids under the pretext of inoculating them from dysentery. Soon most of them are dead, poisoned in a terrible murder. Questions around the identity and motivations of the perpetrator form much of the rest of the book, and the role that Japan's covert biological-warfare programmes may have played in the case gradually develops into a horrifying revelation of their inhumanity. The clear implication is that this dark past has 'infected' the vulnerable population in post-war Tokyo in the form of the crime, but to me the motivations of the killer (who supposedly speaks for himself at last) still remain unconvincing by the end, when Peace once again leads us away from the crime and tries to universalise it to the wretchedness of existence.

Thus this book is in some ways unsatisfying in itself, but worth reading as another fascinating component of the meditation on post-war Tokyo that is Peace's ambitious ongoing trilogy.

Richard Donovan

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The New Shogun

by Malcolm Birkin

Sanford Ridge Publishing

ISBN: 0-6204-7607-9
570 pp

The New Shogun begins where James Clavell's best-selling Shogun ends and follows the swashbuckling and romantic adventures of the handsome and courageous Lord Matsuda. Matsuda is in the service of Lord Takanawa (based on the real-life Tokugawa Ieyasu), who is soon to become the "New Shogun" of the title. After victory at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Matsuda is banished from Edo Castle for a breach of samurai protocol and takes up residence on the coast of Izu Peninsula with his attractive wife, Kiku-san and his two young daughters, and it is here he meets William Adams, aka Anjin Miura san, the main protagonist of Clavell's earlier blockbuster.

From here on in to the end of the tale various historical incidents are compressed in time to provide the main action sequences of the story: the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637 and the revenge of the 47 Ronin in 1701 are both recounted in the book. There is no shortage of swordsmanship, ninja strikes and derring-do to satisfy samurai action fans, as well as plenty of romantic interest (often in hot baths) and manly sake sessions at the hour of the cock.

When Matsuda meets the nubile Lady Tokiko and falls in love after a naked swim in the sea together, there's just one hitch, he's already married. No problem, Birkin conveniently arranges for his wife's abduction and murder by disloyal servants in the next chapter, leaving Matsuda free for a raunchy fling with the blond and buxom gaijin, Helen, down in Kyushu during the Shimabara Rebellion, before our hero settles for the native charms of Lady T. For lovers of the original Shogun, Birkin's book will come as no disappointment and the best passages are the evocations of sailing the seas off the Izu coast, a hobby of the author during his own seven year sojourn in Japan. There are one or two irritating slips such as Anjin Miura (Adams) referred to as Muira (sic) throughout the book and suiyobi (Wednesday) rendered as swiyobi (sic), but these are minor quibbles in a rollicking, non-too-serious romp through ye olde worlde of samurai Nihon.

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The 89TH Temple

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by Charlie Canning

Outskirts Press, Kindle edition, 2012

ISBN: B-00AN-NQZA-8
205 pp

Yoko, the most tragic figure in this short novel, is said by one of the other troubled youths accompanying her on the famous pilgrimage around the island of Shikoku to possess a character that cannot be found among the 500 Buddhist categories embodied in the statues near the 66th temple on the route. However, unlike the school bullies who led them all to commit murder, he says this not to exclude her as someone 'different' from the others but rather to praise her for her irreducible combination of qualities: the uniqueness that makes her 'Yoko'.

Overall, Canning's lapidary prose in The 89TH Temple chisels out a convincingly bleak physiognomy of modern Japanese society, perhaps illuminated by a tiny ray of light at the end. If any substantive criticism can be made, it is that in its laudable pursuit of concision the novel is a little reductive in terms of character, themes and plot.

While the compelling story 'ripped from the headlines' is largely devoid of sensationalism (and indeed provides a critique of such 'entertainment' in an era of non-stop electronic surveillance), it would have been more rewarding if the author had spent more time fleshing out the main characters so that they clearly transcend stereotypes. As it is, perhaps with the exception of Yoko, they do little more than represent a checklist of the kinds of people who are prime targets for bullies in Japanese society: the introvert, the passionate rebel, the pretty transplanted Tokyo-ite, and so on. Apart from when their carefully introduced back stories provide visceral testimony to the incremental maliciousness of bullying, we have few chances to get to know the characters on their 'journey'.

Surprisingly little is made of the opportunity to use the characters' experiences at some of the 88 temples (which feature only fleetingly) either to create an authentic sense of place or elucidate their individuality. In the end, the reader may feel that the stock characters in their generic locales simply embody the points about Japanese society and Buddhism that the author wishes to make, becoming mouthpieces for his preoccupations rather than more enduring characters.

At times, such an approach can provide real insights into the inner workings of the collective Japanese mindset. For example, when Murakami, an NGO volunteer leading the party around Shikoku, must first run the gauntlet of local opposition to his plan, he is able to put this in context and be sanguine about the necessary process: "Now everyone was covered. Ignorance, Empathy, and Fear had spoken for two hours, jumping from mouth to mouth. There was no hypocrisy in this, no contradiction. They were all friends."

However, trying to explain a collectivist society in a couple of hundred pages risks overgeneralization. Canning claims in this work that bullying is endemic in Japan – not just in schools, but at all levels of society – and is the logical result of the group beating down the errant nail of individuality. School children simply cannot help bullying those who are different, and the only way out for some of the bullied is murdering the oppressor. Canning spends little time examining what has led the bullies to bully beyond vaguely invoking the same pressures of this group-centred society. Further, he tends to minimize the actions of the retaliators, who have, after all, each ended someone's young life in response to being bullied. Murder earns the opprobrium of general society for good reason, yet the killer-victims simply regard this as a continuation of their persecution. There is no place in their hearts for remorse. Of course, Canning has the right as an author to focus on the fates of the bullied rather than the bulliers.

Bullying is an undeniable fact in Japanese schools, but it is hardly something in which even the more conformist class members engage reflexively. At the same time, Western countries, with their supposedly more individualistic ethic, are surely hardly less prone to the scourge of bullying. Nor is the concomitant vapid consumerism any less evident. Thus while Canning makes many valid points about how Japanese society can oppress and stultify, the overall indictment of collectivism seems a little forced, as does his apparent suggestion that embracing the tenets of Buddhism is the path of salvation in such a society. More detail is needed.

Nevertheless, Canning has obviously made use of his time in Japan to develop a coherent vision of the vast forces, both light and dark, that course beneath the surface. While he may have overstated his case, it is the understated quality of his prose - often, indeed, reminiscent of the restraint of Japanese literature - that is this memorable novel's greatest strength.

Richard Donovan

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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 latterfs 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

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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 emedium that reduces reality to abstraction for transmission to our reason.f 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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Losing Kei

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by Suzanne Kamata

Leapfrog

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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Toraware

by Robert W. Norris

Lulu

ISBN: 141167295X
209 pp

In the 1983 Vietnam veteran and wanderer Harlan arrives in Japan. He is both running from past demons and, perhaps, towards new ones.
He teaches English in Amagasaki, an industrial area between Kobe and Osaka, and studies Japanese. There he meets a 23-year-old Japanese woman who, in spite of her age, also has a tumultuous past. She has just returned from two years in Canada, to which she was sent as a form of therapy following several suicide attempts. Physically exuberant Yoshiko and the spiritual Harlan become involved, two semi-lost souls entwined in exurban Japan. Added to this mix is a wealthy young woman who also falls for Harlan. Sachiko meets him at a language school and uses the pretext of helping him get his novel published as a way of pursuing him. The three could not be more different, but for a brief time their paths converge in ways not predictable. The only thing they share - aside from time and space - is the common pursuit of finding where they belong. In very different ways, each does ultimately find that.
More than that, though, Robert Norris's novel is a prescient evocation of what it is to be an outsider. Harlan, Sachiko, and Yoshiko are unsettled. Harlan is a gaijin in an unromantic part of Kansai - he is pointedly not in Kyoto, or even in Kobe - whose experience while unique speaks volumes of what it is to be foreign in Japan.
Well written and a real page-turner.

C. Ogawa

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Osaka Heat

by Mary Claire Mahaney

AuthorHouse

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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Norwegian Wood

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by Murakami Haruki

Vintage

ISBN: 030795062X
304 pp

While death is an ever-present companion in Murakami's fiction, lurking just out of sight of the mundane world (and often down a well), the dark, impenetrable wood of suicide is peculiar to Norwegian Wood, perhaps his most famous novel. Its date of publication, 1987, puts it inside the speculative economic 'bubble' period in Japan. 1987 seems to have been a particularly angst-filled time for Japanese postmodern writers, for in the same year Banana Yoshimoto published her first novel Kitchen. While this does not deal with suicide, it mirrors Norwegian Wood's focus on the struggles of those whom Death leaves behind in the mundane world, to carry on living as best they can, and to make sense of life and death in any way that works for them.

Tōru Watanabe, the I-narrator of Norwegian Wood, inhabits two time periods in this story - the framing world of the late '80s, in which he is a financially successful, yet emotionally adrift, author, and his earlier, eventful university years. The bulk of the novel takes place in the late 1960s, when, as a young adult, he has been reunited with childhood friend Naoko, the suicide of whose boyfriend in high school has left her mentally unstable. Watanabe finds his feelings for this girl rekindled, but when she leaves Tokyo to enter a sanatorium near Kyoto he finds himself drawn into the world of the offbeat Midori, who is the vital, worldly foil to Naoko's ethereal, tenuous existence. In the unconscious push and pull between these two poles, the immortal lyrics of the Beatles' Norwegian Wood gain their purchase: "I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me." For Watanabe is in thrall to both females, and in a sense they represent two basic human responses to extremity: the death urge and the sex urge, Thanatos and Eros. The emotionally crippled Naoko cannot internalise sexual experience, while Midori thrives on it, even if most of it takes place in her fevered imaginings.

Indeed, the novel aroused comment in Japan for both its frank treatment of suicide and depiction of youthful sexual fumblings, the latter of which has surely enlightened a whole generation of high-school students in Japan. Some might argue that this novel created the inflexible mould for Murakami's subsequent treatment of female characters: their sexuality is rarely left unexplored in his later works, and an uncharitable critic could argue that much else of them is. (None of his novels, for example, has had a female voice: Sputnik Sweetheart, ostensibly focusing on female protagonist Sumire, still has a male narrator as a framing device.)

Norwegian Wood, as I have already suggested, is different from Murakami's other novels to date, and not only in terms of its subject matter. Unlike his previous, fourth novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, whose narrative alternates between worlds of fantasy and 'reality', this work purposely does not employ the occult as some balance to the jazz-and-whiskey Tokyo urban jungle that characterises Murakami's take on modern 'internationalised' society. The late-60s setting - a time of soul-searching for Japan's student elite, under the influence of European and American intellectuals - reveals much about Murakami the writer as a young man. He pointedly prefers Fitzgerald and Chandler to Ōe and Mishima, rejecting the aesthetic of his fellow countrymen, and regards personal philosophical enquiry as inherently superior to social revolution, as the latter is, for him, inevitably self-undermining and hypocritical. (The 'other' Murakami, Ryū, explores similar themes in his bitingly funny social critique 69.)

Watanabe may never be able to fathom the depths of Naoko's despair, but he makes a sincere attempt to understand her. In a similar way, perhaps, Murakami never quite explains the enigma of what it means to live in a postmodern, seemingly arbitrary, ideologically vacant society, but in this his fifth novel he refines his still-ongoing examination of the millennial human condition. In this sense, Norwegian Wood is a reasonably significant late-20th-century novel, and in terms of what it reveals about Murakami the writer, an important one for his fans.

(See here for my review of the 2010 movie Norwegian Wood based on the novel.)

Richard Donovan

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Week One as a Japanese Salaryman in Tokyo: A Tale of wonderment for a young American in an entirely different world (Lessons in Japanese Salaryman Life Book 1)

Week One as a Japanese Salaryman in Tokyo.

by Kevin Boynton

Amazon Digital Services LLC

ISBN: B019FNOCEC
Kindle
52 pp

This little ebook is the first installment of a planned series of short stories. A fictional account, which I'm guessing is somewhat autobiographical, follows the story of a young American who after having spent three years teaching English in Japan takes a job in IT for a Japanese corporation. There are lots of comparisons between the USA and Japan, a favorite topic of the Japanese themselves, and something overly represented in writings on Japan. I would be much more interested in comparisons between Japan and say, Mexico, or India, or even Belgium. There are also many "insights" into Japanese life, again something that has been done to death already. Did you know the Japanese have difficulty pronouncing "l" and "r"? The writing is competent, though not engaging enough to make me want to read the next installment. It seems that this would be perfectly good material for a blog, but I am not sure how large the market would be for a publication that needed paying for, though it is cheaper than a cup of coffee.

Jake Davies

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