Stretch - Japanese Archive
Liity LibraryThingin jäseneksi, niin voit kirjoittaa viestin.
I've been reading Japanese books since 2010 and its spread out over multiple threads. So I thought I'd collect them all in one place and could create an archive of some of my favorite authors, and see how my own reading evolves.
Books read so far:
1. Fires on the Plain By Ooka Shohei*
2. Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
3. Barefoot Gen Volume One by Keiji Nakazawa
4. Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse*
5. Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura*
6. The Sea and Poison by Shusaku Endo*
7. Storm Rider by Akira Yoshimura
8. In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki
9. The Stones Cry Out by Hikaru Okuizumi*
10. Kokoro by Natsume Soseki
11. Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe
12. Taiko by Eiji Yoshikawa*
13. In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami*
14. Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata
15. Ten Billion Days and Hundred Billion Nights by Ryu Mitsuse
16. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa*
17. One Man’s Justice by Akira Yoshimura*
18. On Parole by Akira Yoshimura*
19. When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka
20. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
21. Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki*
22. Into a Black Sun by Takeshi Kaiko
23. Hiroshima Notes by Kenzaburo Oe
24. I am Cat by Natsume Soseki
25. The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada*
26. The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa*
27. Confessions by Kanae Minato*
28. The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada*
29. In a Grove by Ryunosuke Akutagawa*
30. Roshomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
31. Patriotism by Yukio Mishima*
32. Penance by Kanae Minato
33. Kamikaze by Yasuo Kuwahara*
34. If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamur
35. The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike
36. The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada
37. Real World by Natsuo Kirino*
38. The Book of Tea by Kakuzō Okakura
Fires on the Plain By Ooka Shohei
A desperate Japanese army on a small Island in the Philippines, resorts to abandoning members of their own in a last-ditch effort to strengthen their ranks before the inevitable invasion. Private Tamura is one of these soldiers left to fend for himself, unable to return to his unit and unable to “pay” for treatment at the army hospital. Private Tamura is left to wander Leyte Island with neither a reason to live nor a reason to die. The instinct to survive is a powerful pull that lead Tamura to commit a cardinal sin against humanity.
Ooka's account of a starving Japanese soldiers' attempt to rationalize and come to terms with the horrors of war that are all around him is both powerful and poetic. In utter isolation Ooka takes Tamura to the edge of insanity, allowing him to explore the depths of despair and the simple joys of nature in a detached calm reasoning, giving Tamura's insights both beauty and terror. Even in his struggles to discern the differences between God and himself, Tamura is never too far from the logic and reasoning that forces him to survive his descent into hell.
Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
Battle Royale begins with a bang, literally and figuratively, with an innovative and unique presentational style capturing the readers' attention. From there, a compelling and gripping thriller begins to unfold. There are some parts in it that are violent and repulsive, but the book isn't just all about death, blood and gore. The point of the program isn't just about killing everyone, but to learn about human nature. This book is definitely pulp fiction, but an enjoyable read if you enjoy this type of material and have some time to kill.
Barefoot Gen Volume One by Keiji Nakazawa
Every now and then I come across a book that I wish was required reading when I was in high school; in my estimation Barefoot Gen: Vol 1 is one of those books. Barefoot Gen is the first-hand account of the author's, Keiji Nakazawa, experiences of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Nakazawa is certainly a competent illustrator, but more importantly it's the story he tells through his panels that makes the this personal re-telling of history so compelling.
Most of the first volume takes place well before the bomb is dropped, setting the stage for the ultimate tragedy. However, the small injustices of Gen's family in the days prior to the bombing amount to a tragedy all their own. Gen’s father is outspoken about his opposition to the war; he sees the famine it’s brought, the lives it takes and the values it twists, such as the group suicides who seek honor in taking their lives rather than face capture. Nakazawa looks down upon this so-called honor, instead focusing directly on the daily hardships in wartime and the futility of hope and superstitions. Nakazawa witnessed the blind loyalty of Japanese citizens to the Emperor, endured the stigma of being one of the few families opposed to the war in his village, saw the flesh dripping off the bodies of those victims caught directly in the bomb’s blast. What he puts on the illustrated page is not necessarily realistic, but it is haunting and terrible all the same. Even mixing the over-the-top comical elements (silly and strange dialogue; overt use of violence when characters disagree; even fart jokes) that is so common with Manga. I wouldn't say the Manga elements are seamlessly integrated into the story, but the story simply wouldn't be the same without them.
Nakazawa, through Gen’s family, offers one of the greatest explorations of the concept of humanity ever put in print. Loyalty and sacrifice for an ideal mean nothing when fellow neighbors are in immediate need of help. Gen’s town turns on his family once they’re branded as traitors, but it’s those who still offer them food and support that stand out in the story. I think this series will remain in my mind for a long time to come.
Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse
Black Rain is set several years after WWII and is told through the main narrator Shigematsu Shizuma as he and a small group of local survivors, including his family, struggle with the stigma and mysterious symptoms of radiation sickness. Which the only cure seems to be that of the common cold and a lot of rest; it's that last part that seems to be so upsetting to Japanese sensibility. The narrative revolves around Shigematsu Shizuma’s niece, Yasuko, who is not yet married, and rumors that she was hit by poisonous black rain after the Hiroshima bombing, and is now suffering from radiation sickness, to lower her chances of finding someone. When someone makes inquires about her, her uncle decides to copy his diary of the days after the bombing so that he can set the record straight about what the family went through and to preserve a first-hand account of the immediate aftermath for a local school.
The real power of this narrative comes from the narrow focus of these one family as they struggle through the immediate aftermath and fallout. Black Rain is not about the political or social implications of nuclear warfare. Rather, it’s about its everyday consequences and impacts of war on the lives of those who lived it. Through the diary entries we get a clear picture of the hardships of rationing, the stress of air raids or the lack of air raids, the complications of black market dealings, and the bureaucracy of life under army rule. Then there was the flash that changed it all for the people of Hiroshima. The Diary entries detail the bombing from several perspectives, describing the deaths and injuries of the victims in all their gory detail. Some of the descriptions are extremely disturbing. But what really stands out is the chaos and confusion that prevails the situation throughout the first week. Victims not knowing where to seek safety from the flames; not knowing how to deal with the dead and dieing; the continued frustration of dealing with a never-ending bureaucracy to get help and needed supplies; and finally the surreal reaction to the final surrender. The immense suffering of and udder lack of humanity that saturates the whole situation (I'm including the victims here as well) is enough to cause me to question what the hell is wrong with the species.
Black Rain is a very moving book, written in a very quiet, restrained tone. The lack of emotions stands in stark contrast to that of western writers. The casual observations that make up much of the diary entries are what make this fictional biography so disturbing. Anger or self-pity would detract from understanding the totality of this tragedy. Black Rain is one of those books that should be required reading in history class covering the war with Japan. The images from this book will linger in my mind for a long time to come.
Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura
Shipwrecks is a story of a poor coastal village in medieval Japan as a young boy, Isaku, is coming of age. Isaku's father has sold himself into debt-bondage, so though only nine years old he has to learn the skills of an adult to help his mother support the family on the brink of starvation. The story develops slowly as Isaku learns and develops the skills needed to survive the harsh realities of this isolated village. All the while he and his fellow villagers hope and pray for the rare O-fune-sama, the shipwrecks which mean the difference between bare subsistence and temporary security; which they actively lure to their doom during heavy storms. O-fune-sama is considered a gift of prosperity from the sea until one fateful ship ravages the village with a catastrophe that seems like a timely retribution for their sins.
The story unfolds slowly setting up a routine and seasonality to lives of the villagers that is in way serene and peaceful. The fish caught in the bay and along the reef come and go with the changing of the seasons, what little food that can be gathered or traded for is collected, villagers wed, children are born, the elderly die, the villagers practice the Shinto and Buddhist rituals to ensure good tidings are performed; life as hard as it is goes on as it has always gone on. Even when disaster befalls the village the Yoshimura never alters to the clam and sometimes passive tone that is prevasive throughout the novel, instilling a sense that even this too shall pass. Shipwreck does not culminate in dramatic flourish of life altering revelations or major life changes. The surviving villagers pick up their lives where they left off; accepting the good and the bad as apart of what life has to offer. There is a sense that they will simply rebuild and hope that when the sea offers up its bounty it will once again bring prosperity and security to the village.
A very dark but worthwhile and powerful read. Shipwrecks is almost lyrical in its presentation, my reservations of Yoshimura as a writer can now be totally dismissed.
The Sea and Poison by Shusaku Endo
The Sea and Poison is a short, dark physiological exploration of the motives and morals of the men and women who performed vivisections of B29 airmen at Fukuoka Imperial University towards the end of World War II. The story primarily centers around the of Dr. Suguro, who in the opening of the book is practicing medicine in a dingy clinic in a backwater suburb of Tokyo, a curiosity considering his skill and proffiency that would suggest that he belonged in a proper hospital. But that career is fated to someone else it seems, for Dr. Suguro is haunted by the acts he and the other doctors committed during the war at the Fukuoka Hospital. A majority of the story takes place at the hospital, while Dr. Suguro is a young intern, and told from the multiple points of view of the doctors and nurses who would ultimately choose to take part in the horrendous acts of vivisections of POWs and their muted reactions to their crimes.
While the Sea and Poison is a short novel, it effectively explores the theme of morality and the practical ethics of a person when under a great strain is not only willing to accept evil, but even become an active participate in unspeakable crimes. A combination for the demoralizing effect of air raids and the lust for power of the doctor’s at Fukuoka takes precedence over the care of patients to the point that their suffering and death have very little effect on the doctor’s who are all too ready to cover up mistakes and give into the demands of the military establishment. It was a bit surreal to see how the nihilism that swept Japan’s prewar culture and how the absolute devotion to authority led to doctor’s of all people to not only neglect their patients, but to harm and kill their patients with so little feeling. It’s scary to think how fragile people at times of personal crisis. The really remarkable thing about this book to me was how easy the decision became for many of the doctor’s and nurse’s who felt that there was really nothing else they could lose. A very good but very dark read whose themes are going to be with me for a while.
Storm Rider by Akira Yoshimura
Storm Rider is primarily a story about a young Japanese castaway rescued by American sailors trying to get back to his homeland. Hikotaro, who became Hikozo, and later Joseph Heco becomes a successful interpreter for various commercial enterprises and the US government during the period when Japan was opening itself to western trade again in the 1850's. Even though Hikozo is able to return to his homeland in his heart he is knows that his fellow countrymen will always be considered a criminal for becoming a citizen of his adopted country and converting to Christianity. Never being truly American and not able to assimilate himself back into Japanese society, Hikozo is destined to drift between this cultural divide unsure of where he fits and where his true loyalties lie.
On the surface this would make a compelling story. However, Yoshimura fails to deliver the goods. Instead the reader is presented with an interesting historical perspective of the opening of Japan but not much else. The main plot has no real dramatic tension or motivation. The story simply follows Hikozo around for many years detailing his life and all the people who help him return to Japan, while on some level this is fairly interesting it doesn't make for a very compelling read. On top of that Yoshimura felt it necessary to split the narrative several times, following the lives of other Japanese castaways whom Hikozo meets as they, too, try to return to Japan. All these stories felt like an epilogue sandwiched in the middle without much thought as to how it would affect the pace and overall structure of the story. It's all a bit strange why Yoshimura choose to fragment the story in this way, something I would expect from a first time novelist, not a seasoned veteran. Also, the translation while probably accurate and precise his often very dry and a times seems to breakdown the cadence/rhythm of Yoshimura's writing that is quite jarring and hard and adds breaks to the narrative that shouldn't be there. Really Storm Rider feels like a thinly veiled historical narrative Nakahama Manjiro's life and the opening of Japan. With some judicious editing and a better translator this could have been a really good novel. Or maybe Yoshimura should have just stuck with a historical biography of Nakahama Manjiro and not have tried to fictionalize his life story.
On a positive note Storm Rider has not deterred my desire to read Shipwrecks by the same author. Even though I may not have enjoyed Storm Rider as much as I would have liked, I did find some real potential in Yoshimura's writing. Added bonus I learned about Nakahama Manjiro, an unintentional side effect of googleing. Oh and now I feel I need to learn more about Japanese culture and history to really understand setting and moods of Japanese fiction.
In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki
In Praise of Shadows is an essay by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki exulting the Japanese aesthetics when it comes to design and functionality. Written at a time when Japan was modernizing and becoming more and more like western countries, Tanizaki pleads with his audience (the Japanese people) to remember their unique sense of design and not to abandon the old ways for the harsher western designs. It was really interesting to read about the role of shadow and how that is incorporated in the design of a house or even individual rooms. There are some aspects of Japanese design and art that I can't simply Google and had a hard time telling the difference from Japanese use of natural elements and use of natural light with the American southeast/Spanish design that grew up with and understand, to me they're pretty similar. Either way I think the Japanese aesthetic suits me rather well. I'll have to make it priority to visit Japan and see this aesthetic up close.
As I was reading this I had the good fortune to be in town in Seymour, IN, which has a lot of Japanese industry. The hotel I was at caters to the Japanese clientele when they are in town with Japanese newspapers, Miso soup, and a totally redesigned third floor to be more of an eastern feel. Unlike the western rooms the bamboo wallpaper is carried over into the rooms to give the walls a more subdued look, the furniture is lower to the ground, there's a greater affiance on natural woods, there architecturally useless beam and alcoves, and the lighting was different from most western style rooms. Lots of shadow and more serene feel to the room. Grant it all this is a bit Westernized for other paying customers, but I got the feeling that the hotel was trying very hard to incorporate as much of the Japanese design elements as possible without going so far as to alienate its base clientele. It's probably the 1st time I have ever really looked at a hotel before.
The Stones Cry Out by Hikaru Okuizumi
Tsuyoshi Manase, the book's protagonist, is a veteran of Japan's campaign on the island of Leyte, who is haunted by what he witnessed in the waning days of Japan's last-ditch effort to defend the island. While hiding from the enemy surrounded unimaginable suffering men of his unit who plagued by hunger, thirst, disease, without arms, and encircled by rotting corpses try vainly to muster the strength to die honorably in one last charge of the enemy. Manase is able to gleams some solace in the dying words of Lance Corporal, who in another lifetime was a geologist, that would impact the rest of his life. After the war Mansae runs s successful book store, marries, and has children. Still haunted by his memories of the war, Mansae turns to stone collecting which quickly turns into an all-encompassing obsession, often taking priority over his family obligations. When tragedy strikes Mansae's favorite son, a budding geologist himself, Mansae begins to lose grip of reality. His family implodes unable to deal with the tragic end of such a young boy; too emotionally weak Mansae himself begins to weather away leaving nothing, but tragedy in the wake of a once promising life.
Okuizumi seamlessly intertwines Manse's memories, reality, and hallucinations into one beautiful and harrowing narrative. The mix of reality and the hallucinations are so well done that by the end of this very short book the reader is left wondering if Manse's entire life is nothing more than an illusion of a dying man in a forgotten cave on an island surrounded by the dying and the fear of the unknown. With all the symbolism and the twist and turns that Mansae and his family are put through it's a wonder how Okuizumi is able to keep a coherent story together, but he does and what story he tells. Told in a wonderfully sparse but poetic prose from beginning to end, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this a must-read for those interested in Japanese literature.
The book is remarkable, I only hope that they decide to translate more of Okuizumi's work into English soon.
Kokoro by Natsume Soseki
Kokoro is a beautifully written story with a deep underlying sadness of a young man who befriends a mysterious mentor with a troubled past, which isn't revealed until after the narrator travel home to care for his dying father. This is a story of relationships and the decisions we make that can forever alter those bonds. This is a novel about longing for a past we can't have, even if it causes us so much pain.
It's easy to tell that Natsume Soseki was concerned with themes of isolation, especially loneliness resulting from the rapid social changes during the Meiji Period of Japan, when Japan was rapidly adapting technology and the cultural customs of western countries. It's hard for me to relate to, but I think there are some similarities to today with how the internet has changed the dynamics of how people relate to one another. While being more and more connected in every way we are still interfacing with a screen isolated from the outside, creating a new kind of loneliness.
There's also a lot to take away from this novel as a historic piece of work. One being that no western novel of the same period could ever sustain the kind of avoidance and mystery of the past for so long. By applying to the very traditional Japanese custom of discretion Soseki manages to create an atmosphere of suspense in what amounts to a slow plodding character driven novel. The other is that the Meiji Period must have been very hard for much of the older and more traditional Japanese to adjust to. Every society has a period of immense change in its history, but I get a sense that this was especially traumatic for a society like Japan that had been closed to the outside for long. A very worthwhile look at the effects of the Meiji Period.
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids is a story about a group of delinquent boys who are sent to a remote village to escape the incessant air raids towards the end of the war. The boys are despised by the larger Japanese population and are treated with the outmost hostility. While there, a plague is thought to break out and the villagers flee in panic, leaving the boys alone in the village. Ultimately, the villagers realize there is no plague, and they return to find the children relatively unharmed.
Nip the Buds is a dark, desolate, straightforward book. There is no mystery about what is happening. Though many comparisons might initially be drawn between it and Lord of the Flies, they are less significant than you might originally imagine. In this case, the children do not resort to savages when left alone. Rather, we come to realize it is the adults who have succumbed to panic and forgotten their humanity. It is they who leave a sick girl to die, and ignore the pleas for help from the main character when he sneaks out to their new village and presents himself healthy. Also, it is they who in the end are embarrassed by their behavior and attempt to force the children into pretending like nothing happened so when the leaders of the reformatory school arrive, they do not get punished. It is only the narrator's refusal to accept these lies that results in his banishment from the village and his life on the run.
An Additional Thought:
Having read some reviews of Kenzaburō Ōe's other works, sexual deviance or sexual acts outside the mainstream seem to be a fairly common plot device throughout his other work. For me the acts of homosexuality and teens exposing themselves seemed out of place. He would inject scenes that just didn't seem to flow with the overall narrative. That's not to say they don't evoke a reaction, but I can't figure out what the intended effect was? The only thing I can come up with is that perhaps, it was a way of shocking the socially conservative population at the beginning of Japan's own sexual revolution. Maybe in a different time and place I would have found this innovative and daring, but now I'm just kind of confused by it.
Taiko by Eiji Yoshikawa
Taiko is a story set in the middle of the 16th century as the Ashikaga shogunate crumbled. As a consequence Japan came to resemble a huge battlefield as rival warlords vied for dominance. Three very different men emerged seeking to control and unify Japan. Those men were the brutal, rash, and charismatic Oda Nobunaga; the cunning Toyotomi Hideyoshi; and the patient Tokugawa Ieyasu. Their divergent leadership styles are eloquently expressed in the answers to this question presented at the beginning of the book:
`What if the bird will not sing?'
Oda Nobunaga answers `Kill it if it does not want to sing'
Toyotomi Hideyoshi answers `Make it want to sing'
Tokugawa Ieyasu answers `Wait until it sings'
Essentially, this is Toyotomi Hideyoshi's story: how one man rose from obscurity to be the supreme regent of Japan. The novel follows Hideyoshi's life, his development from a peasant to a loyal servant of Oda Nobunaga and his final assumption of leadership after Oda Nobunaga is killed by Akechi Mitsuhide. We see his successes and failures in both love and war, and watch as he ultimately rises (after many struggles), to become Taiko, the supreme ruler of Japan under the Emperor even if it is to be a short-lived reign.
I find this book fascinating. Yoshikawa has an excellent way of taking the historical Japan full of political intrigue and bitter rivals and weaving into a simple story of a young man finding his way in a samurai dominated feudal Japan. He has also managed to capture the motivations and the bonds of loyalty of the samurai class that enabled them to give their lives so freely to one another. To throw themselves into battle so willing is such a foreign idea, but Yoshikawa has managed to make the warrior code palatable to this westerner without the being too brash and beating the me over the head with it. I still can't imagine that people in a modern society would be so willing to trust their lives to the whims of a single person like that. Or that dying in battle for a master was not just honorable but was your duty. Anyway, Taiko is truly an engrossing epic from start to finish that demands to read again and again. I would even dare to say it is my Don Quixote of this year and that's not just because they are similar in length.
There are quite a few characters that come and go, so I strongly suggest drawing a character tree from the start to keep track of them all, it helped me immensely.
In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami
In the Miso Soup is a gruesome and biting social commentary of the Japanese sex trade; and the men and women who buy and sell sex. It’s a nasty tale of a 20-year-old guide whose chosen occupation is to show tourists around this seemingly disgusting, but socially acceptable underworld. Where high school girls sell it and businessmen pay to drive the loneliness of modern society away. Kenji, the tourist guide, is not particular proud of his line of work, seeing as an end to means, but remains non-judgmental of the people and the business of sex for sale, until he meets an American with a deadly streak.
The book itself is divided to three parts. The first part serves as an introduction to the sex underworld and this scary, enigmatic American, who is also a pathological liar. The second part deals with confirmation of Kenji’s worst fears and shows the true character of the foreigner. It also shows growing disgust with the sex industry and the people who support the industry. The third and final part of the story is more of a physiological analysis of behavior, full of strained metaphors.
A very good, very disturbing little book. By no means is it for everyone.
Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata
This isn't so much a review, as I'm struggling with the significance of this very short novel. (The note I wrote down immediatley after reading the novel)
This is a slow, plodding story of a young man of recentish dead parents of some wealth in postwar Japan. His background and life are never very clear. It's a story of dealing with family dynamics and the legacies of one's parents all revolving around the traditional tea ceremony. And like the tea ceremony every word, gesture, and detail has a deeper meaning (or at least I think it does otherwise it would be too simple of novel).
The main thrust of the story is that this young man must deal with the meddlesome misstresses of his father. One that is trying to worm her way into his life as go between for a marriage proposal, and the other he falls in love with the idea of her as a woman. When the one he falls in love with suddenly dies he transfers those feelings to her daughter. At first the love is superficial and attached to the deceased mother later it deepens for as a person. The daughter of this mistress is trying to right the wrong of her mother. Lots of passive drama going on in this book. All a bit too passive for my taste. No character ever really steps up and takes charge of the situation they find themselves in. The accept their fates to some degree and don't fight until it's possibly too late. I'm missing something here, and I can't figure it out.
Things I took from this novel that might be helpful:
The children can't escape the fate of their respective parents.
Grace and precision of the tea ceremony reflects in the way the characters interact with one another.
The tea ceremony like the lives of the main characters have become corrupt.
Aesthetics are important in the novel => both the actual utensils used in the ceremony and the people.
Ten Billion Days and Hundred Billion Nights by Ryu Mitsuse
If our universe is defined by the limits of time since the Big Bang, then what lies beyond that boundary?
To try to answer that question Mitsuse has mixed hard science fiction, heavy on cosmology, and the three of humanities great philosophical traditions. And by mixing, I mean pitting against one another in a battle for supremacy and to save humanity from destruction at the hands of some not so benevolent beings. Ten Billion Days and Hundred Billion Nights also covers a tremendous amount of ground starting at the very beginning of the universe to its final death from entropy.
Without going into too much detail, the novel tells a story of an alien influence on the growth and development of humanity, and how it has manifested itself in different religions and philosophies throughout history. These are the parts of the novel in which Mitsuse is at his best. The writing for each time period resembles the religious and philosophical texts of the time, and the science fiction elements of the plot and battle scenes are worked into the story line seamlessly. But the most compelling part of the story for me though was the insights into Buddhism and that outlook compares with the Christian worldview. At times, I didn't fully understand what was going on, and at times the constant descriptions of the characters every thought process got to be a bit tedious; but I'm still amazed at how Mitsuse was able to work so much into one science fiction story and still write something compelling.
Ten Billion Days and Hundred Billion Nights was an ambitious undertaking, and I believe the Mitsuse pretty much pulled it off. It assumes quite a lot of prior knowledge about both physics and metaphysics, and it moves so quickly it can sometimes be confusing, but in my opinion it was well worth the effort to read. I very much enjoyed my first foray into Japanese science fiction.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
A gifted mathematician, after suffering a terrible accident is left with a memory that only last for 80 minutes. His world is reduced to solving puzzles from mathematic journals. His only connection with the larger world and important events in his life is through the handwritten notes clipped to his worn out suits. Unable to form lasting relationships with anyone new, he’s stuck in the past that no longer exists. Isolated from the world, it’s left to his widowed sister-in-law to be his caretaker. To this end, she hires a series of housekeepers to tend to the “professor’s” few needs and to keep his shack of a home from deteriorating any further. Meeting new people for the professor and the person in question is a daunting experience that must be repeated every day. The only connection the professor can form with these people are through their numbers (birthdate, age, height, shoe size, etc.); and finding the interplay those numbers have with the only world he understands, mathematics. Enter an under educated housekeeper devoted to her work and her nine-year-old son (an avid baseball fan) who shake the professor’s self constructed reality to reveal a fully fledged person.
The Housekeeper and the Professor are about friendship and the bonds people form when they are open to receiving each other’s flaws as well as their gifts. It’s about to be torn families coming together to form a new family built from the tragedies each has experienced. It’s about overcoming isolation and opening up to possibility. All wrapped in the beautifully understated prose of Yoko Ogawa.
One Man’s Justice by Akira Yoshimura
One Man’s Justice is a poignant account of defeat told from a loyal Japanese solider turned war criminal fugitive. It’s a story about the hardships and humiliating sting of a defeated nation. It’s a story of how war can twist moral absolute truths and makes the indefensible justified. And it’s a story of how world politics can making what should be the solid ground of justice a murky and incomprehensible fog.
At a time when the once proud Japan is reduced to rubble and humiliated by surrender an act otherwise unthinkable by traditional standards becomes the only option for a group of frustrated solders not ready to give up the fight. With the firebombing of entire cities and the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulting in thousands of civilian deaths, the lives of American POWs not only become dispensable but also are taken as an act of revenge for the atrocities of others. As a participant in the executions of American POWs, our loyal Lieutenant Takuya, is labeled a war criminal by the conquering United States, which at the time is an automatic death sentence. Unable to bear the thought of execution for an act that Takuya doesn’t consider a crime and as a soldier was only following the orders of superiors, he must flee and become a fugitive in war torn Japan. Without a functioning economy or an adequate food supply, the Japanese road to recovery is full hardships for the average citizen; for a fugitive like Takuya the additional stress of being caught by the authorities is almost unbearable. Not to mention the humiliation of being the subjects of a military occupation where the Japanese people have no real control over their lives and now must adjust to this idea of democracy. Nothing in Takuya’s life is steady or certain; except for the idea if caught, he will be executed for his actions. However, world affairs and time has made justice in Japan malleable and more forgiving. So even his idea of justice becomes unattainable and Takuya’s foundations crumble like the old Japan he once knew.
Yoshimura has a way of taking a simple story and making it a complex exploration of what grounds us as human beings. In One Man’s Justice explores the idea of right and wrong and how the that perception changes in a given circumstance, generationally, and over time. To Yoshimura an absolute right or wrong is not absolute given the right set of circumstances. Take a confused, self-deluded product of a strict and disturbing moral order, facing defeat and humiliation at the hands of the enemy and pretty much any action can be rationalized at the moment. However, with time that rationalization disappears and what’s left is a haunting memory and broken life. What’s particularly remarkable about this book is that it’s a clear-eyed account of a defeated nation. Yoshimura doesn’t shy away from the anger felt by a people who have been firebombed and subjected to the 1st and so far last atomic bombings. And he’s not afraid to air the atrocities committed by Japan. In some measure this is to show how the inequality of outcomes for war criminals depends on the victors. How a few soldiers killing of a handful of POWs outwieghs the death of thousands of civilians at the hands of hundreds of B-29 raids is fundamentally unfair and should be treated as wrong if justice is to be applied equally to everyone.
On Parole by Akira Yoshimura
I royally screwed in reading this. Right in the middle of reading this I caved and read the Wiki page about this book that summarized the entire plot from beginning to end. It nearly ruined it for me and added a month to my reading. Luckily Yoshimura is such an awesome author that I still managed to enjoy the story as it unfolded even when I knew how it was going to end. (The ending of this book is very important so don't read plot summaries if you plan on picking this one up.)
The basic premise of the book is how does an institutionalized prisoner come to terms with the world they left behind once they are paroled. A secondary theme is a guilty man come to terms with his crime. It's really a fascinating look into the psychology of a not only a man with a guilty conscience but someone who has to acclimate to a society they no longer are a part of. Parole in Japan is very different from that of the United States. But the stigma of prison life and the outcomes nevertheless seem the same. Even a seasoned prisoner readjusting to civilian life isn't a simple linear path that leads to forgiveness or freedom. Leaving the undressed problems that got you put in prison in the first place only leads to more trouble no matter how good your intentions may be.
Other than spoiling this book for myself I found it absolutely riveting. Like all his stories there isn't a whole lot of action to drive the plot. It's mostly an understated tension just waiting for the reveal. I love just about everything Yoshimura writes and this is no exception. Although I would say the characters in Shipwrecks and One's man Justice are easily my favorites of his works, but this is easily as good.
When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka
The internment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens during World War II is a disturbing chapter in American History, that doesn't receive much attention. Thousands of ethnic Japanese citizens and families were stripped of their freedom, homes, businesses, and sense of security overnight. Limited to what they could carry in a single suitcase, they were ushered from homes to temporary living facilities in horse stalls to their final destinations, tent cities in the harsh, remote desert regions of our country. If that wasn't shameful enough the government forced everyone to take loyalty tests, which is answered honestly could result in separation or deportation. They lost everything they had built before the war and during the war they lost their dignity. For their trouble each person was given a train ticket home and $25.00 (the same package given to convicted felons upon release) with which to start their lives over again. And yet there really isn't much written about this period.
When the Emperor was Divine is the story of one family as they struggle to prepare, adjust to live within the camp, and come home from an internment camp in the Utah desert. The story is told from the perspective of members of the family in alternating chapters. The first chapter is told from the mother's point of view as they are forced to prepare for the evacuation. The fear of the unknown and the struggle to maintain their pride is palpable. The second chapter is told by the daughter as they travel to their new home, and dealing with their loss of sense of identity. The third chapter is from the young son's perspective as they adjust and learn to live within the camp. The final chapter is told from either a more mature son's perspective or a combination of both the boy and girls voices telling of a once proud father, who is now just a broken paranoid shell and a family struggling to put their lives together in a world they are now very unfamiliar to the world they left.
Each chapter is unique and distinct. Normally a story told like this can be choppy, but here they flow together with no harsh transitions. This book is unrelentingly depressing and dark. The family makes the best of their situation, but they are clearly broken, and they are never too far from crumbling under the stress. The only thing holding them together are their bonds. Hope is in short supply.
The only real problem with this book is that it is far too short. The four chapters only cover the first few months of the war and the aftermath for this one family. It's not enough to explore the entirety of the effects of forced relocation on the family. This book calls for a much more in depth exploration of internment. But really this is only a minor defect of a well written book, that I'm glad I was able to snipe off the wishlist.
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
The Buddha in the Attic is sparse account of Japanese ‘picture brides’ experiences in America: the hopes and dreams of a new life in America; the disappointment of the meeting the men they are promised to; the abuses they faced from their husbands and from the others around them; the fear of and sadness of life in a new country; the harshness of manual labor working for as maids, laundress, groceries, and farm labors; the rejection they faced from society, from their husbands, and even from their children; the fear of the interment process; and even a few moments when life wasn’t disappointing.
It was a pretty dark and depressing little novel. And told in the third-person singular (we) forces the reader to recognize the collective nature of the experiences of these women. Lot of folks will find the writing style annoying and are unable to connect with these women. For this story had been told as a single person narrative it wouldn’t have been as impactful for a story with a wide-ranging experience of picture brides and the interment of the Japanese people deserve. My only issue with the story is how diverse Otsuka made California sound. Her depictions of rural northern California and the lives of farmers was spot on. It was actually pretty cool for someone like me to get the places I grew up in name-dropped and for those places to feel authentic (Yuba City, Gridley, Elk Grove, Chico, Lincoln, etc.). The problem is that the very small populations of these places just haven’t been all that diverse through our collective past. I think making the lives of the Japanese characters throughout California was to make their absence something more widely felt. But the sad reality is that internment went unnoticed by very large portions of the state.
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki
Told from similar experience, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is a story of a doomed Imperial Japanese Army Unit defending an island in the archipelago of Papa New Guinea in the last days of WWII. The desperate acts to keep hunger at bay and the willingness to sacrifice their lives to prolong a meaningless cause is disturbing, especially when the senior officers were so callous with human life. It’s hard to understand how these men suffered and threw away promising lives for the vague notion of honor.
As told through the medium of manga, it gives a reality to the devastation wrought by war and a surreal feeling to the whole debacle. I’m not real familiar with the form, but there seems to be a concentrated effort to inject humor into stories like these, that makes the transitions from death and destruction to revenge humor a bit choppy and lessens the impact of the message somewhat. Not that all stories of hardship and sacrifice should be without their moments of brevity, but they can upset the flow of the story when in manga form, that might not be present in long form writing. Still a very well written and drawn story of tragic time. Maybe manga just isn’t something I get behind, since it lacks the emotional kick I look for in these kinds of stories.
Into a Black Sun by Takeshi Kaiko
Into a Black Sun, is a somewhat fictionalized account of a Japanese reporters time in Saigon and as a frontline reporter in 1964. There's no real point of view, the Vietnam War is just something that is happing and the reporter is merely experiencing in his limited capacity. There are no judgments about the rights and wrongs of the war or any of its actors. Its just an account of the South Vietnamese and their American counterparts waging a largely apathetic war for reasons that are lost on the general population.
The book was most interesting when discussing the war with the soldiers and the officers, even the discussions with other journalists about the direction of the war was insightful. But for me the second half dragged when the narrator started discussing his everyday life of drinking, eating, sleeping, and screwing in Saigon. It was all just a wash. Maybe that was the point. I really can't tell if this novel ever really had a point, other than to relate a totally neutral view of a pointless war.
These are based on memory and may be more a reflection of the memory of a thought.
Hiroshima Notes by Kenzaburo Oe
A series of essays written between 1963 and 1965, when Oe made frequent visits to the rebuilt city of Hiroshima and interviewed survivors. The collection examines the moral and political implications of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Oe explores how A-bomb survivors maintained their dignity despite shattered health resulting from radiation exposure. He writes about the courage of Hiroshima's doctors and nurses who engaged in emergency efforts despite their own afflictions. He also reports on the Japanese movement to ban nuclear weapons, and divulges that medical authorities in Japan suppressed or withheld evidence of the link between radiation exposure and leukemia.
I am Cat by Natsume Soseki
In I Am a Cat, the narrator is an unnamed feline gives a vivid description of a cat’s mind. Our furry narrator explains how he shows affection to his master to be fed and how he enjoys walks in the garden, naps in the sun. He relates the sensitive politics between the cat populations and his miserable attempts at catching mice. It's also an examination of the inner workings of one English professors family as they navigate a changing society.
For someone like Natsume Sōseki of the Meiji era I am Cat is his vehicle for observing and critiquing the rapid transformations within Japanese society: relationships between men and women become less formal, Western ways of doing business become the norm. New hobbies appear. I knew that baseball was a popular sport in Japan and I thought it dated back to WWII and the occupation of Japan by American troops. Actually, Japanese people started to play baseball during the Meiji era. All things Western were fashionable and the prerequisite was “West is the best” and this bothered Natsume Sōseki. Even if he’s open to Western culture, he criticizes the blind acceptance of Western ways.
Like all good cutting satires it is at times very humorous and a mirror to something true that is often passed over.
The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada
This short novella about a mysterious, omnipresent 'Factory' who's sole purpose is to provide employment to the underemployed populace of the region. 'The Factory' is a massive city onto itself, providing all the material needs and wants of its workforce. At the same time it as an impenetrable monolith. With no discernible products, the 'Factory' provides its workforce with mundane and seemingly pointless jobs. There isn't much of a plot here, instead we follow three newly minted employees as they struggle to get through their daily grind of shredding endless amounts of paper, proofing documents that just go through endless iterations, and launching a green-roofing project with slow growing moss. We follow them through the days, months, and years while they struggle with purpose and reasoning to go do their banal jobs. Oh, and the 'Factory' grounds are populated by giant rats, a species of a lizard that inhabits the cleaning facilities, a pantless streaker, and black birds that only live within the confines of the 'Factory'.
This is a surreal novella, that is rather bleak. The drudgery of the workers lives and the slipperiness of the timeline would be hard to follow if the book was any longer. It rides the fine line of being strange and depressing without pushing into the total downer category. It is by no means uplifting and the ending is as empty as the narrators jobs. I thought it was a great little read, but I can see how this one isn't an instant recommendation.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
The Memory Police in concept is an interesting but straight forward concept: a mysterious island were objects and concepts disappear - flowers, boats, photos, calendars, days, etc - the things that disappear don't just physically disappear but are erased from peoples memories, complete with an obsessive and secretive police force that ensures that things are eternally forgotten. It's the perfect setup for the typical contrarian hero determined to fight off the tyrannical police and free the people of the island from their own oppression. Instead, it's a quiet drama of the writer as she navigates an increasingly stifling world where goods are scarce and police disappear those that can't forget. The only real drama comes from her radical chose to hide her editor who remembers all the things that have disappeared. But really this is a vehicle to explore her surreal detachment to the things that disappear. The story is paralleled by a novel within the novel she is writer were a typist slowly loses her voice. The world fades and people leave, yet everything must go on as before. All there is, is what is left and no matter how one struggles against the loss there will always be more disappearances. She must find a new path to navigate an undefinable loss to carry on.
The Memory Police is not some epic fight against the surveillance state or self exploration as the world around us slowly fades and what that means in some grander scheme. There's not much of plot to speak of, no character development, she is just an observer of an increasingly bleak and fading world. There are no satisfying answers to the bigger questions asked in this novel; What are we without our memories? Who knows. Things just fade away and people endure. Eventually there is nothing left to forget and the world moves on. The Memory Police is an odd novel to define, it doesn't come to some satisfying conclusion, it isn't an exploration of some grand theme, it isn't a thrilling fight against an oppressor or extensional threat, it is beautifully written. I'm not entirely sure what it is, but I enjoyed it immensely.
Confessions by Kanae Minato
A twisted revenge plot of a mother and teacher seeking her own form of justice. From the first chapter we know the killers; there's no mystery, no hiding. What unfolds is a complex and layered scheme that ruins many lives.
Told from alternating perspectives we get to see the motivations and inner workings of the mostly irredeemable characters. There are no winners in this story just losers of various degrees. No redemption arc or moral high ground. Just evil doings and tragedy. It's all darkness.
The motivating factors for each of the protagonists and the actions that flow from them are so nuanced and scary it's hard not to see them as real people. Everything about this story is shocking, the horribleness of the characters, the crime, the setting, and the plot twists (they are so twisted and so good). This book is relentless. I loved every minute of it.
I don't know how exactly to articulate exactly why I love Japanese literature so much, but this book has it. There is just so much feeling and art packed into every page. Even a straight forward relatively short revenge plot has so much more to say that revenge is wrong. I don't know what I am talking about anymore, I just read so much more into these characters of a dark and thrilling plot.
The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada
I'm really at a loss to describe this novel. It's such a wonderfully weird and surreal descent into an unreality. Where past and present, family lineages and the fabric of reality get all mixed up. Where we get to explore our protagonist memory and self come apart at the seams. I don't know how to quite encapsulate this novel other than it is stranger than The Factory, and it's all the more amazing.
Oyamada is such a great writer, no one else can pull this story off like she does. That's all I have, it's a short book go read it!
After reading the Hole and Confessions, I think I'm beginning to understand just what it is about Japanese literature and my favorite Japanese authors that I love. Well at least one very narrow aspect. They don't step back from the course of the story. They'll run straight off the cliff's edge if the story demands it. Oyamada has no issues descending into utter madness if that's where the story needs to go she goes there. In Confessions Minato goes full sociopath.
The thing is Oyamada and Minato are not alone in this regard. Ryu Murakami, AKira Yoshimura, Ryu Mitsuse, Yoko Ogawa, Hikaru Okuizumi, Shohei Ooka, Koushun Takami Masuji Ibuse, or even Kenzaburo Oe, none of them hold back. They take us to the darkest, strangest, and most surreal places. Never pulling their punches or trying to wrap up a messy story with a tidy conclusion. The stories take their natural course.
I don't know I could be off base with this assessment. I just don't find what I find in Japanese authors very often in the more western literary sphere.
In a Grove by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
The plot of this short is a juxtaposition of contradictory accounts of a dramatic death in a grove of bamboo. There is no objective truth, just subjective observations and interpretations from the affected parties. Each account shifting guilt, omitting details, painting the truth they want to believe.
This is a masterpiece in story telling. It asks so many questions about objective truth and the self-interested nature of storytelling without conclusion. Leaving the reader to ponder these questions for themselves.
Roshomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
After a series of calamities befalls Kyoto, a samurai's servant is pushed out of work, a home, and on a rain drenched night options. He must decide how far he is willing to compromise his own sense of morals for survival. Becoming a thief even under such trying circumstances is not easy for him, until he comes across a woman stealing from the dead.
I'm getting a sense that Akutagawa's writing often asks more questions than it answers. With Roshomon we explore that gray area of what kinds of actions are justifiable in times of extreme hardships. What moral lines are deemed acceptable when pushed to the edge of survival?
Akutagawa is a master of the short story, that is easy to see. These are sticky stories that I'm going to think about for a long time.
Patriotism by Yukio Mishima
Patriotism is a story about loyalty and honor. An honor defined by Mishima's hypermasculine warrior mentality. This honor leads a young solider and his wife to commit a graphic and gruesome the ritual suicide of seppuku.
While it is a dark tale, the beauty in Mishima's words along with his concepts of honor and trust transcend death and illuminates Mishima's own personal philosophy. This is the definition of toxic masculinity in its unflinching, gruesome grasp of what Mishima defines as honorable. It's just a small glimpse into the kind of mentality that gives rise to a certian kind of Japanese nationalism. Patriotism along with his final speech gives a great deal of insight into Mishima's own parallel end. A failed coup, a dramatic speech pleading with a deaf army for a return to a warrior nation, ending in his own ritual suicide.
Three stories that will rattle around my brain for a long time to come. And now onto After the Quake by Haruki Murakami, a collection of short stories written after the 1995 Kobe earthquake and Tokyo subway attack, which I hope to soon forget. It's everything I hate about Murakami distilled down into mind-numbing boring, goes nowhere fast short stories, just without the fun magical realism! This was my last attempt at this Murakami. I've tried is longer works, his shorter works, and now is stories. I haven't finished a single one. I'm officially done with him as an author, now if only I could get random people to stop suggesting him when I say I'm into Japanese writers.
Penance is slow burn revenge tale of four very damaged girls after they witness their friends brutal assault and murder. The murder isn't a mystery, nor is what happens to the dead girl slowly exposed over the course of the novel. All that is revealed in the opening chapter. The facts are not in dispute. What is divulged in confessional chapters are the feelings and consequences for the four girls who witnessed and reported the key events. Each feels an overwhelming quilt and is psychologically damaged by what they witnessed. With the victim's mother only adding to their damage by further augmenting their feelings of guilt through intimidation and curses, leading to the damage manifesting itself in very different self-destructive ways with deadly consequences as the girls become women.
Minato is brilliant at making psychological damaged people make sense. Their actions flow so naturally from the feelings that everything that happens to them or by them is just a logical and natural outcome. Never is there a question about the authenticity of the characters actions. Not as thrilling as or as surprising as Confessions, but I think I'll appreciate what Minato has written here more the further I get away from this one.
Kamikaze by Yasuo Kuwahara and Gordon T. Allred
Billed as an autobiographical chronicle of a Kamikaze pilot in the late stages of World War II. I'm not entirely sure if it's all that accurate in the details. Reading more like an embellished narrative of a young man building a story around a terrible experience. At times, it reads more like a beautifully written fictional account than an accurate, dry retelling of factual events. Regardless if it's truly non-fiction or purely made up, there's a lot that can be learned from this story.
I wasn't interested in the aviation history of the story or Kamikaze tactics. I wanted some insight into the devotion and suicidal commitment these young men had for their country and Emperor. What drove them? How they felt facing the possibility of certain death? How they wrestled with justifying their actions in their minds, with their peers, and with their families?
Kamikaze gives us a brief insight into the absolute brutal training that cadets were put through in order to break them. The propaganda that fills them with the fighting spirit. And to conflicting feelings of fear and trepidation, but the overwhelming desire to preserve their honor of their country, their people, their Emperor, and most of all their family. The struggle with growing disillusionment of a war going bad, yet still feeling the need to fulfill their duty. I learned a lot of what I was after reading this book, but I don't think I'll truly ever understand what it meant to so willingly forfeit one's own life for a cause that you can't fully believe. Psychologically we are very much alike, sacrifice is universal, but at the same time culturally and all the social pressures that entails makes us so different. To willingly give up ones own life for an abstract idea like honor is hard enough to understand, but when that idea is wrapped in honoring one's family, country, and Emperor, that's something that is difficult to fathom.
This quote has been bouncing around in my brain for awhile:
"I did not comprehend all the differences between the religion of Buddha and national Shintoism. Nor did I understand how it was possible for a person to embrace both simultaneously as many in my country actually did, for their doctrines regarding an after life seemed utterly antithetic.
On the one hand lay ultimate transcendency, ultimate liquidation of individual identity and absorption into the grand and universal "soul", much as a drop of water enters the ocean. On the other, the perpetuation of personality and of human relationships. For our fighting men, those who died valiantly in battle, the honor of being guardian warriors in the realms."
A young man diagnosised with a brain tumor with only days to live, makes a deal with the devil to extend his life. By removing one thing, something important from the world, he can extend his life by a single day. With so many things in the world it seems like an excellent way to gain a few more years. Once things start disappearing it becomes obvious that even the little things play an important role in connecting us to what truly is important. Within days the man realizes a profound truth and decides some things are just too important to disappear.
The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike
Like a lot of haunted house stories the young Kano family think they have hit the jackpot when moving into a brand-new apartment in the heart of Toyko – that overlooks a temple and graveyard. The unit is spacious, underpriced in a hopefully up and coming neighborhood. The Kanos aren't well off, but the father has a good salary job, the mother a freelance illustrator has something to keep her busy while she stays at home taking care of their precious daughter. It's a fresh start for the family and things look bright. Until the other building occupants begin moving out, having had enough of the spooky malevolence permeating the atmosphere. Sinister coincidences and terrifying experiences pile up as the Kano family descends further into madness and fear.
The Graveyard Apartment is something of a departure from the classic haunted house tale. It's more a slow build psychological terror and gradually unfolding suspense than the shock and gore of Western horror. For Koike the terror lies in the characters minds as odd occurrences unfold. She dissects her adult characters, pulling them apart to expose their innermost thoughts. They all harbor anger toward those who don’t deserve their wrath and guilt for actions they couldn’t prevent even if they wanted to. Teppei (the father) insisted on buying an apartment his wife was reluctant about and then resisted leaving because homeownership was his first real opportunity to “be a man” and provide for his family, a feeling of failure in this regard he still hasn't escaped from his first and something his brother constantly reminds him of as being the most important virtue. Misao (the mother) saw it as a chance to play the dutiful wife and mother. Teppei’s first wife was the epitome of womanhood and wifeliness, and Misao is trapped in her shadow. Their marriage was founded on lies, betrayal, and death, and the apartment was a chance to start over, which is why they stay even after it becomes clear they need to leave. The Kanos are the kind of people who willingly move into a place that’s nothing but bad vibes then try to convince themselves that everything will be fine if they try hard enough.
Like most good ghost stories it is about so much more than a creepy house and unsettling happenings. There's a haunting here that runs much deeper.
I am halfway through :
Mieko Kawakami : Heaven
I thought I'd give this book a go, thinking that I wouldn't get into it, but am finding myself attached to the characters, and am definitely drawn into the story, to the point where I'm feeling nervous about what direction things will go for the two youngsters!
Just finished this book and I have no idea what it is about! I can tell you the plot: In the near future a plaque strikes the planet where the old progressively get stronger and the young get weaker. Grandparents taking care of grandchildren and those in the middle (parents) seemingly disappear in a starving Japan. It's like Benjamin button but from both directions. And well that's it. To be fair there's a running commentary on Japanese Isolationism, not entirely sure if she is against it or just the way it's being implemented. Pretty sure it's the former, but it's hard to tell at some points.
This is a well written book, that is incredibly readable. But does it say anything. Not all books have to have some grand scheme or theory of course, but I get the feeling that Tawada is commenting on something. I'm just missing what that something is. I want to give this one the benefit of the doubt and say this s on me for not understanding, say this is a well written science fiction dystopia that leaves me wanting more. Really I'm just confused how I enjoyed the writing and story, yet wanting something more from the premise.
Real World is a portrait of a modern Japan from a teenage perspective with cellphones and texting, adolescence pressure from school and tests, pervasive mass transit, and polite police added interest. Following a story of four girls that encounter an incredibly mediocre, violent boy gone astray transports them from typical high school girls into the adult world, with serious consequences. The point of view rotates between the five kids, leaving the adults on the outside at all times. The women change throughout the book in ways interesting, appropriate, and permanently. Discovering who they really are, navigating a sexist, gritty, and violent world. Even if their ends don't come to some neat and tidy conclusion, they are real, raw.
The Book of Tea by Kakuzō Okakura
Written in 1906 the Book of Tea is a long essay broken into separate chapters, dissecting the culture and aesthetic significance of the Japanese tea ceremony in the backdrop of the Meiji Restoration.
I. The Cup of Humanity:
Okakura initially uses the idea of the tea ceremony to contrast the recent surge of aggression of a modern Japanese warrior spirit of the early 20th century. The recent successful wars with China and Russia have painted the Japanese as being aggressive conquers slave to the cult of Bushido. As celebrating the samurai 'way of death'. To Olakura the Cult of Tea as he puts is celebrating the 'way of life' and peace. Also, in this opening chapter, Okakua rails against the Western stereotyping of the East and the generation of Japanese people adopting too much of the west's culture. To Okakura the Cult of Tea is one of the things that contrasts Japan with the west and an important tool for fighting the insidious nature of Western imperialism. To Okakura the adoption of western dress and customs is a sign of weakness, that Japan should lean into and preserve its own customs, remain defiant to the powerful West. This chapter the ends with a somewhat odd short history of the western adoption of tea. An attempt to connect the east and west on common grounds. An argument that we can all agree on the beauty and enjoyment of a good cup of tea. As well as some Taoism that is indecipherable, which fits Taoism.
II. The Schools of Tea
In this chapter, Okakura details a very brief history of tea and tea making from China. Dividing the periods into three schools of tea making: cake-tea which was boiled (Tang dynasty; Classic school), the powered tea which was whipped (Sung dynasty; Romantic school), and the leaf-tea which is steeped (Ming dynasty; Naturalistic school). This chapter is an interesting mix of philosophical thinking, a mix of eastern thought and Plato's ideal forms. It's interesting to see how Taoist simplicity intersects with the ideas expressed in ideal forms, at least in Okakuro's retelling of how the Japanese tea ceremony is a continuation of the Sung's romantic school of tea making before it was interrupted in the Mongolian invasions, implying the Mongols as uncivilized barbarians that didn't add anything to Chinese culture.
III. Taoism and Zennism
Okakura acknowledges that no amount of explanation is going to adequately convey the meaning of Taoism or Zen. They are such a simple concepts in theory, but the more the Path is explained, the less understandable their practical implications become. The important takeaway from this chapter is that Taoist thought and the formality of Zen rituals is how the Tea Ceremony is defined. Tao gives Teaism it's ideals, while Zen makes them practical. Another thing of interest here is how Okakura divides China into a more spiritual, loosely grounded south and a more structured, Confucian north. The Confucian thought within the Chinese communism makes sense, which provides some sense of the philosophical and political divides of some of the more contentious regions within China's sphere of influence.
IV. The Tea-Room
Every Tea Room is to be built to the Masters' own tastes and aesthetics. The layout, materials, workmanship is top-notch, but not ostentatious. While following a basic plan, no one Tea Room is alike. Each room is to foster a unique sense of contemplation, a serenity, a humbleness through design. Striving for a connective asymmetry of design to encourage deep meditation through the careful selection of a chosen few decorations, artworks, colors, materials of both the room and tea essentials, shapes and sizes of tea vessels, even the placement of objects on the table being misaligned, all in order to concentrate focus, to make the user notice and reflect on the individual objects. Everything about a Tea Room is meant to focus the mind, foster a deeper sense of contemplation about the world, and assist with the meditative process. While the Tea Room is to be immaculately clean, there are places and times purposely left imperfect, like leaves/twigs being left on the grounds of the garden in order to appreciate the perfection that is found in nature. A Tea Room ideally serves as a sanctuary from the outer world, an opportunity for all walks of life to rest and enjoy the refinement of beauty.
V. Art Appreciation
A bit of a lecture on what makes good art. That devolves into a rant about modernity and consumerism in art, rather than the appreciation of true beauty. And a take-down of the archaeological approach to collecting works as being a by product of the age of science. A tired lecture that both exalts modern art and criticizes people for liking what is popular or trendy. A reason to hate serious art critics.
A chapter on the veneration of the flower. A brief history on the cultivation and display of flowers through time. The opening bit is about how wasteful it is to cut and display flowers in a manner in which they just wither and die. The art of flower arrangement was a simultaneous development with the tea ceremony. It is interesting that Okakura doesn't dwell on the art of flower arrangement with the kind of depth that Teaism receives. Can't imagine the art wouldn't garner as much detail and introspection as tea. Okakura makes it clear that the tea ceremony is not the time and place for elaborate flower arrangements. For a tea master, the art of flower arrangement is to be left in as natural arrangement as possible. Only the selection of the right flower matters. The focus again should be on the nature of the flower itself, not its artful arrangement. Nature takes precedent over art in the tearoom, except when it comes to actual works of art. Contemplate the great sacrifice of a flower in death and understand the beauty of that the natural world has bestowed upon us.
VII. Tea Masters
A summary chapter outlining all the great contributions that the tea masters of old have left to Japanese culture. Through their influence of the natural love of simplicity and humility to beauty, Okakura credits them with deep impacts in the direction of architecture, art, pottery, the very refinement of Japanese culture. The end is very un-zen like and more in line with the 'way of death' than the 'way of life', detailing the ritual suicide of tea master Rikiu.
The Book of Tea is one of those works that highlights the struggle to hold onto the traditional values that are so important in shaping culture, while dealing with the ramifications of a rapidly modernizing society. Not sure how relevant the Cult of Tea is to the everyday person in 21st century Japan, but the philosophy and ideas behind the tea ceremony are still something that has clearly shaped the modern culture. Grappling with the two divergent pulls within the culture of Meiji period, defining masculinity as both the pursuit of an elegant life and an elegant death, the Book of Tea is an interesting insight into the philosophical mindset of the times.
Can I recommend a book?
Try Shadow Shinjuku by Ryu Takeshi.
I finished it yesterday, and absolutely loved it.
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