Title: Sweet Bean Paste
Japanese Title: あん (An)
Author: Durian Sukegawa (ドリアン助川)
Translators: Alison Watts
Publication Year: 2013 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
Sweet Bean Paste is a novel about the trauma of discrimination and the stress of living in an unjust society, but the experience of reading it will help you remember the pleasure of being able to readjust your perspective, even if doing so is initially awkward and unpleasant.
Sentaro Tsujii is a young(ish) man who runs a stall called Doraharu that sells dorayaki, pancakes filled with sweet paste made from adzuki beans. Although Doraharu is owned by his former boss’s widow, Sentaro works by himself all day every single day of the year. When he finally decides to put up a “Help Wanted” announcement, a 76-year-old woman named Tokue Yoshii shows up and offers to work for only 200 yen an hour. Sentaro declines, thinking that he doesn’t want to be bothered by an old woman hanging around, but he quickly changes his mind when he tries her homemade red bean paste, which is unlike anything he’s ever tasted.
Doraharu is located in an open-air shopping arcade called Cherry Blossom Street, which is slowly losing foot traffic as customers gravitate to suburban shopping centers. Nevertheless, thanks to the deliciousness of the bean paste Sentaro makes with Tokue, the stall experiences a brief period of prosperity. It’s especially popular with students on their way home, and Tokue chats with the girls as she helps Sentaro. She becomes particularly friendly with an otherwise standoffish middle-school student named Wakana. Once Tokue finally draws Wakana out of her shell, the girl asks her about her hands, something Sentaro has wondered about as well.
Tokue reveals that she once had Hansen’s disease, and Sentaro realizes that she must live in Tenshoen, a sanitarium just outside of town. Until 1996, Hansen’s patients were secluded from the rest of society by law despite the fact that the illness has been cured and is no longer transmissible. When Wakana’s mother finds out who Tokue is and where she lives, however, she spreads the information around the community. The flow of business at Doraharu dries up, and Tokue voluntarily quits her job.
Sentaro served a prison sentence after being arrested in possession of recreational marijuana as a college student; and, as someone who was prevented from realizing the ambitions he held as a young man, he sympathizes with Tokue’s plight as a target of irrational discrimination. Wakana, a social outcast herself, regrets the part she’s played in how events have unfolded, and she agrees to accompany Sentaro on a trip to visit Tokue at Tenshoen, where they learn things about their community that they’d never suspected.
The savory center of Sweet Bean Paste is the slow development of the relationship between Sentaro, Tokue, and Wakana, but the novel is ultimately about learning to find beauty and meaning in an unfair world despite knowing that some injustices may never be corrected. This theme occasionally results in a cloying level of sentimentality, but its emotional straightforwardness is balanced by the narrative itself, which offers no easy answers or conclusions.
Something I appreciate about Tokue is that, even though she’s a generally positive and upbeat person who doesn’t see herself as a victim, she expresses genuine sorrow and resentment at forces beyond her control, and the reader is occasionally made to feel uncomfortable in her presence. Meanwhile, Sentaro has a history of alcoholism and depression, and Sweet Bean Paste portrays the lived experience of these conditions with the respect and sensitivity it deserves. Although the novel doesn’t normalize illness, it humanizes it.
Sweet Bean Paste is not moralistic or didactic, however, and its major accomplishment is doing what all good fiction does, which is to allow the reader to experience the world from another point of view. Sukegawa excels at narrating from different positions while subtly shifting the reader’s viewpoint away from the emphasis on able-bodied “health” conveyed by so many aspects of mainstream culture and society. Readers looking for a happy ending may be disappointed, but the novel’s wholesomeness lies in its positive outlook on life. This is a small story about ordinary people, but it’s filled with hope and sweetness.