Gold Rush

Title: Gold Rush
Japanese Title: ゴールドラッシュ (Gōrudo Rasshu)
Author: Yū Miri (柳 美里)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2002 (America); 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Welcome Rain Publishers
Pages: 286

I recently stumbled across an article titled Reading List: Books to Help You Understand Japan, which is a transcript of a conversation between NPR’s Neal Conan, the Brooklyn-based poet Kimiko Hahn, and Donald Keene, who recently retired from Columbia University in order to live in Japan. When Hahn and Keene were asked to list their top five works for understanding Japan in the wake of the recent disasters that have beset the country, they fired off titles like The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon and Essays in Idleness. This bothers me for three reasons.

The first reason is the blatant cultural essentialism, or the idea that one can understand everything about contemporary Japan by reading texts written in the Heian period, as if nothing has changed in the past thousand years. It’s like saying that one can understand everything about contemporary America by reading Jonathan Edwards’s 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The Japanese people live (and have always lived) in harmony with nature and posses (and have always possessed) an innate understanding of the beauty of impermanence – and Americans are all God-fearing Puritans who stifle their artistic creativity and capitalistic interests in order to serve their small agricultural communities.

The second reason is the academic elitism. The Tale of Genji is indeed a great monument of Japanese literature. It is also more than a thousand pages long, written in a style that is frustratingly elliptical, and set in a time period and society that are fairly alien to anything a contemporary American (or Japanese) reader would be familiar with. Reading The Tale of Genji is hard, and reading it without guidance is even harder. To assume that even a highly educated and intelligent reader could just pick it up and understand the unadulterated beauty of every word is somewhat presumptuous. Hahn’s recommendation of two literary anthologies is even more baffling. It’s like saying, hey, if you can’t crack open a 421-page anthology of medieval literature and read it in one sitting, there must be something wrong with you.

The final reason is the utterly bizarre assumption that, in order to understand the contemporary Japanese imagination of disaster, one need not read anything either written or set later than 1945. This is doubly strange to me, as Donald Keene recently published an excellent translation of Oda Makoto’s 1998 novel The Breaking Jewel (Gyokusai), which depicts a Japanese soldier’s harrowing experiences during the last few weeks of the Pacific War. Moreover, even if tales of firebombings and severe food shortages and suicide attacks and two atomic bombs and total defeat and occupation by a foreign power wouldn’t give us any insight into postwar and post-earthquake Japanese society, perhaps something like Murakami Haruki’s After the Quake, written in the wake of the devastating Kobe earthquake of 1995, presumably would. To suggest that we can best understand Japanese anxieties regarding nuclear power by reading the poetic travel diaries of Bashō is, quite frankly, ridiculous.

I think Yū Miri’s novel Gold Rush is a perfect antidote to the sort of essentialist thinking demonstrated in the conversation on NPR. Gold Rush is set in Yokohama’s Kogane-chō neighborhood, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks sort of neighborhood filled with small bars, cheap restaurants, pachinko parlors, and love hotels. When most people think of Yokohama, they probably picture the swanky and high-tech Minato Mirai waterfront area or the upscale Motomachi shopping and residential district that serves as the setting of several Tanizaki and Mishima novels. Kogane-chō, however, is a grungy, run-down pleasure quarter that has seen better days, as is the neighboring Isezaki-chō. The streets are dirty, the Ōoka River is dirty, the karaoke bars are dirty, the train station is dirty, the cheap hotels under the railway bridge are dirty, and I imagine that even the many soaplands that dot the area are dirty. Gold Rush begins when four middle school boys pick up a high school girl in this neighborhood. They get her drunk, have her come with them to one of their houses, and then rape her. To be more precise, three of them rape her, and one of them watches.

The one who watches is the book’s fourteen-year-old protagonist, Kazuki, and abetting a rape is just the beginning for him. If trigger warnings were applied to mainstream fiction, Gold Rush would be slapped with all of the big ones. Rape, violence, child abuse, murder, more rape, more child abuse, substance abuse, abandonment, sexism, self-harming behavior, eating disorders, more child abuse, and then more rape. There is also a particularly nasty scene in which Kazuki kills a dog with a golf club. One might question the existence of a plot buried under all of these triggers, but the plot isn’t really the point of the novel. The reader is instead engrossed in following Kazuki’s slow psychological deterioration from the perspective of an omniscient third-person narrator. Kazuki is like Holden Caulfield on crack, and the reader can’t help but identify with his adolescent frustration at the realization that his life and his destiny are not entirely his own, even if he continually takes his rage one step too far. The people who surround Kazuki aren’t much better than he is in terms of acting like decent human beings, and the world they all live in is a bitter, nasty place. In a way, though, Gold Rush is also a twisted sort of love letter to Kogane-chō and the low city charm that permeates it.

Reading Gold Rush is like reading a full-length Ionesco play like Rhinocéros (or a Bret Easton Ellis novel like American Psycho) in that it’s trenchant and biting and brilliantly absurd, but difficult to actually read for the very same reasons. It doesn’t help that Gold Rush is two hundred and fifty pages of ultraviolence unmitigated by chapter breaks. If there’s a reason the novel won the Akutagawa Prize, however, it’s because the writing is excellent. Perhaps it’s also because the physical and psychological spaces written by Yū Miri are more than a little familiar to Japanese readers. So yes, classics like The Tale of Genji are very Japanese, but so is Gold Rush, which is written by a zainichi Korean telling a story about juvenile delinquency in a decaying neighborhood of a seedy commuter city. Yū is a good writer, she tells a good story, and Gold Rush is good Japanese literature. It might even give the reader some small insight into contemporary Japan as well.

7 thoughts on “Gold Rush

  1. I don’t mean to suggest, in my opening rant, that premodern Japanese literature is not well worth reading and studying. Some of it, such as the two texts I mentioned in the first paragraph (The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon and Essays in Idleness), have received excellent translations and are easy to read and quite enjoyable even for someone who doesn’t know anything about Japan. And everyone should read Bashō, even if his travel diaries don’t really help us understand postmodern nuclear anxieties.

    Donald Keene is a fantastic scholar and translator, and Kimiko Hahn is a wonderful poet (I really liked her Narrow Road to the Interior – how culturally essentialist of me!), and I don’t mean to belittle them or their opinions.

    Well, maybe a little. That conversation on NPR is a bit ridiculous. The recent earthquake did not happen near Ise, you guys, come on, why did you say that.

  2. I should hope that a book about violence and rape set in a decaying, dirty pleasure quarter isn’t the key tome that tells us about contemporary Japan…. I mean, yes, violence does exist, and so does the run-down. Hell, the run-down is basically everywhere. It’s not all sparkly shiny Ginza. But… is that really the Japan we know and love?

    Which doesn’t mean it’s not good literature. If you say it is, then I am sure that it is.

    Your point is well taken, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time I think there are enough people out there who already think that contemporary Japan is nothing but knife-wielding otaku, hikikomori, and English teachers buried in sand in a bathtub. Maybe Murakami Haruki might be a better way to go…. people living quiet lives in nice, clean, well-to-do neighborhoods, a sort of general malaise over everything…

    On a separate point, as I was reading your arguments about Genji not being so relevant to contemporary Japan, my mind flashed through a whole bunch of different things about contemporary London, and how totally absurd it would be to think that reading Shakespeare would help to understand contemporary British culture. Ha.

    1. Ha! Run-down Japan is totally the Japan I know and love. Some of my best memories of Japan are from living in Noge-chō and spending my afternoons and evenings in Isezaki-chō (I never spent too much time in Kogane-chō, for obvious reasons). The decrepitude and seediness were part of the charm.

      But of course not all of Japan is like this, just like not all of Japan is geisha and samurai and cherry blossoms. I guess the point I was trying to make with this review (and didn’t articulate very well) is simply that there are many Japans, and many different stories coming out of these Japans. It’s like, yes, America is the Grand Canyon, but it’s also the Jersey shore. At the same time I was reading Gold Rush, I was also reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and I was wondering why, even though Yū Miri is just as mainstream in Japan as Junot Díaz is in America, we (Americans) think of something like Gold Rush as subversive and marginal and cutting edge. It’s a bit of a double standard, amirite?

      But I am definitely pro-Murakami in terms of “if you have to read just one book by a contemporary Japanese writer.” The funny thing about Murakami, though, is that he doesn’t really live or write in Japan. More than a few people I have spoken with consider The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to be the quintessential postmodern Japanese novel, but Murakami wrote the first half of the book in New Jersey and the other half in Boston, and he has admitted in an interview (which has been translated in the first issue of Monkey Business) that he pictures the suburban spaces of the novel not as Tokyo but rather as Princeton.

      So who knows?

  3. I totally agree with your assessment about the odd choice of 5 books “representing Japan”. I wonder if the two people were comfortable with the question.

    I had heard of Yu Miri and Gold Rush, but never had the courage of picking up the book itself. Am not sure I will anyway, because it’s too depressing. Reminds me of Osamu Dasai, I wonder if you’ve read him and/or what you think of the parallel.

    1. That’s a really, really good point – whether they were comfortable being asked such a question. Of course we can’t be sure; but, from the tone of the conversation, I get the feeling that they really warmed up to the topic.

      Which is somewhat ironic, especially considering Donald Keene’s introduction to his 1958 translation of Dazai’s No Longer Human, in which he himself argues that Japan and its literature is not all poetry and cherry blossoms.

      But yeah, I think the parallel between Gold Rush and Dazai’s I-novels is interesting and valid. I wonder if Yū was trying to write an I-novel, in a way. The main difference in misanthropic attitude, though, is that, while Dazai’s protagonists hate themselves, Yū’s protagonist believes in himself but hates everyone else. I guess one could draw some interesting social commentary from the difference in time period and attitude, but I think I’ll leave that leave that up to someone else…

  4. I put your blog in my bookmarks a while back, and finally had the chance to revisit today. I was happy to read your most recent post (5/2/2011). Good on you for bringing zainichi author Yu Miri into the discussion of Japanese literature.

    Before I started teaching modern Japanese lit in translation a couple years ago, I spent a semester observing professors’ courses on the subject. Their syllabi looked the same to me: Sokeki’s “Botchan” or “Kokoro,” Akutagawa’s “Yabu no naka” and “Rashomon,” part or all of Shiga Naoya’s “An’ya koro” (the best choice on this list), Tanizaki’s “Tade ku mushi,” Kawabata’s “Yuki guni,” and maybe a “safe” work by Mishima, Murakami, or Banana.

    It dawned on me that this list was quite incomplete–and therefore a disservice to undergrads. Like most anthologies in translation to date (including the newer two-volume one from Columbia U Press, I believe), their syllabi did not include works about or by Japan’s “minorities” (I know this is a controversial term). After overcoming opposition from some, but with support from others, I was able to add works like Shimazaki Toson’s “Hakai” (The Broken Commandment, tr. Kenneth Strong), Oe Kenzaburo’s “Shiiku” (Prize Stock, tr. John Nathan), Medoruma Shun’s “Mabui gumi” (Spirit Stuffing, tr. Kyle Ikeda) and “Suiteki” (Droplets, tr. Michael Molasky), and Yu Miri’s “Gorudo rasshu.” Granted, works like these may make some students (and teachers) a little uncomfortable in the classroom, but this is because these authors are brutally frank at times, addressing important issues other authors shrink in the face of. These works expose realities that some would rather not have to face, but this makes these works deserving of places on syllabi and in the “canon.”

    I guess I should add that while I was allowed to add “new” works to my syllabi, I also kept Soseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata, etc., on. These are important authors for obvious reasons. I did not hesitate to take “major” works off, though, replacing them with those lesser known. While much shorter, I think works by these respective authors such as “Yume juya” (Ten Nights of Dreams, tr. Kashima & Lorenz), “Aguri” (Aguri, tr. Howard Hibbett), and “Hokoro no tegami” (The Mole, tr. Edward Seidensticker), are wonderful alternatives, great for in-class discussions.

    I think it should be a goal for all instructors, especially at the lower level, to turn students ON to Jlit, to make them want to get in line for the next Jlit class being offered. Works like these and Yu Miri’s “Gold Rush” (if even one chapter), and not (as much as I love this work and the Kansai area) works like Tanizaki’s “Sasame yuki” (The Makioka Sisters, tr. E. Seidensticker [530pp.!]). Teachers have a responsibility to present a more accurate picture of Japan and its literature. While “elite scholars” are not always wrong, some failed to deliver “the goods” without bias and essentialism in the 20th century. This is noticeable in some literary histories, works selected for anthologies in translation, and works translated.

    Applause to you for your comments on Yu Miri’s work, and addressing issues related to the Japanese literature canon. If a Zainichi so choses to write in/about/for/against Japan, their work deserves serious consideration by critics and scholars of Japanese literature. Leaving Yu Miri and other Zainichi out is no better than the Japanese government continuing to deny them an equal place in Japanese society, rights to carry a passport from the country they were born and grew up in, the right to vote, et cetera, et cetera (but these are issues to battle with elsewhere).

    Keep up the great work.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment!

      You make so many interesting points about syllabi for Japanese literature classes. I was really lucky to have undergraduate and graduate instructors who assigned a lot of non-traditional works for their classes, so I guess I am heir to a practice of first centering and then de-centering notions of literary canon and mainstream literature. As I get farther along in my graduate career, I am starting to think very seriously about how this is done. So thank you for your suggestions!

      Since you gave me so many great titles, I thought I would add a few more. Two of my favorite texts that I have seen used in a classroom are Southern Exposure: Modern Japanese Literature from Okinawa and Inside and Other Short Fiction: Japanese Women by Japanese Women. Of course, as soon as such an anthology comes out, it seems like it immediately goes out of print.

      I suppose we can always teach new and interesting ways to interpret Snow Country (everyone is gay! yay homosociality!), since that book is going to be in print forever, and students seem to love reading it…

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