The Last Children of Tokyo

Title: The Last Children of Tokyo
Japanese Title: 献灯使 (Kentōshi)
Author: Yōko Tawada (多和田葉子)
Translator: Margaret Mitsutani
Publication Year: 2014 (Japan); 2018 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 138

In the future – but not long in the future – Japan has secluded itself from the rest of the world. The environment is saturated with toxic substances, it’s dangerous to go near the sea, and most animals have disappeared from the wild. Humans still live on the Japanese archipelago, but their society has changed. Adults born in our own time live long lives and continue working well past their hundredth birthdays, while children born in the present of the novel have trouble retaining nutrients from food and are often too weak for sustained physical activity. Young and healthy people in their sixties and seventies do everything in their power to immigrate to Okinawa or the north of Japan, where agriculture still thrives, while Tokyo suffers from depopulation.

A novelist named Yoshiro still lives in Tokyo, where he cares for his great-grandson, Mumei. Mumei is fascinated by pictures of animals that have recently gone extinct, while Yoshiro similarly spends his time looking back on the gradual shifts and changes in Japanese society. Each of Yoshiro’s memories is a sustained flight of magical realism that often has very little to do with the conventions of science fiction or dystopian fantasy. The Last Children of Tokyo is not about social critique through the medium of apocalypse, nor does it have much of a plot. Rather, it’s a reflection of everyday life in contemporary Japan in a mirror that’s mostly accurate but has a few interesting distortions.

Some of these distortions offer a speculative interpretation of how daily life has changed as a result of Japan’s recent demographic shifts.

The names of some of the older holidays were changed: “Respect for the Aged Day” became “Encouragement for the Aged Day,” while “Children’s Day” was now “Apologize to Children Day”; “Sports Day” was changed to “Body Day” to avoid upsetting children who were not growing up big and strong; so as not to hurt the feelings of young people who wanted to work but simply weren’t strong enough, “Labor Day” became “Being Alive Is Enough Day.” (43-44)

Other distortions magnify current practices out of proportion, making them seem like harbingers of social collapse.

He heard the phrase “Baby Carriage Movement” from Marika for the first time. This was a movement to encourage mothers to push their baby carriages around town every day as long as the sun was shining. Mothers who woke up unbearably miserable every morning, feeling helpless, hungry, about to pee all over themselves with no one to help them, whether because of a moist, clammy dream they’d had the night before, or because being cooped up all day with a squalling infant stimulates memories of the mother’s own infancy, went out to push their baby carriages until they came to a coffee shop with a “baby carriage mark” in the window, where they would find books and magazines to read and other mothers to talk to. (67)

Nevertheless, Tokyo is still a center of population, and Yoshiro can’t bring himself to leave the city as social services crumble, public transportation breaks down, and people resort to eating weeds. Even in decline, it seems, Tokyo is still home to many vibrant communities.

Though Tokyo was now impoverished, new shops still bubbled up from the depths to open up like flowers; just sitting on a park bench, you never got tired of watching the people go by. Walking around the city made the gears in your brain start turning. People had begun to realize that these simple pleasures were the most delicious part of the fruit we call everyday life, which is why even though their houses were small and food was scarce, they still wanted to live in Tokyo. (60-61)

In The Last Children of Tokyo, the city of Tokyo is less of a physical location than it is a collection of people who, as a society, have developed a fascinating set of collective quirks. The novel has very little plot to speak of, allowing the reader to take in the sights as its narration slowly meanders between times and places. The last forty or so pages shift to Mumei’s perspective as he becomes involved in a secret plan to leave the Japan, but there’s no sense of urgency regarding the matter; and, like the rest of the novel, the ending is meant to be enjoyed for its atmosphere. Tawada’s writing is given form by its abstractions, most of which can be interpreted by the reader in multiple ways and pursued in multiple directions. As a result, The Last Children of Tokyo is neither a particularly hopeful nor a particularly grim novel. It’s an odd book and an entertaining thought experiment, and Tawada playfully invites her readers to join her on a journey through a Tokyo that doesn’t exist – at least, not yet.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles

Title: The Travelling Cat Chronicles
Japanese Title: 旅猫リポート (Tabineko ripōto)
Author: Hiro Arikawa (有川 浩)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2015 (Japan); 2017 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 247

A man named Satoru Miyawaki is on a journey across Japan, visiting old friends as he looks for someone to adopt his pet cat, Nana. After Satoru’s parents died in a car accident, he went to live with his aunt Noriko, who moved for work every few years. Although he never stayed in one place for long, Satoru was able to make a number of close friends; and, as he drives north, he visits a friend from elementary school, a friend from middle school, and a pair of friends from high school. His final destination is Hokkaido, where his aunt has settled down.

Satoru adopted a stray cat after it was hit by a car, and he gives it the name Nana because a bend in its tail makes it look like the number 7 (nana in Japanese). As a former stray, Nana has his pride, but he decides to stay with Satoru because Satoru asks him respectfully if he wants to be his cat. The reader knows this because about half of the narration in The Travelling Cat Chronicles is from Nana’s perspective. As Satoru reconnects with old friends, Nana makes astute observations about their lives, their habits, and the nature of their relationships with Satoru. He also interacts with the pets of Satoru’s friends, who share insights of their own.

Satoru’s friend from elementary school, Kosuke, has taken over his father’s photography shop, but business isn’t doing well, and he’s separated from his wife. Satoru manages to convince Kosuke to follow his dreams, transition into pet photography, and reconcile with his wife by talking to her about adopting a cat of their own. The next person Satoru visits is Yoshimine, a friend from middle school who has left the city to become a farmer. Yoshimine has just adopted a kitten; and, in any case, he correctly suspects that Satoru doesn’t actually want to leave Nana behind. Afterwards, Satoru visits his high school friends Sugi and Chikako, who run a pet-friendly inn near Mount Fuji. Sugi and Chikako already have pets of their own, including a dog named Toramaru, who immediately takes a disliking to Nana. Needless to say, Nana is not adopted by anyone, which suits him just fine.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles is not so much a travelogue as it is a sustained reflection on Satoru’s childhood, which was shaped by his relationships with his friends, whom he bonded with over various incidents involving pets. All of Satoru’s memories are wholesome, and his friends are unfailingly kind. Nana is loyal and protective of Satoru, and he is a patient and considerate travel partner. When the pair finally arrives in Hokkaido, they encounter nothing but gorgeous green fields and delicious fresh foods. The reason Satoru feels that he can no longer care for Nana is sad (albeit predicable); but his aunt Noriko, who has always disliked cats, is a sweet and open-hearted person who learns to love and appreciate Nana.

The tone of The Travelling Cat Chronicles is warm and gentle, and both the humor and the tragedy of the novel are relatively light. It’s an easy novel to read, and its focus is on healing and the pleasures of living simply and in the moment. Some readers may find the story contrived and overly sentimental, and some pet owners may be disappointed by the lack of depth in the writer’s portrayal of the experience of living with a cat. Nevertheless, The Travelling Cat Chronicles is a lovely story of friendship and the affection that people share with their companion animals. The watercolor chapter header images by Shuai Liu are a delightful addition to the English translation of Hiro Arikawa’s bestselling novel, a cinematic adaptation of which will arrive in Japanese theaters in October 2018 (link).

Convenience Store Woman

Title: Convenience Store Woman
Japanese Title: コンビニ人間 (Konbini ningen)
Author: Sayaka Murata (村田 沙耶香)
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publication Year: 2016 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Grove Press
Pages: 163

Keiko Furukawa is 36 years old and has been working at the same convenience store for almost two decades. She loves the job, which suits her perfectly. Keiko has never fit in and constantly finds herself at a loss for how to talk with other people, but human interaction is governed by detailed rules and a prewritten script in the perfectly ordered world of the convenience store. “A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated,” Keiko explains, adding that she appreciates this sense of distance from unnecessary social and emotional disturbances (60). The structured environment of the convenience store provides Keiko with a safe space in which she can perform work that she finds satisfying, meaningful, and helpful to other people.

At its core, Convenience Store Woman is a novella about the dignity of a job that many people find trivial and demeaning. Keiko takes obvious pride in the convenience store where she has worked since it opened eighteen years ago, and it’s not difficult to share her enthusiasm as she cheerfully describes seemingly banal tasks such as preparing food, restocking shelves, and greeting customers. Unlike the confusing and conflicting expectations imposed on her by the outside world, Keiko knows exactly what needs to be done in the convenience store, and she knows exactly when and how to do it. She often remarks on the feeling of satisfaction her experience and competence give her. For example, at the beginning of the novel, Keiko declares…

It is the start of another day, the time when the world wakes up and the cogs of society begin to move. I am one of those cogs, going round and round. I have become a functioning part of the world, rotating in the time of day called morning. (4)

Keiko pays close attention to the smallest details of the self-contained environment of the store, and her keen powers of observation allow her to appreciate the personalities and behavioral quirks of the customers. She does not judge or discriminate against anyone who enters the store and does her best to unobtrusively ensure that they are comfortable. She applies the same keen focus of her attention to her coworkers, mimicking their comments and speech patterns so that they find her friendly, companionable, and – most importantly – normal.

Convenience Store Woman doesn’t have an overarching plot, but its story is propelled forward by small scenes of conflict resulting from the friction between Keiko’s contentment and the expectations of other people. A crucial incident occurs during a backyard barbeque during which the husbands of Keiko’s high school friends have too much to drink and start laying into her for remaining in the same dead-end job without getting married. “The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects,” Keiko later rationalizes as she thinks back on the conversation. “Anyone who is lacking is disposed of” (80). Keiko comes to the unfortunate realization that, by remaining unmarried and childless at 36, she has begun to stray so far outside of normative social expectations that she risks ostracization.

Partially because of this incident, Keiko feels pressured into inviting a thirty-something NEET named Shiraha to live in her apartment. Shiraha briefly worked at the same convenience store as Keiko but had been dismissed because of his poor performance. He had also, it turns out, been stalking some of the customers, and he continues to hang around the building even after he’s fired. Keiko views this as a threat to the harmony of the convenience store, so she takes it on herself to drag him to a family restaurant and try to talk sense into him. During this conversation, Shiraha echoes many of Keiko’s anxieties regarding social belonging, saying that he risks ostracization himself if he remains unmarried.

Although Shiraha is thoroughly unpleasant, Keiko invites him into her apartment and treats him like a pet, happy to tell the people in her life that a man has moved in with her. The circumstances aren’t ideal; but, as Keiko explains to the reader, “Deep down I wanted some kind of change. Any change, whether good or bad, would be better than the state of impasse I was in now” (94). The “impasse” Keiko faces has nothing to with wanting to advance in life; rather, the complications that arise from Shiraha’s presence trigger a crisis that forces Keiko to choose between becoming the person she is expected to be and her own unique sense of happiness.

Keiko reads as being on the autism spectrum, and her thought processes and behavioral patterns remind me a great deal of some of my friends and students with Asperger’s Syndrome. Keiko never explicitly identifies herself as being on the spectrum, however, and I get the impression that she would probably find the label distasteful. When she honestly informs a group of women that she has never been romantically attracted to anyone, they sympathetically respond that it’s become much more common and socially accepted to identify as asexual, and that they would understand if she were to come out as such, but Keiko finds this offensive.

I’d never experienced sex, and I’d never even had any particular awareness of my own sexuality. I was indifferent to the whole thing and had never really given it any thought. And here was everyone taking it for granted that I must be miserable when I wasn’t. (37)

To Keiko, she is no one but herself, and she has no interest in serving as a representative for anyone else. Be that as it may, I think people who identify as asexual or on the autism spectrum will find a great deal of resonance in Keiko’s experience of being misunderstood and pressured to conform to arbitrary expectations, often “for her own good.” Toward the end of the story Keiko grows increasingly annoyed at the irrationality of the people who claim that they are trying to help her, including her own sister, who is “far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For her, normality – however messy – is far more comprehensible” (133). Regardless of Keiko’s opinion as the narrator of her own story, I feel that she does in fact perform advocacy, especially in her insistence that her personality and life choices are not a result of psychological trauma and that she is, in fact, healthy, happy, and strong.

In an enlightening interview with Fran Bigman at LitHub, Sayaka Murata talks about her own experiences of working as a convenience store cashier as she has continued to publish more than a dozen books during the past fifteen years. “For me and also for Keiko it is both a utopia and a dystopia,” Murata explains. “It is a utopia where you can make people happy, make friends, or feel less gendered.” Customers don’t have to put on an act (or fancy clothes or makeup) to walk into a convenience store, and foreign customers and employees are welcome. For an employee who is unwilling or unable to conform to corporate-dictated guidelines, a convenience store can be a dystopia, but clearly defined behavioral standards are exactly what Murata’s narrator needs in order to feel like a well-adjusted member of society. To anyone who’s ever felt that life might sometimes be a little easier if there were a rulebook, it’s easy to see the appeal of the utopian aspects of the convenience store environment.

Identity politics aside, Convenience Store Woman provides an entertaining glimpse into the mind and worldview of a fascinating character. Many parts of the novel are humorous, while others are uncomfortably cringe-inducing. More than any sort of social critique, however, Murata offers her readers finely detailed observations of the human beings inside a Japanese convenience store, which is a marvelous ecosystem unto itself.

A Small Charred Face

Title: A Small Charred Face
Japanese Title: ほんとうの花を見せにきた (Hontō no hana o mise ni kita)
Author: Kazuki Sakuraba (桜庭 一樹)
Translator: Jocelyn Allen
Publication Year: 2014 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 239

A Small Charred Face is a collection of three interconnected stories about vampires and the humans who love them. These vampires sleep during the day, fly by night, feed on human blood, can’t see their reflections, and never age during their 120-year lifespan. They also smell like grass and burst into bloom at the end of their lives, and they are called Bamboo. Their laws forbid them from befriending humans, but sometimes an outsider, alone and destitute on the margins of society, manages to catch the attention and the heart of a Bamboo.

The first and longest story, which frames the other two stories in the book, is “A Small Charred Face.” The story begins with horrific violence, with the narrator, a boy named Kyo, trying to escape a criminal organization that has just raped and killed his mother and sister. A Bamboo appears, hoping to feed on the bodies, but it ends up rescuing Kyo instead. The Bamboo, a young man named Mustah, takes him home to a seaside cottage where he lives with his partner Yoji. Kyo, who has grown up in wealth and privilege, is forced to adapt to life in the impoverished community, and Mushtah and Yoji convince him to disguise himself as a girl so that the people who killed his family won’t find him. Growing up as a girl in a household with two vampire fathers in a neighborhood ravaged by economic inequality, Kyo actually manages to enjoy a relatively normal childhood, but problems arise when a period of adolescent rebellion brings him to the attention of other Bamboo, who will not tolerate their existence becoming known to humans.

The second story (and the title story of the original Japanese publication), “I Came to Show You Real Flowers,” follows Marika, a female Bamboo from “A Small Charred Face,” several decades after her life intersects with Kyo’s story. Marika was transformed into a Bamboo when she was a teenager, so her mind and body remain those of a young woman. Marika adopts a human girl named Momo who has nowhere else to go, and together the two of them enact revenge on the men who prey on the weak and defenseless, which Momo luring them into a secluded spot so that Marika can swoop down, break their necks, and eat them. As Momo grows older, however, she begins to grow weary of being constantly on the run and surrounded by violence.

The third story, “You Will Go to the Land of the Future,” is the origin story of Ruirui, who will go on to lead a group of Bamboo immigrants from China to Japan. This story is narrated from the perspective of Ruirui’s older sister, the fifth child of the Bamboo royal family. This nameless young woman describes how the Bamboo are respected and revered in the small and isolated rural community that surrounds their castle in the mountains, and how the princes and princesses are carefully brought up according to Confucian tradition. All of this changes with the Cultural Revolution, however, which brings outsiders to the village and spreads distrust among the villagers. Anyone who deviates from the narrow ideology of the Communist Party must be struck down for the good of the people, so even the seemingly invincible Bamboo find themselves is terrible danger.

Kazuki Sakuraba began her career by writing light novels; and, although A Small Charred Face contains scenes of graphic violence and sexual assault, it still feels like young adult fiction in many ways. The narrators are children (or have the minds of children), and their worldview is correspondingly myopic. Although the third story occurs during the Cultural Revolution, it’s difficult to ascertain when the first two stories are set. They might be set in the present, or in the near future, or at the end of the twenty-first century. Technology is never mentioned, nor are any events that would have led to the circumstances under which Kyo and Marika lost their families. What is “the Organization” that goes around murdering and raping women and children, and why doesn’t anyone have a cellphone? Is the story set in an alternate universe in which Japan descended into chaos at some point during the twentieth century; and, if so, what happened? Unfortunately, the narrators are not interested in anything other than their own teenage emotional drama, so they don’t even hint at the state of the society outside of their own circle of acquaintances. Meanwhile, they simply take it for granted that the people around them are routinely raped and murdered as a matter of course. The stories also decline to explore the nature and culture of the Bamboo, and there’s only a bare minimum of worldbuilding and trope exploration.

As frustrating as these limitations may be, I think they’re fair. The reader can only speculate about what happened to Japan in this fictional universe, but the Cultural Revolution was very real, and there’s no reason a fourteen-year-old who survived something like that would be able to understand the larger geopolitical currents that resulted in everyone around them being suddenly being dragged out into the street and killed. Perhaps it’s not so farfetched to think that something like this could happen in Japan – or that it could happen anywhere, for that matter.

What A Small Charred Face does – and what it does very well – is to allow the reader to share the experience of living on the absolute margins of society as an outsider. The vampires in these stories are a metaphor for difference, of course, but this metaphor is far from abstract. The Bamboo are openly in same-sex relationships, and they are openly immigrants, openly working awful night-shift jobs, and openly in economically precarious positions. Mustah is Brazilian, Yoji is Chinese, and Ruirui is a political refugee. Although these characters live in hand-to-mouth circumstances, none of them threatens Japanese society. On the contrary, they provide the love, hope, and comfort that Japanese society is not able to offer to its own children. Yes, the Bamboo are literal vampires who feed on the blood of humans, but the majority of them obtain the blood they need by working in healthcare-related industries, especially those that force people to work awful hours and don’t pay well. Given Japan’s aging population and the severity of its healthcare crisis, I don’t think this is a coincidence.

I’m not generally a fan of young adult fiction, especially when it intersects the genre of supernatural romance, and I was not expecting to be as deeply moved by A Small Charred Face as I was. Sakuraba stages a trenchant social critique within the dystopian environment she has created for her vampires, but her characters are beautifully realized and full of heart. Their flaws are relatable, their kindness is believable, and their unhappy endings are a consequence of the profound injustices of our own world. If you believe in the transformative potential of young adult novels like The Hunger Games and Divergent, then I cannot recommend A Small Charred Face highly enough. And if you love monsters and see their difference as a reflection of your own, please rest assured that the gay romance in these stories is treated with sensitivity, as are feminist politics and gender fluidity.

GO

Title: GO
Japanese Title: GO
Author: Kazuki Kaneshiro (金城 一紀)
Translator: Takami Nieda
Publication Year: 2000 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: AmazonCrossing
Pages: 165

GO is an unabashedly sincere adolescent power fantasy. The novel’s teenage protagonist and first-person narrator, Sugihara, is not only intelligent and an intellectual, but he’s also a powerhouse in a fight and respected by all of the other boys in his school. He reads weighty philosophical books and has an astounding knowledge of music and movies. A beautiful and popular girl named Sakurai is head-over-heels in love with him and has been since she first saw him. His father, an independent businessman and grizzled former boxer, treats him as an equal, and his mother and her friends adore him. Sugihara isn’t gay, but all of his close male friends ask him out on dates and admire him and would do anything for him. There’s just something special about Sugihara, who is the perfect idealization of the teenage boy we’d all like to think that we were or could have been.

The plot of GO is exceedingly simple. Sugihara switches schools between middle and high school, struggles to fit in at first, meets a beautiful girl and falls in love, starts studying to get into a good university, encounters a problem in his romantic relationship that leads to tension in his family life, overcomes his conflict with his father in a cathartic argument, and is then approached by his girlfriend with a sincere apology that repairs their relationship.

What makes GO interesting and worth reading, however, is the fact Sugihara is a Zainichi Korean, a person born and raised in Japan by Japanese-speaking parents who is not, legally speaking, Japanese.

Sugihara and his family begin the novel as Chōsenjin, or Zainichi Koreans who hold North Korean citizenship. Although his father was born on Jeju Island in South Korea, he was an active member of the North Korean Marxist Chongryon organization for most of his life and declared his family’s citizenship accordingly. The family officially changes their citizenship to South Korean when Sugihara is fourteen, his father is 54, and his mother wants to visit Hawaii. Of course they can’t travel to the United States with North Korean passports, so they join the Mindan, the organization for South Korean residents.

Sugihara’s citizenship changes along with that of his family, but he wants nothing to do with what he calls “their Hawaii adventure.” What he decides to do instead is attend a Japanese high school. Up until that point he had gone to a Korean high school run by the Chongryon, where (male) students are given a strict Marxist education. Sugihara doesn’t care anything for Hawaii, but the fact of his citizenship changing overnight does spark a desire inside him to be a part of the wider world, and in his mind this needs to start with attending a mainstream Japanese university. To do so, he’ll need to enter a Japanese high school, and so he studies his butt off and, to the surprise of his classmates and the infuriation of his Chōsenjin teachers, he passes.

When he was younger, Sugihara toughened his fists against the Japanese boys who would chase after Koreans trying to pick fights, and he manages to earn the respect of his classmates at his Japanese high school by beating the crap out of some kid who tries to pick a fight with him there. The kid ends up being a yakuza boss’s son, and it’s at one of his lavish birthday parties that Sugihara meets Sakurai, who had once seen him playing basketball and decided to pursue him. Their relationship proceeds relatively normally, with Sugihara introducing himself to Sakurai’s family and a lot of heavy petting, but Sugihara can’t quite bring himself to tell Sakurai that he’s not actually Japanese.

I have to admit that I’m of two minds about this novel.

On one hand, I think Sugihara is utterly obnoxious, and the story he tells about himself is utterly contrived. Every time a conflict arises, Sugihara handles it by being A Super Cool Guy™, which isn’t particularly interesting in terms of plot or character development. I’m also not a fan of Sugihara’s narcissism, which is so overwhelming that it doesn’t leave any room for him to acknowledge that any of the other characters might have an interior life of their own. Sugihara’s relationship with his girlfriend, for example, mainly consists of him lecturing her on his taste in entertainment while she is fey and unpredictable. When she expresses an extremely racist viewpoint at a critical moment, there is absolutely no reason for her to have done so save that she’s merely a device in a story that revolves entirely around Sugihara.

On the other hand, the author provides plenty of context for Sugihara’s bravado, citing numerous instances of discrimination that he and his family have to deal with within Japanese society, a difficult situation that isn’t made any easier by the harsh emphasis on ideological purity within the Chōsenjin community. If everything in Sugihara’s life is telling him that he’s literal human garbage, can’t he be forgiven at least a little for indulging in a power fantasy as he narrates his own life?

Interspersed throughout Sugihara’s personal story of how he’s awesome and smart and tough and attractive is the story of his family circumstances. This secondary story begins toward the very start of the novel…

My father came to Japan with a brother who was two years younger than he was. This brother – my uncle, that is – returned to North Korea during the repatriation campaign that began in the late 1950s. The campaign essentially touted North Korea as an “earthly paradise,” encouraging persecuted North Koreans living in Japan to return to their homeland and forge a life with their compatriots. At the time, most North Koreans had a vague suspicion that nothing good ever came out of anything called a campaign, but thinking it might be better than Japan, where they faced discrimination and poverty, many went back to North Korea anyway. My uncle was among them. (5)

…and reaches something resembling a conclusion when he gets in a fistfight with his father after his girlfriend dumps him. To me at least, Sugihara’s parents are far more interesting characters than he is, and his relationship with his father is much more compelling than his relationship with Sakurai. Sakurai is a one-note airheaded racist because teenage girls can really only exist as plot devices, but Sugihara’s father provides a much more nuanced portrayal of the tensions and outright conflict that can arise between national, ethnic, and personal identities.

As someone who belongs to a culture where immigrant literature is an established genre, it was an interesting experience for me to read the story of a second-generation immigrant in a society that is known for its relative ethnic homogeneity. Like anyone who’s familiar with contemporary Japanese social issues, I’ve encountered numerous discussions relating to Zainichi Koreans, but I had never read anything quite like GO. Kazuki Kaneshiro, a Zainichi Korean himself, is writing from a firsthand perspective, and his narrator’s deliberate resistance to received narratives about who Zainichi Koreans are and what their place is in Japan is supposed to be is extremely powerful.

I suppose that GO can be read as a story of star-crossed lovers, but the relationships with the most emotional impact involve the friendships between high school boys, the frustrated affection between different generations within immigrant families, the misunderstandings between different socioeconomic classes, and the historical tensions between Korea and Japan. If you can get past the casual sexism of the central love story, GO has a lot to offer to anyone interested in international literature or, more broadly speaking, coming-of-age stories in general. And, if nothing else, its narrator’s triumphantly oppositional attitude and cheerfully competitive shōnen manga life narrative is a refreshing alternative to more serious literary depictions of the helpless pathos and dysfunctionality of immigrant communities in Japan.

The Great Passage

Title: The Great Passage
Japanese Title: Fune o amu (船を編む)
Author: Shion Miura (三浦 しをん)
Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
Publication Year: 2017 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: AmazonCrossing
Pages: 217

The Great Passage is one of the kindest and most gentle books I’ve read during the past year. Despite the fact that it tells the story of a seemingly tedious enterprise, namely, the compellation of a dictionary, I found myself blazing through the novel because I had to find out whether or not the editors would manage to get their dictionary published. I then went back and read the book again so that I could take my time enjoying the quality of the writing and the translation.

The novel’s story is centered around Mitsuya Majime, a man who loves words but has trouble communicating with other people. Majime is initially placed into the Sales Department of Gembu Books, a large publisher based in Tokyo, but he flounders there like a fish out of water. His ineptitude comes to the attention of Masashi Nishioka, an extroverted and smooth-talking young man who, through a strange twist of fate, has been assigned to the Dictionary Editorial Department. Nishioka brings Majime to the attention of Kohei Araki, the editorial section chief, who immediately heads over to the Sales Department, notices Majime as soon as he steps into the room, and hires him on the spot.

By the end of the first chapter of The Great Passage, a dream team has been assembled. Majime is a philologist who is more than happy to check and double-check words and definitions, Nishioka recruits experts to write definitions for specialist words and placates the egos of grumpy professors, and Araki oversees the minutiae of editorial operations while running interference with the corporate bosses. Also on the team are Professor Matsumoto, an elderly academic who has devoted his life to the creation of a new dictionary, and Mrs. Sasaki, who is nominally an administrative assistant but pulls her weight around the office by picking up the slack of her male colleagues.

As Majime and his new coworkers deal with the mundane work and bureaucratic challenges involved in the compilation of a dictionary, a love story unfolds between Majime and a young chef named Kaguya, who lives in the same communal boarding house where Majime has rented a small room since college. Both Majime and Kaguya are shy and serious people, but they’re able to bond with each other through the auspices of Také, their chatty landlady, and Tora, the large tomcat that roams through the building at night. The couple is well-suited to one another, and their romance progresses quietly and without incident – with one major exception.

Majime, unsure of how to confess his feelings to Kaguya, decides to write her a love letter. As might be expected of the sort of person whose life’s passion is dictionary editing, his love letter is a garbled mess of rare words and convoluted literary allusions. Majime allows his extroverted colleague Nishioka to read the letter; and, although he tells Majime that the letter is perfect as it is, it causes Nishioka no small amount of amusement. It’s partially because of this ridiculous letter that Nishioka begins to feel a protective affection for Majime and resolves to do everything in his power to aid the budding dictionary editor in his goals. Later on in the story, when Nishioka is transferred to another department, he leaves a copy of the letter hidden in the dictionary editorial office so that his successor, a stylish young woman named Kishibe, will be better able to understand and appreciate Majime’s quirky but earnest personality. At the end of The Great Passage, after the main story concludes, there is a nine-page abbreviated excerpt of this letter with humorous annotations from Nishioka and Kishibe that are overflowing with silly jokes and heartfelt goodwill.

The dictionary itself, titled Daitōkai (translated as “The Great Passage”), eventually emerges as its own unique character in the story. The editorial staff regularly meets to discuss what sort of material belongs in an effective dictionary, as well as how an ideal definition should be structured. Unlike the numerous Japanese dictionaries that will have proceeded Daitōkai, Majime and his colleagues want their work to accurately reflect the concerns and interests of the people who live in contemporary Japan. To give an example…

“Dictionaries do tend to be written from the male perspective,” Professor Matsumoto said mildly. “They’re mostly put together by men, so they often lack words having to do with fashion and housework, for example. But that approach won’t work anymore. The ideal dictionary is one that everyone can join in using together, men and women of all ages, interested in all matters of life.” (34)

There is also some light discussion regarding the constructed nature of gender and sexuality implicit in certain words, and the staff ultimately takes a progressive view on many issues. They conclude, for example, that “love” need not be defined as the romantic attraction between a “man” and a “woman.” Kishibe, who initially worked in the editorial department of a women’s lifestyle magazine, is surprised to have been transferred to the staff of a dictionary, but she quickly realizes that what she considered to be common knowledge for a young professional woman serves as a valuable area of expertise to a staff largely comprised of middle-aged men. As she begins to devote herself to the project, Kishibe gains a mounting sense of appreciation for the endeavor…

Words were necessary for creation. Kishibe imagined the primordial ocean that covered the surface of the earth long ago – a soupy, swirling liquid in a state of chaos. Inside every person there was a similar ocean. Only when that ocean was struck by the lightning of words could all come into being. Love, the human heart… Words gave things form so that they could rise out of the dark sea. (164)

Special mention must also be made of the fine work of the translator, Juliet Winters Carpenter. The conversations surrounding Japanese words, their synonyms, and their cultural contexts never feel awkward or forced, and even a reader with no familiarity of Japanese language and culture will be able to enjoy the linguistic play and fine distinctions of meaning. Moreover, the oddities of Japanese corporate culture are glossed over masterfully so that the reader is able to understand the relationships and tensions between professionals without getting bogged down in a mire of titles and hierarchies and formal modes of address.

Although The Great Passage may seem like a novel that will only be of interest to a niche audience, its appeal is far more expansive. This is a book for people who love words. It’s a book for people who love reading. It’s a book for people who love translation. And, in the end, The Great Passage is a celebration of people who love books.

Oh, and also! The novel was adapted into an anime, which is available in the United States through Amazon’s streaming service.

Penance

Title: Penance
Japanese Title: 贖罪 (Shokuzai)
Author: Kanae Minato (湊 かなえ)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2012 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Pages: 229

Fifteen years ago, in an unnamed rural town, a girl named Emily was raped and murdered. Although four of her friends saw the face of the man who tricked her into going off alone with him, he was never caught. Emily’s mother, driven half-crazy with grief, accused the four girls of being responsible for her daughter’s death, and they have all carried this burden with them into their adult lives. The statute of limitations on the murder is about to run out, yet its lingering effects have not yet faded. Is it possible that one of the surviving girls, now young women, holds a clue to solving the murder? If the murderer’s identity is revealed, will these women find peace, or is the cycle of violence impossible to halt?

The first four of Penance‘s five chapters are narrated from the perspectives of Emily’s friends, each of whom is haunted by the trauma of the incident.

The first narrator, Sae, is the girl who discovered Emily’s body, and the horror of what she saw has never been far from her mind. Of the four girls who survived, she’s been the most afraid that the killer will return, so she’s been determined to remain in the immature body of a child while keeping to herself and never dating. Not long after she’s hired by a firm in Tokyo, however, she’s presented with an offer of marriage she can’t refuse from a young man from her hometown. Although this man is too young to be the murderer, he possesses a significant and startling clue, and Sae comes to realize that he has a very good – and very creepy – reason for staying silent.

The second narrator, Maki, has become an elementary school teacher, and she’s recently found herself on national news after preventing a mentally ill young man from attacking her students. Far from being hailed as a hero, she is blamed for the young man’s death, and she does not deny that she took action to harm him. Addressing an assembly of parents, Maki explains what happened to her when she was a child, why she was able to act so quickly and decisively when threatened with violence, and why she bitterly regrets her behavior on the day that Emily died.

The third narrator, Akiko, is a precious human (I love her!) who sees herself as a “bear.” She has never moved out of her parents’ house, partially because of the trauma of Emily’s murder and partially because of outwardly imposed issues regarding her body image. “Boys have it easy,” she explains. “Even if they look like a bear they’re popular […] and being big isn’t a drawback the way it is for girls” (87). Akiko isn’t a shut-in, but she never went to high school and has since distanced herself from society. She now spends her days sleeping, helping her mother around the house, and working out. When her brother Koji gets married, she finds herself gradually being drawn out of her shell and becoming friends with her new sister-in-law’s child from a previous marriage, Wakaba. Wakaba’s mother Haruka has a dark past, however, and even the innocent and sweet-tempered Akiko senses that something isn’t quite right with the new family. She ends up becoming involved in their drama by accident, and disastrous consequences ensue.

The fourth narrator, Yuka, has lived her life in the shadow of her older sister, who was diagnosed with asthma at a young age. The older sister was doted on by their mother, while Yuka became the scapegoat for her mother’s frustrations. After Yuka indirectly witnessed Emily’s death, her mother began to alienate her even more, and Yuka has grown up feeling that she should have been the girl who died. Nevertheless, she has managed to achieve a modest amount of success in her life, but her resentment toward her sister has inspired her to enact a complicated plan of revenge. This brings her to the attention of the murderer, as well as Emily’s mother, who knows far more about why her daughter was killed than she has ever revealed to anyone.

The fifth narrator should perhaps remain a mystery for readers to discover for themselves. It seems as if this person will be able tie everything together… but then she doesn’t, not at all.

Penance had me enthralled from beginning to end. Although the story contains many mysteries, the identity of the murderer begins to feel irrelevant and inconsequential as the deeper tragedies of the narrators’ lives slowly unfold. The novel is are firmly grounded in contemporary Japanese society, but the characters’ anxieties are universally relatable. Penance has a lot to say about what it feels like to be an outsider, and what it feels like to live in fear of physical and social violence, and what it feels like to have difficulty communicating with the people who are close to you.

Penance is not a novel about vulnerability, however; it’s a story of resilience. It’s also a story about a group of women who learn where their breaking points lie and then purposefully put themselves into situations that trigger them to take action. By the end of the book, the narrators share more than one murder, and the loose conspiracy that arises between them is a beautiful development fashioned from intricate plot details. The strength of Kanae Minato’s writing is in her compassionate portrayal of her psychologically damaged yet intensely sympathetic characters, but that doesn’t get in her way of creating a compelling and suspenseful mystery in this brilliant literary thriller.