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, he’s also a powerhouse in a fight and respected by 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 still ask him out on dates and would do anything for him. There’s just something special about Sugihara, who is the perfect idealization of the teenage boy we’d 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 to the new school’s culture, 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 switches their citizenship to South Korea when Sugihara is fourteen because 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 his citizenship changing overnight sparks a desire to be a part of the wider world. In his mind, this needs to start with attending a mainstream Japanese university. To do so, he needs to enter a Japanese high school, 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 up a student who tries to pick a fight with him there. This student ends up being a yakuza boss’s son, and his defeat causes him to respect Sugihara as a peer. It’s at one of this young man’s lavish birthday parties that Sugihara meets Sakurai, who had once seen him playing basketball and decided to pursue him. Their relationship proceeds relatively normally, but Sugihara can’t quite bring himself to tell Sakurai and her family 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 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 media. When she expresses an extremely racist viewpoint at a critical moment, there is absolutely no reason for her to have done so save that her entire function is to serve as a plot 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 Sugihara 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 society is telling him that he’s literal 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 at the 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 Sugihara 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 only exist as plot devices, but Sugihara’s father provides a much more nuanced portrayal of the subtle 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. I’ve encountered numerous discussions relating to Zainichi Koreans, but I’ve 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 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 affections 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 anyone interested in international literature or, more broadly speaking, coming-of-age stories in general. If nothing else, its narrator’s triumphantly oppositional attitude and cheerfully competitive shōnen manga-style 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.

Fujisan

Fujisan

Title: Fujisan
Japanese Title: 富士山 (Fujisan)
Author: Taguchi Randy (田口 ランディ)
Translator: Raj Mahtani
Year Published: 2012 (America); 2004 (Japan)
Publisher: AmazonCrossing
Pages: 191

In her Foreword, Taguchi states that she “wrote this anthology of stories as an expression of my veneration and appreciation for this life-affirming mountain; it is my personal tribute to Fujisan.”

Although Mount Fuji is in the background of each of the four stories collected in this volume, the main theme of these stories is an affirmation of life in the face of fairly extreme social maladjustment and malaise. “The Blue Summit” is about a convenience store worker who begins reflecting on his past experiences as a member of a religious cult after he survives an attempted robbery. “The Sea of Trees” is about three high school students with an interest in the occult who go hiking in the Aokigahara forest and come across a failed suicide. “Jamila” is about a public servant who is tasked with dealing with an old woman who lives in a house overflowing with garbage. “Child of Light” is about a nurse at a small gynecological clinic who ponders a teenage abortion patient she recently cared for as she climbs Mount Fuji with a group of older women. The characters of these stories all face death and the more unpleasant aspects of continuing to live and somehow manage to come out okay on the other side.

I liked the opening story, “Blue Summit,” for its description of the appeal of sanitized and familiar spaces like convenience stores and family restaurants to the broken people who seek refuge there in the small hours of the night. As the narrator says of the convenience store where he works as a night shift manager:

I like it here. This convenience store is my sanctuary. There’s a stillness here that’s like the stillness you find in the snowy, bleak plains of Siberia. […] The store’s open twenty-four hours and it’s menacingly bright. There’s no darkness. It’s all so gloriously digital. While intimacy and a sense of reality are effectively absent in the store, a minimum degree of comfort is always guaranteed. The convenience store is stabilized on a low-energy wavelength: it never betrays you. In a convenience store, you can silently snuggle up to the void. (3, 13)

In this story, the convenience store as a comforting space is juxtaposed against the nightmarish interior spaces of the people who enter it. The narrator is haunted by the memories of a friend he made when he was a member of a religious cult headquartered at the base of Mount Fuji who may have been killed by the group when he tried to defect. Kozue, one of the employees who works under the narrator, suffers from a fascination with dissection and enjoys watching herself bleed. As for the anonymous assailant who unsuccessfully attempts to rob the convenience store at the beginning of the story and later shows up with a baseball bat looking for revenge, the narrator suspects that what he’s ultimately after is a validation of his own existence, a concern that the narrator sympathizes with even as he is attacked.

My favorite story in Fujisan has to be “Jamila,” if only for its colorful descriptions of a gomi yashiki, or “garbage mansion,” in Susono City, a small municipality in the foothills of Mount Fuji. The narrator of the story, a native son who has left a corporate job in Tokyo to take a post at Susono’s Office of Environmental Quality, is tasked with dealing with a local hoarder’s residence. He hasn’t made much progress, partly because he is fascinated by the structure:

When I went to investigate the house of trash for the first time, a part of me was genuinely thrilled. I wanted to see for myself who the old garbage lady was, the one reputed to be a goblin, but when I arrived, the horror of it all simply defied imagination. It was a slice of nightmare lying exposed in the heart of a residential area lined with middle-class houses. What bothered me the most was the drabness of all the visible junk, especially in light of the fact that each and every one of the objects was at one time or another brand new. […] The trash, estimated to be sixty tons’ worth, was spilling over from the premises into the public road, where it bore an uncanny resemblance to the entrails of a road-killed cat. (108)

I really don’t find all this trash-hoarding that objectionable. I find it more interesting than, say, staying inside city hall. As I stood there, gazing vacantly, my eyes registered an entire universe of things: wire hangers, torn umbrellas, broken TVs, antennas, vacuum cleaners, plastic bags, tattered clothes, tricycles, flowerpots, bedpans, bamboo blinds, futons… The trash went beyond trash to become works of fantastic, sculptural art. (100)

As in “Blue Summit,” physical spaces have a close relationship with psychic spaces, and the narrator’s meditation on an old woman’s gomi yashiki reveals the disorganization of his own (possibly deranged) mind and the sociological state of a nation that produces and throws away so much physical, cultural, and human garbage.

If I had to describe these stories in one word, it would be “intense.” There’s a bit of navel gazing going on in Fujisan, but it’s never too cumbersome, and the collection’s four stories move quickly and capitalize on topical issues for emotional impact.

If you’re wondering about the publication quality of Amazon’s new translation publisher, AmazonCrossing, it’s actually fairly decent. The front and back covers of the physical version of Fujisan look like printouts of a mid-resolution PDF document, but the inside text is crisp and clear, and the page layout is clean and uncluttered. During the short promotional period when Amazon was offering the book for about as much money as a cup of tea at Starbucks, I also downloaded the digital version of the book from the Kindle store, and it looked great as well.

Several reviewers on Amazon have complained about the translation, but I didn’t mind it so much. There were a few sentences that were awkward (they mostly involved slang), but overall I think Raj Mahtani did a great job conveying the voices of Taguchi’s characters. I have read (and produced) a great deal of clunky awkward translatorese, and I know just how terrible it is, but nothing of the sort appears in Mahtani’s translation of Fujisan. The vast majority of the translated prose in the collection is clear and serviceable. It’s never going to win any literary awards, but Taguchi herself isn’t exactly a “literary” writer; she writes popular fiction, and her writing reads like popular fiction.

In any case, the translated narrative voices of Fujisan are similar to the translated narrative voice of Taguchi’s previously translated work, Outlet, and readers who appreciated the exploration of hidden spaces and raunchiness of Outlet will definitely enjoy Fujisan.

By the way, the author has her own website, which includes an interview translated into English. If you can read Japanese, her blog is also well worth browsing.