March Was Made of Yarn

Title: March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on
the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown
Editors: Elmer Luke and David Karashima
Publication Year: 2012
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 216

As the March 11 anniversary of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami draws closer, Japanese bookstores have begun to promote retrospective magazine-books. These publications are filled with huge glossy photographs of destruction, and the number of people killed is printed in bold characters across their covers. Although such disaster porn is disturbing, it helps to illustrate a definite aspect of the reality of what happened a year ago in Japan.

March Was Made of Yarn helps to illustrate another aspect of the reality of the earthquake, tsunami, and resulting nuclear crisis. If pictures and body counts inform the physical reality, then this collection of fiction and nonfiction offers insight into the emotional reality. Thankfully, March Was Made of Yarn is infinitely more gentle and subtle than sensationalist reporting and sentimental recollections of heroism and despair.

Even though all of the short pieces brought together by this collection address the events of last year in some fashion, many do so obliquely, and the themes of the pieces are universal. What is it like to live through a crisis? What is it like to know that other people are living through a crisis? What does it feel like to worry about the future? What does it feel like when science fiction becomes reality? What happens when you’re so sick with worry that you can’t fall asleep at night? What happens when words can no longer express truth or meaning?

March Was Made of Yarn features the work of internationally renowned Japanese writers such as Ogawa Yōko, Murakami Ryū, Kakuta Mitsuyo, Furukawa Hideo, and Tawada Yōko. These writers don’t cut corners in their craft simply because they happen to be responding to a topical issue; and, although none of them are writing “happy” stories or essays, their work is a pleasure to read. Kawakami Hiromi, who rewrote her debut story “Kami-sama” (translated as “God Bless You”) to address the incidents at the Fukushima reactor, reminds us that, even though we live in a world shadowed by the fear of radiation and environmental poisoning, we still need to eat, and we still want to go outside. The title story, Kawakami Mieko’s “March Yarn,” deals with the strange ways in which people process their memories and their understanding of their relationships with each other. Tanikawa Shuntarō’s poem “Words,” which opens the book, poses the question of how we can even write about things for which there are no words (yet still “Words put forth buds / From the earth beneath the rubble”). The translators who contributed to this volume are among the best in the field, and their skill illuminates the entirety of the collection.

March Was Made of Yarn isn’t just an excellent anthology of work related to the Tōhoku disasters; it’s an excellent Japanese literary anthology period. The range of authors represented by the book has the most even distribution of gender, generation, and genre I’ve ever encountered, and the English-language contributors, such as David Peace and John Burnham Schwartz, bring an added level of flavor and diversity. This collection is also accessible to casual readers, as few of the stories are any longer than twenty pages, and it has been beautifully published by Vintage. I don’t know how so many good things were able to come together to create this amazing book, but I am extraordinarily grateful that it exits.

March Was Made of Yarn should be available at all major bookstores in North America, Britain, Australia, and Japan, and it’s available on the Kindle Store as well.

If you don’t mind reading entirely in PDF digital format, please consider checking out Waseda University’s Japan Earthquake Charity Literature Project, which has some overlap with March Was Made of Yarn. It’s free to download and read the PDF versions of the stories and essays on the website, and the reader is encouraged to make a donation to disaster relief efforts afterwards.

The Commoner

The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz

Title: The Commoner
Author: John Burnham Schwartz
Publication Year: 2008 (America)
Pages: 351

Let me be honest with you. I generally hate books intended for a popular audience written by gaijin (foreigners, or non-Japanese). Bruce Feiler’s Learning to Bow (2004), Peter Carey’s Wrong About Japan (2006), and Michael Zielenziger’s Shutting Out the Sun (2007) spring immediately to mind. My complaints concerning books of this kind are myriad, but they basically boil down to a few specific points. Namely, the authors have never formally studied Japan, they’ve never spent any significant length of time in Japan, and they don’t speak Japanese. As a result, their theories are based on misinformation and mistaken assumptions, if not on pure ethnocentrism. “Wrong about Japan,” indeed.

I am excited to tell you that this book is different. Not only is it meticulously well researched, detailed, and accurate to a point at which I would not have doubted a Japanese name on the cover, but it is also perhaps the most outstanding work of English language fiction that I have read this year. Schwartz’s novel brought me, a literary cynic, to tears on more than one occasion, and its emotional impact stayed with me long after I had closed the book for the final time.

The Commoner is a fictionalized account of the life of Michiko, the current Empress of Japan, and the entrance of the current Crown Princess, Masako, into the royal family. Schwartz has renamed Michiko “Haruko” and Masako “Keiko,” but the parallels between his fictional princesses and the lives of the two real-life princesses cannot be mistaken. Even though the various triumphs and tragedies of these two women has been well publicized by the media, the Japanese imperial institution has put up an iron wall of silence behind the moats of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, preventing the thoughts and stories of its residents from ever reaching the public. Schwartz’s novel is an attempt to understand the lives and emotions of the Empress and the Crown Princess lying dormant underneath their carefully-managed public facade.

I’m not going to spoil the plot, but I have to let you know that the ending of this book is amazing. If the beautiful prose and delicate characterizations, evident from the first page and only building in intensity, weren’t enough to hook you, the novel’s climax definitely makes The Commoner well worth the read.