#JanuaryinJapan: Keiichiro Hirano

Keiichiro Hirano: A Man, trans. Eli K.P. William, Amazon Crossing, 2020.

Rie Takemoto’s husband Daisuke Taniguchi was an incomer to their little town S in the Miyazaki Prefecture of Japan. He moved to the town at the age of thirty-five wanting a complete change of career, and he worked in forestry for four years, three of which he spent married to Rie, before being crushed by a tree.

Upon his death, Rie discovers that her famously reticent husband was actually not who he claimed to be. Shocked at the possibility that her marriage was a complete lie, she contacts the lawyer Akira Kido to try and find out more about the man she married. Kido becomes obsessed with the investigation, as he uncovers layer after layer of mystery and hidden identities. It turns out that Japan’s old-fashioned, paper-based family register system is open to manipulation, and that people buy and sell identities to get rid of a troublesome past.

But this is not simply a mystery novel. Kido himself is a zainichi (of Korean origins), although he grew up in a very Japanese environment and doesn’t even speak Korean. After the 2011 tsunami, he has been forcibly made aware of his heritage and starts to feel that his Japanese wife is perhaps ashamed of it. One of the people he investigates changed his identity to escape his family heritage (his father was a notorious criminal) – and Kido sees parallels to his own situation.

In all honesty, I don’t like when other Zainichi try to claim me, as though we were somehow separate and special… Whether it’s being a lawyer or being Japanese, the same applies. It’s unbearable to have your identity summed up by one thing and one thing only and for other people to have control over what that is.

The novel becomes a meditation on what makes up ‘a man’ or our ‘real self’. But it’s also a poignant description of failing to live up to our youthful aspirations and wondering whether we too might be tempted to turn over a completely new leaf and reinvent ourselves if we could do so without grave consequences.

Such is the intriguing premise of this novel, the first by Hirano that I’ve read. I was aware of the author from the sterling blog run by J.C. Greenway, who actually lives in Japan.

Although I enjoyed the story overall (and in particular the characters of Kido and Misuzu, Daisuke’s former girlfriend), I have to admit that the multiple swaps of identity and the deliberate obfuscations of the ‘identity broker’ in prison got confusing and irritating after a while. I also found the prose rather pedestrian, occasionally clunky, with the more philosophical meditations shoehorned in rather than feeling like an organic, inevitable part of the story. I am not sure if that is the author’s style in Japanese or if it’s the translation. At the same time, I appreciate the book for its realism, its accurate description of the hard-working, less than glamorous everyday of life in contemporary Japan, rather than the surreal flights of fantasy encountered in Murakami, for instance.

Having said that, I am about to embark upon a Murakami book for my next read, so…

11 thoughts on “#JanuaryinJapan: Keiichiro Hirano”

  1. This is a writer I haven’t tried, and I think there’s a reason why I’m yet to take the plunge (quite apart from the publisher…).

  2. Sorry to hear this one didn’t live up to your hopes, Marina Sofia. The premise sounds so interesting, and it does sound as though it offers a good look at life in that part of Japanese society. You ask a good question about the translation, by the way. As you well know, translation can be the difference between a book that draws the reader in and one that doesn’t.

    1. I’ve often found that the Japanese writing style can be deceptively simple and therefore sounds a little dull in translation. It wasn’t too bad a book, but compared to some other Japanese gems I’ve read, it didn’t set my world on fire.

    1. Ah, which one would that be? I’ve finished two more books since writing this post and enjoyed each of them, but they were by well-known writers: Tanizaki and Murakami. I wonder if some of the new translations coming out are of less than stellar authors because it is now a bit of a fashion to read translated Japanese fiction.

      1. The Sound of the Wind by Chiyo Uno. It combines a biography with three of her works. Fascinating woman and fascinating life, but the biography doesn’t spark much and is a bit wooden. The stories are good though. It’s an older book. Am now reading Mishima and much happier… ;D

  3. I read this book last year, but I didn’t enjoy it…yet, I’m struck by these lines in your post: ‘But it’s also a poignant description of failing to live up to our youthful aspirations and wondering whether we too might be tempted to turn over a completely new leaf and reinvent ourselves if we could do so without grave consequences.’ That is such a fascinating concept, and in a way reminds me of ( the less than stellar writing in) Tales From the Cafe. What if we could have ‘do overs’ as my class used to say when they were losing a game. What if we could be someone else?

    That said, now I am wondering what Murakami you will be opening. I myself am longing to reread Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. (Tony also mentioned it in the beginning of January, and he has already finished it! ☺️)

    1. Hello, Meredith – yes, the style was a bit pedestrian in this one, and I certainly found the Tales from the Cafe series sentimental and clicheed too. Nevertheless, it was an interesting starting point for my own thinking… I read Sputnik Sweetheart, which is a Murakami I hadn’t read before (and quite enjoyed it) but I too am contemplating rereading the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, except it’s much longer…

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