January in Japan: Tokyo Ueno Station

Yu Miri: Tokyo Ueno Station, transl. Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press, 2019.

Ueno Park is an oasis of beautiful greenery in the heart of Tokyo. It houses several museums and cultural venues, a zoo, a Shinto shrine and is the site of the most exuberant cherry blossom gazing in the Japanese capital. When I first went to Japan in the summer of 1989, it was one of my favourite places to escape to from the humid heat of the city.

However, when the Japanese economy stagnated in the 1990s, the park became notorious for its large population of homeless people, who have created a makeshift town of blue tarp tents and cardboard boxes under the unusually large, sheltering trees. On my most recent trip to Japan in 2015, I was shocked to see how vast this community of the disenfranchised was. Japan has a tendency to sweep this problem under the carpet – for the longest time they wouldn’t even admit to having any homeless people. Nowadays, the problem is acknowledged but there is very little effort to deal with it in a concerted and humane way. The only positive is that the restaurants and shops in the neighbourhood give them their surplus, about-to-expire food. The police periodically disperses the homeless people, particularly when there is a formal event at one of the Ueno venues, with imperial attendance, but since there is nowhere else for them to go, they slowly drift back there. With the Tokyo Olympics on the horizon in 2020 (now 2021), the past two years or so have seen widespread attempts to ‘discourage loitering’, i.e. setting up of camps.

Yu Miri’s book gives us the life story of one of these marginalised people (and, in his company, we get to meet others from this community, which is by no means as homogeneous as you might expect). Kazu is a labourer in the construction industry, who left his family in Fukushima to make money in the big city in the run-up to the 1964 Olympics.

I never took my children to Ueno zoo… I didn’t take them to the zoo, nor to the amusement park, the seaside, the mountains; I never went to their beginning-of-the-year ceremonies or graduations or to a parents’ open day or to a sports day, not even once. I went back only twice a year, in summer and in winter…

Unsurprisingly, his children grow very distant, and he feels completely disposable and superfluous when he goes back to his home village. But things are no better in Tokyo: as a member of the homeless community, he is well-nigh invisible. ‘To be homeless is to be ignored when people walk past while still being in full view of everyone.’ Of course, we soon find out that Kazu is in fact a ghost, so he is literally invisible and can eavesdrop on the conversations of those wandering through the park. There are interesting contrasts between the visitors to the park and museums, and the homeless community. We also get to know other homeless people like Shige, extremely well-educated, who spends a great deal of his day in the public library, but is so ashamed of one single event in his past, that he can never return to his family.

Ueno Park and the Tokyo National Museum of Art

However, it is Kazu’s memories, his guilt and pain, that are at the forefront of the book. Kazu has always felt a special bond or affinity with the Emperor Akihito (who has since the writing of the book abdicated in 2019 in favour of his son Naruhito).. They were born in the same year (1933), they had their first son born on the same day in 1960, and Kazu even saw the old emperor (Akihito’s father) up close back in 1947. Despite his hard work, his submission, his feeling that he has done everything he was supposed to do, Kazu’s life has been full of bad luck. I want to avoid spoilers so I won’t say anything more specific here, although you are probably not going to read this book for its suspense. The narration glides from one conversation to another, from past to present, so that we often lose track of who is talking and what is real, what is experienced and what is merely observed and overheard.

There are some parts of the book where the author gets sidetracked into lengthy descriptions of a historical event or person, or descriptions of different types of roses interspersed with the dialogues Kazu hears in the park. I have to admit I was not quite sure what the author intended with these digressions. It might be to add to that overall effect of no escape, no enlightenment for Kazu. He is stuck in limbo and there is no end to his suffering and no meaning to his life or that of those around him.

I thought that once I was dead I would be reunited with the dead. That I could see, close up, those who were far away, touch them and feel them at all times. I thought something would be resolved by death. I believed that at the final moment, the meaning of life and death woudl appear to me clearly, like a fog lifting…

But then I realized that I was back in the park. I was not going anywhere, I had not understood anything, I was still stunned by the same numberless doubts, only I was now outside of life looking in…

Time does not pass. Time never ends.

Critics have made much of Yu Miri’s own outsider status – as a Japanese of Korean descent, she belongs to a group that is heavily discriminated. She herself has said that she wants to give voice to those who are voiceless and marginalised, but resists being stereotyped as a ‘minority writer’. Her only other novel to be translated thus far into English Gold Rush is about a less obvious kind of outsider. [You can read an excellent review of it on Tony’s blog.] Another writer who also struggled with this tension between giving voice to the type of experiences often unacknowledged by Japanese society is Kenji Nakagami, who was a Burakumin, so-called hereditary outcastes of society because they engaged in ‘unclean’ trades.

P.S. I should also add that I had the pleasure of discussing the book in December 2020 at the Borderless Book Club organised by Peirene Press, a wonderful initiative that introduces books published by small independents, translated from all over the world.

So my first two January in Japan reads have shown the darker underbelly of Japanese society. Will my next one live a little more up to the expectations we might have of this country? I’ll give you a clue…

#WITMonth: Mieko Kawakami

Author photo from Goodreads.

Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and Eggs, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd

By fortunate coincidence, it turns out today is this author’s birthday, so Happy Birthday, Mieko! And thank you for a very thought-provoking and entertaining read.

If I told you that a book entitled Breasts and Eggs talks frankly and at length about breast surgery, sperm banks, artificial insemination, asexuality, single motherhood and periods, you would probably conclude that it is an angry feminist tract – possibly written by a brash Western writer (Virginie Despentes or Otessa Moshfegh come to mind). The fact that it was written by a Japanese woman makes this book seem even more revolutionary. Japan is still a far from equal society when it comes to gender – in some ways, it has even regressed in recent years under a conservative government.

Yet, of course, Japanese women have been writing books portraying women’s (and men’s) thoughts and their restricted lives for centuries.  Just off the top of my head: Murasaki Shikibu‘s portrayal of men playing their power games with women as their pawns in the Heian period, to the frank description of sexual desire in Akiko Yosano, the trauma of spouses supplanted by second wives in Fumiko Enchi,  the description of working class struggles and the red light district in Ichiyo Higuchi (a writer Kawakami cites as an inspiration), the fiendishly subversive retelling of myths of Aoko Matsuda. There is a plethora of exciting women writers in Japan today and, luckily for us, more of them are getting translated. Alongside the well established names such as Banana Yoshimoto, Natsuo Kirino,  Yoko Ogawa, Hiromi Kawakami and Kanae Minato, we are starting to see the emergence of challenging and fearless writing, occasionally with a surreal twist, by younger authors such as Hitomi Kanehara, Sayaka Murata, Misumi Kubo and Nao-Cola Yamazaki.

So, while I don’t agree that Mieko Kawakami is a revolutionary who ‘lobbed a literary grenade into the fusty, male-dominated world of Japanese fiction’ (as The Economist puts it), I have to admit that this book addresses issues that are typically swept under the carpet in Japan – and, let’s admit it, probably are not discussed that much in fiction in the West either. And she manages to offer us a variety of opinions about motherhood and the female body, while also giving us an involving plot about sisterhood and friendship, well-rounded characters with great back stories, and writing which can span everything from raucous female banter (in dialect) to philosophy to passages of lyrical descriptions.

In the first part of the book, which is by and large the original novella entitled Breasts and Eggs that won the Akutagawa Prize in 2008, we see three women at three different stages of their lives. Natsuko, the narrator, is 30, still young but no spring chicken anymore, and she can feel the clock ticking on her career as a writer in Tokyo. Her sister, Makiko, is nearly ten years older and still lives in their home town of Osaka, doing her best to keep herself and her daughter afloat as a single mum, working in a hostess bar. She too can feel the clock ticking – on her body – and thinks that getting breast enhancement will improve her life and her career. Meanwhile, her daughter Midoriko (the name means ‘green’ in Japanese and she really is very green still, just starting to experience her own bodily changes at the age of twelve) refuses to communicate with her mother in any other way than in writing. Natsuko is mostly the observer and tries to mediate between them, but she struggles to understand her sister’s need for validation or her niece’s judgemental attitude. There are some beautiful conversations between them, but the reminiscing about the past steers clear of either melodrama or sentimentality. One of the most poignant passages was the conversation between aunt and niece as they go round in a ferris wheel – this was the passage that Kawakami read out during her Edinburgh Book Festival interview, and the contrast between the Osakaben that Natsuko speaks with Midoriko and the descriptive passages in literary Japanese stood out even more when she read them.

I would have loved to see more of the sister and niece in the second part of the novel, but that is really Natsuko’s story (the title of the whole book in Japanese is Natsu Monogatari, which can be translated as either Summer Tales or Tales of Natsu). Natsuko is now nearing the age of her sister in the first part, and this time it’s her biological clock that is ticking. She is still single, and doesn’t really want a relationship with a man. She is enjoying some literary success, which is a great opportunity for mocking the pretentiousness of the Japanese literary scene, but realises that she really would like to have a child before it gets too late. So she starts investigating the possibility of using a sperm donor (which is not really possible for single women or same-sex couples in Japan). Along the way, she both befriends and alienates people, and gets to hear a variety of different attitudes about what it means to be an artist or a mother or both in Japan, as well as being the child of a sperm donor (and condemned to never know exactly who your biological father is).

As for being a wife, well, I can just imagine the reaction of the reading public to the quote below by a fellow writer Rika, who is also a single mum, and whom Natsuko befriends:

Everything men do repulses me, I can’t tell you how good it felt when we got divorced and my ex left the house. It was like I could breathe again… It’s just, men can be such idiots. They can’t do anything around the house without making a ton of noise, not even close the fridge or turn the lights on. They can’t take care of anyone else. They can’t even take care of themselves/. They won’t do anything for their kids or their families if it means sacrificing their own comfort, but they go out in the world and act all big, like I’m such a agood dad, such a provider… For better or worse, living with someone is nothing but friction, the collision of incompatible ideals. It takes trust to make it viable. I mean, love is basically a drug, right? Without love and trust, resentment is the only thing that’s left.

Well, I could certainly relate to that, and so could many women, particularly those living in rather patriarchal societies. Yet, in her Edinburgh Book Festival interview, Kawakami expressed some surprise and amusement that her book was a big hit with male readers as well in Japan.

In some ways, this novel reminded me of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, both of them novels of ideas, with the focus here being on women’s bodies and motherhood instead of race and immigration. Much as I loved Americanah, I felt that Kawakami was more successful at integrating her ideas into the flow of the narrative, rather than having long blog-like passages, which slightly marred Adichie’s book for me. However, another reviwer I admire feels that there is a blog-like quality to the second half of the book and overall it’s chick lit with a feminist agenda. I think individual passages taken out of context can sound flat, but when all the layers come together, it certainly left me with a powerful impression.

Thank you also to Tony Malone, who in his review of Breasts and Eggs, pointed out that there was an alternative translation of part of the first part by Louise Heal Kawai, using a Mancunian speech pattern to render the Osaka dialect. I think it’s a brilliant version and wish we could have had the whole book translated like that (although Sam Bett and David Boyd have done a good job of smoothing out the language to appeal to a wider audience). And, although I’m the last person to suggest that books by women writers should only be translated by women, given the particular subject matter, I cannot help wondering how different it might have looked if it had been translated by a woman.

 

Short Stories for Short Attention Spans

I’m sure I’m not the only one whose attention span seems to be shrinking in the last few weeks. Although I’ve embarked upon The American by Henry James and am finding it quite humorous and easy reading, on the whole I seem to spend more time on interruptions rather than on reading. So short story collections are ideal. I can always squeeze one story in between a team meeting and starting to cook supper, or between a Barney/Zoe socialisation project and a game of Cluedo with the boys. (Sadly, that last one is becoming infrequent, as they keep reminding me that they have left such childish pursuits well and truly behind them.) And these two short story collections by women and about women are truly magnificent, highly recommended. Just don’t expect very lengthy, profoundly analytical reviews of them – my writing attention span is likewise very much reduced.

Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women

Everyone was buzzing about it a few years back, and I even bought it for a friend who I was sure would love it, but I somehow never got around to reading more than 1-2 stories from it. I am so glad that I discovered it now. It is so, so good. An instantly recognisable, unique voice, regardless of whether the story is in first person or third person. She reminds me of Jean Rhys, but in a different setting and a few decades later, a working woman rather than a kept one, with not just herself but four boys to look after as well.

Many of her biographical details match with what she shares in the stories, and there is something of the ‘confessional writer’ about her. (She also reminds me of Anne Sexton, with a cool, unflappable veneer hiding tormented depths.) But she twists and exaggerates memories and events, so that they can best serve the story she wants to tell. As one of her sons said: ‘Our family stories… have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.’

Her stories are never boring, and they are surprisingly humorous (unlike Rhys). Some are brief, mere glimpses into someone’s life, you can’t help feeling like a voyeur at times. Others are longer, building up to… well, sometimes there is a climax, but often the stories are not crescendo all the way. Something seems to be about to happen, and then something far less dramatic happens, and life is just that one shade clearer or foggier, heavier or lighter. But nothing has really changed, you always knew it was going to be this way.

Matsuda Aoko: Where the Wild Ladies Are, transl. Polly Barton

I read this one for the online reading group of literature in translation, organised by Peirene and other independent publishers. Unfortunately, I lost the connection after the first 20 minutes or so and was unable to log back on, but I did enjoy hearing the translator Polly Barton and the publisher Tilted Axis talk about what attracted them to these stories.

Ghost stories are very popular in Japan – I’ve recently reread and reviewed Ugetsu Monogatari – and I certainly spotted that ‘story within a story’ narrative framework in some of the stories in this collection, as well as rakugo, Kabuki and other folktales used as inspiration. But the author does a brilliant job of turning those traditional stories on their head. In Japanese tradition, the vengeful spirit is nearly always a woman (who has been severely wronged, admittedly, but nevertheless seems vengeful beyond any reason). In Matsuda’s stories, the women are free agents, surprising, mainge unexpected choices or comments. The stories are set in the present-day, with modern, often eccentric flourishes, and they often end on an inconclusive note.

They have been hailed as ‘feminist retelling’ of folk tales, but the feminism is often subtle rather than screaming out loudly. The stories have all the joyful creativity, wilful darkness and inventiveness of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber or Anne Sexton herself in her little-known retellings of Grimm’s fairytales Transformations.

 

 

 

Journey Under the Midnight Sun for #TranslationThurs

Keigo Higashino has emerged as a Japanese crime writer to whom Western audiences seem able to relate. That could be both a good and a bad thing. It means there are enough twists and moments of suspense to meet Western expectations of crime fiction, with perhaps less of the ‘coldness’ that readers often remark in Japanese fiction (which I think often has something to do with the translation and lack of context). On the other hand, it could mean that the writer is making too many concessions to appeal to someone outside their culture.

This is certainly not the case here. After the comparatively short (300 or so pages) psychological thrillers such as The Devotion of Suspect X, Malice or Salvation of a Saint, all of which seem to take place over a matter of a few days/weeks and be tightly focused on a small cast of characters, Journey Under the Midnight Sun is a sprawling epic 530 page door-stopper with a massive cast of characters over a 20+ year time frame. No concessions are made at all to the non-Japanese reader – despite the best efforts of the translator, some of the events and cultural subtleties might be difficult for someone unfamiliar with Japan to follow.

The middle-aged owner of a pawnshop in 1970s Osaka is found murdered on an abandoned building site. Detective Sasagaki discovers some promising leads, but it all ultimately leads to nothing and 20 years later he is still unable to find the perpetrator or make any arrests. In the meantime, the son of the murder victim and the daughter of the main suspect (whose guilt was never proved) grow up, move away and we see how other people wander in and out of their lives, and how that murder still has repercussions many years later.

Not quite the site, but similar in atmosphere, Abandoned Sumitomo Osaka Cement Factory, from Abandoned Kansai.

It took me a while to get into the story, and not because of the similar-sounding Japanese names (a common complaint amongst reviewers, which is a bit like saying that all Asian people look the same – in Kanji they would all be quite different and have very varied meanings). It took three days to cover the first three chapters because I couldn’t spot any connections, it somehow didn’t click – but then, when it did, when I started to suspect what was going on (a bit of it but not everything) it took me just a night to finish the rest. As you become immersed in the world Higashino creates, as you start to sympathise with the secondary characters and hope that they won’t come to harm (the author has no compulsion about preserving any of his narrators, so you never know who is going to have what fate, which adds to the sense of suspense), you just can’t stop reading. A fresco of Japanese life from 1973 to about 1992, the book can be read on many levels: enough twists and turns to satisfy a crime fiction addict, but also plenty of social commentary, psychological insight, and subtle, sly asides. It’s a crime novel that breaks all the rules – we begin to know the perpetrators quite early on, we read to see what they can get away with, yet there is always more to uncover. There is depth of pain and sadness here which is conveyed with a light touch, not at all belaboured. Yes, it’s long, but I found it quite riveting and all the details add to the carefully crafted puzzle and characterization.

I really enjoyed this – and would love to hear what someone who is not a Japan aficionado makes of it. Oh, and why the title? It comes from this quote:

We all know how sun rises and sets at a certain time each day. In the same way, all of our lives have a day and night. But it’s not set like it is with the sun. Some people walk forever in the sunlight, and some people have to walk through the darkest night their whole life. When people talk about being afraid, what they’re afraid of is that their sun will set. That the light they love will fade, that’s why they are frightened.

Cultural Summary 25 March 2018

An extrovert week is followed by a more introvert one, perhaps also coloured by the tumultuous events at work. Students occupied part of our building and impeded access to workspace, training rooms and even fire exits, and we had all the excitement of megaphones, human chains, trying to reason with them and then being evacuated and finding refuge in the library. While I have every sympathy with their fear that universities are becoming too similar to businesses, I am not fully clear what their aims are or how we could help them achieve those. But it does bring back memories of idealistic younger days when we protested against Communism and (sort of) won that battle, and of course there are parallels with the March for Our Lives movement in the US. I hope that this younger generation will achieve something before they get too disillusioned by the inertia and selfish interests of the older generations.

March 20th was the International Day of the Francophonie, so I spent the evening reading some French poetry, which was perhaps my first poetic love (Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire). I have a slim volume which is a good introduction to more modern poetry published by Gallimard: Mon beau navire, ô ma mémoire: Un siècle de poésie française (1911-2011). Gallimard has equivalent anthologies for each century, and this one features both well-known poets (such as Apollinaire, Paul Eluard, Aragon) as well as many poets that I am less familiar with.

This week I discovered the Norwegian crime series in 6 episodes Eyewitness on Walter Presents/All 4. Two teenage boys witness a crime at a sand quarry just outside their town and vow to keep it a secret, with all sorts of repercussions on their community and on themselves. It’s got great build-up of suspense and pacing throughout and manages to also be a love story, a tender mother and son/foster parents and child story, and to show how fallible and flawed even police detectives can be. Recommend, if you can access it. I very seldom binge watch, but I watched all 6 episodes over the course of just 2 nights.

I also succumbed to some bookish temptations. Upon hearing the sad news of the death of Philip Kerr, I borrowed one of the post-WW2 Bernie Gunther books from the library Prussian Blueto see how Gunther copes with a post-Nazi world. I stuck to Germany when I ordered another novel by Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go Went Gone I so enjoyed. This time it’s Heimsuchung (translated by Susan Bernofsky as Visitation), about a century of German history seen through the ‘eyes’ of a piece of land outside Berlin and the people who lived on it. Last but not least, the Japan Society left a comment on my review of Japanese novellas, and drew my attention to a dual language anthology of contemporary Japanese writing that they have just published. Heaven’s Wind is translated and edited by Angus Turvill and might help me get back into reading Japanese in the original once more. There will be a Book Club meeting dedicated to this volume on the 9th of April at the Japan Society headquarters in London.

There will be a break in my cultural events for the next two weeks, as holidays and the mountains beckon. However, if you are in France and not skiing, then you really should go to the wonderful Quais du Polar crime festival in Lyon, which this year takes place between 6 and 8 April. It will be my first time since 2012 that I won’t be able to make it, but I am sure Emma from Book Around will tell us all about it.

Happy Days in Lyon

France, Norway, Germany and Japan (plus I’ve just finished reading a crime novel set in South Afrida): where have you been ‘transported’ this week?