Tag Archives: Japan

Kokoro (1914) – NATSUME Sōseki

題名: こゝろ
著者: 夏目 漱石
出版年: 1914年

It’s been one hundred years since the publication of Kokoro, so it seems like as good a time as any to finally read it, and write down some thoughts about the most popular Japanese novel of all time.

It’s the summer holidays, and our narrator has gone to the seaside to escape the stifling heat of Tokyo (we’ve all been there). While there, he meets a middle-aged man he calls Sensei. The two of them form an odd friendship over their time in Kamakura, and it is continued when they both return to Tokyo. But friendship is a fragile thing, and as the two learn more about each other, past events threaten their relationship.

When our narrator meets Sensei for the first time, he is enamoured. Not in the modern sense, perhaps, but her certainly wants to get to know this older gentleman. He is about to finish university, and with his whole life in front of him, he sees Sensei as a potential mentor, as someone who can guide him to the right decisions. Reluctantly, Sensei begins to let the young man in. It quickly becomes clear, though, that there is a barrier to the their friendship, one our narrator is determined to break down, despite his ailing father moving ever closer to death.

And when our narrator is forced to choose between Sensei and his father, he makes a choice that will change Sensei’s life forever.

The second half—Sensei’s story—is the stronger of the two, and once you realise this was the first part Natsume wrote, it’s easy to see why. This is not an earth-shatteringly epic story, nor is it trying to place Japan in a modern context, as so many contemporary Japanese novelists try to do. This is a deeply human story, a story about the heart, and the completely illogical things it makes us do.

Desperate to make sure that this young man he has come to see as a friend does not make the same mistakes he did, Sensei writes him a letter. The letter is the key to understanding everything about him, and why he has wasted his life hidden away as a recluse, with only his wife to keep him company.

The story Sensei tells is a classic tale—boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, second boy arrives, second boy falls in love with girl. The two boys in question, Sensei and K, are friends, though not perhaps as close as we might imagine. Sensei feels a sense of obligation to K, who has been depressed and isolated as of late. Thinking he is doing the right thing by inviting him to live together, Sensei sets in motion a series of events that will shape the rest of his life.

This is a novel about the choices we make as young men, and the way these choices shape and influence our lives forever. We may have regrets, and we may try all we can to escape them, but as Natsume so elegantly draws, it simply cannot be done. Rather than try and escape the past, one must face it head-on.

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Diary of a Mad Old Man (1962) – TANIZAKI Jun’ichiro

題名: 瘋癲老人日記
著者: 谷崎 潤一郎
出版年: 1962年

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s place in the pantheon of modern Japanese writers. His Wikipedia (that ever reliable source) page in Japanese calls him “one of the most important writers representing modern Japanese literature”, while the list of writers he has influenced begins by listing Ranpo Edogawa, Mishima Yukio, Kono Taeko, then gives up and says “and many others”. And while Diary of a Mad Old Man is not his most famous work, as one of his last full-length works, it remains important.

Written when Tanizaki himself was 74, it’s hard not to read this as a diary for the author’s own feelings about the divide between his head’s desire to still be attractive and useful to young women, and his body’s inability to do anything other than be maintained by a mountain of drugs and experimental medical treatments. There is no question that this is an horrific situation, and is ripe for dissection by literature.

The problem, though, is that Utsugi is a pitiful character. The very fact that he is lusting after his own son’s wife is bad enough (though out of his control, so completely forgivable), but for him to then actively chase her for intimacy and sexual contact is despicable. More than anything else, his attempts to be intimate with Satsuko are unsubtle. He showers her with extravagantly expensive gifts, including a gaudy ring that she can only wear when she leaves town, that he hides from his ever-suffering wife, who seems to be all too aware of her husband’s faults.

Perhaps the most bizarre part of the entire novel is the foot fetish. Tanizaki is renowned for having a weird sex thing for feet (see also Naomi), and the intimate scenes here that contain this seem more like an intrusion on Tanizaki’s own sexual desires more than any kind of character development for Utsugi. It leaves the reader wondering if the titular mad old man is not, in fact, Tanizaki himself.

It is not until the final pages of the novel that one begins to feel any kind of sympathy for Utsugi. As his health deteriorates to the point where he can no longer keep writing in his diary, we move to notes made by his doctor about an unnamed patient. This sudden shift from the deeply personal insight of a diary to the cold medical terms contained in a doctor’s case file is jarring, and serves to highlight the gulf between a patient’s and a doctor’s perception of events.

This final point—that growing old is undignified and unedifying—is perhaps the point Tanizaki was trying to make. Yet it is hard to feel any sympathy for a creepy old dude who makes his daughter-in-law shower him naked, while also forcing her to kiss him and touch his feet. What makes it even worse is the fact that the novel feels less like a novel and more like a confession from Tanizaki himself, leading one to think as one reads whether Tanizaki himself was this creepy, or even more. It’s a big barrier to enjoying (or even appreciating) a piece of literature, and sadly, I wasn’t able to get past it.

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A Tale for the Time Being (2013) – Ruth OZEKI

For those who don’t know, this is Murakami bingo. It’s a humerous take on the fact that every Murakami novel is exactly the same. In his defence, the ratio of elements is occasionally changed—some have more cats, others more weird sex with young girls. Seriously, the day that man wins the Nobel Prize will be a sad day for literature.

My point is that Murakami has (indirectly) been responsible for what people consider Japanese literature to be. As such, people wanting to write about Japan are judged to either be Murakami-esque or not. I haven’t read any of Ruth Ozeki’s other novels, but if they’re anything like A Tale for the Time Being, it would be safe to label her Murakami-esque.

Fortunately, Ozeki manages to rise above the superficial similarities between her and Murakami by actually placing themes and ideas underneath them. Her interrogation of the stress placed on certain kinds of people in contemporary Japan seems more real than any of Murakami’s disenfranchised protagonists.

The symbol of the run-down salaryman as a stand-in for all the oppression in modern Japan was tired ten years ago. Nao represents a much more modern problem: that of the kikoku shijo (帰国子女). These kids are the offspring of enterprising Japanese parents who were brave enough to move overseas and put their kids into a non-Japanese school. For various reasons, when these kids eventually return to school in Japan, they are bullied mercilessly for the simple fact that they left Japan. Nao’s treatment at the hands of her classmates and teachers is horrific, and the fact that she considers suicide as an option should come as no surprise.

Competing against this tale of Japan is the tale of Ruth Ozeki, a Canadian author who finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach of the island she and her husband live on. She is explicitly made the reader of Nao’s diary, which opens with a direct invitation to be her reader. It’s an interesting way to construct a novel. There’s a nice sense of immediacy when Nao uses the second-person to talk directly to the reader of her diary, a sense that is lost immediately when that reader is Ruth, and not us. I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary, and personally, I would have been just as happy to have a novel half the size, with Nao talking directly to me.

Having said all that, it is easy to understand why Ozeki included this parallel story. Various interviews with her suggest that she, too, was struggling to start another story after finishing her previous novel several years ago. And so Ruth the writer becomes Ruth the character, and in the spirit of the Japanese form, the 私小説 (watakushishōsetsu)—a form that is named in Time Being—Ozeki writes about her own life in a fictionalised, stylised version.

My final point, and this is a small one, is that I found the hundreds of footnotes wildly intrusive. But that was because I actually speak Japanese, so didn’t need the glosses. I did like the occasional forays into script in the body text, though. It’s probably the only time a book with Japanese script in it is going be shortlisted for the Booker.

For sheer novelty factor alone, A Tale for the Time Being should be a strong contender for this year’s Booker. But behind the novelty of having what is essentially a Japanese novel on the shortlist is a novel that actually tries to dissect a whole load of things, from contemporary Japanese society to small-town Canadian culture, from weird animals to bullish teenage girls.

Finally, I don’t know how Text managed to do it, but the Australian cover is about a thousand times better than any other region’s.

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Confessions of a Mask (1949) – MISHIMA Yukio

I’ve been scouring my uni’s library for hard-to-find books in the last few weeks, since tomorrow, I will no longer live in the same city. I’ve been particularly interested in finding old Japanese stuff that is no longer easily available in English translation. One work in particular that has fascinated me is Mishima Yukio’s Confessions of a Mask, one of his earliest novels, and still the earliest to be found in English translation.

This is the story of Kochan, a young man growing up in war-time Japan, a background that affects everything he does. As he grows up, though, he begins to realise that he is not like the other boys at his school. He is attracted to them. As he tries to hide his secret, he is also drawn to the masculinity and power of the boys he is surrounded by, particularly as they all move toward a war-footing.

Separating the life and the work of authors is not always easy. The work of Mishima Yukio falls into the “impossible” category. So much commentary about him is not about his life and work as an author, but about his politics, his friendship with Ishihara Shintarō, and of course, his rather public suicide in 1970. An entire industry of criticism and journalism has sprung out of these, admittedly rather fertile, distractions—something that makes me wonder if people know him more for this as opposed to his literary work.

Some might find this distracting. Certainly, for many of his works, attempts to link his work with his life is a futile attempt to spice things up. But there are some works, including this one, that do provide an insight into the mind of one of the most enduring literary talents Japan has ever produced. What interests me most about Mishima’s oeuvre are the works that deal with gender and sexuality.

To say that sexuality doesn’t define someone seems faintly ridiculous. Though it may not be the defining factor of someone’s personality, the reaction to one’s sexuality from those surrounding will affect how you behave. That is, of course, the point of the title—the eponymous mask is the personality Kochan constructs to deal with mainstream society, so he can pass as a ‘normal’ person. It’s probably not a stretch to suggest, then, that Kochan is an author surrogate, a character designed to act as the author for the purposes of the work.

Confessions of a Mask reads like an autobiography. The story of a young man growing up in wartime Japan, trying to come to terms with the fact that he is sexually attracted to the same sex—it’s easy to see where Mishima got his ideas from. This is the perfect example of the shishōsetsu (私小説), or autobiographical novel, a genre that, in many ways, defines 20th century Japanese literature. Using his own experiences and feelings about his young life, the 24-year-old hijacks a form that, for so long, had been used by the Japanese equivalent of straight white men to break into the literary world. I can only imagine the reaction to a book like this in conservative post-war Japan.

While it is not explicit, it is certainly erotic. Mishima describes with such love, such lust, the form of the young boys he finds himself attracted to. He seems particularly attracted to armpits (no, I don’t get it either, but hey—that’s what fetishes are all about), going out of his way to describe this particular boy part both often and in detail.

At first, he is not attracted per se to the physicality of men, but to the idea of the noble prince, of the man who rides in at the last minute and save the damsel in distress. He finds even more fascinating the noble knight who dies in battle for the person he loves. I don’t want to call this an obsession with chivalry, because I think it mistakes what attracts Kochan to these men. It is not the fact that they are saving a woman, but the fact that they are dying in a glorious manner, that attracts Kochan to these knights. Of course, a violent and bloody sacrifice is what Mishima will eventually be known for, but even if you read his other works (including a blisteringly excellent novella called Patriotism)

Kochan, then, hates himself not just because of these confused feelings he has for his male classmates, but also because he, physically, does not look anything like them, and thinks he never will. He was a sickly child, leading to something of a stunted physical development, and he is often sick from school, his grandmother not letting him out of the house. There is a surprising amount of self-hate though this novel, not perhaps in an overtly stated manner, but in the way he constantly compares himself to the men he finds attractive, and always coming up short.

The misogyny that would come to define Mishima’s later work, including his other major gay novel, Forbidden Colours, is not as present in this early work, but his relationship with women remains problematic. Much of the latter third of the novel is taken up with his relationship with a girl—Sonoko—who he thinks he loves, only to find his sexuality getting in the way of a true relationship. Perhaps, then, he is not so different from every other gay teen in the world, trying to force something that just isn’t there in the hope of overcoming something that can often be seen as deviant or strange.

A 1000-word blog review cannot get into the depths of complexity that present themselves in Mishima’s second novel. Confessions of a Mask really is a key text – if not in understanding Japanese literature, then at the very least, understanding Mishima and the way he approaches so many things. There are three important things I would suggest need to be taken out of this novel: Mishima’s self-hatred at his own sexuality; his obsession with the male body; and his dismissal of women. Understand these, and you might close to understanding a sizeable and complex body of work.

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Gold Rush (1998) – YŪ Miri

I’ve read some of Yū’s work before, though mostly in Japanese, and mostly skimming through it for thesis preparation. So it was nice to find a whole novel in the library translated into English so I didn’t have to think about it. Yū is a third-generation zainichi Korean writer (click the link for an explanation), though most of her work doesn’t really deal with race or ethnicity in any meaningful way. What she does seem more concerned with, though, is gender roles in contemporary Japan, and the ways in which men and women react to one another.

Kazuki is heir to Vegas, a huge chain of pachinko parlours. His father, Hidetomo Yuminaga, runs the company like a mad-man, but dotes on his middle-son, who is the only child capable of taking over the family business. His eldest son is mentally disabled, and his youngest is a girl. But this free reign has meant Kazuki has lost sight of what it means to be normal – for him, rape, drugs, and violent outbursts are the norm. One day, though, he does something so outrageous in his quest to take his father’s job, nothing will ever be the same again.

I want to start this review by briefly mentioning how I read this novel. I know I just said that Yū is not interested in race in her work, but it’s hard to avoid when you have a Korean name written in Korean characters plastered on your books in an otherwise Japan-friendly Japanese bookstore. Everyone who reads Yū in Japan knows she is ethnically Korean. And I came into the novel with that baggage: I know that, on average, Koreans in Japan are poorer, face more discrimination, are more likely to join gangs, more likely to run pachinko parlours etc. So while it is never explicitly stated (except for one passage where someone refers to Kazuki’s father as Chang Yong-chang – a Korean name if ever I’ve seen one), I think we’re all supposed to understand this to be a Korean family. Just something for those not as invested in Japanese cultural history as I am to think about.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read any other novel that explicitly described an under-age gang rape scene less than twenty pages in. And that’s really the base-line for the sex and violence in this novel. If you are faint-hearted, this is not for you. Fortunately, it almost never seems gratuitous, which is good, because I’ve seen Yū compared to Bret Easton Ellis, whose work I have always found to be gratuitously pushing boundaries of good taste. Yū manages to give us a protagonist who watches his friends gang rape a girl, who sells drugs to his friends, who kills his own father, who beats a dog to death with a golf club, and yet still comes off as almost sympathetic. Almost.

His most redeeming feature is the love and care he shows towards his older brother, Koki, who suffers from Williams Syndrome, which for the purposes of this novel comes across as something on the Autism spectrum. Like all 14 year old boys, Kazuki wants to be treated like an adult, and he thinks that acting like one will get him some respect, Unfortunately, the only real role model he has – his father – is less than ideal. This is the angle Yū pushes as an explanation for Kazuki’s abhorrent behaviour, though it takes her almost the entire novel to really make it explicit, leaving me at least to assume that, for most of the novel, Kazuki is actually just a dick.

All of this takes place against a backdrop of poverty and dirtiness that anyone who’s spent more than five minutes outside the tourist traps of Tokyo will instantly recognise. There’s a delightfully seedy history of gambling, prostitution and other well-regarded under-world activities in Japan’s big (and small) cities, and Kogane-chō is one of the best. It’s perhaps an ironic background, considering just much money the Yuminaga family have, but perhaps that’s the irony here – the rich are getting richer by screwing those addicted to the, quite frankly, ridiculous past-time that is pachinko.

I’ve spent some talking about poverty and money in this novel, and while it certainly is important, gender plays at least as important a role here, too.

Most of the female characters are secondary, and (if I remember correctly) all but one are either violently and horribly abused sexually and physically. It’s not a pretty picture, and I suppose that’s the point – Miho, the younger sister, seems to be a prostitute at the tender age of 15; Sugimoto, the second-in-command at Vegas, is having a violent affair with Kazuki’s father; Mai, Kazuki’s mistress, ends up sleeping with Kazuki, even though he’s only 14, and doesn’t seem happy about it. There’s a lot of stuff here about the role women play in Japanese (zainichi?) society, and it’s clear they are nothing but second-class citizens. From the simple fact that Miho, the daughter of the family, cannot take over the business simply because of her sex, to the treatment of almost every other character as a sex toy, it’s hard not to be confronted and angered by the way in which women are treated. It’s more that misogynistic, and to be fair to mainstream Japanese (and zainichi) society, probably a little exaggerated, but if that’s what it takes, maybe that’s the path Yū has to take.

Kazuki’s mother is the one redeeming feature in this onslaught of unpleasantness. She is everything Hidetomo is not – calm, reserved, and most importantly, relentlessly anti-materialistic. She abandoned her family long ago, realising that the lifestyle she was being forced to live was not doing anything for her mental and spiritual well-being. She provides hope, hope that there is a way out of this cycle of violence and madness. It is to her that Kazuki turns for advice and help in the final act, reaching out from the violent and money-hungry life he has known, in order to find some kind of salvation. She is the antithesis of everything to which Kazuki has previously aspired, and the fact that she (kind of) wins the battle for his soul at the end highlights what I can only assume is Yū’s message here.

Very briefly on the translation style: I don’t like macrons, particularly when they’re used in the names of main characters – it looks funny on the page. But other than that, Stephen Snyder, who also translated The Housekeeper and the Professor, does a good job. (And, having finished the rest of the review, I’ve only just realised I’ve done the same bloody thing with Yū’s name. I’m sorry.)

It’s always seemed strange to me that we don’t apply age ratings to books like we do with films – both contain a wide range of themes and images that can be disturbing to people who might not be ready for them. Gold Rush should come with a warning. It contains intense scenes of rape, drug use and violence. But unlike so many other novels, they all serve a purpose. Yū paints a world where money has corrupted men (and I use that word intentionally here) to such an extent, they have forgotten what it means to be human. Disturbing, confronting, terrifying.

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The Face of Another (1964) – ABE Kōbō

This is the third attempt I’ve made at reading The Face of Another (a clunky translation, but I can’t think of a better one, so I should probably shut up). Years ago, I watched a film called The Woman of the Dunes, which is based on another Abe novel. It’s a great film, and you should watch it if you get a chance, but it’s also very long, not a lot happens, and really focuses on the internal psyche of its main character. Coincidentally, that last sentence could just as easily be applied here.

A scientist has been horribly scarred from a chemical accident at his lab. His face is left a mess of keloid scars, and has resorted to wearing bandages to cover the sight every time he leaves his house. But one day he wonders what it would be like if he wore a mask. With this in mind, he sets out to create the perfect mask, one he can use to interact with everyday people. As with all scientific experiments, though, it has a high chance of going very, very wrong.

Obviously the disconnect between the face and the interior is not an exclusively Japanese concern – Western postmodernists have been having a field day with it since the 1960s – but I think it’s certainly one of the main concerns of Japan. This is unsurprising, when you consider just how much of Japanese society is based on external appearance, on presenting a polite face to the rest of teh group in order to avoid causing meiwaku, or trouble, for other people. There exists a gap, then, between what you must present to the rest of the group, and what you really think, and this provides fertile ground for authors and philosophers to explore questions of identity, and how much the world around us shapes who we are, and how much we can repress.

I use the word “philosopher” carefully and deliberately here, because this is as much a philosophical musing as a novel. One of the time-honoured “good things” about the written word is that we get the chance to see inside the inner workings of characters, to try and get inside their minds to understand why they do what they do. Abe doesn’t disappoint in this respect. A large chunk of this novel is not about plot or character, but about the potential implications for society if he goes ahead with his plans for the mask. We start with a treatise on faces, and the four main face-shape type, and how each one sees the world differently, and is seen differently by the world. It takes our protagonist some time to decide what kind of face he wants to project to the rest of the world, musing on the pros and cons of each type. Unsurprisingly, he eventually chooses a rather aggressive type, one that fits in with his strangely aggressive way of thinking.

The actual creation of the masks is glossed over quite quickly, though that is not really the point of the novel, so it doesn’t really matter. Once he has the mask, the tone and focus shift, and we begin to explore what the protagonist can do with this new face. He starts small, but gradually works up his courage to go out into the wider world and interact with people using the mask. This culminates in his conducting an affair with his own wife, disguised with the mask, to see if she can notice. She can’t. But there’s a rather nice twist at the end of this tale, and it turns out that the wife knew all along – how could she not? For her, it is not just from his face that she knows who he is, but from a whole host of other reasons.

One of the central concerns of our protagonist is his ability to see and understand the suffering of minority groups, particularly those minority groups who are visible in their difference – black Americans, for example, and the Koreans who live in Japan. He is now able to understand what it means to be ostricised by society simply by what you like. As such, he seeks out company with people like him – he drinks in Korean bars; he is enthralled by a young woman who has been visibly been affected by the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima. Of course, this is problematic – for the masked man, he now has the option to become “normal” by using his disguise, negating any sympathetic feeling he may have for these people. He acknowledges as such, which in many ways, only serves to strengthen his point about the importance of appearance. There’s a nice sub-plot, too, if you can call it that, where the protagonist has a series of conversations with the mentally disabled daughter of his landlord, who can see he is the same person, even with his mask on.

This is not an adventure novel. Plot and character are seemingly secondary to Abe’s wider vision – his desire to explore the ways in which people interact, both with faces and in other ways, overtakes any kind of literary fireworks or touches that may be present. But it’s an interesting premise, and some of the hypotheticals posed by the work leave you wondering about the ways in which we all lead our lives.

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The Garden of Evening Mists (2012) – Tan Twan ENG

I read Tan’s first novel, The Gift of Rain, when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007, and loved it. The evocation of Malaysia after the Second World War, and the repercussions of the Japanese Occupation, were pitched perfectly. So I was happy to see that he has (finally) released another novel – five years after his first. The hardcover edition from Myrmidon Books is beautiful, too, by the way, so if you’re thinking of reading it, check it out.

The first female judge of the Malaysian Supreme Court, Teoh Yun Ling, is retiring, though she seems unhappy about it. In an attempt to stave off an illness creeping into her mind, she begins to write her memoirs, explaining for herself as much as anyone else how she has come to be where she is. How she was rounded up into a concentration camp with her mother and sister during the Japanese Occupation. How she escaped. How she rebuilt her life as a lawyer for those wronged by the Japanese. And most importantly, how she fell in love with a Japanese gardener.

For anyone who has read The Gift of Rain, the territory covered in this second novel is nothing new. As with his previous novel, in which history was a backdrop that permeated the lives of its characters, Tan once again explores the ways in which the Japanese Occupation has shaped and affected not only the big picture politics and culture of Malaysia, but also the ways in which individuals have been influenced by living through the Occupation. What makes Tan’s take on this interesting is that he is keen to not paint all Japanese people as intrinsically evil, and all Malaysians as helpless victims. This is nowhere more apparent here than in the surprisingly complex relationship between Teoh Yun Ling and Nakamura Aritomo. The initial tension between them – for Yun Ling, Aritomo is the epitome of the suffering she endured as a child – is understandable, and had Tan continued in this vein, I would not have been surprised. But instead of taking the easy route, he asks bigger questions of his readers. What happens when you begin to not hate, and in fact, love, a member of a group of people who did such terrible things to you, the physical and metal scars remain with you to this day? Is it possible to find love and redemption with such people? Or can the past never be forgotten?

Tan seems optimistic in his own response to these questions. Yun Ling and Aritomo do fall in love, and they do have a fairly functional relationship, even though others may seem less approving. In that sense, I think he does see a way for reconciliation through forgiveness and discussion, rather than an never-ending, festering hatred of a culture and country that has moved on from its imperial days. Fortunately, Yun Ling is a complex character, and it takes time for her to let go of her memories of the past. It is this that is perhaps the novel’s greatest irony – in a desperate attempt to ensure her story is not forgotten – by others, or by herself – she has to come to terms with these memories that have shaped her, and examine them in a new light. It is not good enough for her to simply wallow in self-pity; she must instead find beauty in the life she has lived, even if it was not something she had planned.

Even though some character names don’t quite ring true for me, you can tell Tan has done a lot of research into Japanese culture. What interests me most is that he has taken two diametrically opposed forms of Japanese artistic expression – gardening and tattooing – and found a way to combine them. I think it’s safe to say no one in Japan would do this, and it’s nice to see outsiders finding ways to appropriate Japanese culture and find news ways to engage with them and reinterpret them. For a variety of reasons, tattoos are considered the mark of the yakuza, or the Japanese mafia, and as such, it is, even today, very rare to see Japanese people with tattoos, particularly full body ones like the ones presented in this novel. I have Anglo friends (that is, people who could not possibly be members of the Japanese mafia) who have been denied entry into public baths in Japan for having a small tattoo on their ankle, such is the cultural connection. (Interesting language tidbit for anyone who cares: the word for tattoo in Japanese, as I was taught, is irezumi [刺青], though here, the word used is horimono [彫り物])

So there’s some kind of beautiful vulgarity in the idea that Aritomo’s garden, Yūgiri (夕霧), should become a kind of shakkei (借景), or borrowed scenery, to complete Yun Ling’s tattoo. It is the restrained that completes the vulgar; the two are intertwined in a way that, for Yun Ling, is inescapable. She has become the literal embodiment of Aritomo’s life’s work, a fact she was certainly unaware of when she agreed to be tattooed. It’s an interesting development, and one that is perhaps symbolic of Tan’s wider writing project – violence and beauty, vulgarity and refinement, binary opposites coming together in post-colonial Malaysia.

Before I finish up, a quick word on the structure of the novel. Perhaps in an attempts to evoke the sympathy of his readers for his main character, Tan jumps quickly and often without warning between several time periods throughout the novel. Just as Yun Ling’s ability to reconstruct her memories in a coherent and reasonable way becomes compromised by her illness, the reader, too, is forced to reconstruct her life without clues.

I apologise for this slightly biased review. There’s a lot more to this excellent novel than a discussion of Japanese aesthetics and culture, but since that’s what I do, that’s what I’ve picked up on for discussion. Malaysia itself gets a good look in, too, and so does South Africa, which is where Tan currently lives. The Garden of Evening Mists is a deeply complex novel that asks many questions of its readers about topics as varied as post-colonial politics to the best way to design a garden.


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Spring Snow (1968) – Yukio MISHIMA

Though I can name a whole pile of contemporary Japanese authors, my experience of the modern classics remains woefully underdone. I’m trying to work my way through a lot of stuff, and now I’ve read some of Mishima’s earlier works, I thought I’d make a start on the Sea of Fertility tetralogy – the set of novels that is supposed to best represent Mishima’s mission and thoughts as an author. I’ll eventually get around to reading the other three, but let’s start at the beginning, no?

Matsugae Kiyoaki and Ayakura Satoko are childhood friends from two very different families. Kiyoaki’s father is part of the new moneyed classes of Taiso Japan, while Satoko is the last in the long line of the Ayakura family. Kiyoaki is disturbed one say when Satoko asks him what he would do if she were to no longer exist. This one question awakens subconscious feelings in Kiyoaki that will bring Satoko and him into a relationship that could have far reaching consequences for the nation of Japan itself.

I’m hardly a Mishima expert, but there does seem to be a distillation of themes around which Mishima had been working for his earlier career. The “fall” of the modern Japanese nobility into a state of being where style was more important than substance; beautiful men doing stupid things; stupid women doing beautiful things; the constant quest for aesthetic perfection – the only thing missing from Spring Snow is the interaction with gay themes that marked his early work, such as Forbidden Colours.

Of course, as with all of Mishima’s protagonists, Kiyoaki isn’t the nicest guy on the block. Young and arrogant, he seems completely oblivious to the fact that he is in love with Satoko – indeed, he finds the whole idea repulsive – until she is engaged to someone else, and all of a sudden, he must have her. At first, his realisation and declaration of love for her seems strange and petty, as though the prince had been given a toy from Kiyoaki, who suddenly realised he wanted it back simply because someone else had it. But there is a recognisable through line from beginning to end – as with many annoying teenagers, Kiyoaki’s mind games and proclamations of hatred towards Satoko are simply masking his true feelings, perhaps for fear of being rejected by a woman.

There’s no getting around the fact that Mishima is a huge misogynist. But in Spring Snow, Satako seems to be given a little more agency than female characters in some of his other works. She had made it clear to Kiyoaki well before her engagement to the prince that she was willing to marry him, though he made it pretty clear he wanted nothing to do with it. When Kiyoaki finally gets his act together, she is willing to risk everything to have a sexual affair with him, despite being engaged to a member of the royal family. When the shit inevitably hits the fan, she makes the decision to become a nun, the shame of being discovered to have had an abortion of a child that is not the prince’s too much to bear. The ruined woman running away from the world for fear of judgement is a fairly common trope in all fiction, and Mishima makes these final scenes all the more intense with the ceremonial shaving of Satoko’s head described in great detail.

A quick note on the royal family at the centre of this novel. Just like many crazy left-leaning liberals, I find it difficult to wrap my head around the notion of royalty – particularly when it’s based on male primogeniture, as it is in Japan. But it’s important to remember that this is set in a part of Japan’s history when the Emperor was considered a living god. The Meiji Emperor had died only a few years earlier, so the new Taisho Emperor was still new to the throne, though there was no question of who or what he was. Any slight against the royal family – such as, say, a sexual dalliance with the fiancée of a major cousin of the emperor – was not a good look for anyone, particularly the participating woman.

I haven’t mentioned Honda Shigekuni – the character that appears in all for novels in the cycle – mainly because he plays a fairly minor role in the whole thing. As Kiyoaki’s confidant, he chooses not to get involved in the whole affair, preferring to leave the family drama to other people. I’m curious to know if he plays a more active role in later novels, or if he remains a passive observer of twentieth century Japan.

Spring Snow is a small novel. Though it is clear Mishima wants to talk about big things, by concentrating his focus almost exclusively on one aristocratic couple, he manages to do so effectively. Despite having none of the anger of his earlier novels, the disappointment he feels for Japan is keenly felt in his portrayal of aristocratic families struggling to deal with circumstances beyond their control, for the greater good of the Japanese Empire.

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The Buddha in the Attic (2011) – Julie OTSUKA

The first chapter of The Buddha in the Attic was printed in Granta 114 (a seriously excellent collection, by the way), and the second in Granta 115. At the time, I thought they were simply self contained short stories – beautiful short stories. When I discovered soon after that these were from a longer work, I was excited to read it. For some bizarre reason, it’s taken a while to hit Australian bookstores, but once it did, I read it almost in one afternoon.

Picture brides were Japanese women who went to America on the back of a promise. The promise of a better life, with a strapping young Japanese man to take care of them. A promise that is quickly broken. These women find themselves in a foreign land with men they don’t recognise, and with a culture that remains baffling. As the years go by, and they have families, the spectre of war looms ever closer, and their relationships are forced to undergo rapid changes. This is their story.

I think it’s fair to say that the first-person plural voice is not commonly used in contemporary English literature. It takes an author of great skill – and courage – to tackle a voice that is not first-person singular or third-person omniscient, and fortunately, Otsuka is both of these things. Her almost chorus like sentence and paragraph structures give the impression of no one individual story in this epic saga being any more important than another. These women, who have all been forced to start a journey from the same place, are, in many ways, given a stronger platform in their combined tale. With repetitive sentence fragments, a story begins to build – a story that highlights just as many differences as it does similarities. We hear stories of women who are willing to do anything to escape their lives in Japan. We hear stories of women who have been forced by their family into a marriage they don’t want. We hear stories of women who love their new husbands, and ones who run away at the first sight of danger. We hear stories of women having children, of their pain at not being able to get to a doctor in time, of their joy at finding an ally against their husband.

One of the running themes in all of these tales, though, is the us/them dichotomy that is felt by so many of these women. Us Japanese against them Americans. Most of these women don’t learn English – for a variety of reasons – and this simple fact, perhaps more than anything else, cuts them off from the rest of American society. They live in Japantown, surrounded by other Japanese speakers, or they live on farms, where they only have their husbands and their children for company. When they work as maids in the houses of rich white families, it is felt most sharply. There is a beautiful moment when one of the brides finds solace in an old Italian woman – neither can speak English – but there is no need. They are both strangers in this land, doomed never to find peace and quiet.

As with all immigrant stories, the second generation – those children born of immigrants in the new country – find themselves stuck between their family and their desire to fit in. While many of these women originally found their children allies in the world, their relationships quickly fracture as the children learn English, forget Japanese and are embarrassed by their parents. It’s a tale that’s been told many times before, though it takes on a new poignancy here in the hands of Otsuka, who draws out the mix of  shame, sadness and happiness these women feel for their children.

And then there is the last chapter. Otsuka shifts perspective, from the us to the them. The Americans have a chance to tell their side of the story, at least for a little while. The reaction of everyday Americans to the brutal removal of Japanese immigrants from their suburbs and neighbourhoods. Many of them are, at first, deeply saddened by this. Though many of them seem blissfully unaware of what has actually happened to these mysterious people that once populated their streets and corner shops, there is a vague sense of unease about the whole thing. As the war shifts gear, though, and the Japanese Empire becomes a more clear enemy, many people forget these feelings of sadness, and are replaced with a nationalism aimed at exclusion. They forget how much they actually liked the Japanese, and

Small, concise and perfectly-formed, there is nothing missing from this novel. No superfluous material, no word out of place – it is meticulous. And I don’t mean that as an insult. It is clear Otsuka cares deeply about both her subject matter and her language, which makes this a pleasure to read if you have a spare afternoon.

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Hotel Iris (1996) – Yoko OGAWA

I read Ogawa’s beautiful short novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor, last year, and have been passively searching for her other work since. Written almost ten years before that novel, which made her (slightly) famous outside of Japan, this return to her earlier work stands in sharp contrast to the elegiac, restrained beauty which was so alluring in Professor. Hotel Iris is a brutal, shocking story of sexual desire, pent up energy, and family rebellion.

When a prostitute storms out of one of the rooms at the Hotel Iris, run by Mari’s controlling mother, Mari cannot help but be intrigued by the seemingly innocuous man that follows her out of the room. And so begins a relationship which must be kept secret from the rest of the town, for fear of being caught. As Mari adjusts to her new life of sneaking around town, and defying her mother, she remains blissfully unaware of the fact that this man is leading her down a dark and dangerous path.

Mari’s life strikes me as being all too typical in the post-bubble world of the Japanese countryside – and indeed, in other parts of the world, where urban drift is becoming harder and harder to ignore. Young people stuck in country towns with no dreams and no aspirations, having resigned themselves to a boring life spent looking after the family hotel, or working in the local restaurant until they get married and have children of their own – these are the people Mari seems to be modelled after. This lifestyle is exacerbated by her father’s death, the parent who seemed most  comfortable around her, and the fact that her mother is, shall we say, a bit unhinged. Her inability to help her own daughter with anything, seeing her almost as just another member of the hotel staff, no doubt contributes to Mari’s eventual sexual awakening, and subsequent defilling, in perhaps the most literal sense.

There is a small group of novels that deal with sexuality, and highlight the fact that, often, even if two people are consenting, sex is not necessarily all dimmed lights and romantic whisperings. Loaded and Praise are two that spring to mind – Hotel Iris is the other. Right from the get go, with the slightly overdramatic throwing out of the translator by his prostitute, there is a sense of sexual danger surrounding him, despite his less than glamorous looks. The first thought when you hear of a prostitute throwing out a customer is, “Wow – if not even she will do it, what on Earth could he possibly have wanted?” Which is, of course, playing into society’s views on prostitution and what not (let’s not forget – prostitutes are people, too, and have standards), but it’s the suggestion of such depravity on his behalf that sticks with you. They say it’s the quiet ones who are always the screamers in the bedroom, and though the translator is not necessarily quiet, his middle-aged lonely academic widower routine certainly hides the fact that he gets up to weird shit in the bedroom.

It seems strange, then, that these two people – a sexually adventurous middle-aged translator, and a young girl stuck in whoop whoop – should come together and strike up something of a friendship, though that is not the right word. Neither is relationship, though, which implies a sense of emotional intimacy between the two parties, which is not something that ever shines through here. Perhaps I have something of an idealised view of relationships, in which, for the most part, the two parties are essentially on equal footing when it comes to power and decision-making. That is most certainly not the case here – not only is the translator old enough to be Mari’s grandfather, it is clear that he has a vicious temper, and when he finally gets her into bed, it is unleashed with terrifying force.

I remain baffled, though, as to why this story needed to be told. It’s well written, but I’m not sure what the message is. What am I supposed to feel about this relationship? Certainly, I feel very uncomfortable. There are so many scenes that veer very, very close to what my law student friends would probably term “rape,” and yet Mari seems to go along with it willingly, at least physically. Clearly this is an unhealthy relationship, but it seems to stem not from the fact that they have violent, inventive S&M sex, but from the fact that he holds all the power – from the fact that he is more intelligent, older, and a man with a mysterious past. I don’t want to use the term “mind rape,” because this isn’t 1960s Star Trek, but there is a feeling that Mari is so out of her depth, she can’t see just how wrong the entire situation is.

If nothing else, Hotel Iris highlights the range Yoko Ogawa is capable of. Any author who can swing between an almost twee novel about an amnesiac professor, to a novel about some really weird bedroom obsessions, should be applauded for range. I’m intrigued to know which of the two extremes is more “typical” of her work – or is there a third option I just haven’t seen yet?

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