Category Archives: Japanese fiction

January roundup (slightly belatedly)

I’d hoped to do my January roundup straight after January ended, but I had an intense period at work and then flu which was fairly brutal. However, I am now pretty much recovered and I thought I’d share some of my recent reading.

January opened with a bit of Christmas SF and post-Christmas pulp, then got fairly literary. Overall it was a really strong reading month. February I didn’t get to read very much at all, but what it lacked in quantity it distinctly made up for in quality. My February post should be up next week.

So, introductions aside, here’s January:

Semiosis, by Sue Burke

This was my Christmas SF read. It’s an interesting one – a group of idealists settle humanity’s first off-world colony and the novel follows multiple generations as they adapt to their new environment and build a new society.

The complicating factor is that their new world an older ecosystem than ours, and intelligence is much more widespread. More to the point, intelligence here has evolved in plants and popular sentiment aside plants are not cuddly – they battle each other for resources and can’t afford to give quarter because they can’t move if things don’t go their way.

After a fairly dry start I thought this was excellent. There’s a lovely examination of how a society designed to be free of religion, money, politics and all those old Earth conflicts quickly comes to develop its own schisms and fault-lines and a real sense to the precarity of the colony. There’s an original first contact scenario (two in fact, as there’s also the remnants of a previous alien colony to deal with) and a strong political thread as the colonists slowly work out how to live.

Overall I really liked this. It isn’t one for non-SF fans – the concerns are firmly SFnal – but for those who do like SF it’s worth checking out.

The Fungus, by Harry Adam Knight

I always seem to fall ill after Christmas – probably something to do with allowing myself to relax or possibly just my habit of seasonal excess. That means I usually read a light New Year read. This year I chose some pulp horror.

Harry Adam Knight’s books (actually a duo, it’s a pseudonym) date back to the 1980s and are firmly in that James Herbert/Shaun Hutson/Guy N. Smith vein of horror. Books with titles like Rats, or Crabs, or Slugs. You get the idea.

The template tends to involve scenes of quite egregious gore and often distinctly gratuitous sex. I loved them as a teenager, which is probably the best age for them. As an adult the gender politics of these novels tends to stick out a bit more obviously and they can be a bit ugly in that regard (excepting Herbert, who I think deserves better recognition in the horror canon).

Here Knight posits a fungal apocalypse, as some chemical agent causes otherwise ordinary fungi to bloom at extraordinary rates and infect humans. It leads to some actually pretty good scenes of a phantasmagorical London remade by giant mutant fungal blooms and populated by half-mad infected survivors. It’s gleeful schlock, fun if you like this sort of novel but if you’re not now and never were a 14-year old boy it might not be for you.

The Last Children of Tokyo, by Yoko Tawada and translated by Margaret Mitsutani

This has already been very widely written about, not that I seem to have preserved any of the links to the many excellent reviews of it I’ve read (which I do normally try to do). I dug out though Grant’s review from 1streadingblog here as it was the review which pushed me over the edge into trying this.

It’s set in a future Tokyo in a blighted Japan, where the elderly are living lives of indefinite duration but the young are sickly and infirm. It’s a mirror of course of the real challenge Japan faces of an aging population where people are dying faster than they’re being born.

Although this is clearly an SF novel, this is one I’d happily recommend to those with no interest in that form. There’s no interest here in the causes of whatever slow apocalypse is engulfing Japan, nor much in how the rest of the world is faring. Instead it’s more an examination of generational failure and guilt.

In the real world today we have children skipping school to protest about environmental collapse. Parents naturally want to leave a better world for their children than the one that was handed to them, but we have new generations growing up who’re poorer than their parents and have no real prospect of ever catching up. In the longer term, many of us I think expect to be judged harshly by those who come after us for the environmental legacy we leave behind us.

In Last Children, spry Centenarian Yoshiro tries his best to care for his great-grandson Mumei, but comes increasingly to realise that there’s nothing much he can do for him. Yoshiro’s generation already broke the world – in that context what lessons does he have that Mumei could usefully learn from?

It’s a quietly bleak novel, though often gently witty with it. It’s beautifully written and translated and powerful in its effect. Like much of the best SF it isn’t of course about the future at all. It’s about now. Highly recommended.

Three Horses, by Eri de Luca and translated by Michael Moore

Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat wrote about this here, and Emma of Bookaroundthecorner here. I can see why both loved it, but it wasn’t my book.

Essentially, this is the tale of a 50 year-old gardener living a peaceful life in his native Italy. He falls in love with a local woman and befriends an African migrant worker. He reads novels, eats at the local tavern and lives quietly and as far as he can harmoniously.

We soon learn that his life wasn’t always so calm. He spent years in Argentina, got involved in the vicious civil war there, lost someone he loved to violence and became part of the violence in turn.

This isn’t really a naturalistic novel. The language is deeply lyrical – Emma refers to the prose as “luminous and poetic” and she’s absolutely right. The characters all seem to have a certain poetic wisdom and are prone to speaking meaningful truths to each other and as a result they all sounded kind of alike to me – a bit like they were all highly regarded Italian literary authors.

It’s a misreading though in my view to think that these are intended to be wholly realistic characters. De Luca is using highly polished language to explore themes of violence, retribution and how to live well in a compromised world and judged on the basis of what he sets out to do he absolutely succeeds.

Tentacle, by Rita Indiana and translated by Achy Obejas

Grant wrote this up at 1stReading Blog here. He loved it and so did I. I fully expect it to make my end of year list.

Tentacle is published by Andotherstories, and I have a subscription with them which is how I ended up with this. I didn’t buy it and if I’d seen first the description which involves a time travelling transgender street kid fighting an environmental apocalypse with secret magical powers obtained from a psychic anemone, well, I wouldn’t have gone near it.

That would have been my loss, because it is quite simply brilliant. It’s muscular, strange, has a persuasive internal logic (though not always an easy to follow one) and is just bursting with energy and life. Again, highly recommended.

Rustication, by Charles Palliser

Charles Palliser is best known for his magnificent novel The Quincunx, a large and extraordinary tightly constructed Victorian sort of gothic-mystery which I regard very highly indeed. He also wrote The Unburied, a much shorter exercise in Victorian Gothic which kept me up until 3am turning pages as it was simply so well crafted.

After those came a long silence, then The Rustication. It’s an unreliable narrator piece again in a Victorian gothic vein, but whereas The Quincunx and The Unburied both carried that off with style here it didn’t come together for me. I found the narrator a little too dense in not noticing some pretty obvious clues around him as to what was going on, the plot a bit too unlikely, and the whole thing just not as good as its predecessors.

So it goes, and hopefully it will find readers better attuned to it than me, but I thought this one a miss. The Quincunx and The Unburied are both excellent though and worth looking into if you don’t know them.

Fen, by Daisy Johnson

How to write about this? It’s a first short story collection from a young English writer. It’s set in her native East Anglia, and draws on local folklore and the power of a landscape in which nothing seems fixed – the fens themselves an uncanny blend of sea and earth.

In the opening story a teenage girl starves herself, cleverly disguising it from her parents (though not from her sister). It’s of course a story of anorexia, save that as she grows thinner she slowly starts to turn into a giant eel, transforming her old body to one of her own devising. In another story a girl’s dead brother may or may not come back in the form of a fox. Little here is certain, except that’s not true as Johnson cleverly roots her tales in the prosaic.

Young women may lure men to their lair in order to devour them, but they find their victims in the local pub. The towns and houses these characters inhabit feel ordinary, dull even. Johnson uses folklore to bring out a sense of the strangeness of these places, and also to bring out the essence of their experiences. We of course do not transform into eels or foxes or face the untrustworthy magic that runs through these stories, but the emotions the characters feel at these events are our emotions. Johnson takes the ordinary, makes it extraordinary, and through that shows how it was extraordinary all along. That, of course, is what myth has always done.

There’s a tremendous physicality to these stories, and a blunt sexuality. It’s an impressive and unusual collection and since Johnson’s first novel is now out I hope to read that before too long also.

For those curious to know more, reviews here from the Guardian and here from Tony’s Book World.

That’s it for now. February’s books (far fewer) will hopefully be up soon.


Filed under Burke, Sue, de Luca, Eri, Horror, Indiana, Rita, Italian fiction, Japanese fiction, Johnson, Daisy, SF, Tawada, Yoko

My mother’s much prettier than I am, but I don’t cry so much.

May roundup

I’ve quite enjoyed doing the roundup posts so I decided to do another. Several of these books I also hope to give a proper write-up to later this week or early next.

Child of all Nations, by Irmgard Keun and translated by Michael Hofmann

It’s hard to go wrong with a Hofmann translation of a Keun, and I didn’t. It’s the 1930s. Kully and her parents can’t go back to Germany as her father’s books are now banned there, but nowhere else seems to want them much either.

Child narrators are tricky things but Keun pulls it off here. Kully is the right mix of innocence and experience beyond her years. The portrait of her parents, particularly her feckless father, through Kully’s eyes is nicely done. Any resemblance between the father and Joseph Roth is surely coincidental…

I plan to do a proper write-up of this one. I loved its clever evocation of the tightrope faced by these unlikely refugees, always trying to maintain appearances just enough to keep the hotel manager from insisting on the bill being settled before that next hoped-for cheque or loan comes in. Kully’s pragmatism is frequently heartbreaking:

It’s warm and we’re hungry. We can’t leave, because we can’t pay the hotel bill. We can’t enter any other country, but we can’t stay here either. Perhaps we’ll be thrown into prison, and then we’ll be fed.

Keun though measures the bleakness with comedy, one of the advantages of a child narrator. Here’s one example of that:

Often we have no idea how long we’ve spent in a place. There’s only one unpleasant way of finding out, which is via the hotel bill. Then it always turns out we’ve been there much longer than we thought.

Highly recommended.

The City and the City, by China Miéville

I’d meant to read this for ages but was finally prompted to do so by the recent TV adaptation (which I’ve only now started watching). I was careful not to watch the TV version ahead of reading the book, but based on publicity materials alone I still saw David Morrissey’s face when I imagined the lead character.

Besel and Ul Qoma are two cities in an unspecified East-European or Balkan state. The twist however is that the two cities occupy the same geography. Some streets are categorised as being only in Besel, some only in Ul Qoma, some are shared between the two. The inhabitants of each city ignore the other by an act of will, only seeing their own.

It’s a surprisingly powerful metaphor, not just for the lunacy of many ethnic divisions in the world today but also for how often in real life we choose to ignore other cities that cohabit with our own. The homeless and the ultra-rich may occupy the same physical London, but the truth is they are easily as separate as the people of Besel and Ul Qoma. Perhaps more so since they rarely even share the same physical spaces and so don’t have to actively ignore each other.

Miéville explores his setting with what starts out as a deliberately conventional crime story before getting deeper into the strangeness and for me it worked very well. I don’t have a lot of quotes for this one, perhaps as most of them don’t make much sense out of context, but I enjoyed it and I think others might too even if they wouldn’t normally read SF.

When I reached the tar-painted front where Corwi waited with an unhappy-looking man, we stood together in a near-deserted part of Besel city, surrounded by a busy unheard throng.

Care of Wooden Floors, by Will Wiles

This is another one set in an unspecified fictional East European city oddly enough, though that’s all it has in common with the Miéville. The narrator, a rather ordinary and rather messy man, is asked by his more successful friend Oskar to look after Oskar’s apartment for a few weeks while Oskar is in California settling his divorce.

Oskar is a modernist composer and his apartment is a sleek testimonial to the perfection of his life and his taste, particularly the gleaming wooden floors. To make sure his friend knows how to take care of it he’s left a series of notes with pointers for where to find coasters, how to feed the cats, and of course how to take care of the wooden floor.

Then the narrator spills a glass of wine…

There’s a lot in here. Friendship, architecture, aesthetics and the degree to which humans can lead perfectible lives. It’s a first novel so at times it’s a bit heavy on the similes (authors, let a thing just be a thing!) but that’s a common and forgivable fault in what overall is a clever and fun novel.

Here’s the narrator is looking for some string to use to play with the cats:

Then, I opened one of the kitchen drawers, an out-of-the-way one that looked as if it might contain string. Inside the drawer was a note from Oskar. Corkscrew – in drawer by sink. Torch, batteries – in bottom drawer under sink. 1st aid box, aspirin – in bathroom. Cleaning things, candles – in pantry. This drawer: spices. Indeed, the drawer contained spices, and that distinctive spice-rack melange of smells. And Oskar’s note, another note. Did all the drawers contain notes like this? I had taken cutlery from a drawer, and there had been no note. Curious, I tried the next drawer along, and there was another little note, identical to the first one except for: This drawer: Place mats. Coasters. Two lines under coasters.

But then, what do you expect from a composer whose most famous work is titled Variations on Tram Timetables?

A Quiet Place, by Seichi Matsumoto and translated by Louise Heal Kawai

This is an interesting one. It’s the story of a highly respected and respectable public servant who despite all that may not actually be a very good man.

Tsuneo Asai is a middle-aged career civil servant. He’s not fast-track, he’s not from the right background for that, but through sheer hard work and talent he’s climbed the ranks anyway and has reasonable hopes of becoming a department chief before retirement.

He believed that listening faithfully to one’s manager’s idle chit-chat was a mark of respect.

Then while he’s on a business trip he hears that his young wife has died suddenly of a heart attack. Even though he knew she had a weak heart it’s still a shock, made more puzzling when he discovers that she died in a neighbourhood that she had no obvious business being in. Asai decides to investigate, finally getting to know his wife only now she’s dead.

What follows is a mix of character study and crime novel (as in much good crime fiction of course). The wife’s death is plainly natural causes, but that doesn’t mean nothing odd was going on and Asai soon discovers that what he thought was a quiet housewife with a few polite hobbies may in fact have been a passionate and talented young woman that he barely knew.

A Quiet Place doesn’t start with a crime, just a mystery, but Asai’s curiosity will set in motion consequences he couldn’t have dreamt of. Before the book’s out it will get very dark indeed (though never gratuitous) and becomes a story of complacency, repression and ultimately obsession. Guy wrote a very good review of it here which has a particularly fine insight into the characterisation (or lack thereof) of Asai’s previous wife.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada and translated by Russ and Shika Mackenzie

I finished the month with a bit more Japanese crime, here a very classic locked room mystery. Perhaps too classic since it’s not actually a genre I care much about and this is a very good representation of it which means I didn’t hugely enjoy it.

The book opens with an excerpt from the diary of a reclusive artist. In it he reveals an insane plan to murder his daughters and step-daughters to create some kind of composite perfect woman. Those crimes happened, the daughters and step-daughters were murdered just as per his plan. The only wrinkle is that he was murdered first.

Forty years later in the mid-1970s two amateur detectives decide to solve these famous killings which (within the fiction) have now gripped Japan for decades. Matsumoto plays fair by the reader, including detailed floor plans, family trees and every clue needed to let the reader solve the mystery for themselves.

Unfortunately, I worked out the who and the why really quickly, surprisingly so given I wasn’t particularly trying. I didn’t quite get the how but that was a bit unlikely anyway (they always are in these things). Given that, I struggled to buy that police and amateurs alike had struggled for forty years to solve something most of which I got in about half an hour.

Still, I may have been lucky and admittedly I spotted a key bit of early misdirection (authors in this genre have to include all the clues you need, but there’s nothing that says they can’t try and distract you from them).

The two investigators themselves have very little personality, but that’s to be expected because really this is a puzzle-book where the reader is the real investigator. Underling this is the fact that at two points Shimada personally intervenes in the text:

Gentle Reader, Unusual as it may be for the author to intrude into the proceedings like this, there is something I should like to say at this point. All of the information required to solve the mystery is now in your hands, and, in fact, the crucial hint has been provided already. I wonder if you noticed it? My greatest fear is that I might already have told you too much about the case! But I dared to do that both for the sake of fairness of the game, and, of course, to provide you with a little help. Let me throw down the gauntlet: I challenge you to solve the mystery before the final chapters! And I wish you luck.

This wasn’t my book, but that’s mostly I think because it’s just not a genre that interests me. I’m a bit in the position of someone who doesn’t read SF criticising a space opera for having spaceships. In its field I suspect this is actually pretty good. If anyone reading this has read it and has any thoughts I’d be delighted to hear them.

And that’s it for May! It started stronger than it finished for me, but an interesting mix all the same.


Filed under Architecture, Crime, Hofmann, Michael (translator), Japanese fiction, Keun, Irmgard, Matsumoto, Seichi, Miéville, China, SF, Shimada, Soji, Wiles, Will

… the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose.

In Praise of Shadows, by Junichirō Tanizaki

Nobody has given as much thought to the lavatory as the Japanese. Not even NASA.

A few years ago my wife and I went on holiday to Japan. We wanted to spend at least one night in a ryokan, a traditional inn, and in Kyoto we booked that one night at the Tawariya.

The Tawariya is an institution in Japan, though not a well known one. Heads of State stay there. Our one night cost a large proportion of our accommodation budget for the entire holiday. It was worth it. It was a place of beauty and charm that embodied the highest traditions of Japanese culture and cuisine.

In the main our room was one that a Japanese nobleman of centuries past might well recognise. Paper screens, tatami flooring, a small and carefully unkept garden just outside the main window, an alcove with a beautifully chosen calligraphy scroll, a cedarwood bath filled to the brim with searingly hot water and a rich smell of cedar rising off it.

The only real exception to classical design was the toilet. That was modern, and modern as only a Japanese toilet truly can be. It had a heated seat, it had a soundsytem built in with a choice of noises to drown out any offending ones you might make yourself, it had a built-in bidet and a whole host of other functions. It had a control panel. More precisely, it had a control panel in Japanese.

I stood in front of it. I have always been of an empirical mindset. I pushed a button. A jet of warm water rose majestically out of the bowl and neatly sprayed my crotch. I was, of course, fully dressed. We had to call a maid to help us turn it off.

In Praise of Shadows is an essay written in 1933 by the Japanese author Junichirō Tanizaki. Tanizaki is a major figure in Japanese literature. He’s most famous for The Makioka Sisters, which I haven’t read, but among his other novels was Diary of a Mad Old Man which I have and which I thought extraordinary. Here he talks about design, about beauty and about the importance of shadows to the Japanese aesthetic.

At first In Praise of Shadows seems like a book on architectural design. The Vintage edition I read, smoothly translated by Thomas J Harper and Edward G Seidensticker (wonderful name that) even comes with a foreword from Charles Moore of the School of Architecture at UCLA. It opens as follows:

What incredible pains the fancier of traditional architecture must take when he sets out to build a house in pure Japanese style, striving somehow to make electric wires, gas pipes and water lines harmonize with the austerity of Japanese rooms even someone who has never built a house for himself must sense this when he visits a teahouse, a restaurant, or an inn.

The purist may rack his brain over the placement of a single telephone, hiding it behind the staircase or in a corner of the hallway, wherever he thinks it will least offend the eye. He may bury the wires rather than hang them in the garden, hide the switches ina closet or cupboard, run the cords behind a folding screen. Yet for all his ingenuity, his efforts often impress us as nervous, fussy, excessively contrived. For so accustomed are we to electric lights that the sight of a naked bulb beneath an ordinary milk glass shade seems simpler and more natural than any gratuitous attempt to hide it.

Tanizaki goes on to describe his own efforts in reconciling tradition with modernity (a problem that is if anything harder to address today than then). He’s pleased with how he managed to get decent heating into his home by putting an electric heater in a sunken hearth, but his compromise with the traditional paper screened sliding doors (he puts glass behind the paper to keep the heat in) just looks unfortunate.

In Praise of Shadows doesn’t just come with a foreword. It comes too with a helpful afterword by Thomas J Harper. In it he discusses the difference between the traditional Japanese essay and the ones we in the West are used to. While ours tend to focus clearly on a particular point, in Japanese tradition the essay meanders and touches on one subject and then another. It’s thought more natural – a closer representation of how the mind really functions. There is still a point, but it’s approached by a more winding path than a European or North American reader might be used to.

Having given some thought to home design Tanizaki thinks about traditional toilets. In temples they were dimly lit places, full of shadows and placed at the end of paths among hushed gardens. They were places of reflection. Admittedly very cold places of reflection, but then “elegance is frigid”.

Such bathrooms are of course not practical in a modern home and anyway, the taste increasingly is for Western style convenience with gleaming tiles and bright white light. There is no place in them for shadows; shadows are synonymous with dirt. In the traditional bathroom the shadows concealed the grime, the Western one however must be spotless and more, must be seen to be spotless.

Tanizaki then sees Japanese design changing in the face of modernisation, and modernisation here means Westernisation. The question that raises is whether you can adopt Western designs and technologies without also adopting Western culture.

To take a trivial example near at hand: I wrote a magazine article recently comparing the writing brush with the fountain pen, and in the course of it I remarked that if the device had been invented by the ancient Chinese or Japanese it would surely have had a tufted end like our writing brush. The ink would not have been this bluish color but rather black, something like India ink, and it would have been made to sink down from the handle into the brush. And since we would have then found it inconvenient to write on Western paper, something near Japanese paper – even under mass production, if you will, – would have been most in demand. Foreign ink and pen would not be as popular as they are; the talk of discarding our system of writing for Roman letters would be less noisy; people would still feel an affection for the old system. But more than that: our thought and our literature might not be imitating the West as they are, but might have pushed forward into new regions. Quite on their own. An insignificant little piece of writing equipment, when one thinks of it, has had a vast, almost boundless, influence on our culture.

Although a short essay, around sixty pages, Tanizaki covers a lot of ground and I’m not going to attempt to mention all of it here. He talks about the importance of shadow in Japanese arts and design. He considers traditional gold inlaid laquerware and how gaudy it often seems in the electric light of the museums in which it is displayed. In a room lit only by candles the gold instead catches the little light present and so becomes something part hidden and glorious.

Even the plain black laquerware which the Japanese once used widely but now use only for bowls and trays becomes something more when seen by candle. He discovers this though in a traditional restaurant which now only uses candles on request – most customers prefer modern lighting.

… I realized then that only in dim half-lights the true beauty of Japanese laquerware revealed. The rooms at the [restaurant] are about nine feet square, the size of a comfortable little tearoom, and the alcove pillars and ceilings glow with faint smoky luster, dark even in the light of the lamp. But in the still dimmer light of the candle stand, as I gazed at the trays and bowls standing in the shadows cast by that flickering point of flame, I discovered in the gloss of the laquerware a depth and richness like that of a still, dark pond, a beauty I had not before seen. It had not been mere chance, I realized, that our ancestors, having discovered laquer, had conceived such a fondness for objects finished in it.

Tanizaki’s argument wanders, at times to odd places. He muses on women kept bone-thin in gloomy houses – their pale faces and hands emerging from shadows which seem almost to emanate from the sleeves of their thick kimonos. He makes them sound beautiful, but it is a beauty which is very much in the gaze of the beholder. His women may be elegant, but I would personally rather be a Harajuku girl in cosplay that I at least chose for myself. Once again, “elegance is frigid”.

More challenging is Tanizaki’s thesis that much of Japanese aesthetics is born from skin colour. That with white skin the West is drawn to a lack of ambiguity and to banishing shade so that everything is bright and absolute. The Japanese skin he sees as always tinged with shadow however pale it is, and this he sees as influencing character.

It’s nonsense (and the afterword has little sympathy for this part), but what’s not nonsense is his argument that wherever it comes from culture shapes design and is in turn then shaped by it. Modernisation and Westernisation are inextricably linked.

Tanizaki is nostalgic, but not stupid. He does not wish to return to a fast disappearing past. In his own home he tries to balance the modern and the traditional like everyone else and even he only sometimes gets it right. He means it when he talks about the toilet as a place of repose, but he knows too that there’s something slightly silly about the idea.

What Tanizaki is arguing here is that the Japanese aesthetic is unique because it comes from Japan – from its conditions, history, culture. That does not deny the uniqueness of other aesthetics. The problem for Japan though is that it has been passed by, superceded, and to compete must adapt and the fact of that adaptation necessarily means the destruction of its own aesthetic. Yes, fragments remain, but for him the remaining examples of flower arranging, calligraphy, dance, are dead arts preserved but no longer vital. Japanese culture is the culture of the museum.

Tanizaki died in 1965. I don’t of course know what he’d have made of the exuberance that is contemporary Japanese culture; the extraordinary merging that has taken place of Japanese and Western arts which has led as much to us borrowing from them as them from us. He would though probably have noted that however much Japan may have a new and again unique aesthetic it is not the aeshetic he writes about here. That is carefully preserved in museums and history books.

The Tawariya, beautiful and perfect, is a work of delicately preserved cultural driftwood left behind after the tide of history has long since receded. Tanizaki would have liked the place, may well have stayed there once, but I do not think it would have changed his view. The toilet would have amused him though.

Tanizaki ends by turning to the art closest to him. He thinks little can be saved of what was, but not nothing. In Regis Debray’s Venices Debray seems to talk about the history of Venice but in fact talks of his fears for Europe’s future. Debray isn’t ready for the museum. Tanizaki is more pessimistic, but he sees literature as perhaps one final place where some fragment can be preserved that is authentically Japanese.

For Tanizaki modernisation brings light, cleanliness, efficiency, above all comfort. What it destroys though is the shadows. In literature there is another choice. As he says: “I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration.” Tanizaki’s vision of literature is not a comfortable one and he did not write comfortable books. He wrote great ones though. Comfort isn’t everything. Elegance is frigid.


Filed under Japanese fiction, Tanizaki, Junichirō

Nobody would feed those judged certain to die.

Shipwrecks, by Akira Yoshimura

Last year I read Akira Yoshimura’s novel One Man’s Justice. It was an impressive work in a fine translation by Mark Ealey. I was left wanting to read more.

One Man’s Justice isn’t the only Yoshimura that Ealey has translated. The other, also published by Canongate, is Shipwrecks. Like One Man’s Justice it’s a cleanly written novel which doesn’t flinch from challenging moral questions. In One Man’s Justice the issue at hand (to simplify horribly) was the relationship between justice and power. Here, the issue is the morality of survival.

At the start of Shipwrecks its protagonist Isaku is a nine year old boy. He lives in an isolated fishing village in Feudal Japan. The village is desperately poor with starvation a constant possibility. By land it can be reached only by means of a single mountain path. The approach by sea is littered with sharp rocks capable of tearing the hull out of even the most robust ship. It is a marginal place and the villagers’ entire lives centre around the daily struggle for survival.

The village lives by fishing, by catching octopus in the right season, by trading with a town on the other side of that mountain pass for pitiful amounts of grain and when the fishing has been poor by family members selling themselves into indentured service for periods of between three and ten years. As the novel opens Isaku’s father has just sold himself for a three year term. Those who leave in this way do not always return. Their owners feed them but work them hard and it is not unusual for them to die of disease or exhaustion.

This then is their life. Each part of the year is defined by the activity it generates. There are times when sardines are plentiful, times when another fish called saury is the prey, there are the octopi and the times for gathering forest mushrooms. And all the time there is the question of which family member will be sold next into service so that they money they bring can be used to buy much needed grain stocks.

These are Isaku’s father’s parting words to his wife and to Isaku:

‘I’ll be back in three years. Don’t let the children starve while I’m away.’

Isaku’s father is large and strong and the money received for him is significant. Isaku is short and weak, but now he is the oldest and must take his father’s place fishing and providing for his family. All he has to look forward to is his father’s eventual return, his barely understood hope of love with a village girl named Tami (assuming she is not sold into service before he can woo her) and the possibility of O-fune-sama.

Before I continue, a quick note on Japanese. O is an honorific. Using it as a prefix indicates the giving of respect to a thing. Sama is a politeness level. When addressing a person the Japanese use San as Westerners would tend to use Mr (I believe it’s used for both genders, but I can’t swear to that). Sama is the same as San, but is used when a person of lower status is speaking to a person of higher status. O-fune-sama then is a form of address which gives both honour and high status to the thing addressed.

O-fune-sama is the gift of the gods which lets the village survive. The fishing, the sales of family members, all this is insufficient ultimately to keep the village viable. The coming of O-fune-sama changes that, bringing plenty that enables villagers to live well sometimes for several months and to avoid selling their loved ones into quasi-slavery. O-fune-sama is prayed for, rituals are carried out to encourage the gods to bring it, it is a magical and wonderous thing.

O-fune-sama, as you’ve probably guessed, is the wreck of cargo ships on the rocky shore next to the village.

The villagers then survive because others do not. They are horrifically poor. All their efforts are aimed at survival, and still they barely manage. The coming of O-fune-sama brings with it rice, oil, spices, lacquered bowls, cloth (their clothes are made from woven tree fibres), all manner of marvels. O-fune-sama is so important that not only are there religious rituals to encourage it, there are practical ones too.

The villagers trade salt for grain with the nearby village. They obtain the salt by drying out sea water. They do this by night, not because it’s a better time for the task but because the fires under the salt-drying pans can look to a ship in trouble at sea like homefires. A ship that is at risk of sinking in a storm may be lured in by those fires believing they mark safety. If so, the rocks in the bay will rip its hull apart and destroy it.

This then is the heart of the novel (and don’t worry, those aren’t spoilers above, that’s just the setup). The villagers live by preying on others. Their prayers, and more than their prayers, are aimed at the deaths of innocent sailors who have done them no harm. The sailors’ prayers are also of course pleas for survival. O-fune-sama is repugant, but the novel’s perspective is Isaku’s and to him it’s a near-mythical piece of good fortune.

Shipwrecks has a clean prose style. There is on a small number of occasions a problem with repetition. For example, it was explained at least twice that the bodies of suicides were thrown into the sea as opposed to cremated and I got it the first time, but that’s a quibble. In a little over 150 pages Yoshimura describes a community and the rhythms of its existence in surprising detail while at the same time bringing it all to life.

As I read I came to know and care about these people. Just to pick a handful, there is Isaku’s mother who is hard and practical but lonely for her absent husband; there is the tragedy of an unhappy couple where the wife was sold into indentured service and the husband has been tortured since her return with his belief that she was unfaithful; there is Isaku’s best friend Sahei who intimidates him with his greater knowledge and sophistication but who it becomes apparent has his own fears and insecurities.

The novel traces Isaku’s coming of age, but it does more than that. It explores the tragedy of his community and for me it raised difficult questions. Can there be any sense in which the villagers are justified? They know that if the wider world learns of O-fune-sama they will be subjected to horrific punishments (which means that no sailors may survive a shipwreck) so there is no easy excuse of ignorance here. To me, sitting comfortably at a computer screen of course it’s unjustified. But if I were faced with the choice of selling family members or watching them starve, would I act so differently?

Yoshimura shows the knife-edge the village survives on. The villagers reflect on whether this is a good sardine season and on the prospects for the saury catch this year. Their religion and their superstitions are geared around survival too, with even mourning discouraged (they believe it might upset the dead and cause them not to go properly to their rest, but I couldn’t help wondering if the impact on people’s ability to work might have given birth to that belief).

The time came for the women to go up to the narrow terraced fields to gather millet and other grain, which they would carry back in bags to their families, but the soil was stony and barren, yielding only the meagrest of crops. Isaku’s mother went to their field and come back with a pitiful amount of grain to store away in their larder.
Down at the shore, the men started catching autumn octopuses. Normally they began to appear about the time the eulalia grass came into ear, but this year they were coming in to shore unusually early. Isaku took his boat out on the water among the rocks and occupied himself catching octopuses. He stopped working the oar and slipped the barbed spear with its red cloth into the water, moving it towards crannies in the rocks or clumps of seaweed. When an octopus mistook the waggling red cloth for food and showed itself, Isaku would hook it on the end of the spear. Before too long, around all the houses in the village, octopuses could be seen hanging out to dry in the sun.

… [The year’s octopus catch proves a poor one]…

The men were puzzled by the small octopus catch. Normally octopus would be dried and then sold to merchants in the next village or to people in mountain villages for the New Year, in exchange for grain. The octopus was essential to acquire enough provisions to see them through the winter, and a poor catch would have a serious effect on the village’s food supply. An air of gloom set in among the fishermen.

The villagers lives are bounded in superstition, faith, tradition and duty. With survival so challenging, departing from what is known is reckless but what is known is so plainly insufficient.

All the above makes this sound a difficult read, but it isn’t. While I did find it challenging the spare prose is a pleasure and the whole situation and place so well evoked that I found myself reading on just to better understand it all. Equally, as the story develops and O-fune-sama comes I wanted to know what would happen, because its arrival brings with it things other than the rich cargo the villagers had hoped.

Yoshimura provides as a viewpoint character a young boy whose dearest dream is the death of men he does not know. Deaths that would bring with them safety from starvation and a temporary prosperity. Deaths that would mean no need for village girl Tami to be sold so making it possible that she’d be available for wooing when the time comes. I liked Isaku and I rooted for him. As with One Man’s Justice, Yoshimura has taken a character who it would be easy to consider a monster and shown his point of view and his humanity.

Here’s one final quote. O-fune-sama has come and brought with it enough rice that every family in the village has an ample supply of it. Isaku’s mother cooks some for the children:

In the evening his mother put the rice from the offering into a pot and started to boil it. The smell drifted up and brought to mind his last memories of rice; he stared at the seething white mass in the pot where the swollen grains jumped up and down. His mother served him some of the rice gruel. He was overwhelmed as soon as he put it to his lips: a rich and elegant taste. He felt as though he were being filled with strength. His little brother and sister ate speechlessly, but there was no mistaking the astonished look in their eyes.

That’s rice gruel there, not a bowl of rice. Isaku’s mother is a prudent woman and where other villagers enjoy whole bowls of rice she ekes out her family’s portion. A bowl of rice is too rich a prize to be treated lightly.



Filed under Japanese fiction, Yoshimura, Akira

One Man’s Justice

One Man’s Justice, by Akira Yoshimura

Japanese literature isn’t nearly as well known as it should be. Fashionable authors such as Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami cross over (both deservedly, to be fair) but authors such as Shusako Endo or Junichiro Tanizaki get nothing like the same fame, despite their brilliance. Japan has a literary tradition which, as best I can tell, is the rival of England or France, but with nothing of the recognition in the West.

To an extent that’s natural, and a tendency to see the Japanese as stranger than they of course are makes it worse, but it’s a loss because Japanese literature contains stories which are funny, bleak, profound, whimsical and which in many cases show an appreciation for style and craft which shines through the page. South of the Border, West of the Sun. Foreign Studies. Diary of a Mad Old Man. These are rewarding works, as well as classics such as I am a Cat (which I own, but haven’t got to yet I have to admit).

Akira Yoshimura, born in 1927 and who died in 2006, was president of Japan’s writers’ union. He wrote the novel which later became the masterful film Unagi (The Eel), a surprisingly tender story about the slow rehabilitation of a man who brutally murders his wife. So far however, only two of his novels have been translated into English (sadly not including the source for The Eel), Shipwrecked and One Man’s Justice. I’ve just finished One Man’s Justice, I’ll be buying Shipwrecked.

One Man’s Justice, written in 1978 and here published by Canongate and ably translated by Mark Ealey, is the story of Lieutenant Takuya of the Western Region Anti-Aircraft Defence Group. A highly efficient officer, Takuya is part of the wartime air defence control network for Western Japan, a man with an intimate knowledge of US aircraft, their flight paths, fuel capacities, payloads and who through his instructions to anti-aircraft crews and defensive fighters plays a key role in defending his region. Night after night, US bombers fly from bases in China to bombard Japanese cities, the numbers growing as the war goes against the Japanese, fire bombs raining down and killing civilians in huge numbers. The US of course is trying to break Japan’s morale, but Takuya knows nothing of this, to him the bomber crews are monsters, men slaughtering the innocent even in cities wholly devoid of military targets.

In the early part of the bombardment, however, many of the American crews don’t make it home. Before the anti-aircraft batteries and landing strips are destroyed, Takuya and men like him organise the defences effectively, bringing down a great many American planes. Most of the crew die with their planes, but not all, and though some are ripped apart by angry Japanese mobs where they land some survive to be taken prisoner.

As anger mounts, the air raids continue and increase in severity, food runs scarce, many of the cities of the Western region lie in ruins, officers return home from their reinforced bunkers to find their homes destroyed and relatives killed. Throughout, the American prisoners are fed, cared for, but increasingly resented. When Takuya learns through a translator that on the way home from a raid the Americans would listen to jazz, swap pornography, joke, his loathing of them becomes even more furious.

It occurred to Takuya that these twenty-four American airmen in front of him were the embodiment of an enemy which had slaughtered untold numbers of his people. They had come back again and again to devastate Japanese towns and cities, leaving behind countless dead and woudned civilians. The idea that these men were receiving rice balls despite the virtual exhaustion of food supplies for the average Japanese citizen stirred anger in Takuya towards those in headquarters responsible for such decisions.

When Takuya hears the prisoners have been tried for war crimes, sentenced to death, he welcomes the news – sad only that sentence is delayed in his own region. For him, injustice lies in feeding them, not killing them.

So then, war crimes. To Takuya, the American flight crews are war criminals, evil men who kill civilians in their thousands then relax to jazz as they fly home untouched. He sees their executions as a moral imperative, not a crime against a prisoner of war, but an act of justice. He is a product of the Japanese military machine, a loyal soldier, proud to serve and proud to fight for Japan and the Emperor.

The Americans invade Okinawa, but the strength of the resistance gives the mainland Japanese cause for hope, the Americans are bogged down, fighting is horrifically fierce, every inch of ground contested. When the Okinawan defenders arefinally defeated, there is no surrender, rather they fight to the last man killing as many Americans as they can before their inevitable defeat. The US is overstretched, if the same can be repeated on Japanese mainland soil, there is hope that the war could yet be won.

Meanwhile, some of the captured airmen in Takuya’s district are executed. Some are sent for medical experimentation, others are used for testing the efficiency of new weapons, none of this strikes Takuya as remotely problematic. Rather, he is pleased that these criminals are being put to some good use, the question of whether their treatment is justifiable, whether the crimes he regards them as having committed merit such punishments, does not occur to him.

As the war draws to its close, the order comes to execute the remaining prisoners, to destroy all papers relating to them, if Japan loses the story will be that no executions took place, the prisoners were destroyed in an air raid while being moved between facilities, for that to be credible there must of course be no survivors. Takuya takes part in the executions, himself decapitating a prisoner, proud again to be of service and regretting only that he was allowed to kill but one of them.

This is challenging stuff, the point of view of a man who is a war criminal, who executes a prisoner and who when he does so does it not because of that prisoner’s own crimes (real or perceived) but because higher command wishes to cover up the treatment of other prisoners. This doesn’t occur to Takuya, he sees himself as delivering justice, but it is quite clear that his justice is the instrument of the fear of others, fear of retribution should the Americans win.

The Japanese prepare for invasion, for a scorched Earth partisan war, for a no-surrender battle over the entire soil of Japan. That is, until Hiroshima. Until Nagasaki. Until the Emperor’s surrender, an announcement so shocking that grown men weep, that Takuya has to explain to some of his men that the war is over, the idea of surrender so alien some have not understood the broadcast. And with the war over, with the occupation, it is no longer the Japanese who are deciding what constitutes a war crime.

The bulk of One Man’s Justice is not the above, this is not military fiction in any meaningful sense, rather it is the story of Takuya’s flight in a devastated and defeated country, despite the efforts of high command the Americans do learn that their airmen were executed, orders are given for the arrest of those involved. Takuya goes from being a loyal soldier, an example of Japanese honour and martial spirit, to a hunted fugitive and increasingly to a reminder of a Japan nobody now wishes to admit having been part of.

This then, is a psychological study, a study of defeat, despair, fear and the choices made by a man who knows that if caught he will surely be hanged. Takuya approaches family, friends, but they cannot help him or will not, and in any event the police are relentless in pursuing war criminals and all those he knew before will be subject to surveillance and interrogation.

The power of this novel lies in its detail, it is not an especially long book, under 300 pages, but it is painstaking in showing Takuya’s life on the run and its terrible cost. The nights spent sleeping rough, the pleas for aid, the oiling of a pistol for use to kill himself should he be about to be taken. Constantly moving, imposing himself on distant acquaintances and living in spare rooms for a week or so, while his hosts grow more resentful and the risk of his being reported increases. One of the reviews on the back cover refers to this book as “a haunting and beautifully rendered tale of enduring optimism”. No. This is a tale of the cost of living in fear, Yoshimura is not a man who believes that no matter what, you cannot be stripped of your dignity. You most certainly can.

More often than not, Takuya spent his evenings sitting in the little room at the back, squashing the fleas crawling over his clothes. Most of those he dispatched were a pinkish colour, gorged with blood which spilt out on to his fingernails as he crushed them. Occasionally he would hold a piece of underwear up to the electric light and find lines of delicately formed eggs, like tiny rosary beads, sitting neatly inside the stitching. He pierced each of them individually with a needle before going on to check the next piece of clothing. Other times, after he had got under the covers on his futon, he would take the pistol out of his rucksack and caress it in the semi-darkness. He wiped the barrel with a cloth and tested the tension of the trigger with his index finger. When he held it up to his nose, he could just detect the faint smell of oil.

Yoshimura of course lived through the post war years, and his descriptions are highly convincing. Millions die of starvation and disease, lice and vermin are everywhere. There are few jobs to be found, even the most basic materials are hard to come by, prostitution and black marketeering are rife. Among all this, the American troops travel Japan with the confidence of conquerors, effortlessly aware of their own victory.

Takuya could hear the crowd of urchins still calling out to the soldiers, ‘ Haroo, Haroo!’ He could not understand what on earth these children, and the adults standing behind them, could be doing milling around American military trucks.
As he sat contemplating the scene, he saw something quite astounding. The children had stopped calling out, and were now bent over, frantically scramblign to grab something off the ground. The adults who had been bystanders seconds earlier were also racing helter-skelter among the children, picking things up off the road. The soldiers in the truck were throwing small objects out from under the furled canvas hoods. A black soldier in one lorry purposely threw them as far as he could, and one of his white comrades in the other one watched in fits of laughter as adults and children responded to his feigned throws. Takuya sat there aghast, transfixed by what he saw.

The newspapers each day carry news of trials for war crimes, men are executed for having slapped prisoners, levels of violence normal within the Japanese army and so to Takuya wholly blameless. To him, the trials are mere revenge, but then it becomes apparent that those of his colleagues who like him went on the run are slowly being captured, their photos up in every police station, his superiors denying all knowledge of the incident and claiming Takuya and his comrades acted without orders. He cannot risk being seen in public, any encounter with the police could lead to his recognition, and so his execution, he dreams of taking dangerous work in the mines, where nobody will see him.

This is a claustrophobic novel, suffused with dread, Takuya comes to fear every stranger he passes in case they recognise him. Avoids anywhere he might meet anyone he knew, lives in a state of constant paranoia, that may or may not be justified. I will not say here where this leads, but it is fair to say the title is of course a definite play on words. Takuya, one man, exercises his justice in killing an American airman, but he too receives his justice living as an exile in his own land as the Americans and the new government pursue all those involved in such offences. Takuya is both perpetrator and victim, an instrument of justice from one perspective and a target for it from another. Yoshimura makes nothing easy here, the text exhaustively sets out the scale of the US bombardment, the toll of civilian lives, the viewpoint of the Japanese soldiers and their grounds for feeling themselves justified in their actions to the prisoners. And yet, there is no sense that medical experiments, weapons testing, pointless executions in forest clearings, that any of it is justified in return. Justice here is a social construct, an idea held by men, influenced by politics and expediency. This is not the territory of facile equivalency, rather it is a lack of any comforting answers at all.

As the occupation continues, as time passes, Takuya is changed by his constant hiding. Troubled by memories of the man he killed, cowed by the sheer physical presence of the American troops, worn down by constant flight and concealment. The war is passing into memory, quicker than he could have dreamed, his sense of righteousness – of justification, fades and although at first the sight of a Japanese girl with an American enrages him such anger cannot be maintained in the new reality he now inhabits. Takuya is in microcosm Japan, humiliated, defeated, powerless. His certainty, his superiority has been destroyed along with the cities he once defended, within a few short years nobody talks any more of the civilians dead in the bombings, of whether the US’s conduct of the war was justified. The only man who raises at his trial a defence of justification, that he executed prisoners who had been lawfully tried and who were punished themselves for the targeted bombing of civilians, is of course hanged. Under the Japanese and the Americans both, only the defeated are ever on trial.

Although dryly written (at times perhaps a little too much so), this is a powerful novel that deals in themes of patriotism, the cost of war, justice, defeat and how history is both remembered and forgotten. It addresses extremely difficult themes and a disturbing period of Japanese history, and it is unsettling and ambiguous offering no reassuringly hateful villains. The novel opens with Takuya on a train crammed with people, so tightly packed a young boy is at risk of suffocating, Takuya ensuring he has space in which to breathe. These are the first words of the novel, it’s entire story in microcosm:

The boy’s eyes were no longer on Takuya.
Each time the train lurched, the boy’s head, covered in ringworm, was buried in the gap between Takuya and the middle-aged woman standing in front of him. Takuya would lean back to create enough space for the boy to breathe. The boy looked up at Takuya repeatedly. There was a shadow of resignation in his eyes, a recognition of his powerlessness in the mass of adults, as well as a flicker of light, an entrusting of his well-being to this man who kept shifting back for him. Before long, however, the boy’s head dropped. The strain of leaning to one side may have been too much for him, for now he hardly moved his head when he was pressed between the adults. The woman standing in front of them seemed to be the boy’s mother, and Takuya could sense that he was holding on to the cloth of her work trousers.

Before we learn of Takuya’s crimes, before we learn of his isolation and despair, we see his humanity. We see that he is a patriot, a soldier, a man who believes he is doing his best for his country. That morality, that generosity, makes this book all the more challenging. If Takuya were simply evil, his crime would be so much easier to understand, he would be easier to condemn. Instead, we are put as readers in the difficult place of understanding a man who does a terrible thing, of empathising with him, raising question of what justice is and whether victor’s justice (from whatever source) can ever be anything of the kind.

One Man’s Justice. For those wanting another perspective, there’s a good review of the book at the Guardian, here.


Filed under Japanese fiction, Yoshimura, Akira