As a fairly new expat living in the land of the rising sun, it’s always interesting to hear the perspectives of seasoned expats who have called this place home for several years.
Anna Sherman moved to Asia in 2001 and The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations of Time and a City is her first book. In this part-memoir/ part travelogue, Sherman retraces the steps taken by composer Yoshimura Hiroshi in his book, Edo’s Bells of Time, listening for the chime of the old city’s bells in the silent spaces of her loud, 21st century metropolis. Her prose is both lyrical and clipped, as she meditates on seasonal time-keeping in old Edo and contrasts it with digital time-keeping in modern-day Tokyo.
She shows how the traditional Japanese conception of time as non-linear is constantly at odds with Japan’s adoption of progressive, mechanical Western time, a push and pull struggle that mirrors Japan’s juggling between its slick, contemporary image as a postmodern mecca and its ancient Eastern roots. This conflict is also evident in Tokyo’s constant reinvention of itself, forever destroying and rebuilding its spaces so that nothing ever remains permanent, even the author’s beloved coffee shop in the bowels of the enigmatic capital city.
Overall, The Bells of Old Tokyo is a fresh take on a much-admired and much-misunderstood city and highly recommended for anyone who wants to probe into what really makes the Japanese capital tick.
Disclaimer: I received this book as a digital Advance Reader Copy (ARC) from the publishers in exchange for my honest review.
“In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.” Haruki Murakami
The book translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel describes itself as “equal parts travelogue, memoir, and training log” and after reading it, it certainly slots into all these categories. Murakami details key episodes in his running life including his long-distance feats in Athens, Boston, Hokkaido, New York, Tokyo, Kanagawa, and Niigata. Before reading this book, I had no idea the Japanese novelist was even a runner. Also, forget the self-destructive writer stereotype. Murakami proves that writers have to be healthy in order to write better. He writes in a very conversational style so the book is very easy to get into in the beginning. However, he confesses that the book was written in snatches over two years and as it unfolds, it does feel piecemeal at times. Overall, however, I think the book gives great insight into the man called Murakami as well as the rigors of running and the writing life.
Published by Portobello Books in 2018 and translated by Margaret Mitsutani, The Last Children of Tokyo (also published as The Emissary) by Yoko Tawada is speculative fiction that imagines what can happen in an ageing society that is affected by a major environmental catastrophe.
The story is set in futuristic, dystopian, environmental wasteland Japan that has once again retreated into self-isolation, cutting itself off from the rest of the world. Things are so bad that foreign words are banned and people get into a lot of semantic arguments. There are food shortages in Tokyo even though food is produced abundantly in Okinawa.
In this post-catastrophe world, great grandparents outlive their great grandkids. Tawada focuses on the relationship between Yoshiro and his great grandson, Mumei. The grandfather’s care is palpable, particularly how he fusses over what the boy can and cannot eat. However, things get weird when the author starts shifting from one narrative perspective to the next.
Deeper into the chapter-free story, more characters are added but Tawada does not deal with them in as great depth as how she handles Yoshiro and Mumei. The plot starts well but then meanders into some strange direction and by the end of the story, I was so confused.
Meandering plot aside, Yoko Tawada is a skilled writer who clearly loves to dabble in word play. Also, her writing is distinctive from the spare, minimalist style of her literary peers like Sayaka Murata and Hiromi Kawakami. I think it may have to do with the fact that she writes in both German and Japanese and lives in Berlin rather than Japan. She is also able to satirize Japanese culture and language and use this story as a cautionary tale of what could happen if Japan behaves in an increasingly insular and environmentally destructive manner in the future.
Bonus: the book recently won the US National Book Award for Translated Literature.
Strange Weather in Tokyo (2014, Portobello Books) by Hiromi Kawakami and translated by Allison Markin Powell starts with the informal reunion of Tsukiko and Sensei, her former high school Japanese teacher, at a bar in the city. The narrative slowly traces the development of their relationship from friends to something more than friends. In this novel, Kawakami, like Sayaka Murata in Convenience Store Woman, is able to pin down the ennui, loneliness, and alienation single people of all ages face in urban Tokyo. A good read, although sometimes, I found the narrative focused too much on quotidian details.
Convenience Store Woman (2018, Portobello Books) by Sayaka Murata and translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori focuses on Keiko, a woman past her prime who has been working part-time in a convenience store for the last 18 years. She is different, to say the least, and her individualism shines through during early childhood. However, every time she “misbehaves” as a child, she is scolded and told that she needs to be “cured” of her eccentricities.
As she gets older, she learns that the easiest way to live in contemporary, capitalist Japan is to adapt to her surroundings and to the people in it. She is “reborn” as a convenience store attendant, the perfect job for a self-effacing cog in society. The mask she wears, however, slowly slips when she meets Shiraha.
Murata’s writing style is clean and darkly comic. I also liked that the author was able to capture the undercurrent of urban life in Tokyo, where the convenience store becomes a microcosm of the artificiality and alienation of everyday life in the mega city. The novel is extremely readable – I was able to blaze through it in a couple of hours before bed.
Have you ever read Convenience Store Woman? What did you think about it?