Category Archives: Japanese culture

Two novellas about young male creators by Okamoto Kanoko

Okamoto Kanoko (née Ohnuki Kano, 1889-1939) was a scholar of Zen Buddhism and a tanka poet who wrote fiction during the last three years of her life. Being of upper-class origin, her fiction tends to focus on resentful working-class males. Whether males from lower classes of the early Showa-era idealized her peers as she portrays them as doing is a question I can’t answer, though I am suspicious.

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The protagonist of her novella Riot of Goldfish (Kingyo Ryōran), Mataichi is the son of a goldfish-seller who is enchanted by Masako, a shy girl whose rich father (Teizô) underwrites Mataichi’s fishery studies. Though distant glimpses of Masako, up the hill above his family’s fishponds, enchant him, he has no chance of wedding her and sublimates his desire into trying to breed a goldfish as beautiful as (he thinks) Masako is. The breeds he engineers (life he creates) keep being washed away in floods. Masako has no idea he is trying to recreate her in piscine form, or, for that matter, that he has been in love with her for most of their lives.

“The Food Demon” (Shokuma), Besshirô, is also smitten by the beautiful daughter of his patron, Okinu, and desperate to be regarded as a master artist, to be addressed with the honorific “sensei.” He alienates those who had admired his knowledge of and skill at painting and calligraphy, though what he produces is dismissed as “tasteful,” lacking the spark of genius.

His genius is for the less exalted “art” of cooking, which has lower prestige but gives very tangible pleasure. He gives cooking lessons to the pampered Okinu and her drudge sister Ochiyo, but only the latter really notices how handsome and gifted he is.

Their father provides Besshirô and the meek wife he has been pressed by the aunt of his dead painter/restaurant-owner friend, Higaki, to marry a small house and a small stipend, and Besshirô takes out his frustrations mostly on his wife, Isuko (Higaki’s only cousin).

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There are no female characters developed at all in either novella. The only one who is not a drudge or an impossible fantasy is a female Buddhist scholar (what Okamoto was) who delivers the “no more than tasteful” verdict on his paintings, but genuinely appreciates his culinary skills. Even she is little developed.

The protagonists bring Zola (especially L’ouevre) to my mind with his fatalism in the traditional Buddhist guise of karma. Mataichi is more focused (beyond the point of obsession!) than Besshirô, who writhes in disappointment and resentment of his social superiors.

Goldfish has something of a plot, Food-Demon fills in the background of its protagonist, including the harrowing cancer death of Higaki). In the story’s present Besshirô gives a demonstration of handling endive, leaves his female students in their mansion, goes home, rails at his wife, and drinks a lot of beer as he watches hail fall, and while his wife keeps their son quiet in the bedroom.

Food-Demon is more about attempts to integrate Eastern and Western art and aesthetics than the aesthetic of Mataichi, though he is even more intent on creating beauty than Besshirô is.

The two novellas, translated by J. Keith Vincent were published in 2010 by Hesperus with an enthusiastic foreword by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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Sisterhood with no sibling rivalries

 

Though running 128 minutes Koreeda Hirokazu’s 2015 adaptation of a manga as海街diary (Umimachi Diary, or Seaside-town diary”), released in English as “Our Little Sister” seems slight to me. Many find it “heart-warming,” I find it sentimental in a Kinoshita tradition. Three sisters: 29-year-old Sachi (Ayase Haruka), 22-year-old Yoshino a (Nagasawa Masami) and 19-year-old Chika (Kaho) live in a large house in Kamakura (southeast of Tokyo). News comes that their father, whom they have not seen in 15 years, has died. They go to the funeral, where their father’s third wife claims to have nursed their father through his final illness.

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They intuit that the serious-looking 14-year-old Asano Suzu (Hirose Suzu) was the one who cared for their father. Sachi invites Suzu to come and live with them rather than stay with her/their stepmother. Suzu was the offspring of the woman with whom their father decamped, his second wife.

Suzu is keenly aware that she is a very visible reminder of their common father abandoning his first wife and their three daughters. She is especially aware of her negative connections for the mother of the three older females, who also abandoned her three daughters and drops in. Sachi, who was left to raise her younger two sisters, is very antagonistic to her mother, though the immature woman tries to make Suzu comfortable in her presence.

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Though the sisters experience frustration in their own love lives, there is no antagonism or even tension between any of them, and they all dote on Suzu. Suzu makes the coeducational soccer team and hangs out with one of the male players and is dutiful and grateful at her new home. Tensions are mostly between generations not between siblings (and the novel half-sibling who is something of a pet, but also arguably more mature than Chika).

Ayase Haruka, who strikes me as the most beautiful of the women in the cast, is self-sacrificing in the manner of Takamine Hideko in 1950s family dramas made by Ozu and Kinoshita. The offspring are old enough to make money in contrast to the young children huddling together in Koreeda’s 2004 “Nobody Knows,” which lessens the drama and the poignancy. Suzu not only can go to school, but fits in readily. Still, the actresses (including three of the older generation) are very good in what seems like a very gentle, muted, episodic sitcom that mostly takes place in the family house‑though when it does go out, things are beautifully photographed by Mikya Takimoto, who also shot “Like Father, Like Son” for Koreeda.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Blaming the victim magnifies the trauma of gang rape

The first novel by Okinawan writer and activist Medoruma Shun, In the Woods of Memory (Me no okay no mori, more literally “I’m not OK, nor dead”, 2009) to be translated into English, is a masterpiece, albeit one to make Okinawan or American readers (or probably any kind!) uncomfortable. It has some resonances with Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece “Rashômon” and its source “Yabu no naka” (In a Grove) by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. (Medoruma won the 1997 Akutagawa prize, btw) in that the work centers on a rape in a woods and multiple perspectives.

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Medoruma’s novel (based on a story his grandmother told him about a rape by US soldiers of an Okinawan girl in northern Okinawa) is more a mosaic with nine different protagonists (not all narrators) from 1945 and 2005, rather than the puzzle of accounts by unreliable, self-serving narrators of “Rashômon.” It also differs in that there are rapists (plural, and they also raped other villagers) and that they are alien (American). There is indirect testimony from one of the rapists, but not from the victim (the raped woman in “Rashômon” presents her account), Sayoko.

Sayoko was with some younger girls gathering food on a beach across from a recently constructed US pier. Such soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army who had not retreated to the south of Okinawa were prisoners, and there was not yet a US occupation regime in place on Yagaji Island.

Having finished their tasks, four GIs stripped down to their underwear and swam across, planning to return immediately a distance of only about a hundred yards. The terror of the girls on the beach stimulated sadism in the GIs who took the oldest girl, the village beauty, the very good-hearted Sayoko into the woods and gang-raped her.

On a later day, four GIs (it is not clear until later whether it was the same four) were again swimming over. Sayoko’s neighbor, Seiji, how had long had a crush on Sayoko and more or less lived in the water took his harpoon and swam toward the Americans (the harpoon tied to his wrist and not visible). He swam under one of the Americans and stabbed him in the gut (aiming for the liver). Two of the Americans pursued him, and Seiji stabbed one of them in the shoulder (the harpoon lodged there).

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(a grove by the beach on Yagaji Island, from WIkimedia Commons)

 

Later, Seiji hid in a cave. The village headman, who was eager to curry favor with the occupying Americans, betrayed his whereabouts. Seiji was smoked out with tear gas and shot several times. The villagers, who had been surprised that Seiji had not been slain with poison gas, assumed he would be executed, and were eager to tell the Americans that Seiji had acted alone, though many were ashamed at their failure to do anything to protect or avenge their women who were violated.

Only three of the eleven chapters are set in 1945. The events still reverberate on the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, and the traumas (including ongoing mistreatment of Sayoko, who was unhinged in part by her father’s rejection of her following the traumas of the gang rape) linger.

Although the prime villains are obviously the four American rapists (three of whom died soon thereafter in the Battle of Okinawa without being court-martialed for the rape), the Okinawans both of the 1940s and 2000s do not come off well, bullying Seiji before and after the “incident” and Sayoko after it (including more rapes), along with a young Okinawan middle-school student (a first-person female narrator whose name is not mentioned).

Several of the characters in the 2005 chapters also recall the 1995 instance of three American servicemen raping an Okinawan elementary-school student. 9-11 also crops up. Much more than the rape and stab at revenge are remembered—and festering not only for those who were alive in 1945 but for those who were not then yet born — in Medoruma’s powerful book.

Despite the accretion of information about various individuals with a wide range of connections to the 1945 events on Yagaji Island, the book is not a difficult read, though the stream of consciousness Seiji chapters were more difficult (but not comparable in disorientation to Benjy’s in The Sound and the Fury, for instance). The original Japanese was mixed with Okinawan (the languages are not mutually intelligible and the Japanese have attempted to eliminate Okinawan (Ruykuan) since annexing the Ryuku Islands in 1879) in Medoruma’s book, a disorienting effect not available in English translation. Translator Takuma (né Paul) Sminkey (who teaches at Okinawa International University) made the reader-friendly addition of chapter titles (the name of the main character in each one) with the date (1945 or 2005) and also a preface providing context about Medoruma and the language (Japanese/Okinawan code-shifting) issue. The book was beautifully produced by Stone Bridge Press with a map, a character table, and an illuminated afterword by Kyle Ikeda.

Some of Medoruma’s short fiction has been translated into and included in anthologies. I hope that his other two (earlier) novels, The Crying Wind (2004) and The Rainbow Bird (2006) will follow in English translation.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Kenyan and Hokkaido hill country and fauna

When I was sixteen, I was entranced by the memoir of  Isak Dinesen’s [Karen Baroness von Blixen-Finecke, 1885-1962], Out of Africa (first published in 1937). Kenya had only been independent for three years when I first read the book, which is set in 1913-31. Blixen made many criticisms of colonial paternalism and the expropriation of land (Kikuyus could not legally own land!), but for all the time she spent alone with “the natives,” maintained assumptions of racial superiority that are gratingly obvious now.

I still like her upbeat voice and compassion for all the residents (black, white, animal) of Africa, though the generalizations about tribal characteristics make me suspicious. And the romance wit Dennis Fitch Hatton is mostly about flying and sharing enthusiasm for English poetry, while her husband goes entirely unmentioned until p. 228 (and then goes unmentioned through the rest of the book).

There must be distinctions between Somalis, Maasai, and Kikuyu. Blixen/Dinesen seems to me to romanticize the Somalis and to condescend to Kikukyu, but that she exerted herself to find someplace for her mass of squatters and their cattle to live after she was gone.

The classical anguish of the last part is still a bit scattershot, but not as miscellaneous as the middle “Immigrant’s Notebook.”

She records a particularly absurd nominalist, Count Schimmelmann, in “In the Menagerie”:

“The wild animals, which run in a wild landscape, do not really exist. This one [in a cage before the interlocutors] exists, we have a name for it, we know what it is like. The others might as well not have been, still they are the large majority. Nature is extravagant.

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“They see each other.”

“Even that may be disputed. These giraffes, for instance, have got square markings on the skin. The giraffes looking at each other, will not know a square and consequently will not see a square. Can they be said to have seen each other at all?” [Besides which ,  as the phot above shows, the marks are not square…]

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I moved on to Alan Booth’s (1946-93) The Roads to Sata (first published in 1985), an account of walking from the northernmost point of Hokkaido (Soya) to the southernmost point of Kyushu (Sata), approximately 3300 kilometers in 128 days in 1977. After Dinesen, it was a relief at the outset to read; “I have tried to avoid generalizations, especially ‘the Japanese.’” Alas, I don’t find much of interest in his observations of encounters with roughly twelve hundred Japanese.

Alas, what I find most interesting are not the accounts of the encounters, which consist of repeated shock that a gajin (foreigner) can speak Japanese and, secondarily, is not American. The astounded rural Japanese bought him many beers. And students astounded Booth by the English they learned in schools. (The reader can see why there are incomprehensible mangled English words on Japanese t-shirts.)

In the mid-1970s, Booth found the highways littered in discarded, unraveled cassette tapes. He walked through some industrial wastelands as well as beautiful seashores and mountains, refusing the many proferred rides. Pretty much no one could understand his wanting to walk to the next town, let alone all the way (the long way) across three of the four major islands.

The most memorable encounter for me was with a Hokkaido man who had been a Soviet prisoner for years (the Soviet Union only declared war against Japan at the very end, but seized prisoners and held on to them unconscionably long times in Sakhalin or Siberia).begging bear.jpg

The conversation matches Booth’s British dry wit with Japanese fatalism, and concerns Hokkaido bears. (The one pictured above is waiting to catch a food pellet in a Hokkaido bear park.)

The Hokkaido man told Booth that bears are the most predictable of animals—far more predictable than human beings, whom he confessed he had not much interest in and whom he thought overrates as a species.

“There are dozens of bears in the hills around the lake [Shikotsu]. They come down almost daily to the road over there.”

He pointed to the road I had just walked along, and I said “Oh, really?” with a great deal of nonchalance”

“You want to whistle or sing when you walk or have a bell and ring it from time to time, or band a stick. They won’t come near you unless they’re really hungry, and then it’s only your food they’ll want.”

I nodded pleasantly, having no food.

“If you turn a corner and you see a bear and it’s thirty meters away from you, you’ve no need to worry. The bear will run away. It’ll be more frightened than you are. If you turn a corner and you see a bear, say, twenty meters away, there’s still a good chance it won’t bother you. It’ll roar a bit just to let you know it’s there, but if you stand quite still it’ll probably get bored and go back into the forest. And, then, of course, if you turn a corner and you see a bear five or ten meters from you—“

“Then probably, I should start to worry.”

“Not really. You’ve no need to worry, Bears are the most predictable of animals. If it’s five meters away it’ll certainly kill you. There is no point in worrying at all.”

Though I think what the Hokkaido ex-POW said applies to North American bears, too, the artful buildup pleases me, whereas most other encounters Booth had were unilluminating about anything other than smug Japanese ethnocentrism. And these are interspersed with the misery of being rained on, trying to find roads, some of which exist only on maps, others of which are litter-edged motorways, sunburn, and mosquitoes.

Ivan Morris’s anthology of Japanese short fiction

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Ivan Morris’s (1962) collection of modern (up to Mishima) Japanese stories includes one (“The moon on the water”) by Kawabata that I can appreciate, and a very funny one by Dazai about an unwelcome visitor drinking all his whiskey (“The Courtesy Call”), a Wildean early Tanizaki story (“Tattooer” who is erotically enslaved by a beautiful woman whose foot [quel surprise!] first drew his attention), a Buddhist tale of lust and detachment by Mishima (“The priest and his love”) and, my favorite, Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s (also Wildean) tale of a quest to see a painting, “Autumn mountain,” which may have been imagined rather than seen. (I had not realized that Tanizaki was born before Akutagawa.) Also a satire of uniformed Japanese authoritarians (the driver of the passive passengers in “The charcoal bus”) by Dazai’s master, Ibuse Masuji (though the story dates from 1952, four years after Dazai killed himself).

Morris (1925-76) was Donald Keene’s colleague at Columbia, the other scholar who brought Japanese literature (Tales of Genij, The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon and modern work), including Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion and Ōka Shōhe’s Fires on the Plain, to English-reading audiences in general and me in particular. Morris (1925-1976) seems to me more sociological (not least in the analysis of Heian society, The World of the Shining Prince), Keene (born in 1922 and still going strong) more of an aesthete, and/or Morris valued comedy more than Keene.

I wonder about Morris’s statement “The confessional, diary type of writing, in which everything is seen through the eyes of one lone sensitive individual, continues to be far more popular in Japan than in the West (23), however. I thought “confession” was a genre pioneered in the west (Augustine, Cellini, Casanova, Rousseau…) Perhaps the Japanese were ahead of the development of American fiction (and now, even when writing about Others). The themes and, certainly, the preferred metaphors and images in these stories seems very Japanese to me. Ibusé’s is the only story I can imagine being written about some place other than Japan (or, in a few cases, China).

©1996, 2017, Stephen O. Murray