Hiroshima Notes

Hiroshima Notes
Kenzaburo Oe

cover of Hiroshima NotesAt 8:15 in the morning of August 6th 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, immediately killing about 100000 people. Twenty years later, from 1963 to 1965, journalist and writer Kenzaburo Oe travelled multiple times to Hiroshima where he visited hospitals, talked to survivors, and witnessed first hand the ongoing struggle of all Hiroshima people to deal with the aftermath of the bombing. Hiroshima notes consists of seven essays written in these two years. Oe talks about such divers topics as the fighting between different Japanese charities dedicated to help the victims; the marginalisation of the survivors suffering from radiation sickness; their own shame and guilt of being sick; but also the dignity these people are exhibiting regardless, up to their very last days.

This book is one of the few where a Japanese view on the Hiroshima bombings is exhibited, and with only 20 years after the facts it is a relatively early account. Although Oe should be one to understand the sentiments of the people he is talking to, one can feel that he is struggling greatly with what he hears and how he should interpret it, how he should make sense of it all. It is not an easy book to read, especially for somebody who is not familiar with Japanese culture, but still, if you are ready to delve into a book that will certainly provoke mixed feelings, it is worth it.

Kenzaburo Oe was born in 1935 in a small village on Shikoku. When he was 19, he started to study French Literature at Tokyo University, and in 1957 he began publishing his own stories. In 1994 Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as the second Japanese citizen. He is still writing – his latest book was published in 2013 – and he is now active in pacifistic and anti-nuclear movements.

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Unbeaten Tracks in Japan

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan
Isabella L. Bird

The Meiji restoration in 1868 and the following opening of a country closed to outsiders for centuries sparked an enormous worldwide interest in all things Japanese. While the average Japanophile of the time was content with exported ceramics, kimono, art, or weapons, there were a handful that were not satisfied with second-hand accounts, but visited the country by themselves.

Photo of Isabella L. BirdIsabella Lucy Bird was one of them. Already a seasoned traveller, she toured mostly the rural parts of Japan. Her trip of 1878 took her first from Tokyo to Nikko, and then all the way through the often hardly passable wilderness of the Japanese Alps to Aomori, the northernmost prefecture of Honshu. From there, she took a steamer to Yezo (Hokkaido), then a wild and untamed island inhabited by the native Ainu, a people of non-Japanese origin. Isabella travelled chiefly with man-pulled carts and on horseback, stayed at tiny local guesthouses where she – often grudgingly – had to eat the local fare, and was generally considered a major attraction for miles on end as the first white woman the local residents ever laid eyes upon.

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan is composed of letters she wrote to her sister, where she faithfully describes her impressions of the landscape and the Japanese and their strange customs. As a foreigner, she is often a special guest at various ceremonies or of high-ranking people, and especially her account of the Ainu and their long-lost customs holds many surprises even for modern Japanese.

I greatly enjoyed this book, it gives a glimpse into a Japan long forgotten, although some things still appear familiar. However, her writings are not at all politically correct, and she certainly never sugarcoats her opinions. She generally loves the countryside and is charmed by the children everywhere, but she despises the Japanese food she had to eat once her own provisions ran out, and she also views the Japanese adults unfavourably – she describes them as ugly, uncouth, and dirty, the last most likely because of their extreme poverty. Anyway, if you can see beyond her old-fashioned, almost missionary attitudes, the book is a great source for those interested in the really “old” Japan.

Fun fact: Although more than 100 years old, this book has been translated to Japanese less than five years ago.

The book is available from amazon of course, but there is also a free e-book available from gutenberg.org, and, based on it, a free audio version from librivox.org.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell

Cover of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetJacob de Zoet arrives at Dejima with Unico Vorstenbosch, who has vowed to rid the island of the ever present corruption and embezzlement. And Jacob is the right aide for this; the clerk, finicky, compliant, and honest to a fault beholds a rosy future. Of course, his incorruptability makes him some enemies fromt he start, but among his trusted friends are translator Ogawa and Dejima’s doctor, Marinus. And when Jacob becomes infatuated with one of Marinus’s students, Aibagawa Orito, and seriously considers marrying her, it seems that he is on top of everything.

However, his nice life is falling to pieces when Vorstenbosch is about to leave Dejima and in an interesting turn of events is revealed as the greatest crook of them all. On refusing to cover up his crimes, Jacob’s promotion is revoked and he is forced to fend for himself. Rock bottom is hit, when Orito – upon the death of her father – is forced to become a nun at a dubious Shinto shrine.

What is Jacob to do? Everything seems hopeless, but then, an unexpected ship anchors in the harbour…

Dejima island near Nagasaki was a treaty port of the Dutch, and for a long time provided the only way for the West to trade with Japan. The novel is set at the end of the 18th century, and it gives an apt description of the scheming and corruption that must have taken place on both sides. Some of the events in the novel are based on historic facts. Only the happenings in the Shinto shrine seem to be far fetched, but they do provide the suspense that keeps you reading.

David Mitchell was born in England and came to Japan in 1994 where he taught English in Hiroshima for eight years. He visited the Dejima museum – rather by accident – in 1994, the novel appeared in 2010 and won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ (regional) Prize (South Asia and Europe).

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A Geisha’s Journey

A Geisha’s Journey: My Life as a Kyoto Apprentice
Komomo and Naoyuki Ogino

Cover of "A Geisha's Journey"A Japanese teenager living abroad suddenly misses her heritage and identity: What does it mean to be Japanese? On her quest for an answer she discovers the hanamachi, the geisha districts. Enthralled by this fantasy world of beautiful kimono wearing women and ancient customs, she decides to become the most Japanese woman of them all – and enters the hanamachi in Kyoto at age 15 to become a geisha. Given the name Komomo as an apprentice maiko, she starts a demanding training lasting five years to fulfill her dream.

This book tells about those years and gives a glimpse into the intimate details of the hanamachi of Kyoto. Always at Komomo’s side is Naoyuki Ogino, a photographer who is equally fascinated by the flower world and whose striking images of Komomo’s life add an almost magical touch to her story.

Komomo’s story is fascinating, and her change from an insecure teenager to an accomplished Kyoto geiko is obvious in Ogino’s photos. I especially enjoyed learning the little secrets of a geisha’s life. You could probably have guessed that a maiko cannot dress herself alone – but did you know that it takes a man (called the otokoshi) to tie her obi?

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36 Views of Mount Fuji

36 Views of Mount Fuji – On Finding Myself in Japan
Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy and her husband Ted visit Japan for the first time in 1980 to teach book coverEnglish at Kyoto University. Expecting the typical Japan shown to the tourists, inhabited by flower-arranging geisha living in tiny wooden houses, they are shocked by the industrialized nation they encounter. However, they soon discover a Japan where tradition and modern life are not mutually exclusive. Although not everything can be changed (e.g., having open conversations even with friends remains difficult) and some plans fail outright (like permanently moving to Japan), it becomes clear that the couple have lost their heart somewhere in Japan. This book contains 16 encounters with Japanese culture – profane, funny, and embarrassing ones, but always personal – and describes also their aftermath.

On my way towards Japan, I try to gather as much info about the country and its people as possible. This means that I currently read anything I can find about Japan: history books, literature, travelogues, … This book is extraordinary. Cathy Davidson describes her experiences with Japan and its culture, both the good and the bad ones, with unromanticised candor. And still, in every word her love for the country is palpable, just as is her pain at the realisation she will not be able to live there permanently. Highly recommended!

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