I am a Cat

I am a Cat
by Soseki Natsume

Cover for I am a CatThe cat in question, which has not been named, lives in the house of a schoolteacher, Mr. Sneaze, a somewhat stingy and definitely dyspeptic man with a wife and three children. As soon as the cat arrives at this household, it begins to quietly observe his master and the friends that come to visit: Mainly Coldmoon, a former student of his master and now looking for a wife, and the rich Waverhouse telling his stories, whether true or false, and a number of others. The cat is always there, occasionally taking matters in his own paws, but mostly observing from the background and commenting on the three men and the things that happen to and around them.

The cat’s observations are pointed and witty, sometimes scathing, and always come from a somewhat aloof position. This way, the reader is presented with an interesting picture of humanity in general, and those living in Tokyo of the Meiji period in particular, where Western influences creep into Japanese culture and make for an especially interesting mix.

I am not entirely sure what to think of this book, and I have read it twice now. It has been written as a series of short stories that appeared in a magazine. The first story is hilarious, and its success prompted the author to write more stories about the nameless cat. The stories can stand alone, but there is a common arc throughout, which would have been better if the book had been planned as such from the outset, I think. And towards the end of the book, the cat (or rather: the author) loses himself in long and rambling philosophical meanderings, which are sometimes hard to follow. Friends have assured me though that the Japanese original reads much better than any translation. Okay – I may get back to it again in a few years.

Soseki Natsume is considered the best writer of Japanese (modern) history, and he is still widely read today. He was born in 1867 in Tokyo and studied English literature from 1890. He spent two years in England, which he thoroughly disliked, and when he returned to Japan in 1903, he started publishing his works. “I am a Cat” was among his first published books, and is considered a masterpiece. Soseki died in 1916.

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I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While

I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While
Taichi Yamada

Cover of I haven't dreamed of flying for a whileTaura is shocked. The woman he had just spent the night with is 20 years his senior, and he already considers himself old at 48. Hidden behind the screen of the hospital room, both unable to move, they shared a night full of talk and erotic passion. When Mutsuko appears in Tokyo a few months later, Taura is surprised at her looks. Without timidity, Mutsuko tells him that she is getting younger, in painful attacks that can last for days. Taura, all but dumped by his entrepreneur wife and grown-up children, and transferred to the department for “special projects” in his company where he cannot do any harm, starts an affair with Mutsuko. She, aware of what her journey must inevitable lead to, attempts to live her newfound youth to the fullest, drawing Taura into a maelstrom of sex, adventure, and lies, that even gets him into prison for child abuse. And yet, he cannot let go of Mutsuko, and she keeps getting younger and younger…

The story is written from Taura’s perspective, and he tells it rather matter-of-factly, almost unemotionally. Except for Mutsuko’s reverse ageing, everything is realistic, but we also hear very early on about Taura’s mental instabilities. Is Mutsuko real, or does she just exist in Taura’s imagination?

What an interesting idea this story is! An old woman, at the end of her life, gets a chance to relive it and, literally, be young again. And this time she is prepared to live it to the fullest! Mutsuko’s affair with Taura seems to be the only thing that is stable in this new life of hers, and while at the beginning they meet irregularly, later on, when Mutsuko turns into a child, she must rely on him more and more. Since Mutsuko is physically changing drastically at each and every one of their meetings, I cannot help wondering how much a physical change I could bear in a partner of mine. Could I really be “in love” (and intimate) with my partner if he looked, say, like a 12-year-old?

Taichi Yamada was born in Tokyo province in 1934 and studied literature before entering the Shochiku film studio. He left in 1965 to become a free screen writer, and some 30 of his scripts have won prizes in Japan. He has written mostly screen plays, but also a number of essay collections and novels.

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Salvation of a Saint

Salvation of a Saint
Keigo Higashino

Cover Salvation of a SaintYoshitaka Mashiba is found dead in his livingroom. Soon it is clear that he was poisoned by arsenic in in coffee, and when it transpires that he had an affair with his wife’s assistant, the prime suspect is logical: Yoshitaka’s wife Ayane. But since she had spent that weekend in Hokkaido with her parents, she could not have committed the crime, could she? Detective Kusanagi is convinced of her innocence and tries to find another suspect, but his young assistant Utsumi is not so sure. And when she sees that Kusanagi is falling for Ayane, she must be ready to call on an outsider to prove her suspicions and solve the case.

This is another of Higashino’s crime novels featuring detective Kusanagi and his old friend Prof. Yukawa. Although not on speaking terms at the moment, Yukawa is intrigued by the ostensibly perfect crime that has been committed and agrees to help. Once again, the solution comes at the very end and with a twist that is completely unexpected and touches the reader to the core.

Keigo Higashino, born 1958 in Osaka, started writing while still working as an engineer for a Japanese automotive company. At age 27, his first novel won the prestigious Edogawa Rampo Award and he began to write professionally. In the West, he is mostly known for his brilliantly crafted mystery novels.

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Creation of Japan

Yesterday was Kenkoku Kinen No Hi, the National Foundation Day, which is a perfect opportunity to have a look at the Japanese creation myth. The source used for my summary here is the Kojiki from 712, a fascinating account of Japanese myth that later turns into history, and the oldest surviving Japanese book.

In the beginning, there was chaos. But then, the light and the particles separated and ascended, but because the particles were heavier than the light, they could not rise that high – this is why the light is above everything else, and then there are the heavens and the seas and lands below it.

Five generations of heavenly deities and two generations of earthly deities came into existence, they were neither male nor female, and hid shortly after. Then, five pairs of deities  – brother and sister – came into being, the last pair were called Izanagi and Izanami, respectively. To these two the older deities gave the order to make, consolidate, and give birth to the land now known as Japan, and they handed the two siblings a bejewelled spear to do so.

Izanami and IzanagiIzanagi took the spear and stirred the oceans with it, and when he lifted the spear out of the waters again, the drops falling from it formed the island Onogoro. On that island, Izanagi and Izanami built a palace with a mighty pillar in its middle. They then decided to procreate as they had been ordered, and to do so, they first circled the pillar in opposite directions.

When they met on the other side, Izanami spoke first: “Oh, what a beautiful and kind youth indeed!” and Izanagi answered his sister in the same words: “Oh, what a most beautiful and kind youth!” Izanami then went on to bear two children, but they were both misshapen. So, they went back to the heavens to inquire the reason for this, and the elder gods said: “This is because the woman spoke first when you met at the opposite side of the pillar”.

Izanagi and Izanami returned to Onogoro and repeated the ritual of circling the pillar, now taking care that Izanagi spoke first, and henceforth, Izanami bore many healthy children. Their first eight children were the Oyashima, the (then known) major islands of Japan: Awaji, Shikoku, the Oki Islands, Kyushu, Iki Island, Tsushima, Sadoshima, and finally Honshu.

Afterwards, Izanami bore six more islands of Japan, and then began to give birth to a plethora of different gods and goddesses, until she died of the wounds she suffered at the birth of the God of Fire. But that’s another story that’s starting here…

I find this creation story quite interesting. Of course, there are many themes we have seen before: A chaos giving way to order, the first gods coming out of nowhere and giving birth to the land (and many more gods). The interesting part is the story of Izanagi (male-who-invites) and Izanami (female-who-invites), and I am not aware of a similar one.

Even though ordered to procreate, Izanami voluntarily agrees – after an inspection of each other’s bodies – to Izanagi putting “his excess into her scarcity”, a scene that must be so raunchy in the original that the first English translation dares only reproduce it in Latin (for the sake of the reading ladies, obviously). This is a far cry from the common rape and abduction scenes and even the “oh, by the way, you’ll be having God’s child” of Christianity. And even though it is punished immediately, it is the female Izanami who speaks first at what could be interpreted as a wedding ceremony. The story is almost feminist, which I find quite exceptional.

Anyway, the list of eight major islands mentioned in the Kojiki shows its age: At the time it was compiled, Okinawa had not been discovered (that would take another 60 years). And Honshu’s north was so scarcely populated, that even the existence of Hokkaido does not seem to have been common knowledge until the Nihon Shoki – the second oldest book in Japan, also a myth/history compilation – was completed in 720.

If you want to read further in the Kojiki, you can read the very first, 1882, translation into English at Sacred Texts. The footnotes are extensive, but not really needed if you are simply interested in the (hi-) story of Japan. In any case, I might come back at a later time and tell some more Japanese myths.

Parade

Parade
Shuichi Yoshida

Book cover paradeIn a small apartment in Tokyo live four young people in their twenties: Ryosuke, a student whose favourite pastime is to wash his car. Kotomi who faithfully waits in front of the telephone for her lover to call. Mirai, manager of an import company who spends her nights getting drunk in gay bars. Naoki, who works for a film distributor and goes running for stress release. Although they live together in rather cramped conditions with boys and girls sharing one bedroom respectively, each of them more or less remains to themselves.

Then Satoru is brought home by Mirai, and the 18-year old who “works in the night” stays on the couch in the livingroom. His sudden appearance promptly upsets the fragile balance of the roommates, and cracks begin to show…

The book is written in five parts – one from the viewpoint of each protagonist. Although the story stays chronological, this change of viewpoint makes it feel a bit fragmented. Also the fact that the four roommates are “good at playing friends” without actually being so – as Satoru observes – did not make me care for the characters or draw me into the story. And the end – a shocking revelation about one of the five, which was shrugged away and covered up by the others – left me very dissatisfied. This can’t be how young people live these days?

Shuichi Yoshida was born in Nagasaki in 1968. He began writing very early, and received the Bungakukai Prize for New Writers in 1997, and the prestigious Akutagawa prize in 2002. Today, he has published 15 novels and 11 collections of short stories, however, only two of his novels have as yet been translated into English. Parade was his first novel, published in 2002 and translated in 2014.

The book is available on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

The Old Capital

The Old Capital (Koto)
Yasunari Kawabata

cover of The Old CapitalChieko is an adopted child, found one winter morning on the doorstep of Takichiro and Shige. Now Chieko is 20 and settled into the life and routines of a kimono wholesaler’s in Kyoto’s Nishijin area. But on a visit to a shrine during Gion festival, a young girl she has never seen before excitedly begins a conversation with her. It is Chieko’s twin sister Naeko who was raised by a poor family in Kitayama after the death of both their parents. Their unexpected meeting brings inner turmoil and outward complications to both sisters. But also the obi weaver Hideo, Chieko’s childhood friend, must choose between the two.

The book is set in Kyoto in the 1950s, and it provides interesting insights into the life of that time, where many people still wore traditional kimono when riding the modern tramway. What I found particularly interesting was the rigid class distinctions that existed between the girls, and which especially Naeko could not overcome – she keeps calling her sister “Miss” throughout the novel. In typical Japanese manner the ending is left open, but as Naeko departs from Chieko one still hopes for a happy ending for both sisters.

Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was the first Japanese to win the Nobel prize in Literature, in 1968. This book, Koto, was one of only three cited by the Nobel committee for their decision – and that although the first (official?) translation into English was published only in 1987. Kawabata was orphaned at an early age and eventually lived with his mother’s extended family. When he graduated from university in 1924, he had already published some stories and quickly rose to fame; still he worked part-time as a newspaper reporter. He died under unclear circumstances, most people consider his death a suicide though.

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The Waiting Years

The Waiting Years
Fumiko Enchi

Cover of The Waiting YearsTomo is the wife of Yukitomo Shirakawa, a public servant in Fukushima, who is rapidly climbing the political ladder. Their two children do not keep Yukitomo from being a womanizer, and at some point he even orders his wife to find him a suitable mistress. Unwilling, but unable to stand her ground against her despotic husband, Tomo goes to Tokyo and after painful deliberations decides on Suga.
With the young girl’s arrival Yukitomo adds a new luxurious wing to the house and Tomo more and more finds herself in the role of household accountant. Both women soon arrange themselves with the new conditions forced upon them, but they change again when Yumi takes up service in their house and Yukitomo cannot keep his hands off her.

This is a very quiet novel, focusing on the women of the household. Though there are no open power struggles between them, and Tomo retains her elevated status of “wife” at all times, the common suffering of the women under Yukitomo’s reign is ever present. I enjoyed reading it, as it gives an almost psychological diagnosis of all persons involved, but if you are looking for action, this novel is not for you.

Fumiko Enchi (1905 – 1986) was born in Tokyo. Since she was a sickly child, she was home-schooled and was taught English, French, and Chinese literature; through her grandmother she got to know the classics of Japanese literature. With 21, her first play was published, and from 1930, she began to write fiction, to not much acclaim. After a hiatus in and after WWII, she started to write again in the early 1950s, and finally received recognition as one of the most prominent Japanese writers of the Showa period.

The book is available on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk – enjoy!

The Master of Go

The Master of Go
Yasunari Kawabata

Cover of "The Master of Go"The Master of Go describes a single match of Go between the old master Honinbo Shusei and the young Otake of Seventh Rank. We follow the game from the single first stone played on June 26th to the final counting of the score on December 4th. While the novel’s main theme is the match, its focus lies on the characters of the players, especially the master’s. We hear about the reverence he expects (and receives) and how he is able to fully immerse himself in the play, forgetting everything else. During the recesses, however, he appears more human and his illness, which will lead to a 3 month interruption of the game, comes to the fore.

The Master of Go is a somewhat fictionalized account of the last match of Honinbo Shusei against Minoru Kitani, where Kawabata was present as reporter for a newspaper. The novel is often seen as an homage to the courteous Old Japan, that must make place – involuntarily but inevitably – for the formal New Japan, where strict regulations take the place of the ingrained behaviour of old. The match itself is legendary and is still used for teaching Go.

Now that computers have finally managed to learn how to play Go, I found it interesting that the book describes a similar culture clash between the retiring master and the young player. Both their characters, their backgrounds, and their dealing with problems on and off the Go board are described in great detail and bring to life what might otherwise have been nothing more than sports commentary.

Yasunari Kawabata, born in 1899 in Osaka, was one of the most renowned Japanese writers. Orphaned at four, he lived with various family members before moving to a boarding house at the age of 17. He started to study English literature, but soon became known as a writer in the early 1920s. Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for literature as the first Japanese in 1968, and died four years later.  He considered “The Master of Go” his finest novel.

You don’t need to know how to play Go to enjoy the novel, promised! Check it out on amazon.com or amazon.co.uk.

Never Let Me Go

Never Let me Go
Kazuo Ishiguro

cover of Never Let Me GoKathy is 31 years old, and for the third time her life is about to change drastically: By the end of the year she will not be a carer anymore. So, this is the perfect time to revisit and reminiscence on her life.
The first part of it she spent in the English country side, in the boarding school Hailsham, where she lived from her earliest childhood. There she is one corner of a triangle of friendship comprising also Ruth and Tommy. While Kathy is the most reserved one, Ruth is outspoken and bold and Tommy struggles violently with his lack of creativity.
When school ends the three of them are sent to the “cottages”, an old farm a group of former students from different schools have to maintain. It is kind of intermediate station on the way to adulthood, which Kathy must leave first, leaving Ruth and Tommy, now a couple, behind.
Only years later, when Tommy and Ruth have both become donors, the three see each other again and together they try to at least delay the inevitable…

I struggled whether I should post this book as Japanese literature, since Kazuo Ishiguro, although born in Nagasaki in 1958, moved to England when he was five and is now a British citizen. Also, the book itself does not have anything to do with Japan: It is set in the English country side, and we follow typical British kids coming of age in a Western world.

And still, in the way many things about this dystopian world are always present but hardly mentioned, the writing is highly influenced by Japanese culture, where everybody is supposed to know things that remain ever unspoken. At the denouement in the end, when everything falls into place and yet no real explanation is given, you feel like a part of Ishiguro’s world. And even a Japanese friend of mine says that of the modern writers, his style is probably the most Japanese of all of them.

So, judge for yourself and check this book out on amazon.com or amazon.co.uk.

Genji Monogatari

The Tale of Genji
Murasaki Shikibu

cover of "The Tale of Genji"He is the son of the emperor’s favourite concubine. As such, he is too far down in the line of succession to every ascend to the throne, so his father removes him completely by making him a commoner and bestowing the name “Genji” onto him. Genji is nevertheless raised in the palace and is almost unanimously loved at court. Growing up, he shows many talents in writing poetry, calligraphy, music, and in charming women of all ranks. His numerous conquests get him banned from court twice. Twice does he have to settle in a remote area, twice even there women fall for his charms, and twice is he reinstated at court after a while. Genji is a lovable character, and although a womanizer, he always takes care of his lovers in one way or the other, even after the end of their relationship. Only the lady Murasaki (meaning purple) can capture his affections throughout her life, and Genji is heartbroken at her death and dies soon afterwards.

Genji Monogatari can be called a biography of a Japanese courtier of the 10th century. Although fictional, it depicts court life in great detail: its intricate politeness (never use personal names), its unbelievable etiquette (unrelated men and women are always separated by screens), and its numerous festivals and ceremonies. The Tale of Genji is considered the earliest and finest example of Japanese literature.

The book was written by a lady-in-waiting of the Heian court in Kyoto. Not much is certain about her, not even her real name, so she is named after the main female character in the book, Murasaki Shikibu.

I found Genji Monogatari a worthwhile book, but rather difficult to read, it took me about three months. There is not much going on, it is a biography after all, but the immense number of characters, most of which are never referred to by name, but rather by their ever changing ranks at court, makes the story difficult to follow at times. I have read the unabridged translation by Royall Tyler from 2001 containing lots of footnotes that help understanding the implicit intricacies of the time, but sometimes you still have to remind yourself that the conversation recorded could not have taken place like this, but was conducted either in written letters or with servants as go-betweens.

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