Japan Sinks

Japan Sinks
Sakyo Komatsu

Cover to Japan SinksIn a single night, a tiny, unnamed island of Japan sinks into the ocean and disappears forever. Nearby, long dormant volcanoes erupt again, one by one, And an inspection of the ocean’s floor at a depth of some 10.000 metres discovers signs of strange, almost inexplicable phenomena. Only Prof. Tadokoro has an idea of what’s going on: Japan – every last one of its islands – will sink into the ocean, destroyed by the same force that once has created it by splitting it off Asia. When evidence mounts that Day X is not more than two years away, there begins a frantic struggle of scientists and the government to make sure the nation of Japan and its people have some way of surviving.

This book does not dwell on the disastrous effects of almost constant earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on the Japanese citizens, but a sense of terror and urgency is conveyed throughout. We follow a few scientists and politicians in producing evacuation plans, fully understanding that the death toll will rise to the hundreds of thousands, regardless. Another touching scene is a secret meeting with the Australian prime minister, who is presented with a priceless, 800 year old artifact while being asked to consider accepting one million Japanese refugees. “Our shrines and temples are full of such statues”, says the negotiator.

Even though the book was written back in 1973, it does not show its age. Written in a realistic manner without sensationalist effects, it brings up a number of timeless, interesting questions: What is a “nation” and how important is the actual land on which it was founded? What are the indispensable parts of a culture and how many – and which – artifacts should you try to save facing certain destruction? And how many people are required in one spot to make sure said culture is not doomed altogether?

Sakyo Komatsu (1931 – 2011) was a Japanese screenwriter and considered one of the Japanese masters of science fiction. Born in Osaka, he studied Italian literature at Kyoto University and worked at a number of different jobs afterwards. His career as fiction writer started in 1960, and he published Japan Sinks in 1973 after nine years of writing. The book received the Mystery Writers of Japan Award and the Seiun Award, and was subsequently turned into a movie and a television series.

A wonderful and timeless book, available on amazon.

Death by Water

Death by Water
Kenzaburo Oe

cover of death by waterKogito Choko, renowned Japanese writer with dozens of literary awards to his name (including the Nobel Prize) is suffering from writer’s block. Suddenly his sister calls, offering him access to an old red trunk that is known to hold documents and letters of their father, who drowned when Kogito was a small boy. Excited to finally be able to finish the “Drowning Novel” about his father that he had begun decades earlier (to the dismay of his mother), Kogito decides to visit their old family home in Shikoku and to write what he believes will be his final novel – and his masterpiece.

This is only the second book I read by Oe, famed Japanese Nobel prize winner, and I am not sure what to make of it. The disappointment starts when the red trunk turns out to be devoid of anything useful – his mother had destroyed every important letter before her own death. Then, there are seemingly endless stretches of conversations with or about the members of a theatre group that was planning to stage all of Choko’s novels, culminating in the last one, an endeavour which, obviously, isn’t going anywhere either. Only at the end, with the reappearance of an old family friend, does the novel gain some traction, but there was a lot of paper until then…

There is an interesting line in the book where the author’s mother accuses him of not having any fantasy, only imagination, which is supposedly always based in reality. And the book does feel very autobiographical, but many other things are unrealistic: Would you leave your house to a woman whom you barely know, instead of to any of your own children? Anyway, while I didn’t particularly like this book, I am still curious about the author, and I will see if I can read more of his novels.

Kenzaburo Oe was born in 1935 in Shikoku, and started to study French literature when he was 19. His first stories were published in 1957, heavily influenced by contemporary French and American literature. Oe has been political from his early beginnings as a writer, for example, he has written about Hiroshima’s a-bomb victims, the atrocities of the Japanese military on Okinawa; currently he is very active in the anti-nuclear movement in Japan. His first literary prize was the Akutagawa prize in 1958, and in 1994 he received the Nobel Prize for literature.

South of the Border, West of the Sun

South of the Border, West of the Sun
Haruki Murakami

Cover South of the Border, West of the Sun12-year-old Hajime lives in the typical middle class suburbs of a typical post-war Japanese town, in a typical family among other, typical Japanese families. However, in a world where everybody seems to have brothers and sisters, he is an only child. In elementary school, the only friend he has is Shimamoto, new in town, whose father’s job requires her family to move frequently. Soon, the two develop a special bond, based on the fact that both are only children; but despite their attachment they lose touch when Hajime’s family moves.

25 years later, Hajime is a successful businessman in Tokyo, who loves his wife and adores his two daughters. But then, on a rainy night, Shimamoto appears in his Jazz bar, strikingly beautiful, rich, and surrounded by a mysterious air. The two rekindle their friendship, almost as had there been no interruption, and finally, Shimamoto tells him “You take either all of me or nothing”, and Hajime has to choose between his soul mate and the life he got so used to.

The story follows Hajime – whose name means “beginning” – through many of the beginnings in his life, but his love for Shimamoto is ever-present. In the preface of the book, it was mentioned that Haruki Murakami owned a Jazz bar in Tokyo at some time before he became a famous writer, and I cannot help wondering how much of his own life we can read in this book.

Haruki Murakami is probably the best known contemporary Japanese author. His first novel appeared in 1979, and “Norwegian Wood”, published in 1987, lead to international recognition and fame. He has also written several non-fiction books, for example “Underground” on the Tokyo gas attacks or “What I talk about when I talk about running” about his experiences as a marathon runner.

A book about love and middle age, and the choices we need to make. Available from amazon.

No One’s Perfect

No One’s Perfect
Hirotada Ototake

Cover of No One's PerfectIn Japan, everything has to be just perfect, so there are rules for everything: How deep to bow, how to answer the phone, how to dress, in short, how to live. Everything has to be just so, and not any other way, and if you dare to be different, you practically make yourself an outcast.

Hiro is most certainly not perfect. He was born with tetra-amelia syndrome, a gene-defect that left him without arms and legs. But he is no outcast. The first thing his mother says to him when she first sees him – three weeks after his birth and hitherto unaware of his condition – is “He’s adorable”, and Hiro takes it from there.

He visits normal schools and tries to do what other kids do, and his favourite subject is PE, where he signs up for basket ball, runs laps, and takes part in the sport meetings like all the other kids. He is always outspoken about what he wants and often ends up as the leader of various groups. Only when at university, he decides to do what no one else can do: campaign for a barrier-free world. And this is what he is still doing today.

Hirotada Ototake was born in 1976 in Japan, only one of seven people worldwide with tetra-amelia syndrome. Throughout his life he insisted on leading a normal life as much as possible despite his handicap. He worked as a schoolteacher, TV presenter, speaker, writer, and presently lives in Tokyo.

This book is a fascinating read, because Hiro focuses on what he can do instead of what he cannot do. It is very uplifting to see him so determined, so positive throughout his life. Only a single chapter of the book deals with the difficulties he must be facing every single day, like not having wheelchair access, or not being able to buy a coffee from a vending machine. But he seems to take all this in his stride, and when you read the book you have the impression he lives a life as perfect as can be…

A very inspiring and uplifting book, available on Amazon.


Fumiko EnchiBook cover of Masks

Yasuko Togano has lost her husband Akio in an avalanche on Mount Fuji several years ago. Nevertheless, she has decided to stay with her mother in law Mieko, and also to finish Akio’s work on ghost possession. This work is her link to the friends Ibuki and Mikame, who both are in love with the attractive Yasuko, despite the fact that Ibuki has a wife and daughter.

Mieko Togano is a renowned poet, and although she tries to remain out of sight, it is in fact she who pulls all the strings. She is the hidden force when Yasuko starts an affair with Ibuki, and when Harume, the strikingly beautiful but mentally handicapped twin sister of Akio gets caught up in things, Mieko will do anything to see her long harboured plans bear fruit.

Mieko, although only prominent in the last third of the novel, is the main character, the driving force behind everything. She, who has lost everything and tries to regain a small piece of it, is not above sacrificing her own family.

This was a fascinating read about the strength of women. When Ibuki and Mikame muse about Mieko’s being a witch, possibly able to control other people with her mind, they make an interesting statement: The misogyny found in Buddhism and Christianity was simply a way for men to control that inner strength of women, which they always feared, but never understood…

Fumiko Enchi (1905 – 1986) was born in Tokyo. She was home-schooled and was taught English, French, and Chinese literature; through her grandmother she got to know the classics of Japanese literature. She is one of the most prominent Japanese writers of the Showa period.a

A fascinating book – get your copy from Amazon!


Ryu Murakami

cover of Audition by Ryu MurakamiIt’s been six years since Ryoko’s death, but Aoyama is not even dreaming of dating, lest marrying again. Only when his teenage son, Shige, starts urging him to find a new wife, is he willing to give it a try.

When Aoyama tells his friend Yoshikawa about his plans, film director Yoshikawa is all ears and sets up an audition to find his friend not just any, but the perfect wife. The whole scheme is skillfully disguised as the well-publicized search for the main female character in an upcoming movie. Of the thousands of applicants, young Asami captures Aoyama’s heart at first sight, and they soon begin dating, despite Yoshikawa’s warnings, who feels that there is something wrong about her.

And indeed, at first, everything seems perfect, but how far is Asami – in her desire for love, undivided one, that is – willing to go?

I have read a few of Ryu Murakami’s novels, and this one is an easy introduction to his works. The book starts out with a desperate man trying to find love again – and succeeding quickly, to his great delight. Soon, however, a feeling of danger is creeping into the story, and the finale – very typical for Ryu Murakami – is drowning in blood…

Ryu Murakami is the enfant terrible of Japanese authors. Born in 1952, he started his artistic career as a member of a number of bands, before he moved on to film and writing books. His first book was written when he was still in highschool, immediately winning him the acclaimed Akutagawa Prize for fiction. Most of his works center around the dark side of humanity, they describe sex, violence, drug use, and the abysses of the human soul in general very graphically, and are not for the faint of heart.

Get this book from amazon – if you dare!

An Artist of the Floating World

An Artist of the Floating World
Kazuo Ishiguro

cover of artist of the floating worldIt’s just after WWII and Masuji Ono, a celebrated painter, is in the middle of marriage negotiations for his daughter Noriko. The procedures disrupt his quiet retiree life full with gardening, making house repairs and drinking with old friends in the local pleasure district – now all but abandoned. To secure a positive outcome for his daughter, Masuji is forced to revisit his past – both figuratively and literally in the form of old acquaintances from before the war, and not all of this is as pleasant as he might have wished.

We follow Masuji Ono from 1948 to 1950, in which Japan makes a rapid jump towards industrialisation, American style. While Masuji is more and more ready to accept responsibility for his past actions of glorifying the war through his art, it appears that the views of his surroundings take the opposite direction, as they are striving to let go of the past and look toward the future.

WWII is still a sensitive topic in Japan, and not readily talked about. Also in school, many parts of the war that are less than pretty are left out deliberately or are heavily censored and sanitised. I found Ishiguro’s view from the outside in – as an Englishman with Japanese roots – very interesting and enlightening.

Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Nagasaki in 1954, but living in England since age 5, has just been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. Even though he never lived in Japan, his books have definitely a Japanese feel to them, with his many allusions and implications that are directed at the insider. Many of his novels come with a shocking twist somewhere, that hit the reader – the outsider – with a harsh surprise.

Try out this – or other novels by Ishiguro – on amazon.com.

The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki

The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage
Haruki Murakami

Cover of Colorless Tsukuru TazakiTsukuru Tazaki is an engineer in Tokyo who is living his dream: building railway stations. Recently he started to see Sara, a travel agent, and as they get closer, Tsukuru opens up and tells her a secret: 16 years ago, when he was a student in Tokyo, the tight-knit group of friends he belonged to in highschool abruptly and without explanation cut off all ties to him. Sara urges him to find closure, and he agrees to visit his four friends in Nagoya and get to the bottom of the issue. Tsukuru returns to his old world of friendship, dominated by unwritten obligations to protect the weakest member under all circumstances…

The novel’s title is an allusion to the names of the five friends: All except Tsukuru’s last name contain a color: red, blue, white, black. Haruki Murakami draws an image of deep friendship among the five highschool students which is destroyed forever on outcasting one of them, who, for lack of understanding, is himself reduced to utter despair that lasts for years.

When I first read this novel, I found it incomprehensible how the four “color” people could ditch Tsukuru from one day to the other without explanation, without talking to him, without apparent remorse. Now that I lived in Japan for longer, I can see that this is a very standard Japanese pattern. It is done to protect the harmony of the group, which is paramount in Japanese society and thinking. And sometimes, it’s not the “guilty” person who has to leave, it is somebody else. Been there, had that done to me…

Haruki Murakami is probably the best known contemporary Japanese author. Born in Kyoto in 1949, he studied drama in Tokyo and became the owner of a Jazz bar. At age 29, he started writing, and since has become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide. Even though many Japanese critics don’t like his work because they see it as “too Western”, he has won many prizes in Japan as well as abroad.

Interesting book – check it out on amazon.

The Hunting Gun

The Hunting Gun
Yasushi Inoue

Hunting Gun CoverA man who calls himself Josuke Misugi recognizes himself as the figure described in a poem published in a hunting magazine. He writes to the poet and sends him three letters he had received from the three most important women in his life.

Saiko, Josuke’s wife, found out the identity of his long-term lover, and now wants a divorce. In a matter-of-fact way she not only tells him what she has chosen from their property, but also that she had been unfaithful as well for years.
Midori, Josuke’s lover and cousin of Saiko, has been sick for a long time. When Saiko finds out about the affair with her husband, Midori is ready to put a long intended plan into action. She writes a last letter to Josuke and then poisons herself.
Shoko, Midori’s daughter, finds her mother’s diary and is shocked to learn about the affair. Finding it hard to deal with it, she decides to end all contact with both Josuke and Midori.

The three letters tell the story of not only the three women’s, but also of Josuke’s life, and the only things we hear about him are seen from their perspective. The main themes of the novel are love and loneliness, and how the former may lead to the latter.

Of all the four people involved, I mostly felt for Shoko. Finding her mother’s diary and seeing how she had suffered emotionally for so long, almost leads to Shoko’s own breakdown. Shoko’s letter feels the most distressing of the three, her new and thus still raw feelings are expressed beautifully and perfectly by the author.

Yasushi Inoue (1907 – 1991) was born in Hokkaido and studied history and art at Kyoto University. He started writing very late, and his first short stories were published in 1949; they won him the Akutagawa Prize one year later. In the 40 years until his death, he was one of the most prolific writers of Japan, he published many short stories, but also full size novels. He is most famous for his accurate historical fiction and is still one of the most read Japanese authors in Germany.

Check the book out on amazon.

Barefoot Gen

Barefoot Gen (A manga)
Keiji Nakazawa

Cover of the first volume of "Barefoot Gen"Gen Nakaoka is a boy from Hiroshima. He is six years old and goes to school where he has friends – and foes, of course. Gen is a normal but a bit mischievous boy and sometimes gets himself and his poor parents in trouble. Following Gen and his family through the early summer, this could be a nice kid’s book.

But it isn’t. It is the summer of 1945, and the Japanese troops fight all over the Pacific islands. Gen is excited about the war efforts – other than his father – and he cheers when his big brother goes off to join the Navy – other than his father.

And then, on August 6, 1945, the US air force drops an Atomic Bomb onto Hiroshima. Thousands are killed in an instant, and although Gen and his mother survive, they cannot save his father and younger siblings, who are trapped beneath their house and die in the subsequent fire. From there, we follow Gen, his mother and his baby sister, born only hours after the bomb fell, through Hiroshima where they meet other survivors who just try to figure out what’s next…

Barefoot Gen is a series of manga that describe – in a very graphic way – the life of an average Japanese family until the atomic bomb attack and the horrifying aftermath including the American occupation until about 1947. First published as magazine serial from 1973, Barefoot Gen was published in book form from 1975. There are 10 volumes altogether.

Keiji Nakazawa, manga artist and writer, was born in Hiroshima in 1939 and survived the atomic bomb attack together with his mother. He moved to Tokyo in 1961, and started to write about his experiences in Hiroshima after the death of his mother in 1966. Barefoot Gen is considered his masterpiece; it was turned into animated as well as live action movies and was translated into many languages. Nakazawa died in 2012 from metastasized lung cancer.

Check out the book – or better, the whole series – from amazon.