The Autobiography of Tokyo

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The Autobiography of Tokyo
Author: Hikaru Okuizumi
Specifications: ISBN  978-4087715590
423 pages
13.8 x 19.5 cm / 5.5 x 7.8 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Shueisha Inc.
Tokyo, 2014
Awards: Tanizaki Jun'ichiro Prize, 2014
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A spirit that resides in the land on which Tokyo is built offers an autobiographical account of the city and its history from 1845, when it was the seat of the Tokugawa shogunate, until 2011, the year Japan was hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami.

The spirit takes possession of six different people whose lives overlap across the span of more than a century and a half, and narrates in each of their voices by turns. The conceit is, in a way, a reversal of dissociative identity disorder, in which multiple personalities reside in a single body. In this case, a single personality occupies multiple bodies?at some times simultaneously. In an incident involving shady money following World War II, for example, businessman Mitsuhiro Tomonari witnesses the yakuza Daigo Sone assassinate former army top brass Haruhiko Sakaki, and all three men are inhabited by the autobiographical spirit. It also takes possession of non-human creatures such as cats and mice, and even earthworms.

The story of Japan’s capital city told by this first-person autobiographer “I” is in effect a history of modern Japan as a whole. The first narrator, Sachio Kakizaki, was born into a samurai family. Serving in the shogun’s guard among other positions, he manages to survive the turmoil leading to the fall of military rule, then gives up his sword to become an officer of the new civilian government established after the Meiji Restoration. The second narrator is Sakaki, in whose time the newly constituted Japan undergoes a rapid modernization. As an actor working at times in the open and at times behind the scenes, “I” brings much to light about the dark side of modern Japanese history.

Sakaki enrolls in Army Cadet School for the simple reason that he likes Tokyo and wants to remain there, and ultimately becomes an elite army officer closely involved in the planning of numerous reckless military adventures before and during World War II. The third narrator is Sone, who makes a fortune on the black market as Japan rebuilds after the war, but above all is feared as an unflinching killer. Tomonari, the fourth narrator, puts his best face to the world as an upright businessman, but in the shadows operates as a political fixer who bends politicians with money. The fifth narrator is Midori Tobe, a woman who dances her way extravagantly through the height of Japan’s bubble economy only to tumble into poverty and become addicted to gambling. And finally, the sixth narrator, Kiyoshi Gōhara, is a temporary worker at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant following the triple disaster of March 2011.

“I am the perpetrator of every historical event,” declares the narrator, who recalls major disasters?the Great Earthquake, conflagrations, the eruption of Mount Fuji, etc.?with a clarity and fondness that are central to the work. Irresponsible, arbitrary, cruel, and living by the credo of “what will be will be,” “I” really wishes to see the city of Tokyo in ruins. It is a most unusual book, one in which the lighthearted wit of the narration will bring a distinct chill to readers’ spines.