A novel in which a young man who lives on the outskirts of Tokyo and has no stable job traces his roots back over a hundred years and gains a new perspective on his life and identity. Playing a key role in this genealogical mystery is the versatile soybean, which has been a staple of the human diet for over 5,000 years as the source of soy sauce, miso paste, tofu and more.
Yōichirō Hara, 27, graduated from one of the top national universities with a BS and landed a position with an IT firm, but after a year and a half of struggling to keep up with the grueling demands of the job, threw in the towel and resigned. He has been eking out a living with short-term contract work and by partnering with several of his friends to develop game software. His father Kazufumi died 20 years ago, after which his mother Junko found work with an apparel company, where she has risen to be an upper level manager and is now on long-term assignment in China.
At the end of August 2015, Yōichirō receives a letter from the Japanese branch of Soyysoya, a major multinational distributor of grain and other agricultural commodities headquartered in São Paulo, Brazil. It explains that the company’s former CEO, Kōichirō Hara, has died in Paraguay, where the company got its start trading in soybeans, and his last will designates Yōichirō as a trustee of his estate. It is Kōichirō’s wish that his eldest son take over management of the company, but for his personal fortune he has designated a group of five trustees, including his wife and eldest son. Last on the list of trustees is “the direct heir to the Hara family with roots in Iwate Prefecture, Japan.” The Soyysoya employee tasked with tracking down the designated person has concluded that Kōichirō’s father and company founder Yoshihiko Hara (1905?88) was most likely the same person as Shirō Hara, the fourth son of a large landowner in the mountains of Iwate, whose eldest son was Yōichirō’s great-grandfather.
Yōichirō is asked to be present at the formal reading of the will in Paraguay. But there remains some question as to whether Shirō was in fact Yoshihiko. As Yōichirō debates what to do, he is given a check for 1 million yen to cover any expenses he may incur in investigating the matter, and he is promised an additional 50 million yen if he makes the trip. He feels virtually no personal connection to Iwate?his only memory of the prefecture being from when he attended his father’s funeral there as a small child. Is the self-made man named Yoshihiko who built his fortune growing and distributing soybeans really his ancestor? Why have all official records relating to Shirō disappeared? And so his genealogical adventure begins.
Although he has very few leads from which to start, over the next three months or so Yōichirō manages to reconstruct a picture of Shirō’s life. Having shown himself to be highly intelligent in school, Shirō matriculated at a top national university. But out of sympathy for northern farmers impoverished by repeated crop failures, he wrote a paper calling for the independence of the Tōhoku region, and this led him not only to be marked as a thought criminal by the police, but to be expelled from school and disowned by his family. Cast out on his own, Shirō showed his flair for business, picking up on the soybean trade in Manchuria, then under Japanese colonial rule, and taking what he learned there to South America. Yōichirō briefly sees this as part of Shirō’s idealistic vision of people cultivating crops and the land yielding bountiful harvests, all leading to world peace. But soon he begins to view things in a darker light, suspecting that Shirō wanted to corner the soybean market and secure a monopoly on their distribution in order to gain revenge on his homeland by capitalizing on its lack of self-sufficiency in food. From this realization and from being spurned by an unrequited love, Yōichirō spirals downward into a severe case of anorexia.
In the course of the narrative, author Shin Segawa taps into a host of historical and social phenomena and explores their effects: the history of the downtrodden Tōhoku region, the modernization of Japan, postwar reconstruction and development, the rapid globalization of the economy, the liberalization of agricultural trade, and the Japanese video game industry. Even knowing that this is a work of fiction, readers cannot help but be caught up in its grand panorama of history, and there is never a dull moment. The tale has a sweeping power akin to that of Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.