Working the Earth

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Working the Earth
Author: Kaoru Takamura
Specifications: ISBN  978-4103784098
248 pages
14.0 x 19.8 cm / 5.6 x 7.9 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Shinchosha Publishing Co., Ltd.
Tokyo, 2016
Awards: Osaragi Jirō Prize, 2017
Noma Prize for Literature, 2017
Volumes: Vol. 1-2
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Volume Titles ISBN Pages Year
1 Part 1 978-4103784098 248 2016
2 Part 2 978-4103784104 251 2016
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While firmly rooted in realism, this story of an elderly man who continues to work the family farm in his isolated mountain hamlet after the death of his wife evokes between its lines the aesthetic of yūgen—a profound, mysterious sense of beauty, and of the uncertainties of existence—which has its roots in the classical Japanese poetic tradition and Noh drama.

The events of the story take place between June 2010 and August 2011 in a small village called Ōuda Urushigawara, situated in the mountains outside the ancient capital of Nara, the seat of the imperial court prior to its move to Heian-kyō—today’s Kyoto—in 794. The region is dotted with historical sites going all the way back to Japan’s founding myths. The village is now populated almost entirely by the elderly; the central character is the recently widowed Isao, 72. In his youth he married Akiyo Uetani, the eldest daughter of a prominent local family, thus becoming the adopted heir to the Uetani family headship.

Akiyo died in January of the year in which the narrative begins, 16 years after being left in a near vegetative state when she was run over by a dump truck from a dam construction project. Isao cared for her at home during her final decline. Nearly six months later, he still wakes up each morning thinking the first thing he needs to do is change her diaper, and it is only after some time has passed that he remembers she is dead. Although he is not yet aware of it, there are signs that he has begun to suffer from mild dementia.

Isao grew up in a Tokyo suburb and majored in geology in college before joining a major appliance manufacturer with a factory in the Nara area. As was typical for men of his generation, he spent his entire career working for a single company. Upon retirement, he took over the farm work his wife had been doing until then on the lands passed down through the generations of the Uetani family, styling himself a “quick-study farmer” as he carried on longstanding ancestral traditions. He now works the rice paddies and vegetable and tea fields day after day, rejoicing in the weather one day, worrying about it the next. The tea fields are more or less a hobby, but the rice crop is closely tied into the annual cycles of the village, from planting through harvest and beyond, and he cannot help but fret about its progress. He does take care, however, to keep things within bounds that he can manage on his own. With a pension and social security to live on, he does not need to sell his crops for income, and he has no difficulty producing enough for his own consumption and neighborly sharing. There are only a few events of note: Isao’s brother dies; the husband of Akiyo’s younger sister Hisayo dies; and for the first time in a long time, a young woman gives birth in the village—to twin girls. Otherwise the narrative follows Isao’s labors with the flavor of a farmer’s log, meticulously documenting how he grapples each day with the soil and with nature’s cycles almost as if running science experiments.

And yet author Kaoru Takamura has also woven several highly engaging lines of development into the largely uneventful fabric of the narrative.

One of these involves the true circumstances of Akiyo’s death. The Uetani family has been matrilineal for many generations, with Akiyo’s mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all marrying men who were adopted as heirs and took the Uetani name upon marriage. The women of the family have not given birth to a male heir in over a century. Continuing the pattern, Isao and Akiyo have only a single daughter, Yōko, who went away to a top private university in Tokyo and has kept her distance ever since. Yōko continued her studies in the United States, where she met and married a fellow Japanese student and gave birth to a daughter, Ayako, before getting divorced. This means that the Uetani family will come to an end when Isao dies, and this fact asserts itself as an underlying concern in all that is revealed about the family in the course of the narrative. The Uetani women have all been highly sexed, generation after generation. Akiyo, too, cheats on Isao. When Isao becomes aware of it, he looks the other way—though other villagers and Yōko already know about the affair. To the villagers, Isao remains an outsider and a cuckold. Only at the very end of the story does he realize that Akiyo’s accident was in fact a suicide attempt—quite likely prompted by the knowledge that her affair had become known to him (though this is never explicitly stated).

Another key line of development centers on the triple disaster that struck Japan’s Pacific coast in March 2011, beginning with a massive earthquake and tsunami and leading to major nuclear reactor meltdowns in the days that followed. One might not expect a small village in Nara to be affected by events in faraway Fukushima, but that proves not to be the case. Yōko, who has found work in New York and moved there with her now high-school-aged daughter, repeatedly urges Isao to leave Japan with all due haste. A family forced to evacuate from their home following the release of radiation from the stricken nuclear power plant moves to the village, only to have their daughter become the victim of murder. Isao knew the victim from having spoken to her and had even seen the small van driven by the suspect, but his memory fails him due to dementia. At the urging of his neighbors, he checks into a hospital for tests and is found to have suffered a minor brain infarction.

In the shocking conclusion, a powerful typhoon comes ashore on August 24, 2011, and the village suffers extensive damage from deep-seated landslides and debris flows. Indications are that Isao and his sister-in-law Hisayo, now living virtually as husband and wife, have died. The intent seems to be that Isao has been taken without any forewarning or awareness and returned to the earth.

Presenting a microcosm of contemporary Japan as a whole, with its rapidly aging population, this work is at the same time a significant achievement among novels that portray post-disaster Japan. An author long established as one of Japan’s foremost writers of entertainment fiction here makes her claim to being a serious literary novelist as well in what is sure to be regarded as one of her most important works to date.