Tuesday, 06 February 2018 13:24

Site update

Books from Japan was updated on February 6, 2018, adding synopses for 3 works of fiction, 1 of nonfiction, 2 of other categories, and 3 children & YA titles. (Italicized English titles are those of finished translations; others are tentative titles.)

■ Arimasa Ōsawa, Fukumen sakka
(Nom de Plume)

■ Takeshi Shiota, Tsumi no koe
(The Voice in the Crime)

■ Kaoru Takamura, Tsuchi no ki
(Working the Earth)

■ Hiromi Tsuchida, Fukushima 2011–2017
(Fukushima 2011–2017)

Other Categories
■ Takeshi Furukawa, Manga de wakaru: Tsuzukeru shūkan
(Harness the Power of Habit: Change Your Life in 30 Days!)

■ Yūchiku Rinoie, Un ga yokunaru fūsui shūnō & seiri jutsu
(The Golden Principles of Feng Shui Life: How to Declutter and Organize Your Home)

Children & YA
■ Makura Abukawa, Padoru no ko
(Puddle Child)

■ Yōko Asahina, Watashi no nigate na ano ko
(She Was Difficult for Me)

■ Naoya Shiino, Boku wa jōzu ni shaberenai
(I Can’t Talk So Smoothly)

Friday, 02 February 2018 15:35

Japan’s best-selling fiction of 2017

The ten best-selling works of fiction* in Japan from November 26, 2016 through November 25, 2017 were:

1. Mitsubachi to enrai (Honeybees and Distant Thunder)
by Riku Onda (Gentosha, 2016) ISBN 978-4344030039
A Grand Hotel–style novel portraying the young prodigies and virtuosos who battle it out for top honors at a fictitious international piano competition that takes place every three years in a regional Japanese city. The work drew attention for its marketing claims of “12 years in the making, with 11 years of research and 7 years of writing,” and went on to become the first title ever to win both the Naoki Prize and the Booksellers Award, propelling it to an uncontested first place in the annual bestseller rankings. A tour de force that stands as the author’s supreme achievement to date.
2. Kishidanchō goroshi (Killing Commendatore)
by Haruki Murakami (Shinchosha, 2017) ISBN 978-4103534327 (Vol. 1: “Emerging Idea”), 978-4103534334 (Vol. 2: “Changing Metaphor”)
This is the first new novel in four years for the internationally acclaimed best-selling author. The first-person narrator is a 36-year-old portrait artist whose wife suddenly asks for a divorce. After a period of drifting, the narrator finds his way to a studio cum residence built in the mountains outside Tokyo by a well-known nihonga painter, the late Tomohiko Amada, who was the father of a friend. There he discovers an unfinished painting titled Kishidanchō goroshi . . . 

3. Kōhī ga samenai uchi ni (Before the Coffee Gets Cold)
by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (Sanmaku Shuppan, 2015) ISBN 978-4763135070
This collection of four stories by a playwright making his fiction debut has sold over 580,000 copies. When you sit at a certain table in the coffee shop Funiculì Funiculà, you can travel back in time to any point you choose in the past—but only for as long as your coffee is still warm. Four stirring miracles take place in this special shop. The sequel Kono uso ga barenai uchi ni (Before the Lies are Revealed) has also been a hit with readers, with over 140,000 copies in print.

4. Kimi no suizō o tabetai (I Want to Eat Your Pancreas)
by Yoru Sumino (Futabasha, 2015) ISBN 978-4575239058
After topping the 2016 bestseller rankings with this debut work, the author has continued to launch one new hit after another in short order (see below). The book started out as an upload to the self-publishing site Shōsetsuka ni narō (Become a Novelist) before being picked up by a publisher and turned into a sensation, with over 800,000 copies now in print. It was runner-up in the annual Booksellers Award balloting for 2016, was adapted to a live action film in 2017 with an animated film in the works for 2018, has been reissued in paperback, and continues its juggernaut-like run. A socially awkward high-school boy and the most popular girl in his class find a connection, and in the course of events, an indissoluble bond develops between them.

5. Gekijō (Theater)
by Naoki Matayoshi (Shinchosha, 2017) ISBN 978-4103509516
The much-anticipated second work by a popular comedian who made his fiction debut in 2015 with Hibana (Sparks), a megahit that sold more than 2.5 million copies. A young playwright yet to be recognized for his talent, who barely eats and can’t make a living, meets a woman who falls in love with him and labors to support him. In classic boy-meets-girl style, the story follows the two from their initial encounter to their ultimate parting. The author continues to delve deeply into the nature of the performing artist’s life.

6. Ka ku shi go to (S-e-c-r-e-t-s)
by Yoru Sumino (Shinchosha, 2017) ISBN 978-4103508311
This fourth work by the best-selling author of Kimi no suizō o tabetai (#4 above) centers on five high-school classmates—three girls and two boys—each of whom has a special ability to “read” just a little of the inner thoughts and feelings of their counterparts. The work has struck a chord for the way it picks up on subtle movements of the adolescent heart.

7. Konbini ningen (Convenience Store Woman)
by Sayaka Murata (Bungeishunju, 2016) ISBN 978-4163906188
Winner of the Akutagawa Prize for the first half of 2016. Numerous media appearances in which the author talked about her own experiences paralleling those of the protagonist stoked public interest in this story about a woman who has held onto the same part-time convenience store job for 18 years, since first starting college. Having always been considered a little bit odd as she grew up, the woman finds both comfort and purpose in the clearly prescribed interactions of her job as a clerk, and the store becomes her own personal “door to the world.” The work presents a vivid slice of contemporary Japan through the lens of the ubiquitous convenience store.

8. Masukarēdo naito (Masquerade Night)
by Keigo Higashino (Shueisha, 2017) ISBN 978-4087754384
The third installment in the author’s Masquerade series, which has sold a combined 2.65 million copies to date. Central Tokyo hotel receptionist Yamagishi and young Tokyo Metropolitan Police detective Nitta team up to solve a knotty case. A young woman is murdered under mysterious circumstances, and the MPD receives an anonymous note claiming that the killer will attend the annual masquerade ball held on New Year’s Eve at Yamagishi’s hotel.

9. Yoru no bakemono (Night Monster)
by Yoru Sumino (Futabasha, 2016) ISBN 978-4575240078
This third work by the best-selling author of Kimi no suizō o tabetai (#4 above) has been another smash hit, repeating the success of her second work (#10 below) by surpassing the 200,000-copy mark. The narrator, a middle-school boy, at night turns into a monster with six legs, eight eyes, and a body covered with black bumps. When classmate Satsuki comes upon this monster in their classroom one night, she recognizes who it is and accepts him. As it happens, Satsuki is being bullied in the class . . .

10. Mata, onaji yume o miteita (I Had the Same Dream Again)
by Yoru Sumino (Futabasha, 2016) ISBN 978-4575239454
This second work by the best-selling author of Kimi no suizō o tabetai (#4 above) became another big hit and continues to sell well, with over 200,000 copies now in print. The story centers on a girl who has no friends at school but has three perfectly good friends and a beloved cat away from school. It traces her formative years and her search for happiness with heartwarming detail. What is happiness? she asks, and her efforts to find the answer resonate.

* As reported by Japan’s largest book distributor, Tohan Corporation

Thursday, 01 February 2018 14:09

Fukushima 2011–2017

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake struck northeastern Japan, triggering an accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, only 260 kilometers north of Tokyo, that was comparable to the Chernobyl disaster. Thousands of people were forced to evacuate, and their communities were declared unsafe for habitation. This book introduces a series of fixed-point photographs taken by Hiromi Tsuchida in radiation-contaminated areas of Fukushima Prefecture. Tsuchida is known worldwide for his work tracing the postwar changes in Hiroshima, a city destroyed by another form of the same nuclear energy that has devastated Fukushima.

The contaminated zones of Fukushima were inhabited by people who had cultivated and coexisted with nature for many generations. The region is a rolling land of rice paddies, pastures, farm ponds, mountainous landscapes out of a sumi-ink painting, rivers and seacoasts rich with fish, and cherry trees that people gathered under in the spring. Still standing are the houses families used to live in, the gardens they tended, their schools, amusement parks, and shopping streets.

After the nuclear accident, people vanished from this landscape and the natural beauty of Fukushima began to undergo a transformation. The decontamination process scraped the topsoil off vast swathes of land to a uniform depth of five centimeters, along with the trees and plants growing there. Because permanent disposal sites have yet to be established, black container bags full of this waste continue to pile up throughout the area. A bizarre and complex reality persists with no resolution in sight. Tsuchida resorted to the use of drones to film this eerie landscape from above.

This photo collection is a chronicle of the breakdown of the symbiotic relationship between human beings and nature. The scenes it depicts may presage the future of a civilization that has been relentless in its pursuit of material wealth at all costs. Through these artistically stunning photographs one can hear the lament of the land they portray.

The book includes commentaries, maps, and positional data on the photographs in both English and Japanese.

Thursday, 01 February 2018 14:06

Hiromi Tsuchida

Hiromi Tsuchida (1939–) was born in Fukui Prefecture. His photographic work addresses the transformations undergone by Japan in series about Hiroshima, the economic boom and bubble eras, and local festivals and customs. His award-winning books include Autistic Space (1971 Taiyo Award), Hiroshima 1945–1978 (1978 Ina Nobuo Award), Hiroshima (1984 Photographic Society of Japan Award), and Tsuchida Hiromi’s Nippon (2008 Domon Ken Award). Major publications include Zokushin: Gods of the Earth (1976), Counting Grains of Sand (1990), Berlin (2011), and Fukushima 2011–2017 (2018). His works are found in the collections of museums worldwide, among them the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Pompidou Centre, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Tate Modern.

Thursday, 01 February 2018 13:53

Hiromi Tsuchida

Hiromi Tsuchida (1939–) was born in Fukui Prefecture. His photographic work addresses the transformations undergone by Japan in series about Hiroshima, the economic boom and bubble eras, and local festivals and customs. His award-winning books include Autistic Space (1971 Taiyo Award), Hiroshima 1945–1978 (1978 Ina Nobuo Award), Hiroshima (1984 Photographic Society of Japan Award), and Tsuchida Hiromi’s Nippon (2008 Domon Ken Award). Major publications include Zokushin: Gods of the Earth (1976), Counting Grains of Sand (1990), Berlin (2011), and Fukushima 2011–2017 (2018). His works are found in the collections of museums worldwide, among them the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Pompidou Centre, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Tate Modern.

Thursday, 01 February 2018 13:42

Misuzu Shobo, Ltd.

Thursday, 01 February 2018 13:28

I Can’t Talk So Smoothly

All through elementary school, Yūta Kashiwazaki had been the object of ridicule and unable to make friends because of his stuttering. On his first day of middle school, the teacher asks the students to introduce themselves to the class, and the pressure gets to be too much for him: he flees the room before his turn comes. But he is also determined to overcome the problem, so when he sees a membership recruitment flier for the school’s Broadcasting Club that says “Anyone can become a good speaker,” he decides to visit the group’s activity room. He learns that the club is headed by a boy in the ninth grade named Tachibana, the only continuing member, and that there is one other seventh-grader, a girl named Kaya Kobe, who has expressed an interest in joining. Yūta worries about the burden likely to fall on Kaya because his stutter will prevent him from taking the microphone, but he is ultimately persuaded by Tachibana to join.

In the classroom, Kaya makes no effort to interact with other students, but she is nice to Yūta, and he rejoices that he has finally found a friend. She even speaks up for him when others find out about his stuttering. She asks Yūta to help her with the training she’s doing to become a voice actress by reading an anime script with her, but he stumbles so much over the words that he grows increasingly frustrated. Then one day the group’s faculty advisor suggests club members should enter the upcoming city-wide speech contest, and Kaya urges Yūta to take part as well. But it also comes out that the script-reading practice was actually set up as an exercise to help Yūta conquer his stuttering. Since he has already tried various reading exercises, including reading playscripts, to no avail, this demonstration that others think they know better makes him despair of anyone ever being able to understand his pain. He turns his back on Kaya and flees. He also lashes out at his older sister when she reminds him that he needs to keep doing whatever he can to overcome his stutter.

Yūta stops going to school and shuts himself in at home, but Tachibana comes to visit and reveals that Yūta’s sister is being ostracized in the Drama Club because she refused to play a character who stutters. Tachibana also brings with him Kaya’s copy of the anime script, thinking it is Yūta’s. When Yūta discovers that Kaya has written detailed pronunciation notes in her script aimed at helping him out, he realizes that he’s been unfair in dismissing other people’s efforts to help him as “thinking they know better,” and sees that he has been running away not only from them but from himself. He changes his mind and decides to enter the contest after all. In his speech, he addresses the problem of stuttering head-on and expresses his gratitude to his friends and family for their concern. He tells the audience that he likes words for their power to comfort, and that even if the words don’t come out so smoothly he still enjoys speaking. Needless to say, he does not get through his delivery without stuttering. But he has been able to get up in front of a large crowd and express his true feelings without running away. It is a work that seeks to foster a better understanding of dysphemia.

Thursday, 01 February 2018 13:25

Naoya Shiino

Naoya Shiino (1984–) was born in Hokkaido. After graduating from a university in Sapporo and joining the working world, he continued to write on the side, and a manuscript he submitted in 2014 became a finalist for the Poplar Fiction Prize for New Writers. He made his writerly debut in 2017 when a revised version of that manuscript was published as Boku wa jōzu ni shaberenai (I Can’t Talk So Smoothly).

Thursday, 01 February 2018 13:19

She Was Difficult for Me

Mihiro is in sixth grade and still doesn’t know how to swim. She has a tendency to run away from things she dislikes or finds difficult instead of facing them head-on. The new girl in class, Risa, is smug and aloof and shows no interest in making friends. She claims to have a heart condition and always gets excused from swimming lessons in the pool. But after school one day, Mihiro finds her swimming with no apparent difficulty in the otherwise deserted pool and discovers her secret: when Risa gets out of the water, Mihiro sees terrible burn scars covering her right leg below the knee. Risa makes Mihiro promise not to tell anyone. The incident leaves Mihiro curious about Risa and wanting to get to know her better, but Risa remains chilly toward her. When their teacher tells them their summer-break assignment is to overcome a personal aversion, shortcoming, or difficulty, Mihiro decides to tackle the trouble she’s been having in befriending Risa.

There is a reason Risa changed schools: she started getting bullied after being left with burn scars on her leg. Her parents had a falling out over how to deal with the problem, and they no longer live together. Risa thinks her father considers her a loser for wanting to run away from the bullying. Hurt that even her best friends had distanced themselves, she had vowed that she would not make any friends at her new school.

During summer break, Risa goes to the park regularly. An elderly man engages her in conversation, and they get to know each other. One day she visits him at his home. To her surprise, Mihiro is there. She is the granddaughter the elderly man had said he’d like Risa to meet. With this encounter as the catalyst, the two girls gradually come to be friends, as Mihiro works to break through Risa’s defenses, and Risa is able to open herself up to someone else again for the first time since transferring schools. It is a tale of growth, offered up especially for tweenage children who struggle with feelings of inferiority or have difficulty making friends.

Thursday, 01 February 2018 11:47

Puddle Child

When his only friend Miwa moves away, eighth-grader Kōtarō Mizuno begins spending the noon hour at school by himself on what he calls “the cottage”—the landing of the stairway that leads to the roof. One day in July, with summer vacation nearing, he is at the cottage as usual when he hears the sound of a huge splash up on the roof. The door to the roof is usually kept locked, but on this day it opens easily. Kotarō steps out onto the roof to discover an astonishingly large pool of water, and in it is a girl doing the butterfly stroke. As he watches agape, she climbs gracefully out of the pool to stand before him. It is Mizuhara, the prettiest girl in school and the best swimmer on the swim team. She explains that immersing yourself in this pool of water is called “puddling,” and that if you wish really hard for something while you’re puddling, you can change just one thing in the world. Though he’s not sure whether to believe this, Mizuno dives into the water at her urging—and discovers that the world really does change. It’s a trivial thing, but he wishes for pay phones to give change for the unused time on a call, and his wish comes true. There are just eight days left before summer vacation, when the school will move into a new building and this old building is slated to be demolished, and for those eight days, Mizuno joins in the puddling.

As he puddles with Mizuhara day after day, Mizuno learns that her objective in puddling is to save Miwa’s mother, who died in a traffic accident. He realizes at the same time that Mizuhara has herself died once, and is in fact a “puddle child” who has been reborn through puddling. He also finds out that even though puddling can save some people, it harms others. More precisely, while puddling can bring into existence things that never were, it can also cause things that exist to be no more. Which is to say, the person who puddles moves into a parallel world. It also means that if puddling is no more, there is a genuine possibility that the puddle-born Mizuhara will disappear. Even so, Mizuno determines to go ahead with making it so the puddling that has harmed so many people never was. Before going through with it, he confesses his love to Mizuhara. She responds that she is sorry, but her heart belongs to Miwa. Then, when they puddle together for the last time, they make the pool of water disappear. Afterward, Mizuhara is gone, just as Mizuno had feared. Now living in a world without her, he feels a tremendous sense of loss. But as time goes by, he comes to understand Mizuhara’s true purpose, and resolves to adopt a more positive attitude toward life.

The cynical youth who exerted no effort to make friends at school, had never fallen in love, showed little enthusiasm for his studies or after-school activity groups, and generally refused to be impressed by anything, undergoes a gradual transformation after he discovers puddling. Along the way, a mystery from the school’s past is solved, and there are numerous dramatic and unexpected plot twists that will have readers wanting to read the story all over again to double-check how everything fits together. It is a heartbreakingly evocative novel of youth—a new masterpiece of the genre.

Thursday, 01 February 2018 11:39

Makura Abukawa

Makura Abukawa (1990–) was born in Miyagi Prefecture and graduated with a degree in scriptwriting from the Department of Cinema of Nihon University. He joined a game developer after graduation to work as a planner and scriptwriter, but subsequently resigned. He made his publishing debut in 2017 after winning the 2016 Poplar Fiction Prize for New Writers with the title Padoru no ko (Puddle Child).

Thursday, 01 February 2018 11:30

Nom de Plume

This is a collection of eight short stories written as first-person narratives. There are no police detectives or sleuths, no elaborate tricks. Each story is written as if author Arimasa Ōsawa has momentarily laid down his pen to chat about strange experiences in his life—in the process exposing the murky line between fact and fiction.

The narrator for all of the stories is the same, an award-winning writer who drops out of university to work his way to fame for his police mystery novels while still in his mid-twenties—an initial description, by the way, that perfectly fits Ōsawa’s own 30-year-plus career.

The title story, Nom de Plume, opens with a party at which the author finds himself seated next to Kusamochi, an editor he has known for some time. Kusamochi asks him if he is acquainted with a writer using the nom de plume Jun Kashiwagi who has won a literary award and been named a candidate for still another award for a novel published the same year as the first. Kusamochi confides that Kashiwagi is actually a beautiful woman in her forties, the widow of a famous man, and, above all, an avid fan of the author. Hearing that Kashiwagi once worked in the nightlife district and had based her novel on her experiences there, the author starts to wonder: Could she possibly be the wife of Seiichi Ebina, an old schoolmate? Ebina had been a prolific reader and the author thinks of him as a mentor, the person who got him launched on his career as a mystery writer. Just about the time the author produced his first bestseller, Ebina was being touted as the developer of top-selling game software, and the two had long since fallen out of touch. The last time they met was about a decade ago when Ebina contacted the author to tell him he had terminal cancer and was in a hospice facility. When the author pays him a visit, Ebina hands him a manuscript and asks him to read it. The next day, Ebina dies. Seemingly inspired by the author’s success, Ebina had been writing his own stories and submitting them repeatedly to be considered for literary prizes. And his writings were hard-boiled detective stories—the same genre as that of the author. Suppose, the author muses, these stories were actually co-authored by Ebina and Kashiwagi? He decides to keep Ebina’s manuscript to himself and to avoid a face-to-face meeting with Kashiwagi.

Other tales in the collection—Yūrei (Ghost), in which the author learns from a reader about a secret crime syndicate, and Kakunin (Confirmation), in which the author seeks to confirm that the killer in the story really exists—give the reader a rare glimpse into the creative process by which a mystery writer decides whether or not to weave actual facts into the fabric of a fictional story. Ōsawa still writes out his stories in longhand and this particular collection of his work reveals fascinating vignettes of his lifestyle and musings.

Thursday, 01 February 2018 11:22

The Voice in the Crime

This suspense novel follows two characters—an unwitting accomplice in crime and a newspaper reporter—as they pursue an unsolved mystery modeled on a real-life incident that gripped Japan from 1984 into the following year. In that affair, popularly known as Glico-Morinaga, a ring of culprits kidnapped the president of sweets manufacturer Ezaki Glico for ransom and went on to blackmail a succession of food companies, sweeping up the entire nation in fearful fascination of their brazen and highly theatrical tactics, such as placing cyanide-laced candy in stores across Japan and releasing multiple messages through the media taunting the police for their ineptitude. No one, however, was caught, and the case reached its statute of limitations in 2000. Here in this fictionalized account, the author changes the names but otherwise faithfully re-creates every detail, utilizing their veracity to riveting effect.

The tale begins in 2015, some three decades after the last known developments in the incident (here called Gin-Man). It alternates between the viewpoints of two 36-year-old men, Kyoto tailor Toshiya Sone and Eiji Akutsu, a reporter for the major daily Dainichi shinbun, taking them on a thrilling inquiry into the truth over the next six months from summer to the year’s end.

One day Toshiya Sone discovers a notebook written in English along with a cassette tape among the items left by his father, who passed away five years ago after founding the Kyoto tailor shop that is now his own. The notebook contains detailed data on Ginga and Mandō, two of the confectionery companies that were affected in the Gin-Man extortion incident; the tape carries the voice of Toshiya himself as a child speaking the instructions from the culprits that were sent to a third food company in the same case and later released to the public. Toshiya can have no doubt that his voice was used in the crime—but could that mean, then, that his father was among those responsible? Disturbed, Toshiya begins following the few slender leads available to him with the encouragement of one of his father’s childhood friends.

Meanwhile, Osaka show-biz reporter Eiji Akutsu is suddenly forced to change hats when, all because of his fluency in English, he is commandeered into helping out with his paper’s big year-end feature on unsolved crimes. His assignment is the Gin-Man incident, which mostly took place right in the Kyoto-Osaka area. Working on the theory that the perpetrators took hints from the kidnapping of the president of beer manufacturer Heineken in Amsterdam in 1983, four months before Gin-Man, Akutsu flies to London to follow a tip about a “Chinese” man in Britain who had been trying to learn about the Dutch case at the time it happened. The trip, however, yields all but naught, leading Akutsu to be mercilessly dressed down by his boss for the feature. Reluctantly, Akutsu starts over by seeking the help of the senior colleague who covered Gin-Man when it originally unfolded.

Toshiya’s suspicions soon converge on his father’s older brother, Tatsuo. Toshiya has never even met this uncle, a leftist activist who vanished in Britain over three decades ago. He tracks down a restaurant where the Gin-Man ring often met and learns that Tatsuo joined them there while briefly back in Japan.

Toshiya further identifies the two other youngsters whose recorded voices were used in Gin-Man: Nozomi Ikushima and her younger brother, Sōichirō, the children of a Shiga Prefecture policeman who had been fired before the incident for giving favors to the yakuza. No one in their family has been seen since the morning of November 14, 1984, the day the police bungled an attempt to arrest the extortionists as they came to collect money from one of their corporate victims at several expressway rest stops, including in Shiga. Toshiya grows confident that while there is no evidence his father was involved in Gin-Man, his uncle most certainly was. At the same time, he feels his interest gradually shifting from pinpointing the culprits to locating the whereabouts of Nozomi and Sōichirō, the two children who were marred by the incident in the same way that he was.

Despite his initial setback, Akutsu the reporter, too, manages to amass enough evidence to trace the restaurant. He finds out that the crime ring initially counted nine, not seven as was believed, and that they split up for some reason; he also becomes aware of Toshiya’s quest for his uncle. Finally Akutsu travels once again to Britain, where he catches up to Tatsuo, now working in a bookstore in York, and has him confirm the facts of the case.

As it turns out, Tatsuo’s father (Toshiya’s grandfather) had once worked for Ginga. While posted without his family to the Tokyo branch in the early 1970s, this grandfather had befriended some students active in the leftist college movements of the time—which led to tragedy when he was mistakenly clubbed to death by a rival extremist faction. Tatsuo grew to harbor hatred both toward the extremists who had killed his father as well as toward Ginga, which spurned its employee after his death because of what it presumed to have been his unsavory activist leanings.

Toshiya’s mother, Mayumi, had also been a student activist and had known Tatsuo from before his disappearance. Mayumi resented the police for their past unjust arrest of her father, who had lost his job and hanged himself after being convicted of a crime he had not committed. Thus she agreed to record her son’s voice when Tatsuo approached her with the plans for Gin-Man.

The genre is crime fiction, and yet readers will hardly find the usual police officers and private eyes in this novel, which instead focuses compellingly on ordinary “amateurs” struggling to weave together the most fragile of strands into a semblance of the truth. The author’s choice of protagonist—a child who unknowingly becomes complicit to a great crime—is likewise inspired, making for a satisfying work well worth its hefty 400 pages.

Thursday, 01 February 2018 11:18

Takeshi Shiota

Takeshi Shiota (1979–) was born in Hyōgo Prefecture and started writing novels in college. In 2010, while working as a newspaper reporter, he made his debut by winning the Shōsetsu Gendai Novel Prize for New Writers with Banjō no arufa (Alpha on the Game Board), based on his experience covering shōgi matches. He later turned to writing novels full-time and in 2016 published Tsumi no koe (The Voice in the Crime), a fictionalized inquiry into the real-life unsolved Glico-Morinaga case of the 1980s; this work, the idea for which he first developed back in his student days, brought him the Yamada Fūtarō Prize and first place in the Weekly Bunshun annual domestic mystery rankings. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his former career, he has established a reputation for his solid research and assured skill in putting together grittily real full-length narratives. Other works include Tomo ni ganbarimashō (Let’s All Fight On), Hōkai (Collapse), Yuki no kaori (The Scent of Snow), Kōri no kamen (Ice Mask), and Damashie no kiba (The Fangs of the Trompe l’Oeil).

Thursday, 01 February 2018 11:01

Working the Earth

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.

This manga version of the best-selling title invites a still wider range of readers to master the art of habit as they follow aspiring pâtissier Mai Hanazono through the ups and downs of learning to speak French. With the help of a mentor, Mai learns how to stick with the challenging lessons by keeping her daily life in order, one tiny step at a time.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018 15:51

Takeshi Furukawa

Takeshi Furukawa is a sought-after speaker, lecturer, and consultant whose specialty is grooming effective daily habits. More than 40 percent of what we do each day is said to be the result of habit. Furukawa’s original method is designed to eliminate bad habits and program the brain to engage instead in behavior that supports one’s goals and desires.

An ancient art and science developed in China more than 3,000 years ago, feng shui is a complex body of knowledge that reveals how to balance the energies of any given space to assure the health and good fortune of those who inhabit it. Author Yuchiku Rinoie, a leading feng shui expert in Japan, offers a practical and simple approach to tidying and organizing your home to bring better fortune.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018 13:33

Yūchiku Rinoie

Yūchiku Rinoie draws on her knowledge of feng shui as it developed during Korea’s Joseon Dynasty to demonstrate how ordering one’s surroundings can enhance one’s enjoyment of life. Her in-depth counselling on a variety of subjects, from wardrobe and housing choices to diet and daily habits, has won her an enthusiastic following among women in particular.

The Society for the Promotion of Japanese Literature has announced the winners of the 158th Akutagawa and Naoki Prizes for the first half of 2017. The Akutagawa was awarded to two novelists, Yuka Ishii for Hyakunen doro (Hundred-Year Mud, published in the November issue of Shinchō magazine) and Chisako Wakatake for Ora ore de hitori igumo (Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone, published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha). Yoshinobu Kadoi received the Naoki for Ginga tetsudō no chichi (Father of the Galactic Railroad, published by Kodansha). Awarded twice a year, Japan’s two top literary prizes were announced on January 16, 2018 following selection committee meetings at their traditional venue, the Shin-Kiraku restaurant in Tsukiji, Tokyo.

Yuka Ishii, 54, was born in Osaka Prefecture. She studied at the Department of Indian Philosophy and Buddhist Studies of the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, University of Tokyo, and later became a Japanese-language teacher in Chennai, India. She won the Shinchō Prize for New Writers in 2017 for Hyakunen doro. In the story, a Japanese woman who has reluctantly moved to Chennai is caught up in a once-a-century flood that deposits layers of mud containing various objects that trigger vicarious experiences and her own memories.

Chisako Wakatake was born in 1954 in Iwate Prefecture; at age 63 she is the second-oldest recipient of the Akutagawa Prize. Ora ore de hitori igumo is her debut work and also earned her the Bungei Prize in 2017. The novel describes the travails of aging as experienced by Momoko, a 74-year-old widow who hears voices in her head speaking in the local dialect (which is that of the author’s home region in Tohoku).

Yoshinobu Kadoi was born in 1971 in Gunma Prefecture, and graduated from the Faculty of Letters at Doshisha University. He made his literary debut in 2003 by winning the All Yomimono Mystery Prize for New Writers for the short story Kiddonappāzu (Kidnappers). His first novel, Tensai-tachi no nedan (The Price of Genius), appeared in 2006. Ginga tetsudō no chichi narrates the life of the famed poet and devout Buddhist Kenji Miyazawa from the viewpoint of his father Masajirō.

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