Here are three books about different aspects of Japanese culture: a fascinating account of the thoughts and feelings of a kid and his uncle in prewar Japan; a biography about a “National Living Treasure”; and a novel that I found compelling in many, many ways.
Maybe the best line up would be from original date of publication:
How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino (Author) Bruno Navasky (Translator) Neil Gaiman (Foreword by)
First published in 1937, Genzaburō Yoshino has made a classic, a book that might or might not be intended for children; that can be read alongside teens and pre-teens who are starting to think about the world, really think about it, and their place in it.
Featured in prominent lists for books in translation for kids, this book is getting a lot of attention now because animator Hayao Miyazaki has called it his favorite childhood book and announced plans to make it into a film (even though he has retired).
There are two narrative voices inside the book: Copper is fifteen, and is just learning about friendship, and loss, because his father has died. Then there is his uncle’s journal, an enthusiastic voice that wants to explain everything to him, from the chains that unite us as human beings; to the encouragement to ask the right questions about life and relationships. It is his uncle who has called him Koperu as a nickname. Copper, like his namesake Copernicus, must look to the stars, and use his discoveries about the heavens, earth, and human nature to answer the question of how he will live from then on.
The foreword by Neil Gaiman is truly heartwarming and makes you want to read the book even more. The tone and whole-hearted way it is written reminded me a lot of another book with important questions for the young, even though it was written 150 years ago: Heart, by Edmondo De Amicis, a beautiful and compelling piece of literature.
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Publish Date: October 26, 2021
Up next, a book I read this year after I saw the movie. Usually it’s the other way around, but, in this case, I’m glad I did, since the book had a hidden message the movie could not cover. And if I hadn’t spotted the movie, I would have never found out about the book.
Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa (Author) Alison Watts (Translator)
You may say that this book is about Sentaro, the protagonist, who is perceived as a failed individual: he has a criminal record and used to drink a lot, and now survives as a vendor of dorayaki. This type of delicious batter is a mixture between American pancakes and a sweet Japanese filling made from red azuki beans.
However, you could also say this book is about Tokue, an elderly woman who notices the “help wanted” sign over the confectionery shop. She has disfigured hands and a troubled past, because she has experienced leprosy (although now she is cured) and has had to live isolated for most of her life inside a leprosarium.
There are very few books about this disease, that was a scourge and affected thousands of people for thousands of years. Ben Hur, comes to mind, or L’impure by Guy Des Cars, a French author.
There is a third character in the book, a sweet girl who likes to eat dorayaki and also wants to work in the shop, expanding Sentaro’s world view through friendship, -albeit to Western eyes a friendship between a young girl and a middle-aged man is unlikely-, which is well treated in the novel.
Tokue makes the best sweet bean paste in the world, she cherishes each step of the work and changes subtly the way Sentaro sees himself. He used to prepare a good batter of pancake but used an industrial filling. The love and care displayed into the preparation of this delicacy says a lot about Tokue and the way she perceives the world.
But the novel is not about that, either.
The author, Sukegawa, used to work as a radio host. In his line of work, he used to hear a lot about the good contributions to society that Japanese people wanted to make. Not to contribute, to just be, is very much frowned upon. But, what about babies who die young, or sick an elderly people who cannot contribute in a productive sense but are alive nonetheless? Do their lives have a purpose? And what is it?
In line with the previous book, the answer to that question is the reason for this novel, and I have found consolation in it, for many individual reasons, and felt grateful after reading it. You might find it illuminating as well.
Also, dorayakis are amazing, if you have never tried one, you definitely should!
Publisher: ONEWorld Publications
Publish Date: November 14, 2017
Finally, this is yet another translation, not from the Japanese, but from the French.
Back to Japan: The Life and Art of Master Kimono Painter Kunihiko Moriguchi by Marc Petitjean (Author) Adriana Hunter (Translator)
This is a slim book, but it packs a lot of information. Marc Petitjean is a French writer and photographer who befriended Kunihiko Moriguchi, a master kimono painter and Living National Treasure–like his father before him.
The honorific title refers to men and women who have preserved an important part of Japanese culture and have passed on their knowledge, ostensibly from generations past.
Moriguchi lived in France in the 1960s and was a friend of Balthus. Somehow that influence wound up in the traditions of his family, who were kimono makers.The tension between tradition and innovation, led Moriguchi to find an incredible source of inspiration; by crossing Yūzen craft (resist dyeing) with abstraction, his style was born: abstract kimono patterns.
Petitjean does a biography of sorts, tracing Moriguchi’s life, from his childhood during the turbulent 1940s and 50s marked by war, to his prime as an artist.
His works have been exhibited in the most prestigious museums in the world.
It reminded me a bit another slim volume written in 1933: In Praise of Shadows by Japanese Junichiro Tanizaki. A great way to broach an aspect of Japanese culture and what lies beneath it.
Publisher: Other Press (NY)
Publish Date: November 09, 2021