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Posts tagged books

Tokyo Observer

tokyo observer Leighton Willgerodt Tokyo Observer by Leighton Willgerodt is a 20-year old book with timeless information about Japan. The writing style is very conversational and you may end up reading the whole thing in one sitting. The “chapters” are reprints from newspaper articles Willgerodt wrote in the late 1980s about Japanese culture, customs, and language. He had lived in Japan for more than a decade at the time.

The last third or fourth of the book is about other parts of Asia. I didn’t find it as interesting, probably because I haven’t lived in those areas. The first hundred pages or so are fantastic though. I highly recommend this to someone going to spend an extended period of time in Japan. Tokyo Observer is a fun, quick read that will keep you entertained as it prevents you from making some common gaijin mistakes. You’ll pick up more than a few Japanese words along the way too.

If your library doesn’t have it you can pick it up through the above link for about a dollar.

Powell’s Books

Powell’s Books in Portland is the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world. With almost a couple of acres of floorspace piled high with not only new, but used and rare titles too, the selection of over 4 million books is amazing.

My son, pictured above, was in heaven seeing the heaps of Naruto (in English) and other manga so nicely arranged. I picked up some used copies of kochi kame (in Japanese) for only $2.50 each. Once I finish them they can be yours.

If you visit Powell’s be sure to check out the rare book collection on the top floor. There are some amazing titles. Many of the books go for well over $1,000.

Still Life and Other Stories by Junzo Shono

In an issue of Mangajin there was an interview with Wayne P. Lammers who translated this book. Wayne was one of the main translators for Mangajin. Anyway the interview was very good, and what he said about this book was intriguing enough for me to go out and get a copy. I was not disappointed.

The stories are ordinary enough, without any major action or typical plot line to speak of. However, there is an underlying tension to many of them that will keep many a reader on their toes. These creepy shadows under the surface reminded me a bit of Audition. I’m certainly not saying that if you enjoy this book you will like Audition (or vice versa). There is merely something similar between the two that I can’t quite put my finger on.

The ordinariness of it all (especially after the first couple stories–A Dance and Evenings at the Pool) may bore some readers. If so, I think those readers are missing the brilliance of Shono’s attention to detail, some of the underlying symbolism, and the Japanese mind. I suppose it probably helps, in appreciating this work, to have lived with the Japanese for an extended period of time.

The stories sound autobiographical. Given their content, I would guess that it would be rather awkward to have such stories published while you are still alive, especially in a country like Japan. Your neighbors could just read your books to find out intimate details of your life and marriage. It’s sort of like having your personal, unedited journals, that you wouldn’t even show a spouse (perhaps especially wouldn’t show a spouse), published for the general public’s eyes to see. 

Shono seems like he has many regrets or things he feels guilty about. He doesn’t usually say this, but they come through in the writing, especially the symbolic aspects. At the same time, he seems to do the things he implies he doesn’t do enough (spend time with his kids, pay attention to his wife, think about why he does things rather than just go along with the crowd with a salaryman mindset) much more than the average Japanese male.

We all can learn a lot from Junzo Shono. He teaches us about life, about examining life and what is really important, in a way that is completely non-preachy. His method is subtle, but the messages are clear. Thanks be to Wayne Lammers for bringing Shono’s writings to the English speaking world.

Snow Country 雪国

snow countrySnow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (川端康成) is considered a classic of Japanese literature. I became interested in reading it after reading Donald Keene’s memoir which mentioned Kawabata’s suicide and Nobel Prize.

I was a bit surprised Snow Country wasn’t required reading in BYU’s Japanese program I went through. However, given that the book deals with Onsen Geisha and the consuming of adult beverages and BYU censors what their students read, it isn’t too surprising that we were left reading Christian Japanese authors like Shusaku Endo instead.

As I started reading this book I read about 10 pages in English and then the same 10 pages in Japanese. This proved very interesting. Eventually I read it all in English and only certain passages that seemed strange in English in Japanese as well. Not that the translator, Edward G. Seidensticker, did a poor job, but some things just don’t come across as well in English. For instance, in Japanese you can clearly tell who is speaking in the male-female dialogues as females speak differently than males in Japanese (ending sentences with wa, kashira, etc.) In English, Seidensticker doesn’t add “he said” or “she said” at the end of the quotes since that isn’t what it says in Japanese; nor is it necessary in Japanese to figure out who is saying what. However, it can be tricky, or at least unclear, to figure out just who is saying what at times in the English translation.

Also, with respect to the translated version, the writing doesn’t seem very smooth. The Japanese has a better flow. Again, this isn’t really Seidensticker’s fault. I’m not saying I could do a better translation. Rather, some things really need to be read in their original tongue to be fully appreciated.

I don’t imagine the English version of this book is for everyone. In fact, most people who read the English translation will probably say, “He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for that??” But if you enjoy highly symbolic writings, have had experiences with a Japanese girlfriend who left you puzzled, or wish to reflect on experiences you may have had in Japan then Snow Country is certainly worth a quick read (and quick it is at well under 200 pages).

Assuming you are reading the English translation by Edward G. Seidensticker be sure to read the Introduction after you read the book as he packs his Introduction with spoilers for some unknown reason.

3 new books on Japan

yasukuniThree books on Japan just arrived in my mailbox from Columbia University Press. They are: Yasukuni, the War Dead and the Struggle for Japan’s Past by John Breen, Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States by Alexis Dudden, and Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan by Donald Keene.

Since we will be in the air on our way to Denmark a week from now these will have to wait until our return in August. I hope to have reviews posted here on each in August and/or September.

japan us koreaFor the trip I plan to take Philip K. Dick: Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s. Why? Because last summer I read Four Novels of the 1960s on my trip to Chicago, and I have fond memories of the readings coupled with my time in Chicago. Plus, Five Novels is much longer than the three titles on Japan so it should keep me busy longer. I don’t really want to carry around multiple books.

heart of japanDo you have any books that you have read that are forever linked in your brain with a trip or vacation?

I certainly do. For instance, I can’t think of Neil Young’s biography without thinking of my trip to Canada last fall or vice versa. Ditto with a trip to Hawaii and Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human and probably a dozen or more other trips/books read on the trip.

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms

The Street of a Thousand BlossomsLess than a week after starting The Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama I have finished reading it. The book isn’t short at over 400 pages, but I found it hard to put down. That, coupled with having to wait for breakfast in bed on father’s day for three hours 😉 , allowed me to finish The Street of a Thousand Blossoms in little time.

As mentioned in my prior blog entry on the subject, I really enjoyed the Yanaka setting. I felt like I could connect with more than just Yanaka though. For instance, I spent a day in the late 80s watching Sumo at Ryogoku Kokugikan. The highlight of the day was witnessing the great Chiyonofuji’s bout in person. So all of the Sumo dialogue in this book brought back pleasant memories. I’ve always been fascinated with Japanese masks (check out this blog daily for some outstanding photography and discussion) so Kenji’s story held my interest. And, of course, there is the trip to Hakone which I have also made. Basically everything felt familiar and resonated well.

The story is compelling, drawing on the themes of renewal and hope. I don’t want to give away too many details for those of you who haven’t yet read The Street of a Thousand Blossoms.

The occasional errors in Japanese are my main criticism. Although Tsukiyama has a Japanese name, she doesn’t understand Japanese. This won’t be noticed by readers who are in her same shoes, but those who can speak the language will cringe at times. One example is her use of hai. She uses it far more frequently and in situations in which Japanese would not. Another is her use of the unconjugated verb hairu (to enter) as a command. She should have said something like haitte kudasai or o hairi kudasai instead of just hairu. A final one (there are others) that I’ll offer as an example is the Hakone Lake which she calls Ashino. In English it should be called Lake Ashi. In Japanese it is called ashinoko (芦ノ湖). The “no” indicates it is the Lake (ko) called (no–shows possession like ‘s in English) Ashi. Put another way, one could translate Lake Tahoe as “tahoe no ko” in Japanese but you would never call it “tahoeno” in English or Japanese.

She gets Japanese culture and customs wrong on some counts as well. For example, she has the school year starting in September like it does in the U.S. In Japan, though, school years, company fiscal years, etc. start in April–not September.

These minor critiques aside, this book is very enjoyable even if you haven’t been to Yanaka, Sumo, Hakone, Nara, or even Japan.

Here are a couple more pictures I took last year from areas mentioned in The Street of a Thousand Blossoms.

ashinoko Lake Ashi hakone japan mt. fuji

This is Lake Ashi with Mt. Fuji, mostly shrouded in clouds, in the background. The place on the right may be where Tsukiyama envisions Hiroshi and Aki staying.

hakone jinja 箱根神社

This is another picture from the ferry on Lake Ashi. The kanji say 箱根神社 or Hakone Jinja. “Jinja” means Shinto Shrine or Temple.