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History of Japan


A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present, Third Edition, paints a richly nuanced and strikingly original portrait of the last two centuries of Japanese history. It takes students from the days of the shogunate–the feudal overlordship of the Tokugawa family–through the modernizing revolution launched by midlevel samurai in the late nineteenth century; the adoption of Western hairstyles, clothing, and military organization; and the nation’s first experiments with mass democracy after World War I. Author Andrew Gordon offers the finest synthesis to date of Japan’s passage through militarism, World War II, the American occupation, and the subsequent economic rollercoaster.

[591] The Gods of Heavenly Punishment – Jennifer Cody Epstein


” To build new kitchens and garages, roads and cars and business connections until the old, war-torn city was no longer visible—any more than the broken people who had scraped out their lives there in the days following the Surrender. That Japan—defeated Japan—was now part of an unspeakable past; one its inhabitants saw in nearly as mythical terms as the Emperor’s once-presumed ‘divinity.’ It was simply—before. ” (Part IX, Los Angeles, 1962)

Set against the Tokyo bombing in 1945 during the Second World War is The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, a story of three families, Japanese and American, whose lives interweave and connect for almost 30 years. Epstein chooses to narrate through different time fragments in third-person perspective. First there is Cameron Richards who stumbles into love, marries Lacy, and becomes a pilot. Yoshi Kobayashi grows up speaking three languages and playing piano, under the tutelage of her mother Hana, who carries herself in a way that defies the Japanese standard of beauty and decorum. Against her will she marries below herself, to Kenji, a builder who aids the Japanese army in Manchuria as the Japanese assembles its overwhelming army.

Grinning, Kenji said something appropriately dismissive while Anton tried to imagine how this tiny East/West wonder had come to be. Of course, Hana had confirmed for them the marriage was arranged. But why would it have been arranged with Kenji? The differences went well beyond Old Japan and New Japan. (Part II, Karuizawa, 1935)

Hana is by far the most intriguing and interesting character in the novel but, to my dismay, has been neglected in the end. Raised in London, fluent in French, she’s an intellectual, a cosmopolitan. She confides in with Anton Reynolds, the prominent architect who is in love with the Japanese culture, tradition, and aesthetics, that her life has started dying when she married. For about two years Anton and Hana carry on an affair—until America declares war on Japan and Anton is summoned by American military to help prepare the devastating fire bombing of Tokyo.

Yoshi had wished only that her whole life could be like this—that she could be a normal girl, going out with her almost-normal mother, doing things normal families did together. (Part VI, Tokyo, 1945)

The novel is told in linguistic snap shots and photography plays a crucial role of the plotline involving the architect’s gay son, Billy. He later becomes an Occupation officer in Tokyo and reunites with the grown-up Yoshi. Despite the full circle at the end when all these lives finally come together in a tidy bundle, there is a lot left unsaid—especially who has become of Yoshi’s parents. Hana is accused of being a spy and her father a war criminal. That said, as the book winds down, we discover how people overcome hardships they dealt with during the war. Redolent in this well-researched historical fiction is the invincible human resiliency.

378 pp. W. W. Norton. Adanced reading Copy. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[512] Hotel Iris – Yoko Ogawa

” His mouth probed my legs. Even his breath made my nerves cry out. I felt as though I was being torn apart, split between fear of what he would do next and the desire to be shamed even more. But out of the tear, pleasure came bubbling like blood from a wound. ” (Ch.4, p.52)

Unlike The Housekeeper and the Professor, which delineates the charm of an unlikely friendship, Hotel Iris retreats into darker territory by which contemporary Japanese literature is known to me. The book follows an unusual love story—between 17-year-old Mari, the daughter of a hotel hostess and a 60-something widower who translates from Russian. They meet under the most peculiar circumstance” the distressed widower is having a noisy altercation with a prostitute who calls him a pervert. It’s in this lively opening scene that the old man, neatly dressed in shirt and tie, lingers in Mari’s mind. His voice, calm and imposing, “like a hypnotic note from a cello or a horn.” (3) She decides to follow him when she spots him in a shop a fortnight later.

No, everyone dies. This is something else, like being drawn toward an invincible chasm. I feel I’m being singled out for some sort of punishment . . . I pay these women to help me escape this fear. The desires of the flesh confirm my existence. (Ch.5, p.65-66)

And so this affair begins. It’s one based on bondage, dominance/submission, and sado-masochistic violence. In Mari the translator fulfills his sense of existence. The two loners, despite difference in age, finds mutual affection and sexual fulfillment in each other. One lives in an almost deserted island with minimal amenity and the other trapped working in a crumbling seaside hotel managed by her controlling, parsimonious mother. The arrival of a nephew who will reveal the circumstances by which the translator’s wife died complicates the matter.

Hotel Iris goes into what nost contemporary authors dare not to go. It’s not the most original work but Ogawa manages this audacious territory with sharp focus, bringing us scenes of breath-taking disturbance. The physicality of the relationship is disturbing because it’s not how we perceive love and intimacy. But the novel shows the length to which human beings can go, sexual speaking, to obtain reassurance of love and one’s sense of existence. This is a dreamlike novella of sexual dependency and damage.

164 pp. Picador. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[508] The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa

” I remembered something the Professor had told me, something a mathematician with a difficult name once said: ‘Math has proven the existence of God, but it is absolute and without contradiction; but the devil must exist as well, because we cannot prove it.’ The Professor’s body had been consumed by the devil of mathematics. ” (Ch.6, p.100)

She (the characters in this novel are nameless) is an astute single mother. When she answers the bulletin for a job at the agency, she is informed that her prospective employer has already rid of nine housekeepers. Although the job itself is not complicated, and she is used to absurd demands in her previous employs, nothing in her experience has prepared her for working for the professor. A brilliant mathematician, the professor’s memory stopped in 1975, when a car accident robbed him of his ability to remember any new memories for more than eighty minutes.

Soon after I began working for the Professor, I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do. Numbers were also his way of reaching out to the world. They were safe, a source of comfort. (Ch.1, p.7)

One can imagine the tough position the housekeeper is in: to the Professor, whose memory lasted only 80 minutes, she is always a new housekeeper he is meeting for the first time, and so every morning he is appropriately shy and reserved. But once she gets the hang of his routine (and temperament) and adapts to the rhythm of the work, a lasting friendship ensues. The Professor dotes on the housekeeper’s 10-year-old boy, whom he nicknames “Root” because the flat top of his head reminds the mathematician of the square-root sign.

Even when he was at a critical point with a math problem, he still seemed to have unlimited time for Root. He was always delighted when Root asked a question, no matter what the subject; and he seemed convinced that children’s questions were much more important than those of an adult . . . the Professor also showed concern for Root’s physical well-being and watched over him with care. (Ch.7, p.129)

The bond between the Professor, the housekeeper, and her son grows strong and defies the conventions that define a family. Here Ogawa truly shines by showing how families are composed, and how it doesn’t matter whom it’s made of. Japanese literature is abound with characters that are either social outcasts or loners. Ogawa creates a heart-warming story out of the unusual connection of them. The friendship survives even the run-in with the over-protective, cynical sister-in-law who suspects of the housekeeper’s ulterior motive. At once uplifting and poignant, the novel asks whether over immediate experiences are more important than our memories, since memories inevitably fade.

180 pp. Picador. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[494] Forbidden Colors – Yukio Mishima

” Yuichi did not believe in what is called tasting happiness; in his heart, it seemed, he secretly feared it. When he saw something supposed to be lasting, terror gripped him. ” (Ch.11, p.143)

Mishima’s allegedly autobiographical novel happens to be somewhat verbose, despite his skilled wording and numerous passages that are both lyrical and philosophical. Finishing at over 400 pages, Forbidden Colors feels unnecessarily long, consider it embraces many familiar themes attempted by other contemporary writers: sexual identity, homophobia, and moral confusion. This novel is very complicated, its prose full of tucks and pleats like the texture in sculptures. It has all the classic Mishima elements: beauty and the power it holds, and the misery one feels from such beauty. Only the beautiful emerge relatively unscathed—and they are usually men because men are what matter compared to the helpless women. The men’s shortcomings in other areas are obviously unimportant placed next to their aesthetic value.

Yuichi did not love a woman, and the woman bore Yuichi a child. At that time he saw the ugliness, not of Yasuko’s will, but of objectless desire in life. (Ch.26, p.330)

As much as the novel concerns with a character whose dazzling beauty turns many a head in both men and women, Mishima focuses on the notion of ugliness, and he associates old age with ugliness. Forbidden Colors initially focuses on an aging novelist, Shunsuke Hinoki. Embittered by a string of failed marriages, he has come to hate women, seeing them as creatures devoid of a soul. While pursuing his latest mistress to a hot-spring resort, he encounters Yuichi Minami, a handsome young man tortured by his desire for other men. The old novelist is so entangled in intellectualism as to be capable of despicable acts and self-deception. He sees in the attractive Yuichi a perfect instrument to exact his revenge on womankind and to mete out his punishment. He instructs the young man in misogyny, and binds him to his will by offering much financial succor.

Someone once said that homosexuals have on their faces a certain loneliness that will not come off. Besides, in their glances flirtatiousness and the cold stare of appraisal are combined. Although the coquettish looks that women direct at the opposite sex and the appraising glances they direct at their own sex have quite separate functions, with the homosexual both are directed at one and the same person. (Ch.7, p.96)

Out of filial duty, Yuichi is locked in a loveless marriage. Although he doesn’t love his wife, but later pondering her face at the pinnacle of suffering during childbirth, he develops a tenderness for her. He feels responsible for her suffering but she resolves to live in an impenetrable indifference. Throughout the novel, Yuichi struggles to maintain his dual life. While being a husband to a pregnant woman and an ailing mother, he carries on with a string of lovers—a former count who is a master seducer, a motor industrialist who later fears his ruin, and a skein of bar flames—who grow increasingly infatuated with him. They gay characters are miserable not because they are immoral; they are miserable because of their internalized homophobia. They impress me as being narcissistic and self-destructive. Yuichi’s callousness strains the barriers between the two worlds until his exposure seems inevitable. The repugnance that Shunsuke has built up inside him further complicates his pain. It’s almost too difficult for him to distinguish between his passion for determining the source of the repugnance and a desire, motivated by appetite and lust for the flesh to seek out the fountainhead of pleasure. This tension fuels the entire novel, stitching together different characters’ outlook and philosophy and offering a universal theme in LGBT literature: the struggle between expressing one’s true self and presenting a counterfeit self to the world to survive. To live within the society’s moral constraint, that is, a construct based upon heterosexual norm, is to be stripped of one’s dignity. This is what the novelist meant by “subtle evil is more beautiful than coarse goodness, and is therefore moral.” (336) Forbidden Colors is bleak and challenging, offering only the hope of freedom in conformity.

429 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Yukio Mishima, Japanese Literature

If Haruki Murakami epitomizes modern Japanese literature, then the genre is too weird and eccentric for me. Dreamscape, wells, missing cats (and wives)… I feel so disjointed. So I have shifted my attention to Yukio Mishima, a Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor, and film director who was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But, his legendary death precedes his life. After a failed military rally Mishima committed ritualized suicide and cemented his position as staunchly conservative right-winger.

In 1955, Mishima (age 30) took up weight training and his workout regimen of three sessions per week was not disrupted for the final 15 years of his life. In his 1968 essay Sun and Steel, Mishima deplored the emphasis given by intellectuals to the mind over the body. Mishima later also became very skillful at kendo. Although it is known that he visited gay bars in Japan, Mishima’s sexual orientation annoyed his widow: she wanted that part of his life downplayed after his death. Forbidden Colours, which I’m reading at the moment, deals with this downplaying of homosexuality—except Mishima goes farther. An old novelist who has been scarred by three disastrous marriages finds his revenge machine a very handsome homosexual who will mete out punishment of the womankind. Mishima style is more embellished but not as disjointed as Murakami. He often weaves his philosophical view in his writing, the tucks and pleats of the prose. The story now really sneaks up on me as the protagonist carries on with both a wife and her husband. What is it about the Japanese that they are so obsessed with masochism? Misogyny is also a encroaching theme in this book. That it describes a marriage of a gay man to a young woman renders the novel somewhat autobiographical.

[400] The Samurai’s Garden – Gail Tsukiyama

” Matsu once told me the bridge represented the samurai’s difficult path from this world to the afterlife. When you reach the top of the bridge, you can see your way to paradise. I feel as if the past few days have given me a glimpse of that. To simply live a life without fear has been a true paradise. ” (58)

In fall 1937, on the eve of Sino-Japanese War and Second World War, twenty-year-old Stephen is sent to his family’s summer house in Japan to recover from tuberculosis, away from Hong Kong’s stifling heat and humidity. Matsu, the housekeeper, has spent the entirety of his adult life living and taking care of Stephen’s grandfather’s beach house in Tarumi. As the young man regains his health, he has adapted to the silence of the village and welcomes the freedom it offers. Even when the awkwardness between Stephen and the morose Matsu, with whom “everything is in what he doesn’t day” (59) dissipates, Stephen can’t help wondering the true reason for Matsu’s staying behind in Tarumi.

But what of Matsu? Had he been so cruel in another life? In Tarumi he had always made his way as quietly as possible, never creating any disturbances. But look what he has become to me, my bearer of burdens. (139)

A visit to a woman named Sachi up in the mountainous village of Yamaguchi, a leper colony, answers the question. Sachi’s flawless childhood was irrevocably set apart by the suffering she endured as a young woman. Her disease has broken the engagement with Kenzo and brought disgrace to her family. Young Matus became the go-between for the two. Kenzo, out of shame and guilt, ended up taking his own life. After a futile suicidal attempt, Matsu brought Sachi to Yamaguchi, where she rebuilt her life.

It was Matsu who built this house for me away from the village. At the time, he knew I couldn’t face being so close to the others. He was the one who carted every piece and stone up the mountain, when no one else would come within sight of us. In many ways, it was Matsu who built Yamaguchi. Many of us would have simply perished without him. (129)

The Samurai’s Garden exudes a beauty that transcends the scope of the story between Sachi, Matsu, and Kenzo. It’s a beauty rooted deep in the psyche of a people who in the face of tragedy cope with grace and meekness. Full of wisdom and conviction, Matsu has always known that real beauty comes from deep within; and that beauty exists where one least expects to find it. For those who live a charmed life of grace and ease, like Sachi and Matsu’s sister Tomoko, their lives, which draw satisfaction from physical and outward beauty only, come to an end when leprosy afflicted them. Written with such lyrical fluidity, the entwined love story of Matsu and Sachi unveils as war in China moves with a quick brutality, tearing the young man apart in his desire to be with his family. The novel maintains an air of majestic quietude, as it gradually unfolds how Matsu changes the lives of those who see no hope. It moves readers by his remarkable selflessness, capacity to love, faith in goodness in a culture where politeness and honor carry more weight than kinship. He’s the samurai who thrives in silence, building a garden that offers the path hoping for more. This quiet beauty will stay with me for a very long time.

211 pp. St. Martin’s Griffin softcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Japanese Literature Challenge

I’m a first-timer to the tremendously popular Japanese Literature Challenge, now in it’s fifth incarnation. Hosted by Dolce Bellezza, the challenge requires just one book from June 1, 2011 until January 30, 2012, although I will probably end up reading more.

Although he’s popping up on everyone’s list, I’m giving Murakami a break this time because he’s too “out there” for me.

Confessions of a Mask Yukio Mishima 假面の告白 三島 由紀夫 (1948)
Forbidden Colors Yukio Mishima 禁色 三島 由紀夫 (1953)
Burial in the Clouds Hiroyuki Agawa 雲の墓標 阿川 弘之 (1956)
The Silent Cry Kenzaburo Oe 万延元年のフットボール 大江 健三郎(1967)
Darkness in Summer Takeshi Kaiko 夏の闇 開高 健(1972)

The focus is 20th century literature, with an emphasis on literary fiction.

Cherry Blossoms, Yukio Mishima

The ebullience and conviviality of cherry blossom festival in Japantown takes a darkening tinge this year on the heels of the recent tragedy. In Japan, the flowers have long symbolized the fleeting nature of beauty and life. Japanese poets from early on took this as analogous to the ephemerality of life. The focus, besides cherry blossom viewing, is on relief effort, which is what have brought me to the community this weekend. Short window of the blossoms, made worse by gusty wind in the city that blows off the petals, is perceived with a new layer of meaning.

On top of the benefit booths, Tokyo-based Kinokuniya Bookstore also donates a percentage of the sales to relief effort. San Francisco store has a good selection of Japanese literature in English translation. Yukio Mishima (三島由紀夫 1925-1970) is the purpose of the visit. He is considered one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century, whose avant-garde work displayed a blending of modern and traditional aesthetics that broke cultural boundaries, with a focus on sexuality, death, and political change.

Although it is known that he visited gay bars in Japan, Mishima’s sexual orientation remains a matter of debate, as his widow wanted that part of his life downplayed after his death. However, several people have claimed to have had homosexual relationships with Mishima, including writer Jiro Fukushima, who published a revealing correspondence between himself and the famed novelist.

I’m interested in reading two of his most controversial novels, which are meant to be autobiographical. Forbidden Colors (禁色 Kinjiki) describes a marriage of a gay man to a young woman. The name kinjiki is a euphemism for homosexuality. The kanji 禁 means “forbidden” and 色 in this case means “erotic love”, although it can also mean “color” or “lust.” The word “kinjiki” also means colors which were forbidden to be worn by people of various ranks in the Japanese court. The title is pun-intended and has multiple meanings. Confessions of a Mask (仮面の告白 Kamen no Kokuhaku) is about a young man who, born with a less-than-ideal body in terms of physical fitness and robustness, struggles to keep his homosexuality to himself. It’s been recognized that Mishima had placed himself in the novel, cast himself as the protagonist.

Relief for Japan

A week after the 9.o-earthquake that left northeastern Honshu in Japan completely devastated, the world is riveted at the aggravating nuclear crisis. Rate of relief donation is slower than Haiti, owing to the deception that Japan is prosperous enough to rebuild. Japan actually relies on imported food and supplies. If where you live doesn’t have a relief campaign, go to Charity Navigator to find a charity or donate directly to Red Cross Japan.

“The current situation of the earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear plants is in a way the most severe crisis in the 65 years since World War II.” — Naoto Kan, Prime Minister of Japan, after country sustained its largest earthquake on record; the death toll is expected to exceed 10,000.

“In our history, this small island nation has made miraculous economic growth thanks to the efforts of all Japanese citizens. That is how Japan was built.” — Yukio Edano, Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan

“In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators. Their barrows heaped with shoddy. Towing wagons or carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all.” — The Road, Cormac McCarthy