About Japan Kaleidoskop

Freelance writer and translator (Japanese-English-German) with a doctor's degree in Japanese Studies. Author of Japan Kaleidoskop: A blog about Japanese culture, art and literature.

Book Review: Death by Water

Bookcover-Kenzaburô Ôe- Death by Water“And like the river current, you won’t return home.”
Kogito Choko, a writer in his seventies, is haunted by the memory of his father’s death. He had been a child, when he witnessed his father going on a boat trip during a storm, where he drowned. Kogito Choko has been traumatized by this tragedy, and nightmares about drowning are troubling him ever since. He always wanted to write a novel about it but could not.

Ten years after the death of his mother, he still wants to write his so called ‘drowning novel’. He says that he could not write this novel for several reasons, but most importantly he waited for documents stored in an old red leather trunk, which belonged to his father. His mother had restricted him access to them because she wanted to protect the family’s reputation.

Now, he hopes for creative inspiration by opening the red leather trunk, so he can finally write the ‘drowning novel’.

Kogito’s sister Asa, who is living in their parental home in Shikoku invites him to stay there. She has connections to a theatre group called the ‘Caveman Group’. The stage director and the actors have been dramatizing his works for a long time. The director is devoted to Kogito’s works. The Cavemen Group is staging a play, when Kogito comes to visit. In the ‘Forest House’ they meet and discuss Kogito’s novels and plays.

The actress Umaiko, however, finds new ways of interpreting his works. She is one of the main characters of the book. Her life intertwines with the protagonist’s in different ways as the novel moves forward.

Kogito Choko is depressive and struggles with his writings throughout the novel. His inner monologue is revealing his inner thoughts to the reader over the course of the events. This combined with letters of his sister Asa and descriptions of the evolving story presents a multi-layered picture of his family history.

Two other important characters of ‘Death by Water’ are Akari, his brain-damaged son, and Daio, a friend and life companion, who was devoted to his father. Both persons are also staying at the ‘Forest House’ during certain episodes of the novel.

Structure and Theme
‘Death by Water’ by Kenzaburô Ôe was published in 2009 in Japan. It was translated into English by Deborah Boliver Boehm in 2016 and was an International Booker Prize Nominee for the Longlist 2016.
The narrator Kogito Choko is the literary alter ego of Kenzaburô Ôe. The story is mostly told from the first person’s perspective in addition to letters and dialogues.

The novel is set in the 2000s partly in Tokyo and mostly in Shikoku in the house of Kogito’s sister, a family resident, where Kogito Choko grew up. The setting in Shikoku is essential to the story. The narrator grew up in this environment. When his father drowned in the river nearby, Kogito flew into the forest. The neighborhood is relevant, because of the local myths and legends.

‘Death by Water’ is a multi-layered novel with many references to Ôe’s literary works. Although Kogito Chôko is the narrator, there are many similarities between his and Kenzaburô Ôe’s life and works.

The overall theme is coming to terms with the past on an individual level, and with the past of the WW II and nationalism in Japan. ‘Death by Water’ deals with death, memory, growing older, guilt and atonement as an individual, as a family member and as part of the Japanese society. The novel also depicts the changes of generations and generation conflicts. It discusses the works of the author and presents a view of the younger generation and female viewpoints.

‘Death by Water’ is the latest novel of the Nobel Prize winner Ôe. A late work, where all his former works come together, with many references to his own works and to others, especially Natsume Sôseki’s ‘Kokoro’.

The novel is narrated in a detailed and multi-faceted manner. I liked the honesty in the inner monologue of Kogito Choko. I have not read all books by Ôe but see ‘Death by Water’ as a good reason to study them more deeply. I also liked, that the book is not only a personal novel, but the writer is coming to terms with Japanese history in a unique way. The author also references to the classic novel ‘Kokoro’. I admire the way Ôe has constructed his novel in a multi-dimensional way, and how he mastered to add new perspectives, like through the story of Umaiko.
The novel is detailed and difficult in parts. The repetitive style can be tiring and sometimes even exhausting, but I think that this is a necessary part of the reading experience. ‘Death by Water’ is one of the most complex and challenging books I have read lately.
I encourage you to read the book, but maybe not to start with it as the first book of Kenzaburô Ôe. I would recommend reading ‘A Personal Matter’ and ‘The Changeling’. Ôe also wrote many short stories. I will probably read ‘A Quiet Life’ next.

Reviewed title
大江 健三郎. 水死. 2009.
Kenzaburô Ôe. Death by Water, 2009. Translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm. Atlantic Books, 2016 (Cover).

More reviews of Kenzaburô Ôe’s books on Japan Kaleidoskop
Book review of ‘A Personal Matter’
Book review of ‘The Changeling’

Art on Tuesday: Sumida River

woodblock print Sumida River at the Massaki district by Utagawa Hiroshige

Utagawa Hiroshige 歌川 広重 (1797-1858) made this woodblock print as part of his series: ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’ (名所江戸百景 Meisho Edo Hyakkei). It is picture No. 35.

You see a cherry tree trunk on the right side in full bloom with many cherry blossoms hanging at the top. The Sujin Shrine is located in the valley on the right in a little forest. The Sumida River at the Massaki district is in the center and in the background you see the famous Mount Tsukuba (筑波山). The mountain’s double peak consists of the so called female-body-mountain (女体山) and the male-body-mountain (男体山). Some of the oldest legends are related to them.

Art On Tuesday: The Golden Pavillon in Kyôto

woodblockprint Kinkakuji Hasegawa Sadanobu I

This ukiyo-e shows a snow scene with the famous Kinkaku-ji 金閣寺, the Golden Pavillon in Kyôto. The picture was made by Hasegawa Sadanobu I (1809-1879) around 1870. The temple was build in the 14th century, and it is located in the northwest of the former capital. In the background you see the mountains. On the right side is the beautiful Kyōkochi lake 鏡湖池 which mirrors the Golden Pavillon. The temple was rebuild several times. In 1950, it was set on fire by a novice monk and reconstructed. Today Kinkaku-ji belongs to the UNESCO World Heritage.


Three Interesting Love Stories by Japanese Authors

Three Cover images of Japanese lovestories
On Valentine’s Day in Japan, only women or girls show their love to their friends and lovers by giving them chocolate. One month later, on March 14th, men or boys will thank their loved ones with presents, mostly chocolate or sweets.
Valentine’s Day is also a good opportunity to read a romantic book because today is also the International book giving day. The following books are excellent Japanese love stories playing in different eras and cultural circles. I have read and reviewed them on this blog a while ago. Maybe you enjoy them too.

Geisha in Rivalry by Nagai Kafû
What is it about?
‘Geisha in Rivalry’ is a classic work of the famous Japanese author Nagai Kafû. The novel plays in the early 20th century in the red-light districts of Tokyo. It is the story of the middle-aged geisha Komayo, who falls in love with an actor. Read the book review of Geisha in Rivalry on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: 永井 荷風. 腕くらべ, 1918.
Translated by Kurt Meissner. Tuttle Publishing, 1963 (Cover).

The Ten Loves of Nishino by Kawakami Hiromi
What is it about?
Kawakami Hiromi is a well-known contemporary Japanese writer. Many of her works have been translated into English in recent years. ‘The Ten Loves of Nishino’ is a short story collection of ten stories, each from the perspective of a different woman, who fell in love with Nishino. Read the book review of Ten Love of Nishino on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: ニシノユキヒコの恋と冒. 2003.
Translated by Allison Markin Powell. Europa Editions. 2019 (Cover).

Quicksand by Tanizaki Jun’ichirô
What is it about?
Tanizaki Jun’ichirô is one of the most talented Japanese authors. He has written many novels about love and passion in many forms, he is often exploring the dark sides and moral taboos, but not without humor. ‘Quicksand’ is a psychological thriller. Tanizaki has written a novel about love and betrayal, and this time he tells a love story between women. The work was serialized between 1928 and 1930 in the ‘Kaizô’ magazine. Read the book review of Quicksand on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: ‘Manji’. ‚Kaizô‘. 1928 to 1930.
Translated by Howard Hibett. Vintage. 1994 (Cover).

Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

book cover image -Sayaka Murata- Convenience Store Woman- riceball with a cute face “But once they get it into their heads that I’m not normal, since they all think they are normal they’ll give me a hard time about it, won’t they? “

Murata Sayaka worked in a convenience store herself, and much of her experience will probably show in her novel. ‘Convenience Store Woman’ brought her the Akutagawa Award, one of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, in 2016.

Miss Keiko Furukawa is the main protagonist, she is 36 years old, working in the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart, a typical convenience store in Japan or simply called ‘konbini’.

Her colleagues are a mix of different people like Ms. Izumi, a housewife, 37 years old and a flashy dresser, Miss Sugawara, 24, a singer in a band, a university student, a job-hopper, and her boss.
Keiko Furukawa is absorbing everything in the shop: the smell, the sound, every move of the surrounding customers. She copies the dress style of Ms. Izumi because she thinks she is a role model of what a woman in her thirties should be wearing. In her speech pattern she is parroting other staff members. She is like the embodiment of the convenience store.
Her friends and acquaintances are bullying her for not having a proper job and not being married and bossing her around. Keiko Furukawa calls working in the ‘konbini’ a dead-end job herself, but it is the only place in the world, where she feels socially accepted, like a valuable part of a team, yes, she is feeling comfortable at her workplace. Wearing a uniform, everyone in the staff seems to be equal, because they are all store workers.
Then a new staff member Shiraha appears, he is an arrogant, lazy misogynist, and an outsider like Keiko Furukawa. So, they get to know each other, and he becomes her roommate. The novel answers the question if this will change her life and shows how her surrounding reacts to this development.

The story is written from the perspective of a 36-year-old woman working in a convenience store in first person narration. Keiko Furukawa is still single in her mid-thirties and has been working part-time in a convenience store for her whole life. The overall theme is women’s living conditions in contemporary Japan and specifically how people are singled out as an outsider, when they do not play their role as expected by society, which means getting married or taking a decent career path.

The novel can be understood as a critical portrayal of contemporary Japan’s society. So-called social phenomena like ‘hikikomori’ (secluding oneself, often hiding inside and not leaving one’s apartment), working in low paid or/and part-time jobs, as a ‘freeter’ (freelancer) with little or no perspective to change one’s lifestyle for the better. These developments can be seen in Japan at least for the last three decades and have changed the society deeply, where the once so important full time employment for a lifetime at one company was the norm.

Sayaka Murata is one of Japan’s modern female authors, who writes about women in Japanese society without shying away from taboo topics and has won several literary awards. ‘Convenience Store Woman’ is her 10th novel. Her newest book is called ‘Earthling’ (地球星) published in Japan in 2018. A translation into English was made available in October 2020.

I liked ‘Convenience Store Woman’ more than I thought I would when taking the book in my hands. The cute cover was indicating the wrong direction. It is not some nice story about a girl working in a store, but a deeply moving story about a young woman searching her way in a hostile environment. She does not understand the social protocol and is not understood by her friends and family either. As an outsider of Japan’s society social interaction becomes painful for her, but she finds happiness in a place which is not appreciated by normal standards and that is her ‘konbini’. I was surprised by the literary strength of the book which stands out. So, I would like to read more of Sayaka Murata and will have a look at her new book in the future. ‘Convenience Store Woman’ is an important and unusual work.

Reviewed title:
村田沙耶香. コンビニ人間. 2016.
Sayaka Murata. Convenience Store Woman. Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Portobello Books 2018 (Cover).