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Category Archive for 'Japan'

On March 11, 2011, the most powerful earthquake in Japanese history, registering 9.0 on the Richter scale, hit northeast Japan, killing sixteen thousand people and creating massive devastation. The powerful tsunami that resulted from this earthquake obliterated towns along the coast, and was so powerful it would go on to affect even the coasts of North and South America. Most frighteningly, the rush of sea water had the immediate effect of creating meltdowns at all three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which then released terrifying amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere and precipitated the evacuation of over three hundred thousand people. With a succession of disasters like these – a powerful earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear disaster – and all the cleanup and social management involving the population of the area, life in the Fukushima area was frantic – people displaced, many deaths, families torn apart, livelihoods gone, and the earth itself contaminated. In the eight years since then, life has been in “emergency mode,” with so much of immediate importance being faced every day by the people of the area that few former residents, service organizations, or concerned citizens have been able to go there, stand back, and see the results of this emergency in any kind of universal perspective. Until now. These two novellas, recently translated into English, provide the first real glimpses of life in this area of Japan in the aftermath of the disasters.

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I am especially fond of Japanese novels for their quiet power, restraint, and careful structure, and I was looking forward to this one, written by a Japanese woman but focusing on characters who have immigrated to Australia, with its totally different culture and completely different language. Iwaki Kei, the Japanese author, knows all about this, having first gone to Australia herself twenty years ago when she was a recent college graduate. She has stayed there with her expatriate Japanese husband ever since, an eventuality which I expected would give much added insight into cultural adaptation, perhaps also including an overlay of analysis into how the differences between cultures affect every aspect of the lives of immigrants. What I found was completely different – surprising, even shocking at first, but which made this, ultimately one of the most intriguing and original debut novels I have read in years, as a Nigerian war refugee and a Japanese scholar both find themselves together in an ESL class in Australia, where they both learn more about life than pronunciation and grammar.

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Author Helen DeWitt expresses her admiration, at one point, for “the type of person who thinks boredom a fate worse than death.” And she obviously writes for this type of reader as she performs amazing literary and scholarly acrobatics in this unique and energetic novel which never flags–and certainly never bores! Main character Sybilla is the hard-working, single mother of Ludo, a 6-year-old genius who gobbles up even the most complicated subjects, seemingly overnight, and DeWitt incorporates many esoteric subjects here–Japanese language, Greek verbs, Icelandic verse, Fourier’s analysis, Arabic, astrophysics, and tournament chess, bridge, and piquet, among other things—as she describes their intellectual daily life together. Despite Sybilla’s arcane subjects and complex ideas, DeWitt manages to write so entertainingly about them that they enhance, rather than obscure, the human story at the heart of the novel, when Ludo studies Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and then set tests for seven men, one of whom might by his unknown father.

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Set in Berlin and Tokyo in the 1930s, Swiss author Christian Kracht’s latest novel offers an unusual fictional vision of the prewar years in Germany and Japan – one in which the primary focus of the author – and ultimately of his two main characters – is not that of reality as much as it is of cinema: Life and the future can be controlled in a film, even if they can not be controlled in real life. Emil Nageli, a young Swiss film director nearing his thirtieth birthday, has been in Berlin talking with the Reich Minister, who believes that a well-made horror film – “an allegory, if you like, of the coming dread” – would attract much attention, even in America. He also wants to involve the Japanese, however, since he believes that they “will sooner or later subdue the Asian continent.” Masahiko Amakasu, a Japanese film maker and admirer of Nageli, hopes to establish a relationship with the Germans. Amakasu, too, envisions film changing the world, hoping that a Japanese film will “counteract the seeming omnipotence of American cultural imperialism.” A thin plot connects some well developed characters as real characters mix with fictional characters and the action fades to a conclusion.

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Keiko Furukura has been working at her local Smile Mart convenience store for half her life, for the eighteen years since she finished school, and she is completely comfortable in her job and in her ability to manage her life. Though she works only part-time because she says she is “not strong,” she knows where everything belongs in the store, how to restock shelves and supplies, how to update displays, and how to avoid conflict with her co-workers and customers. She likes her job, they like her, she never gets angry, and she is as happy as she can be in her role – one which that she regards as “not suitable for men.” It is the other women in her life who eventually begin to question her role at the store and her future there. She is, after all, a woman in her mid-thirties, approaching the age at which she may soon be “unable” to marry and have children, goals her family and friends have already achieved for themselves and which they hold for her for the future. The introduction of a man to her life at the convenience store changes the trajectory of Keiko’s life – but not in the ways the reader expects, a man who believes that society has not changed since the Stone Age. With humor and irony, author Sayaka Murata develops the complications which seem to placate Keiko’s family and friends while complicating Keiko’s own life.

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