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Category Archive for 'Japan'

The “sensitivity” of Japanese soldiers, their “wisdom in understanding,” and the “higher side of themselves” which they celebrate in the novel were lost on the allied Prisoners of War under their control, and these qualities will be just as lost on readers of this novel as they read about unconscionable examples of gross inhumanity. Set during World War II, when many Australians became POWs after the Fall of Singapore to the Japanese, the novel details the brutality of the conquerors, their starvation of prisoners, their forcing of dying soldiers to work until they collapsed and expired, their murders and tortures, and even their use of conscious prisoners as guinea pigs for Japanese officers who wanted to test their bayonets. The sadism which paralleled the officers’ interest in poetry was cultivated and celebrated among themselves as proof of their dedication to the Emperor, who could do no wrong. Much of the action here takes place during the building of the Siam to Burma Railway, known as the Death Railway, which the Emperor wanted finished immediately so that it could eventually be extended to India. Balanced against these horrors, which Flanagan depicts in grim and uncompromising imagery, is a non-traditional love story, which shows aspects of the Australian society from which most of the soldiers have come and hope to return, and particularly the society of Tasmania, which several main characters call home and where author Richard Flanagan himself grew up and has spent most of his life.

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In his newest novel, Haruki Murakami once again explores two of his major themes, alienation and isolation as they affect the life of a sensitive and introverted character. Tsukuru Tazaki, age twenty as the novel opens, has always regarded himself as “colorless” in relation to his group of four long-time friends, two young women and two young men who have been his constant companions throughout high school in Nagoya. His friend Aka has always had the best grades in school and is a ferocious competitor; Ao, a forward on the rugby team, was rugby captain in his senior year, and like Aka has an intense desire to win. One of the women, Kuro, though not beautiful, is charming, independent and curious, with a quick tongue to match her quick mind, while Shiro, the other woman, is tall, slim, and beautiful, someone who enjoys teaching piano to children but does not enjoy being the center of attention. Tsukuru has always been secretly attracted to her. His first year in Tokyo he does see his friends in Nagoya on vacations and they do telephone, but suddenly, without warning after his sophomore year, his friends inexplicably stop returning his calls and ask him not to call them again, events which leave him on the verge of suicide. Even after finally emerging from his suicidal depression, graduating from university, and beginning a job designing railway stations, he remains traumatized by these events from the past. Murakami creates a straightforward novel which captures the reader’s interest on the level of plot, while also fleshing it out with philosophical and metaphysical discussions, psychological insights, and literary and musical references.

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The Temple of Dawn, the third novel in Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy, takes place in the years immediately preceding World War II, just after the “China Incident” of 1936, and Shigekuni Honda, having abandoned his formerly altruistic ideals, is still trying to develop his own beliefs about life, death, love, the transmigration of souls, and reincarnation. War is imminent now, as Japan, Germany, and Italy have signed a treaty against the Americans. Having given up his judgeship, Honda lives in partial retirement, but he takes a business trip to Bangkok, where he also hopes to meet Prince Pattanadid and Prince Krisada, former school friends from his youth. The Thai royal family has gone to Switzerland, however, and the palace is empty. The only person there is a “mad princess,” age seven, who lives as a virtual prisoner, claiming publicly that “I’m not really a Siamese princess. I’m the reincarnation of a Japanese, and my real home is in Japan.” Having been exposed to the idea of samsara, Honda eventually becomes certain that this little princess, “Princess Moonlight,” is the reincarnation of Kiyoake/Isao. A total believer in the old samurai traditions, Yukio Mishima despaired of the western influence he saw appearing in post-war Japan, and he never forgave the emperor for denying his divinity in the capitulation which ended the war. Just after author he finished the final novel in this “Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, the Decay of the Angel on November 25, 1970, he disemboweled himself in a ritual suicide—seppuku—committed in the presence of four members of his private army.

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From the opening page of this simply narrated story, author Hiromi Kawakami establishes characters who, in their disarming complexity and iconoclastic behavior, behave differently from the expectations that many American readers of Japanese novels may have come to expect. Tsukiko Omachi, a single businesswoman of thirty-eight, introduces herself as the narrator of the novel by describing her meeting with Mr. Harutsuna Matsumoto at a crowded bar after she finishes work. Tsukiko is not a traditional Japanese woman, and the man she meets is not a contemporary trying to pick her up. She is aggressive, accustomed to living her own life without interference from anyone else, Matsumoto, a man about thirty years older than she, has recognized her from the past – she was a student in one of his Japanese classes in high school, years ago. After two years of casual (non-exclusive) meetings, Tsukiko begins to be able to predict what Sensei will say under various circumstances, and when she takes walks alone she begins to wonder what Sensei is doing. Though some readers may become frustrated by the excruciatingly slow pace at which the relationship between Tsukiko and Sensei develops, with long months often elapsing between some of the key events, the author’s ability to show the subtle changes which occur between these two strong and independent people will delight lovers of precise writing and careful development.

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Winner of three major Japanese prizes during his long writing career, author Teru Miyamoto is still virtually unknown to English-speaking audiences. Sadly, Kinshu: Autumn Brocade, published in Japan in 1982 and translated into English by Roger K. Thomas in 2005, remains the only one of his novels available in English. In this quietly elegant novel focusing on the effects of a failed marriage on the two participants, Miyamoto explores the importance of marriage and its ramifications in Japanese society, emphasizing the characters and their culture rather than the kind of plot development and grand climax expected by most western readers. Readers interested in the effects of culture on character may find, as I did, that Miyamoto’s focus feels completely honest, true to life in ways that many plot-based novels do not, and this novel’s concise form allows him to explore serious themes without being didactic or held captive to plot. Immense sympathy is evoked as these two people find their lives permanently affected because they have been unable to surmount the barriers placed by tradition. As Aki and Yasuaki continue their new lives and try to understand the past, the reader also realizes that though the culture in which these new lives unfold differs from that of western readers, the human qualities of these individuals and their feelings are universal, not bound by culture.

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