Tag Archives: JapaneseLiteratureChallenge

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

Inspired by the stories of Japanese immigrants who came to America in the early 1900’s, this short novel is told in the collective first person, both Japanese and White.  Starting with women chosen as “picture brides” on their sea journey to this new place, we learn of their varied histories, thoughts and fears.  Who are these men they are going to meet and marry? What will their life be like? Did the Americans eat nothing but meat and were they entirely covered with hair?

Told in short clipped sentences the reader follows these women through their lives, from their “First Night” with their new husbands, the beginnings of married life,  issues with “Whites”, childbirth and on up to the Japanese internment of World War Two.  At times these sections read like lists and didn’t quite work for me, at other times I was astounded by Otsuka’s clarity of voice, of these voices, and her respect for these people and their suffering.  What stands out is their strength, both personal and collective.  I found this a striking book.

     A year on and almost all traces of the Japanese have disappeared from our town…We speak of them rarely now, if at all, although word from the other side of the mountains continues to reach us from time to time – entire cities of Japanese have sprung up in the deserts of Nevada and Utah, Japanese in Idaho have been put to work picking beets in the fields, and in Wyoming a group of Japanese children were seen emerging, shivering and hungry, from a forest at dusk.  But this is only hearsay and none of it is necessarily true.  All we know is that the Japanese are out there somewhere, in one place or another, and we shall probably not meet them again in this world.  From page 129.


Filed under Historical Fiction, JapaneseLiteratureChallenge 5, Review

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002

Borrowed from my library.  I decided to read this after reading an excerpt of Otsuka’s latest novel, The Buddha in the Attic,  in Harper’s.

In five chapters, from five different points of view, Otsuka records the displacement and exile of one family and brilliantly chronicles the uprooting of an entire generation.  In February of 1942 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which authorized the removal and internment of at least 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans from the west coast to the interior of the United States.

In language that is cool and spare we learn of the experience through the eyes of the Mother, Daughter, Son and Father.  Each has their own thoughts and needs.  Each  has own way of dealing with removal, their own way of coping with loss, of remembering.

All through October the days were still warm, like summer, but at night the mercury dropped and in the morning the sagebrush was sometimes covered with frost.  Twice in one week there were dust storms.  The sky suddenly turned gray and then a hot wind came screaming across the desert, churning up everything in its path.  From inside the barracks the boy could not see the sun or the moon or even the next row of barracks on the other side of the gravel path.  All he could see was dust.  The wind rattled the windows and doors and the dust seeped in like smoke through the cracks in the roof and at night he slept with a wet handkerchief over his mouth to keep out the smell.  In the morning, when he woke, the wet handkerchief was dry and in his mouth was the gritty taste of chalk.  from page 77.

Every bit of this small novel effected me.  I got to know each of these people,  but it was the mother I felt the closest to.  I only can wish I would show her strength, her fortitude, under similar circumstances.

During the daytime she spent hours scrubbing layers of dirt off the floors.  “Who were these people?” she asked us again and again.  She dusted and swept and cooked.  She washed windows with lemon juice and vinegar and replaced broken glass panes with tin squares.  On sunny afternoons she went out into the backyard in her  work gloves and her floppy straw hat and she raked up fallen leaves into piles, which we jumped in and scattered once more to the wind.  She cleared the weeds from the overgrown pathways.  She pruned back the hedges.  She tore out the rotting trellis from the middle of the garden, which had seeded itself and gone wild.  Deep down in the underbrush she found things.  A doll’s head.  A lady’s black silk stocking.  A stone Buddha lying face down in the dirt.  “So that’s where you were.”  We lifted it for her gently, brushed off the fat belly, saw the enormous round head, up lifted, still laughing.  from page 125.

This is a brilliant and beautiful book.  I highly recommend it.


Filed under Historical Fiction, JapaneseLiteratureChallenge 5, Review

The Lake – Banana Yoshimoto

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich

Melville House, Brooklyn, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

This is another beautiful book from Banana Yoshimoto.  I now want to read all of her work.

The Lake starts out slowly.  I found I had to slow down, quiet down, before I could be comfortable with these pages.

Chihiro, a young mural artist, is trying to understand the relationship that is developing with her neighbor, Nakajima. After caring for her mother through a long illness, Chihiro has just returned from her funeral.  She feels disconnected from her father and can’t figure out her emotional attachment to the strange young man who has started sleeping over.

Yoshimoto’s writing is simple and subtle, her characters are  lovable and a bit odd.  The mystery pulls you in like quicksand, before you know it you are caught.  This story feels old-fashioned but Yoshimoto breaths life into language and plot in a way I find extraordinary.  There are little gems hidden in places that surprise.

That’s how it goes.  Things look different depending on your perspective.

As I see it, fighting to bridge those gaps isn’t really what matters.  The most important thing is to know them inside and out, as differences, and to understand why certain people are the way they are.  From page 127.

You don’t necessarily have to want to become an adult; it happens as a matter of course, as you go, making choices.  The important thing, I think, is to choose for yourself.  From page 136.

It would give too much away to tell more of this story.  If you liked Kitchen or Lizard I think you will enjoy The Lake.

I read this novel as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge 5.  Why don’t you join in?


Filed under InTranslation, LiteraryFiction, Review

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima

Translated from the Japanese by Meredith Weatherby

Vintage International, New York, 1994

183 pages.

Borrowed from the library.

This is, quite simply, a love story.  Shinji, a young fisherman helping to support his widowed mother and younger brother sees a young women, Hatsue, on the beach.  He is instantly attracted to her and, as the two get to know each other, they fall in love.  She is the daughter of a wealthy merchantman.  The island they live on, Uta-Jima,  is small and insular and, as their relationship becomes public knowledge, they must face the gossip of their neighbors and the jealousy of others.

This is  beautifully written, a lyrical story of first love.  It takes place in a simpler time, one which filled me with nostalgia.  Reading Mishima’s prose is like viewing Japanese brush painting, much is expressed with a few words, like a few brush strokes.    A lot of this has to do with Mishima’s way of depicting the people, the land and the sea that surrounds them.  He had the ability to express human thought and feeling in a way that appears simple and yet hold great depth.

The boy felt a consummate accord between himself and this opulence of nature that surrounded him.  He inhales deeply, and it was as though a part of the unseen something that constitutes nature had permeated the core of his being.  He heard the sounds of the waves striking the shore, and it was as though the surging of his young blood was keeping time with the movement of the sea’s great tides.  It was doubtless because nature itself satisfied his need that Shinji felt no particular lack of music in his everyday life.  From pages 44/45.

In this way the spring had neared its end.  It was still too early for the clusters of crinum lilies that bloomed in the cliffs on the eastern side of the island, but the fields were colored here and there with various other flowers.  The children were back in school again, and some of the women were already diving in the cold water for the seaweed called “soft lace”.  As a consequence there were now more houses that were empty during the daytime, doors unlocked, windows open.  Bees entered these empty houses freely, flew about in them lonesomely, and were often startled upon running headlong into a mirror.  From page 119.

I enjoyed this novel and will be reading more of Mishima’s work in the future.

Other reviews:

Fizzy Thoughts

Stuff As Dreams Are Made On


Filed under Historical Fiction, Japanese Literature Challenge 4, New Authors 2010, Review

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker

Vintage International, New York, 1995

Borrowed from the library.

This novel, set in Osaka during the years leading up to World War II, tells the story of the four Makioka sisters, members of a wealthy merchant family now in decline. In gentle prose Tanizaki gives us a picture of each sister and of the struggle between traditional, aristocratic Japanese culture and the  modern influences filtering in from Europe and America.

A main theme that weaves through this novel is the strict and appropriate behavior for young women in  Japanese.  Each of the sisters is different but all are expected to follow the same path, learning the arts of women, marriage and children.  The family is trying to find a husband for Yakiko, the third sister.  They have been trying for years.  Each candidate has had his faults and, as the years go by, the offers of marriage become few and far between. The men become less and less “acceptable”.

The youngest sister, Taeko, known as Koi-San, is rebellious and struggles for independence.  In the end she suffers great loss.  Possibly Tanizaki’s idea of what women will suffer as punishment for turning away from traditional culture.  Then again, the staid and honor-bound behavior of the family as not brought about the best outcome either.

I found the best parts of the book to be the quiet times, bits of daily life gently painted like sumi-e, with soft strokes.  Tanizaki was wonderful at creating a sense of place and of ritual events.

The house was built in the old Osaka fashion.  Inside the high garden walls, one came upon the latticed front of the house.  An earthen passage led from the entrance to the rear.  In the rooms, lighted even at noon by but a dim light from the courtyard, hemlock pillars, rubbed to a fine polish, gave off a soft glow. Sachiko did not know how old the house was – possibly a generation or two.  At first it must have been used as a villa to which elderly Makiokas might retire, or in which the junior branches of the family might live.  Not long before his death Sachiko’s father had moved his family there from Semba; it had become the fashion for merchant families to have residences away from their shops.  The younger sisters had therefore not lived in the house long.  They had often visited relatives there even when they were young, however, and it was there that their father died.  They were deeply attached to the old place.  Sachiko sensed that much of her sister’s love for Osaka was in fact love for the house, and, for all her amusement at these old fashioned ways, she felt a twinge of pain herself – she would no longer be able to go back to the old family house.  She often enough joined Yukiko and Taeko in complaining about it – surely there was no darker and unhygienic house in the world, and they could not understand what made their sister live there, and  they felt thoroughly depressed after no more than three days there, and so on-yet a deep undefinable sorrow came over Sachiko at the news.  To lose the Osaka house would be to lose her very roots. From page 99.


They turned off the flash lights and approached in silence.  Fireflies dislike noise and light.  But even at the edge of the river there were no fireflies.  “Maybe they are not out tonight,” someone whisperd.  “No, there are plenty of them.  Come over here.”  Down into the grasses on the bank, and there, in the delicate moment before the last light goes, were fireflies, gliding out over the water, in low arcs like the sweep of grasses.  On down the river, on and on, were fireflies, lines of them wavering out from this bank and the other and back again, sketching their uncertain tracks of light down close to the surface of the water, hidden from outside by the grasses.  In the last moment of light, with darkness creeping p from the water and the moving plumes of grass still faintly outlined, there, far as the river stretched- and infinite number of little lines in two long rows on either side, quiet, unearthly… From page 342.

The book is dense and slow in places.  At times I found myself bogging down and wanting to skim.  That may have to do with the translation, or it may be Tanizaki’s way of portraying the distinctions between the traditional way of Japanese life and the struggle with modernity.  This is my first book for the Japanese Literature Challenge.  I enjoyed it and am excited to discover other Japanese authors.


Filed under Fiction, InTranslation, Japanese Literature Challenge 4, New Authors 2010