Review: The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura

There is a growing interest in a behavioral phenomenon the Internet has dubbed “main character syndrome”. Whether motivated by narcissism or a healthy sense of self-worth, some people live as though they were the hero in a fictional story and interact with the world around them as though they were its center. The narrator of The Woman in the Purple Skirt is not one of these people. She barely sees herself as a character at all. 

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Review: Things Remembered and Things Forgotten by Kyoko Nakajima

Things Remembered and Things Forgotten is a collection about memory, but it is also a collection about grief. Gathered from author Kyoko Nakajima’s published work, the stories assembled here speak about loss—of a loved one, of a place, of a culture—and what comes next.

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Review: Heaven by Mieko Kawakami

Fans of Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami’s first novel published in English in 2020, might be expecting another women-centered narrative. Heaven is radically different. This time, an unnamed male narrator describes his appalling position in the social hierarchy of his junior high school…

…But though the graphic bullying is the novel’s context, at its heart is an enduring question: what does a human being make of suffering?…

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Review: Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura

…The narrator offers tantalizing references to other children’s books with magical escapes into other worlds. But the Wolf Queen’s mirror world is fundamentally different. Narnia, Oz, and Wonderland bring adventure to children whose lives are more-or-less ordinary. In Lonely Castle in the Mirror, the villains and challenges the children face are in the real world. It is the castle that is the refuge, the place where they are safe…

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Review: Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki

The stories collected in Terminal Boredom take up themes that might feel familiar to readers of contemporary Japanese fiction. The characters criticize, challenge, or defy social conventions. Narrators raise questions about identity and agency. But unlike, say, Mieko Kawakami or Sayaka Murata, author Izumi Suzuki died more than three decades ago.

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Review: Touring the Land of the Dead by Maki Kashimada

There is certainly no shortage of novels about hotels with complicated histories, but Touring the Land of the Dead is fairly unique in its execution. Natsuko doesn’t mourn for the past or become trapped in the past; her visit to the hotel helps her to escape from her family’s toxicity and move forward with her own life.

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Review: Soul Lanterns by Shaw Kazuki

By placing the action at a generation’s remove from the actual events, Kuzki blunts some of the harshest edges of the story—and this is one of the novel’s strengths. Soul Lanterns isn’t so much about August 1945 as the trauma it left behind. Nozomi and her friends begin to grow up when they begin to understand the interior lives of the adults around them… The novel’s ultimate message is that growing up means becoming aware of the world around you.

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Review: Tono Monogatari by Shigeru Mizuki

Shigeru Mizuki’s Tono Monogatari has a complicated lineage. During Japan’s rapid modernization in the early 20th century, a man named Kunio Yanagita set out to preserve Japan’s cultural heritage of magic and the supernatural. Along the way, he met a young writer, Kizen Sasaki. Together they traveled Japan’s Tono region, today about five hours northeast of Tokyo by train, recording folktales and evaluating whether they might be true. 

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A List of Fukushima Fiction

“Tsunami Disaster in Meiji Era” by Kokunimasa Utagawa

In Translation from Japanese:

In English:

Mudshit: Sacred Cesium Ground as an Allegory for 3/11

On March 11, 2011, the 9.0-magnitude Great East Japan Earthquake triggered a powerful tsunami that swept the Tohoku region in Northeastern Japan. Residents had less than ten minutes to flee from a 133-foot wave that rushed to shore at speeds up to 435 miles an hour.

The earthquake also triggered three meltdowns at the nearby Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Because of the radioactive fallout, some of the hundreds of thousands of people evacuated will never be able to return home.

Ten years later, anger still simmers beneath the surface about what is widely viewed as Tokyo’s failure to deal with the emergency and its aftermath.

Twelve Zodiac Signs: Ox by Takeuchi Seiho

Sacred Cesium Ground

More than other translated works of “Fukushima fiction,” Sacred Cesium Ground is almost a direct allegory for the situation on the ground in Tohoku in the months following the “3/11 Triple Disaster.” Through its use of symbolism, Sacred Cesium Ground is an allegory not only for the aftermath of 3/11, not only for the consequences of generations of neglect of the Tohoku region, but also of the structural problems in Japanese society that left Japan open to a disaster of 3/11’s magnitude in the first place.

The Cows: The people of Tohoku

The novel opens with Nishino (we’re never privy to her first name) beginning a short stint as a volunteer at The Fortress of Hope. The “fortress” is a farm that has taken in irradiated cattle that the government ordered local farmers to cull. These cows are essentially “living debris” leftover when the floodwaters receded.

Using animals to stand in for people is… problematic. Especially when you’re dealing with a group of people who have already been marginalized. In this case, using beef cattle as a symbol for the people of an entire region reminds us that the people of Tohoku were treated as resources—things rather than people—since long before 2011.

In the words of The Fortress of Hope’s ideological leader

“All of us abandoned and forgotten peoples. The thinning out and culling. In the same way that the cattle are being ‘disposed of’: aren’t we too, right now, receiving the same treatment.”

The Fortress of Hope: Tohoku Itself

From the outside, the Fortress of Hope looks like a powerful symbol of Tohoku’s resilience. (The Fortress of Hope is loosely based on the Ranch of Hope, sited within the 20-km Exclusion Zone set by the Japanese government.) Before Nishino arrives, she has imagined it as “some kind of utopia.”

But Nishino discovers the harsh reality about The Fortress of Hope and Tohoku itself soon after she arrives: “this was a space summarily cut loose and left to its own devices.”

Tohoku has a complicated relationship with the rest of Japan. Some scholars even classified the region as an “internal colony.” Tokyo has used the region’s resources and people for centuries, most recently as a site for nuclear power plants. The Fukushima Daiichi Plants were, for example, run by a Tokyo company to meet Tokyo’s electricity needs.

In the weeks that followed 3/11, the Japanese were inundated with calls to “Fight on Japan!” At the time, government leaders presented a united front: all of Japan would work together to recover and rebuild. The messages were messages of hope.

Miko Mari: Opportunistic Japanese politicians

On Nishino’s final day at the farm, she hears that they expect a visitor—the up-and-coming, young and trendy political hotshot Miko Mari. She is “the first politician who had been put on the public stage by a producer, a guy known for promoting bands.” Mari doesn’t expect more from her visit than a photo op with the ranch’s cutest calves and a few soundbites.

Mari herself isn’t really a villain; she doesn’t care enough about the Fortress to be a villain. But her advocacy for Tohoku is all show. The people at the Fotress can’t count on her for any meaningful relief anymore than the people of Tohoku can count on politicians to keep their promises.

“Mudshit”: The radioactive fallout from the Fukushima power plants

Nishino doesn’t resort to profanity often—at least in English translation—but she pulls no punches when she describes the filth at the Fortress of Hope.

This mudshit is no ordinary ranching runoff: it is contaminated by radioactive fallout. The novel’s grotesque climax reminds us that the shit is also made up of the bodies of the dead. One character describes what happened to the cows who starved to death after 3/11: before they could be rescued 

Bodies in a big tub, full of piss…There was so many flies the air looked black. So many, when you breathed they came into your nostrils and you couldn’t open your eyes. On the ground at your feet, big fat maggots, everywhere. You couldn’t walk without stepping on them; when you stepped on them they would go poppop.

Later, Nishino falls into the muck. She scoops up a handful for the horrified politician. “Take a good look at this,” she insists “This is evidence of life.”

She continues:

This mudshit, this cesium mudshit, this filled-to-the-brim proof-of-cows-that-had-lived-and-had-been-abandoned—I thrust it before [Mari’s] eyes.

What about Nishino?

Nishino, stands in for all of Japan’s marginalized people.

Rachel DiNitto, author of Fukushima Fiction: The Literary Landscape of Japan’s Triple Disaster observes that “the narrative thrust of the story appropriates the nuclear disaster in order to tell Nishino’s personal narrative.” DiNitto’s criticism is generally more nuanced, but this comment rather misses the point. The long-term cost of the 3/11 disaster—broken communities, irrecoverable careers, mental illness, nuclear fallout—are borne by Tohoku residents precisely because they are, have always been, Japan’s marginalized.

It’s also worth noting that Nishino identifies as a cow herself; she doesn’t just emotionally connect with the cows but is, in a meaningful sense, one of them. She notes how the language of the temp agency she once worked at (“human capital” and “human resources”) connotes that the workers are, like the cattle, merely a means to an end. In a flashback to a scene of domestic abuse, her husband calls her a cow. She simply accepts it:

I had become a cow. With the hooves of my front feet, I was skillfully holding the chopsticks and the rice bowl.

Why, Nishino asks herself, does she always go back to her husband?:

Why did I accept that change each and every time? I knew I was going to be betrayed yet again in the future. What was I hanging on to?

Her quiet resolution to leave her husband at the end of the novel is a hopeful note for Japanese society. Maybe Japan, too, rid itself of a system that leaves so many behind.