Review of Yasunari Kawabata’s The Old Capital

The Old Capital

Yasunari Kawabata

Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1988

ISBN: 978-4-8053-0972-8

VI + 164 pp.

Translated by J. Martin Holman

The title of this book refers to Kyoto, which is indeed a former capital of Japan and the site for the action of this quite (characteristically Japanese) slim novel. I am not sure whether, in the original language, this title could be taken to have a Bourdieuesque element in that it focuses so much on the cultural capital of Japanese society. Culture includes not just women’s clothes and food, although it is often thought to do so and these are both much in evidence here but, also, the social relations embedded in work and in the practices of production and the class structure and its dialectical relationship with language and forms of behaviour. These elements underlie a superficially simple story of a young woman who discovers she was a foundling and has a twin sister whom she is able to befriend. Yet it is the simplicity of the story and the language with which it is described that reveals why Yasunari Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.

The narrative is centred on dutiful Chieko, the daughter of a man with a modest business dealing in women’s clothes. Change is coming to Kyoto and her father is wrestling with ways to incorporate the bold new visions of Paul Klee into the traditional methods of making the obi and matching it to the kimono. Nevertheless, the pace of traditional life continues and is marked by the orderly arrival of the various celebrations and rituals of public life. However, the harmony and unity on which many such rituals are based seem to be breaking down:

“Large benches were lined up along a path in the cherry grove, and there was a great commotion of people drinking and singing in a boisterous crowd. Some old country women were dancing gaily, while the drunken men lay asleep, snoring. Some of the men even rolled off the benches (p.46).”

It is not necessary to say that it is the spread of transportation infrastructure that links agricultural places of production and urban centres of consumption to the benefit of both, that has brought about this sordid scene in which decent forms of behaviour have become imperilled. All the representations of the old capital remain in place but they are occasional punctured by some reminder that the world has been moving on and disruptions are emerging.

Chieko was given to believe that her parents had, in effect, kidnapped her from her natural parents but later it was revealed that she was left outside the shop one night. Further, it appears that she has a twin sister but this was problematic for everyone. I did not know what the issue is with twins but a brief article on the Time website (,9171,770452,10.html) which includes the following: “… Japanese mothers believe that to bear more than one child at a time is a bestial act, frequently try to hide multiple births by separate registry of offspring, even by infanticide.” So, ashamed at having borne twins, Chieko’s parents abandoned her and kept with them Naeko, to live in the countryside in what it subsequently appears is rather difficult rural poverty. Of course, the action then goes on to focus on Chieko’s desire to meet and establish a relationship with her sister and the latter’s reluctance to cross the social and class barriers that have grown up between them. This is all managed with a simplicity of language that is characteristic of Japanese literature. The translator, J. Martin Holman, has done a good job in keeping out of the way of the text and not making it sound too American. He notes, in a brief foreword, that at least some of the text written in a Kyoto dialect that has not made it into this version of the text. To have done so would have required, presumably, footnotes or other interruptions which some readers dislike. Alas, therefore, some nuances of the original language may have been lost.

This is an engrossing work that repays careful attention to the small, ephemeral details of daily life and the ways in which they have an impact on people in different stations of life. The author himself is famous or infamous for his mysterious death – he was found in a gas-filled room in such a way as to suggest suicide or, less likely, having become the victim of an unusual accident. An ambiguous act conducted in silence is a very typical way of considering Japanese society as described by its best literature.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University


Review of Tetsuya Honda’s The Silent Dead


The Silent Dead

Tetsuya Honda

London: Titan Books, 2016

ISBN: 9781785651694

431 pp

Translated by Giles Murray

It is Tokyo in the middle of the first decade of the present century and we are in the presence of the police as they try to solve murders and other horrible crimes. In particular, we are following a young woman, Reiko Himekawa, who has reached the rank of lieutenant at the tender age of 30 and so has her own squad to command. The back cover blurb reveals the fact that there is a serial killer loose on the streets, although this does not emerge in the text until at least half way through. Still, one death never seems to be enough in books like this.

The timing of the action means that the characters have mobile phones but cannot send texts or photos to each other and so the coppers still have to put in the legwork even at the rank of lieutenant. Curiously, there do not appear to be any police cars available and so Reiko and her squad travel around by train and even taxi. Do they have to pay for this and then be recompensed later? That must be a nightmare for administration. Well, given that so many police officers here seem to use their own money in a variety of inventive ways, perhaps it is just par for the course to get the money back through the use of initiative.

This is a Japan that is on the edge of being brutal, sexist and corrupt, on a kind of casual basis. The characters also have to deal with the complications of living in a bourgeois society in which social relations can be very intense, complicated and stifling in the need for outward conformity. This is one of the reasons I enjoy Japanese crime fiction, especially when it combines these personal issues with the mundanity of everyday living, shopping, eating and travelling. Unfortunately, there is not enough of this in the book and that has the effect of reducing the credibility of the characters and the sense of really being part of the action. To be honest, in many ways this is a terrible book: the characters are one-dimensional and lack any kind of intellectual hinterland; the relationships are cliché-ridden and predictable; the plot itself does not really seem to make much sense. However, the action is brisk and the narrative zips along, which is helped by the large amounts of white space on every page. The translation is OK but a little too American for my taste – of course, there is a strong American influence on Japanese culture and, besides, no one really cares what I think.

My impression whenever visiting Japan is that the exaggerated manners people use in every social interaction and the care which people take in avoiding each other on the street are symptoms of the inner rage each feels about everyone else and that resembles British society. Both countries seem to be the source of a great deal of crime fiction and that is the dark side of the external politeness. Crime fiction is found everywhere, of course, although I imagine that American crime is often the result of gun culture and the everyday failures of capitalism, French crime considers the fundamental impossibility of tolerating the other and Chinese crime relates to the contradictions between authoritarianism and human aspirations. No doubt a more penetrating evaluation of this issue would provide more grounded and profound insights.

Despite its flaws, The Silent Dead overall is a pleasant romp and the cover claims that more than one million copies have been sold, which is quite an achievement. People who like this kind of thing will like this book.

Gene Mapper


Gene Mapper

Taiyo Fujii

A short distance into the future and we find ourselves in a world in which hunger has been ended because of the success of the technology of genetically modified organisms. This is clearly a good thing but not all is well. On the negative side, the internet has been destroyed and, to retrieve information from it, it is necessary to find specially trained and equipped experts able to go diving into its ruins. Online technology has continued to evolve but it has been decentralized to the individual level, as people are able to create their own customized forms of localized virtual reality. This is all rather jolly in that it means people actually have to go to places and do things for themselves, rather than using the internet to organize things remotely (no doubt the US military has found its own solution to this problem but this is a Japanese book about Japanese people and westerners all nearly all offstage).

The protagonist Hayashida is a freelance gene mapper whose work has been influential in the new green revolution in the Mekong region (in real life, of course, an individual of such importance to a corporate interest would long ago have been tied down to a long-term contract) and, in particular, in Cambodia. When it becomes evident that something is going wrong with the hyper-rice and locusts threaten a new plague, Hayashida travels to Ho Chi Minh City to meet contacts who can help him work out what is happening and help him prevent his own name and work from becoming mud all around the industry.

This is an interesting and fun book which, I believe, was originally self-published before being taken up by a larger publisher and then seeing a global release by VIZ Media in San Francisco, with a perfectly serviceable translation by Jim Hubbert. It received awards in Japan but it does suffer from some of the common faults of science fiction: characters with gimmicks to identify them rather than actually personality traits; information dumping and less than sparkling dialogue. However, the different perspective is more than sufficiently interesting and the pace of the narrative quite rapid before it reaches the inevitable resolution scenes and then post-resolution settlement. I would certainly be willing to read subsequent books by the author.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders


The Tokyo Zodiac Murders

Soji Shimada

Is it possible to solve a decades ago murder that has engrossed Japan in an era before mobile telecommunications and the internet? This is the premise behind Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, which is (I am told) a member of the honkaku (‘authentic’) murder mysteries. The honkaku type is characterized by a detailed approach outlining the facts available to the police at the time and then updated as the novel’s amateur detectives make progress in solving the crime. Once the exposition of all relevant facts is completed, the author then challenges the readers to solve the mystery, before then providing the full explanation of how the various crimes were committed, where, when, how, by whom and why. It is, apparently, a very successful genre and I can see why.

In this case, the main action begins in 1936 in pre-WWII Japan, where a well-known artist has been found murdered inside an archetypal locked room. Other crimes are subsequently revealed and appear to be linked to the artist’s apparent desire to recreate or somehow bring to life Azoth, which is the personification of Mercury, which in turn is the agency behind alchemical transformation. The police investigating this crime do what they are able to do but the mystery is not resolved – this is what a reader of honkaku literature would expect. The narrator and his partner explore what is known and discuss possible solutions to the extraordinary crimes, while also pointing out why the more obvious answers cannot be the case. Interactions between protagonists and those involved in the crimes in different ways help to drive development of the plot and help to unlock further clues. The attentive reader should be able to work out what is going on or, at least, from some reasonably well-supported hypotheses which are likely, in due course, to be shown to be wrong in whole or in part. There is a slight problem from which contemporary readers might suffer which is that of a lack of understanding of Japanese society of the 1930s and this can present a barrier which must be overcome before the reader can properly evaluate the situation. There is such a barrier here but it is not insurmountable. The prose is quite clear, thanks to translator Ross Mackenzie, if a little pallid at times. However, the reader is at least not deflected by linguistic bedazzlement.

The story is driven forward by the slightly hapless narrator and his friend the enigmatic and somewhat driven Kiyoshi, who have a relationship slightly reminiscent of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. They whizz about Japan, using that country’s legendarily efficient and interlocking public transport system and at the end, of course, Kiyoshi reverses the odds and reveals the details. It is an interesting journey.



Naoko: A Novel


Naoko: A Novel

Keigo Higashina

A life of otherwise tedious but mostly quietly enjoyable bourgeois insignificance is smashed when a traffic accident leads to multiple deaths on a ski trip tour bus in rural Japan. Among the deaths are the wife of Heisuke, the principal protagonist who threw herself on top of their 11-year old daughter, Monami, which protected her at the cost of brain damage that has sent her into a coma from which she may never emerge. The wife – the eponymous Naoko – has a final moment of clarity in the hospital before dying, at exactly the same moment that daughter Monami suddenly and unexpectedly awakens. The problem is, or perhaps the opportunity, that Naoko’s consciousness has found itself in Monami’s body. Heisuke has recovered his wife but lost his daughter.

In the following days and weeks, Heisuke and Naoko start to come to terms with their emotions and try to work out a method of living a normal life in an abnormal situation. At the same time, Heisuke becomes involved in the process of obtaining compensation from the company operating the bus and the family of the errant driver in a bid to make some sense of the accident, which appears otherwise meaningless.

This book was first published in 1998 and set a decade or so earlier, which means that the characters do not have access to mobile telephones or the internet technology that makes all kinds of lack of communication and gradual investigation of events unnecessary. This translation (from 2004) is a little American or perhaps Canadian in nature but otherwise mostly unobtrusive, apart from some apparent additions about bath tubs and other culturally-specific activities which would not be familiar to most people not familiar with life in Japan. The book itself has become a bestseller in its native land and even a major film. It is not surprising because the pace of the narrative is well-sustained, the characters show genuine development (Naoko particularly) and it is clear that the visual effects would be striking. The beginning of the book takes a comical approach to the situation, with both Naoko and Heisuke mis-speaking in public in ways that would reveal the truth of their circumstances. This does not really work and it is something of a relief when this approach is subsequently abandoned and a more sophisticated method is taken. Some of the episodes are really quite moving and the plot develops nicely and, while surprising, is not illogical, apart from the necessary suspension of disbelief required to accept the initial premise. I read the whole book while having to spend rather longer at Kansai airport recently than I had anticipated. It was not quite in one sitting but not far from it and this is a book that is easy and enjoyable to read and, as such, I can recommend it.

Whenever I read contemporary or at least modern Japanese fiction, I cannot help but think of the issue of authenticity. Japanese society is still characterized by the imperial past and it is evident from the highly mannered ways in which people deal with each other that it is necessary for them to keep their emotions in check at all times (or at least so I imagine it to be the case). Consequently, it is not surprising that many people are concerned about whether they are being true to themselves and, in the context of hyper-capitalism and mass urbanization as has developed in Japan, what the true nature of their society is and its meaning. In this sense, the double figure of Naoko-Monami is symbolic of the ambivalence concerned. They cannot coexist and one cannot meet both functions. Forced to choose between wife (present) and daughter (future), which should the Everyman Heisuke choose? Or is some kind of Hegelian synthesis possible?

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Haruki Murakami

Japanese literature, in common with much of Japanese cultural production, tends to have a strong emphasis on minimalism. Prose styles become simple, even simplistic and the effects to rely, at least in part, on culturally-specific markers which it is not always possible successfully to incorporate within a translation without adding details or footnotes, which can be a clumsy addition. Recently, staying for a period in a city centre apartment in Osaka the emphasis on spatial management within the household was re-emphasized in my understanding of Japanese society – and also led to the formulation of one of my New Year’s Resolutnios of decluttering my life, both at home and at work. Each movement must be considered and some thought devoted to any new item introduced. This is what struck me when reading the beginning of Haruki Murakami’ new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. One of the very first things that aspiring writers of fiction are taught is to show and not tell. Yet this and other dictums are violated, seemingly willfully so. Murakami is such a good writer that it is inconceivable that he would simply have phoned in the work. In due course, the author’s intentions become evident.

Initially, the colourless one – his nickname comes about because there are no characters in his name which suggest the presence of a colour, unlike the other four members of his tight-knit group of friends – lives in a world in which everything is, at least seen in retrospect, as very simple, straightforward and lacking in ambiguity. As the plot develops, so too does Tsukuru’s appreciation of the complexity of the relationships that make up contemporary life and the various compromises and ambivalences that life requires, just as the decision to introduce a new item to the household requires consideration His job involves designing new railway stations and repairing and upgrading existing ones. It sounds rather like a computer game, in which the omnipotent designer scarcely touches the real world while engineering changes in the running of Japan’s legendarily efficient public transport system. In one notable scene, Tsukuru is shown in his off-work time visiting different stations, observing what is going on, watching the unfolding of arrivals and departures without ever having to deal with another person (partly thanks to the country’s excellent vending machines). This is set in contrast with the other aspects of his life, which is described with increasing levels of complexity within the prose style – this, I imagine, must have presented quite a challenge to the translator Philip Gabriel, who has managed to keep out of the way of the text.

Murakami has become known as one of the most prominent and well-regarded writers of his generation and, reading and reflecting on this book, it is possible to see why. He has established a reputation for portraying through quite simple relationships (between characters, characters and their work, characters and what they eat and the music to which they listen and so forth) a mixture of profundity and whimsicality. He is, I think, a very modern writer and this is a skillful and sophisticated novel.

Review of Murakami’s 1Q84


1Q84 represented a significant moment in the career of Haruki Murakami, who seems destined to win the world’s greatest prizes for literature in due course. It is a much more substantial work than much of his earlier oeuvre, both in terms of size and scope but also in terms of the complexity of its structure. The book (this edition consists of all three volumes which were previously published independently) follows a variety of protagonists over the course of one year.

Read the full review here.