Tag Archives: japan

Pachinko

Historical family saga novel about Japanese occupation of Korea

Content warning: suicide, HIV

I have heard a lot about this book and so when a copy made its way to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation’s Great Book Swap I hosted at work last year (go team Yirrikipayi!), I snaffled it up. This year is the 10 year anniversary of this incredible fundraising event, so make sure you sign up (using appropriate social distancing, of course). This is another book that has waited patiently on my shelf for a while, and ticks the box for two reading challenges I’m doing this year: the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge and #StartOnYourShelfathon.

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“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee is a historical family saga novel that spans from 1910 to 1989 in what is now known as South Korea and Japan. The book begins with the birth of Hoomie, a stoic, sensible man with two visible disabilities in a south-eastern seaside village in Japanese-occupied Korea. As the story progresses, the focus shifts to his young, pragmatic wife Yangjin and their beloved daughter Sunja. Seduced by an older, wealthy man, when Sunja discovers he is married, she is determined to forget him and raise their child alone. However, when a young Christian minister called Isak boarding at their home offers a solution, she travels with him to Osaka, Japan to start a new life. There, the reader meets Isak’s brother and sister-in-law, and we watch Sunja, her children and her children’s children unfurl in a country that, decades on, looks down on ethnic Koreans.

This book is a very compelling read and particularly in the beginning hooks you in. Lee has done exceptional research and the settings and era are fully realised, particularly through food, clothing and cultural norms. I have never been to Korea (and sadly had to cancel my honeymoon to Japan), but I had a number of Korean friends and classmates when I was in high school. A beautiful and unbelievably sweet Korean friend who only studied with us for a year had a similar facial difference to Hoomie. Lee’s exploration of how stigma associated with visible disability, intellectual disability and mental illness impacts not only the individual concerned, but their parents, children and even grandchildren, especially in relation to marriage prospects, gave me so much more understanding of what my friend must have gone through growing up.

I had another classmate who people used to say was part Japanese, was in gangs and had connections with yakuza. Reading this book really unpacked some of the meaning in this kind of talk for me, and how precarious the position was for Koreans who stayed in Japan after the war and ingrained racism became for these people who were no longer as Korean as the people left behind, but also not Japanese enough to be recognised as citizens. Disadvantage is something that marks Sunja’s family – evolving from poverty to racial discrimination. Even after Sunja’s children and grandchildren manage to claw their way to success, they are still marred by their ethnicity and for some, the knowledge that they will never be Japanese is too heavy a cross to bear.

I think one of the most interesting things about this book is it is only the second book I have ever read about a non-Western nation colonising another. I think these stories are incredibly important because it is a Eurocentric idea that the only examples of colonialism were Western examples, and because these themes of power imbalances, direct discrimination, stereotypes and structural inequality are universal themes that still play out around the world today. The title of this book, pachinko, was absolutely perfect. It references a key industry for several of the characters, but it also captures the struggle of trying everyday to win success in life when so much is left to chance and overnight someone tampers with the machine in such a succinct metaphor.

However, there were a few things about this book that I wasn’t completely supportive of. Lee introduces an ensemble cast, and the story skips from one character to another, highlighting a lot of the various social issues they are exposed to. As is tempting in a book of this magnitude, I think there were times where Lee tried to include too many things. Some of the stories As strong a proponent I am for inclusion, the parts of the book that deal with same-sex attraction felt gratuitous and lacking in the depth accorded to their heterosexual counterparts. I felt that while Lee very convincingly describes the situations her characters found themselves, I would have liked a little more development of the reasons why her characters found themselves there. Lee writes about suicides, and perhaps this is me showing some ignorance about the significance of cultural belonging in Japan, but I felt that the reasons weren’t expounded upon enough.

Anyway, a gripping book about a very important part of history in which it was occasionally a little difficult to see the forest for the proverbial trees.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

If Cats Disappeared from the World

Japanese magic realism novel about death and the little things

I had noticed this little book a while ago in a bookshop. It has a striking cover, a ink black cat with eyes embellished with gold foil that makes it look like it’s staring right at you. I noticed it, but didn’t buy it. Then one day I was checking my street library, and a copy was sitting right inside. Of course I had to read it.

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Thank you to my colleague Ingrid and her obliging cat Callie for these great photos

“If Cats Disappeared from the World” by Genki Kawamura and translated by Eric Selland is a Japanese magic realism novel about an unnamed postman who is diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. Distraught, the narrator is offered a deal by the Devil, who appears as his doppelganger, as a way to prolong his life. For every additional day the narrator chooses to live, the Devil will remove an item from the world. The first item seems simple: telephones. However reminiscing about his ex-girlfriend and their relationship which was conducted primarily over the telephone, leads the narrator to reconnect with her one last time. The next item, television, also becomes problematic. When the Devil proposes cats, the narrator is faced with making Cabbage, the cat he inherited from his mother and who has suddenly started speaking, disappear.

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This is an unusual little novel with an intriguing premise: how much of the world can you remove before life isn’t worth living? I quite enjoyed the story of an ordinary man, with an ordinary job, who is faced with the reality of his unremarkable life just before his untimely death. I liked how the author explored the way that the narrator had allowed himself to become isolated, and how he had lost contact with those most important to him and how ultimately, in the wake of his mother’s death, he had himself become lost.

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It’s difficult to review a book when you like the idea but not the execution. I want to say something first about the translation, because it’s not clear how much of my criticism is due to the translation, and how much is due to the writing itself. I think that Kawamura has a relaxed, minimalist narrative style that Selland has adapted into a modern American tone. While occasionally drawing on global elements at points in the story such as Christian iconography, the Devil’s choice of attire and his travels with his ex-girlfriend overseas, there is not a very strong sense of place in this book.

While I understand that the narrator is meant to be a generic everyman, with nothing distinctive about his life except his feelings and relationships, I struggled to find a foothold while reading. I think that overall, Kawamura probably spent a little bit too long spelling out exactly what the author was thinking and feeling at any given time, and not really enough on fleshing out the novel’s strength: exploring the idea of what would happen if things started disappearing from the world. Maybe that would be the difference between magic realism and science fiction, but I think I would have preferred Kawamura to have committed more fully to his concept and spent less time the exposition of a backstory that I wasn’t invested in.

An interesting concept that felt like it needed colouring in.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

People have been recommending this author to me for a long time. One of my reading goals in 2017 was to try to read authors of more diverse backgrounds, including books published in languages other than English, and this one has been on my list for a while. The edition I have is actually part of the Vintage 21 Rainbow set with tinted edges, however because this one is white, strictly speaking the page edges aren’t coloured. Either way, it looks good on my shelf and it was high time I read it.

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“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami is a magic realism novel set in Japan in the 1980s. The story is told from the perspective of Toru Okada, a man who has recently quit his job as a law clerk and who stays at home keeping the house while his wife Kumiko works. When Kumiko asks him to search for their missing cat, named after Kumiko’s brother Naburo Wataya, Okada begins to have strange encounters and telephone calls with some very unusual people. Okada begins to realise that the missing cat is the least of his problems.

There is so much going on in this book and it’s quite lengthy, so I won’t go into too much more detail about the plot. It is also a translated novel, with the English by Jay Rubin, so events aside, my review will necessarily have to be based on Rubin’s interpretation. Anyway, first of all, this is a fascinating book. Okada is quite a subversive protagonist whose passive and domestic ways are almost a rebellion against the expectation of both the reader and those around him. Despite the criticism he receives from others in the novel, I found him to be a refreshing character. Like a kind of magnet, people are drawn to him and compelled to tell him their life stories and in listening, he begins to draw out themes and parallels that apply to his own problems.

This is a story that is very rich in motifs and imagery. There is quite a large cast of characters who each take turns telling bits and pieces of their own stories, and it is a very complex novel. It becomes increasingly complex towards the end as the supernatural elements begin to become more prominent although Murakami manages to maintain a reasonable level of coherence throughout. I found that this book had quite a Roald Dahl-esque tone about it, no doubt due to the translator’s own style, with lots “terrific” thrown about that ultimately I felt suited the story.

Writing this review is tricky because while it is a complex, compelling story – is that enough for it to be a good book? There were quite a few times where I felt like there was a little too much crammed into this book, and some of the delicacy and subtlety of the earlier chapters was lost towards the middle – especially Lieutenant Mamiya’s recollections of his involvement in the Japanese occupation of Manchukuo in World War II. It is quite a long book, and there a lot of strands of story to keep abreast of as it progresses – some of which, like Creta Kano’s, seem to fizzle out without resolution.

An incredibly intricate story with a myriad of characters, it was at times a difficult read but has definitely left me wanting to read more of Murakami’s work.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges, Vintage 21 Rainbow

ACT Lit Bloggers of the Future: A Portrait of Shōjo

My second event for the ACT Lit Bloggers of the Future Program was to go see A Portrait of Shōjo: The Poetic Ambience of Japanese Girlhood, a National Library of Australia fellowship talk by Dr Masafumi Monden.

I love anime…There is something compelling about characters who are at once paragons of independence and yet still ultra-feminine.

Read more about the event at the ACT Writers Centre blog.

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Filed under Literary Events