Tokyo is the world’s largest megalopolis, arguably the cleanest and safest too. But what fascinates me is the intricate way 34 million people survive in the density and sometimes crush of humanity. On the surface there may be a homogenous veneer to the inhabitants, but as I learned when living in Japan, Tokyo-ites have an intense, often fierce individuality. Getting to know a few of them well, they revealed their inner selves to me, which sparked a realization of a deeper individuality in myself.

Bears in various forms have been popular in myth and fiction for thousands of years, from Inuit traditions and the Greek myth of Callisto to John Irving’s cameo appearances of bears in his novels, and from William Kotswinkle’s bear turned New York literary sensation to, of course, Winnie the Pooh, Paddington Bear, and The Three Bears. We respect them and are in awe of their size, physical strength, and seemingly introspective intelligence. Not to mention bear cubs are so cuddly they inspired the ubiquitous teddy bear. Yoko Tawada, award-winning novelist who was born in Tokyo and lives in Germany, has no fewer than three bears starring as main characters in her novel, along with a cast of other bears and non-bear animals (including those of the human species).

When Japanese answer the phone, they usually say “moshi moshi,” which means something like “I’m here and I can talk.” Moshi Moshi, the title of Banana Yoshimoto’s latest novel, refers to the phone that the main character’s father left at home before leaving to commit suicide with his paramour. The main character, Yoshie, dreams that her father is trying to find his phone to call her. But the title also captures the feeling that Yoshie has something to say about her father, and that she can finally say it. She needs to say it.