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.
Wendy Nelson Tokunaga has been able to capture this embedded individuality of characters in her superb collection of short stories, Postcards From Tokyo. Adding to the core narrative, her stories embrace the current affairs, culture, fads, and eccentricities found in Tokyo. In “Love Right on the Yesterday”, Yumi is an obsessed teenaged fan of a Japanese “idol” singer named Rie Ando. An “idol” is a recruited young female or male star, selected for a cute wholesome image, who are then trained to sing, act, and participate in other pop culture genres. Rie Ando can sing well enough to produce a number one hit, which is the story’s title. Yumi, an amateur singer, wants to follow in Rie’s footsteps, but there are many obstacles: the sheer number of other amateur singers who also are obsessed with becoming an idol, objections of parents, and how to stand out in a crowd to be discovered. The Harajuku area of Tokyo is the place to go, but everyone else wanting to be seen, maybe even discovered, knows that:
All the kids dressed in the trendiest clothes, and everyone crowded into the long, narrow street or spilled over into side alleys. It was so packed that you couldn’t move much faster than a caterpillar, but all the noise and excitement and the sweet smell of strawberries and whipped cream from the crepe stands always made me feel that Harajuku must be the best place on earth.
In “Saving Princess Masako”, an American woman, Rachel, moves to Tokyo for adventure but also to escape a messy past. To support herself in the expensive city, she works as a bar hostess, providing conversation and companionship to men out on the town. One of the men falls for her and, as she likes him well enough, she glides into becoming his mistress. He pays for her apartment and gives her spending money. Of course, he works a lot and is married, so he can’t spend much time with her. In her free time, she explores the city, and occasionally jogs around the Tokyo Imperial Palace, where Princess Masako lives. Rachel has heard of the sad story of the princess, who was not from a royal or royal-connected family, and was college educated and had a diplomatic job before marrying the prince. Rachel’s own life and that of the princess seem to entwine:
Later poor Masako couldn’t catch a break. She seemed to be living in her own prison on these lovely grounds, sentenced for the crimes of behaving in too Western of a fashion, suffering from depression and taking much too long to get pregnant.
“The Joy of Clutter” humorously takes off from the real best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. A major premise of that book is to keep only things that give you joy. In Tokunaga’s story, Eri is looking for a change in her life, from online dating, to “arranged meetings”, to hiring a middle-aged man to act as a surrogate father. Eri’s sister, however, recommends she start to change by cleaning up her apartment.
Yes, maybe Eri did have some junk lying around, but she was far from a hoarder. She was nothing like the elderly woman on the news whose son found her dead body underneath a mammoth pile of Pocky Chocolate Stick boxes. … It took a while, but Eri managed to gather most of her possessions in one overflowing pile in the middle of the living room floor. And as she went through them, one by one, something strange happened.
The other stories are also enlivened with details of Tokyo life, often with the author’s gentle way of poking fun of them. In “Holly and Hikari”, the beauty of the tea ceremony is contrasted with its painfully slow and rigid rituals. In “The Apology”, an idol singer who has strayed from the wholesome path creates a national scandal.
And in my favorite story “Neko Monogatari (Cat Story)”, an abandoned cat living in San Francisco hears about the cushy life in Japan so he makes his way to Tokyo and the fabled “Cat Café”, a cat heaven on earth.
The “postcards” in the title gives a nod to the unadorned, smooth, and highly readable style Tokunga uses, which reminds one of the way we abridge our travel adventures on postcards. Often, another story is found between the lines. I am looking forward to Book 2 of Postcards From Tokyo.