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).
Resting together after an afternoon climb to the hillside Kyoto grave of her father’s great benefactor, the school principal who provided for the 90-year-old Anglican minister when he was just a penniless, fatherless newspaper boy, Joy Kogawa brought herself to speak: “Dad, I know what you did.”
The burdens of immigrant life in Japan provide the meat of Min Jin Lee’s new novel Pachinko. Spanning five generations, Pachinko is the arresting tale of a Korean family which emigrated to Japan and is a welcome and timely publication dealing with the fraughtness of colonial and immigrant experiences. Although such scope might make one think of a sprawling, Tolstoyean narrative, Lee maintains a taut, narrow focus, unraveling the uniqueness of her characters while providing a deeply satisfying attention to detail.
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.
Back in the 1980s, books about Japan became bestsellers worldwide, with the ascent of Japan from the ignominy and abject destruction of 1945 to the position of the #2 economy on the planet, with the #1 spot not far off in the breathless predictions of some at the time.
Discussions on the so-called “rise” of China at some point tend to cycle ’round to the question as to whether these developments are new or instead herald a return to a status quo ante, a consideration which depends in no small part as what that status quo actually was. That China was dominant in East Asia at least until the 19th century is subject to hardly any debate; there is less consensus as to what that dominance consisted of and whence it derived.
In 1946, John Hersey published the first account of the horrors that awaited those unlucky enough to survive the bomb in his short Hiroshima. Seventy years on, Susan Southard has done the same for Nagasaki. She interleaves the nightmares visited on five young victims (hibakusha) within the broader context of Japanese totalitarianism, the decision to drop the bomb, Washington’s censorship and denial of its after effects, the fight against discrimination and for medical aid for the hibakusha, and finally their campaign to abolish nuclear weapons.