At first glance, the only thing linking the stories in Rebecca Otowa’s new book, The Mad Kyoto Shoe Swapper, is that they all take place in Japan. Yet although they span 17th-century Edo to the present day, two themes recur in most: women’s hardships and the fears of ageing. It quickly becomes clear how, in Japan at least, these two themes are closely related.   

Run Me to Earth opens in war-torn Laos in 1969. Three teens—Alisak, his friend Prany and Prany’s younger sister, Noi—freelance in a ruined French villa now serving as a makeshift hospital. They care for each other, ride motorcycles through obstacle courses of unexploded ordnance, and are looked after by, and look after, Vang, a young doctor who finds his own refuge in an abandoned piano and alcohol.

Earlier this year, a fire broke out in the Chinatown archive of New York’s Museum of Chinese in America, spurring a tremendous outpouring of sympathy and support from those fearing that a crucial chapter in the nation’s history was lost forever. A few days later, newspaper reports from that normally bustling neighborhood indicated that, due largely to worries over the coronavirus, tourists and locals alike were staying away in droves. Much of MoCA’s archive turned out to be salvageable, and diners and shoppers began trickling back downtown, but that juxtaposition of headlines still shows the ambivalence much of mainstream America feels about its Chinese population. 

Early in The Aosawa Murders, Riku Onda writes that “it’s impossible to ever really know the truth behind events,” setting the tone of the mystery surrounding a horrible mass murder in 1970s Japan in which seventeen people are poisoned by cyanide after drinking a toast with sake and soft drinks. What starts as a jovial birthday party for three generations of the Aosawa family ends in the family, their relatives, and friends dying in agony. The only survivor in the Aosawa family is Hisako, their blind teenage daughter.