Anyone who has ever felt socially dislocated will find comfort in this new collection of short stories and poems, set in contemporary Japan, from novelist Jayne Joso.
The book starts with a quote from Wassily Kandinsky which advises artists to eschew conventions of form and “watch only the trend of the inner need.” Author Joso has homed in on a particularly pertinent need in the time of the global pandemic: loneliness.
Although Joso’s stories are populated by a variety of characters, they share a common lack of genuine human connection. This is occasionally of their own making, such as an inability to form relationships, or, more often, because of outside influences. It can lead to extreme behaviour. The protagonist of the first story, Oona, goes so far as to have a pacemaker fitted, even though the doctors can find nothing mechanically wrong with her “broken” heart. After the operation she finds relief in knowing that her heart “is assisted, it has help. And finally, finally, I am not alone.”
On the surface, Mr Yoneyama, a married man and the subject of the second story, is an unlikely candidate for loneliness. But his wife and three children sleep together, as is the tradition, while he sleeps separately. Alone on his tatami, Mr Yoneyama rues their lack of time for intimacy and resolves to make changes, although it is clear to the reader that he probably never will.
While some of Joso’s characters are solitary by choice, others have it imposed on them. In “Mr Seki”, a middle-aged man has to split his time between caring for his dementia-suffering father and an all-consuming job. It is a bleak existence which almost breaks him. Meanwhile Mrs Murata, in the eponymous story, knits herself a version of her hometown as a replacement for the hollowed shell it has become after most of the inhabitants left to find work in the city.
Like Mrs Murata, some characters attempt to fix the void in their lives. Mr Takahashi, in his story, finds a much younger girlfriend and is surprised to be deserted by her when he stops giving her money. Another character, Kenji, finds solace in material goods. However, the most successful characters are those who are kind or benefit from the kindness of others. In the memorable “I’m Not David Bowie”, a young man withdraws from society after his girlfriend dies. Deep in his grief, he believes he has become the pop star. His neighbours rally to comfort him and he knows he will survive.
If all other solutions fail, there is always self-belief, an important sub-theme in the collection. This is most clearly demonstrated in “Sachiko and Saeko” where a young teaching assistant repeats a mantra to herself to boost her self-confidence:
“all you have is who you are
and who you are must be enough”
By the end of the tale, Sachiko has revised the last line to “is quite enough”. She has resolved her issues with an act of kindness (any more detail of which would spoil the plot). Her daring action shows her landlady, Saeko, a manipulating bully, to be “not enough”. It is also clear that Saeko’s malevolence results from her own loneliness and is a cautionary tale for what can happen if people are allowed to become estranged over the long term.
Illustrated with line drawings by the manga artist Namiko, Japan Stories is a fascinating window into what is often considered, from a Western perspective at least, a reclusive society. At the same time, Japan does not have a monopoly on loneliness or the factors which create it. There is much here that applies elsewhere around the world.