Spectators at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 1611 thrilled to the scenic realism of the Tempest. In the opening scene, a ship founders to the cries and alarms of her drowning sailors. But among those spectators some would nevertheless invest their private fortunes in the first ships to be sent by a  newly chartered trading company to the farthest known seas. They were the initial investors in the East India Company and their ships were destined to reach Japan. 

We all probably at one point or other in our lives have wanted a do-over. Go back to take the left fork in the road, instead of the right. Take back words said in anger, or say words not voiced. In Eto Mori’s novel, Colorful, a nameless soul from a person who committed an egregious sin is allowed another chance at life to make up for that transgression. However, the soul must agree to accept the conditions of the do-over, or face eternal death, never being able to reincarnate.

Here are two indispensable and beautifully-written guidebooks designed to lead readers through essential Buddhist thought. One is an ancient guide in verse by the western Indian sage Shantideva (c 685-763) to becoming a bodhisattva, someone who seeks enlightenment in order to pass it on to everyone else. The other is a modern bilingual guide by Alex Kerr using the Japanese version of the Heart Sutra, a Mahayana Buddhist text whose mere 56 lines of poetry are regarded by many as the key to all Buddhist wisdom.

In the Shelter of the Pine: A Memoir of Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu and Tokugawa Japan, Ōgimachi Machiko, GG Rowley (trans) (Columbia University Press, June 2021)
In the Shelter of the Pine: A Memoir of Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu and Tokugawa Japan, Ōgimachi Machiko, GG Rowley (trans) (Columbia University Press, June 2021)

In the early eighteenth century, the noblewoman Ōgimachi Machiko composed a memoir of Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, the powerful samurai for whom she had served as a concubine for twenty years. Machiko assisted Yoshiyasu in his ascent to the rank of chief adjutant to the Tokugawa shogun. She kept him in good graces with the imperial court, enabled him to study poetry with aristocratic teachers and have his compositions read by the retired emperor, and gave birth to two of his sons. Writing after Yoshiyasu’s retirement, she recalled it all—from the glittering formal visits of the shogun and his entourage to the passage of the seasons as seen from her apartments in the Yanagisawa mansion.

In the mid-1950s, strange symptoms swept through Minamata in Kyushu, the southernmost island in Japan. Fish died, cats became manic, and children started developing neurological issues like trouble speaking and walking. It all originated with the Chissa chemical factory and its waste disposal into the surrounding waters. Sean Michael Wilson and Akiko Shimojima’s comic, The Minamata Story: An EcoTragedy, tells the story of this disease, the stigma surrounding it, and the survivors who are still alive today.

Lafcadio Hearn, born of an Irish surgeon and a Greek mother, became known later in life as Koizumi Yakumo after marrying in Japan and taking Japanese citizenship to preserve his wife’s inheritance. Hearn or Koizumi was a journalist and an author, and one of the early English writers to introduce Japan to the outside world during the Meiji era. Two recent novels—The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong and Black Dragonfly by Jean Pasley—have centered around his life, but in two very different ways.