Steve Kemper’s Our Man in Tokyo is the second book in three years to deliver fulsome praise on the untiring yet unsuccessful effort by Joseph Grew, the US Ambassador to Japan in the 1930s and early 1940s, to avoid a war between the US and Japan. Like Lew Paper’s 2019 In the Cauldron, Kemper’s book depicts Grew as an unheralded diplomatist trying to avoid armageddon, while portraying policymakers in Tokyo and Washington as stubbornly blundering into war.
Yoko Tawada is a compelling, prolific, and award-winning writer working in Japanese, German, and English. Three Streets is her most recent collection published in English, here not so much short stories as they are strolls through three streets in Berlin. Throughout her works, her narrators are often strangers in a strange land, living in between moments in history, cultures, and languages. Alternative worlds emerge from answers to any number of “what ifs”. The woman who narrates the first story in this collection, “Kollwitzstrasse”, sets the tone when she describes the child that accompanies her as she walks. Who the child is or where she came from is unknown.
Seishu Hase’s The Boy and the Dog opens with Kazumasa Nakagasi. He finds an emaciated dog outside a convenience store. The dog is wearing a tag engraved with his name, Tamon, short for Tamonten. Tamonten is one of four guardian deities of Buddha’s realm. The dog Tamon becomes a guardian for the people he encounters on his five-year journey to find a person he dearly loves.
Active in the 13th century, poet Matsuo Basho has been a cornerstone of literature globally since the late 19th century when the word haiku was used to cover traditional “haikai” and “hokku” (more about which further down). Largely due to 19th-century Realism, Western onlookers and practitioners have made much of direct personal experience in haiku; DT Suzuki, Alan Watts and the Beat poets in turn exaggerated the influence of Zen on haiku, lauding their depth of truth and presence. Haiku has since become the world’s most prevalent poetic form, with Basho the standard bearer.
Printmaking was an art form that Japanese artists had excelled in the 18th and 19th centuries but which eventually experienced a decline in the 20th century. Yet, the early 20th century was a period in which Japanese arts in general underwent profound transformations with a growing familiarity with modern European art movements and modernism was certainly felt in the realm of printmaking. The shin hanga (“new prints”) movement reflects the syncretism of Western and traditional Japanese cultures as well as the influence of western codes on Japanese prints.
Osamu Dazai is one of Japan’s most celebrated modern writers. He was born in 1909, at the end of Japan’s era of rapid modernization known as the Meiji Period. He began writing as a high school student, moved by the suicide of the great Japanese short story writer, Ryonosuke Akutagawa in 1927.
The narrator of Hiroko Oyamada’s Weasels in the Attic wants to start a family with his wife. They’ve been together for three years, but they haven’t had any luck. Meanwhile, it has been getting more and more difficult to see other people their age with kids of their own.