“The Boy and the Dog” by Seishu Hase

Seishu Hase (photo: Bungeishunju) Seishu Hase (photo: Bungeishunju)

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.

Over the course of four main sections, the reader, too, comes to love the half-German-Shepherd, half- “native-Japanese-breed” Tamon. He’s a devoted dog—wise beyond expectation, receptive to subtle emotion. He is able to adapt quickly as a companion to a get-away driver for a band of criminals, a trail runner, and even a prostitute. (Despite the charming cartoon cover, this is a book intended for an adult audience.) He improves the life of each and every human companion he encounters. It isn’t unusual in English-language pet stories for some characters to meet untimely ends; there is quite a lot of suffering and death in The Boy and the Dog.

Also in the tradition of such classic “dog books” as John Grogan’s Marley and Me, schmaltz abounds. Honeyed sentiments are legion, all along the lines of what a reader likely expects. Speaking to Tamon, one character reflects,

 

It’s your dog magic, I suppose. Dogs don’t just make people smile. They give us love and courage, too, just from being at our side.

 

The most treacly prose comes from the thoughts of Miwa the prostitute: “Help me… Make me pure again.” Melodrama is everywhere, too, including theft, organized crime, and murder.

 

The Boy and the Dog, by Seishu Hase, Alison Watts (trans) (Viking, November 2022; Scribner UK, October 2022)
The Boy and the Dog, Seishu Hase, Alison Watts (trans) (Viking, November 2022; Scribner UK, October 2022)

But even if The Boy and the Dog rests in the familiar “dog story” niche, the novel is notable for the story it tells in the background. It is set in “uncool Japan”, outside of the glimmering lights of Tokyo or lantern-lit streets of Kyoto. Foreign workers invisibly take up positions in Japan’s understaffed job market. Gendered expectations smother marital happiness. Wild animals encroach on towns and villages where the population is shrinking. There are no new hunters to trap boar or bear that threaten human safety.

Most compelling by far are the parts of the story grounded by Japan’s great 21st-century disaster—the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. By an official 2021 account, the disaster killed almost 20 thousand people; another 2500 are missing and presumed dead. The World Bank has placed economic losses at US$235 billion, making it the most expensive disaster in history. When the reader first encounters Tamon, not much time has elapsed:

 

Six months had passed since the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. There were still people living in evacuation shelters. Some also slept in their cars, because pets weren’t allowed in shelters.

 

Such conditions are so dire they give pause to a hardened criminal: “It [is] like stealing from a corpse. I’ve had enough.”

Hase’s narrative draws the reader’s attention to the small, unquantifiable ways recovery is impossible.

For example, Nakagasi’s mother has dementia; it rapidly accelerated in the chaos of living for months in emergency evacuation shelters. When property values plummeted post-disaster, Nakagasi and his sister couldn’t sell her house to raise the funds for a nursing home.

Families like Nakagasi’s have survived only to be separated by the tsunami and ensuing disaster. Bread-winners are forced to leave for Tokyo in search of work. Others accept criminal labor out of desperation to support their families.

Financial desperation drives other families to pick up and leave everything they have left—including the missing bodies of their loved ones—behind. Many flee because they are too terrified to even look in the direction of the ocean.

And then there’s the titular boy. He plunges into years of unspeaking silence because of post-traumatic stress.

 

Translator Alison Watts does a charming job rendering into English a story that is in turns sentimental and grim. Readers who enjoyed her other translations, including Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste and Naoki Matayoshi’s Akutagawa-winning Spark, are likely to find something to enjoy here as well.

Ultimately, The Boy and the Dog is a dog book. It is most likely to appeal to people who like dog books. It is a charming, sentimental story set against the backdrop of a Japan that is still invisible to many people outside of the country. But it is also worth reading as a work of popular post-disaster “Fukushima fiction” alongside more “literary” fiction like the collection March Was Made of Yarn edited by David Karashima and Elmer Luke or Erika Kobayashi’s Trinity, Trinity, Trinity. That’s because The Boy and the Dog is also a story about how human beings cope with trauma and grief, especially the trauma and grief of the March 2011 “triple disaster”.


Alison Fincher (@FincherAlison) is a student of Japanese and an independent researcher of contemporary Japanese fiction. Read Japanese Literature is her podcast about Japanese literature and some of its best works.