The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami

the briefcase

The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami

Japanese fiction

Original title – Sensei no Kaban

Translator Alison Martin Powell

Source – personnel copy

Well the last of the Japanese books for this month and it is one from this years Man Asian prize shortlist .Tony asked us all to post at the end of the month thankfully my copy arrived yesterday ,so I managed to read it overnight .Hiromi Kawakami is a graduate of Ochanomizu women’s college ,she published her first book in 1980 ,with her previous books she has won a number of prizes .This book won the prestigious Tanizaki prize in 2001 previous winners include Ryu Murakami ,Yoko Ogawa and Kenzaburo Oe .

His full name was Mr Harutsuna Matsumoto ,but I called him “Sensei “not “Mr ” or “Sir ” just ” Sensei ”

He was my Japanese teacher in High school .He wasn’t my homeroom teacher ,and Japanese class didn’t interest me much ,so I didn’t really remember him .Since graduation ,I hadn’t seen him for quite a while

Tsukiko saying why she calls him Sensei at the start of the book

The Briefcase or bag of Sensei is a love story .It was published in its native Japan as a serial so its chapters are short and tend to leave you wanting to read the next chapter .The story is the story of The sensei (Japanese for teacher ) and Tsukiko a former pupil of the Sensei who is now in her thirties ,the sensei is retired .The pair meet in a traditional Japanese bar .As the relation ship develops you see them doing many things such as watching the cherry blossom falling of the trees ,picking mushrooms and visiting an Island for a weekend away .This being Japan this very unusual relationship isn’t all about your full-blown passion, no it is more two lonely souls in the sea that is Tokyo that have end up being drawn together ,The sensei is like you would expect a very quiet man but he has the air of some one deep in thought and serious with it .Tsukiko is hard to read but he admiration and love for this older man seems unwavering and maybe you feel she has had her heart-broken in the past by a younger man .

“Sensei ,your is the special ,right ? ”

“that’s what they call it ”

“how is it different from the regular ”

We both bent our heads and examined the two boxed lunches .

“There doesn’t seem to be much difference at all” the Sensei said Amiably

They have lunch and compare lunches a humorousness moment .


This is a book that has been made into a Japanese tv series and a stage show A quick search of the internet ,I found a clip showing pics from the stage show .I was reminded of a UK TV series called may to December that was shown in the uk when I was growing up it involved a couple of similar age gap to the couple in the briefcase and actually similar characters to this book .The action was the same on the surface we seem different cultures but as may to December showed it was all about the being together more than the sex and the way the relationship develop was so well done by Kawakami like a time elapse picture capture the relationship stage by stage .Some wonderful moments of humur Tsukiko buying a grater for sensei when it appeared they’d fallen out or compare her normal packed lunch brought from the shop to his special of the same dish and deciding they were actually the same .The fact it was as a serial works well for this story I felt and didn’t feel uneven as sometimes novels made up of serial parts can.

Have you read this book ?


Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Japanese fiction

Original title – collected from various stories she has written .

Translator – Stephen Snyder

Source – Review Copy

I ve often seen Yoko Ogawa name mention and her books reviewed around the internet and had ordered Hotel Iris from the library for Tony’s January in Japan ,when this fell through my letter box so I decide to read this as I don’t get through many short story collections so this being described as dark and like classic poetry collections I decide to give it a whirl .Yoko Ogawa  grew up in a japanese christian family her grandfather was a teacher ,she grew ,loving literature in particular The diary of Anne Frank ,she then began working  and at 26 published her first book .She has written over twenty books over the last twenty five years .

He died twelve years ago .Suffocated in an abandoned refrigerator left in a vacant lot .When I first saw him ,I didn’t think he was dead.I thought he was just ashamed to look me in the eye because he had stayed away from home for three days .

The two women talk in the bakers in the story Afternoon at the bakery

So to revenge when I opened and read through the title poison plants ,welcome to the museum of torture ,I knew I was on to a strange collection so we open on the first story a mother is at a baker’s shop we meet two women and it turns out one is buying a cake for a son that had died many years ago as the chat away about what they’re doing in the bakery  .As you go through the stories we  start to see links through out ,elsewhere we have a pair of staff whose job is  collecting lab coats at a hospital then ,we see some at the same hospital  someone doing heart surgery in one of  the said  lab coat .The man who works at the strange Museum of torture happens to turn up in the next story doing a completely different job .

she rubbed her cheek against the bundle ;

“Do they have any of your books here ?” I asked .

“They do ” she said ,standing up and going to one of the  shelves .

” This is mine – one that managed to escape the burglar ” she said handing it to me .

Afternoon at the bakery .The book was slender ,and as tattered as her bundle .

The title of another story appears as a book in the story Tomatoes and the full moon

This collection is rather well done .The stories all tend to be  on the strange and unusual  side ,the collection , I was reminded me most of were the stories of Roald Dahl ,the ones that got made into tales of unexpected because a lot of these stories had that feel of weird glances into people’s lives and meeting  odd characters such as  the landlady that grows strange human hand shaped carrots in her garden for example .Another collection of short stories  I was reminded of was the collection by Dan Rhodes Timoleon Vieta come home ,which had a recurring motif through out its stories is that of the dog Timoloen vieta  appearing at some point during the story .Here the motif isn’t so clear but is there and is almost like the Japanese puzzle box my grandparents had where you had push this panel ,move this bit to finally open the box ,here there is a little bit of the previous story that appears in the next story and as you go along you see some other you have to go back and discover .Each story would make a great stand alone this is one of those collections where there is no weak link .The book comes out tomorrow in the uk .

Do you have a favourite collection of short stories from Asia ?


Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

grotesque natsuo kirino

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

Japanese thriller fiction

Original title Gurotesuku

Translator – Rebecca Copeland

Source  Personnel copy

I tend to buy most books I see second-hand in translation ,that appeal on some level this was the case with this book I saw it in a charity shop last summer and put up on the shelf so when tony announced that he was doing January in Japan it seemed a perfect time to read this crime thriller .Natsuo Kirino is female Japanese writer .she is a leading figure in the current boom in female detective fiction this is the second of three crime novels she has had translated into English .She also writes romance novel in Japan under a different name .So to Grotesque the title is maybe a comment on the world that is involved in the book ..

It was the kind of navy-blue knee sock most everyone wore .Only this one had a Ralph Lauren logo on top

Everyone was completely nonchalant .No one seemed to care if they’d lost something because unlike me ,they could go out and buy another one .That is why I found it odd that this girl was making such a fuss over a lousy sock .She held it out to show her friends.

The school where it starts is rather posh .

Well I was a bit nervous about this book as I’m not a huge Genre reader at best of times .But as I started I was slowly drawn into this world of women with secrets ,those secrets selling their body to men for money and  two women that end up dead but have different journey into prostitution but did start at the same school growing up .these two women Yuriko and Kauze had problems at school but both end on the streets now they’ve been murder Yuriko younger sister is trying to find out what happened and is delving into the dark underground world that her sister ended up living in .She sees how via her Journal she start with rich business men but like a footballer that stays on playing to long she started to slid and ended on the street corner rather like seeing a once great player plying their trade for a lower league club .The world we are drawn into is very seedy her sister went to an expensive school and gets dazzled by the labels and life that she see this is how she ends up in the game so to speak .We see how these girls fall and how the police and the sister try to find the killer .

When I met Yuriko ,it spelled misfortune for us both .I heard from detective Takashi that Ms Hirata had once been beautiful and had worked as a model .Detective Takashi went on to say that as she grew old and ugly she became a cheap street-walker ” But I thought she was beautiful .

One of the men that her sister used to meet .

Well I wasn’t looking forward to much to the subject matter in this book but Kirino handles it with a careful hand not making the early life in prostitution with the rich business men  for the sister and her school friend seem to glamorous, she also makes the gritty descent  to street walker and the working and perverse men she meets on street corners seem real and Yuirko in particular is a character that in the end I felt really sorry for because she had it all and threw it away  and the way  she was murdered and how this one beautiful women had fallen .The lives are fleshed out by the fact a couple of chapter are written as if they are the girls journal .I felt this book had quite a feminist feel to it and about how women are viewed in Japan and how wrong this is sometime .  This isn’t so much a crime novel as a study into the underworld of prostitution and the men that use them the murders are only a sideline in the narrative .

Have you read this book or any books by Kirino ?

Snow country by Yasunari Kawabata


Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

original title 雪国

Translator – Edward G Seidensticker

Source personnel copy

Well It time for Tony’s Japanese lit month January in Japan and I’m kicking mine of with a short novella from the Poet and Novelist Yasunari Kawabata .Born in 1899 in the early to mid twentieth century he was one of the best known Japanese writers .Orphaned at two he start writing soon after he finished his studies ,this his best known work was published in 1937 and added to ten years later .He was also well-known for writing Haiku poem .He also won the Nobel prize for literature in 1968 .

A girl had been sitting on the other side of the carriage came over and opened the window in front of Shimamura .The snowy cold poured in .Leaning far out of the window , the girl called to the station master as though he were a great distance away .

Shimamura on the train meet ?


Well Snow country is a love story but it is very Japanese story .The book opens with a business man  Shimamura on a train of to the Snow Country a mountain village that has a lot of snow in the winter .He gets off at the station and so do two women the first a traditional Geisha from the village called Komako and the second a younger women coming to car for a sick family member these three form the bases of the book .The Geisha   Komako becomes the women that Shiamura seeks and wants to be with ,but as the story unfolds you see the gaping gap between the village and the way Komako grew up she is very traditional following the old ways and Shimamura has been in Tokyo  is very into western things with an idealized view of traditional Japanese culture  .So he starts to notice the younger women Yoko  the daughter of an innkeeper when with Komako  you see all this unfold from the winter through the spring and summer . This is how the story starts and to see how it goes on is up to you will need to  read it .

See out at the back,

Three pears ,three cedars,

Six trees in all ,

Crows nest below ,

sparrows nest above

And what if they are singing ?

“harkarmairi itcho itcho ya ” *

*means a hundred yards ,a hundred yards again

A song sung later in the novella


The book was published initially as a short story and then as a number of extra stories / chapters afterwards, so you do get a somewhat episodic feel to the tale as we see the romance move on and the pair then … . The other big theme in this book is one of my favourite themes in literature and that is the clashing of changing cultures ,from the urbane Tokyo to the old Japanese values and customs of the village and the Geisha girls in the village .Kawabata language is sparse at times,he has honed his writing craft writing haiku’s so you feel that every word had been thought over and worked to the last drop thus produce something that just works perfectly on the page ,the scene is set but not over set and the character just sketched enough to make you know who they are .Komako is based on a real Geisha that Kawabata  knew from the region the book is set  .So  he is  a great new writer to me as this is the first book by him I have read .Many  thanks for Tony as this may have sat on my shelf for a couple of years otherwise .

Have you read this book ?


1q84 vol 1 and 2 by Haruki MurakamI

1q84 by Haruti Murakami

Japanese fiction

Translator Jay Rubin

Well I ve said a lot about Murakami in previous posts about him ,so I ll talk about his running .I link to a interview here in running world where he says he has been running for over twenty years .He wrote a non fiction book a few years ago called” what I talk about when I talk about running ” A book I d recomme3nd short but full of insights into the japanese mind ,which in a rather clunky way brings me to 1q84  Whch I feel is his most Japanese .

How many people could recognize Janaecks sinfornetta after hearing just  the first few bars ? probably somewhere between “very few ” and “almost none” .but for some reason .Aomame was one of the few in the world

Janacek sinfonetta to express the contempoary free man ? is start of one line of surrealism in this novel .

I have been putting off reading 1q84 for a number of reasons partly the uneven reviews it got in the newspapers ,also some bloggers who views I  trust were not overly keen on it .So I finally decide to read it when it was named on the IFFP longlist having dodged it some what already  for man Asian shadow  reading  I couldn’t for the second time .I  then decide to entered open  minded ,to forget all the bits I ve read about it before  and was surprised how much I enjoyed it for a Murakami fan there is the usual Murakami traits people on the edge or just coming into adulthood ,a lonely girl ,a writer,a whole host of surreal parts  and set in the 80’s .T he novel is told in the form of two story lines from April to September  Aomame ,she is a thirty year old women ,she works for a strange organisation as a sort of assassin ,we meet her as she is of to kill some one  but has to rush and escapes a txi as she is running late and hear the Janacek piece and sometimes wonder if she is in a different 1984 maybe 1q84 .The other main character is Tengo he is a teacher at a prep school but dreams of being a novelist and when he helps a young girl that has written a manuscript called air chrysalis .But he  is surprised when this book takes off  and its young writer forgets his work on it .Well that is the bones of the book we see these two characters lives but then like a pair of skylarks mating the end up flying closer and closer together ,we see this as the story draws them together and to complete the analogy there is a third minor character but he is the third narrator Ushikawa he is a grotesque hired to follow first Tengo then Aomame so he is like a hawk watching the two skylarks falling and rising as they get drawn together .Also add in a cult and a some of his best surreal touches and do you have his magnum opus well when it first came out in Japan it seemed that way .I m not sure I enjoyed the book much more than I initially thought I would ,I do sometimes wonder if the surreal bits of this book pass me by at times .I also wondered if this book has a great meaning to the Japanese reader I feel the issues and subjects dealt with in the book are the most Japanese of his books I ve read .  I Think it is now in my three favourite books by him ,I will finish the story later this year when I read third part of the book .

What did you think of this ?

Are you planning to read it ?

Hear the wind sing by Haruki Murakami

Source – library

Translator – Alfred Birnbaum


Haruki Murakami’s debut novel like pinball 1973 which i read earlier ,it is quite hard to get hold of ,only being published in Japan in english translation ,this is also the first of the rat trilogy ,which includes pinball 1973 and wild sheep chase .

well this book focus on the meeting of the narrator and the rat ,the narrator is a young man who is stuck in limbo between adulthood and teen years meet the “rat” the nickname of  Nezumi in j’s bar ,he is slightly older than the narrator and is a drop out  ,the bar is focus of most of the book it is run by j a chinese man and is what might be called a spit and sawdust pub in the uk ,a place’s full of the dregs and drifters of life .So these to start a friendship that carries on through the other books in the series .there is also a thread about a fictional american writer called Derek Heartfield ,this is writer seems a mix of some sixties writers a sci-fi writer another thread is the narrators relationship with a women this from in a triangle of relationships like in some of his later books .the book covers a period of about three weeks .

I first meet the rat three years before in the spring .We’d both entered university that year , and the two of us had gotten pretty bombed .So I have absolutely no recollection what could have possibly thrown us together for that ride after four in the morning , in the rats shiny black Fiat 600 .I guess we had a friend in common .

The narrator remembering first meeting with the Rat .

Well what to say about this book I so wanted to read the first two books of Murakami not sure why ,to complete his books maybe ,or to see why they are not available in english .I m still not sure why there both available more widely in English .Well I m still not sure ,ok there not top-notch Murakami ,but on the other hand there not as bad as Murakami thinks they are ,this is a little more over the place than pinball 1973 was ,the fact names are missing and you tend to jump from situation to situation can be a bit jarring at time ,the fact you know how these two meet and a bit more info about the rat is handy as he crops up in the other two in the series and also in dance .dance ,dance .If you want to see how Murakami started on his path as a writer I would read this, if like me you want to complete his works read it .Like a number of earlier books Birnbaum is the translator he is a good translator ,whether his later translator Jay Rubin would be able to work his magic on this I don’t know if it is needed .the book is only a 120 pages and in full size print would maybe be 80 pages so an evening s read .I will be reading wild sheep chase next to complete the trilogy of the rat .

Have you read this book ?

Pinball 1973 by Haruki Murakami

Source – Library

Translator Alfred Birnbaum

Now this is a book I jumped for joy when I got from Library on an inter library loan from Manchester ,it is Murkami’s second book and the second part of the rat trilogy the others being the first hear the wind sing and the last part wild sheep chase .Now this book, like the first part is only available in Japan in english translation as Murakami has never let the rights be issued world-wide ,so what is it about .

The book is classic Murakami or what we now call his classic style ,the ,main character and narrator a nameless lonely man in his twenties works as a translator and his friend the rat ,we follow the narrator during a obession with pinball he starts playing late a night a relationship with a pair of twins called 208 209 by the narrator ,this obessin=on leads him in the end on the quest for a lost machine ,elsewhere there are references to themes that crop up in Murakami’s others books ,wells for one even couple mention of hard-boiled eggs but maybe I was looking to hard the book is gentle a man struggling with the real world ,he looks back on his student days a dead girlfriend ,yet another event Murakami use in his other books .

By the time I broke 150,000 ,winter had really set in .There I d be alone in the freezing deserted games center ,bundled up in my duffel coat , muffler  wrapped around my neck up to my ears grappling with the machine .

the narrator talking about his obsession .

Well what did I think of this book it was a great insight into what madeMurakami the writer he is now this has parts used in other books and in some way maybe this narrator is nearest Murakami the man ,I did miss Jay Rubin’s translation style thou a certain zing you get from his work withMurakami particular with the more recent books were they have worked together for a number of years .Not to take away from Alfred Binbaum ,who lives in Japan and has translator a number of other books and teaches creative writing at the moment in Japan ,he does a great job but the tie between Rubin and Murakami isn’t there .Murakami use lots of references to music and film stars of the time which gives it a very personnel feel ,only music missing was the who which I kept hoping to see because he must have listen to pinball wizard at some point whilst reading this book .Why this book yet to have a UK publication is beyond me it is a sign post on the road to the writer Murakami is today .



Norwegian wood by Haruki Murakami

Source – Library

I had a girl,or should I say ,she once had me ,

She showed me her room ,isn’t it good ‘Norwegian wood .

the opening of the beatles song that gave the book its title .

This is my first of many Murakami’s this year so I ve decide to scrap the usual bio start of my post for these and at end of year do a port all about the man and what I ve learned through the year of reading his books ,hopefully all of them if time allows .

So Norwegian wood I read a few years ago and loved it is what I call the classic Murakami style ,A young male and two females ,this has cropped up in other Murakami novels this is set in the sixties and told in a series of flashbacks by the Male Toru Wa\ntabe who on a flight remembers his First love Naoko and a wild lover Midori ,we see the loose morals of the sixties young people finding the feet in the world via drink ,casual sex all this is acted out in front of a soundtrack of modern jazz Miles Davies and beatles songs .Toru in his young days is like a moth caught between two lights the bulb like Naoko dependable and always constant and the candle like Midori a flickering siren for the young man .When you throw into the pot of this book a dying father in Midori case you have a tale that boils over and constantly has you wanting to turn over to the next page .for me one scene really touched me in the hospital Mr Kobayashi Midori’s absent father that return from Uruguay ,that is dying and he shares a cucumber with this old man touching and slightly funny at the same time seemed something that you have to be a master writer to pull off .

I m going to eat some cucumber if you don’t mind ,I said to Midori’s father .He didn’t answer I washed three cucumbers in the sink and dribbled a little soy sauce into a dish .then wrapped a cucumber in nori ,dipped it in soy sauce and gobbled it down.

mmm great I said to Midiori’s father .Fresh simple smell like life .Really goo cucumbers .A far more sensible food than Kiwi fruit .

Toru trying to get the dying mr Kobayashi to eat .an important incident in the book I think .

The book is how we deal with the shit life brings you when young you have it all loss death ,despair ,longing ,angst .All this through the older Toru eyes looking back on his youth .In some way this remind me of W somerset Maugham’s of human bondage Toru and Philip from that book seem like similar characters and both have to deal with the attraction to two women .

Winston’s score –

Kevin from wonder year thou a lot younger than Toru deals with a lot of the same things he does in the wonder years ,like a love divide with Winnie and new loves during the series and there is also the fact that the title music for this is a beatles cover

A Personal matter Kenzaburo oe

Kenzaburo oe is one of Japans foremost writers ,having lived in france in the sixties and studied french literature ,make him more accessable than some of his contemporarys with a more western style of writing .His own son was born with a brain disorder and this one event has led to disability being a recurring motif in his books ,A personal matter is considered on of his best he also on the nobel in 1994 .

A personal matter is about Bird a cramming school teacher and a bit of a daydreamer ,he dreams of escaping Japan and heading to Africa staring at maps and imaging living their with his wife who is with child .When the child is born it has a brain damange and its life is placing on a cliff edge ,Bird is struggling with this and this leads him in to a number of life choices after he has gone on a downward spiral want his son to die knowing that was wrong descending in to a bottle and pleasures of the flesh with an ex girlfriend ,but this leaves bird seeming empty and needing to make some important life decisions for himself ,his wife and new-born son .

Bird was sitting on the stairs in front of the intensive care ward ,gripping his thighs with grimy hands in a battle with the fatigue had been hounding him since his tears had dried ,when the one-eyed doctor emerged from the ward looking thwarted .

Burd in the hospital just after his son is born .

This book has a real memoir is sense at times ,like oe is writing a what might of happened in his life with his own son ,the sense that he has lived through some of the Bird’s feeling when his own son was born but had chosen a different coping mechanism than he had done ,Bird is a well drawn character and I got in this daydreams head as he struggle with his son’s birth ,on a personal level as I have support people with learning disabilities for over twenty years I was interested in the insight of being a parent of some on with a disability ,seeing how Bird didn’t cope and his guilt is something I have heard parents of people I looked after speak about with their own Children ,I shall be reading oe again thou this book isn’t the easiest read it has and will stick with me for a long time ,may I also point out that John Nathan translations stands the test of time still making the prose seem fresh and flowing .This book was one of their non structured reading group choices that frances and other run

the sailor who fell from gace with the sea by Yukio Mishima


the sailor who fell from grace with the sea


In his time Yukio Mishima was one of Japans most successful writers been considered three times for the nobel prize ,this is one of the best known of over forty novels he wrote in his lifetime ,he also wrote plays and short stories in his time .he did after a failed coup to restore the emperors powers in japan that had been lost at the end of the second world war ,he committed ritual suicide . 

the book- 

Starts in post war japan it follows Noboruo a wayward young lad who is in a gang and has been held in his room at night by his mother to prevent him joining the gang  ,this lad is voyeuristic watching his mother dress and her liaisons with Ryjuli a sailor ,when he hangs out with a gang and the chief the head of the gang . the gang does  a particular brutal attack in the middle of the book ,Noburuo resents his mothers affair with Ryjuli and purses him with the gang .he initially likes her mothers lover but then sees flaws in him .Noburo is a typical teenager in a lot of ways this is about him wanting to break free and his sexual awakening but in a extreme way 

my view – 

this is a short review because i didn’t really enjoy this book ,the synopsis read a bit like a japanese lord of the flies or clockwork orange it did have a bit of that but also felt a bit forced by the writer am not sure if this was the translation or the style of writing ,it did give a view in to the  more traditional side of japan that we don,t  always get chance to see in a lot of modern japanese novels .the attack describe in the middle of the book is quite shocking and nearly made me put the book down !

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