My recent IFFP distractions have led me to neglect a book I’d been meaning to read for a while, a slice of J-Lit I was looking forward to. It was a review copy from Stone Bridge Press which somehow fell through the gaps (both in my schedule and on my shelf). Somehow though that seems rather appropriate, as the people in these stories have also fallen through society’s cracks…
Kenji Nakagami is a writer from the Japanese outcast part of society, the burakumin, and he is well known for his novels and stories set in his hometown in the west of Japan. This collection, The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto (translated by Eve Zimmerman) contains three stories: ‘The Cape’, a novella which won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize; ‘House on Fire’, a shorter continuation of ‘The Cape’; and ‘Red Hair’, a short sex romp only connected to the other two stories by location.
The main event is the title story, in which Akiyuki, a hulking (yet sensitive) young construction worker, lives with his mother, step-father and step-brother in a house in his hometown. As you might be able to tell from his living arrangements, his family tree is a mess, with half- and step-siblings all over the place. Preparations are under way for the memorial ceremony for Akiyuki’s mother’s first husband, when what is to be a time of celebration is disrupted by bloodshed – typical for the small town…
Although two fathers have been mentioned so far, neither are actually Akiyuki’s biological father. That honour belongs to ‘that man’ (Yasu, in ‘House on Fire’), a malicious wanderer with a penchant for violence and arson, a man who managed to get three women pregnant at the same time. Akiyuki and his mother want nothing to do with Yasu, and at times Akiyuki wonders how on earth his family has managed to evolve as it has:
“The mother, Yoshiko, and the brother-in-law were arranged around the futon where Mie was sitting up. Akiyuki was there. So was the boss. Yoshiko’s three kids and Mie’s son were upstairs. Akiyuki studied the brother-in-law, who sat there with a vacant look. It must be hard for him to even grasp how they were all connected to each other by blood. It was a strange bloodline, he thought. His sister wasn’t the only odd one; the bloodline itself was off. Polluted. Just the sight of his sister clowning around he found ominous.”
p.71 (Stone Bridge Press, 2008)
Afraid that his blood truly is tainted, Akiyuki tries to keep himself pure, drinking little alcohol, and avoiding sexual entanglements. However, the threat of his father’s genes hangs over him like a sword of Damocles – and when he learns about a half-sister, Kumi, who works at a local brothel, things start to get even more complicated…
Nakagami’s stories offer a stunning view of life in the Japan they don’t want you to see. Full of sex, violence and squalor (and devoid of hope), its inhabitants have limited options, often restricted to construction work or prostitution. When life is lived in a place like this, nerves are often on edge, and minor insults lead to grudges – which can then lead to bloodshed.
A pleasant day out at the cape brings sunshine into a dreary life; however, the cape they live on is also a type of prison. Akiyuki sees it as penning the people in physically, just as the Japanese attitudes to the Burakumin closes them in metaphorically:
“The sun shone down, and it all seemed so strange to him. Everything, bathed in the same light. Everything, breathing in the same rhythm. Here, in such close quarters, they laughed, celebrated, groaned, violating and heaping abuse on one another. Even the ones most hated had a place here. The man was a good example. How many women had he reduced to tears, how many men wished him dead? The man – everybody talked about him – and Fumiaki’s birth mother too – both lived in this cramped little place. It amazed him. He felt stifled. Oppressed. The land was hemmed in by mountains and rivers and the sea, and the people lived on it like insects or dogs.” (p.16)
If it is a prison, it turns out to be one few people ever escape from…
‘House on Fire’ goes on with the story, providing details of the backstory of both Akiyuki’s father and his dead half-brother, Ikuo. The story also jumps forward in time, showing how family man Akiyuki reacts when he hears about his father’s impending death. In lashing out at his wife and mindlessly smashing up household furniture, he becomes what he has always dreaded – a pale imitation of his biological father, doomed by his blood.
Many reviews of ‘The Cape’ make a lot of the burakumin element, but I think that it would be a mistake to focus solely on this element of the story. The reality is that this sense of hopelessness (and tangled fates) is the lot of the lower-working classes in many advanced societies. While Akiyuki is stuck digging holes in the Japanese provinces, he could easily be stuck in a menial job for life in Melbourne’s western suburbs or living in the backstreets of Leeds. The poverty trap is not restricted to countries where segregation and discrimination is out in the open.
In short, this is another excellent book for lovers of J-Lit. In addition to the main stories and the bonus of ‘Red Hair’, Eve Zimmerman provides an excellent preface and afterword, explaining Nakagami’s place in modern Japanese literature and outlining how the stories fit in with the rest of his work. If you’re only interested in Fuji-san and cherry blossoms, it may not be one for you. However, if you want to know more about what really goes (or went) on in Japan, you should definitely give this one a try 🙂