I haven’t got to as much J-Lit as I would have liked recently, so this week I’ve made time for a couple of visits to Japan (the second one slightly more ambitious than the first!). While today’s post introduces us to a new name, the source is rather more familiar, as I’ve received several books from them before, mostly with great success. Let’s see how today’s choice pans out 🙂
Regular readers will be familiar with the work of Kurodahan Press, a small Japan-based independent publisher whose books I’ve covered frequently in the past (most recently in the form of Ryū Murakami’s Tokyo Decadence, a collection of stories from various stages of his career). One of their focuses is Speculative Fiction (and anyone interested in that genre of writing should have a look at their latest release, Yusaku Kitano’s Mr. Turtle), but I’ve been more interested in another side to their work, bringing the books of lesser-known (in English) twentieth-century literary figures to light.
Long Belts and Thin Men: The Postwar Stories of Kojima Nobuo is an excellent introduction to one of the writers overshadowed by the likes of Kawabata, Mishima and Ōe. The collection consists of nine stories, two of which are virtually short novellas, and it guides the novice reader through several stages of the writer’s career, as well as showing us the most common themes appearing in his fiction. Translated by Lawrence Rogers, the book also features his excellent introduction shedding more light on both the fiction and the writer’s life and career.
The first story, ‘The Rifle’, is the only one I’d read before (in the Oxford collection). Set in pre-WW2 Manchuria, it describes a young soldier and the relationship he has with his gun:
The rifle had become my woman. And she was an older woman. Deep-down scars, a filled-out stock, an indisputably mature woman. A rifle shiny from the touch of other men’s hands.
I didn’t want to turn in my rifle, serial number A62377, for a new one. And they let me keep it.
‘The Rifle’, p.3 (Kurodahan Press, 2016)
This naive comparison takes a sinister turn when he is ordered to dispose of a prisoner of war; from that moment on, both man and rifle embark on an unstoppable downward spiral.
However, the remaining pieces in Long Belts and Thin Men are set after the war, and the title reflects the impression of a people whose belts have literally been tightened after years of hardship. ‘The Smile’ focuses on a returned soldier whose attention to his polio-stricken son paints a thin veneer over his loathing for the poor child (there’s more than a hint of Ōe in this one). The story begins with a photo of him smiling in the swimming pool and ends with the reader learning how the picture came about.
Several other stories feature some slightly disturbing, obsessive behaviour. ‘Voices’ is a strange tale where a salaryman hurrying off to work is virtually ambushed by a stranger determined to strike up a conversation; ‘The Black Flame’ reverses the idea with the narrator telling of his obsession with his coworker, Hiroshi:
You go to the restroom. You have to go there often. You set off, shuffling. I give serious thought to following you, but leave for the restroom after you’ve returned to your desk. I walk where you’ve walked. For some reason I find this pleasant. I relieve myself where you’ve gone. You’d been there two minutes earlier. I’m standing now just as you stood.
‘The Black Flame’, p.86
The psychological ramblings move on to the narrator’s relationship with Hiroshi’s wife Rumi, one he begins merely to get closer to the husband, in a story where the homoerotic undertones gradually become unmistakable.
During the 1950s, Kojima travelled to the US, even taking part in the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, so it’s no surprise that some of his work is set there. Where ‘The House of the Hooligans’ introduces surprised Japanese readers to a family under the thrall of two monstrous toddlers, ‘A Certain Day’ follows a young Japanese couple abroad as they come to terms with the differences between the culture of the two countries.
The experiences of a Japanese abroad also make up the longest piece in the book, ‘Buffoon in an Alien Land’. In a tense, fascinating story, a Japanese visitor spends time on an American farm with members of the Mennonite community. The narrator has a sense of insecurity he believes he can overcome if he manages to sleep with a white woman, and part of the tension here stems from his interactions with Rachel, the farmer’s wife. However, as the story progresses, the scope widens, and much of the plot focuses on the interaction between the different families in the community, including a second-generation Japanese man living in a Quaker settlement. Nothing really happens over the fifty-odd pages, but it’s an absorbing tale.
Perhaps the most successful story, though, is Kojima’s Akutagawa-Prize-winning piece, ‘The American School’. Set during the American occupation, the story follows a group of Japanese English-language teachers on their visit to an American school in Japan to observe lessons. Kojima makes it clear that the two group of teachers are incomparable – in the presence of the relaxed, healthy, tall Americans, the Japanese visitors are cowed. This is particularly true for Isa, a man panic-stricken at the thought of actually having to use the English language:
When he opened his eyes he saw some fifty feet away several girl students, around twelve or thirteen years old, standing and talking. It came to him that he and his fellow teachers were of a pathetic people that had no right to come to this school.
‘The American School’, p.35
The story isn’t just about the differences between the triumphant Americans and the downtrodden locals, however, as there is great variety amongst the Japanese cohort too. Quite apart from the humiliated Isa, we have Michiko (who draws attention as the only woman in the group), Shibamoto (an easy-going Judo teacher) and Yamada – a competent, if stilted, English speaker, with some war secrets he should really keep to himself… The visit is doomed to failure, and Kojima ends it on just the right note of both pathos and farce.
Of course, it wouldn’t be J-Lit without a confessional ‘I-Story’, and the collection ends with ‘In Our Forties’, a rambling piece in which a writer and his wife, never satisfied with their house, decide to stop renovating and build a new one instead. As you’d expect from an impractical writer, deadlines and costs expand elastically, and the couple are left bumbling along, hoping that some day they’ll be able to actually move into their new home…
Long Belts and Thin Men is an excellent collection, one I’d recommend to fans of Japanese writing – ‘The American School’ and ‘Buffoon in an Alien Land’ would be good value on their own. One comment I would make, though, is that the translation can feel a little stilted in places; there’s a sense that Rogers is reflecting the language of the period in English, particularly with dialogue, and personally I’d have preferred a less academic approach. However, on the whole it reads smoothly, and I wouldn’t say there were any dull pieces here.
While the settings and themes differ, Kojima’s style comes across throughout the collection. Many of the stories feel as if they’re heading towards some sort of disaster, but in truth most run their course without incident, the sense of impending doom merely a reflection of the narrator’s confused emotions. They’re definitely stories that deserve a reread at some point, particularly the longer ones. While I was reading ‘Buffoon in an Alien Land’, for example, I was constantly expecting some catastrophe to befall the Japanese visitor, which meant that I didn’t focus enough on the subtleties of the interaction between Kojima-san and his hosts. Next time…
Hopefully, after my brief (!) look at Long Belts and Thin Men, you’ll have a fair idea as to whether this one is for you. I doubt that Kojima will ever gain the attention outside Japan that the Murakamis of this world have received, but I’m happy to have added another name to my personal library. A big thanks to Kurodahan, then – I look forward to the next discovery 🙂