‘Inhabitation’ by Teru Miyamoto (Review)

It’s been an interesting #JanuaryInJapan journey this time around, with lots of enjoyable outings through time and space.  After kicking things off with some poetry, highlights include an alcohol-fuelled trip to a writer’s home region and a bit of border hopping with friends in Europe.  Of course, when travelling, even vicariously, there’s bound to be a bit of rough with the smooth, and I suspect some readers will have been put off by a certain ode to stalking, as well as a visit to a young man facing some pretty nasty discrimination

It’s time to bring the journey to a close, though, and today’s choice has something for everyone.  We’re off to Osaka to spend a year in the life of a young man at a turning point, but before we proceed, I have a few warnings for you all.  Our final stop involves sex, violence and (unfortunately) a spot of unintended animal cruelty…  Still with me?  Then off we go!

The hero of Teru Miyamoto’s novel Inhabitation (translated by Roger K. Thomas) is Tetsuyuki Iryō, a student in his final year of university.  Pursued by unsavoury types chasing his dead father’s debts, he and his mother have fled the family home to hide out, each choosing their own bolthole.  The story begins with Tetsuyuki moving into a tiny apartment on the outskirts of Osaka where (he hopes) nobody will find him, but the peace and relative safety of his new home has to be balanced against the lengthy daily commute he now faces.

Thus begins a pivotal year in the young man’s life, one full of drama.  As we follow him through a series of adventures and misadventures, involving a new job, his girlfriend and the many people he meets along the way, we’re shown that youth can be full of surprises, and hardships.  Still, with a bit of effort, and a whole lot of mindless, youthful confidence, Tetsuyuki might just make it through to next spring and graduate on time, hopefully with his enthusiasm and vital organs intact.

I’ve enjoyed several other Miyamoto books, and Inhabitation also turned out to be a fun ride.  The story is very much driven by the central figure, and my edition features enthusiastic back-cover blurbs from none other than Yōko Ogawa and Hiromi Kawakami.  In her praise, Banana Yoshimoto is especially effusive about the character of Tetsuyuki – obviously Miyamoto is hitting a nerve with his young protagonist.

Tetsuyuki’s certainly a vivid character, and with his gung-ho attitude to life, he’s not your average, dutiful, hard-working student.  He spends much of his free time sleeping with his girlfriend, and getting jealous of her, too, and the rest is spent at his new part-time job at an Osaka hotel, which means he virtually never attends his classes.  When the thugs eventually track him down, as is inevitable, he proves to possess a surprisingly stubborn streak, and is unwilling to cough up the money they insist ‘he’ owes them, leading to some rather nasty confrontations.

However, you may well end up feeling that he’s not all that nice a person.  As well as being a little rough with Yoko, and lax about keeping in touch with her and his mother, he’s careful at work to look out for number one, managing to navigate his way through the petty office politics.  Perhaps, though, his attitude just stems from following his late father’s final commandment:

“I don’t like to sound preachy, but just think of this as a sort of pompous last will and testament.  There are people out there who have courage but lack endurance.  And there are those who have hope but no courage.  And some have as much hope and courage as anyone, but give up at the drop of a hat.  Then there are lots who go through life enduring everything, but never rise to any challenge.  Courage, hope, patience – only those who keep holding on to all three of these will achieve their potential.”
p.165 (Counterpoint, 2018)

It’s a message Tetsuyuki has taken to heart, and even if there are bad days, you always feel he’ll be back on his feet in no time.

As anyone who’s read Inhabitation will know, there’s an important part of the book I haven’t mentioned yet, the reason behind my cryptic message about animal cruelty.  In the first chapter, Tetsuyuki arrives at his new apartment in the dark, only to find that the electricity hasn’t been turned on yet.  By the dim light of the moon, he drives a nail into a pillar to hang his baseball cap on, only to make a chilling discovery the following morning:

For a while Tetsuyuki was glued to the spot, but then cautiously drew close and stared intently at the creature, finally emitting a gasp that was almost a scream and falling back to the opposite wall.  The nail that Tetsuyuki had driven into the pillar as he groped in the darkness the previous night had pierced the lizard right in the middle.  When he approached it again, it squirmed, moving its legs and tail.  Tetsuyuki sat down and for a long time gazed at the creature he had nailed, alive, to the pillar. (p.20)

Enter Kin-chan, the lizard who accompanies Tetsuyuki throughout the year, spending the whole book nailed to the pillar.  Our hapless hero does provide his new pet with food, water, a heat lamp and a name, but for a variety of reasons, he can’t bring himself to set the poor lizard free.

Yes, it’s slightly unlikely, and there’s a sense that the lizard is more of a allegory than a real creature that can survive a year with a nail through its body – so if it would be easy for Tetsuyuki to simply pull the nail out, why doesn’t he?  Well:

Images of his mother, Yoko, Isogai, Yuriko, the lady next door, Mr. and Mrs. Lang, Sawamura Chiyono… all emerged in the back of his mind.  And all of them were smiling at him with nails piercing their backs.  All of them were suffering from these nails but knew of no way to pull them out, and moreover were afraid of the pain if they were extracted. (p.221)

Miyamoto makes it quite clear that poor old Kin-chan’s plight is a metaphor for being stuck in life, and like the people our young hero mentions, Tetsuyuki himself is stuck in a moment, unable to pull the nail out and move on with his life.

Interestingly, the book has a completely different title in Japanese, Haru no yume (Spring Dream).  The novel goes from spring to spring, explaining the first part, and over the course of the book, Tetsuyuki has several dreams, wondering on waking about their significance.  The main one has him imagining himself as a lizard as he spends several centuries in a cycle of continual death and rebirth, only to wake up less than a hour after falling asleep – I’ll leave that to other readers to interpret.

In parts, I enjoyed Inhabitation immensely.  While Tetsuyuki isn’t always the most attractive of protagonists, his flaws do make him appealing, and he’s always just as likely to do the wrong thing as the right one.  The novel can be gritty at times, pervaded by cheap sake, fried rice, late nights and ‘dates’ at love hotels.  Set in the early eighties, our main man is far from the modern androgynous Asian drama lead.

Yet I’m not sure everything always quite held together.  There are times when we drift from scene to scene, with certain aspects of the story slightly underdeveloped.  For me, the writer could have been a little tighter, pruning some of the less important plotlines.  A shorter book, focusing more on the main events in Tetsuyuki’s life, might have been better.

Still, it’s all great fun, and I’m sure you’ll take the word of three modern J-Lit greats over mine.  Even if it’s not my favourite Miyamoto work, Inhabitation marks a joyful return to the setting of his Rivers trilogy with a young man who’d fit in well in those tales of the Osaka nightlife.  The lizard?  Well, the jury’s still out on him…

6 thoughts on “‘Inhabitation’ by Teru Miyamoto (Review)

    1. Emma – I like Miyamoto, but I much prefer some of his other books (‘Rivers’, ‘Autumn Brocade’) – this one feels a little dated, to be honest…

      Liked by 1 person

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