When he was a young boy, Manjiro Nakahama ran away from his home in a poor Japanese fishing village. Joining up with some fishermen who took him under their wing, one of their fishing excursions soon turned into a disaster, stranding them on a deserted island. As they awaited their rescue, he had no idea he was about to say goodbye to his country for two decades and hello to what would lead to adventures on whaling ships, tropical islands, and even a life in America. Or that he would someday grow up to be the man responsible for opening the door between Japan and the rest of the world.

The New Bedford Samurai is an amazing and true story in a narrative setting. I’ve read quite a bit of Japanese literature, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover author Anca Vlasopolos’ book reads very much in the Japanese style. The writing has an almost fable-like quality, something I’ve often felt while reading a Japanese novel, and this style works well here, as Manjiro lived a life that could only have come from either a wild imagination or complete truth. One simply cannot read this book and wonder why we haven’t heard of Nakahama before. Vlasopolos has certainly brought forth a story long awaiting a writer to share it.

It is evident Vlasopolos did extensive research for this book, and she even mentions traveling to Japan to do so. Manjiro Nakahama’s life was complex, spanning many countries and major world events, and she takes you through every fascinating corner. She not only provides the reader with a story of a man that had to be shared, she manages to include a look into how the ways of today’s world have affected the environment. The reader will ponder not only how the attitudes of yesterday have impacted the earth of today, but how today’s attitudes will impact our future as well.

Read an excerpt of The New Bedford Samurai.

Part of the Japanese Literature Series by Dalkey Archive Press, The Glass Slipper and Other Stories features World War II era shorts in a setting unique to American readers. In fact, of the three from this series I’ve reviewed so far, this one is my favorite due not only to the setting, but the contemporary flow that allows the reader to easily place themselves in the position of every protagonist.

Narrators of each story grapple with honesty, both in relationship to others and within themselves. While this is a theme most authors visit at some point in their writing, Shotaro Yasuoka set these shorts against a backdrop of a warring Japan, giving a flavor to this book that is anything but ordinary. The writing style and translation is so smooth and comfortable, English readers will forget the book was originally written in Japanese. These same readers can also expect to learn more about behind-the-scenes WWII Japan than any of their U.S. school history books ever put forth; and I guarantee it’s a lot more fun than sitting in Mr. Johnson’s World History class!

Other books reviewed here from Dalkey Archive Press’ Japanese Literature Series:
The Budding Tree
The Temple of the Wild Geese and The Bamboo Dolls of Echizen

Another installment of the Japanese Literature Series by Dalkey Archive Press, these two Tsutomu Mizukami Novellas allow an English-speaking readership its first look at The Temple of the Wild Geese and The Bamboo Dolls of Echizen.

The Temple of the Wild Geese tells the story of a temple at the base of Mt. Kinugasa. The mistress of a famous artist is coerced into moving in with the infatuated priest after her lover dies. Life is relatively comfortable and simple. Satoko falls into a monotonous daily routine; but she’s constantly finding herself unnerved by the eerie apprentice of the priest. An unusually small and haunted boy of 13, he was once abandoned by his mother and taken in by the temple to aid the priest. Jinen is a dutiful and hard worker – but Satoko senses something about him. He’s too quiet, too composed. This first story is every bit a mystery, and as the mystery lover that I am, I enjoyed attempting to unravel this Japanese tale.

The second story, The Bamboo Dolls of Echizen, becomes a mystery only from the angle of deciphering if and how it ties in with the first story. Both stories are set in 1930’s Japan, and both contain a similar main character who is shunned by society. But the premises of these two stories are very different – at first glance. Echizen is a small village known for its bamboo artisans. A small and lonely man lives there, his bamboo skills beyond anyone else. What follows evolves into a strange, sad love story. Or is it? He is unwanted by anyone until one woman comes into his life as a most unexpected partner.

I wanted to go into more detail about the second story, but something began to happen as I wrote – I knew the two stories contained many parallels, but I began finding so many that I’m certain sharing the connections would give the fun away of reading the book. The biggest mystery of these stories, it appears, is how they’re intertwined. Are they truly connected? If so, how? Readers will enjoy some wonderful aspects of these novellas – the settings, the unusual characters, the mysterious aura.

Mizukami (1919 – 2004) was a wonderful storyteller with a gift of adding an element of the unexpected. He has received many awards for his writing, including the Naoki Prize for The Temple of the Wild Geese, one of his most popular stories. It is said these two stories in particular are semi-autobiographical. Given the nature of the characters and the plots, it makes one want to find out more about this popular and beloved Japanese writer.

For more on Japanese literature, check out The Japanese Literature Home Page.

Teacher, calligrapher, restaurant owner.  These were all common jobs during Japan’s Edo period.  If you were a man.  But what if you were a woman who had to support herself?  What if you were one of the best and willing to stay the best, despite the prejudices against you?

The Budding Tree – Six Stories of Love in Edo, by Aiko Kitahara, contains stories of such women.  Each story features a talented woman full of the desire to succeed in a male-dominated profession during a time in Japan’s history when even the most successful fought to stay afloat through economic hardships.  Not only did these women have to work against the current to prove themselves professionally, but they also often dealt with the heartbreak of being seen as unfit for marriage, good only as mistresses and lovers.

The Budding Tree is an evocative collection of stories written in a style that reminds me of The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, an ancient Japanese manuscript.  (Considered by many scholars to be the first written novel in the world, it was written by a woman.)  Even though The Budding Tree is set in a different time period several hundred years later, the feel was there that I remember from Genji.  The voice is simple and elegant, painting one single picture from six distinct stories, as Genji has numerous story lines forming one overall picture.  It is no wonder Kitahara won the Naoki Prize for this collection in 1993 when it was first published in the original Japanese.

Buy The Budding Tree here and support carp(e) libris and your local bookseller!

Published by Dalkey Archive Press.