What is life about — Portraits of Japan in books

On normalcy, identity, hope, and memory

Photo by Daniel Tseng on Unsplash

During my young adult days, the portraits of Japan (and South Korea) are more likely brought through comics, cartoon shows, and popular music. They could be accessed at the nearest book shop or broadcasted freely nation-wide by the television stations. Books were sort of unfamiliar until I met friends who introduced me to the books of Haruki Murakami — whose works are later displayed in many Indonesian book stores. Luckily, my discovery didn’t stop there.

Here’s a glimpse of Japan and South Korea that I traveled by reading in 2020.

A quest for normalcy

“The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.”
- Sayaka Murata in “Convenience Store Woman”

What does it mean to be normal? In “Convenience Store Woman” Sayaka Murata entails the story of a mid-30s woman named Keiko Furukura. Readers are invited to the main character’s world that seemed developed unrapidly in a country that tremendously aims for speed. The story is opened by a fragment of Keiko’s childhood that correlates with her life in the present. Living a life as a convenience store worker makes Keiko realize that her world is parted in two: one side that is constantly judged, and another side that she just accepts. Beyond the store walls, “Convenience Store Woman” is also a compact unravelment of patriarchy, privacy, and working culture in Japan.

An entitlement of identity

“We’ve never belonged to a country we could sell out”
- Kazuki Kaneshiro in “Go”

Kazuki Kaneshiro explored the theme of the process of identity searching in “Go”. Told through the perspective of Sugihara — a seventeen-year-old teenager — the story emphasizes both the gradual and sudden change of the main character's identity formation that intertwines with his romantic relationship. Born into a family that suffered from war has exposed Sugihara to his parents’ confusion about choosing Japan or Korea. In Sugihara’s story, being a Japanese citizen with a Zainichi background eventually turns his dating experience with a pure Japanese girl, whose father is a firm believer of purity of nationality, more complicated.

A deemed hope for a country

“If you suffer long enough, it almost becomes funny, and you can find yourself laughing at the most miserable situations.”
- Masaji Ishikawa in “A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea

In anecdotes, hope often is mentioned as a key to enduring a hard life. But, what if hope could be a double-edged sword? Masaji Ishikawa shared the slices of his life in an autobiography titled “A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea”. In his story, a country was once a source of hope, but then it gradually became a prison. Ishikawa’s father, who was driven by a desire to live a prosperous life, brought the family to a land that promised them an abundance of hope. Through the repatriation that was organized by several international organizations, his family hailed to North Korea. Upon their arrival, the promised land started to reveal its colors gradually. There is father was not given a well-paid job, while his mother was restricted to work because she kept her Japanese nationality. Concurrently, children and youth like Ishikawa and his sisters lacked adequate education and got limited access to nutrition.

A gloomy island and some stolen entities

“My memories don’t feel as though they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even if they fade, something remains. Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.”
- Yoko Ogawa in “The Memory Police”

Written by Yoko Okagawa, “The Memory Policy” is recognized as an example of Orwellian types of literature that captures the life of a community on an island that constantly experiences the disappearance of some kinds of stuff, people, or memory. The anonymous main character, whose job is an author, goes through a life full of uncertainty. In a world where loss is nothing unfamiliar, the main character captivated the reader’s attention through the way she survives life by rekindling the remaining memories. Moreover, while readers are exposed to the community’s haunted situation, they could also get a sense of the scarcity of a secured life through the excerpts of the main character’s working manuscript which tells about a writer that lost her voice.




reader, writer.

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Jennie Yuwono

Jennie Yuwono

reader, writer.

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