By Rashaad Jorden (Yamagata-ken, 2008-10) for JQ magazine. A former head of the JETAA Philadelphia Sub-Chapter, Rashaad is a graduate of Leeds Beckett University with a master’s degree in responsible tourism management. For more on his life abroad and enthusiasm for taiko drumming, visit his blog at www.gettingpounded.wordpress.com.
Upon picking up the sixth volume of Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan, the first thought that popped into my head was that I would be introduced to epic Japanese works and/or more prominent authors from the country. After all, several award-winning writers—including Mieko Kawakami, Satoshi Kitamura and Hiroko Oyamada—produce works that appear in this volume. Quite possibly, some of the stories in this 21-piece set might become classics in Japanese literature. Or at the very least, this newbie to the Monkey Business series might discover new aspects of Japan—or be reintroduced to certain things—in rather unforgettable tales.
And well…this edition of Monkey Business doesn’t lack colorful stories. Several of them stand out, including the first one – “Forbidden Diary.” No, it doesn’t serve as an educational tour of Japanese history or culture. Instead, this excerpt of Sachiko Kishimoto’s fictional diary introduces us to a “Phantom Old Man” who has experienced Japan a little differently from the way you might have.
Let’s see…the old man (who is actually being taken care of by the narrator) remembers Shibuya as being totally void of people, as only a haven for rice paddies and without its iconic scramble crossroads. In addition to seemingly arriving out of the Stone Age, the old man repeatedly changes appearances during the story.
But he isn’t totally stuck in the past. According to the story’s narrator, the old man has grown to love “silly variety shows” and the music of Perfume. Fascinating. Just reading about his navigation of hectic Tokyo life and his bond with his caretaker makes you think the old man’s life would make a funny story on the big or small screen.
However, “Forbidden Diary” definitely isn’t the only story in the set with a touch of the seemingly ridiculous. There might have been some crazy people living around you in Japan. However, it is doubtful they were as loony as the characters portrayed in Hiromi Kawakumi’s series of vignettes titled “People from my Neighborhood.” Here, we see a revolution brought about by someone solely because he wanted to see a statue of himself erected. Or even a guy organizing a game in which people would try to guess how many flies were buzzing around a pig. And there’s even more weirdness coming from the fingers of Kawakumi in “People from my Neighborhood.”
However, while reading the stories in Volume Six—co-edited, as always, but JET alum/Japanamerica author Roland Kelts (Osaka-shi, 1998-99)—I was wondering if any of them brought up memories of my JET experience. Fortunately, there was one work that did the trick: Tomoka Shibasaki’s “Background Music.” Shibasaki writes about two brothers’ journey to their grandmother’s house. “Background Music” evokes memories of traveling through Japan, and some of the difficulties and joys of traversing the country (during their journey, they must reach an island inaccessible by car in addition to driving on very narrow roads. But being in a rather inaka setting, they rarely see another vehicle). The story is travel writing at its best, as Shibasaki adroitly captures the scenery the two view. And better yet, the brothers seem to be the kind of cool guys you’d meet at a rock festival who know all the major Western acts and their hits, as music is an important part of any road trip and the songs they were listening to seemed to perfectly sum up their moods.
Not surprisingly, Volume Six is comprised mainly of short stories, but a major surprise arrives at the end by way of Mina Ishikawa. She produced “Ten Tales in Tanka,” which actually run the gamut in subject matter (according to their translations): ATMs, soldiers and bridges. Being unfamiliar with tanka, at first glance they seemed to be Japanese proverbs. But they’re not—maybe the tanka tales have meanings I can’t decipher.
However, the other works in the sixth volume won’t leave you scratching your head. In addition to the stories profiled here, there are other works that will make you laugh while taking you to a Japan that might not have even existed in your imagination.
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