This is a transcription of Episode 3 — Japan: Family Honor and Super-Cute Stuff.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We searched for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe. one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
David: Welcome to season one, episode three of Strong Sense of Place. Thanks for listening. Today we are talking about a place that is both ancient and hyper-modern and traditional and irreverent. We are talking about Japan. First we’ll recommend five books that are all set in Japan. Then we’ll visit with our good friend Tillie Walden. She’s an Eisner-winning graphic novelist and the creator of Spinning and On a Sunbeam. She and I will talk about manga: what it is, what you might want to read, and how it’s influenced her work. Mel, I know you’re an expert in all things Japan [laughter] and at the top of every episode, we’ve been talking about what makes writers drawn to, in this case, Japan. Why would a reader be interested in Japan? What are the story elements to make Japan interesting?
Melissa: Okay. The first thing I learned is that there have been people in Japan for 35,000 years. So that history goes way, way back. And the other thing that makes the history really fascinating is that until the 1500s, when the missionaries arrived from Europe, Japan was isolated from the rest of the world. And so it developed this really rich culture without the influence of other cultures,
David: Right? It was its own thing for a long, long time.
Melissa: Also, when I think of Japan, I tend to think of that one square in Tokyo that is filled with neon and thousands of people and robots.
David: Same. Thats exactly where your mind goes. Yes. Super-hyper-kinetic neon Tokyo.
Melissa: Yes. And through the course of reading the books that I read for this episode, I realized that Japan has very varied geography and climate,
David: So it’s kind of like thinking about the United States and thinking about Times Square and you’re like, ‘It’s all Times Square and it’s really not.
Melissa: It’s really not. There are tropical beaches, there are volcanoes with snow on top. Japan is made up of over 6,000 islands. There’s beautiful countryside and wrap your mind around this: The skiing in Japan, some people say is even better than in the Alps.
David: That’s unexpected. [laughter]
Melissa: The other thing that makes for really rich storytelling in Japan, which is true for a lot of the world in the 20th century, is that they had a very bumpy experience through the 20th century. So the Japanese governmental systems started out as emperors and was supported by warriors. We know them as Shogun or samurai who were loyal to one emperor. Now they have a prime minister, but in between they also had a war with Korea, a war with China, World War II. So after that isolation and their very early history, they were in the thick of it with the rest of the world for decades. And that gives you lots of fodder for telling really compelling stories.
David: When I was doing research on Japan, I found out that Japan and Russia have never signed a treaty about World War II. They’re still in disagreement about an Island that’s between Japan and Russia.
Melissa: I mean, I kind of respect that kind of obstinacy. [laughter] The other aspect of Japanese culture that I think makes for really rich storytelling is that there’s a deep tradition of kind of supernatural creatures and mythology. I mean, some of the scariest horror movies come from Japan.
David: They have super creepy folk stories and creatures that inhabit that. The one that I remember is this story about three disembodied heads that bounce around at night and tell stories and chase people and that kind of thing.
Melissa: Completely normal, not terrifying at all. And then there’s also a bunch of different kinds of theater, which we’re going to talk about in one of the books that I’m discussing today. Puppet theater, poetry, haiku. I am famous for my haiku [laughter]… well-known haiku from when I was 12 years old.
David: Yeah, I’d forgotten about this haiku. Do you want to share it? That haiku? Do you remember it?
Melissa: Do I remember it? I do remember it. Okay. Prepare yourselves. Everyone.
Melissa: [japanese music]
Gentle koalas In the eucalyptus trees One of nature’s toys
David: That is so… beautiful. [sarcasm]
Melissa: That is so… I’m 12 years old. I have the kitten hanging from the branch that says ‘Hang in There.’ [laughter]
David: Japan has a rich culture.
Melissa: Let me just say in case it is not completely clear. Haiku is a tremendously beautiful art form, and I am in no way mocking it. I love haiku, and my little koala story is a tribute to actual gorgeous, simple, elegant haiku..
David: All right. Do I have more to say about Japan and its story?
Melissa: I think that I’ve exposed my ignorance quite enough. [laugher]
David: All right, so let’s do two truths and a lie. I’m going to tell you three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is a lie. Mel does not know what I’m about to say.
Melissa: I am prepared and as ready as I can be.
David: Okay. Here are three statements. Now, as you might imagine, Japan has a lot of things that I could pull from that sound… There are some fun facts going on in Japan, so I decided to take this version and make it all about food.
Melissa: I’m into this idea.
David: Okay, so two truths and a lie: first statement. There is a game show in Japan where one item in a room is replaced with a lookalike made of chocolate or candy and contestants have to try to find it by biting into it.
Melissa: That sounds amazing. I am in.
David: Second statement: There was a wax-museum-themed restaurant in Tokyo that allows you to have dinner with wax versions of Scarlet Johannsen and Brad Pitt.
Melissa: All of these sound so outrageous that they could be true. You’ve done an excellent job.
David: The third one: In Japan, there are more than 300 versions of the KitKat bar.
Melissa: Oh my goodness. Wow. Okay. I mean that KitKat bar thing sounds true. 300 is a lot though.
David: 300 is a lot
Melissa: But it’s such an outrageous number that just might be true. The wax museum thing definitely sounds true. I’m going to say the KitKat one is a lie. I think 300 is too many.
David: There are more than 300 different versions of KitKat bar.
Melissa: Please tell me you have examples.
David: … including a soy sauce version…
Melissa: Okay. Hard pass.
David: A European cheese version, and a wasabi version… because the candy bar’s name coincidentally sounds like the Japanese expression ‘Kitto Katsu,’ which translates to ‘you shall surely win.’ The bars are really popular or like students about to take an exam or something like that.
Melissa: Oh my gosh, that’s so fun. Yeah, I’m into that. Although… I mean chocolate was salt is good. So the soy sauce flavor might be not terrible.
David: I’m very skeptical of all of them.
Melissa: I feel like the only recourse is to somehow get our hands on a box of them and try them. If we have any listeners in Japan, please send Kit-Kats immediately.
David: Okay. So that gets us to, so we have the wax museum restaurant and the chocolate game show.
Melissa: I feel like the wax museum restaurant is true. So I think the game show is made up.
David: So Japan apparently never met a themed restaurant that it doesn’t like. There’s an Alice in Wonderland-theme restaurant. There’s a vampire cafe.
Melissa: That sounds perfect for me.
David: There’s a Kabukicho robot restaurant which features a giant biting monsters and a unicorn in silver glitter and very, very shiny robot girls. And there’s video of that. We’ll post that. It’s fantastic. But to this particular theme restaurant I made up.
Melissa: David Humphreys! Good job. You totally tricked me. So that means that the game show where one thing in the room has been replaced by chocolate and candy is real.
David: There’s also YouTube footage of that and we will post that.
Melissa: I need to see that the video STAT. Are they racing?
David: The clip that I saw did not make it seem like that. That clip that I saw is like people tentatively biting into a shoe hoping that it’s a piece of chocolate and not a shoe. [laughter]
Melissa: I mean it’s not dissimilar to what toddlers do. They put everything in their mouths.
David: So that’s a thing that they do to entertain themselves.
Melissa: Okay. I’m super excited to see these video clips when we’re finished recording.
David: So that’s true truths and a lie. We’re onto our five books. Mel, what’s your first book?
Melissa: Wow. My first book has a completely different tone than the conversation we were just having. But let’s just go for it. My first book is called The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, and it is by Japanese author Gail Tsukiyama. This is a sweeping, multigenerational family saga. The story covers 30 years from before World War II, so starting in the late 1930s and through all of the war and the reconstruction period up to 1966, so we are covering a lot of ground in these people’s lives. Aand the story focuses on the Matsumoto family.
Melissa: There are two brothers. They’re being raised by their grandparents because their parents died in a tragic accident. And the description of that accident is just heartbreaking. Like right from the get-go, this book is, like, I’m going to punch you in the feelings. Are you ready? I mean, it’s beautifully written, so don’t be put off by that. It’s really well done. But it does, I mean, all orphans stories begin in a sad way. And this is basically an orphan story. The brothers are being raised by their grandparents, and their grandparents are lovely. And when you read it you are, like, I would love to have grandparents like that. They’re really nice people, and the two brothers are devoted to each other but could not be more different. The older brother wants to be a Sumo wrestler. So he’s very physical and very driven.
Melissa: And the younger brother is artistic, and he wants to be a mask maker for the Noh theater. I had no idea what Noh theater is. Do you know what Noh theater is?
David: I don’t!
Melissa: So it’s the theater style in Japan where the actors wear those white carved masks. You may have seen pictures of those. And basically what’s happening is the masks represent different archetypes of characters that are well understood by the audience. And the actors convey their emotions — instead of using their faces — they convey their emotions through gestures that, again, are very well understood by the audience. So it’s all very ritualized and codified.
Melissa: Symbolic, yes. And the characters represent ghosts, women, children, the elderly warriors. So again, archetypical characters that are acting out, these kind of mythological, larger-than-life stories. And it’s been around since the 1300s so it’s the oldest form of theater in Japan.
Melissa: It’s really important to the culture and the masks themselves are considered great works of art. So the younger brothers desire to make these masks is really his commitment to art and soulful living. And that’s kind of in contrast to his brother who’s very physical and wants to be a Sumo wrestler. And it seems like they’re both going to be successful. They had a rocky start to their livesl they’re orphans, but they’re in this loving home, and they’re on their paths to be successful. And then World War II literally explodes into their lives. In real life, on March 9th, 1945, the US fire bombed Tokyo. I have to admit this, as a part of the war that I was not very familiar with. I read a lot of World War II literature, but it’s usually set in Western Europe and talking about the Holocaust. So that fire bombing was the single most destructive bombing raid in all of human history.
Melissa: 88,000 people died. 41,000 were injured, and over a million residents of Tokyo lost their homes. And this is not a history book, it’s historical fiction. So what the author does is she sets up this situation and then she puts our characters right in the middle of it and then your heart just cracks open.
David: Right. Because there’s reading about the thing, and then there’s reading about the thing from the perspective of one person, right?
Melissa: These people that were coming to care about while the story centers on the Matsumoto brothers, we also meet all of the people in their social circle, and that was one of the things I loved about this book is we’re meeting this core family, and then just like real life, you get to know the people that they know and it kind of spreads out in a web. During the firebombing we follow two little girls who are good friends with the brothers. They’re out with their mother caught in the fire, and there’s descriptions of how thick the smoke is.
Melissa: And how the almost seems to be like almost with intent going down particular streets, and the author does a really good job describing it, so you’re right there and it’s really intense. And then the mother and the daughters get separated. Emotionally, this book was very, very cathartic. I mean, I went through some stuff when I was reading it.
David: Yeah, I bet.
Melissa: It made me sad. It made me very soft-hearted. Sometimes I was really angry. The descriptions of what Japanese soldiers were doing in Tokyo while the war was going on were really tough. But there are also parts that are very optimistic and life-affirming, and the relationships between the people are really loving and warm and sweet, so there’s a lot to recommend and there’s a lot to love. I don’t usually cry when I read books, but there were a couple times when I actually had real tears in my eyes.
Melissa: I absolutely loved it. That is the The Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Suki Yama.
David: It sounds like everything you’d want from a family saga.
Melissa: It absolutely is. Dave, what’s book number two?
David: My book is… it’s got a mouthful of a title…
Melissa: I’m ready.
David: It’s called Showa 1944-1953: The History of Japan, and it’s written by Shigeru Mizuki. It’s the third volume of a four-volume set.
Melissa: That sounds like a lot of book action.
David: Doesn’t it? Based on that, I don’t want to read it. It doesn’t sound remotely fun or readable, so let’s, let’s work on that.
Melissa: And not to put too fine a point on it, but I feel like you’re kind of becoming the master of picking books that don’t sound fun and then turn out to be awesome.
Melissa: I like that you’re advocating for the, maybe not sexy title, but look past that to the awesomeness underneath.
David: So the sexy part about this book for me is that it’s a graphic novel, and it’s by one of the most respected manga artists of all time.
Melissa: Ok, so, manga… lay a definition on us.
David: Manga is a tropical fruit that’s delicious. Cut up or on some ice cream or maybe some…
Melissa: Wait. That’s mango, right?
David: Sorry. Manga is the comics tradition in Japan.
Melissa: That makes more sense.
David: Yeah. Manga is used for all kinds of stories like a fiction, nonfiction romance, everything. They’re baseball stories. It’s read by everybody from children to the elderly. I cannot understate the importance of manga culture in Japan. It’s huge. There’s a weekly, there’s a weekly manga magazine that has a subscription of one and a half million people.
Melissa: I wish you guys could see me cause when he said that my eyes got really huge and my mouth fell open. Like a dumb fish. [laughter]
David: The author Shigeru Mizuki is held in high regard, and we’ll talk about that more in a second. He’s a master of his craft, and he wanted to write about the recent history of Japan and boy does he. He ended up writing a four-volume set about Japan and what Japan was like from 1926 until 1989, which is the period that Japanese history calls the Showa period. And he parallels that with his own life. So you see a little bit of Japanese history and then you see how it affects him and his family.
Melissa: So taking the giant stories of the 20th century and seeing them through his personal perspective.
David: Yeah, similar to what your book does, where, you know, you hear about a historical event and you kind of know about it, but then you see it in the human context and it’s just…
Melissa: I feel like those really big events are hard to wrap your head around because they’re so horrific and so large. And history books kind of cover them in a factual way. And then when these really talented authors can bring that down to the emotional level, it’s really moving. Okay. So who is this guy? Tell us about him.
David: This guy has a compelling life. So, in just this volume which covers nine years, he fights in World War II. He is the sole survivor of his company. He gets malaria several times. He loses an arm to it. He makes friends with an Aboriginal tribe who love him so much, they offer him land to get him to stay with them. He considers that, but he doesn’t, he goes back to Japan to live in the horrible post-war reconstruction, which includes food scarcity and suicide and a lot of darkness.
David: But along the way we also learn a lot about Japan. So in volume three for instance, there’s a lot about the idea of the noble death. It’s the idea that Japanese generals who would rather have their troops dead and keep their honor, then shamed with capture or defeat.
David: Yeah, that’s hard to imagine from a Western perspective, right, where we’re all cowboy and look out for number one and all that. Mizuki himself has trouble with the idea because he’s a foot soldier and he wants to live, and he’s told by the officers that he should be dead directly to his face.
Melissa: And what is his reaction to that?
David: I feel like he lets us have his reaction for him. There are a lot of hard times in the book, but Mizuki is so charming that I was really invested in his welfare, and I want him to do well and ultimately he does.
Melissa: So how does he do that? What happens.
David: He ultimately finds his way into his art form. Like he didn’t start as a manga artist, but that eventually goes so well, and it’s not really covered in this book, but for instance, in his home town, there’s a museum of his work. There are also, and I love this, there are a hundred brass sculptures of his characters lining the streets of his hometown.
Melissa: That is so awesome.
David: Isn’t that amazing? Can you imagine? I’m like, I heard about that and I was thinking like, what was the town council meeting like we should honor our favorite son with a statue of his work. And then somebody else was like, ‘One statue? Let’s make it 20.’ And then another guy was like, ‘You don’t know…’ [laughter]
Melissa: ‘Think bigger.’
David: But this book, for me, it’s one of the best history books I’ve read because of the emotional resonance. History is about people. And here you get to see how one man pulled through some catastrophic times. It’s Showa 1944-1953: The History of Japan by Shigeru Mizuki. So that’s a second book. What’s our third Mel?
Melissa: My next pick is much more lighthearted than the two we’ve talked about so far. Yes, we’re going to have some fun with these characters. This is called The Great Passage by Shion Miura. And the premise of this book is either either going to sound really, really awesome, like something you could get really excited about, or you’re just going to roll your eyes. It’s the story of a team of people who are tasked with writing a new dictionary that will be 2,900 pages long
David: I’m in. That sounds good.
Melissa: The dictionary itself is called the great passage, and it will take them more than a decade to put it together and that is the premise people making a dictionary. I loved every second of this book… [laughter] because it is also a coming-of-age story, a workplace drama and romantic comedy.
David: That sounds great. It sounds like ‘The Office,’ honestly it’s about, it’s a bunch of people who are there to sell paper but it’s not really about selling paper.
Melissa: Although to his credit, this book is in large part about actually making the dictionary, and it is really fascinating. So what we have are a bunch of characters who feel like real people. It felt really, like, I expected that they existed before I started reading this book and they’re going to go on with their lives after I close the last page. And even though characters often feel real, I don’t always have that experience where I’m like, I wonder what they’re doing now. They really came to life, and the heart of the story is Majime who is the young man who has been promoted from the sales department to lead this dictionary effort. So one day he’s trying to get bookstores. One day he’s trying to get bookstores to buy the dictionaries that they make, and the next day he’s leading this like Herculean effort to make this new dictionary.
Melissa: But he’s very well intentioned. He’s a little awkward, he’s very bright and he loves antiquarian books. His mentor who basically hires him into this position, see something in him that no one else does. So while the dictionary is coming together, we also see Majime’s life coming together and that’s where they’re kind of coming-of-age part of the story comes in. He really grows a lot over the course of the 15 years of making this dictionary.
David: That’s a long time.
Melissa: This book is really about the things that give meaning to our lives. And the way it’s explored is through the words that they are defining for the dictionary. So sometimes in the office they’re discussing: what is the difference between vast and enormous. And that kind of goes into a philosophical discussion, and then they define man and woman and love. And so you get to know these people by the way they think about these concepts.
Melissa: And it also kind of forces you to think about what you think these words mean. So even though it looks like there’s not much going on, everything is going on. And the story could only take place in Japan because the way Japanese language defines words is really central to the plot
David: Yeah, I would think the translation of this book would have to be fantastic.
Melissa: Oh my gosh, the translator did such a beautiful job. It’s very lyrical, but not precious or twee, which is not easy to pull off…
David: [laughing]… particularly from one language into another.
Melissa: There are also really awesome food descriptions, which I love. And they’re not just plunked into the story. They belong there because one of the characters is a chef. So we also get to see a little bit of her life and what it’s like in her restaurant. Not for nothing, Majime writes, one of the most tragically bad love letters ever written in any language. It’s so funny and so sweet, and he’s trying so hard to be the sweeping romantic man of someone’s dreams, and he misses the mark, but it makes him even sweeter. Yeah, it’s really great. It was very funny part of the book. So if you like books that you hang out with nice people who are muddling their way through life, and you like to think about words and language and wordplay, you will love this book. That is The Great Passage by Shion Miura. What’s book number four?
David: This book is a A Geek in Japan by Hector Garcia.
Melissa: Hector Garcia.
David: The very Japanese name of Hector Garcia. [laughter]
David: Yeah, he’s Spanish. He’s been living in Japan for the last 15 years. The book was originally published in Spain but became a bestseller there, and so they brought it into English and six other languages and it’s now in its second edition. It is… A Geek in Japan is a guidebook. And I know the life of Strong Sense of Placeproject is short, but we made a few decisions and one of is is that we weren’t going to cover guidebooks…
Melissa: At least not in the podcast.
David: Yeah. Because we’re not really interested in telling you how to get there and what where to stay. What we want to do is inspire interest in those places and empathy for the people who’ve live there.
Melissa: But we made the rules so you can break them.
David: Well if you want to go, you can always find the best places to eat or whatever from someplace else. This is a different kind of guidebook though. For the first three quarters of the book, the author is trying to demystify Japanese culture. So he’s trying to lead you through the differences you’re likely to encounter once you get to Japan. And he does that by summarizing topic after topic into a real breezy kind of breed.
Melissa: So you could read this book even if you’re not planning to go to Japan.
David: Oh, absolutely.
Melissa: It’s just interesting on its own. Yes. Okay. So what kind of stuff are we talking about?
David: So he starts with Japanese history and he walks through that, but then he gets into things like traditional arts and then eventually into more modern stuff like anime or yakuza and all that. He talks about cinema and popular music in Japan, which is wow. It was really cool. And it was particularly cool having access to YouTube while I was reading this book. So for instance, I was going through the pop music people and I would pop their name into YouTube and take a look at the music videos that they’d done. And that was super cool.
Melissa: It’s kind of… [laughs] I’m old, so I have some issues with the internet, but the way that Google images and YouTube have changed the experience of close reading is really amazing. Just the ability to see these things in real-time while you’re reading a book is like having interactive footnotes. I feel like it’s really the best that technology can do for enhancing reading. It’s really amazing.
David: It’s really great. I also like Google maps because you can actually… somebody mentions an address and you’re like, what does that look like? And you’re there and you can kind of virtually walk around the neighborhood. So this book really plays into that and it’s set up for quick skim. You just kind of jumped over to on read and now you know something.
Melissa: It sounds like that could be a good palate cleanser if you’re reading one of these heavier books to take a break between chapters and read a fun little snippet out of this book and be like, Hey, it’s still fun. Let’s leave World War II behind for a minute. Let’s talk about Hello Kitty just for a second.
David: Exactly that. The author is also a photographer so you get a ton of pictures. The print version of the book is really graphics heavy, which I liked…
Melissa: So not on Kindle, probably physical copy…
David: Well, probably physical copy, but it Kindle would work if you’re traveling there and you really need a copy in your carry-on bag cause that’s a little thick to just haul around.
Melissa: So both. I mean, I do like to buy both, and if there’s an audio book… trifecta!
David: The last quarter of the book is full of tours of Japan with a strong nod to people like me who are interested in the geek side of things. So Garcia points out manga museums and electronics stores and places where people go to cos-play. There’s a bridge in Tokyo where apparently people gather Sunday afternoon just to cos-play, just to hangout. He also points to the standard sort of tourist places. I found the book really charming and informative. That’s A Geek in Japan by Hector Garcia. What’s our last book?
Melissa: I loved this book so much. This is called Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata.
David: I feel like you have a habit of holding onto your best book for last.
Melissa: I kind of do. Maybe I should mix it up next time. This is such a good book, you guys. Everyone read this book. The end. [laughs]
David: Thank you. Good night.
Melissa: Okay, I’m going to sell you on this book. This is also a mashup of a workplace and coming-of-age story, but it is completely different in tone and style from The Great Passage. It’s also short. It’s 176 pages. You can knock this thing out in like a day or two, and it is packed with atmosphere, and the star of the story is a completely unforgettable character. I read this book months ago and every once in awhile I will just be like, ‘Hmm, I wonder how Keiko is doing.’ She feels like a real person to me, and she’s kind of an antiheroine in which I love.
Melissa: She is not a classic heroine. She is 36 years old. She has never had a boyfriend, which for me is not a big deal. But in the context of this book is a big deal with a capital B and a capital D
David: That would be a big deal for a lot of people. Spinster!
Melissa: Pass spinster age! [laughing] Okay. So she’s 36 years old, never had a boyfriend. And for the last 18 years, she’s worked at a convenience store. And the convenience store is her safe place. It is literally her entire world. She feels most comfortable and most happy when she’s at the convenience store. People around her think she’s weird. People around her are worried about her, and she doesn’t think there’s anything weird about her until they start pointing out what they see as flaws. So her sister who is,like, painfully normal, has a husband and a new baby, and Keiko has a group of friends that she has brunch with once in awhile, and they are so mean to her. They just really want her to follow the conventional path of marriage, respectable job, and children.
David: So as a reader, which side do you come down on it?
Melissa: One million percent on Keiko’s side, from the beginning… [David laughs]… and there are some stories she relates from when she’s a kid and they’re a little off-kilter. I don’t want to give anything away by telling them because when you’re reading them and you’re like, ‘Whoa, did that just happen? That is amazing.’ So, she’s a little offbeat, but I was always in her corner. She is absolutely delightful and charming.
Melissa: She has worked in the convenience store for almost two decades. Just for context. Most of the other people who’ve worked in that store have been there for a year. This is a job that most people do on their way to something else. And she is there mostly because she really likes it. Also for context, convenient stores are a really big thing in Japan. There are 55,000 of them, and they are perfectly ordered and very brightly lit, and they have a really particular soundscape of, like, the checkout, the bell above the door.
Melissa: The book begins with a description of what the convenient store sounds like and it’s a very kind of, again, like codified situation. And the staff is trained to deliver a perfect, attentive service experience every time. And the shelves are stocked in a particular way.
David: So just like an American 7-11 [laughter].
Melissa: I have not been in a convenience store myself in Japan, but I’ve seen the photos, and as I was reading this book, I got this picture of this, like, hospital-bright space with bright colored food and everything in rows. Just so there’s a passage near the beginning of the book that describes Keiko’s training and she and the other new hires are watching an employee video that tells them exactly how they’re supposed to greet customers when they enter the store. And Keiko practices the cadence in her voice over and over and over until she perfectly matches the video kind of touching.
David: Aw, that’s so sad and kind of touching.
Melissa: It’s very sweet, really poignant moment. So the author in an interview with _The Financial Times explained that some people think that Keiko is having a hard time, like the conventional look at Keiko’s life is. ‘Hm… things don’t seem to be going that well for her.’ And to the author, Keiko is a really pure character because she has no doubts about what she’s doing and she doesn’t care what other people think. And the author actually said, ‘I wish I could live like her and not think about others.’
Melissa: So in her quiet way, Keiko, in the context of Japan, is a really revolutionary character because she is doing what feels most comfortable to her…
David: Versus everybody else who’s thinking about the rest of society and they’re placed in it.
Melissa: So I was really moved by Keiko and really invested in her because what she’s doing, what the author is doing through Keiko, is really questioning: what is it to be normal and why is it so hard to live our lives the way we want to and how do we let other people in without losing who we are?
Melissa: And all of that is tackled in this slim little book about this girl who loves her convenience store job.
David: That sounds really touching.
Melissa: It was surprisingly moving. I wasn’t really expecting that and it was a wonderful reading experience. This book was huge in Japan. It’s sold more than 650,000 copies.
David: So it’s talking to somebody.
Melissa: I mean, obviously it’s talking to a lot of people because breaking out against, for any of us, pushing against the expectations of conforming to some arbitrary set of rules for your life is hard. And I think in Japan, it might even be more difficult than it is in the United States.
David: Just, you know what is normal? Am I normal?
Melissa: I mean, I could just go lay in the fetal position on the couch right now and think about that question. [laughter]
Melissa: So one of the things that I loved about this book and that I think great books do is it’s very specific to Japan at the same time that is completely universal.
David: Yeah. That’s an amazing trick, isn’t it?
Melissa: Magic. Absolute magic. Yeah. The other thing that was magical about this book that I want to make sure to mention is that I listened to it on audio. Which was a transformative experience. It’s written in the first-person, so we hear kaikos voice anyway, and then our ration was done by Nancy Wu, and it is just brilliant. She gives Keiko so much life and so much humor and charm and it was really, really funny and sweet. And then when she’s voicing Keiko’s friends, it was snarky awesomeness. It was so good.
David: Oh, let’s play a little bit of it.
Audiobook: The Hiromachi station Smile Mart has remained open ever since that day. It’s lights on without a break. Sometimes I use a calculator to work out the number of hours that have passed since then. The other day the store was open on May one for the 19th time, having been open continuously for 157,800 hours. I’m now 36 years old. And the convenience store worker me is 18. None of the other workers who did their training with me are here anymore. And we’re now on our eighth manager. Not a single product on sale in the store at that time is left. But I’m still here.
Melissa: One more fun fact that I thought was really interesting. The author of this book won a very prestigious Japanese literary award, but for months afterward she still worked in the convenience store that inspired this story.
David: Aw, that’s kinda nice.
Melissa: Yeah, I thought so too.
David: She has her thing. She likes her thing.
Melissa: May we all find the thing we like and ignore everyone who says we’re doing it wrong. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata.
David: All right, so those are five books we’d love set in Japan. Mel, can you talk about the special blog posts you wrote for the episode?
Melissa: I loved every book that I read for this episode, so I wrote a blog post that has reviews of nine books set in Japan. There’s a really awesome murder mystery. There’s another family saga that has some ghosts in it. Japan is so rich with atmosphere for writing stories, I had a really hard time picking the books for this episode, so be sure to visit our blog at strongsenseofplace.com for more recommendations.
David: Next up: I’m talking to Tillie Walden and she’s got ideas about where to get started in the very wide world of Japanese manga.
David: I’m here with Tillie Walden. Hi Tilly.
Tillie: Hey, Dave.
David: Tilly won the Eisner Wward in 2018 for her graphic novel Spinning, which is about her life as a young competitive figure skater in Austin, Texas. Her followup On a Sunbeam is a science fiction story that has landed on many best of the decade lists, including the AV Club, Medium, and The Comic Beat.
Tillie: Dave, this is a really weird collision of life for me cause I’m used to hearing people say that kind of intro like people, I don’t know. But, like, for those of you who don’t know, Dave is my best friend. What am I supposed to do about that? This is pretty weird. [laughing]
David: Hello? I can re-dub that later and then you won’t have to hear it. So manga, we’re here to talk about manga. People in the United States say when they are hand-waving manga that it’s Japanese comics… which is kind of true.
David: But not fully true.
Tillie: No. And it really refers to cartooning as well. Like manga is also the word for cartooning, as it is for the word for just comics. Um, and it’s hard too because we have such a different idea of what a comic is here in the US. And manga very easily gets mixed up with anime, which is all animated.They are two distinctly different things despite the fact that many manga are then turned into anime. Hence everyone’s confusion about what is going on here.
David: And some of the manga and anime have a very similar graphic style.
Tillie: Sure they do. Although, I don’t know, I think as a reader and consumer, for me, that small difference between the graphic styles of manga and anime has always been a pretty big gap for me, which has led me firmly to being in the camp of manga and much preferring to read than I do to watch it.
David: Yeah. So let’s unwrap the manga thing a little bit. In the US, and I think the biggest, like one of the biggest gaps I guess, is in the US when we talk about comics, we tend to talk about, well, until recently superheroes and Donald Duck. And recently there’s been, yeah, I would say in the last 20 years an enormous, influx of independent comics, which brings a whole different thing to that. But when you say comics to most people in the U S those are the two points that they go to.
David: Manga has some of that, but it’s not all of it.
Tillie: I think it has some of that for us in the US but if you said mang in Japan, it would be a kin, at least in my mind and I’m no expert. But to me, it’s akin to saying books… illustrated books. It’s that general.
David: Yeah, it’s a form.
Tillie: Exactly. It’s a form and it’s a job title. A mangaka is a person who makes manga. That is, that is a job there. And I think it’s a much more deeply respected art form, than it is in the US, so then it comes with that baggage as well. ‘Cause you say comics here and for an American, I think that implies instantly the idea of something funny or something a little ridiculous. And while there are funny mangas it can go very far in the other direction.
David: Yes, yes. Into very scary horror and to very interesting nonfiction work into highly emotional, very deep, very rich.
Tillie: Absolutely. And even adult content. And that’s something that I think might confuse initial readers of manga is that there is a big difference between manga for kids in manga for adults. And I don’t, I mean, while I think there is a small community now in America of people making adult-content comics, it’s really still seen as something for kids. Whereas in Japan, everyone of any age breeds manga and it’s completely acceptable.
David: So you moved to Japan a while ago…
Tillie: I did. I did. It’s actually a bit fuzzy now because I then quickly went to Berlin and I was sort of all over the place for awhile. But I did spend some time in Japan. I lived in Tokyo and then I lived in Kamakura, which is a sort of small beachy town, a few hours from Tokyo. It was really… wild, and I think everyone experiences this in different ways as they grow up.
Tillie: Manga was an integral part of my childhood that then to be there as an adult both solidified things I believed about it and also was just like, ‘Oh my God, these are all just people in this country.’ And this is just, this is just a culture in a society and it is different from the books I read as a kid. So it was interesting seeing what stuck and what didn’t.
David: Can you talk about an example of something that didn’t stick?
Tillie: I think, and this is such a naive thing to think, but uh, you know, kids are kids, they’re ridiculous and a little stupid and very sweet. And that was me and I think I thought that the way manga was illustrated would feel more closely related to the way Japan looked. I really thought the art… I would find some connection and when I was there I was like, ‘No. Oh, my God. That is just a drawing style. That really is a way that they interpret their world and their culture. But the real thing itself is, is different. It’s, it’s so much more solid.’ Um, and the people don’t look like drawings. Um, which again is like now in retrospect seems like a silly thing to think, but it really, it surprised me and at the same time always felt like when I was reading manga as a kid that I was reading, you know, that I was reading something like, just so alternative and weird that I could never really express it properly to my friends. You know, I’d have like these little volumes of Hikaru No Go or Ramda 1/2, and there would inevitably be one kid in the elementary school who’s like, ‘I’ve read Naruto, I know manga.’
Tillie: It was actually really comforting in Japan to see how normal it was there. And especially being a cartoonist now, there’s still a lot of weird stigma with that. Like a cartoonist… I make comics. Like, where do I live in comparison to a painter? And in Japan seeing the manga all over the streets, seeing people reading it on the train and seeing the way art integrated with societythere - the way so many things were illustrated was hugely comforting and made me really fall in love with it as a place.
David: Oh, that’s nice.
Tillie: Yeah, it was amazing. There’s so many little things each day that I’m used to seeing that in Japan or just illustrated be it advertisements or signs. Even the signs that said that are saying that there’s construction work here, walk around. There was a little character on there. That was a level of art and society meeting that I had never experienced before and I loved it. Got to go back.
David: So how did you start reading manga.
Tillie: I started reading manga when I was about, I think seven or eight years old. And this is a PG-13 podcast. This is okay. My first entrance to manga was, well, I went to this little used bookstore in Montclair, New Jersey, where I lived the first 11 years of my life and I didn’t really know what I was looking at. I had sort of vaguely heard about Dragon Ball, but I had also thought maybe it was a TV show and wasn’t quite sure what was going on there. I had seen Batman didn’t like that. And so I was sitting at the comics shelf in this used bookstore and there was a stack of manga. I pulled one out, opened it up. First thing I see is a naked woman, and I was just like, ‘Huh, that’s strange.’
Tillie: And then I asked my dad to buy me that book obviously. And, and that turned out to be the first volume of Naruto, which I didn’t actually like. And so I went back and was like something, I instantly knew this what I’m looking at these books here, they approach storytelling in a different way than what I’m used to. And I noticed everything was black and white. There were all these lines. You read it in a different direction. I was just like, Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, Whoa. What’s going on? And what actually made me fall in love with manga was that I then from that bookstore got a copy, uh, the first volume of Buddha by Osama Tezuka, which is in eight-book series, I believe about the life and times of our good old Buddha, um, wildly fictionalized. And it was the most remarkable and weirdest thing I had ever read.
Tillie: And it made me fall I love because it was, I don’t know, the way the story was told, I felt like a lot of the books I read for kids were either… I felt like they were speaking down to me or I felt like they were so normal that they were almost a little boring. But, and the imagination in this, in Buddha… there is violence, there’s love, there’s action, there’s humor, there’s death. And I had never really experienced anything like that in a story. There were adults and kids interacting with each other. And it felt very kind of raw and dark. And like, I could access a different part of myself reading it. So that sent me off on a kick for many years reading nothing but manga. And I, I completely ignored North American comics because it felt like manga had everything I needed.
David: Buddha is so graphically amazing.
Tillie: It’s, it’s wild and it does.
David: It doesn’t look like anything we have.
Tillie: It doesn’t. And it does something so amazing that I so crave from America, I never get enough of is it combines realism and cartooning in a way that is just so jaw-droppingly interesting to me. The character could be… have a hand that’s just made out of these goofy lines and these big eyes and the background will be the most rendered and beautiful mountain and trees you’ve ever seen. And it had these huge wide shots in them and none of it was in color. And yet it was felt like the most colorful thing I’d ever read.
David: So now that we’ve set that up, that manga is a beautiful, lovely art form that the listeners should pursue, I guess. Uh, what are some good places to start? Let’s say I’m an older reader and I’m looking for a sample of this form.
Tillie: Okay. So to do that. The first thing I just want to clarify is that manga has a very long legacy. It’s been around for a very long time. Just like their is classic English literature, there is classic manga. And so if you find yourself looking at more recent manga and being a little turned off by the art style because it is very stylized, I suggest moving backwards in history because some of that early manga might connect you more to the way say Little Nemo in Slumberland or early Sunday papers in the US looked. So if you’re having trouble accessing the style, go backwards. But the ones, I mean, anything by Osama Tezuka is going to be interesting. He’s the creator of Astro Boy. He’s also the creator of a couple of very odd standalone graphic novels, one being MW, which involves this poison that has the potential to destroy all of the earth, and other one being Ode to Kirihito, which involves a lot of people turning into animals and trying to stop that from happening.
Tillie: Tezuka is really weird and even Astro Boy, which is a kid’s story, is about a grieving father who tries to recreate his dead son by making a little robot. Boy, this is some strange stuff, but two that really came to mind when I thought about us doing this. One is Hikaru No Go which is by Yumi Hotta. She’s the writer, I think it’s a she, please forgive me if not, and Takeshi Obata the artist. And Hikaru No Go… So for those who don’t know, Go is a Japanese game. Although saying it’s a game almost seems to trivialize it, similar to chess in its intensity and breadth. And in it, there’s this kid, Hikaru, who is sort of hapless and gets inhabited by a spirit of an ancient go player who is really, really good and his name is Sai and Sai, the Go player is like, ‘Kid, I’m in your body now. I really want to play some Go. I have been missing this. I have been stuck.’ I think he was stuck in an old Go board. Like, ‘Please let me play.’ And so this kid then sort of goes on this journey where the spirit is playing through him. But the interesting part of the story to me is that the kid is then like, ‘Wait! I want to learn how to play.’ But he’s terrible. He’s so bad. And it becomes really painful for the spirit to watch this kid play bad Go. But the whole series is about their relationship and what it means to excel and what it means to learn to do something and what it means to want to learn to do something. And he really struggles having this spirit inside him that is this amazing Go player, while at the same time he’s not there yet. And so the timing of that is very painful.
Tillie: If you are interested in stories about gameplay, uh, or stories that have that vibe of like the team trying to get their goal, you know, trying to win the competition, it’s a really good one. Um, the other one that comes to mind, uh, and I think this is a good manga if you’re not looking for something too huge because manga does have the tendency to be many, many volumes of work. It’s called, this is bear with me with the title Azumanga Daioh. Hopefully we can put a link there somewhere cause the spelling’s a little funky for all of these.
David: We’ll have links.
Tillie: It’s by Kiyohiko Azuma. And it’s interesting to me because it’s done in daily sort of strip format. It’s four vertical panels that follow the lives of a group of high school girls. And it is hilarious, um, because it has no desire to make any sense. And at the same time, of course the bonding between the girls is what it gives you that emotional connection. But like the little girl chia with pigtails, her pigtails can move and she can fly. There’s this creepy Birdman. There’s a creepy teacher. There’s a girl who loves cats and cats will only bite her and they will not give her affection despite how much she loves them. Yeah. And it starts out just as kind of this, this gag. And then of course builds into something much deeper that by the end of it I was crying quite a bit. But it is sort of a standalone big volume. You can just sort of open the book and read one. I think it’d be a good way to experience the humor of manga.
Tillie: I think it’s cool. There aren’t a lot of female manga artists. There are, of course, they, they are out there, but it’s definitely a male dominated industry. Mmm. And it’s really satisfying to read a story only about, and from the perspective of these girls…that’s what comes to mind.
David: So if I was trying to get a young person interested in manga, let’s start there.
Tillie: I think, uh, keep it classic. If a young person was gonna read manga, I’d say try reading Dragon Ball or Hunter x Hunter by Yoshihiro Togashi. So caveat. I call it Hunter x Hunter. I learned that I’ve been saying it wrong my entire life. It’s just Hunter Hunter. Oh, I cannot change though, Dave. [laughter] It’s Hunter x Hunter you’re just going to have to deal with me saying it that way because that’s the way I fell in love with it. So, but Dragon Ball for those of you don’t know is has become a movie and anime. But go back to the roots. You guys don’t read Dragon Ball Z. Read Dragon Ball, the original series that involves a little monkey kid just trying to go around the world and find some balls. Dragon Balls… which will grant him a wish. If you get them all together, you get one wish. It’s a pretty simple story, but it moves fast and it’s enjoyable. And the art beautiful on the other side of that…
Tillie: If you like things with a bit of, if you’re a kid or a kid who has sort of darker sensibilities, likes things that might be a little more alternative. If you really love A Series of Unfortunate Events, I would say read Hunter x Hunter, which is about kids getting together and taking this brutal, deadly exam to become a Hunter, which in this world means something very different than just in here, killing animals. It’s about a treasure hunting. Being a Hunter means you get access to the hidden places in the world. And so they go into this exam and have tests that range from jumping into cliffs, trying to make the perfect sushi, fighting to the death,going through a forest and having to steal each other’s badges based on this weird numbering system. And then the series goes all the way to them being stuck inside of a video game. And that’s actually one of my favorite parts of the series. But it’s sprawling and I think rather delicious of a story. And the two best friends, one is a kid from a fishing village who has dad issues cause dad is gone in. The other is, comes from a family of assassins and doesn’t really want to be an assassin. And that’s his main issue. And they bond.
Tillie: And part of what I love about every story I’ve mentioned so far, and maybe it’s storytelling in general, but so much of these books,are about community and being together in the face of crazy circumstances. Because in manga anything can happen. There is no need to justify the world. Like there is, I feel like in a lot of North American comics, like, ‘Wait, let me explain how Batman could exist. Let me explain Spider-man.’ In manga, they can throw anything at you and it’s fine. And so because of that, there are these huge consequences in the worlds that these characters have to stick together. And I really love that.
David: Is there anything else you want to talk about before we get towards speed round?
Tillie: Yes. I just want to say that anyone, no one is an authority on a form of art. Like manga. I am not an authority, but neither is the person who might Tweet angrily about how I describe this. Go explore manga for yourself. Um, you might like anime, you not like manga or vice versa. The point is, if you start reading some manga and you enjoy it, there is so much for you to enjoy. It is the gift that keeps on giving because of all these artists who work hard. So if you like it, you’re in for a treat.
David: There’s decades and decades of solid work.
Tillie: So much, so much to discover.
David: Alright. Right on. So are you ready for the speed round?
Tillie: I was born ready, Dave.
David: Alright. Carry on or checked baggage?
Tillie: Always carry on so I can make a quick escape.
David: Favorite mode of transportation?
Tillie: Easily the train.
David: Must have in a suitcase or carry-on?
Tillie: Always a water bottle that is empty, that can be filled up because sometimes water is expensive and places are weird about having it.
David: You also carry a tea bottle.
Tillie: I also carry, I have two bottles, so I have the water one and then I have an insulated, very tightly sealed bottle that tea or coffee can be put in that you can then enjoy like five hours later. And it’s important when you’re a traveler that you have something that will not spill, well, not spill on you, on your stuff, on your bag. Um, and that is my Zojirushi, and I love it. It’s Japanese. So it’s very appropriate for this podcast.
David: And we’ll put a link for one of those, too. Ask for directions or get lost?
Tillie: Always get lost. I’m terrible about asking for help, but I am, I am intrepid and I always managed to find my way or if I don’t find my way, I become a new destination. It’s like I needed to get there. Now I’m here and this is my destination.
David: Excellent. How do you document your trips?
Tillie: I don’t document my trips while I’m on them, but I document them afterwards, which is a way to lose a lot of details, but I don’t mind, uh, when on a trip I like to focus fully on it. I don’t like to take a lot of photos or write a lot of things down. I try to just be there.
David: If you could go right now to a train station or an airport and visit another place, where would you go?
Tillie: We’ll see. Talking about this really may be miss Japan. So I would like to go to the Naka-meguro station in Tokyo, which is the station near where I lived, where the trains shine in this very distinct way and go above the city and then into this tunnel and I just missed that sensation.
David: What’s your favorite book format?
Tillie: My favorite book format is a paperback that has been in my family for a long time. My dad has passed along many paperbacks to me and I love the feeling of a paperback that has been held by other people you love.
David: fiction or nonfiction?
Tillie: Always fiction.
David: If you could unread one book, what would it be?
Tillie: Whoa. You know, I would like to unread the Breaking Dawn part of Twilight because I was a really big fan of Twilight, and,,, scratch that. I’m still a really big fan of Twilight and New Moon. But as soon as we get to the eclipse and later territory of the books I like, I wish I didn’t know the ending. I wish I could have just lived in this sweet world where Twilight was just Twilight and no one had to have a baby or turn into a vampire or named that baby Renesmee and then have a werewolf fall in love with that baby. I didn’t need that in my life.
David: It’s a unique pain, the third book in a trilogy and not being good.
Tillie: God, it’s so hard when a series doesn’t end the way it needs to.
David: Yeah. Book, quitter or sticke?
Tillie: I used to be a book sticker because I thought, I don’t know, that someone was standing behind me with a loaded gun, like, ‘You better finish this book,’ and then I realized I’m going to die some day and now I’m a book quitter because if I don’t like the book, I’m not going to read it.
David: Yeah, totally legit. Finally, if you could magically transport yourself to a book, fiction or nonfiction, what would it be?
Tillie: We’ve talked about this, so you’re going to think my answer is obvious, but the audience is going to be surprised. I would easily go to Station Elven by Emily St John Mandel…right name? Because I want to experience the world empty.
David: Yeah. Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic story that’s set in or around the great lakes.
Tillie: It is involving a traveling theater group. And it’s not the immediate aftermath of the, sort of, apocalyptic flu. So the world has settled down a bit after killing 99% of it.
David: So it’s still dangerous and scary.
Tillie: It’s still dangerous and scary. But I something about seeing the world so dark and quiet and being there, at least with other people, not alone. And a lot of them live in an airport. It’s not a spoiler, but I’ve… that has just really captured my imagination. And every time I’m in an airport now I think about what it would look like if this was where I had to live the rest of my life. Yeah.
David: Sally Walden. It’s been nice talking with you.
Tillie: Thanks, Dave.
David: You can follow Tillie and her very fast pen at tilliewalden.com
David: Thank you for listening to Strong Sense of Place. For more on Japan, including the books we discussed today, additional book recommendations, information about our guest and literary landmarks in Tokyo and beyond, visit our website at strongsenseofplace.com.
Melissa: Be sure to sign up for our free weekly newsletter. It’s packed with our favorite book and travel related things.
David: And please follow us on Instagram where we are @strongsenseof for photos, illustration, short book reviews, and more bookish fun.
Melissa: If you enjoyed the podcast, please rate it, review it, and tell a friend and don’t forget to subscribe so you never miss an episode.
David: Mel, what are we covering in our next show?
Melissa: We’re traveling to the land of Aztecs and Mayans, chocolate and margaritas, volcanoes and beaches. It’s Mexico.
David: Mexico. Thanks for listening.
Top image courtesy of Tianshu Liu.
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