Shōgun by James Clavell (1975)
Shōgun is a historical novel loosely based on the adventures of English sailor, William Adams, who landed in Japan in 1600 AD. This epic saga involves numerous main characters and subplots while bloody battles, beheadings and disembowelments keep the plot rolling on edge. Brutal violence aside, Clavell brilliantly weaves a thread of delicate human drama that reveals the differences between East and West cultural roots.
The English sailor learns Japanese behavior, language and customs from the beautiful samurai woman who is assigned to him as his translator. They grow fond of each other, but their feelings get muddled by their cultural differences. She tries to explain:
“. . . love is a Christian thought, a Christian ideal. We have no word for ‘love’ as I understand you to mean it. Duty, loyalty, honor, respect, desire, those words and thoughts are what we have, all that we need.”
My immediate impression (at the first beheading) was that this is a “guy book.” Indeed, I’ve heard only men say this was their favorite book of all time. But as the plot thickened and the characters’ motivations were revealed, I found myself so immersed in the story I lost track of time.
The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake (2016)
The Translation of Love reads like a mystery told in the backdrop of American-occupied Japan as the Japanese are struggling to recover from the devastation of World War II. The story is told from the perspectives of several main characters: a Japanese middle-school girl, her repatriate classmate who is fresh from internment in Canada, their teacher who earns money translating letters on the side, and an American GI who translates thousands of letters written by Japanese citizens to General MacArthur, often pleading for help in finding missing sons, siblings and spouses.
Despite the title, this is not a romance novel but instead a revealing tale of how Japanese lives were effected by World War II and its aftermath. The characters each have their own drama, and their stories flow and cross paths with each other, but it’s the backdrop that leaves a moving impression.
There are many books about the devastating effects of World War II on Europe. This was the first novel I’ve read about post-war Japan and the internment of Japanese-Canadians. Kutsukake throws in enough teen drama for this book to appeal to a young audience; it could spark a meaningful conversation in high school history classes.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (1997)
Memoirs of a Geisha is a historical novel told in first person about a geisha in Gion before and after World War II. Geisha entertain men using light conversation, song, dance, and Japanese instrumental music – they are artisans dressed up like delicate dolls with elaborate hairstyles and heavy make-up. There is little glamour and a lot of heartbreak in the geisha’s story, which was based on Golden’s extensive interviews of real geisha from Gion. Children are sold into servitude, geisha plot to destroy one another’s careers, and the main character seems powerless over her life path.
After the geisha retires she looks back on her life and says:
“Nowadays many people seem to believe their lives are entirely a matter of choice; but in my day, we viewed ourselves as pieces of clay that forever show the fingerprints of everyone who has touched them.”
I found the details of a geisha’s life interesting – make-up, training, the awkward burden of fancy kimonos, and the teahouse scene in Gion. The main character scores a few personal victories that keeps the story from being entirely filled with woe.
The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei by John Stevens (1988)
The first half of The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei reads like a history text on Tendai Buddhism dating back to the seventh century to when the book was published in the 1980s. Stevens describes the highly structured process by which Tendai Monks attain enlightenment. Completing 1000 marathons on a circuit around Mount Hiei within seven years is the most notorious part of their practice. But they also fast to the brink of death, perform rituals involving fire and waterfalls, and live an austere lifestyle with minimal food and sleep. Fewer than 50 monks have completed all requirements to become a “Living Buddha,” and many have died trying.
The second half of the book is a series of brief biographies, including some quotes, of Tendai Buddhist Monks who had attained enlightenment. It brings color and personality to the historical text.
“I practice because I am a Tendai priest. It is the natural thing for me to do. I walk and walk filled with gratitude, ever mindful of the kindness I have received from all quarters.”
As a runner with curiosity about Buddhism, I found this book fascinating. The chapters that covered the quirks and personalities of the monks who had achieved enlightenment were my favorite. I also liked the grainy black and white photos of the monks, dressed head to toe in white, running through the forest at night.
The Roads to Sata: A 2000-mile Walk Through Japan, by Alan Booth (1985)
The Roads to Sata is Alan Booth’s account of his walk through the full length of Japan in the 1970s. As an Englishman, Booth stands out as a foreigner, gaijin, but he speaks fluent Japanese and has lived seven years in Japan. He describes the landscapes, the weather he endures, numerous encounters with taunting children, and the variety of people he meets on the road, in bars and in ryokans.
Booth quotes his dialogue with locals to relate much of his experience which often comes off as random and hilarious. As a foreigner, he encounters a considerable amount of blatant discrimination despite being fluent in Japanese and familiar with the country’s customs. He quenches his thirst with sake and beer, which occasionally leads to dancing and drumming in community festivals.
On one occasion when Booth was having trouble finding a ryokan to take him in for the night he has what he calls “the most quintessentially oriental conversation of the whole trip.”
The doors of the lodging house were curtained and locked and it took five minutes of rattling them to rouse the white-shirted custodian, who bustled out finally to tell me that they were closed.
“But you’ve got a sign all lit up down on the highway.”
“Yes. We always keep it lit.”
“What for, for goodness sake?”
“To make people feel welcome.”
“But you’re closed!”
Booth’s frank and witty style entertains as he shares the many awkward and frustrating incidents on his trek. He highlights a timeless theme of how disparities between cultures can lead to either hilarity or frustration depending on the situation. The Roads to Sata made me laugh out loud – it’s a fun book to read.
(Disclaimer: I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.)