Wednesday, May 13, 2015


I am usually a little put off when an author inserts herself into her novel, but here it seems to work.  Ruth (in the novel) is experiencing writer’s block when a plastic bag washes onto the shore near her home in British Columbia.  In the bag is the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl, Nao (pronounced “now” to go along with the time-related themes here), and Ruth becomes obsessed with Nao’s story, surmising that the tsunami of 2011 propelled the diary across the Pacific.  We alternate between Nao’s story and Ruth’s reaction to it.  Nao lived in Sunnyvale, CA, until her father lost his high tech job during the dot-com meltdown.  Now Nao and her family have returned to Japan, where Nao is having to adapt to Japanese school and suffers cruel bullying from her classmates, while the teachers look the other way or even join in the harassment.  Nao’s father’s self-esteem has reached rock-bottom, rendering him suicidal, and Nao figures that she may as well end her life, too.  Her great-uncle, a scholar drafted during WWII at the age of 19, died in a kamikaze mission, and Nao meets his ghost while visiting her great-grandmother.  At this point, supernatural events start to seep into the plot, leaving me a little less enthralled.  The author juggles a lot of themes here, but what really captured my attention was the unflattering picture she paints of Japanese society.  The novel Unbroken comes to mind, as well as The Distant Land of My Father, both of which recount the deplorable acts of the Japanese military during WWII, and this novel touches on that but brings us more up to date with what’s happening in civilian life today—suicides, teenaged prostitutes, internet hazing, and teachers complicit in bullying.  We’re obviously not immune to these problems, along with mass shootings and police brutality, here in the U.S., and I have to wonder how prevalent these issues are in Japan.  Are they limited to Tokyo?  The cover-up of what really happened at Fukushima nuclear power plant is particularly unsettling.  Did regulators really allow the dumping of tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean?  Maybe the water just leaked out—shades of the Exxon Valdez and the BP Gulf disaster.  In any case, Ozeki seemingly presents us with a cultural mindset that everything is OK, even when it’s not.

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