Since the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, a number of books have been published with the aim of raising money to help recovery efforts. Charitable considerations aside, one of those I can recommend as a good reading experience is “Tomo,” an anthology of young adult fiction from or related to Japan.
Editor Holly Thompson has put together a collection of impressive breadth and variety, with 36 stories that touch on aspects of young people’s lives in present-day Japan and also in history. Most are prose, but some are told in verse, or in graphic-novel format. Most are very fresh, but there are also contributions from past writers such as literary giant Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) and Ainu folklorist Yukie Chiri, whose short life ended in 1922, when she was just 19 years old.
Thompson has divided the book into seven sections, only the first of which, “Shocks and Tremors,” deals overtly with the disaster. It probably come first because it establishes the book’s raison d’etre, but I’d suggest reading it later because the subject matter gets things off to a rather gloomy start.
Other that that, I liked almost everything about this book. Here are some comments on my favorite stories:
“One” by Sarah Ogawa and “The Zodiac Tree” by Thersa Matsuura
Both of these stories, in the section “Insiders and Outsiders,” are told from the point of view of a girl who is an outsider in a small Japanese community. In both, the girl meets a boy we first see engaged in a visibly traditional activity: sweeping the veranda of a temple in one story, practicing kendo in the other. There seems to be great distance between them (plus apparent hostility in one case), but as the stories unfold the gap is at least partially bridged. Not only do these two stories share an archetypical outline, they are both written with the vividness and delicacy of a watercolor painting. The protagonists’ feelings come through as genuine, in part because they are not overplayed. The characters experience real anxiety without any internal or external histrionics. They make tentative overtures, fraught with uncertainty, that lead to a climax that is sweetly innocent yet emotionally satisfying.
“Kodama” by Debbie Ridpath Ohi
This eerie tale, part of the “Ghosts and Spirits” section, also depicts a girl’s encounter with a mysterious boy. But in this case, the boy’s mysteriousness is downright paranormal. “Kodama” is a story that could easily have failed – but succeeds wonderfully. Countless stories have been written in the form of the diary of a person who may be documenting a supernatural occurrence, or who may simply be going mad. The pitfalls of cliché lie all around such a project, but Ohi somehow avoids them.
This is one of the graphic-novel-style entries, but it is not divided into comic-book panels. Instead, we are shown the pages of a notebook filled with sketches. The illustrations are expressive, but still simple enough to believably pass as part of a diary. As for the text, it conveys meaning not only through the words themselves, but also their placement, size and style. The sentences may be straight, slanted or even looping. And yes, there does come a point at which the text trails away toward the bottom of the page in an illegible scrawl, just as you’d expect at the end of a haunted-person-going-mad diary. But wait! This isn’t the end of the story. It’s only the middle. How it really ends I’ll leave for you to discover.
“Staring at the Haiku” by John Paul Catton
This is another supernatural tale, describing the establishment of a ghost-busting club at a Tokyo high school. It contains some effective humor, and is written with a magician’s flair for misdirection. When a group of teenage friends set out to become paranormal investigators, their first case appears to focus on solving the mystery of an enchanted calligraphy paper that gives excitable girls a one-character clue about the names of their future boyfriends. However, as the case unfolds, in ways both funny and spooky, it turns out that something entirely different is going on.
Disclosure: Over the years I have met and become acquainted with a number of English-language writers who live and work in Japan. These include Thompson, Catton, and several other “Tomo” contributors. But I do not know anyone else whose name I have mentioned in this post.
Buy “Tomo” here: Friendship through Fiction: An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories