Work in progress


Book review, from Tokyo – That step into parenting is, well, while much documented, very much unknown territory. Even for an old hand, no two children are exactly alike, but some things will stay more or less the same.

From birth, sniffing up that newborn fragrance, anxiously cheering their first steps, quietly leaving them to wobble on ahead on their bicycles, bidding them off to school, facing down the teen rebel, enjoying that first paycheck treat, meeting their choice of a lifetime partner, maybe getting to transition into parenting seniority, and perhaps gaining the mantle of grandparent-hood.

Much of these parenting milestones are picked up by comic artist and father-of-two Shinsuke Yoshitake in 『ヨチヨチ父 とまどう日々』(Yochi yochi chichi – tomadou hibi, lit. Wobbly toddly dad – those dithery days).

In 55 signature musings, Yochi yochi chichi is littered with illustrated reflections from the everyday challenges of a dad as a child’s first non-mum entity to those desperate hunts for diapers. He also laments how dad-dad non-talk doesn’t feel quite the same as free mum-mum chatter.

He puts a dad-spin on a non-dad view of the most mundane events – a dodgy guide to the wide world, his child’s occasional fan, the ways dad tries to keep literally in the picture, and the gratitude of finally landing a place of comfort at the in-laws, along with no lack of kid-related topics for conversation.

Underpinning each episode are expectations, from his boss, co-workers, family, wife, and children, and the pressure to satisfy them partially or simply fall hopelessly short. These create the perfect chance to introduce the Yoshitake family teaching – take life a step at a time and learn from those who are more successful, so that one’s peak is always now or ahead. This contrasts to setting a fast pace, peaking early in life, but falling sharply and ending up frustrated at not being able to fulfill one’s expectations of life.

Despite several readings, I remained slightly puzzled by cover flap that said “papa ha kyoukan, mama ha rakudan“, which loosely means, “dads empathize, mums despair”. One day, I came to realize that this could be interpreted as how dads are often let off for being “dad”, but mums would feel let down instead. Behind that is the expectation mothers bear as parents, the need to cover for dad’s parenting inadequacies, and do much more, including work.

In Japan, I have learned that a child’s education brings greater parenting burdens. Finding a preschool opening eats away at the mental fabric of cities teeming with young dual income families. The huge waiting lists are proof of the stress parents face at each entry window. Having to maintain cash flows without adequate childcare support simply means choosing not to have children.

And then with school comes PTA and those parent-led or -participation groups, committees, organizations and communities today often chaired by selfless working mothers. Fathers silent, invisible. Almost as if visibility at routine meetings might brew a strange kind of pressure to take on more. What then for their wives and children. And for those ready to swim against the tide, who knows what expectations lie in wait. I’ve seen dad-only dad-led groups, but those are voluntary, ultimately for the willing.

Such episodes don’t appear in Yochi yochi chichi. Perhaps Yoshitake was merely speaking from experience. Maybe it is one of the many reasons for the disdain implied in the cover flap. But probably we would all be better off seeing through and breaking down all those hidden expectations, dispelling unnecessary stress and pressure, for a parent will always be a work in progress. I appreciated the kindness and forgiveness as a new parent, and this book certainly affords parents a little kindness that goes a long way toward helping the village raise a child.

 

Title: 『ヨチヨチ父 とまどう日々』(Yochi yochi chichi – tomadou hibi, lit. Wobbly toddly dad – those dithery days) by Shinsuke Yoshitake
Publisher: Akachantomamasha, 2017

The numbers behind the math


Book review, from Tokyo – Like math? I do. I’d gladly spend my afternoon proving a math truth to someone interested (if I remember how), and I actually enjoy the mental workout from making those functions work for me in Excel. Well, imagine the joy I found reading Taro Gomi’s 『さんすうくんがやってくる』(Sansuukun ga yattekuru, lit. Here comes “math boy”).

A kid who simply lives and breathes math, Sansuukun spews out numbers at every chance – counting friends at the park, dividing up the strawberries for everyone, analyzing the performance of the little league team and their odds of winning the title, it all comes so naturally.

When his friends show any hint of interest, or even when they don’t, Sansuukun rattles on – area, volume, energy, units of time, temperature, even energy. The calculations get more and more complex, but the kid sure knows how to show that math pervades many parts of our lives.

Sansuukun is cool, but not really much fun. Counting at the park isn’t quite like playing together, besides Sansuukun gobbled up the remainder of the strawberries after dividing them up equally for his friends.

Other than being mostly neutral (except when it comes to his favorite things, like strawberries), he gushes math wisdoms. For instance, he reminds us that a score on a test is merely a number derived from marking someone’s answers to the test, and it does not actually indicate how intelligent that person might be. What clarity of thought – super cool kid (especially if you didn’t score well on that test)!

He also shares how the clarity of numbers can sometimes mislead – a tiny frog and an elephant can both be counted as one animal despite their obvious differences. And of course, he readily admits that there’s no way he could count all the stars in the entire universe, even if he could come up with a pretty far out estimate. Nice and clear, not unlike math.

A picture book for three to five year-olds littered with numbers, this fun, inquisitive look at a cool but weird kid who just sticks to his math, shows us how we use numbers to create numerical representations of our myriad observations. As numerical fact derived using specific methods, on their own, they possess neither positive nor negative nuances. The more complicated the calculation, the less apparent is the clarity. Numbers gain meaning with analysis and our perceptions. Like how our brains seek patterns, we use numbers to help us make some sense of our lives.

So let’s not get too carried away or bothered by those sometimes arbitrary values, and as Sansuukun’s friends would say, let’s remember to have some fun together while we’re here!

 

Title: さんすうくんがやってくる (Sansuukun ga yattekuru, lit. Here comes “math boy”) by Taro Gomi
Publisher: Gakken Plus, 2006

From past to present…


Book review, from Tokyo – A century has passed since the end of the first great war. Some say the peace treaty gave the world a short 30-year hiatus before the next one, one that was also fought in Asia. Hundred years seem a short time in our shared history, but how many real-life accounts actually remain? Published 70 years after the end of WWII, 若者から若者への手紙 1945←2015(Wakamono kara wakamono he no tegami 19452015, lit. Letters from youths to youths 19452015) affords us this luxury. But be prepared.

“19452015″ contains 15 accounts and reflections of the war by 15 men and women, mostly around their 20s in 1945. Young men sent to frontlines across Asia, one tasked to conduct biochemical tests, a field nurse who subverted a medic’s order, a teacher sent inland with school children to avoid bombings in the city, an ethnic Korean who lost his family name before getting conscripted, one lured by the promise of Manchukuo and left behind in China, survivors of the a-bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One portrait photo precedes each account – this is my story.

We can read facts from history, but the 15 letters shine light on those lives and their inner journeys –

How they were trained to kill, to see the enemy, to follow orders. How their compatriots fell like flies to disease, weakened by malnutrition. How their misery continued even after surrender, facing stigma as returners, as Okinawans. How they found salvation, finding lessons for humanity, remembering their will to live, not just survive, and as survivors, to continue telling their stories.

Reading leaves much to imagination, and the words painted uncomfortable images. My first reading left me numb, even nauseous. Just try substituting the third person (they, their) for the first person (I, my/our) for the paragraph above that starts “How they…”

Thankfully, those stories were spaced by reflections and letters from 15 youths writing back, each again with a photo. Thoughtful responses expressed gratefulness for sharing, filled with hope and dedication to a future of peace and no war. What shocked was the gap in perspectives – the chasm between today and those personal accounts seemed too far to bridge. But that is only natural, since the backdrop that colours our view of life, and with that our readings, are drastically different.

“19452015″ brings readers actual accounts of 1945 alongside attempts to frame the 2015 view of the last world war after 70 years. It paves a journey to understanding life in that tumultuous period of Japanese and world history, but more importantly, poses questions on humanity and life, whether in war or peacetime.

When the book was first published in 2015, more than half of the survivors had already passed on. But their stories remain and are set to reach English readers as an e-book, partly funded by an online campaign that will soon close comfortably past its original target.

————-
Aside 1: I remember first reading this on the train last year, when North Korea fired ICBMs in Tokyo’s direction. A nearby salaryman snidely remarked to his colleague, “We’ll just fire back, huh?” before alighting at Shinjuku station.

Aside 2: Recently, I’ve noticed more flybys by Chinooks and Black Hawks. Once a whole squadron(??) flew North over Kanpachi, a major ring road in Tokyo. Never have I seen such scenes before in this city that I’ve lived for more than ten years. It felt more like Yamato, in neighbouring Kanagawa.

Aside 3: Earlier today, my phone buzzed. A Yahoo! Japan news flash – The filling of Henoko bay has begun.
————-

Title: 若者から若者への手紙 1945←2015
Text by Naomi Kitagawa and Motomi Murota, photos by Yuriko Ochiai
Publisher: Korocolor Publishers, 2015

Penguins and suits


Book review, from Tokyo – Penguins look like they wear tuxedos. That black and white dress and its assumed importance plays a part in adding to the fun of watching them wobble and hop on land, and then rip through the waters with ease. This connection is open to play, offering good contrast and effect.

Satoe Tone might not have intended to, but 『ペンギンかぞくのおひっこし』 (Pengin kazoku no ohikkoshi, lit. The penguins are moving) does it effortlessly. It tells the story of, well, our avian friends looking for a new place to call home.

The home of this family of 84 is shrinking, so they decide to embark on a journey. In their bowties and top hats, the birds ride the waves on a breakaway iceberg, first venturing South ―I hear there are clear blue seas there, says one. But they find themselves swimming through dark, murky waters.

They then go East, West, and finally North, seeking grasslands teeming with snails, yellow fields of towering dandelions, and forests filled with singing birds. They were disappointed each time, by factories and their billowing chimneys, a bleak gray expanse of sand, and a land of barren trees. Well, no place for us on Earth, they thought.

And so they hop into their balloons and set off for the moon. There the penguins are struck by the sight of the lovely, perfectly round, luminous, blue planet, and decide to return home.

Perched in a tree, they take their hats off to collect dandelion seeds, committed to doing something ―anything― for their beautiful planet.

To drive home the obvious message, Tone ends with a note. The penguins symbolize the first 84 signatories to the Kyoto protocol in 1997. Some countries chase economic progress and lose sight of its impact on the environment, but everyone can do their part ―walk, conserve water and energy― to reduce global carbon emissions.

A simple story for children with a call to do all we can, however small, to stop global warming. Tone uses vivid colours for the worlds the penguins dreamed of, contrasting them starkly with the darkish, gray tones of those they end up in. Flushed in white, the final page conveys both the call to action and hope for building a cleaner, brighter future.

Its funny how sometimes we miss the woods for the trees, or need a reminder of what sits right under our noses. Like the penguins who decide to move, before realizing that the only place for them is, well and truly, this planet we all call home. Well, who else should clean up after but ourselves?

Title: 『ペンギンかぞくのおひっこし』
(Pengin kazoku no ohikkoshi, lit. The penguins are moving) by Satoe Tone
Publisher: Shogakukan, 2017
Translated from the Italian original, also available in Spanish.

Thicker than water


Book review, from Singapore – Sharon Ismail’s What Sallamah Didn’t Know (2007) tells the heartwarming story of a girl growing up in a kampung (Malay for village) with the people she knew as her family, but later finds out that some things are not what they seem. Painting scenes of life in Singapore from a bygone era vivid in largely monotone palettes, Khairudin Saharom places his illustrations at a comfortable yet accessible distance, rousing both nostalgia and imagination.

The story begins in the night. A sleepy newborn girl bundled in white cloth is given away to a Malay family. We are told that other families in the village had seen this before, and that the receiving family would magically have a new member the next morning.

This new member is named Sallamah.

Sallamah grows up with her siblings in a Malay family. She has a kind elder sister, Muna, who always looks out for her, and a mischievous elder brother Dollah who always picks on her.

At the age of twelve, Singaporeans get their identity cards, or ICs. As a child, I remember this year of my life well – preparing for PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination), a centralized entrance exam for entry into secondary education, that big BCG vaccination needle, finally seeing the last of someone in class, having to part with best friends, and the customary rite of getting my IC, my official photo ID with information based on my birth certificate.

For Sallamah, this rite of passage throws her into confusion – she receives the card of a Chinese girl with an unfamiliar address. Dazed and lost, she stumbles into a game of marbles that Dollah was on the verge of winning, and he says something that strikes deep into her heart. Unable to sleep that night, she overhears her parents talk about not telling the children know.

She turns to her elder sister, who reveals her memories of that night many years ago. Sallamah then realizes that her siblings, and some other children around her, did not really look like their parents either. What she knew and saw was that they lived together, played together, fought with each other, laughed and cried, like children, like family.

Touched by this simple truth that draws on the joys of having family and family life, Sallamah’s story also reminded me that we do not need blood ties to share such moments together.

Adults choose who to marry, to become family. Blood ties are created with offspring. Those lineages continue with children bringing together two formerly separate families, but children have neither the choice of which family to grow up in or of who to have as siblings or parents. That is where, I believe, lies the roots of parents’ responsibility to their children, and how they fulfill that is a journey the family takes together. Simply taking the blood out from the equation does not change it; blood ties are not essential, it is, essentially, a choice.

For Sallamah, her Chinese birth parents chose to give her away, because they had too many mouths to feed, and she was a girl, after all. Because they found this kind Malay couple in a far-off village, Sallamah was able to grow up in the shelter and guidance of her loving parents, the comfort and company of a gentle elder sister, and a place among bickering siblings, the only family she ever knew.

In relation to adoption, in Japan, I hear of a movement to help working parents look out for children, to build a caring community to help nurture the country’s next generation while parents work. The idea is comforting but also worrying because of the inkling that it might fester misguided thoughts of letting parents stay at work and leaving their children to others in the community. Perhaps what it does is to propose an actual, proper safety net, one that Kore-eda’s Shoplifters seemed to promise, but a public movement telling people to do so would have raised some alarm bells. It certainly made me think of social pressure, norms and morals.

Sallamah also prompted thought of how I spend time with my closest and dearest in my busy life. It paints the home as a safe harbour to return to, for company, sympathy, relaxation and a good recharge after a long day’s toils. For this working parent, this is a seemingly insurmountable goal , and at the moment more of an occasional, fleeting hurrah than any hint of a permanent sanctuary. Home is proving to be a marathon, an extended work-in-progress that might just be its own end product some day.

Littered with snippets of Singapore’s past that still ring relevant today, Sallamah has also started filling a gaping gap of images of old Singapore in a growing collection. Surely, their place on my shelves will grow, hopefully as quickly as the country’s urban landscape changes.

 

Title: What Sallamah Didn’t Know
by Sharon Ismail, with illustrations by Khairudin Saharom
Publisher: Candid Kids, 2007
Malay, simplified Chinese, and Tamil language editions launched 2015 under the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism.

(I had the pleasure of hearing Sharon Ismail speak at AFCC 2018 about writing for multicultural readers, where she mentioned this book and the myth of blood being thicker than water, which led to the title of this post. This review is based on a reading of the Chinese edition of the book.)

Safely hidden


Book review, from Tokyo – A summer vacation offers, for many, respite from the daily grind of school and the office. The hiatus often brings a selection of scary tales to library shelves, one both refreshingly frightening and inspiring at the same time.

Etsuko Yamamoto’s YA chapter book『神隠しの教室』(Kamikakushi no kyoushitsu, lit. The hidden classroom) tells the story of the sudden disappearance of five children in the middle of a normal school day like a classic who-dunnit.

The missing children come from varying backgrounds – a straight-talking 5th-grade girl born to Brazilian parents; her quiet classmate who somehow fell into the bad books of that cool girl in class; a nerdy-looking, bespectacled 4th-grade boy; a timid, soft-spoken, nervous 1st-grade girl; and a gangly, unkempt 6th-grade boy.

The teachers and school staff scramble to find the lost children. Meanwhile, the kids realize they had somehow entered a parallel world, with no one else in the entire compound, which looked very much identical.

Taking it onto themselves to join hands to find food and shelter in the confines of the school, they find their lunches served as they should at meal time, at their tables in their classrooms. There was also electricity and gas. Besides the fact that no one else was there, the school seemed to function like any other. They start to get used to their one-meal-a-day, care-free lives in this otherwise empty school, that is, until the weekend, when there was no school, and no food served.

In the hokenshitsu, the medical care or nurse’s room found in Japanese elementary schools, Sanae, the school’s nurse, notices something amiss. The bread she routinely puts in her drawer for the gangly 6th grader is gone. Had he somehow taken it without her knowing?

Ruffling through the school’s annals in the Principal’s office, the children find out that Sanae herself was similarly spirited away in 6th grade, in that same school. Uncanny. Perhaps the school was doing this. But why?

Gaining access to a computer in the audio-visual room, the kids manage to contact Sanae through her counseling blog. She rummages her memory to suggest that they open the same door at the same time to connect both worlds. However, their attempt only manages to open a blurry portal, which they could not walk or reach through. Something was lacking.

Sanae realizes that the school might be keeping the children safely away from something. As she gradually unravels the story behind each missing child, the five children grow closer with each passing day.

The children finally ask Sanae to reenact her return by asking their now distraught mothers to help them out of the other world. Only four return to their parent’s relieved embraces. The gangly 6th grader chooses to stay behind, his mother not there, or so it seemed.

Eventually, he too returns unharmed, striding out alone to four newfound friends, and the nurse who now knew and threw light on their stories.

Throughout the book, the children are plunged into varying degrees of self-doubt (why me?), self-blame (I’m the reason they are here with me), disappointment (it’s just not working), frustration (it’s all your fault!), and hopelessness (we’re never going home). But each time, some one would come up with a diversion, an idea, an outlet that offered hope or just a welcome break.

They could have chosen to stay in that hollow parallel world, until the point they realized that their loved ones were waiting on the other side, and also that the old building was slated for demolition.

In a story that was not unlike some bizarre escape game, the children found each other, a peer group, a group of individuals whose presence at school was under threat for some reason – bullying, abuse, neglect. Finding that group inspired the courage and clarity of mind to take the step back into their lives, with deep gratitude to the old school building that had developed a mind of its own.

 

Title: 『神隠しの教室』(Kamikakushi no kyoushitsu, lit. The hidden classroom)
by Etsuko Yamamoto, with illustrations by Yuki Maruyama
Publisher: Doshinsha, 2016
The book won the 2017 Noma Prize for Juvenile Literature.

Struggling with neglect


Film review, from Tokyo – Last things first: After watching Kore-eda’s critically acclaimed 『万引き家族』(Manbiki kazoku, lit. Shoplifters), I remember deep anger, sympathy and then finally hope from its abrupt ending. Shoplifters came through as a story of the many forms of neglect, which allows underlying problems to fester, to take on a life of their own. In this film, it colours the decisions made in the struggle for survival, largely out of convenience with huge dose of humanity and a tinge of exploitation. (Core plot follows.)

Right from the outset, the audience is presented with shoplifting as the appetizer leading up to the main course. It is winter in Tokyo, and a middle-aged man (Osamu Shibata, played by Lily Franky) and a slightly wobbly lady (Nobuyo, Sakura Ando) are making their way home together after a few drinks. A boy (Shota, Jyo Kairi) is slumped over the man’s shoulders half-asleep after a long day. Taking a familiar path home, they spot a little girl (Yuri, Miyu Sasaki) left alone out in the corridor of an apartment, cold and hungry, quivering perhaps also from the screams and shouts within.  They decide to take the trembling child home.

Home is a single storey structure shrouded in foliage, a cramped, messy abode, where two women, one grandiosely old (Hatsue, Kirin Kiki), the other whose future lay just ahead (Aki, Mayu Matsuoka), did not seem especially perturbed by the new arrival.

The story revolves around the familial relationships among these six people: Osamu, an odd-job construction worker; Nobuyo, a laundry shop part-timer; Hatsue, the old lady living on handouts and pension payouts; Aki, who chose her grand mother over a college education overseas; Shota, Osamu’s pilfering sidekick and curious reader; and Yuri, the newcomer, who threw a spanner into the old equilibrium.

The Shibatas live in poverty, pilfering to make ends meet, but they bring Yuri home, take her on a shopp(lift)ing run to get new clothes, swimming costumes, and then to the beach for that picture perfect family outing.

Things go downhill quickly though. Their wafer thin finances are hit first by Osamu’s injury, so when Hatsue leaves Aki in mourning, the next turn proves a carbon copy of gruesome reality – they decide to hide her body to continue receiving her pension payouts. Nobuyo then gets laid off, a deal struck with some compensation.

But when Shota gets caught on a routine run, the Shibata’s house of cards finally unravels, illuminated under the spotlight, crumpling under the long arm of law.

All through the movie, I saw the Shibata’s struggles with money, their humanity inciting sympathy and solidarity. I smiled at their familial joys, but winced occasionally at their choices for survival. And so I comprehended my blase at the superficial media coverage of the unplanned abduction and the initial anger against the officials who effused pity along with disdain. Bringing Osamu and Nobuyo under the law proved their errors, but it felt cruel to label those struggles as simply a result of being grossly misled.

A story rooted in an elder getting by alone, her misguided granddaughter, two wayward part-timing adults struggling for a livelihood, and two neglected children who found temporary shelter. Perhaps it all hinged on the boy who read, for him to find the courage to trust the world and its myriad systems. If others had reached out to them, if they knew what was out there for them, perhaps the story would have been very different.

It all began with the Shibatas bringing little Yuri into their home, and it all ended with her finding something offscreen. Although that felt rather abrupt, it is a fitting ending, because that’s probably the start of another story altogether.

 

Shoplifters (2018)
Original title in Japanese:『万引き家族』(Manbiki kazoku)
Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
More on the film at IMDb