The first bite


Book review, from Tokyo – Bringing up my children in Japan, I learned about kuizome, which literally means the first bite. Usually held around the 100-day mark, when babies start to drool over everything before actually teething, a celebration is held to give the child the first bite of solid food. More of a symbolic gesture than a real bite, this ritual seems to have been adopted also by the oni, or ogres, as depicted in 『鬼の首引き』(Oni no kubihiki, lit. Ogre’s neck tug-of-war) by Norie Iwaki.

The story begins with a young man starting out for the capital in search of work. As he enters the woods, dark clouds gather, and the wind picks up. And lo and behold, an ogre appears out of nowhere. Caught and about to become lunch, the young man asks to be devoured by a princess. It happens that this ogre has a young daughter, who has yet to have her kuizome, or her first bite of a human. Delighted at this offer, the ogre tells his daughter, the demon princess, to get her first bite on her own.

The princess comes near gingerly. After all, it is her first bite of a human. “How shall I eat him? Shall I start from the hand? The leg? Or from the top of the head?” she sings. As she approaches from behind, the young man bats her head with his fan, as if swatting a bug. When she finds the courage to return for his leg, he coughs so loud that she flees, petrified.

Now ogres are a principled kind, and proud of that they are. Both times, the young man gave scarcely believable explanations, and both times the ogre gave him the benefit of doubt. Seeing that the ogre was a critter of its word, the young man takes the opportunity to ask to be eaten only if he loses a contest of strength with who else but his eater. And so he and the tiny princess lock arms, and then legs, to wrestle. Of course, he wins easily both times.

Seeing his beloved princess bawling and her pride hurt, the angry father calls on all his brethren to put the young man up to a real contest –  a neck tug-of-war. They loop ropes around their necks and start tugging away. The young man holds on as well as he can, but even he is no match for a whole tribe of ogres. As his feet slip and slide, he hangs on until the very last moment before removing the rope suddenly to send the ogres tumbling, which leaves him with time to escape.

In the story, time and again, the young man came up with something outrageous to outwit the ogres. Time and again, the ogre’s fatherly disposition and respectful demeanor sat awkwardly well, until the neck tug-of-war and the final escape. These comedic elements come from the story’s roots in kyougen, a form of Japanese traditional theater, as Iwaki describes in the book’s backmatter. He also reminds readers that the sport neck tug-of-war can be found in the choujuugiga picture scroll, famously considered by some as the world’s oldest work of manga.

On the final page of the book, Yousuke Inoue offers a warm father-daughter portrait of the ogre father standing firm with a smile on its face while his daughter is sat on one arm. That grin shines with a father’s pride. Who knows what lessons they learned, but my hunch is that she got that first bite, with some help from a fine demon of a dad.

Title: 『鬼の首引き』(Oni no kubihiki, lit. Ogre’s neck tug-of-war)
Story by Norie Iwaki, illustrations by Yousuke Inoue
Publisher: Fukuinkan Shoten, 2006

Somewhere in between


Book review, from Tokyo – This post on Miku Ito’s  『カーネーション』(Kaaneeshon, lit. Carnation) is timed between May 5th, Children’s Day in Japan, and Mother’s Day. This tale is nothing like the normal present for that day, but a troubling story of a failing relationship between a mother and her child in the Touno family – Aiko, mother; Hiyori, middle-grade daughter; Kouko, kindergarten daughter; and Shinya, father and sole breadwinner who is that familiar Japanese male wage worker. Told in a series of monologues by Hiyori and Aiko, Aiko effuses love and attention for Kouko, but doesn’t seem to be able to treat Hiyori the same way.

The opening prepares the reader well. Hiyori gets a question at cram school from Tougo, a middle-grade boy, probing about whether she disliked anyone in particular. She mirrors the question, deflecting away the thorny issue. Tougo lives in with Kazu, or Kazuki, the sole tutor at a tiny cram school. Not that Hiyori really dislikes anyone, but she struggles to constantly fight for her mother’s love, to just make her smile. She finds respite and a welcoming smile from her aunt Yuzuki’s nearby shop and finds the space to return home as normal to a bawling baby sister and the protective, loving mum.

On the other hand, Aiko cannot bring herself to understand why she expresses her love for Hiyori the way she does. Perhaps because her daughter’s eyes remind her of her younger sister, who died an unfortunate death. Perhaps she was to blame those many years ago. Hiding this past from her daughter, she soldiers on, as mothers do, trying valiantly to understand her, hoping that she will one day open up to her.

With the ties pulled taut, things come to a head when Hiyori prepares a surprise birthday present for her mother, only for her plans to be foiled by that troublesome, inquisitive younger sibling. Hiyori bursts out of the house and takes refuge in the cram school. Aiko ends up needing depressants in hospital after losing her footing in her frantic search for her daughter.

All this while, Shinya had closed his eyes to the tension at home, choosing to gaze at those twinkling shows of light within them. Wife in hospital, daughter fled from home, younger daughter in the care of sister-in-law, he finally faces up to reality, to open up to change things, to save his family, which he succeeds with the help of Kazu, his old friend at the cram school, and Yuzuki. That change, of course, began from within.

Published on Mother’s day last year, Ito’s novel gives her YA readers a peek into the minds of parents in a not-entirely-improbable family situation and the sanctuaries to be found in friends and relatives. For the inquisitive reader-parent in me, it wrings those parental heartstrings – the mother struggling to fulfill her motherly duties, albeit in largely different ways for both daughters; the father finally opening up to his part as a parent in the family, with Shinya coming into the alternating monologues toward the end.

As a father, husband, brother and son, I see myself somewhere in between the two female protagonists in the story, which contains a message to fathers, and fathers-to-be, as part of a family. 『カーネーション』attempts to throw light on those oh-so-normal boundaries of gender (Tougo cooks well!) and parenting responsibilities. Painting a portrait of a family in transition, the ending also suggests change in Japanese society where men realize the need to do their part in sharing the family burden as more women divide their energies between work and facing the lifelong pressures of motherhood.

With an off-white cover adorned by carnations in four different colours, this different story serves up a reminder of the toils of a mother, and adds to that a failing mother-daughter relationship. A troubling tale that closes on a reassuring note with light shining through at the end for the daughter and her family.

Title: 『カーネーション』(Kaaneeshon, lit. Carnation)
Text by Miku Ito, pictures by Komako Sakai
Publisher: KUMON Publishing, 2017

If that building were to speak


Picture book review, from Tokyo – When we speak of Hiroshima today, a site that has become a part of human history  stands apart from the city’s food, its produce, and culture. The UNESCO Heritage Hiroshima Peace Memorial, covers what is today known as the A-bomb dome. Standing on the bank of the river for more than a century, its presence alone tells a story.

Hiroshima resident and poet Arthur Binard gives it a voice in 『ドームがたり』 (Doumu gatari, lit. Dome story / Dome speaks) (Tamagawa University Press, 2017), illustrated by Koji Suzuki.

Affectionately known as just “Dome” by Hiroshima people, Dome starts off by greeting the reader, thanking us for dropping by to visit. Like a seasoned speaker, it points out the slight inaccuracy of the name of the nearby tram station, before introducing itself. Fathered by Czech designer Jan Letzel, it was built in 1915 to showcase Hiroshima goods and produce. It had a few other names before “Dome”, whether it was goods or industry, there was always a part of it that was “Hiroshima”. That was until Japan went on the road to militarization, war broke out, and people came to talk about doing things “for the country”.

Dome recalls, as a cicada flew by in the height of summer 1945, an American plane dropped something that cracked open overhead in a blinding flash. The cicada and “Hiroshima” were destroyed that day, Dome says, and since then many things have become very clear through its airy skeleton head.

It sees the world as a makeup of particles. Radioactive particles, it explains, are like teeny tiny shards of glass. Glass hurts, but these particles are so tiny that we cannot feel them, even as they keep buzzing and zapping. Dome also reminds us of the Makurazaki typhoon that struck a month later, washing much of the radioactive particles into the ocean, sending them buzzing across the seas. Further afar, it sees the many particle islands and mountains formed in the course of tests all over the world, and discharge from contraptions humans built to harness the power of this relentless zapping.

How long do these particles continue to buzz and zap? Dome wonders, but hopes that the birds and other friends who visit don’t get hurt by some particle lingering in some dark corner of its bare frame.

After Dome tells its story, Binard provides an epilogue to explain the relationship between Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239, which were respectively used in the warheads of the two bombs that fell on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki three days later. He also reminds us of the significance of the plague engraved with “e=mc2”, which is a result of US censorship of the nuclear bomb, and the world order dominated by the nuclear powers ever since.

Nearly 7 years since the tsunami hit Fukushima Daiichi, I found this picture book drawing clear links rooted in nuclear power, something that some have tried and failed to harness. Today other nations are conducting nuclear tests for energy sources and consumption underpin industry, trade, affluence and economic growth. This trend of thought seems set to continue in the near future, at least, as calls for a return of morality in economics grow. Therein lies the need to share Dome’s story and Binard’s commentary for future generations.

 

Title: 『ドームがたり』
(Doumu gatari, lit. Dome story / Dome speaks)
Text by Arthur Binard, illustrated by Koji Suzuki
Publisher: Tamagawa University Press, 2017

Just different


Book review, from Tokyo – Four teens popped into the train the other day. One of them was visibly larger than the other three, and a tad bit more tanned. He seemed relaxed, laid back, as did the rest. The train crowd that day was just enough for everyone to see whatever happened across the length of the carriage.

The next moment began an episode I would not forget in a hurry. One of the boys starts picking on this bigger boy, making snide comments on his size, his stubby nose, the tiny curls in his hair, his brownish-blue eyes, anything that seemed obviously different.

Hums and haws deflected each attack, as his large frame sank deeper into the cushion. One of the other boys interrupts to ask the interrogator about his family, offering his friend a brief respite. The bigger boy musters a  response, asking some questions of his own. The exchange continues, mostly one-sided, with the obtrusive teen probing deeper.

Perhaps there wasn’t any ill intent, but it was still a disturbing exchange that happened right in front of everyone else.

This episode brought to mind the OECD PISA 2015 report on bullying released earlier this year, where 15-year-olds provided, for the first time, self-reports on their experience of frequent bullying. Compared to other forms of bullying, Japanese teens saw more verbal bullying but less overall than the OECD average. However, PISA acknowledges that cultural differences could have affected responses. Incidentally, the suicide rate among Japanese school children peaks when school resumes in September after about 6 weeks of summer vacation.

Fortunately, Jason Parker, the brave, level-headed sixth grader in Holly Thompson’s verse novel “Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth” (Henry Holt and Company, 2016), never contemplates suicide, but he does come within a whisker of joining them.

Jason’s story starts with him being thrown into a group notorious for bullying. He would have to navigate various tasks together with them for almost two months, until the next seat change. His friends advise him to keep a low profile, to never react, lest it got worse. The teacher is indifferent, even apathetic. Everyone just goes about minding their own business, keeping a safe distance.

Respite comes from his little sister, whether it is the mess in their shared room, their adventures storming through the streets, meeting new people in the neighbourhood, and ultimately when she saves him. He also finds some joy outside school and peace at Aikido class, where he trains his mind and body to be ready for his enemies, or so he thinks.

Two crimes are woven into the plot – a fire and a lost paperweight. The former was arson, a primer for the latter case that had a greater bearing on the story. For the class, it was theft. For Jason, it was betrayal and the worst possible scenario averted by his little sister.

The verse format forces the reader to stay close to Jason, as we follow him through a harrowing period of his life in a coastal town.

We join him in keeping alert for attacks at school, which leaves one exhausted but still looking to avoid contact in town. We are grateful for the pockets of refuge in Aikido and other parts of the town, the space to reach out to Jason’s interests elsewhere. We are blind-sided by his wayward focus, losing sight of obvious danger, before finally finding closure and a way forward with Aikido.

Jason’s story made me step back to reflect on my reactions toward differences, on the importance of learning to accept differences as they are, as a chance to connect, not abuse. It opened the door to delving deeper, to view outward aggression as a suggestion of other problems, to recall how difficult it is to handle peer pressure, and to look out for tell-tale signs of abuse and reach out, because it could make a whole world of difference for someone.

Title: Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth
Author: Holly Thompson
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2016 (available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook)

Parenting or not in Web 2.0


Book review, from Singapore to Tokyo – Pinch, drag, flick, tap. Slick moves mastered to deal with life to the tune of each new generation of smart devices. Buzz, flicker, ring, flash. An endless deluge of noise, light, vibes, and activity that demands our attention at every other moment, as if we did not have enough to deal with already.
Sometimes our devices bring new and refreshing updates, but more often just rejigged posts. At other times we’re creating something for everyone else in this age of user-generated content. And if you’ve got a kid craving for attention, then you’ll have trouble focusing on either. But we are in control, aren’t we? Or are we slaves of our own making?
Smart devices are so much a part of our lives today that misplacing one brings isolation from the connected world, the IoT. Well, in real life, we only have 24 hours a day to focus our limited energy on only so much. And if the touchscreen is taking our eyes off other things that should really matter, like your own kid, then obviously there lies a problem.

『ママのスマホになりたい』, “Mama no sumaho ni naritai” (literally, “I want to become mummy’s smartphone”) illustrates just this, drawing on a real essay by a Singaporean primary school boy, in which he professed that his wish was to become a smartphone (article at allsingaporestuff.com).

With Nobumi’s trademark cartoony characters, the simple, childishly spiteful exchanges between 3-year-old son and mother portrays the struggle for a parent-child relationship in an era of push feeds and other intermittent attention grabbers. The boy loses numerous creatively laid skirmishes, including a cardboard kingdom where smartphones are not allowed, before finally reconnecting with his mother.
A self-confessed guilty party, it is less my smartphone, but the daily struggle with the clock that leaves me wanting more play-and-bond time. Living with devices involves rules, balance, and understanding, something this book could maybe help parents and their children reach together. Then again with future generations set to bypass PCs and dive straight into mobile and wearable devices, and interacting through them, who knows whether this book be read the same way by the end of the next decade.
Kids grow up quickly, faster than the next app upgrade. We can uninstall updates on a whim but we can’t just reboot our lives, so I’ll be sure to catch myself on my smartphone at home, and my kids before they are ready to leave the roost!
Title: 『ママのスマホになりたい』 (Mama no sumaho ni naritai) by Nobumi
Publisher: Tokyo, WAVE Publishers, 2016

Questions from The Ranch of Hope


Book review, Tokyo – Years after the 3.11 triple disaster, a rancher continues to tend to his herd of more than 330 cattle in a no-go zone in Namie, Fukushima. Portrayed as a nuclear rebel by parts of the media, the picture book behind the ranch raises some serious questions.

On the cover of “Kibou no Bokujo” (The Ranch of Hope), he could easily have been chewing in defiance on a burning cigarette. Instead, it shows a man with his dog, cat, and cow with the ranch in the background.

The pictures go from animals and houses abandoned after the disaster to the lone rancher who stayed behind to tend to his ranch. Inside, cattle eat, drink, defecate, and get hungry. The rancher continues his job, feeding and tending to them. Some of the weaker grow ill and die, but the rest have remained healthy, eating, drinking, defecating, and getting hungry again. Cattle numbers have recovered, it says, as the ranch took in those that had wandered near from elsewhere.

The touching parting gaze between another rancher and his endearing calf is paired with a page splashed in red with carcasses and several men in the faraway background clad from head to toe in white protective wear. In contrast, the owner of the Ranch of Hope goes around doing his daily chores in his regular farming attire. He is simply doing his job, keeping his cattle fed and alive, even if they can no longer be sold because no one would take them.

The story goes deeper, into the rancher’s thoughts – what is the meaning of life, of plentiful rice fields, rivers teeming with fish, clean fresh air, a local brand painstakingly built up by the community over the years, that vanishes just like that?

The book’s sobering pictures serve as a reminder of the gravity of some decisions in life, which are made by a few and end up affecting many others.

Title: 『希望の牧場』 (Kibou no Bokujo, The Ranch of Hope)
text by Eto Mori, illustrated by Hisanori Yoshida
Publisher: Tokyo, Iwasaki Publishing, 2014

Tokyo’s looking at diversity


Tokyo, 12 November – Last week, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare released its latest survey on the diversity of working arrangements in Japan’s shrinking population. For the first time in the survey’s history, non-perm or temp workers account for exactly 40.0% of the national workforce. Initial media reports highlighted the record, albeit slightly suspicious, ratio and a stunning statistic that many temps preferred the flexible working hours that part-time, temporary, and contract assignments offer. Unlike the survey, reports did not highlight the diversity in the temp workforce, a grouping of part-timers, full-time contract workers, and retiree rehires.

Part-timers, as the term suggests, work differently than other temps. For example, female part-timers, a third of temp respondents, were the main breadwinners less than 25% of the time, which means 75% were out there for the sake of pocket money. So part-timers choose when they lined their pockets while other temps looked for hard money and a job-skills fit even as they knew that the dearth of perm opportunities kept them swimming around the temp pool.

Meanwhile, close to 95% of male retiree rehires were still breadwinners making that smooth cost-heavy transition into full retirement. For younger temps, about 80% of men between ages 24-45 were breadwinners as compared to below 30% of women. So, temp or not, men in Japan still bring home the dough. Note that this age band is home to new and future families and parents.

Temps were also much less satisfied than perms about remuneration, job stability, and career prospects. On the other hand, perms were marginally unhappier with the quality of instruction from their managers and their working hours. Japanese work culture is infamous for long hours, and they don’t seem any more pro-family or pro-baby than the boomer years, so who will be there to power any future growth? With companies already turning to contracts to rehire retirees of proven value, it looks like even longer work hours and active aging for everyone.

Maybe a longer working life could translate into longer-term, sustainable growth, targets of Japan’s new stewardship and corporate codes. Before those two came around, Japan also changed its employment contract laws. They slapped a 5-year limit on dated contracts. Beyond that, a worker had the power to issue an ultimatum to convert to a rolling deal. This power came at a price – the law only applies to dates after promulgation. No backdating, slates wiped clean, employment contracts renewed from zero.

The law was devised to bring stability to contracted work, but if Japan’s economy were to grow again, as its government envisions, then the power to switch to a rolling contract on, most probably, a frozen wage will only slowly squeeze a temp’s already thin pockets. Some lawyers have commented on this no-win situation for temps. Companies are now free to estimate long-term temp costs using 5-year ceilings. No need to mention “black” companies, a growing social problem of employee exploitation, temp or otherwise.

Who can make things better? Activist investors are more of the latter, so since cheap, skilled labour is a win-win, don’t expect an agent of change there. What about employers? Do they have the principles or pockets to take valued temps on their permanent payroll? Or would they force them out? Maybe even deprive them of CV-pretty work ahead of the 35-year-old glass ceiling for jumping ship or before the temp-to-perm window arrives? The ball has been placed firmly in the hands of employers. Some temp agencies have switched to directly hiring registered persons as full-time ready to go employees, so there is new hope.

The flip side of this employment conundrum is the 60% perm workforce, where the temp-perm disparity could breed elements that are even less motivated toward productivity. Stability in the perm world can easily be twisted into protecting the system, scraping through with the bare minimum, and producing the goods only when a chance to climb up the corporate ladder comes round.

Toxic for productivity? No rocket growth, just inching up or down every year? Maybe that’s sustainable for a while. Now the case is for the entire workforce to be included in the numbers game, or a respected bastion of moral authority, like Justice Bao or Mito Komon, to ruffle some feathers and clean up the show, because it’s high time companies show some real commitment toward embracing diversity.