Herding on something overheard


Book review, from Tokyo – 『あわてんぼうウサギ』(Awatenbou usagi, lit. the jumpy hare) retells a familiar story of tale #322 of the Jataka Tales. One among the colourful canon of 547 stories of past incarnations of the Buddha, sometimes human, other times animal, it contains a very pertinent message for us today.

Retold for Japanese children by Motoko Nakagawa and illustrated by Bolormaa Baasansuren, the book ends with a page introducing The Jataka Tales and the moral of the story. The tale is known by at least two English titles, “The Timid Hare and the Flight of the Beasts” and “The Sound the Hare Heard”.

Mongolian illustrator Baasansuren adorns the animals with delicate shapes reminiscent of henna tattoos and gives all of them an endearing demeanor, adding an air of wisdom for the lion. When the animals take flight, they take our eyes as far as we can see, right across the pages.

As the story goes, a jumpy hare lying under a palm tree hears a loud, terrifying sound, as if the ground was breaking up. Without thinking twice, the jumpy creatre dashes off to the other end of the earth, spreading word of the terrible sound as it ran.

Soon other animals gather to form an impressive herd of beasts that flies across the pages. Only a lion’s mighty roar manages to freeze them in their tracks. Yet the animals remain worried.

When the lion asks who started running, each one points to the next creature in front, and standing right at the fore is the jumpy hare. The hare eventually brings the lion to where it heard the sound, and they find a ripe fruit lying on the ground. Danger averted, truth unveiled, mystery solved.

Beyond simple hearsay, today, if you have a smart device, then you are part of today’s connected world, where we are constantly bombarded by information from our device feeds, friends and family.

We have some time to discern what is fact or fiction, or even fairytale, before being pressured to “react”, share, click, distribute immediately, an ill that comes from the speed of this most advanced form of “communication”.

A falsehood can easily start trending and create conflict and confusion, until some discerning soul distinguishes the truth. Of course, many things are not simply black or white, and gray areas can often be contentious and divisive.

There is obvious danger in following unknowingly, but the real danger is in not knowing whether the leader is also as clueless or perhaps even differently motivated. This picture book serves as a timely reminder of this truth – to see things as they are with our own eyes.

The editor’s note on the Shogakukan website seems to suggest more Jataka Tales coming our way. I personally enjoy the canon and can’t wait to see what they have in store.

Title: 『ジャータカ物語 あわてんぼうウサギ
(Jaataka monogatari  awatenbou usagi, lit. Jataka Tales  The Jumpy Hare)
Retold by Motoko Nakagawa, illustrated by Bolormaa Baasansuren
Publisher: Tokyo, Shogakukan, 2017

(Edited for brevity and added content on illustrations)

Carrying on from a story of March 11


Book review, from Tokyo – Leza Lowitz’s verse novel Up From the Sea tells the story of Kai, a teenage boy who survives being swept away by the tsunami.

In just a few opening pages, we are given a quick rundown on his Japanese family, his estranged American Dad in New York, his pals Ryu and Shin, and his daily routine. And when the earthquake struck, everything came, thick and fast. We race out of school together with him and through his town in search of higher ground, but get swept under. He and his classmates, Taro, best friend Shin, and Keiko survive, and are later reunited with Ryu. We later learn that he loses his grandmother, and finds his grandfather’s shattered fishing boat, but not his mother.

Fighting and spite with Taro seem to give respite from guilt, loneliness, confusion, and anger. Then there are the calm, heartening moments. These seem to grow as Kai begins reaching out to other survivors, bringing food to people, handing out riceballs, kicking a soggy football with Guts and other younger boys, praying for the dead.

But his mental state remained still fragile. Come summer, the Japanese tradition of making wishes on Tanabata (七夕, Chinese Qixi festival) reminded of his childhood dreams and wishes, and his encounter with a drunk buried in the sand ends with him wandering into the sea. He is saved, and realizes something that gives him newfound hope.

Surviving yet again, a talk with his grandfather’s fisherman friend Old Man Sato gives him some wise old words that help him take the chance to meet 9/11 orphans. He finds his way to the US, and perhaps his father, and returns alone to Japan after leaving a note in New York. The novel ends on a tone of hope, of acceptance, of reconciliation with his father, and light shining the way forward.

I particularly liked how the novel threw me into the struggle right from the start and how the first person verse narrative effortlessly raced through the speaker’s emotions, and left me with work to do on some of Kai’s closest thoughts. Of the many moments that left an impression, the lessons from Old Man Sato’s story stood out – You’ve got to be able to save yourself, because “we’ve got the future to build.” Indeed.

Title: Up From the Sea
by Leza Lowitz
Publisher:
Hardcover: Crown Books for Young Readers, 2016,
Paperback: Ember, 2017

Misuzu Kaneko’s poems resonate across times and cultures


Book review, from Tokyo – I can’t remember when I first read a children’s collection of Misuzu Kaneko’s poems. Roundish, cartoony figures, cats, dogs, flowers, and clouds left a lasting impression of cute, simple poetry about the nature of things. Take “Tsuchi to kusa” (literally dirt and grass) for example, a poem that reminded me of the drab, unseen mother of its many more appreciated embellishments – grass, bushes, trees, flowers, anything that sprung from it.

Then came news of Chin Music Press’s Are you an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko. Eager to see more of her work, I ventured to Amazon.com to get copies over to Japan quickly. Illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri, the book weaves a selection of the poet’s literary expressions into her life story. Hajiri’s vivid depictions of scenes of Japan in the 1900s are based on actual research, coupled with an on-site visit to Senzaki, where Kaneko lived, now part of Nagato city in Yamaguchi prefecture. Hajiri combines these scenes with Japan’s famed “five seasons”, which includes the rainy season ahead of summer, to immerse readers in Japanese sentiments of seasonal change.

The book covers her life, from her upbringing in a family bookstore to her breakthrough as a promising poet, and her marriage to a philandering husband. Kaneko would go on to end her life. Weakened by gonorrhea and having lost custody of her young daughter after her divorce, the pages covering her decision and determination for the child to be raised by her grand mother are accompanied by a poem “Cocoon and Grave” and a shining, fluttering butterfly breaking through the shadows.

Her poems then became lost alongside other literary works in the imperial propaganda and the outbreak of war. Her works were later found, another story in itself that is covered briefly at the start of the book. Those who were in Japan shortly after the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami might recall the TV commercials by AC Japan that followed. One of them used Kaneko’s poem, “Kodoma deshou ka”, translated into English as “Are you an Echo?” in the title of the book. Some thought this reminded people of others and the fact that everyone is in it together. To me, it remains one of my favourite, alongside “Tsuchi to kusa” (not in the book) mentioned earlier, and “Bird, Bell, and I”. By the time I had finished the book, I had a new perspective on her work.

The book wraps up its journey with a selection of 15 out of her 512 poems, each one unearthed from the sands of the time to ring across the ages. They have most certainly travelled across the seas, thanks to this publication, hopefully to be spoken about and read by many more.

Title: Are you an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko
Illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri (see more of his work here)
Narrative by David Jacobson
Translations and editorial contributions by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi
Publisher: Seattle, Chin Music Press, 2016

(Ed. Added link to illustrator’s website, corrected poem title)

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 Shoten, 2014

Summer past – Ninja special exhibit


Event, Tokyo – The Japanese summer didn’t stop my team from trekking almost 20 minutes under the scorching sun to Miraikan, National Museum of Science and Innovation, from Fune-no-kagaku-kan station on one fine, cloudless summer afternoon.

Besides the IDFes (short for idol festival) packed with adults, mostly men, lining up to jump and gyrate in unison at the performances of possibly the next big thing after AKB, families were resting outside the Miraikan, having some shaved ice doused in colourful syrup, soft-served ice cream, and whatever that was available cold just outside the cool indoor Ninja exhibition.

Some Pokemon event was also going on nearby, so the station was full of people going to or returning from some event. Giveaways of foldable cardboard Pokemon caps to kids provided scarce cover, while those handy fans offered some welcome breeze during our 20-minute trial of running from shade to shade. Telecom Center station would have been half the walk, but this journey warmed us right up for some Ninja training in the mild air-conditioning.

Once inside the exhibition hall, visitors became apprentices and were introduced to the various types of training that would ensure one left the hall trained as a “certified” ninja. From controlled breathing to stealth walking, jumping over a knee-high sunflower, throwing a rubber shuriken, differentiating smells, hearing for objects and information, and learning tidbits about nature, one would learn how to train mind and body, and be sensitive to changes in the environment.

The ninja, the eyes and ears of their masters, prevented unnecessary conflict and often gained priceless inside information. They were not merely masters of disguise, infiltration, and survival. Trained to hone their senses to identify the time of day, direction, tell the weather, see through a disguise, they made themselves very useful. Found across Japan during the feudal era, the Iga and Koga Ninja, in present day Mie prefecture, were the most well-known.

Not delving too deeply into any single aspect, trainees would pass the final in-house test and gain that coveted novice ninja “certificate”. But once outside the training hall, a firm jolt back to reality awaited and the real test would begin. Freshies would have to resist the temptation to acquire further training in the souvenir shop. Alas, I yielded, to the yen for further knowledge into these famous ancient warriors.

Special Exhibition: The NINJA – Who were they?
From Jul 7, 2016 – Oct 10, 2016
http://www.miraikan.jst.go.jp/en/spexhibition/ninjya/