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)

Sharing a moment


Book review, from Tokyo – Sometimes new, sometimes full. On the wax or on the wane. The silver celestial body that quietly shines through darkness is always way up there. Once upon a time, we raced to reached it, to plant a flag. Down here, we were treated to a view of our home planet from afar.

Scifi aside, many stories and practices abound about our moon. There is otsukimi, or moon-viewing, in Japan and the Mid-autumn Festival celebrations by the Chinese diaspora on the 15th day of the Eight lunar month. Both are accompanied with tales of beings on the moon – a rabbit pounding mochi in the former and Chang’e, who floated up to the moon after swallowing an immortal pill, in the latter. And then there is, of course, that man on the moon.

Our constant companion throughout countless nights. Calm, serene, just watching over us, quietly. Unlike its daytime counterpart, brilliant, brimming with energy and life. But what if it disappears one day? Will we notice? Will we remember that once a month, it vanishes and returns as a wafer-thin smile?

『わたし、お月さま』(Watashi, otsuki-sama, lit.”I’m the moon”) by Nanae Aoyama, illustrated by Satoe Tone, tells the story of the moon that is struck suddenly by a sense of loneliness and dives down to earth to find an old friend who shared a special moment. After descending, it is bounced about by kids like a ball, picked up by roaming creatures, and rolls across the ocean floor.

The moon finally comes by an old man sitting on a park bench with his granddaughter. By then the moon had been away for quite some time. “Has the moon forgotten all about us?” the girl asks, tears welling.

Granddad shares his secret – many years ago, he was the astronaut who shared a chocolate-glazed donut with the moon! The moon will return, he reassures.

Free from the shackles of loneliness, the moon flutters back up into the sky, joyous that the memory of that shared moment will continue with the now smiling child.

Gorgeously illustrated,『わたし、お月さま』brings us yet another story of the moon, somewhat like a parent, sibling, or friend who is always watching over us. A reminder to not take them for granted, and return the favour of watching over them while I can.

This year, mid autumn was on Oct. 4 (Wed.). The following day (16th day of the lunar calendar) is when the moon normally seems to be at its fullest.

Title: 『わたし、お月さま』
(Watashi, otsukisama, lit. I’m the moon)
Text by Nanae Aoyama, illustrated by Satoe Tone
Publisher: NHK Publishing, 2016

Told and retold, time and again


Book review, from Tokyo – My daughter came home from school one day and said, “We’re going to read 『いわたくんちのおばあちゃん』(Iwata-kun chi no obaachan, lit. Iwata-kun’s grandmother) soon in ‘kokugo‘ class,” adding that she had already read it in her textbook, and everyone that had said it was “totemo kanashii” (a really sad story).

Kokugo” (lit. national language) is a curriculum for teaching grammar and all those rules to set children off on the way to mastering Japanese. Incidentally, “kokugo” text is also used as daily read-aloud homework, sometimes for weeks on end.

Remember the days when we would just rush to finish homework, put it off till the due date, or end up forgetting about it? When this sombre tale is read at rocket speed by the most eager of beavers, the listener (me) is left puzzled, confused, and agitated. That is until, the fact hit home – it was homework.

After flipping through the textbook, I later found myself poring through this picture book that had to be brought over from another library.

『いわたくんちのおばあちゃん』 is based on the true story of a girl who survived the atomic bomb, told by her daughter to elementary school children, and then by a boy, who is her son’s school mate, to the reader. The boy calls her son Iwata-kun, and the girl in the story is Chizuko, Iwata-kun’s grandmother.

Written in Hiroshima-ben (dialect), the book starts with the school’s annual sports meet. In the usual red-versus-white matchup, Iwata-kun and the boy are on opposite sides, but when he runs his race, Iwata-kun roots for him all the same, because they are friends.

After the sports meet, they have lunch and take photos as usual, but Iwata-kun’s grandmother politely declines. The boy knows why.

He heard her story from Iwata-kun’s mother at school during “heiwa gakushuu” (lit. peace studies session). Iwata-kun’s grandmother’s home once stood near the Hiroshima Prefecture Products Exhibition Hall. The boy’s school is near today’s UNESCO World Heritage Atomic Bomb Dome.

During the war, Iwata-kun’s grandmother Chizuko was a high school student, the eldest of four siblings – one baby boy, one girl excited to soon be going to school, and Kayo-chan, Chizuko’s fourteen-year-old sister. They had prepared to leave Hiroshima for somewhere safer and had taken a family photo together in an empty house.

On August 6, 1945, Chizuko’s younger siblings stayed behind with her parents while she and Kayo-chan went out as usual to “help fight the war”. Chizuko to a canning factory a few kilometers away to the West in Nishikannon-cho, and Kayo-chan among 700 girls to clear space between houses along the main road nearby to stop fires from spreading. They left the house together that morning, smiling and waving goodbye.

As Chizuko chatted before starting work, at 8:15 am, the bomb fell. The factory was flattened. Her first thought was to run straight home, but when she saw people in pain fleeing toward her, she knew she could not go that way. She remembered the family rendezvous point and waited there, trembling. But they did not come. She did meet a relative.

The next day, Chizuko returned to the city to search for her family. She found here way to where she thought her home was, barely recognizable save the few kitchen tiles that remained. There she would find two shreds of cloth, one from her mother’s blouse, the other from her little sister’s dress, firmly pressed together between their charred bodies. There were another two. None of the 700 girls were ever found. On that day, Chizuko had become all alone.

Months after the war ended, the photographer found Chizuko and gave her the photo he had taken that day.

The book then gives us a two-page fold of the blue sky above a huge tree on the school grounds to prepare us for the boy’s closing promise — he will never start or fight in a war.

The adapted version does not mention Iwata-kun’s cheers or the boy’s ending pledge. Without the conversations during the sports meet or with the single relative that turned up at the rendezvous point, it keeps the essence of the thrice-told story to urge an outpouring of emotion.

With the conversations, the tree and the pledge, the picture book engages, offering depth, hope and purpose. Like the story, it should be told and retold, time and again.

 

Title: 『いわたくんちのおばあちゃん』
(Iwata-kun chi no obaachan, lit. Iwata-kun’s grandmother)
Text by Natsumi Amano, illustrated by Yuka Hamano
Publisher: Shufunotomo, 2006

Learned something new


Book review, from Tokyo – Slightly over a month ago, I learned something new about Japan. Temples across Japan celebrate the Buddha’s birthday or hanamatsuri, literally the flower festival, on April 8 every year.

I learned about this from the afterword in 『花まつりにいきたい』(Hanamatsuri ni ikitai), a Hongwanji Publishing picture book by Kimiko Aman, illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri. Many Buddhists will soon celebrate this same occasion on the fifteenth day of the fourth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, which falls on May 10 in 2017.

Familiar with the festivities from my youth in Singapore (and the public holiday, of course), I’ve been puzzled at the lack of activity for this event in Buddhist Japan. According to Japanese sources, since Prince Siddhartha thought to have been born on the eight day of the fourth lunar month, the switch to the Gregorian system during the Meiji era brought the event to April 8. Meanwhile, in many South Asian countries, this date is the fifteenth day of the second month of the Indian lunisolar calendar, which somehow translates into the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. So after some mathematical time travel, I finally managed to catch the celebrations in Asakusa this year.

Early April is also sakura season, if not in Tokyo then probably somewhere else in Japan. “Hanamatsuri ni ikitai” literally translates into “I want to go to the flower festival (too!)”, the yearning hope of a sakura tree in full bloom. After calling out to the many who come near to admire its flowers, a boy somehow hears the tree and tells it that the time will come for it to join the celebrations. The imagery across the pages captures the essence of sakura, something that I have failed to do in my digital snapshots over the years.

Aside from the occasion serving as the backdrop to a magical story, I particularly enjoyed the bits of fun incorporated in the illustrations (look closely!), and the care taken to bringing the flowers to life on each page.

Title: 『花まつりにいきたい
(Hanamatsuri ni ikitai, lit. I want to go to the flower festival (too!))
Text by Kimiko Aman, illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri (more of his works here)
Publisher: Kyoto, Hongwanji Publishing, 2017

(Ed. Added link to illustrator’s website)

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

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