Kambayashi Chohei

I am really behind on this one. I finished Yukikaze back in the spring, but got sidetracked by read-alongs, commitments of one sort or another, gender equality issues, and a touch of real life. There’s six months gone. Further, Yukikaze is one of the first titles published by Japanese pipeline Haikasoru, in 2010, but I didn’t get a copy until an Amazon gift certificate fell into my hands back in March. (No library copies here, which is somewhat inexplicable considering the two massive library systems I have access to, plus a private Japanese collection downtown.) This in turn is a translation of the 2002 revision of the 1984 book, Sento Yosei Yukikaze (戦闘妖精・雪風). It is probably just as well that the English version chopped off the first two words, “battle fairy,” and kept only the name of the aircraft in the title. To sum up, a six month late review of a three year old translation of a twenty year old book. Breaking news this is not.

Kambayashi is a well-regarded, multi-award winning author; Yukikaze is probably his most famous book. It won the Seiun Award for 1984, spawned a sequel (also available from Haikasoru, but as yet unread by either of the Two Dudes), and an anime adaptation. I would not be surprised to find manga, video game, or other spin-offs, but do not currently know of any. It is often ranked on annual lists of the best ever Japanese science fiction and I have seen it recommended several times as a place for Westerners to start with Japan’s non-animated SF.

It is difficult to dig too deeply into the plot here without spoiling much of the fun. The following, however, is clear at the outset: Aliens called “JAM” have invaded the Earth through a portal over Antarctica. The combined Terran military beat them back through the portal to a world called “Faery,” where the two sides are locked in a violent stalemate. JAM are being held at bay, but humanity is unable to push them any further. (I have no idea what JAM stands for, the Japanese is equally vague, and I am just assuming it means Jerkface Alien Menace.) Faery has enough messed up flora and fauna that ground troops are an impossibility; everything is fought in the air. Fukai Rei is attached to a special air force division whose sole responsibility is to record everything that happens in every battle and return the data to headquarters. His airplane is called Yukikaze.

Things unfold through sequential short stories, all but a couple told from Rei’s point of view. While each is a discreet event, and frequently not connected to the others in any obvious way, they should be read in order. Kambayashi is covertly sketching out an arc for three agents: Rei, Yukikaze, and JAM. It really wouldn’t do to say much beyond this, save that things don’t end up where one might expect. In fact, very little of the book follows expectations. Everything about Yukikaze screams Military SF, what with the alien invasions, semi-sentient fighting machines, and elite warriors, until one starts reading. Rei’s role demands a cold distance, a mindset that prevents insanity in a job that usually means watching passively as fellow soldiers die. Kambayashi mimics this in his writing, with a sterile, deadpan delivery.

I don’t totally know what to make of the book. If there is a Message buried in there somewhere, I missed it. I detected no gripping narrative either; there is action to be sure, but somehow it is not pulse-pounding. The conflict with JAM reminds me a bit of the Cold War, which had ramped up again when Kambayashi wrote Yukikaze. The war between two more or less equal forces, carried on far from the everyday view of squabbling humanity, has certain analogues to the proxy wars fought in otherwise inconsequential places like Angola or Nicaragua. There is no pacifist agenda here though, somewhat surprising for a Japanese book about war, just a dispassionate look at what might happen as increasingly sophisticated weapons fight each other. In fact, this has the feel of a scientific experiment about it, with all superfluous variables removed. Kambyashi might be testing his ideas of AI and humanity under pressure in an otherwise perfectly controlled environment.

I suspect that I am making Yukikaze sound less interesting than it actually is. The superficially dry prose conceals much more than I expected, driving a subtle but comprehensive evolution throughout the story. It is rather like listening to Minimalist classical music, wherein the observer starts in one place and, without realizing it, is deposited someplace completely different at the end. If there is anything “Japanese” about Kambayashi’s writing, it would be this restraint, though I am not so heavy-handed as to compare the book to a Zen garden or bonsai tree. (The Japanese have no more monopoly on restraint or subtlety than we Americans do to fatty food. Exhibit A: Morning Musume.) It’s a fascinating trip though, with details, unexpected turns, and subtle insights growing up organically from the story’s foundation.

One has to take Yukikaze on its own terms, but I give the book a strong recommendation. It is another essential part of the Japanese SF canon, so there’s that. It’s also a unique creation, something that I can’t easily draw comparisons to. The closest tale that comes to mind is The Sky Crawlers, also an oddly disconnected look at Japanese air forces. Either of the above are reason enough to give it a shot, together they make a compelling case for universal consumption. I am eager to see what others thing about it.

Rating: Claudio Ranieri, a stoic, restrained manager who found great success with Juventus. (No relation between Italian match fixing and Kambayashi Chohei though.)


1Q84: Book Three

1Q84: Book Three
Murakami Haruki

At long last we are reaching the end of hefty tome. Real life has conspired to keep me away from the word processor for a bit, but even more than that, trying to comprehend the final third of 1Q84 has been most taxing. This is not the place to start this series of reviews, obviously, and while there will be no explicit spoilers, it’s probably better to have read the book before reading this post. Or, at the very least, I recommend reading all the other posts first, including kamo’s take on Book Three.

Much of the difficulty in parsing the last section is a result of a sudden and complete change in narrative. Book One sets the table with the usual assortment of Murakamian wackiness, while Book Two brings in a flambe that sets off multiple explosions. Book Three? Well, people sit in rooms and think. I suppose I could compare it to cigars and scotch in the drawing room, if I really want to stretch this already tenuous metaphor. Almost everything that’s going to happen happens in Book Two. Book Three is more like the extended coda of a Scooby-Do episode, explaining how those meddling kids figured it all out. In some ways, this was disappointing. Things were hurtling along in Book Two in an almost pure elixir of Murakami-ness that threatened at every turn to melt my brain. Then, suddenly, everything stopped. People sit around, looking at the moon and reading Proust. Tengo visits the cat town. Ushikawa reveals secrets in the most demeaning ways possible. The book ends.

Letting that sit for a moment, we will instead examine more prosaic matters. The biggest change in Book Three is Ushikawa’s voice. He is a bit part early on, one of those throw away messengers that occasionally pops up in Murakami’s worlds. In Book Three however, he assumes equal narrative importance with Tengo and Aomame. In some ways, Ushikawa is the reader, or a certain kind of reader. I have wondered about his existence, his ugliness, and his fate, and it occurs to me that Ushikawa may be Murakami’s warning to that type that looks for answers, for finality, for the underlying structure and logic of reality. (In other words, Hard SF readers. Doh.) These are the readers and critics who are probably hardest on Murakami, aside from maybe Japanese nationalists, and I wonder if he isn’t saying, “Hey, this dude spends his whole time poking around and figuring things out. He’s ugly, the truth he reveals is ugly, most of these things are better left unknown, and none of it is going to end well.” Almost without exception, the facts that Ushikawa uncovers are things I would have preferred not to know, as though Murakami wants us to appreciate that lingering mystery is often better than knowing. Keep Schrodinger’s Cat in his box, or we’ll all just end up disappointed.

And yet, the whole point of Book Three is to resolve questions. It ends as it must, not completely pat because this is Murakami, but without the usual partings and ambiguity that mark his other work. The resolution doesn’t confine itself to the last chapter, but runs in various ways throughout the book as bits and pieces of the story settle themselves and drift off-stage. As much as anything settles itself in a Murakami book at least. Again, I have no proof of this, but I visualize him wanting to leave things at the end of Book Two (which, apparently, he did in one early draft or another), but deciding that maybe this time he’ll toss a bone to his readers. Whether this was a challenge to himself to see what happens, a response to fans and critics, a perceived narrative necessity inherent in Tengo and Aomame’s story, or something completely different is beyond my comprehension, but I came away from 1Q84 with more answers than any other of his books.

This is not to say that questions don’t remain. I still can’t tell who is driving this train; there is no convincing proof (to my mind) that it isn’t all Tengo’s creation, while kamo speculates that Tamaru is actually the final voice of authority. My gut feeling is that the story is authentic, rather than Tengo’s wish fulfillment, but there are pervasive references to higher powers, shadowy control figures, and the like, to say nothing of Fuka-Eri, who is certainly a Vergence in the Force. (With prominent boobs. Top that, Lucas.) I’m getting myself all wound up again and full of questions. It probably goes without saying that the whole Little People thing remains very vague.

A particular point of interest is Sakigake. I’m surprised that it took this long for Aum Shinrikyo to finally rear its ugly head, but here it is. Granted, Sakigake is very different from the group that sarin gassed the Tokyo subways, but Murakami’s treatment of the fictional cult is heavily colored by his extensive writing on the real one. (As it should, considering the mountainous research he did before producing Underground.) What really interests me is the connection between Sakigake and the 1960s student protests, another of Murakami’s touchstones. The author has known sympathies with the protesters, though his disgust with their ideological intolerance is also on frequent display. This time, he draws a teleological line from the protests to a cult modeled loosely on an apocalyptic group from the 1990s. What does this mean? I have no idea. Just to muddy things further, the protests were in large part anti-American, or at least anti-security relationship with America, but the author himself professes to feeling more at home in the US than in Japan.

In the end, what do I make of it all? The book is sprawling and complicated, my relationship with it mirrors that fact. The last third dims my enthusiasm somewhat, and yet I read without any slackening of pace or urgency. Murakami’s treatment of women, especially the young ladies, is disturbing, but I cannot say whether he is manipulating and implicating the reader, or if he just sees himself as a guy who tells it like it is, admitting to things most people try to hide. Questions and loose threads abound, leaving him open to accusations of laziness and imprecision. On the other hand, Ushikawa and his secrets are a compelling defense of mystery. For 600 pages, this was my favorite Murakami book ever, but after 900 I find myself returning to past works. I am left with the lurking feeling that a reread would change my perspective completely.

I will give the book credit for two things, then wrap up. First, I have started listening to Janacek. I knew the name, but couldn’t hum anything he’s done. I can now. Second, this has really wound me up for a reread of Kafka on the Shore. That may happen sooner rather than later. For now though, 1Q84 continues to bubble away in my brain. Maybe more answers will float to the surface in coming weeks.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Tsutsui Yasutaka

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was not what I expected. Somewhere I read that this is a tale of a girl who suddenly acquires the power to time travel and, eventually, learns Important Life Lessons. My wife told me that she vaguely remembers seeing an adaptation of this and thinking it has surprising lesbian overtones. In both cases, the first is more or less correct. The main character, Kazuko, does indeed travel through time, and this particular story has been adapted numerous times. The second half of both statements is wildly off-base, though not unreasonable. Girl was written for the YA audience, itself a frequent target of Important Life Lessons. As for the lesbian bit, well, this is Tsutsui, so I would believe just about anything.

In fact, Girl is not by itself a novel. It is a novella that anchors a collection by the same name that includes two other short stories. (Or novelletes, or possibly novellas. I’m not really sure.) The book is available in English, but I only have a Japanese copy, so that is what I read. It was a nice change of pace from some other stuff I have read; apparently YA is my comfort level in terms of kanji. (To give a comparison, I peaked at about 50 pages per day with Girl, almost double the speed of my last book.) Because I read this in Japanese, I am thankfully free of any obligation to critique Tsutsui’s writing. I feel happy to get through without too many dictionary forays, let alone digging into issues of style. I will say that the language often seemed stiff, but that may be because it is 1960s Japanese, or may be because Tokyo dialect always sounds stilted to my Kansai ears.

Girl is only nominally SF. Mostly it is about junior high school, which seems to be a major part of the charm. Both of the other stories also center on adolescents, with the second more of a light horror and only the third betraying Tsutsui’s usual black humor. He gets a lot of mileage from the nostalgia; it got to me a bit, even though my only connection to Japanese cultural memory is whatever I absorbed while living there in my 20s. The stories are nice enough. Girl takes a sudden turn towards the end that I didn’t see coming, then again in the final pages; it was oddly touching, but also somewhat disconcerting. I am curious to see how the movie adaptations handle things. There were no lesbians.

I wouldn’t call this an essential read. Much of Girl‘s popularity hinges on gauzy memories of 1960s junior high school experiences, which the Western reader isn’t going to share. It’s a nice story, certainly nothing I would warn anyone away from, but not a genre touchstone. On the other hand, it is a great place to start reading Japanese SF in Japanese, with a vocabulary and character set aimed at the YA crowd, but an adult intelligence. This is definitely something I’m going to give to my kids when they are a bit older.

Rating: The New Year’s high school soccer tournament. Perfect for reliving youthful memories, if not the most polished gem available.

1Q84: Book Two

1Q84: Book Two
Murakami Haruki

There are certain challenges to being a Murakami Haruki fan. In my case, there are select things in this life that have a mainline to my brain, like chocolate or Michael Brecker CDs. Murakami’s books are on this list; for whatever reason, they bypass most of the logical bits of my consciousness and plug straight into something more primitive. I’ve always been hooked on his stories and probably always will be, with a complete and shameless lack of objectivity. As such, I feel compelled to either defend Murakami against The Literary Establishment or assure everyone that I’m not one of those Murakami fans. Worse, my Inner Hipster wants to claim that I liked Murakami before he was big, but I’m not sure that’s completely true.

Unfortunately, I have no street cred with literary types, and the sorts of Japanese critics who raise a ruckus about him irritate me as well. (I love Japan, but there are reasons why I don’t live there now, besides back yard ownership.) So while I’m not the type of person who retraces Aomame’s footsteps through Tokyo and cooks all the dishes from Murakami’s books, my peculiar relationship with these stories makes it very difficult to distance myself for analytical purposes.

This brings us to Book Two of 1Q84. I said in part one that Murakami is showing absolute command of his writing. He uses the first third of the book to set everything up, introduce most of the major characters, weave in many of his usual themes, and have a little fun. When Book Two opens however, he opens up his twin suitcases of Darkness and Intensity. All of the groundwork laid in Book One starts to wind itself together, drawing together in a striking and powerful climax. The book ends with as many questions as it begins, but I had a difficult time pulling myself away from things. It’s hard to describe exactly what my reading experience was like, but there is a magnetic pull about Leader that affects not just the characters, but sympathetic readers as well. Everything that happens during the rainstorm called up by the Little People is pretty much seared into my brain, for better and for worse.

I don’t know if I can say that Book Two of 1Q84 is Murakami’s best work, but I think it is Murakami-ness in its purest, distilled form. Everything readers expect from him is there: weird alternate realities, mysterious women, cults and conspiracies, herbivore protagonists, awkward and uncomfortable sex, dark journeys of unclear purpose, the works, with nary an ounce of fat. I can’t think of another 300 pages of Murakami that so encapsulates his style. This is, of course, like quicksand to me. I don’t even try anymore and just give myself up to it. I came up for air when Book Two ended and staggered off, probably leaving a bit of my soul behind.

There’s a bit of higher level literature fun going on as well. Chekhov makes several appearances in ways that still make me question the baseline reality in the story. (Our narrators are not exactly reliable and the author is using all sorts of illusions and trapdoors in the book.) Tamura, who I enjoy a great deal, specifically name checks Chekhov’s gun, though I would like to propose a corollary to this called Murakami’s Chekhovian Boobs. In this case, much like the gun that must be fired, any time someone’s boobs are mentioned we can expect them to be uncovered and put to use later. (Sidenote: is it just me, or is the introduction of a gun to the narrative much more chilling in Japan? I think an American would have assumed that everyone is packing heat, but in Japan, even a small handgun feels deeply sinister.) Murakami also carries on an occasional dialog about writing and criticism. Sometimes it feels like he is speaking to his critics, but others he seems to undercut everything going on before. It’s an entertaining sideshow.

Do I really need to get into Fuka-Eri? I don’t know if I want to. I really can’t tell if her chest is Murakami’s id running wild or a devious way to implicate a certain percentage of his readership. She’s either hypnotic or off-putting, and I don’t know what that says about me or anyone else. Maybe best to just let this one go. (As a character, I like her. I think everybody does. Her role in the story though is … uncomfortable.)

One of the most interesting questions in Book Two (not answered in Book Three, by the way) is: Who is the agent of creation here? There are, if not hints, then at least vague suggestions that Tengo is the one creating the world of 1Q84. Fuka-Eri starts the story, but Tengo fleshes it out and bring it to life. The second moon, for example, is mentioned in the original Air Chrysalis, but it is Tengo that describes it in detail. Of course, the second moon that Aomame sees is exactly as Tengo creates it in Air Chrysalis. There are other bits and pieces, including Chekhov and the protagonists’ shared background, that subtly imply connections. I don’t think this is the case, but I can’t shake a lingering suspicion that Tengo is writing the whole thing as a way to create his own happy end. That, or it’s just a really whacked out love story where a vengeful assassin and a cram school teacher bond over the destruction of a supernatural cult.

And that brings us to the end of Book Two. I have read that Murakami initially planned to end it there, which would have been utterly typical of him, but decided to press on. This is best addressed in part three however, so let’s talk more then.

1Q84: Book One

1Q84: Book One
Murakami Haruki

Read along partner this is how she fight start describes our current joint project as “briefly awaited and barely anticipated.” That’s probably about right, though I have it on good authority that at least two others are reading, or at least trying to read, along with us. Whether this will result in a flurry of intelligent and witty blog banter remains to be seen. (I advise the gentle reader not to hold his or her breath.) For now, I recommend reading kamo’s first post (linked above), as it sets the stage nicely for what will follow. My own musings are going to follow mostly off of his initial talking points, with some additions as I am further along now than he was then. Though at time of writing I am approaching halfway through, I will also mirror the three volume breakdown of the original Japanese. Note: this post is wholly spoiler free. That may not continue in others, so I will report accordingly in the introduction.

One mundane bit before diving into literary hoo-haw: I have the Knopf hardback edition of 1Q84, a Christmas present from my dad a couple years back. It is one of the most beautiful books I own, with the tissue-like dust jacket, the covers, the mirror-image page numbers, etc. I am most impressed with it. At the same time, I mostly own paperbacks for a reason: Price and weight. Well, two reasons: Price, weight, and storage considerations. Er, among the reasons I have paperbacks are price, weight, storage considerations, and that tacky living-in-mom’s-basement look that comes from a wall of creased and cheap SF editions. At the moment, weight is the big concern. This tome is way too heavy to be taking on buses. I am probably risking nerve damage in my wrists, but such is the price we pay.

On to literature. In many ways, magical realism is the hardest genre to come to terms with for grizzled Hard SF veterans. The author is allowed to drop in whatever surreal weirdness fits the mood, but is under no obligation to provide rigorous underpinnings for any of it. This can be frustrating for a reader trained to expect explanation and logic for whatever handwavium may appear; it is a running battle I face with this sort of story. 1Q84 is arguably the most science fictional book Murakami has written however, with at least a modicum of cause and effect in place. There are reasons why Aomame and Tengo find themselves in the reality that they do and mechanisms that get them there. It’s not Hal Clement, but I find myself more satisfied with the narrative progression than I have in the past.

In fact, I have been impressed with the control Murakami has over this book. I have pretty much loved all of his novels, but admit that there are long stretches where imagination and momentum bridge the gaps between comprehension. I won’t even pretend to understand everything that happens in these books, often closing them at the end and wondering what just happened. (In an interview I cannot now find, Murakami recommends serious rereading and says that, even as the author, he turns up new connections each time he reads his texts for editing. I have yet to try this.) 1Q84 is a bit different. Whether he knows he has the page count to be specific, is making a conscious effort to be more transparent, has honed his skill enough to know exactly how much to say, or is just letting things flow this way, I get the overwhelming feeling that each word, each thought, and each plot point is exactly the way he wants it.

How many times to we read a book and see the seams where the author knows he has to get from Point A to Point B, but doesn’t quite know how? How many endings do we read where the author scrambles to put things together or to escape a self-inflicted jam? How often do we let flair and exuberance cover a plot that is slightly out of control? I’m not trying to be a jerk here – as a musician I freely admit to finessing my way through tight spots and BS’ing tipsy crowds. It happens. But so far in 1Q84, it hasn’t happened. I don’t know why characters speak and act the way they do yet, but Murakami exudes the confidence that everything has a purpose. Yes, even the drunken buggery.

It’s a good thing too, because 1Q84 is an unending parade of bait and switches. It is, for example, supposed to be a love story. Well, that’s easy, one might say, these two characters are obviously going to be it. Wait, now this other person has been introduced and there’s some tension, it must be them! No, well, now it seems the tables have turned. This is the sort of internal dialogue going on through the entire book so far. By the end of Book One, I can already see several paths that things could take, all of them logical, but none more likely than the others. My perceptions of Aomame got flipped on their heads three or four times in the first fifty pages, then again several times after that. Murakami is clearly winding things up, but I can’t tell if they will continue to their logical conclusion, or if he will spin them off in a whole new direction.

This has been a bit vague. Book One largely just sets the stage though, with most of the really crazy stuff dropping in Book Two. Thus, like the novel itself, my reactions are largely laying the groundwork for more detailed posts to come. There will be plenty to elaborate on soon. (Also plenty to spoil, which is another reason I’m not being too detailed right now.) Stay tuned for more.

1Q84 Read-Along Starter

Read-Along Starter

It is sometime in the fall of 1998 and I am standing in the M aisle of the fiction wing of the Idaho Falls Public Library. I am recently back from an uninterrupted two-year stint in Northern Japan, my first taste of life outside the I-15 Mormon Corridor. I have missed the start date for fall semester at Utah State, virtually no friends remain in college-less Idaho Falls, and I am brutally homesick for the city of Sendai. This being Eastern Idaho, there are of course no Japanese people to talk to, very limited (and low quality) Japanese food available, and a rental video selection consisting almost entirely of The Seven Samurai and some pornographic anime. The manga/anime boom that kicks off with Dragonball and Pokemon is a couple years away.

Even worse, the internet in 1998 is mostly blinking text and slow-loading jpegs of supermodels. I have yet to learn about chat clients and language input modules. Streaming video is not even a twinkle in someone’s eye; most of us are still on dial-up anyway. My only connections to Japan in these dark, boring days are infrequent emails and letters, some now embarrassing J-Pop CDs that I brought back with me, and whatever books I can rustle out of the library. Unfortunately for me, any knowledge I have of Japanese literature basically starts and stops with James Clavell’s Shogun, which I read within a few weeks of coming home. If there are resources and recommendations online, I haven’t found them.

So there I am in the M’s, because I vaguely remember from somewhere that Murasaki Shikibu wrote something called The Tale of Genji, which seems as good a place as any to start. Instead, I see the name Murakami attached to several books. One, A Wild Sheep Chase, has the sort of name that appeals to me, so I take it home. A day or two later I come up for air, with my brain still sizzling like bacon in a frying pan. Between that day and the beginning of winter semester, I read every Murakami Haruki book in the library.

Over the next few years, I keep up with his new books, build up better Japan networks, and eventually make it back a couple of times. It isn’t long before the pipeline connecting me and Japan is a superhighway rather than a single thread, but I keep reading. I even start buying Japanese copies of the novels. Once I find myself with a string of Japanese girlfriends, I introduce each of them to Murakami’s books. Without exception they are hooked. (This includes my wife, who has long since passed me in total Murakami consumption.) Because I am young and foolish, I project myself into the stories and identify with his often unnamed narrator. For reasons that may be similar, my girlfriends also project me into the books, though never the same ones as me or each other. (Between us, we account for five or six, though memories are hazy of who said what.)

* * * * * *

I bring this up here, at the start of my 1Q84 read, not just because I enjoy talking about myself, but to give some background for what will likely be an obsequious and fanboy-ish post. (Or posts. Not sure yet.) I’m sure I would have enjoyed Murakami’s books whenever I first discovered them, but the combination of his writing, my tastes, Japan, and a particularly impressionable time in my life created a potent literary addiction. Even now, an older, more stable, and more cynical me feels a slight thrill of anticipation knowing that I will start into a new novel tomorrow. I still remember reading Kafka On the Shore and being unable to disengage from that world, despite the demands of work and family.

Now, looking at the 900+ pages waiting for me, there is a whiff of trepidation in the air. This is a big book during a busy time, and I have a history of sinking further into Murakami than is wise. I hope to churn out a couple of backlogged posts in the next week, as well as dealing with the usual family and music duties while I read. We shall see. For now, if I eventually dribble off into the rantings of a half-mad sycophant, please understand the history I have with this author. He was a lifeline in bleak times, so I feel no shame for my craven discipleship.

3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan

[Ed. note: Today’s post has nothing whatsoever to do with Two Dudes’ avowed SFF mission. However, after attending a presentation and book signing by Japan expert Richard Samuels on the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and then after tearing through his new book about it, I couldn’t restrain myself from writing a lengthy reaction. I have personal stakes in both the disaster and its aftermath, so this remains an emotional issue. I don’t have any other outlet at the moment for this, so for now it goes here, inappropriate or not. To readers not interested, I recommend skipping this long article. There will be no science fiction today.]

3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan
Richard J. Samuels

On the morning of March 11, 2011 (Pacific Standard Time), I arrived at the office, logged onto my computer, and absently opened Firefox in a side window while I brought up the day’s work. Then I realized what had happened in Japan and ignored that work for the rest of the day, instead staring in increasing horror at the news playing out on my monitor. I watched the earthquake and tsunami, and later the nuclear meltdown, bring not just my second home to its knees, but the region I refer to as “my Japanese hometown.” (I will spare the personal details, except to say that at least one former residence was assuredly washed away.) Some weeks later, I wondered publicly if this would be my generation’s Black Ships, the event that would finally shake Japan out of its inexorable decline and galvanize the populace to face boldly their problems, as Commodore Perry’s arrival and the end of the Pacific War had done before. I was not the only one.

Richard Samuels is one of the foremost Japan experts of his generation, widely respected and hugely influential in the Asian Studies community. By his own account, he shelved a long running project in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, arranged a sabbatical to Japan, and commenced his year of research there fully expecting to document the profound change that must inevitably follow a catastrophe of this magnitude. 3.11 is his account of what is actually happening in Japan, detailing the political change, or lack of it, as the Japanese struggle to make sense of the tragedy and define a narrative that both explains the paths leading to the disaster and a way forward. It is not, to me, a hopeful tale, but does contain a few bright possibilities.

Samuels focuses on the three political arenas most affected by the quake: the status of the Self Defense Force (SDF; Japan’s euphemistically named military), energy policy, and the relationship between federal and local governments. The first two were my bread and butter in grad school; the last I hadn’t thought much about. Each of these areas had advocates forming three camps; Samuels labels them “put it in gear,” “stay the course,” and “return to the past.” (In common terms, these are progressive, conservative, and reactionary, respectively.) Undergirding these are three major tropes of Japanese self-image: Leadership (or the lack thereof), Vulnerability (“Japan is a small island nation poor in natural resources yada yada yada”), and Community. If this seems like it could get confusing in a hurry, rest easy. Samuels’ organization and narrative keep everything clear from start to finish.

To illustrate, let’s look at how two people fit into this bracket. First, me. The SDF is one of the few institutions that left Tohoku almost universally praised. Their bravery and reliability in helping the disaster victims were above reproach; I am happy to see the Japanese finally accept that they have a military that can be something other than power-crazed xenophobes. This does not mean that I support further expansion, a move towards more aggressive policies abroad, or any such saber rattling, but I do think that the Japanese can put their troops to good use in peace keeping and relief operations. This puts me firmly in the “stay the course” camp, not advocating any particular change in policy.

Energy is even more complex. I grew up near the world’s first nuclear power plant, so I am pretty sanguine about that sort of thing. I realize that Japan’s industrial might, and thus its economic well-being, is based primarily on nuclear power, with the only reasonable alternative to import and burn more fossil fuels. On the other hand, regulatory failure and corporate malfeasance are as much to blame for the Fukushima meltdown as natural causes; the subsequent disintegration of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) was both deserved and gratifying. Clearly, Japan needs to fire up its renewable energy efforts by resurrecting policies that self-serving corporate interests have stymied. This puts me just barely into the “put it in gear” crowd, favoring as I do the progressive approach to energy, even as I am comfortable with the reality of nuclear power.

Finally, local governance. I don’t really have a horse in this race, beyond a vague loyalty to the Kansai area in opposition to whatever stupidity Tokyo might be exporting at the time. I’m not much of a States’ Rights advocate, but neither do I deny the relevance of the locals. Toss me into “stay the course” again, since I don’t really know what else to do. (Note that my ambivalence here is not universal. Samuels introduces many people who care very deeply about this, and who have very good ideas. There is a rousing debate about this subject going on, I’ve just never been a part of it.)

For contrast, I will cite my wife. She is in many ways very typical of a large segment of Japan. My wife has no use for violence, weapons, the military, power projection, American bases, the works. The SDF might have been valiant in disaster relief; if so, she might say, let’s turn them into engineers and farmers and send them out to help that way. Article Nine of the Constitution (the part that outlaws war) is basically holy writ and should be held inviolate. These opinions are a text book “return to the past” viewpoint, one that advocates returning the SDF to its pre-Nakasone and/or Koizumi state. The Tohoku disaster is a clear illustration of what the military should be used for, not a case for more cruise missiles and Aegis destroyers.

Nuclear power fares similarly. My wife was galvanized by the anti-nuclear protests and wants to see the whole program shut down. When I explained that Japan can’t power itself any other way, she responded that maybe it’s time for Japan power itself down. To her, if Japan must import power or rely on obviously dangerous technology, maybe the Japanese need to find a quieter lifestyle that can be sustained purely by native resources. Again, “return to the past.”

Her opinions about local governance are about as strong as my own, but the idea that the communities have gotten too big, too spread out, and have lost that Special Something that binds a neighborhood together seems to hold a certain allure. I’m not sure that she goes far enough to join the “return to the past” crowd, but she’s certainly not on the front lines of change.

The genius of 3.11 is the way Samuels maps this grid over a vast array of actors, through politics, business, the non-profit sector, the media, and everyday people. Veteran Japan observers will have no trouble keeping up, but newcomers will also be fine if they trust in Samuels’ narration. The Japanese political continuum is baffling if one comes at it from a US left-right perspective (the two might as well be mutually incomprehensible), thus the necessity of the three tropes of Leadership, Vulnerability, and Community to act as guideposts along the way.

The very heart of the book is also clearly illustrated by the examples here. My position on each issue is almost exactly what it was before the earthquake. My wife’s is too. In fact, Samuels finds only one person in the entire book, Prime Minister Kan, who changes his mind on anything. Certain voices have been amplified and certainly some positions have evolved, but by and large, everyone in Japan is precisely where they were before any waves crashed down on Tohoku. In the end, when all of the power vectors are added, subtracted, and averaged out, Samuels finds that Japan is firmly in the “stay the course” camp for each issue. To many of us hoping for so much more, it is a discouraging conclusion, but after reading cover to cover, I don’t see how it could be any other way.

In spite of all, Samuels is consistently upbeat. (This holds true for his other writing as well.) Where I see a country utterly bereft of leadership, an educational system incapable of producing bold thinkers, and an electorate too self-absorbed and apathetic to take action, Samuels sees incremental change and gradual progress. I wish I could share his optimism, but we may yet both be right. The Tohoku disaster nudged public opinion and catalyzed some action, but its greatest effects appear to be in those topics Samuels covers. The biggest problems facing Japan, a looming demographic implosion and the social institutions exacerbating it, will only be changed by a grassroots-based tidal wave of opinion, not an actual tidal wave. It is my own fault that I got carried away in my initial exuberance for progress.

3.11 is not a theoretical or conclusive work. It is not here to put forth analytical frameworks or give authoritative answers. (Too soon for both, though for different reasons.) I consider it an essential book in 2013 however, because I doubt there is any other English source that even approaches the stupendous amount of research and information that Samuels marshals. For the time being, it is the definitive account of post-quake Japan; any book challenging for 3.11‘s crown in the near future will be hard-pressed to survive even the first round. It is a must read for anyone even remotely interested in Japan.