Book Spotlight: When Blossoms Fall – Masako Fukui

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

When Blossoms Fall is a novella chronicling the lives of kamikaze pilot Hajime, his wife, Michiko, and his daughter, Yuri, after they relocate to Australia in the postwar era.

What I liked:

  • I think this might be the first fiction piece I’ve read about 神風特別攻撃隊 – certainly the first I’ve read highlighting postwar memory and family experiences. I know very little about this era of Japanese history, but as far as introductions go, When Blossoms Fall definitely motivated me to read up. Several of the works by Japanese scholars on my TBR focus on wartime and postwar Japan, so I might give this novella a second read after I have a broader understanding of the historical context.
  • The alternating POVs – Hajime, Michiko, and Yuri – are integral to the overall shape and flow of the narrative. It seemed to me the differences in the three characters’ perspectives functioned partly to counter any external presumptions of a monolithic, fanatic Japanese nationalism during this period. To be sure, I’m a US-based Nikkei reader commenting on the fictionalized experiences of Australia-based Nikkeijin/Nihonjin, but I remember my white classmates yelling, “COMMA-CAUSE-E” when running into the opposing team’s zone during our P.E. sessions of Capture the Flag.* I had to ask my white friend what she was yelling because it was unintelligible by Japanese pronunciation standards. These incidents no doubt stemmed from the negligent coverage of Japanese wartime experiences in our textbooks, which for many of my white classmates were likely their only exposure to non-US/European aspects of the war. All that to say, I’m so glad Fukui’s novella complicates this portrait of Japanese people during/after the war.
  • FUKUI IS A BILINGUAL NIKKEI WRITER!! (Yes, I’ll probably react this way for every bilingual Nikkei writer whose work I feature on here.) I’ve stated in other places on this blog, as well as on Twitter, why I think Nihonjin/Nikkeijin need to retain ownership over our stories, and I deeply appreciate Fukui telling this story. It means so much to see a bilingual Nikkei writer depicting bilingual Nikkei experiences.**
  • In dialogue with my previous point, the macro- and microaggressions (and experiences of assimilation) are spot-on. Hajime’s transformation into “Jim” thanks to Don, Ally’s white-lensed portrayal of Japanese culture being prioritized over Yuri’s #ownvoices perspective – I’ve experienced variations of both of these and reading these scenes I thought, YES THIS IS IT SHE GETS IT.
  • Fukui also doesn’t gloss over Yuri’s difficulty fitting into school when the family returns to Japan for the first time since moving to Australia. I always love to see Nikkei writers tackling the ever-present question, “what does it mean to be Japanese?” with regard to our experiences.
  • Manga, Japanese feminism, and memory – three topics which particularly interest me – play significant roles in the story. I haven’t done much nonfiction reading on any of them, though, so it was also a good reminder to revisit my TBR. One of my favorite aspects of the story is how Fukui intertwines these topics – Yuri’s use of drawing as a way of reconstructing/recollecting/reshaping her memories and Tokugawa’s nationalistic war manga are a few notable examples.
  • There are two female narrators – Michiko and Yuri, compared to one male narrator, Hajime, but overall there are more male characters. I wonder if this is Fukui’s acknowledgment of the gender imbalances/prejudices of Japanese society. Interestingly, while Hajime’s POV shifts between second- and third-person throughout the story, Michiko’s and Yuri’s POVs remain in third-person until the very end, when Yuri’s POV shifts into first-person. Perhaps this is a nod to the changing generation – Hajime has passed and it is Yuri’s turn to be the “head” of the family – and makes me wonder if generation terminology is as important to Australia-based Nikkeijin as it sometimes is to US-based Nikkeijin. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard non-US-based Nikkeijin utilize terms like Issei, Nisei, Sansei, etc.
  • Michiko reminds me of many of the Japanese mothers I’ve met – those meticulously crafted dishes! I could see non-Japanese readers perceiving her as too compliant, too quiet, but it makes perfect sense in the context of Japanese maternal values. She also embodies the spirit of hardworking immigrant parents who sacrifice on behalf of their children, which I think many fellow Nikkeijin and other diaspora folks will find familiar. Fukui even makes a point of telling us, through Hajime’s eyes I believe, how Michiko cleaves to custom on the surface but grooms Yuri for a different path.
  • Hajime! I really liked Hajime (“Majime Hajime” lol). Fukui gives him many of the “quintessential” traits of Japanese men, which is interesting – and I imagine, deliberate – in light of his rather unusual relationship to the war. Even though he isn’t the most straightforward person, the straightforward narrative presentation of his personality and motives make him interesting rather than unlikeable. On a personal side note, I’ve also been reading several manga featuring 斎藤一 of 新選組 fame, so it was funny to read about such a different character with the same (given) name.
  • “When Blossoms Fall” is such a visual title. I’m a very visual reader (hence all the manga) and as I was reading, I was thinking about the ways in which I’ve seen falling blossoms utilized as a motif in Japanese media. Two examples that stood out were the song, 千本桜, and the parts in 風光る where connections are drawn between warriors and sakura. These comparisons, along with the role of sakura – and other flowers – in Japanese culture/nationalism, made me wonder just how many layers of symbolism Fukui intended when she chose the title. Flowers appear in various parts of the novella, too, but this isn’t really unusual in context and I’m not sure if they were integrated for symbolic effect or simply to help set the scene (or both). I’m also not entirely convinced the title isn’t drawn from a real-life inspiration, but I don’t have the background knowledge yet to confirm this.
  • It’s kind of mind-blowing to read a war-related Nikkei story where JA incarceration doesn’t play a role. Now I’m quite curious about the history of Nikkei communities in Australia – when did the first Japanese people arrive? How were they affected by the war?
  • I briefly addressed this point above, but Fukui humanizes her characters without letting the story become a literary apology for or rosy-hued portrait of Japanese imperialism. None of them are let off the hook – Fukui makes it clear they each proceed through life imperfectly – but she also makes clear they weren’t all Tokugawa Kens.*** I especially enjoy Fukui’s attention to the effects of generation on shaping perspectives of the war (very relevant for those of us familiar with JA incarceration) and her diverse representations of Nikkei experiences. It might be I’m spending too much time on Twitter lately, but I often feel discussions of the Asian diaspora, particularly Asian Americans, fall into “us versus them” models without accounting for nuances on both sides. In other words, even though we as Nikkeijin may share many experiences and in some cases histories, we aren’t monolithic – and the same goes for Nihonjin.

What I learned:

  • I think the other parts of this post make abundantly clear what I learned – which mostly consists of realizing how much I don’t know yet – so I won’t write anything else here.

Questions I had:

  • Before reading the novella, I knew there were pilots who never flew their missions, but I hadn’t thought much about what happened to them after the war. I wonder how many of them left Japan (whether because they were relocated for work, like Hajime, or for other reasons) and what their destinations were, apart from Australia. I wonder especially if any of them made it to the US, considering JA incarceration and anti-Japanese sentiment were fresh in the minds of the US population. Clearly, I have a lot of reading ahead of me!
  • I’m not sure what the rights situation is with this novella, but I would love to see it reissued one day in a standalone volume, a la Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti. If it does get reissued, it would be awesome to see some accompanying illustrations by a Japanese artist. There are many moments I feel could be beautifully captured in a spare, black-and-white sketch – or possibly quiet watercolors or 墨絵, especially the final scene and the part about Michiko’s persimmons.
  • Is Fukui planning to write another novella or a novel? I would love to see a novel about this topic, whether it expands on the existing novella or employs a whole new cast. Along similar lines, does Fukui plan to write a Japanese version of the novella? From the bio page on her website, it appears she has the linguistic qualifications to do so. It would be so interesting to see how the characters’ voices change when rendered in Japanese!
  • How did Fukui come to write this story? Did she have an intended audience in mind? I think my fellow Nikkeijin will find much to relate to in this work, but perhaps we weren’t the audience Fukui envisioned. I could also see it being of interest to Nihonjin, though I’m not sure how many would read it if there is no Japanese version.
  • Is the Tokugawa/Ms M controversy based on a true event? I couldn’t help but wonder about Fukui’s choice in naming Tokugawa, considering the logical historical association and the trajectory Tokugawa himself follows over the course of the story. Maybe I’ve been reading too many 幕末 and 新選組 manga!
  • What is the Australian Nikkei community like? I’ve met a few Australia-based Nikkeijin on Twitter, but none in real life. I wonder if there’s a novel or novella or short story out there, by an Australia-based Nikkei writer, about Australian Nikkei interactions with POC/indigenous communities in Australia. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve seen a US-based Nikkei writer center a work on interactions between US Nikkeijin and other POC/indigenous communities in the US (with the exception of scholarship on the connections between Asian American civil rights movements and Black civil rights movements, i.e. Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X)…but maybe I need to look harder…
  • This novella made me think about a lot of different things, but as I’m writing this super long post, I also wonder if all my assumptions about the text are off the mark. After all, I did read from a very specific and personal perspective, which is no doubt very different from the lens Fukui brought to bear when writing the novella. It would be interesting to hear how my reflections compare with Fukui’s thoughts, but I doubt she’ll ever read this!

Follow-up:

  • Reading this novella exposed so many knowledge gaps for me! I’m super motivated to add to my shelf of nonfiction books on Japan, though it’ll take some time (and money).
  • I’ll be keeping an eye out for Fukui’s future work!

There’s a lot more I could say about When Blossoms Fall and I’m sure my post has some glaring omissions which I’ll notice right after publishing it, but I’ll wrap up here for the sake of word count. I’d love to know if any Nikkei writers or scholars, particularly anyone specializing in wartime or postwar Japan (or Australia-based Nikkei), have looked at this novella – fellow Nikkeijin, if you come across anything, please let me know!

*I don’t suppose this sentence will make sense to anyone who grew up outside the US education system, and maybe not even to some of my fellow US-based Nikkeijin!

**Come to think of it, I’m not sure how Hajime, Michiko, and Yuri self-identify by the end of the story, since they do move back and forth between Japan and Australia. I don’t mean the label itself is particularly important, but I wonder if the characters themselves feel more affinity with Nihonjin or with Nikkeijin – or maybe both. A friend of mine who lived in Japan and Okinawa until high school recently told me he “now” identifies as Japanese American, making me wonder if Hajime, Michiko, and Yuri also experience shifting understandings of their selves over time.

***I know Fukui writes him into the text as Ken Tokugawa, but his nationalistic inclinations make him very much Tokugawa Ken in my mind. I wonder if any Nikkei writers have tackled the connections between Nikkei/Nihonjin status and name order – and code-switching, and…yup, that’ll have to be a separate post.

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Book Spotlight: Yuko-chan and the Daruma Doll – Sunny Seki

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Yuko-chan and the Daruma Doll follows the adventures of Yuko-chan, who saves her village from poverty by inventing handmade daruma dolls.

What I liked:

  • THIS BOOK IS BILINGUAL!!! Granted, I haven’t read many books by Nikkeijin yet, but of the books I’ve read or added to my TBR, this is the first bilingual work I’ve come across. As a kid, all the Japan-related books and media I consumed were in either Japanese or English. Although some of these works were created by bilingual Nikkeijin or Nihonjin, for whatever reason they were never actually produced as bilingual. Needless to say, the bilingual aspect is my favorite thing about this book!*
  • Sunny Seki is one talented guy. From what I can tell, he wrote and illustrated the entirety of Yuko-chan and the Daruma Doll himself. The illustrations aren’t as manga-esque as those in the Japanese children’s books I grew up with, but I definitely noticed some similarities. I especially enjoyed the calligraphic quality of Seki’s illustrations – for example, the image of daruma-san on the back cover contains visible brushstrokes. The Japanese version of the story also mirrors the language, tone, and flow of Japanese children’s books.

What I learned:

  • I’m familiar with daruma-san as we know him in everyday life, but this is my first time reading any kind of origin story about him. I wonder if Yuko-chan’s story is Seki’s invention entirely, or if it is a retelling of an existing origin story. How many versions of daruma-san’s origin story exist in Japan? I’d love to visit Takasaki/Gunma-ken one day and see for myself.

Questions I had:

  • Did Seki write both versions of the story himself? If so, did he have much difficulty deciding how each version should be written, knowing they would appear side-by-side on the page? Fellow bilingual Nikkei readers will note the two versions are not a “literal” translation of each other. Personally, I preferred the Japanese version – the characters feel more vivid and individualized than in the English version. (Also, was I the only Nikkei reader who thought the end of the story would be an excellent jumping-off point for a manga? The part of Yuko-chan’s story told in this book would probably also be a good manga, especially if it focused on daily village life and the experience of being a child adopted by a temple.)
  • Whom did Seki envision as the audience for this book? What are the demographics of the people who have actually read this book? Do the two match up?
  • Why is the cover not bilingual? My version of the book shows only the English title. Before purchasing the book, I read in the description that it was bilingual, but it is not immediately obvious just from looking at the cover. Did the publisher feel an English-only title was better for marketing? Did Seki himself have any input on the cover? How does he feel about it?
  • How do other Nikkei readers approach this book? In my case, I read each page in both languages before moving on to the next, rather than reading the entire story through in one language and then returning for a second pass in the other. My focus was on comparing both versions of the text, but it did make for a rather disjointed reading of the story as a whole. I’d love to hear how bilingual Nikkeijin/Nihonjin read the text, compared to Nikkeijin or Nihonjin who can read only one version.
  • Is Yuko-chan’s blindness part of some existing origin story about daruma-san, or something Seki added? As noted above, I don’t know how much, if any, of this story is Seki’s original idea versus a retelling. In Seki’s book, Yuko-chan’s blindness explains why daruma-san’s eyes aren’t painted in, which is something I’ve always wondered about. What would the people of Takasaki say if asked why daruma-san’s eyes aren’t painted in? Also, if we assume Yuko-chan’s blindness was part of an existing origin story, could Seki have found a way to execute his retelling without making her blindness the pivot point?
  • In the context of US discussions about disability representation in literature, I imagine some of my fellow Nikkeijin might read Yuko-chan’s story as a, “accomplished THIS in spite of [insert disability]” narrative. How have disabled Nikkeijin/Nihonjin responded to this story, especially any who self-identify as blind or visually impaired?
  • What inspired Seki to write this book? Does he self-identify as Nikkeijin or Nihonjin? I realize I’ve been assuming he is Nikkeijin because I first heard of him through Nikkei resources, but I may very well be wrong. If he is Nikkeijin, how do Nihonjin feel about his creation of this book? Do they even know it exists?** I especially wonder if any Takasaki residents know of this book. I imagine Seki visited Takasaki at least once while preparing to write the book – I wonder if he or they ever followed up once it was published?

Follow-up:

  • Yuko-chan’s story reminded me I have several nonfiction works about disability in Japan on my TBR. I’m not sure if any of them directly address being blind in Japan – I think they may focus on other disabilities – but I’ll keep Yuko-chan’s story in mind as I read them.
  • I don’t think I’ve come across a single Nikkei-written nonfiction work about the intersections of disability and being Nikkeijin in the US or other parts of the diaspora. I’ll review my TBR to be sure, but if you’re a fellow Nikkeijin/Nihonjin reading this and you have any suggestions, let me know!

*I’m using “bilingual” here to refer to Nikkeijin/Nihonjin who are bilingual in Japanese and English. There are of course Nikkeijin/Nihonjin who are bilingual in other combinations of languages, as well as Nikkeijin/Nihonjin who know more than two languages.

**A Nikkei author – Naomi Hirahara, I think (?) – once stated Nihonjin are not necessarily interested in work produced by Nikkeijin, specifically Japanese Americans, in the context of being asked if her books were translated into Japanese. I reflect on this every time I come across work by Nikkei writers that seems to engage, directly or indirectly, with themes pertinent to Nihonjin and/or Japan itself…but that’s a topic for another post.