Book Spotlight: Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen – Debbi Michiko Florence

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen is the first in an early-reader series featuring eight-year-old Jasmine Toguchi, a Japanese American girl who wants nothing more than to participate in her family’s annual mochitsuki.

What I liked:

  • I think early-reader-me really could have used this book. Although I saw many depictions of mochitsuki and other Japanese holiday customs in media from Japan, the only English-language depiction of mochitsuki I remember finding in fiction is a scene from Lensey Namioka’s Village of the Vampire Cat. Now that Jasmine Toguchi is out on shelves, I hope aspiring young JA/Nikkei writers won’t hesitate to share their own mochitsuki stories.
  • What would younger-me have made of Florence’s depiction of mochitsuki? As I’ve stated elsewhere on this blog, JA/Nikkei communities are not monolithic, with Bay Area versus LA/SoCal communities being no exception. I don’t know if the differences I noted between my experiences and Jasmine’s are more reflective of regional community differences, or of differences between Florence’s and my experiences. For instance, the Toguchi family holds their mochitsuki almost entirely outdoors. At the one mochi-pounding mochitsuki I attended, at a Bay Area Buddhist temple, the pounding took place outside, but then the mochi was carried indoors where women and children waited in the temple kitchen. My family uses a mochi machine, so our mochitsuki is always indoors. In the same vein, I wonder if the difference in mochi-making technique explains why the Toguchi family doesn’t have an Oshogatsu spread laid out during mochitsuki itself. My mom always prepares oden, some osechi ryori, and, of course, various snacks with tea, which are out on the table for anyone to eat at any point during mochitsuki. The TV is usually on in the background, sometimes tuned to the NHK special. That said, once the mochigome is in the machine, there’s time to sit around and eat, whereas manually pounding the mochi doesn’t allow for as many breaks. I would be interested in knowing how closely the Toguchi mochitsuki parallels Florence’s own experiences, and if Florence’s family refrained from putting out food until after the main event. Food has always been an integral part of my mochitsuki experiences, so it’s interesting to think this may not be the case for all JA/Nikkei who host mochitsuki!
  • The sisterly bond between Sophie and Jasmine is so cute! (Side note: did any of my fellow Japanese-speaking JA/Nikkei keep reading Sophie’s name the way Howl pronounces it in Miyazaki’s film? I couldn’t seem to break myself of the habit and it was kind of distracting for the first few chapters.) To be honest, I was paying less attention to the progression of events and more to how Florence depicted various aspects of mochitsuki and Oshogatsu, so I was pretty surprised when Sophie defended Jasmine and later followed her to the tree. I enjoy reading nuanced sibling relationships and I’m looking forward to following Sophie and Jasmine’s adventures in the rest of the series. If I’d read Jasmine Toguchi as a kid, I wonder if the Sophie/Jasmine relationship would have caused me to reflect more deeply on my relationship with my sister. I’m the older sister, so I’m not sure I’d have found much to relate to in Jasmine’s character – I’m not particularly willful or adventurous, and I never felt any desire to question gender roles in Japanese culture. Still, I wonder if reading the final scenes with Sophie would have motivated me to be nicer to my sister!
  • I am really curious about Florence’s word choices when describing mochi, particularly when words such as “gooey” or “chewy” are used. Perhaps this is a result of growing up bilingual, but there were (and are) certain English words which I simply don’t use to describe Japanese foods. “Gooey” and “chewy” would definitely be on the list – to me, those are words for rice krispy treats, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, or fruit roll-ups. I’m not sure what role Japanese played in Florence’s childhood experiences, but I’m always interested in how fellow JA/Nikkei writers make linguistic choices in their work. I also see a potential tie-in to my ongoing interest in the relationship between language and generation/proximity to Japan in JA/Nikkei communities.
  • Even though we don’t see much of her, I really liked Obaachan’s character. I also appreciate Florence using the spelling “Obaachan” because I’ve definitely seen people spell it “Obachan,” which of course means something completely different in Japanese, unless you emphasize the long “a” sound. And the presents! 懐かしい right there. I wonder about Obaachan’s backstory. Although her English is fragmented, she speaks much more confidently than those of my Nihonjin relatives who never formally studied English, so I wonder if she had occasion to use it in her past. I was also somewhat surprised she didn’t prepare any osechi ryori for the family; nor was there any mention of her having done so in the past. My Nihonjin relatives never visited us specifically for holidays, so I’m not sure what other Oshogatsu visitors tend to do, but I’m surprised she didn’t bring any cooking traditions with her. Beef teriyaki and sushi are both briefly mentioned – maybe she contributes to those?

What I learned:

  • Reading Jasmine Toguchi has definitely made me think about what kinds of mirrors are important to JA/Nikkei readers of different generations. Although I didn’t find too many parallels to my own experiences in this book, I think it’s certainly a valuable read for JA/Nikkei kids whose experiences are similar to Jasmine’s. I also think it’s an important read in terms of diversifying the perspectives of JA/Nikkei who don’t necessarily relate to Jasmine’s experiences. Jasmine Toguchi is a refreshing, lighthearted, and contemporary addition to the shelves of anyone building a JA/Nikkei library.

Questions I had:

  • Did any Japanese/Asian illustrators submit portfolios to work on this series? The illustrations were cute, and I’m not blaming Florence at all (I don’t know what kind of input she had about choosing an illustrator), but honestly, without context, I would not have known Jasmine was Japanese by looking at her, and I’m not sure I would have guessed she was even Asian. I realize this next part is a sensitive topic for many, including probably some members of my own community, but personally, I am not a fan of “Asian” characters drawn by artists who don’t seem to know how to draw non-white-looking Asians.* I remember how jarring it was when I first saw the cover for this book. I couldn’t believe the girl was supposed to be Japanese, unless she was mixed-race. From the information we’re given in this first book, I don’t think Jasmine is mixed-race; her dad appears to be Japanese, even though this hasn’t been explicitly stated yet, and her last name is Japanese. Speaking of her dad, I really felt the illustration where he is sitting at the table for spaghetti dinner was offensive in its resemblance to stereotypical images which have been weaponized against Asians in the past. His slanted eyes and somewhat wavy-looking hands reminded me instantly of the dancing mushrooms in Fantasia. I have to wonder what sort of reference images the illustrator used. Again, this is a statement of my personal opinion, not a critique of Florence, and if she is happy with the illustrations, I have no problem with that.
  • The final illustration, while visually somewhat reflective of Oshogatsu traditions, felt misleading when juxtaposed with the text. In the last scene, Jasmine is preparing to eat her cinnamon-and-sugar-covered mochi, but the illustration seems to show kagamimochi, which is more symbolic than edible in my experience, and kadomatsu, which isn’t actually mentioned in the text. Maybe in Florence’s family, they do eat kagamimochi? I don’t know any JA/Nikkei who put together their own – it’s pretty easy to buy at the store. I wish the text and illustration were a better match because I’m concerned this particular juxtaposition will confuse non-Japanese readers who aren’t familiar with Oshogatsu traditions.
  • I wonder why Florence chose to portray mochi almost exclusively as a “dessert.” Mochi is not a dessert, at least not in my family or in any of my other experiences with it, either here or in Japan. Marketing to non-Asian kids, maybe? (I have to say, I’m glad mochi ice cream wasn’t referenced.) The microwave mochi recipe included at the end is technically a microwave daifuku recipe (coincidentally, my mom showed me a very similar recipe a few months ago; apparently, our cousin found it online and passed it along). I’m concerned people will assume mochi and daifuku are the same. Anko mochi, mochi with shoyu and sugar, kinako mochi – in my family, these are meals or snacks, but not really a dessert. Mochi is filling – in order for it to be a dessert, one would have to eat very little of the preceding meal, or be eating a very, very small mochi. I’m curious about how mochi functions in Florence’s family. Maybe they do actually treat it as a dessert?
  • Who is Florence’s intended audience? In particular, did she ever envision any readers in Japan? Personally, I think Jasmine Toguchi could be useful to Japanese kids learning to read in English. It’s written in a simpler style than most of the other JA/Nikkei children’s novels out there (such as the ones I’ve already posted about on this blog), and reminds me of the chapter books used by a girl I once tutored. From what I’ve seen, Nihonjin don’t know too much about everyday JA/Nikkei experiences, so Florence’s book could be a resource in multiple ways. This series could also be a point of connection for JA/Nikkei with young relatives in Japan. I’m thinking of sending the first book to some of my cousins’ kids, just to hear their thoughts.

Follow-up:

  • I have book two of the series, Jasmine Toguchi, Super Sleuth, sitting in my TBR, so I expect to have a post about it in the near(ish) future.

*If you don’t understand what I mean, check out the comics Kingsway West by Greg Pak, and certain issues of New Super-Man by Gene Luen Yang. Both of these comics feature (East) Asian characters who, to me at least, were at times not at all visually recognizable as Asian.

Advertisements

Book Spotlight: Nikkei Detective – Naomi Hirahara

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

In Nikkei Detective, private investigator Kevin Shirota races against the clock to solve a murder so he can save his kidnapped daughter.

What I liked:

  • Kevin and Maddy’s up-and-down relationship is sensitively and heartwarmingly centered without coming across as unrealistic. If Nikkei Detective was ever expanded into a book, I would enjoy reading chapters alternating between Kevin’s and Maddy’s POVs. I still haven’t read one of Hirahara’s full-length novels, but just from reading her serials, I’d say she certainly has a talent for creating diverse and convincing POVs. Also, Kevin’s portrayal feels very honest, flaws and all. The more I think about how Kevin perceives his own flaws, the more I want to read the story from Maddy’s POV to see whether she notices and/or responds to those same flaws, or other ones.
  • Now I’m on a roll regarding POV, but thinking about Kevin’s POV in relation to both himself and Maddy led me to compare this story with よつばと! Obviously, POV works a little differently in manga, but my interest is in how the rendering of certain POVs shapes our understanding of character relationships, which can be considered in the context of any medium featuring characters. Also, I wonder if any 日本人/日系人 writer has discussed the meanings and manifestations of fatherhood in Japanese versus JA/Nikkei communities. I’d especially be interested in discussions around immediate families composed of both 日本人 and 日系人 members. I don’t think I have such a book on my TBR, but I find it hard to believe no JA/Nikkei writer has tackled this topic. Maybe I need to look more carefully, or expand my search to articles and not just books.
  • I’ve never been to Little Tokyo, but I imagine the details Hirahara sketches for us make local JA/Nikkei readers go, ああ, そうそう! I really enjoy reading work set in places obviously well-known to the writer. I’m not a fan of reading pages and pages of setting description, so I appreciate writers who can set a scene with a few words, letting readers either fill in or not, without hampering our understanding of the story. If I don’t fully understand something because I don’t share the writer’s experience of that thing, I’m ok with that.
  • Am I the only one who thought Harumi has the perfect persona for a blond lady/foreign-lady manga character? For example, that character in 暗殺教室 comes to mind…or the mother from ましろのおと and I think Kevin and Maddy could both be drawn well by the right artist.

What I learned:

  • I didn’t realize JA/Nikkei communities celebrated 七夕. I remember seeing the decorated streets one time while visiting my aunt, but in my head, 七夕 was one of those, didn’t-make-it-across-the-ocean type practices. Now I wonder if Bay Area Nikkei communities also celebrate it. The only ‘community’ event we’ve ever really participated in is Obon, so I’m not sure what other events the temples put on during the rest of the year. I’ve heard they do mochitsuki and I believe San Jose J-town and/or Mountain View does something called the Cherry Blossom Festival. At any rate, I’m assuming Hirahara is familiar with quite a few Nikkei intracommunity events, and it’s very interesting to read about a JA/Nikkei experience so different from my own.

Questions I had:

  • How does Kevin get into Maddy’s phone to check her texts? They’re obviously close, but I don’t know any kid who would willingly give their parent the passcode to their phone.
  • How did Hirahara decide on Satoko Fujii’s connection to Fukushima? Since we never get to know Satoko, I’m not sure it’s as straightforward as, ‘honor and support the people affected by 3/11, and remember their struggles are ongoing today,’ or if there is some other meaning I missed. I wonder if Satoko – represented to the reader in hindsight as people reflect on her life and death, but never in the present – somehow symbolizes the treatment of memory in the JA/Nikkei community, especially with regard to traumatic events like 3/11. The first installment of this story is dated August 14, 2014, over three years since 3/11, which makes me think remembering and forgetting might be key. I was away at college when 3/11 happened, so I don’t know how my local JA/Nikkei community responded, but I know 3/11 continues to be deeply significant to both the people affected and Japan as a whole.

Follow-up:

  • There’s one more completed serial to read, plus the one Hirahara is currently writing. I don’t think I read them in chronological order, but I might go back and try to examine how her serial-writing style changes over time.