By Greg Anderson, (Fukuoka-ken, 1990-1992) for JQ magazine. Greg is part of the fourth class of the JET Program, which began in 1987. He is currently employed as an auditor with the U.S. Treasury Department and is a new member of the JETAA New York book club.
Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan is an anthology of opinions, thoughts, and stories written by some of the most prominent writers from the past and present on the subject of Japan and co-edited by Japanamerica author Roland Kelts (Osaka-shi, 1998-99). I love this book!
Why? Because anyone can read this book and appreciate it. You do not have to be an aficionado of Japan or, frankly, be able to locate it on a map. This book provides a window into the heart, mind, and soul of the Japanese people following the tsunami, earthquake and nuclear disaster. Just as in the United States following the events of September 11, 2001, Americans were forced to pause and consider American values, the American way of life and America’s relationship with rest of the world, along with what it means to be an American.
The events of March 11, 2011 were a watershed moment for the people of Japan. Nothing will ever be as it once was in Japan. The loss of life, failed technology, and deceit/lies are themes that are all addressed in this issue of Monkey Business, released earlier this year. What’s great about this book is that there are two ways that it can be read: You can read it chronologically from page one through page 210, you can browse the index to find an interesting story, or you can simply thumb through the book (like I did), find a story that strikes your fancy, and begin reading (I assure you that you will not be disappointed).
The first chapter is a compilation of writings by 17 different individuals who were asked one month after the earthquake and tsunami to respond to the question, “What do you wish that we had in Japan?” The first story is written by Shintaro Tanikawa, the poet/lyricist of the Astro Boy theme song. Astro Boy, a nuclear powered robot created by Japan’s Ministry of Science, is a comic book character that exemplifies the aesthetics of Japan. For those unfamiliar, Astro Boy is the Superman of Japan. Though Astro Boy was created in the 1950s he remains widely popular in Japan. In fact, in November of 2007 Astro Boy was named Japan’s envoy for overseas safety.
In his brief entry entitled “Astro Boy Mark II,” Tanikawa longs for a new version of Astroy Boy. He does not say it but it is implied that if Astro Boy were around, the disaster of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident could have been averted. This story sets the tone for the first chapter. The remaining stories deal with issues of longing for simple items as a Yoko Ogawa’s “Nightcap,” or questioning the pros and cons of relying on technology such as electricity in Ted Goosen’s “Days Without Electricity.”
Two other stories in the first chapter worth mentioning are the stories like “Neighborhood Cafeterias” by Tomoka Shibasaki, and Sachiko Kishimoto’s, “Q-Taro, The Ghost, or Doraemon.” The former deals with the issue of yearning for the ordinary and mundane fixtures of a neighborhood, in particular a public cafeteria. The story suggests that in the post-tsunami, earthquake, nuclear accident Japan that a public cafeteria would assist in returning normalcy to Japan. Sachiko Kishimoto’s story answers the question that was posed to the authors March 11, 2011. She wished for some sort of alien or powerful being such as a ghost or the fictional character Doraemon, who could have prevented or come to the aid of Japan during the disasters. Finally, the first chapter includes a painting entitled The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy by Osamu Kitamura. The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy is a painting of a man urinating into a nuclear power plants. Its meaning is self-explanatory.
The remainder of the book divides each story into a separate chapter. Some of my favorite stories are as follows:
- “Sleepville” by Mimei Ogawa
- “The Futon of Totttori,” a manga by Fumiko Takano based on story by Lafcadio Hearn
- “Mr. English” by Keita Genji
“Sleepyville” and “The Futon of Tottori” are both stories that could be read to a child who would enjoy it just as much as an adult. “Sleepyville” is about a town in which all travelers upon entering become fatigued and filled with the incredible urge to sleep. A young man’s goal is to reach the town and not fall asleep. “The Futon of Tottori” is about a talking futon (blanket) and an innkeeper’s quest to find out why the futon is talking. Finally, “Mr. English” is a great story about Soichiro Mogi, employed at a company for 20 years as a temporary employee and nicknamed Mr. English for his fondness for making fun of other employees because of his perceived English language ability and their perceived ignorance of the language.
For an interview with Roland Kelts on the debut issue of Monkey Business, click here.