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Review: March Was Made of Yarn, ed. by David Karashima and Elmer Luke

The Times of London, March 2012

On a sunny Friday afternoon last March, an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter Scale ripped through northeast Japan, triggering a catastrophic tsunami and level-7 nuclear reactor meltdown. The Tohoku earthquake killed almost 20,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes. As we approach the first anniversary, we have learnt much about the Japanese nuclear industry and the continuing plight of the stoic Tohoku survivors — yet what we have missed are Japanese voices expressing what it is like to live in Japan now.

March Was Made of Yarn, an important collection of essays, stories, poems and manga, is the powerful and timely response of Japan’s most talented writers to this catastrophe. Japan — a nation that is now entering its third decade of stagnation, attendant with the challenges of an ageing population, declining birth rate, rising unemployment, a disaffected youth culture and entrenched political dysfunction — is simply ahead of the problems that most developed nations are facing today. Unlike Japan’s polite media, which suffers from the Japanese cultural norm of tatemae — the imprecise façade of public behaviour and opinion — this comprehensive anthology envisions change, names its challenges, and amplifies the true conditions to push for greater truth. Editors Elmer Luke and David Karashima, established writers and translators, have put together an award-winning roster of Japanese, British and American writers to provide a portal of intimacy with the real Japan. The task set before each work in March Was Made of Yarn is the struggle of life after a tragic national event: how do we face such a life-altering calamity?

The first story, The Island of Eternal Life by Yoko Tawada, is a dystopian tale that imagines a Japan of 2017 that is entirely closed off thanks to the total radioactive contamination of the nation. In this story Japan lacks an imperial family, a media, a prime minister, public governments, the internet or contact with the outside world. Told by a concerned Japanese national living in Germany, the chilling story does the neat work of science fiction in magnifying a fear to provide both satire and moral. Tawada is commenting on what the Japanese intelligentsia today call the “Galapagos Syndrome” — the notion that Japan is retreating from globalisation and growing increasingly isolated from the world.

The title of the anthology comes from a line spoken by the wife in the short story March Yarn by Mieko Kawakami. In this realistic work of fiction, a husband is nagged into a taking a trip by his wife, who is eight months pregnant. While they are resting in their Kyoto hotel room, the wife has a dream where she gives birth to a baby made of yarn in a world where every object is made of yarn, including segments of time: “Sometimes the yarn turns into sweaters, or mittens, and that’s how they protect themselves. When something scares them, that’s how they get through it.” When the husband concedes that things or people made of yarn can morph into knitted objects, but disputes that abstract ideas such as time cannot be undone and remade, the wife refuses to be swayed. Kawakami’s astute dialogue catches the nuances in the speech of a young married couple facing the initial conflicts that indicate the future pattern of their relationship. The wife makes hostile jabs to rouse her husband’s self-identified “noncommittal” nature. The wife’s narcissism battles her husband’s solipsism, and when the earthquake is literally introduced in the narrative, the couple refuse to stir from their slumber in their air-conditioned hotel room. This is a psychological parable of a developed nation at odds with itself.

Anthropomorphic animals and the supernatural in otherwise realistic fiction read as surrealism to Western readers; in Japan, however, these kinds of images usually reflect the animist vein of the Japanese Shinto religion. In God Bless You, 2011, Hiromi Kawakami rewrites her famous story, God Bless You or Kami-sama (both versions included here) changing the original setting to a Japan that has been contaminated by radiation. In the Shinto religion, a kami is a god or a spirit that can be good or evil, and in Kawakami’s story a chatty and thoughtful bear is given the qualities of a benevolent deity to represent the relationship between man and nature. What is startling and elegant in the post-apocalypse retelling is the author’s faith that despite what man does to nature, nature will continue to seek man’s companionship. Kawakami’s story does not shy away from questioning Japan’s nuclear energy policies, nevertheless it provides hope for man’s reconciliation with his natural environment.

Interestingly, nearly all of the Japanese authors focus on the present or future. In this collection it is David Peace, the British novelist who writes so well about Japan in his Tokyo trilogy, who looks back to the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 to offer the empirical context of Japan’s significant natural disasters. Peace is the only author here to explicitly recognise the dangers of rumour and xenophobia after a disaster which — in the case of the 1923 earthquake — led to the brutal lynching of ethnic minorities, namely 700 Chinese and more than 2,500 Koreans, by Japanese civilians who were never really punished.

It is incontrovertible that in the 20th and 21st centuries, the Japanese people have suffered enormously, and consequently, many modern Japanese may view themselves principally as hapless victims rather than as the generations following the aggressors of the devastating Pacific War. Such historical forgetfulness has puzzled historians around the world and upset Japan’s regional neighbors, further isolating Japan from Asia, and it is this historical silence that the editors correct by including Peace’s work as the final story.

One Year Later, a suite of waka poems, is the American J. D. McClatchy’s beautiful elegy for Japan’s lamentable day.

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