A new year in Japanese books

by Janet Ashby

In a time of change and uncertainty, Japanese readers continue to seek comfort and practical advice in their reading. In particular, best sellers last year reflected the concerns of middle-aged and older individuals, with the top 10 sellers including two books on how to age gracefully, two on the Japanese language, and two on using English.

One observer, in DaVinci (Jan. 2003), relates the boom in language books to fears about globalization: English conversation books are used by those feeling such skills are necessary for the new age, while books about Japanese appeal to those experiencing anxiety about their Japanese identity.

However, the biggest publishing phenomenon was Harry Potter, with a record first printing in October of 2.35 million copies of the fourth volume in the series. Indeed, Nikkei Entertainment (Jan. 2003) estimates total sales in Japan of 80 billion yen in 2002 for the Harry Potter movies, books, DVDs, videos and tie-in products.

The only Japanese fiction titles in the top 20 sellers were Miyuki Miyabe’s mystery about a serial killer, “Moho-han” (Copycat), and Haruki Murakami’s first long novel in seven years, “Umibe no Kafuka” (Kafka on the Shore). The publication in September of the latter, a bildungsroman in two volumes (over 800 pages) about a 15-year-old who calls himself Kafka, became a media event with a sharply divided critical reception.

One commentator, quoted in Aera (Oct. 28, 2002), made an interesting comparison between “Kafka” and Hayao Miyazaki’s animated feature “Spirited Away.” Both thrust their youthful protagonists into a mysterious world where they have to endure various trials. Both have easy-to-understand stories whose ultimate meaning remains enigmatic and open to the reader or viewer’s personal interpretation. And in an age in which youth are walking in a dark tunnel, both give a certain degree of comfort and encouragement to carry on.

The critic Minato Kawamura, however, remembers the comfort young readers in America found in “Lord of the Rings” in the 1960s, another difficult time, and wonders if young readers today can really find something similar in the fantasy worlds of Murakami or Harry Potter (Mainichi, Dec. 11, 2002).

Those interested in the younger generation’s choice of the best books of 2002 will find the results of a reader survey in the January issue of DaVinci, while a survey of the Japanese literary scene 1998-2002 and biographical directory of new authors is featured in the Winter 2002 issue of Bungei. I myself decided to look at two recommended manga with contrasting portrayals of young men starting out in the world.

“Black Jack ni Yoroshiku” (Say Hello to Black Jack) by Shuho Sato details the endless trials and tribulations encountered by recent medical school graduate Eijiro Saito on his rotation to various departments at a famous university hospital (three volumes; Kodansha). (The title, by the way, refers to the classic comic by Osamu Tezuka about the Robin Hood-like maverick surgeon Black Jack.)

During his two-year internship he receives only 38,000 yen per month, making ends meet by working nights at a smaller hospital and getting by on only two or three hours’ sleep. On his first night there, he is paired with another intern, but thereafter is the only doctor on call despite his lack of hands-on experience.

His first posting at the university hospital is to the surgical department, where he is shocked to discover that the hospital’s famous surgeon does only the preliminary cut of the operation and then returns to his research. Saito is then further shocked to be instructed not to waste taxpayer money by aggressively treating a 75-year-old postoperative patient as he has no hope of recovery anyway.

Saito’s next posting is to internal medicine, where he cares for Miyamura, a 38-year-old owner of a small-town liquor store who needs a bypass operation. Because of the hospital bureaucracy and the ill will between the internal medicine and surgical sections, Miyamura’s condition worsens before his operation is finally scheduled for the following month. A doctor tells Miyamura that most patients make a “gift” of 1 million yen to their surgeon, but he decides to follow Saito’s advice to have the bypass at a different hospital. Saito then has to convince the lone-wolf surgeon Kita, who, fed up with the Japanese medical mafia, had studied with a famous heart surgeon in Australia, to operate on Miyamura. Needless to say the operation, despite complications, is successful due to Kita’s experienced instincts.

Despite meeting the doctor of his dreams in Kita, Saito inexplicably returns to the university hospital and his next rotation, to the neonatal ICU. Here he confronts issues related to fertility treatments, premature births and birth defects.

I must admit I found Saito, a very young 25-year-old, tiresome in his soul-searchings over what a doctor should be, and the comic to be melodramatic in its simplistic portrayal of the idealistic and pure Saito vs. the cold and evil medical world. I suspect its popularity owes much to recent medical scandals in Japan.

In another world altogether from the earnest intern Saito are the three 25- and 26-year-old freeters (job-hopping part-time workers) of “The San-Mei Sama” (Party of Three) by Makochin Ishihara (two volumes, Shogakukan Big Spirits Comics). These three spend their nights hanging out at a family restaurant very reminiscent of Denny’s, passing the hours in idle conversations about UFOs, tunes on their cell phones, or daydreams about getting rich by recruiting their own Morning Musume group through the Internet or thinking up their own character like Hello Kitty. As the English copy on the cover says, these three losers have “no money, no motivations, no job, no specialities, no talents, no qualifications, no plans, no fortitudes, no dreams . . . but friends and time!!”

I don’t know if Ishihara had any political agenda or not in creating this manga, but his spot-on depiction of the aimless lives of underemployed youth with no real place in society, although funny, makes for uncomfortable reading as one wonders what will become of this amiable trio, and what the existence of such a throwaway generation portends for the future of Japan.