And what a captivating view it is. Here are 27 short stories set in Japan — elegantly minimalist musings on society, humanity and relationships. Perfect for train reading, some of these bonsai tales can be read between stations, the jolt of stopping coinciding with a sudden recognition, that epiphanic moment when a character and the reader are caught off guard by an unexpected moment of truth.
Donald Richie crafts understated, austerely honed tales about the pathologies of contemporary Japan. We catch glimpses of homeless, jobless, clueless characters, of unrequited love, noisy neighbors, and discrimination. There are stories about the sacred overlapping the profane and the anxieties of looming social sanctions. More about lost and mistaken identities, missed, confused and misunderstood communications. Even a Santa in crisis. Here the quotidian is exhumed from unexpected angles, evoking a Japan rich in paradox with whiffs of Zen koan.
Confronted by the influx of foreigners, Mrs. Shirai comfortably shifts her animus from the familiar Koreans to the more unpleasant unknown. “Observing these new events she gained a number of new prejudices. But in doing so she lost one of the old. She was seen to be shopping at the Korean green-grocer’s.”
Imagine Akiko, taken for a Filipina by a storekeeper. Suddenly pride in her eyes, hairstyle and wardrobe were called into question. “All those Southeast Asians in their neighborhood now, all from the Philippines or worse . . . . She had been mistaken for one of them.” Angered, goaded by her friend, she readied herself for the next encounter. When it happens, she raises no fuss, goes along with the storekeeper, pretending to understand his garbled English, in the end earning unexpected praise from her friend, “You really showed them you were really Japanese.”
Consider the hapless commuter who falls in love with a young woman who rides the same train every day. He gallantly shields her from other bodies while his electrifies during their lingering minutes of pressed flesh. His imagination runs wild, he falls in love and then, trying to take the next step, runs out of luck.
A homeless man finds his desires similarly misunderstood and pays the price only to discover that he finally gets what he wanted. Rarely does this happen to the couples and families going through the motions. “Sachiko looked at her old mother looking out of the window at the heavy fall sky. Rain coming, she said, as she often did, just to have something to say. And her mother didn’t answer. She often didn’t. It had been that way for some time . . . .”
There are moments of an ineffable melancholy, about time running in one direction. We, “. . . saw the face of someone who understands something she had not understood before, who sees what is coming, what the future holds.”
With economy, humor and irony, Richie unsettles with his subversive parables. They provoke and then linger, subtly sharing revelations and conundrums that are the warp and woof of what passes as life and culture. Reading Richie’s vignettes brings to mind sorrel soup; surprising, refreshing and distinctly piquant.