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Evocative novel bridges Japan and China, past and present

by Paul Mccarthy

That the Western world has lost interest in Japan, and particularly in Japanese literature, and is turning its attention more and more to the colossus across the sea (China, not America) is a constant plaint on the part of Japan specialists and translators.

JASMINE, by Noboru Tsujihara, translated by Juliet W. Carpenter. Thames River Press, 2012, 309 pp., $34.95 (hardcover)

This book may go some way toward balancing the situation, since it nicely bridges Japan and China, the past — the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Communist revolution, the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” the Tiananmen democracy movement and its crushing by the Chinese government — and the present, meaning in this context the late 1980s and ’90s in the aftermath of Tiananmen.

Its principals are Waki Akihiko, a Japanese businessman fluent in Chinese who is charged with investigating the use or misuse of Japanese Official Development Assistance to China, generally seen as a substitute for the reparations for wartime damage inflicted on China by imperialist Japan that had been waived by the Chinese government at the time of the restoration of diplomatic relations; and his father, Waki Tanehiko, who had been a comic actor in the wartime Shanghai-based cinema, and who had assumed a Chinese identity under the name of Han Langen (reminiscent of the actual historical figure “Li Xianglan,” a Japanese woman better known in the 1950s as “Shirley Yamaguchi” and in the 1970s and beyond as “Yamaguchi Yoshiko,” and who played a prominent role in the artistic/entertainment sector propaganda of Japan in wartime China).

The elder Waki was briefly imprisoned after the war, but was released and returned to Japan for a period, only to be lured back to China for mysterious reasons, where he disappeared into the web of secret prisons run by the Chinese government. Aki, as he is called in the novel, is seeking to find his father, rumored to be still alive and imprisoned in the Uighur area of western China. He meets old friends of Tanehiko from the world of 1930s Shanghai cinema, now engaged in re-creating that world from a very different perspective for a contemporary Chinese audience; and he learns from them that his father may indeed still be alive.

There is also a love interest: Aki meets Li Xing, a Shanghai actress with family connections in Japan, and they have a brief but passionate affair. But Li Xing’s final loyalty is to her own country, and to a dissident named Liu Hong, who is fleeing arrest in the wake of Tiananmen.

I will not spoil readers’ pleasure in this fast-paced yet evocative novel by revealing what happens to Aki and Li Xing, or whether Tanehiko still somehow survives. My brief account above may give the impression of a popular/commercial political novel, but “Jasmine” is far more than that.

Its sketches of Kobe landscapes, and of the Bund and the old French cathedral in Shanghai, and of the waterways that can still be used to travel from Shanghai to Suzhou or Nanjing are detailed and evocative. The novel is also very much post-1990s Japan in its loving accounts of cuisine, fashion and decor: “The couple was eating striped mullet … the first of the season, from Akashi, on the Inland Sea. It had been split open, stuffed with prawn mousse, and wrapped in a magnolia leaf. After a light steaming to impart fragrance, the mullet was sprinkled generously with sea salt and grilled … Mitsuru’s bracelet was inlaid with lapis lazuli, the deep, dark blue flecked with golden pyrite — a reminder of the legend that the gemstone was formed from the starry sky over Arabian deserts …”

Tsujihara has a keen eye for beauty as well as for personal and political intrigue; and Juliet Carpenter’s English translation is always deft, smooth and elegant. Anyone interested in a fictional representation of important aspects of the contemporary Sino-Japanese relationship should find “Jasmine” a highly stimulating and fragrant cup of tea.

Paul McCarthy holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, has taught language and literature at universities in the United States and Japan, and is a literary translator and writer.