THE GIFT OF RAIN by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon)

An absolutely brilliant novel, one I savored at an onsen ryokan over a rainy weekend. The author transports us to the island of Penang on the eve of Japan’s invasion of Malaya in 1941, evoking place and character with deft and luminescent prose, glistening with stunning metaphors. The narrative is about a young Chinese-English schoolboy who comes of age in the midst of war, ending up working as a collaborator with the Japanese in an ill-fated attempt to protect his family from the whirlwind. The story takes place five decades after the war, as our protagonist is dragged by chance back to a tumultuous past he has done his best to avoid.

In recounting his memories of that time to a visitor from Japan, a woman who loved the man he too had loved — his aikido sensei — we come to understand the difficulties he faced in coming to terms with his identity and conflicting loyalties, duties and obligations at a time when choices meant life and death.

GROTESQUE by Natsuo Kirino (Harvill Secker/Random House)

The hard-boiled prose explores women’s psychology and the seamy underbelly of contemporary Japan. Kirino has made her mark as the queen of noir and here she delivers in spades. This searing social indictment examines how class determines so much in Japan and how devastating people’s obsessions with status and acceptance can be.

In this saga of two murdered prostitutes, the characters are pointedly unattractive, a cast of misfits where greed, betrayal, ambition and rivalry haunt lonely struggles to find some meaning in the drudgery of life. The story is presented from multiple perspectives, splicing diaries of the prostitutes with the murderer’s confession, framed by the endlessly spiteful narrator whose sister was one of the victims. We discover along the way that nobody is who they seem nor what they want to be. This is the portrait of a frustrated, stifled society of unrealized dreams and unbridled resentments.

POPULATION DECLINE AND AGING IN JAPAN: The Social Consequences, by Florian Coulmas (Routledge)

Here is a thoughtful and stimulating analysis of Japan’s hyper-aging society; a serious book about a critically important subject. The importance of Japan’s demographic time bomb cannot be overstated and thus this astute examination of causes, policy challenges and ramifications is a welcome and seminal contribution to the debate. The implications are complex and range across the institutional spectrum, shaping family structures, gender roles, employment, health care and pension systems, housing, civil society, elections, consumer behavior, education, social networks and how people think about death and immigration. This is a grim, but rewarding perspective on a nation heading faster to where the rest of the industrialized world will follow.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies at Temple University, Japan Campus

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