Education for all from ’60s Tokyo tale


J-BOYS: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965, by Shogo Oketani. Stone Bridge Press, 2011, 211 pp., $9.95 (paperback)

Like an affliction that allows you to function in an apparently normal manner but seditiously disables the sufferer, the dark legacy of war, never far from the minds of the adults in the story, is like a prolonged malady whose only treatment is large doses of optimism. Remembrance and passionate engagement in the here and now defined the mood of the immediate postwar years in Japan.

In “J-Boys,” Shogo Oketani’s search for meaning in the temporal, the unsullied child’s world is placed against the intense, atonement-driven ambitions of adults to build a new Japan. Set in 1965, Tokyo was already undergoing changes almost as cataclysmic as the wartime decimation of the city. Traces of a more rural city, however, could still be glimpsed in the backyards of tumbledown wooden homes, and in the voices and paper images of kamishibai, itinerant storytellers, who still worked the older quarters of the city.

While there was a degree of sentimentality for the past, its reassuring customs and habits, most Japanese embraced change. This endorsement fueled the transformation of the city. The narrow focus of Oketani’s story, a rite of passage in post-Olympic Tokyo, belies its universality. The life of its main character, 9-year-old Kazuo, in which wonderment and inquiry are placed against the values and admonitions of sententious adults, will be familiar to many readers.

As a 9-year old myself in the 1960s of another world capital, London, a monochromatic city reinventing itself in a new palette of colors, fashions and designs, this is a story that, despite the altered urban sets, I can readily relate to. So, too, the rough justice of the playground and street, where the fault lines are always racial and social. In the story, Kazuo encounters the violence and ostracism reserved for Korean children; in my case, the victimization was targeted at Jews and Catholics. The compulsion to despise and marginalize subjects we feel ill at ease with is universal.

The details of domestic life in the Tokyo of over four decades ago will have special interest for non-Japanese readers. Interestingly, many of the customs and practices featured in the book are still with us today, albeit in a modified form: the tofu maker’s hands are still blanched red in winter, despite the advent of rubber gloves, but the water he dips them into are from a tap, not a backyard well. Life for the average Japanese citizen was unquestionably improving in the ’60s, but, in a story where a butcher’s son rarely gets to eat meat, and a schoolmate returns after lessons to an impecunious immigrant quarter, the economic miracle is still a work in progress.

The book’s ring of authenticity stems from the author’s own experiences, evoked in language and period photographs taken in Shinagawa ward, the setting for the story, birth place, and current home of the author. Experimental in form, each segment of the book can be read as short stories, but the transitions also form the outline of a cogent, well-organized novel. Accordingly, the work can be assembled and disassembled at will: literature as construction kit.

A mix of reality and youthful caprice as plangent as Alain-Fournier’s “Les Grand Meaulnes,” the lost domain of “J-Boys” similarly recalls a period that can be reconstructed in memoir or photo archives, but whose materiality has long passed. Romantic, nostalgic and precisionist, this journey into a stranger’s past is one that, nonetheless, resonates with our own, recollections of a time that was ripe with an innocent nascence.

An anecdote-rich meditation on a past that is only retrievable through memory, this deceptively simple work is the story of an education; not a formal one to be sure, but an upbringing put together on the streets and hiding places of childhood.