The civic story of Japan from the dawn of the 20th century to the present is one of migration from the countryside to the city.

Spring Garden, by Tomoka Shibasaki, Translated by Polly Barton.
160 pages

Urban centers have spread up and outward as rural cities, towns and villages have grayed, becoming quiet shadows of their former selves. Where I live in rural Gifu Prefecture, the majority of the population has already retired. During Golden Week and the Obon holiday, the children and grandchildren of my neighbors return for a day or two before heading back again to the cities.

Urbanization leads to alienation. This isn’t a new idea, or even a remarkable one. But in a contemporary literary scene where melancholy and loneliness are the go-to tropes, readers could be forgiven for rolling their eyes at yet another novel dealing with an isolated, depressed 20-something in Tokyo. There are countless books of that sort, but Tomoka Shibasaki’s “Spring Garden” moves with a nuanced deftness all its own, a light footfall that many of her peers could learn from.

The book is centered around a Tokyo apartment block that is scheduled for demolition. Recent divorcee Taro is our lost protagonist, a man who lives alone, talks to few people, and coasts through his job at a PR firm on autopilot. He is depressed and doesn’t recognize the symptoms, though a telling early scene in which a colleague’s passing remark unleashes a flood of conversation from Taro clues the reader in to his desperation for simple human contact.

Shibasaki sets up echoes and mirrors of his mindset throughout. His loneliness is reflected in the empty apartments and dilapidated neighborhoods he traipses through on his way to work. Shibasaki writes, “GPS was invented to help people find their way around Setagaya … there were a lot of one-way streets and dead ends … whichever way he took meant some circuitousness.”

“Spring Garden” is a master class in novel writing, with no wasted scenes or images, each development and recapitulation moving the story along. Each evolution expands Taro’s emptiness.

Shibasaki uses the layers of old Tokyo under his feet and the unending building works — digging, unearthing, reburying — to parallel Taro’s own psychological journey. At one point he peers into an abandoned house, noting that “time inside the house was a cycle of murky days and nights of total darkness.” The parallel with his own solitary nights in his tiny apartment is left unsaid.

Each apartment in Taro’s block is named after an animal in the Japanese zodiac, but the building is emptying in anticipation of the coming demolition. The 12 signs represent a cycle of years, but as people move out and are not replaced, the cycle is broken. It feels like everything is coming to an end: The streets are full of roadwork, the train lines are under construction, and an unexploded bomb from World War II is unearthed — like the residents themselves — from under layer upon layer of successive present moments. Shibasaki reflects: “The bomb was probably the same age as (Taro’s) father. … Maybe it had been made around the time they were born and it had spent all those years, enough for someone to live a whole life, underground.”

Taro is one of the last residents, along with two women: comic book artist Nishi and the elderly Mrs. Snake. In three years of life in the building he hasn’t spoken to any of his neighbors, but the approaching deadline acts as a catalyst, pushing them into an impromptu microcommunity. It’s a touching irony that their urban loneliness is only assuaged when almost everyone else has left.

Nishi harbors an obsession with a house in the area that decades before had been featured in a famous photography book. The area was once the locale of choice for celebrities, another example of decline that weaves through the story. Nishi draws Taro into her fascination with the house, giving him a copy of the photo book. The images of the young artistic couple who once lived there speaks to the emptiness inside both of them.

The obsession gives the novel its drive, with the house representing a utopian fantasy that is potentially reachable by the characters, who befriend the current owners and slowly make their way into the house, leading to the book’s dramatic and surprising climax.

“Spring Garden” is dyed with nostalgia, and filled with memories of childhood holidays and grief. Mrs. Snake enters the story as a cut-out of an old Japanese woman, talking about little but food and the weather; however, as young people often learn too late, the elderly were young once. Snake’s anecdotes about seeing The Beatles at the Nippon Budokan in 1966 and traveling to Canada for a Neil Young concert beautifully illustrate a lost past.

Tomoka Shibasaki rightly won the Akutagawa Prize in 2014 for this sublime novella of dislocation and regret, and Polly Barton’s light, understated translation does it immense justice. Pushkin Press is in something of a groove right now with their Japanese translations.

It seems alienation — whether urban or rural — is far more bearable with a good book by your side.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.