In a world where social media is constantly searching for the “next big thing,” and remaining relevant is a full-time job for some, it’s refreshing to see a writer who has found success in her own sweet time and on her own terms. Shiga Prefecture-based Rebecca Otowa has just published her third book, “The Mad Kyoto Shoe Swapper and Other Short Stories.”
TUTTLE PUBLISHING, Fiction.
The tales in this collection encompass a wide range of themes, including historical, the supernatural and contemporary social issues, and Otowa’s characters are equally diverse.
“I try to get inside the heads of my characters, be they Western or Japanese, man or woman, young or old, and feel what they are feeling. Thus, for example, a Japanese character might be described in somewhat more formal terms and a Western character in more humorous ones; an older character will speak with the authority of long life; while a younger character will be described as if they are feeling their way in a situation,” Otowa says.
The titular story in the collection was inspired by an experience familiar to anyone who has spent time in Kyoto — removing one’s shoes to enter one of the more than 1,600 temples found in the city. When visiting Shinnyo, a temple in the eastern part of Kyoto, Otowa found that her shoes had gone missing.
“I noticed that some quite similar shoes were still there, and thought that someone had probably made a mistake,” she recalls. “Sure enough, a few days later I was contacted by a woman whose elderly husband had put on my shoes by mistake. We exchanged shoes by post.”
The original incident was simply an honest mistake, but Otowa began to imagine someone who was obsessed by the changing of shoes. “I extrapolated this in my mind … and the character of Jiro emerged. I was also trying to describe a Japanese type which I think is quite common, although not very noticeable — the socially inept otaku, reclusive young man.”
While it is one of the more light-hearted in the collection, the tale of the shoe-swapping Jiro shares a common theme with all the stories in that the lead character has “some kind of epiphany,” says Otowa.
Variety is what encapsulates Otowa’s body of work to date: Her first book, “At Home in Japan” (2010), was an illustrated essay collection, and was followed by a children’s book, “My Awesome Japan Adventure” (2013).
“My three books were all written after age 55. I believe that many older people are determined to keep growing and learning until the end of their days. In my own case, there was no way to have a writing career earlier on, because my mother-in-law would not have allowed me to spend so much time writing instead of doing wifely things,” Otowa says candidly.
In 1981, Otowa, now 64, married into a farming family that traces its lineage back some 19 generations. After moving into the 350-year-old family farmhouse in Shiga with her in-laws, she was expected to master the duties of a bride in an extremely traditional community.
Living with her late mother-in-law was tough on Otowa at the time, but now that she is the chatelaine of the family home, she has grown to appreciate the traditions of her surroundings, and the farmhouse and accompanying lifestyle became the basis of “At Home in Japan.”
Some of the short stories in her latest book draw on events in her husband’s family history and the local community. “Showa Girl,” for example, is a sympathetic portrayal of Otowa’s mother-in-law as a child and teenager.
“I think the most absorbing stories for me were the ones where I already knew the broad strokes of the story and I was involved in fleshing out the details of character, scenes and action. In other words, stories that told in a fictional way something that actually happened,” she says.
While her husband has read all the stories, Otowa doesn’t feel any particular need to inform others in the community that they have been immortalized in fiction.
“I don’t think they are likely to find out, either, since the book is in English and they probably wouldn’t come across it,” she says. “I’m not very worried because I haven’t treated anyone with rancor or meanness.”
A keen artist, Otowa also provided the illustrations that are scattered throughout the book. In fact, it was the illustrations she did for “At Home in Japan” that led to Tuttle suggesting that Otowa write a children’s book. “I love drawing. I’d like to see more illustrations in books for adults,” she says.
If she had her way, Otowa would also like to see more support and appreciation for older writers. “My dream is to encourage other older people to write about their experiences,” she muses.
In Otowa’s case, drawing on her abundance of experiences has resulted in an eclectic assortment of tales that are likely to entertain and intrigue readers in equal measure.