No Plan B Dream Villanelle

Whether for a single poem, or a single-author collection of poems, inspiration is offered by different muses. It can come from a place and the history of that place; from a disease and all that living with a disease entails; from travel and the changing vistas that moving from place to place, history to history, presents; from poetic form: the shape that words and lines are given. Recent collections by four Japan-based poets are examples of books that grow from just these seeds.

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Kyoto Thrills

An academic out of a job getting by as a translator in Kyoto is approached by a mysterious woman in a kimono who offers her a remunerative job translating a novel, chapter by chapter, as it is written. The ostensible author of the novel, long thought to be dead, is the disowned scion of a family that has been in the kimono business for generations; the novel describes a crime: the murder of a woman with a full-body tattoo designed to look like a kimono.

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Poet between Reality and Dream

In the museum we find relics or remnants or fragments of stories that are not disowned or abandoned; they are contained, enshrined. As readers of Miho Nonaka’s The Museum of Small Bones, we encounter exhibits of a different, ancient ilk. A native of Tokyo, and educated at Harvard and Columbia, among other universities, Nonaka is a bilingual poet/translator who teaches at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. In this poetry collection, due to her self-confessed restlessness, she pushes forward by small moves, a time-honored tradition.

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Seeing with Dragonfly Eyes

Novels like Dragonfly Eyes and the acclaimed Cao/Wang title Bronze and Sunflower—also set during the Cultural Revolution, in the countryside—show hopeful struggle amid tragedies playing out in a past so vivid, it could be now. Which is why we need it now. We need its way of storytelling and seeing.

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Ink Dreams and the Space of Effusion

Ma is a favorite topic of Kyoto Journal contributors. The two books under review, companions to site-specific exhibitions presented by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), are overflowing with ma in reproductions of 20th-21st artworks created by artists from East Asia and beyond in a variety of media. The two beautifully printed, these large-format full-color volumes include essays by art historians, curators and other scholars, as well as in-depth artists’ biographies and a sense of the  dynamic cross-cultural milieux in which they lived.

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Lost in Tokyo

William Olsson’s adaptation of Catherine Hanrahan’s semi-autobiographical novel Lost Girls & Love Hotels (September 2020) is a visceral inquiry into trauma, survival and the people who help us see the light at the end of the tunnel.
    Although the main character, Margaret’s (Alexandra Daddario) background remains elusive, cinematographer Kenji Katori conveys the duality of her frame of mind through shifting surroundings, offering a riveting sensory experience.

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An Addict’s Memories

The city Robert Whiting stepped into in 1962 bore little resemblance to the urban utopias of its ambitious future architects and town planners. The capital’s long-suffering residents stoically put up with contaminated rivers, suspect tap water, the extraction of night soil by suction trucks, and legions of rats. In the short interim between the end of the war and the author’s arrival, Tokyo’s hastily created, prefabricated structures were already in an advanced state of decomposition. Surveying the broken, odiferous city, ravenous crime groups, known as yakuza, closed in like hyenas…

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Finding Her Inner Jewish Soul in Japan

It has been common for several decades for Westerners in Japan to seek enlightenment and spiritual comfort in Buddhism and other Asian religions. It’s a well-traveled road, but Liane Wakabayashi’s path to spirituality in Japan, as depicted in this book, is unique. A native New Yorker and a not-strictly-observant conservative Jew, Liane Grunberg (later Wakabayashi) first came to Japan to cover blockbuster art exhibitions held in department stores for a Conde Nast magazine in 1985 and then again in 1987. She lost her return ticket the second time and ended up staying…

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The Possibly Enlightened Aplomb of John Solt

Best known as a “Japanologist” (a term he might reject) for his critical study Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning: The Life and Poetics of Kitasono Katue, John Solt is less known for his poetry. This collection, Poems for the Unborn, lovingly, methodically, assembled and presented here bilingually in hardcover, a coup of book design by Tetsuo Haketa, is drawn from the contributions Solt has made over 30 years to the private coterie organ, gui, an ongoing journal based in Tokyo.

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Required Reading

Editor Barbara Summerhawk explains in her useful introduction to the “Gender / Queer / Here” issue of the Tokyo Poetry Journal that in selecting the poets whose work appears in this volume she was taking a big tent approach: “ . . . there are no divisions in this book between lesbian/gay/bi/trans/intersex/asexual/ally; some poets have chosen to identify themselves a certain way in their bios, others have not.”

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A Silent Sage on the State of the World

Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet takes many of the greatest hits of Nhat Hanh and presents them as a single, running discourse on the perilous state of the world and how the Vietnamese Zen sect of Buddhism with which Nhat Hanh is affiliated — especially the socially active brand of “engaged Buddhism” he made popular in both the East and West — offers a viable road out of this human-created morass.

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A Cut Above

The samurai is iconic to Japanese history. These two titles provide the reader with engaging depictions of an ancient warrior culture.

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“What Becomes a Legend Most?”[i] Medieval Hobbies, Gift Giving and Grizzly Power Grabs

Spectacular Accumulation: Material Culture, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Samurai Sociability by Morgan Pitelka. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 240 pp., $60.00 (cloth). Spectacular Accumulation: Material Culture, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Samurai Sociability is, like a thought-filled offering, at the same time scholarly and accessible.                         In this fascinating analysis of ego-satisfaction among the leading influencers during…

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Savoring the Artisan’s Life in a Japanese Mountain Town

Water, Wood, and Wild Things: Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town by Hannah Kirshner. New York: Viking Press, 368 pp., $26.00 (cloth). It was the writer Junichiro Tanizaki, in his book In Praise of Shadows, who famously described the mysterious beauty of a lacquer bowl when seen in the flickering shadows of…

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Complex Urbanism

Macau and the Casino Complex Edited by Stefan Al. Contributing Editors: Lee Kah-Wee And Natalia Echeverri; University of Nevada Press, 2018  224pp Stefan Al’s latest book Macau and the Casino Complex is the latest in his collection of seemingly bi-annual publications capturing the special urban conditions emerging in the Pearl River Delta. It follows Factory…

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Structures of Kyoto, Interrogated

Structures Of Kyoto: Writers in Kyoto Anthology 4. Edited by Rebecca Otowa & Karen Lee Tawarayama, 2021, Writers in Kyoto, 172pp., ¥1207. Structures Of Kyoto: Writers in Kyoto Anthology 4, edited by Rebecca Otowa and Karen Lee Tawarayama, features contributions from twenty-four writers. As was the case with WiK’s previous anthologies, it is an eclectic…

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Three Men and a Cat

Oh, Tama! by Mieko Kanai (translated by Tomoko Aoyama and Paul McCarthy). Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 152 p., $16.95. Cats have been prominent in Japanese literature since Natsume Soseki made his name with his debut, I am a Cat. Tama, the cat, in Mieko Kanai’s novel Oh, Tama! (translated by Tomoko Aoyama and Paul…

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Kyoto Dwelling

KYOTO DWELLING: A YEAR OF BRIEF POEMS by Edith Shiffert, Charles E. Tuttle Company 1987, 115 pages The poet Edith Schiffert resided in Kyoto from 1963 until her death, at the age of 101 in 2017. Her poems appeared often in KJ over the years. This review of her classic Kyoto Dwelling, from KJ7, Summer…

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A New Generation of Rebel

Unfree Speech: The Threat to Global Democracy and Why We Must Act, Now by Joshua Wong with Jason Ng, Ai Weiwei (Intro.) and Chris Patten (Foreword) London: W. H. Allen, 2020, 268 pp., $11.07 (paper). Joshua Wong is the Hong Kong pro-democracy activist who became famous in 2011, aged just twelve, when he organized a…

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Behind the Scenes of Miyazaki’s Magic

Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man: 15 Years at Studio Ghibli by Steve Alpert. Stone Bridge Press, 296 pp., $19.95. According to some, if you really love something you should never find out how it is made: the object of your admiration might lose its shine, its magic. If I felt that way I…

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The News from Seoul

A City of Han: Stories by expat writers in Seoul and other cities of South Korea, edited by Sollee Bae. Seoul: FWS Publishing, 2020. 121 pp., ¥1059 (paper). In this era of extreme global hypersensitivity to race and national narratives, it is arguably a high-risk proposition for a Western expat author in Asia to write…

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