Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

27 September, 2013

Strange Weather in Tokyo

I’m torn in my feelings for Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo. Originally titled Sensei no Kaban which translates to My Teacher’s Bag/Briefcase (The Briefcase in the US), Kawakami’s tale is of 38 year old Tsukiko who leads a rather solitary life in Tokyo, living alone, working in a nameless, nondescript job, whose one pleasure is to unwind after another day at work with a cup of sake and something seasonal to eat at a local izakaya. It’s probably an existence that is familiar to a large portion of the single working population in Japan and elsewhere. It’s boring and familiar and comforting but you feel your life slowly ebbing away, lost forever. It is at one of these drinking joints that she meets one of her high school teachers whose name she can never remember. And so begins an unlikely friendship with Sensei (Teacher), meeting once in a while to have a drink and a bite to eat. It’s never planned and they pay separately. But slowly, a chance meeting with an old schoolmate at the annual teachers’ ohanami (cherry blossom viewing picnic) forces Tsukiko to confront her feelings and she begins to realise the growing importance of Sensei in her life.

I loved the slow and leisurely way in which Kawakami peels back the evolving friendship between Tsukiko and Sensei. Their formal manner towards each other even though they often get very drunk together. The slow revelation of each other’s histories. The still moment when you just want to sit next to someone. And yet, there is always this nagging sensation of discomfort that wouldn’t vanish. Although I understood and sympathised with their friendship, I found it difficult to accept anything more. Is it their 30 year age gap? Did I put myself in Tsukiko’s shoes and wonder whether I could fall for a man so much older than myself? I don’t know. Although a common theme in Japanese literature and popular culture during the mid-Showa era, I couldn’t love this book completely because of this central issue which is so relevant to the book and which, I think, mirrored Tsukiko’s misgivings at the beginning. But the two seem so in tune with one another, as though there isn’t another person in the world who gets them, who understands their silences, their reticence, their solitude, that in some ways it seems inevitable.

It’s a deceptively quiet book with some wild emotions churning just below the surface. I was taken with Kawakami’s description of the nondescript existence of so many single people in Tokyo. It resonates, on the one hand, with the yearning for a simple life but also for something more to fill the gap. Although I found it troubling, there is something about Strange Weather in Tokyo that stubbornly remains in my thoughts long after I finished the last page.

I would like to thank Portobello Books for kindly sending me a copy to review.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 7. Do go and see what others have been reading.

11 Responses to “Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami”

  1. Tony Says:

    I really enjoyed this (it was my readalong book during ‘January in Japan’), and I think the real strength of it is that it does eventually help you to get over the age gap issue.

    Still hate the changed title and stupid cover though 😉

    • sakura Says:

      Agree with you about the title and cover, Tony. I think my visual image of sensei is too strong from the many hours of Japanese tv I watch. But I do think it is a lovely book.

  2. aartichapati Says:

    I read a book by Murakami that took place in Tokyo, and it was also about the nondescript and aimless life of most 20 and 30-somethings in Tokyo. I found it depressing, but maybe this one is better.

  3. winstonsdad Says:

    I felt the strength was the slow nature of the relationship unfolding I didn’t have a problem with the age gap ,I am annoyed about another title change when neither us or uk title are near the japanese title ,all the best stu

  4. Mae Says:

    I picked up this book when I was in Tokyo last week and I’m looking forward to reading it. While I’m not all that well read in Japanese Lit, I am getting a sense that there is this marvelous quietness to a lot of their stories and I guess Murakami is the king of it.

    • sakura Says:

      Yes, there is often a sense of stillness and reflection (amongst all the madness and violence of life, of course) which I really love. Reminds me a little of stepping into a quiet space like a garden or shrine just a tiny step away from a busy street.

  5. Says:

    Are you sure this review shouldn’t have been in your umamimart posts, given all the food described and consumed in the book?

    I liked the quietude and whimsy of the conversations that appear to cover up all the inner turbulence (like a duck – placid above water, furiously paddling below), especially in the woman. Yet we never know what the Sensei is really thinking, do we?

    And that briefcase!

    • sakura Says:

      True – it did make me want to go to Japan and eat! I like your analogy of the duck and yes, you never really know what the Sensei is thinking, how he is actually feeling. I think I found that a bit of a problem when it came to his relationship with Tsukiko.

  6. […] reviews of Strange Weather in Tokyo: Tony’s Reading List, Open Journal, Chasing Bawa, Reading […]

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