Along with Miyuki Miyabe and Natsuo Kirino, Keigo Higashino is one of Japan’s foremost writers of mysteries and I’ve been meaning to try some of his books which he publishes at a prolific rate. Of course, that would mean slogging through the Japanese which, let me tell you, is no mean feat for someone whose knowledge of kanji is akin to a primary school student. I really need to study more. So when I spotted Teresa’s review of The Devotion of Suspect X, I knew I had to get my hands on this one. I’m a huge fan of Galileo, the Japanese tv series based on Higashino’s short stories featuring the genius physicist Manabu Yukawa (called Detective Galileo by his police friend) so was thrilled to see he featured in this new English tranlsation. It was only after the first few pages that I realised I had actually seen the film version of The Devotion of Suspect X a few years ago on a flight to Japan. But the thing about Higashino’s stories is that his plots are pretty intricate, following the rules of logic and science, that I knew I’d probably forgotten howdunnit.

In The Devotion of Suspect X, we meet Yasuko Hanaoka who lives with her daughter, Misato, in a small flat and works at a local bento shop providing takeaway lunches for hungry workers. When her ex-husband, Togashi, comes looking for her and causing trouble, she finds herself in a nightmare situation with a now dead ex-husband and her quiet and unremarkable life with her daughter in ruins. When her solitary neighbour, Ishigami, offers to help her dispose of the body, she is unable to refuse. For Ishigami isn’t just a high school, he’s also a mathematical genius.

This isn’t a mystery in the conventional sense where we happen upon a dead body and the detectives look for clues to unravel the killer. We already know who died and who killed him and who disposed of the body. What I found interesting was the way Higashino goes through the detectives search while simultaneously showing us how Yasuko and Ishigami deal with staying a step ahead. The only unknown quantity is Manabu Yukawa, assistant prof at Tokyo’s Imperial University and Ishigami’s classmate from 20 years ago who happens to be a friend of the investigating detective, Kusanagi. Yukawa himself is a slightly eccentric experimental physicist who is happy to have found his friend again with whom he can talk shop. But this is where things go wrong for Ishigami as Yukawa is also a scientific genius who can see things in ways that an ordinary person perhaps can’t.

Apart from Ishigami’s modus operandi and his strategies to solving the problem of Yasuko’s predicament, perhaps the thing I found most interesting about the novel were the characters. On one hand you have the usual suspects: Yasuko, a strong yet fragile woman who has managed to claw her way out of working in a hostess bar and an abusive husband to live a quiet life with her daughter; Ishigami, a loner who is secretly in love with his beautiful neighbour; Kusanagi, the usual detective. But then there is Yukawa who, although I admit, is also stereotyped as a physicist with free will, provides the human face to the eternal dilemmas faced by people and the consequences of their actions. Crime novels are often described as the perfect vehicle to examine the human condition and it’s all there in Higashino’s novel. Although set in contemporary Tokyo, there is a distinct old world feel to Higashino’s novel, reminiscent of the mysteries of Akimitsu Takagi such as The Tattoo Murder Mystery (which I recommend strongly!) with the detective and professor sleuthing combo, something which I find comforting yet still riveting. Now I’m itching to read his short story collections for more intricate problem solving.

The translation by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander didn’t cause me any issues once I got passed the use of math instead of maths. Teresa pointed out the stilted nature of the dialogue and I’m not sure whether that’s the way Higashino writes or because of the translation. In some ways I’ve come to expect translations of Japanese fiction to sound a certain way.

I admit I have a weakness for a bit of maths and physics in my fiction (as separate from sf, which I also like), and if it’s in a mystery, even better. I also misleadingly thought that Yukawa was somehow related to Hideki Yukawa, Japan’s first Nobel Laureate in Physics. I know, I like to see connections where none exist.

On an aside, the tv series Galileo introduced a female detective to go sleuthing with the dashing Yukawa instead of his friend Detective Kusanagi, although he does make cameo appearances. Hmm. At least it works.

I’d like to thank the lovely people at Little, Brown who kindly sent me a copy of to review. The Devotion of Suspect X will be published in August 2011 so put it in your diaries!

I read this as part of In Spring It Is The Dawn’s Hello Japan! May mini-challenge: Mystery and Mayhem. I know I’m a little late but I just wanted to share!

And it’s also my first offering for Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 5!

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I’ve been a big fan of In Spring It Is The Dawn’s Hello Japan! mini-challenges although I haven’t been participating as often as I like recently (bad me!) This month’s challenge is to answer five questions about all things Japanese, so check it aht!

My favourite Japanese store is Matsumoto Kiyoshi or Matsukiyo because it has the largest range of cosmetics and toiletries at very decent prices and you can spend a whole day there. Make sure you check it out if you visit Japan as many of the stores also have customer service people who speak English! And you’ll spot them a mile away because of their garish yellow and black signboards. My next favourite place to while away a few hours is any Japanese convenience store or combini. Love them.

The best Japanese book I’ve read this year is The Samurai by Shusaku Endo.

What Japanese author(s) or book(s) have you enjoyed that you would highly recommend to others?

Yukan Club by Yukari Ichijo is a manga like no other. It has everything in it: romance, the supernatural, mystery and sports and you learn so much about history, mythology and culture in Japan (and other countries too). Plus the illustrations are GORGEOUS.

What is something Japanese that you’d like to try but haven’t yet had the chance?

I would love to try shojin ryori, the cuisine of the monks perfected by classically trained Japanese cooks. It’s all vegetarian but in a way you’ve never seen before. Here’s an example from NYC.

You’re planning to visit Japan next year. Money is not a concern. What is on the top of your list of things you most want to do?

Go to a renowned onsen and sit in a rotenburo (that is outside) while it’s snowing. No monkeys, of course. Visit Okinawa as my mama says it’s beautiful. And to go to Kagoshima and research my grandfather’s family history.

Bonus question: What was your favourite Hello Japan! mini-challenge topic?

My favourite topic was the one with food!

What topic would you like to see as a Hello Japan! mini-challenge in 2011?

I wouldn’t mind a topic asking us to talk about our favourite characters in a book/film/manga. That would be fun!

What about you?

In between reading my books ve-ry slowly, I’ve also been reading a number of manga and was contemplating doing a little update. So what a coincidence that In Spring It Is the Dawn’s Hello Japan June Mini-challenge is all about manga! As most of you will probably know, Japanese manga tend to run into many volumes and go on for years. So I’m still waiting to finish several, but have also found some complete series. The story-telling and illustrations will amaze you and I urge you to give them a try if you can.

Monster by Urasawa Naoki – I read Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys last year and was impressed by the clever story which combined a futuristic Japan after some kind of an apocalypse with the nostalgic simplicity of a 70s childhood. Great story, although I was a little dissapointed with the ending. Urasawa’s previous serial manga is Monster about Dr. Tenma, a genius Japanese brain surgeon working in Germany who decides to operate on an injured boy over an important political figure. His choice changes his life as his patron deserts him, his fiancée leaves him and his career stalls. But things go from bad to worse as his patron and other surgeons are mysteriously found poisoned and the boy Tenma saved dissappears with his twin sister. Urasawa is a master storyteller as we follow Tenma as he tries to prove his innocence and search for the truth behind the murders, uncovering the horrors perpetuated by East Germany during the Communist era which led to the birth of a ‘monster’ who kills for the greatest prize of all. I have to say I was very impressed with Monster. Forget the unlikely scenario of Tenma being the sole Japanese in this series running around Europe; Urasawa keeps you guessing as to what will happen whilst simultaneously peeling away the secrets to reveal the true reason behind the creation of the ‘monster’. Brilliant.

Pluto by Tezuka Osamu and Urasawa Naoki – again another brilliant sff manga. Reminiscent of Asimov’s robot world in which humans and robot live together in an uneasy alliance, Pluto is the re-imagining of Tezuka’s most famous work, Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy) which was first serialised in the early 1950s. Tezuka is probably Japan’s best loved mangaka. Originally a medical doctor he turned to writing manga post-war creating some iconic manga such as Atom, Buddha and Black Jack. Urasawa opens Pluto with the murder of one of society’s most beloved robots. As more high-profile robots are destroyed, one, a police robot, is determined to find out who is trying to exterminate them. In order to do so, he must delve back into his and their pasts, their involvement in the last war and try and remember who wants them dead. Urasawa deals with deep-rooted fears and emotions in a way which makes you question what it is to be human. Profound.

Naruto by Kishimoto Masashi – I wasn’t sure about reading this as it seemed to be a boy’s comic, but seeing how popular it is, I thought I’d give it a try. And boy am I glad I did. It’s all about the world of the ninja (and who doesn’t want to know more about the ninja?) I’m still halfway so can’t say how it will pan out (the series is still ongoing), but the manga is about Uzumaki Naruto, a student ninja, an orphan and a boy who has had the evil and extremely dangerous nine-tailed fox sealed within him. We follow him as he learns to be accepted, finds friends and trains to be a ninja, all the while aiming to be the strongest in his village whilst keeping the seal intact. Great fun!

Bleach by Kubo Tite – Oh, what can I say about this series? It’s a totally new concept of telling a story about reapers (shinigami) who collect souls from the recently deceased and shepherds them to their next destination. Kubo takes inspiration from Japanese history and folklore where the reapers dwell in Soul Society controlled by the laws of bushido. They dress, speak and think feudal Japan but with all the techonological kit that makes life so convenient. Kurosaki Ichigo is a high school student who encounters a strange girl named Kuchiki Rukia who turns out to be a shinigami. Ichigo is immediately drawn into a parallel world where he must battle hollows, souls without closure who are unable to find peace. Kubo Tite’s long-running series is still on-going and it’s utterly brilliant. I particularly like how the Soul Society’s nemesis who controls the hollows and their world, Hueco Mundo, are all given Spanish names (as opposed to the usual English/French/Latin so liberally used in manga). There is a huge cast of characters, both reaper and human, there’s love, family, regret and anger and I guarantee you will fall for this series as hard as I did. Temple Library Reviews has a wonderful post about Bleach, so check it out.

And finally, Vagabond by Inoue Takehiko based on Yoshikawa Eiji’s novel Musashi about the life of the famous swordsman. Miyamoto Musashi, author of The Book of Five Rings and master of the sword, is given the fictional treatment here and it’s wonderful to see how Inoue brings him to life. Musashi starts life as Takezo, who has his first taste of battle at 17 at the Battle of Sekigahara. Finding his strength and battle rage, he goes from one place to another trying to become the strongest warrior. With time, he realises that just killing someone doesn’t make you strong unless you have dealt with your inner demons first. And his meeting with the Buddhist monk Takuan as well as other great sword masters profoundly changes his view of life and introduces him to the ideas of Zen Buddhism. Although the violence may put some people off, I found there were moments of intense quiet and depth when reading Vagabond. Musashi will meet his greatest rival Sasaki Kojiro and their fight will become the stuff of legend, but I’m not there yet as the series isn’t finished!

These days I find myself reading more shonen (boys) manga as it’s more plot-driven compared to shojo (girls) manga which tends to be all about lurve with achingly beautiful illustrations. I never used to question this distinction when I was younger but it’s beginning to bother me a little now… I guess I don’t like being categorised.

I read all of these in English online as I’m finding it difficult to get my regular supply of manga in Japanese. The plots move at such a fast pace that reading them in translation didn’t bother me at all.

Have you tried any of these, and what is your favourite?

I’m not such a sporty person, although I’m passable at most sports except for basketball (I just can’t get the hang of dribbling as I’m perpetually out of synch) and never watch sports on tv except for cricket if Sri Lanka are playing, World Cup football and Japanese baseball (both pro and highschool – especially the summer tournament at Kōshien). My Japanese grandfather was a die-hard fan of Nagoya’s own pro baseball team the Chunichi Dragons. My sister and I only went to our first live baseball game after our grandfather passed away, but we spent many a happy weekend at his home watching baseball on tv. Well, we didn’t really have a choice (as he was in charge of the remote) but we slowly fell in love with the game and the Chunichi Dragons and I still treasure my Dragons baseball cap:

However, I figured that baseball is one sport that many of you would be aware of so I thought I’d write about something that is tangential but essential to baseball and other sports in Japan. One of the more memorable things about going to a live game is to see the ōendan or male cheerleading squad cheering like there’s no tomorrow. Cheerleading is traditionally a male occupation in Japan although American-style female cheerleaders have become popular in the last twenty years. As in Doraemon‘s costume above, the cheerleaders are traditionally garbed in a gakuran or Japanese school uniform for boys with very long jackets (hardcore outfits that sometimes make them difficult to tell apart from the delinquents such as in the film Crows Zero) or traditional Japanese costume and hachimaki (headbands).

The ōendan usually has a leader with a booming voice, a taiko drummer, a flag bearer and the squad. They may sing their school anthem, do a choreographed set of movements and belt out ‘Furē! Furē!’ which is the Japanese version of ‘Hurray! Hurray!’ It’s a great spectacle and if you have a chance to see it, don’t miss it!

Below are examples of the different types of cheerleading squads you can find in Japan. Most are highschool ōendans that may include some girls. They are all spectacular so have a peek!

Typical ōendan at a high school sports event – anime version.
Kitakyushu highschool ōendan – traditional.
Modern ōendan.
Ōendan with traditional fans.

How could I not participate in April’s Hello Japan mini-challenge hosted by In Spring It Is The Dawn when it features my name?

Hello, my name is Sakura and my Japanese grandfather named me after Japan’s most well-known and beloved flower. And every spring, as we drove through the city, he would say to me that everyone was calling my name.

Of course, growing up outside Japan meant that most of the time I was called Sa-koo-ra or Sa-kyoo-ra. Or Saki. Or Sak. Or Saaak as my nephews now call me. So only my mum and my Japanese friends say my name right. And Sri Lankans say my name slightly differently to the Japanese way, but not as distorted as the English way. So I’m used to it and it doesn’t bother me if people mispronounce my name. In fact I’m more used to people calling me Sakoora than the Japanese way. As it is, my surname is even more difficult to pronounce. When I introduce myself to a Japanese person, I get either of these two reactions: a great big smile as they are tickled pink to see someone who doesn’t look Japanese with a really Japanese name or an embarrassed silence because they think it is an alias because I want to be Japanese. Both make me smile.

One of the things that really made me happy when I was a student was that there were two beautiful cherry blossom trees in the front quad of my university. I didn’t notice them until my first spring there when all of a sudden they spectacularly burst into bloom, their whitish pink flowers like cotton candy, petals swirling in the London wind. It made me feel less home-sick. So if you are ever near Gower Street in London on a lovely spring day, why not stop by UCL and have a peek?


(© UCL)

And to finish off, I decided to celebrate spring by treating myself to some of this from Minamoto Kitchoan, a famous Japanese confectioners with stores worldwide:

Sakura-mochi is made of delicately flavoured sticky rice, lightly pounded so that it still retains some of the grainy texture, filled with azuki paste. The slightly salty flavour of the mochi from the preserved sakura flowers (the pink thing on top) contrasts nicely with the sweet red bean paste. And it’s wrapped in a leaf from the sakura tree which is also edible. It’s one of my favourite Japanese traditional sweets (wagashi) and to me, it heralds the arrival of spring.

Minamoto Kitchoan 44 Piccadilly, London W1J 0DS

Recently , I’ve been listening to quite a bit of J-pop thanks to youtube and all the other free internet sites. Japanese pop music always reminds me of the summer holidays when I used to visit Japan. Most of the music I liked were tied in with the J-dramas I was obsessively watching, and when I listen to the songs now, they bring back vivid memories of the lazy summer days, all hot and languid watching tv and eating shaved ice or kakigori with strawberry syrup.

The January mini-challenge for Hello Japan! is Music to My Ears and it’s great because I can talk about all of my favourite J-pop!

I lived in Japan in the mid-80s, and I hear now that 80s J-pop is all the rage again among the Ara-4 (around 40) crowd – there seems to be a nostalgic boom going on in Japan.

I remember the first Japanese tape (!) I bought was that of Kawai Naoko in which I fell in love with one particularly melancholic song. I think ever since I’ve always loved songs in the minor key. But I’ve since lost the tape, never remembered the name of the song and only recently stumbled across it on youtube after endlessly searching for it. The song is called Gimonfu and is beautiful.

Of course like everyone in the 80s I used to watch the weekly music show The Best Ten hosted by Kuroyanagi Tetsuko (who wrote Totto-chan) and was a big fan of the legendary Yamaguchi Momoe (who famously retired at 21) Matsuda Seiko, Nakamori Akina, Oginome Yoko and The Chequers amongst other mainstream idols.

I also used to watch a lot of anime such as Touch by Adachi Mitsuru whose theme songs by Iwasaki Yoshimi were also my favourites.

Utada Hikaru, Misia and Ayaka are three artists I love listening to and who are all million sellers in Japan. And more recently I’ve been listening to Arashi’s Ashita no Kioku – yup, I’m still obsessed with them – not so much for their singing but because their variety programmes are just hiliarious. They really work well together as a team and the banter between all five of them are just spot on and hysterical.

Kind of like SMAP who were the first idols/boy band who became famous not just for their singing skills (which, let’s admit, aren’t really that great) but for their tv shows, comedic flair, J-dramas and their cooking skills (check out Bistro Smap in their variety show SmapxSmap which has been on air since 1996). They are good at everything and have taken over the Japanese entertainment industry!

I was all set to talk about my favourite shrine in Nagoya, Atsuta Jingu, when I reread the December mini-challenge for Hello Japan! and realised I had to write about temples and shrines in Kyoto. Kyoto is one of the places that all Japanese people would have visited at least once in their lives as it is a popular destination for school and family trips. My family and I used to visit Kyoto when we lived in Japan and although I was young and uninterested in temples at the time, Kiyomizudera with its beautiful wooden structure is one of my favourite temples in the world. However as it is so famous, I decided that I would choose another temple for this task and who better to ask than my mother.

One of her favourite temples is Nanzen-ji with its beautiful zen garden where one can contemplate the nature of life and the universe. Although I don’t remember much of the temple when we visited over twenty years ago, I do however remember the garden with its carefully placed stones representing the islands and the precisely raked gravel representing the sea that surrounds them.


The Zen Garden (photo by Dao-hui Chen at Sacred Destinations) and Sanmon Gate (photo from Wikipedia)

Nanzen-ji was built during the middle Heian period in 1291 by Emperor Kameyama on the site of what used to be an imperial palace.

A famous story attached to Nanzen-ji is that of Ishikawa Goemon, a legendary hero and thief reminiscent of Robin Hood, who was famously boiled alive in a cauldron for attempting to assassinate Toyotomi Hideyoshi during the sengoku or warring states period in 16th century Japan. Goemon is the subject of many kabuki plays and in the most famous one, in an act titled Sanmon Gosan no Kiri, sits on the roof of Sanmon gate smoking a pipe and enjoying the view.

Apart from plays, there are numerous stories and films about Goemon, and he is even credited as an illustrious ancestor of Ishikawa Goemon XIII in one of my favourite anime series Lupin III by Monkey Punch which I used to watch as a child. A re-imagined historical fantasy film Goemon directed by Kazuaki Kiriya was recently released in Japan.

I seem to always go off topic, but I love to hear stories that are attached to monuments and buildings which bring their history to life.