Two Short Japanese Books (and Food, Lots of Food): ‘Kitchen’ by Banana Yoshimoto (1987) and ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ by Hiromi Kawakami (2012)

I don’t want to go for glib connections within foreign fiction, but I’ve been really struck by two books that were placed high-up on my 2016 reading pile. Yoshimoto’s ‘Kitchen’ and Kawakami’s ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ both left me with a sense of having peeked into fragmented lives across the globe.  They also both left me feeling very hungry; main characters share a methodical obsession with food leaving me, as a British reader, with an unsatisfied and ignorant craving for dishes that I could neither picture nor pronounce.

For the bereaved protagonists of the two stories that make up ‘Kitchen’, food is an escape from and link with the past.  Emotions are so difficult and love so complex that cooking and ritualising food and drink become powerful tools in the healing process.  The limitations of such a method are exposed, even the most mystical tea drinking ceremony cannot bring the dead back to life, but the necessity for discovering some way of making order in a shaken world is also sensitively and poignantly understood.

In ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ the loss is less defined.  Instead, two lonely souls find companionship through sharing food and drink.  The sensual listing of bar snacks and favourite dishes takes the place of more complex human emotions.  As the narrator tells us: ‘I was pretty sure that I wasn’t very good at this whole love thing.  And if being in love required so much effort, then I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of it anyway. ‘  It’s easier to construct routines around food and drink, but the characters are going to have to learn how passions and habits have a way ensnaring you; lives and food are both made for sharing.

These two books are precise, delicate and imbued with a quiet power that will stay with you long after their short reading time.  If Han Kang’s sublime ‘The Vegetarian’ dealt with the trauma of consumption in a sick society, these two volumes show food as redemptive, comforting and a desperately needed method for reaching out to others.   Higly recommended reads, though probably not for anyone contemplating diets or trying to reduce the wish to munch while reading.

As a side note: ‘The Vegetarian’, (reviewed here) is on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize shortlist and I highly, highly recommend it to everyone.


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8 Responses to Two Short Japanese Books (and Food, Lots of Food): ‘Kitchen’ by Banana Yoshimoto (1987) and ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ by Hiromi Kawakami (2012)

  1. I really like both these novels – and completely agree that they make you hungry!

  2. Pingback: Inspired by Diverse December: an A-Z of BAEM authors for 2016 | Shoshi's Book Blog

  3. What a great post! I personally found Strange Weather lacking a little but I think my expectations were too high. I definitely plan to read more Yoshimoto for this years JapLit Challenge!

    • SW is a very quiet book, and it did contain some moments when I felt ‘lost in translation’ (as I did with ‘The First Wife’), not that I didn’t get the story, but I did feel there was a lot of cultural resonance that I was missing. Overall, I loved the food so much that I’ll probably end up re-reading it some day, so clearly I still got a lot out of it! I look forward to following your Yoshimoto reading, this is the only book of hers that I’ve encountered, but I’m willing to add others to the TBR mountain.

  4. I really enjoyed Kitchen when I read it, but that was around 20 years ago so I can’t remember details. I’ve read a more recent book of hers – The Lake I think it’s called – and I liked it too. However, I haven’t heard of Strange weather in Tokyo. Just the title makes me want to read it!

    • Since writing this post, I’ve just started seeing ‘The Lake’ in bookshops. I’m not sure if it was there before and I just never looked, or if it’s another example of book related serendipity. Whichever, it’s duly been added to my insanely long to-be-read list…

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