Tag Archives: Japan

Mokusei! by Cees Nooteboom

Identity, time, space, art, photography, culture, passion and love.  These are just some of the topics that Nooteboom explores in his beautifully written, stirring novella.  Arnold Pessers is a Dutch photographer who gets a job with a travel agency to take photos in Japan for one of their brochures.  Pessers would rather spend his time doing more creative art projects, but assignments like this boring brochure are what pays his bills.  Nooteboom’s description of his character’s profession also gives us a hint at the numbness he feels about his life: “His world, and this was a fact to which he resigned himself, was a world of brochures, of ephemera that no one would ever look at again; the decay, the sell-out, the morass.”  Pessers instantly falls in love with the mysterious model he chooses for the photo shoot and over the course of five years he maintains a long distance yet fierce love affair with the woman he calls Mokusei.

When Pessers first arrives in Japan, he connects with De Goede, an old friend who works as a cultural minister in the Belgian Embassy.  As De Goede guides Pessers through different tourist attractions, they discuss the misperceptions that western tourists have about the Japanese people and its culture.  De Goede complains that visitors pick up “half-baked” ideas about Zen or Japanese history and think they know all about this culture:

They don’t speak the language and in most cases never will.  They know a little, which is really nothing, about Japanese culture, but that doesn’t bother them, they have something  better than knowledge, they have an idea about Japan.  And this idea always has to do with a certain form of asceticism or purity or whatever you like to call it.  To put it briefly, it comes down to this, that they are convinced that the Japanese have managed better than other people to keep their heritage intact, as if in some kind of pure, unadulterated culture.

The ugliness, the stupidity, the ruthless slavishness with which the Japanese copy our worst habits, the buying of mass products, the ridiculously aped decadence—they refuse to see it.

The many nuanced and misunderstood layers of this culture mirrors Pessers’s relationship with the Japanese model.  As they travel to Mount Fuji for the photoshoot and stay at a ryokan together, his time with her is intense, passionate, exotic and shatters him in so many ways: “It was passion that would burn him down to his roots and through which all that came before and after would fade, because this time it was love first and foremost and only secondly a story.”  In addition to sending letters and running up his phone bills to call her, he travels to Japan to see her several times over the course of the next five years.  He cannot find the words to describe to his friends what he feels about her.  Her presence in his life has caused him to reexamine his own existence and to look at his world differently.

Pessers doesn’t know very many details about her life in Japan.  She refuses to visit him in Europe and when he hints that he wants a life with her and children she tells him this is impossible because of her culture—her parents would never approve of such a union.  He has three different names for her, which add to the mystery about her identity and her culture:

Mokusei is one of the few Japanese plants that smell, he learnt later, and that was what he had called her from then on.  Now she had three names, one secret, only known to him as Snowy Mask, her own, Satoko, which he never used, and Mokusei.  By that name he wrote to her, it was a name that existed only for them.

The other Nooteboom title that I have read, Letters to Poseidon,  also showcases the author’s ability to take something mundane—a flower, the sea, a nickname, a landscape—and write about it in such a way that makes one look at it from a fresh, philosophical perspective.



Filed under Novella, Seagull Books, Uncategorized

Review: I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flasar

I received an review copy of this book from New Vessel Press.  This book was originally written and published in German in 2012.  The English version has been translated by Shelia Dickie.

My Review:
NecktieHikikomori is the Japanese term for youths who shut themselves into a room in their parent’s home and have very little contact with their family. According to Flasar, these young people may lock themselves away from society for up to fifteen years because they are overwhelmed by the expectations to conform and achieve in school and in their careers. Since being a hikikomori is an embarrassment to a family, no one knows the exact number of them that exist.

Flasar captures the loneliness, isolation and sadness that is felt by a hikikomori through the character of Taguchi Hiro in I CALLED HIM NECKTIE.  Taguchi has not come out of his bedroom in his parent’s home for two years and he even eats the meals that his mother leaves at his door in isolation.  One day Taguchi remembers the pleasantness of childhood when his mother would bring him to the park, so he ventures outdoors and sits in the same park.  He has waves of anxiety and nausea as he is trying to fight through his agoraphobia and the one thing that calms him down is a man who, dressed in a suit and tie, sits on a bench near him and meticulously eats the lunch from his bento box.

Taguchi and the man he calls “Necktie” show up at the park every weekday and eventually they strike up a conversation.  Taguchi’s family, neighbors, and teachers at school all put a tremendous amount of pressure on him to succeed and to fit in.  His conformity leads to what he believes are tragic consequences that involve two of his fellow classmates.  When the pressure to conform becomes too much, he closes himself off from his family, declares, “I can no longer” and he does not speak for two years.  The first person to whom Taguchi speaks after those two years is “Necktie” from the park and once Taguchi starts talking he does not stop.

“Necktie,” whose real name is Ohara Tetsu, comes to the park everyday because he has lost his job and cannot bring himself to admit this fact to his wife.  He adheres to his normal routine of waking up everyday at 6 a.m., dressing for work, taking the bento box that his wife has prepared, and riding the commuter train.  Ohara is the result of what happens to the youth in society who do conform: he is tired and worn out and thoroughly embarrassed when his career is taken away.

Ohara and Taguchi spend hours confiding in each other and through their conversation we learn of their struggles, heartaches, losses and phobias.  They both needed human interaction and human contact and fate brought them together at just the right time.  It is worth noting that they rarely have a dialogue in the book.  Either one of them is talking at length or the other.  They each longed for someone to truly listen without judgment and that is the gift that they give to one another.

The writing of the book is terse and curt with no quotations marks.  This is fitting for Taguchi and Ohara as their stories spill out from their mouths, sometimes in fragments and sometimes in philosophical reflections;  it seems as though they are desperate to share their lives with each other and make a connection as urgently as possible.

I CALLED HIM NECKTIE is an uplifting story about two people who feel isolated and abandoned by their society but find comfort in the attentive ear of one another.  I highly recommend this short, yet inspiring tale.


About The Author:
FlasarMilena Michiko Flašar (St. Pölten, 1980) studied comparative literature, Germanic and Roman languages at the University of Vienna, and taught German to non-native speakers. After several successful publications in a variety of literary magazines, she made her debut in 2008 with the collection Ich bin (I am). This volume includes three short stories about love and parting. The short story Okaasan – Meine unbekannte Mutter (Okaasan – My unfamiliar Mother) appeared in 2010, telling the story of her dying demented mother. She has received several prizes and scholarships for her work. Meanwhile she has started writing full-time. In feburary 2012 her new book Ich nannte ihn Krawatte was published.

Visit New Vessel Press for their fantastic selection of titles.  You can also download a translation from their site of the Chekhov short story “The House Call.”




Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation