Tsukiko is 37, living alone when one night she happens to meet one of her former high school teachers, ‘Sensei’ (teacher in Japanese, real name: Mr. Harutsuna Matsumoto), in a Satora bar. He is at least thirty years her senior, retired and, she presumes, a widower.
After this initial encounter, the pair continue to meet occasionally to share food and drink sake, always without prior appointments. As the seasons pass – from spring cherry blossom to autumnal mushrooms – Tsukiko and Sensei come to develop a hesitant intimacy which I myself didn’t quite sure which way it would go.
I haven’t read similar sensitive and slow burning relationship building novel since Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and The Professor, so I am so glad to stumble into Hiromi Kawakami. What I said about The Housekeeper and The Professor was “There is no big action, big bang or dramatic plot. But a quiet reflection and awakenings of things that are left unsaid.” and this holds true for Strange Weather as well.
Standing on the street right then, I felt very far away from Sensei. I was keenly aware of the distance between us. Not only the difference in our ages in years, nor even the space between where each of us was at that moment, but rather the sheer distance that existed between us. – page 86
His (Kojima) behaviour was commensurate with his age. The passage of time had been evenly distributed for Kojima, and both his body and mind had developed proportionately.
I, on the other hand, still might not be considered a proper grown-up. I had been very grown-up when I was in primary school. But as I continued through secondary school, I in fact became less grown-up. And then as years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person. I suppose I just wasn’t able to ally myself with time. – page 104
There is a lot of mention about Japanese food and dishes here. Tsukiko and Sensei also went mushroom hunting one day. I have no idea there are so many types of mushrooms in Japanese cuisine. From left to right, these are Shiitake, Matsutake and Kaki Shimeji mushrooms.
Towards the middle of the novel, a younger man Kojima appears. Kojima was interested with Tsukiko. The contrast of Tsukiko’s relationship with an older man and a younger man became apparent. I found Tsukiko’s relationship with the similar age Kojima was a notion that I am comfortable with, whereas Tsukiko’s relationship with Sensei who is 30 years her senior, seems out of sort, at the beginning at least. I am keenly aware of my prejudice when I make this comparison.
The thing about reading a Japanese novel is its beautiful and simple prose. Readers of different cultures would find some of the courtship approaches a little hesitant and strange. This is a traditional and not melodramatic romance. The plot is perfectly paced, at times hilarious and quirky, other times moving and sad. Strange Weather in Tokyo is a tale of modern Japan and old-fashioned romance of two people from different generations. I am not into romance but this one I can take.
If you can ignore that silly UK cover of a woman floating in the air in the middle of the restaurant (I didn’t even think the restaurant is Japanese) and the funny title (I prefer The Briefcase), I think this make a very refreshing, haunting and a good heartwarming read.
I am reading this for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 7.
Paperback. Print length: 176 pages. Publisher: Portobello Book 2013. Source: Reading Library. Setting: Japan. Finished reading at: 17 August 2013. Translated brilliantly from Japanese by Allison Markin Powell.
The book was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2012.
Other views (Many people who read the USA edition have read this in January 2013):
Tony’s Reading List Tony writes a more in-depth review and questioned Tsukiko’s feeling for Sensei.
In Spring it is the dawn: “In the end, this is the story of two people whose lives crossed, and touched each other’s, for a short time. The ending was rather poignant and tied up the story beautifully while leaving the reader with a final image that lingers long after having closed the book.”
Beauty is a sleeping cat: “What I liked is how the book reads as if it had been painted with one of those very precise and fine calligraphy brushes. Kawakami can evoke an atmosphere and emotions in a few lines, and artfully captures how they are changing constantly. The story takes up almost a year and the change of seasons is captured as well as the change of emotions.”
Winston’s Dad: “This being Japan this very unusual relationship isn’t all about your full-blown passion, no it is more two lonely souls in the sea that is Tokyo that have end up being drawn together.”
About the Writer:
Hiromi Kawakami is born in Tokyo, Kawakami graduated from Ochanomizu Women’s College in 1980. She made her debut as “Yamada Hiromi” in NW-SF #16, edited by Yamano Koichi and Yamada Kazuko, in 1980 with the story So-shimoku (“Diptera”), and also helped edit some early issues of NW-SF in the 1970s.
She reinvented herself as a writer and made her second debut in mainstream literature with her first book, a collection of short stories entitled God (Kamisama) published in 1994. Her novel The Teacher’s Briefcase, also called Strange Weather in Tokyo in the UK (Sensei no kaban) is a love story between a woman in her thirties and a man in his seventies. She is also known as a literary critic and a provocative essayist.
Awards and honors
1996 Akutagawa Prize for Tread On A Snake (Hebi wo fumu)
2000 Itō Sei Literature Prize for Oboreru
2000 Woman Writer’s Prize for Oboreru
2001 Tanizaki Prize for The Teacher’s Briefcase (Sensei no kaban)
2007 Honored by the Ministry of Education for her novel Manazuru
2012 Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist for The Briefcase