#AsianLitBingo: The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino

“And so it came to pass that sisters who had been the best of friends were forced to follow separate paths. ‘Separate’ is not quite the right word. Our paths were more distinctly different, as if she were to follow the day and I the night; or she the inner road and I the outer, she to traverse the heavens and I the earth. That was the ‘law’ of the island – that was our ‘destiny’.

It feels like a bit of a gamble for Natsuo Kirino, best known for her crime/mystery novels, to have written this retelling of the Japanese creation myth.

Yet it also remains true to her female-focused narratives, with this being a more feminist rebelling.

Apparently when Kirino’s books, especially Out, were first published in Japan, many criticized  her plots and one radio DJ refused to speak to her because in Out, a woman murders her husband.

Also, later I realize that The Goddess Chronicle is part of the Canongate myth series and that Kirino was invited by the publisher to write a story based on ancient Japanese myth.

I didn’t know anything about this myth of Izanaki and Izanami before reading the book – and you don’t really need to but I guess it would enhance your reading of it.  Izanaki and Izanami are deities commanded to make the lands of Japan. Their first attempt resulted in a deformed island and upon consulting the other deities, they learn that it’s because Izanami (the female) had spoken first. And when they try procreating again, Izanaki speaks first and Izanami gives birth to the many islands of Japan. After giving birth to the fire deity, Izanami dies. Izanaki pursues her to the underworld. (You can read more here)

The Goddess Chronicle begins with a dual thread of a story of a young woman whose journey has echoes of the goddess’ life. Namima who lives on a tiny remote island, where the islanders believe they are ruled by ancient gods.

“They sustained our lives; the waves and wind, the sand and stones. We respected the grandeur of nature. Our gods did not come to us in any specific form, but we held them in our hearts and understood them in our own way.”

Her sister Kamikuu is apprenticed to the Oracle on her sixth birthday. She lives with her and learns from her. And she is to no longer see Namima again. Namima is tasked to carry food to Kamikuu. Despite the poverty and scarce resources of the village, the food for Kamikuu is bountiful and rich. Yet she barely eats it, and as is tradition, the leftovers are tossed into the sea

Namibia is due for a very different life.

“Kamikuu, Child of Gods, is yang. She is the high priestess who rules the realm of light. She resides at the Kyoido on the eastern edge of the island, where the sun rises. But you are yin. You must preside over the realm of darkness. You will live here, in the Amiido, on the western edge where the sun sets.

That is, she is to care for the dead. She is to live with them, tend to their decaying bodies, and never return to her village.

But Namima wants more than this dreadful life she is expected to live, just because she is second-born. Things take a very different turn for her when she meets a young man, a fellow outcast whose family is shunned because his mother cannot produce a female child.

We eventually meet the deities Izanaki and Izanami and gods being gods, their story does sound rather silly and petty but they will never change. Or will they?

It took me a while to get into this story. Sometimes with translations one can never tell – is it the translation or is it just how the original story is written? Quite a bit of over-explaining makes the narrative a bit clunky. But overall, I really enjoyed learning about this Japanese myth and I especially liked the human story running alongside. Although I so wish that there was a better resolution to Namima’s story.




I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – Retelling with Asian MC

Japanese lit, done three ways


I first visited Japan (Tokyo and Yokohama) in 2004. A friend was travelling through and invited me along (one major attraction was that we could crash at his cousin’s place – free accommodation in Tokyo, and in a nice central neighbourhood too). Tokyo was at once fascinating and overwhelming! The Asakusa temple and the street food! The craziness of the Shinjuku station. That awe-inspiring sight of Mt Fuji (and the many many elderly people making their ascent). Hitting the Tsukiji fish market for a sushi breakfast.

It was all so amazing that a few days after I returned to Singapore, I was back in Tokyo again, this time for a press junket for the Trocks (Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo). So it was for work, which meant interviews, and watching rehearsals and a performance (and marveling at their many Japanese fans who would hang around outside the theatre and hotel), and erm, staying at a rather nice Hilton.

And I’ve never been back since.

Isn’t that sad? Especially since I owe my Japanese flatmate (when we were in the UK in 2006-7) a visit. She’s become such a dear friend although we’ve only seen each other once since 2007.

I guess this is a long segue into what I’ve been reading recently, because in just a a couple of weeks I read three works of Japanese fiction: Natsuo Kirino’s Real World, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief, and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, thanks to holds (two e-books, one physical book) coming in at pretty much the same time.


This isn’t my first Natsuo Kirino read.

Out was a fascinating tale of murder in the suburbs, a young woman kills her husband and seeks help from her coworkers.

Real World has similar undertones, a murder in the suburbs, this time by a teenaged boy, and how it affects those around him. But perhaps because the cast of Real World is young, teenaged, and angst-y, there was this sense of irritation as I read this book. Erm yeah, I was a teenager myself, half a lifetime ago, and I was angst-y and moody and all that, but to empathise with a killer? Really?

Perhaps that might have been the point, that these teenagers were behaving like teens, self-absorbed, and Kirino offers no other viewpoint than theirs (from the perspective of four girls and the one boy). The boy, Worm, is probably the perspective I didn’t like the most. I appreciated that the girls were all so different, one is intellectual, another is the flirty girl obsessed with boys, another coming to terms with her homosexuality and her mother’s death, and Worm’s next-door neighbour Toshi who is just trying to fit in.

Like Out, Real World is less about the murder than the insight into the life of Japanese teenagers, trying to make their own path in this loud, brash, uncertain world. I was just a little ambivalent about it. But I’m still looking forward to reading more of Kirino’s books.

thiefNakamura’s Thief has one character at its core but he too is troubled one. He is, as the title suggests, a thief. We meet him as he deftly picks pockets, making sure to carefully choose only rich marks. He has become so adept at his job that he finds himself having picked pockets he doesn’t even remember.

Our thief finds himself being roped in for a big job, a robbery at a mansion that he later learns is just a cover-up for a bigger crime.

The Thief is not your typical crime novel. It is instead more of a kind of, well, a reflection on crime. There is some talk of a tower, a symbol for something I didn’t quite get and made me a little confused. And a bit of an philosophical meandering about how life is already laid out before us.

But it was still a relatively enjoyable read. The intricacies of his pickpocketing ways, his ‘mentorship’ of a young boy whom he catches shoplifting in a supermarket (at his mother’s request). This is the first of Nakamura’s works translated into English, it won the Oe prize and I’m curious about his others.

housekeeperprofessordivingpoolI’ve saved my favourite for last. Ogawa’s Revenge is a true treat (I’ve previously enjoyed her The Diving Pool and The Housekeeper and the Professor). The stories are written simply, but there is a constant element of creepiness, in a subtle way. They are separate yet linked somehow, faintly, obscurely, like a little secret between the reader and Ogawa.

“But the heart itself still appeared to be cowering in fear, the blood vessels trembling with each contraction. From close up, the sinews and folds of muscle seemed to conceal a mysterious code.”

Some of the stories that really stuck with me are Sewing for the Heart, where a bag maker has an unusual request; Tomatoes and the Full Moon, where a writer, on assignment in a seaside resort meets a strange woman and her dog; Afternoon at the Bakery, the opening story about a woman trying to buy strawberry shortcakes.

But you know what, writing a description about these stories seems to render them very trivial. I can’t tell you anymore about the stories because that really would be too revealing. And as I thought of the stories that stuck with me, I realized that each of them, in their own way, kind of did. Whether it be the way they are tied together or just the little details Ogawa slips in gently (but disturbingly), this collection of stories prods at you, like that dream that isn’t quite a nightmare yet you can’t shake it in the morning when you wake up.

It was simply quite brilliant.
Global Women of Color

These are my tenth and eleventh reads for the  the Global Women of Colour Challenge (challenge page).


natsuoNatsuo Kirino (桐野 夏生) quickly established a reputation in her country as one of a rare breed of mystery writers whose work goes well beyond the conventional crime novel. This fact has been demonstrated by her winning not only the Grand Prix for Crime Fiction in Japan for Out in 1998, but one of its major literary awards–the Naoki Prize–for Soft Cheeks (which has not yet been published in English), in 1999. Several of her books have also been turned into feature movies. Out was the first of her novels to appear in English and was nominated for an Edgar Award.

Kao ni furikakeru ame 
Tenshi ni misuterareta yoru 
Auto (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1997); English translation by Stephen Snyder as Out 
Mizu no nemuri hai no yume
Faiaboro burusu [Fireball Blues] 
Yawarakana hoho; French translation by Silvain Chupain as Disparitions
Dâku [Dark]
Gurotesuku; English translation by Rebecca L. Copeland as Grotesque
Riaru warudo; English translation by J. Philip Gabriel as Real World 
Zangyakuki; English translation as What Remains 
Boken no kuni
Yasashii Otona 

Short fiction:
Sabiru kokoro
Jiorama [Diorama]
Rozu gâden [Rose Garden] fuminori
Ambosu mundosu [Ambos Mundos] 

Fuminori Nakamura was born in 1977 and graduated from Fukushima University in 2000. In 2002, he won the prestigious Noma Literary Prize for New Writers for his first novel, A Gun, and in 2005 he won the Akutagawa prize for The Boy in the Earth. The Thief, winner of the 2010 Oe Prize, Japan’s most important literary award, is his first novel to be published in English.

yokoYoko Ogawa was born in Okayama, Okayama Prefecture, graduated from Waseda University, and lives in Ashiya, Hyōgo, with her husband and son. Since 1988, Ogawa has published more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction. In 2006 she co-authored “An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics” with Masahiko Fujiwara, a mathematician, as a dialogue on the extraordinary beauty of numbers.

Bibliography (translated works)
The Man Who Sold Braces (Gibusu o uru hito, ギブスを売る人, 1998); translated by Shibata Motoyuki
Transit (Toranjitto, トランジット, 1996); translated by Alisa Freedman, Japanese Art: The Scholarship and Legacy of Chino Kaori, special issue of Review of Japanese Culture and Society, vol. XV (Center for Inter-Cultural Studies and Education, Josai University, December 2003): 114-125. 
The Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain (Yūgure no kyūshoku shitsu to ame no pūru, 夕暮れの給食室と雨のプール, 1991); translated by Stephen Snyder, The New Yorker, 9/2004.
Pregnancy Diary (Ninshin karendā, 妊娠カレンダー, 1991); translated by Stephen Snyder, The New Yorker, 12/2005.
The Diving Pool: Three Novellas (Daibingu puru, ダイヴィング・プール, 1990; Ninshin karendā, 妊娠カレンダー, 1991; Dormitory, ドミトリイ, 1991); translated by Stephen Snyder
The Housekeeper and the Professor (Hakase no ai shita sūshiki, 博士の愛した数式, 2003); translated by Stephen Snyder
Hotel Iris (Hoteru Airisu, ホテル・アイリス, 1996)
Revenge, Translated by Stephen Snyder

A Japanese kind of weekend


It wasn’t really intentional but we had a rather Japan-filled weekend. It started with dinner at our new favourite Japanese restaurant just a ten-minute drive away. Yuki Sushi. A little more pricey than our regular Japanese restaurant but perhaps more authentic? Their grilled Saba was just absolute perfection. The right amount of seasoning, and that wonderful smokey flavor. Absolutely divine. We’ve been to this place twice so far and both times I’ve ordered this dish and both times I’ve been blown away. It was so good I forgot to take a photo. Instead you’ll have to be content with the top two pictures. The left hand corner is the husband’s chirashi. The right photo has the other two-thirds of my ‘combination dinner’: sushi and sashimi. It also came with rice, salad and miso soup.

The next day, we headed to San Jose to have ramen at Santouka, located in the Mitsuwa supermarket food court. And then some grocery shopping at the supermarket – fresh sashimi-grade unsliced pieces of fish (salmon, kanpachi and hamachi) and some fish roe and green tea. Homemade California rolls and some Popeyes fries chicken that a friend brought over rounded up the kind of Japanese dinner. Ok so maybe the fried chicken was not so Japanese!

To top it all off, I finished reading Natsuo Kirino’s Out. It was perhaps the first Japanese novel I’ve read that wasn’t dreamy. Instead it was ugly and nightmarish (but in an everyday way, if that makes sense) and kind of depressing. It’s not just because of the murder (it is crime fiction after all) but because of the lives of Kirino’s characters. At its heart are four women, colleagues in a bento factory. It’s a hard life – night shift, hours of standing in line scooping rice and curry, and rumours of a pervert lurking around the carpark and grabbing women. Life isn’t pleasant at home either. Masako might as well live on her own, as her husband and son both ignore her. Kuniko is heavily in debt and her boyfriend is on the verge of leaving her. Yoshie is a single mother and the caretaker of a bedridden mother-in-law. Yayoi has two young children and a husband who gambles and is besotted with an escort named Anna who works at a club owned by former gangster Satake. It’s not really a spoiler since it’s all over the synopsis but well, I’ll be a bit vague in case you’d like to find out for yourself: someone gets murdered and the body needs to be disposed off. Things get complicated and essentially, lives get turned upside down.

In an interview with Japan Review, Kirino explained that “being a woman in this society is mainly an anonymous existence. I don’t think the fact that the environment is such that women are nameless and overlooked is a good thing. For example, a young man once told me that until he read Out, he “never realized that regular middle aged women actually had a life.” What makes these women special is not that they committed a crime, but the circumstances around these normal women that cornered them into that situation. It’s often merely convenient to depict them as seeking an escape from their life through an act of crime.”

Kirino brings these women, these everyday down-on-their-luck women, and brings their story to light. This is the book’s strong suit – the everyday life of these women in the suburbs of Tokyo. Because sometimes it can head towards too much melodrama, too much gore. But overall, a good, gritty read.