Posts Tagged ‘Japanese’

It’s been a while. So much has happened yet so much left unwritten. But in a way, I feel that I am more alive these days than I had been before.

As I strive to live in each and every moment, I am thankful too, for every person and blessing along the way that has brought me to the beginning of another new journey.

This is a story about a new beginning many years ago.


Some partings are poetic. My favourite sensei gifted me one literally.

Years ago, she ignited my love for the Japanese language when she came to Singapore to teach at the foreign language centre run by our education ministry. I looked forward to every lesson she taught and enjoyed every minute of the time she spent with our class. Sadly, her contract ended two years later, and she had to return to Tokyo with her family.

Before she left, she gave me a book of poems by a Japanese writer Yuri Mitsuhara (光原百合). The title was Michi「道」, which means “The Path”. It was a pocket-sized picture book, or e-hon as the Japanese would call it. Each poem was accompanied by a delicately beautiful hand-drawn illustration of forests, fields, hills or lakes by the award-winning Niigata-born illustrator, Ken Kuroi (黒井健).

Mitsuhara herself was born in Hiroshima and studied English literature and linguistics in Osaka University. She is well known in Japan for her large volume of works, ranging from Japanese mystery novels and translations of English novels to poetry and e-hon. Michi was published in 1989 and was one of her earliest works.

The book featured 14 short poems and my favourite was the opening piece Tabi no Hajime ni 「旅の初めに」, which means “The Beginning of a Journey”. It aptly summed up the anticipation and trepidation that I, and probably my sensei too, had felt at that time – she had found a new job in Tokyo and I was awaiting the start of my junior college years.

As our paths diverged and took us further and further away on our respective journeys, we lost contact with each other.

Three weeks ago, when I retrieved the book from my bookshelf, it suddenly dawned upon me that perhaps there could be clues to where my sensei was right now. I decided to turn to Google.

Thanks to the proliferation of social media, her profile popped up in one of the search results, much to my delight. With the click of a button, and an email that she wasn’t expecting, we were reunited online.

Amazingly, both of us were about to begin our new adventures once again. I am going back to school for my full-time studies, while my sensei is taking up a new teaching position in Paris. It felt as if everything had gone a full circle.

And here’s the poem. I couldn’t find any English translation, so this is my feeble attempt at translating it.

The Beginning of a Journey

The mountain paths are difficult

So set your sights on the tree in the distance

And take your steps towards it

Look up if you think you have lost your way

Keep your eyes on the tree

And you will arrive there someday

You can reach for a milestone far away

Or aim for a goal, oh so high

When you traverse a path that is long and far












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Just finished the latest of my read-on-the-train collection of novels, Owner of Strong Destiny (強運の持ち主) by Maiko Seo (瀬尾まいこ).

Those familiar with Japanese cinema may recall a 2007 movie Happy Dining Table (幸福の食卓) – I haven’t had the chance to watch it actually. Anyway, that was the movie adaptation of the novel of the same title by the 35-year-old writer.

The bunkoban (文庫本) or A6 novel-size volume version of Owner was launched in May this year. (More about the beauty of the bunkoban format another time.)

I wasn’t exactly looking out for Seo’s works in particular. In fact I was checking the bestseller chart in the bookstore in late May when I saw the novel sitting on the display deck in front of me. It was among the top ten bestsellers for that week. And since its cover illustration was so kawaii, I decided to give it a try.

I’ve judged a book by its cover, yet again. 🙂

And as you can tell, it has taken me some time to complete the whole novel. But that’s the point: The Train Reader is never in a hurry to finish a book. That’s how she likes to enjoy her book and train ride.


Owner of Strong Destiny by Maiko Seo (2009)

Owner of Strong Destiny by Maiko Seo (2009)

Owner of Strong Destiny flows like a Japanese idol drama; the dialogues are entertaining, and there are inspirational, thought-provoking moments in every chapter.

The protagonist Louise Yoshida is a former OL- (or what the Japanese call “office lady”) turned-fortune teller who has her little shop in a corner of a shopping mall. She adopts an English name and a sombre wardrobe, under the advice of her mentor Julia Aoyanagi, so that she looks the part.

But in reality, Louise is more of a people reader, dishing out her assessments of situations troubling her customers and predictions of their futures based on how they dress, how they speak and how they react to her gentle probes.

She relies on her gut feelings far more than her astrological and numerological calculations. On one occasion when she could not figure out the answers for a young customer, she even resorted to stalking him to find out what exactly went wrong in his life.

Her intuitions are sharp and her predictions are often accurate. Or rather, she reads people well.

She even used her skills to her own benefit by persuading one customer into breaking up with her boyfriend, so that she herself could be with him. She had found out through her calculations that this man’s stars shone bright. And she wanted him for herself.

Sounds like a manipulative, scheming boyfriend snatcher with an unfair advantage, but Seo’s Louise has a charm that makes her difficult to dislike.

She is the unassuming, undemanding girlfriend who enjoys simple pleasures in life like going grocery-shopping at the supermarket with her boyfriend on their rare and infrequent dates.

She readily accepts his quaint concoctions in the kitchen for their dinners and takes delight in seeing him wolf down his own wierd-tasting creations with relish.

With her customers, she has a rather humane set of business philosophy: she always points out the bright spots no matter how dim and miserable their futures may seem, so that they leave her shop with a greater sense of confidence and their hopes and dreams alive.

Whilst she does good business out of reading people’s fortunes, Louise turns out to be most insensitive to the change that is happening to the life of the very man she loves.

It takes another person, her assistant, to point out to her that her boyfriend’s stars are going weak. And then we see how she goes to great lengths to ensure that his future remains charmed, using all the help she can get out of her professional practice.

Neither is she certain, or even aware of her own future. When her apprentice, whose intuitions work more accurately than her own, tells her that something in her life is ending, that sends her into an unusually unsettled mode.

I have never known much about fortune telling, but Seo’s Louise opened my eyes to how people’s behaviours fall into recognisable patterns, sometimes even according to the changing seasons. Yet predictable as they may seem, people can still surprise us at times.

The unusual only seems so, because of the human tendency to assume too much.

Owner is ideal for light reading, like a cup of delicate green tea that soothes the nerves at the end of a long workday.

Owner of Strong Destiny is published by Bunshun Bunko (文春文庫).

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Looks like Ken’ichi Matsuyama (松山ケンイチ), one of the red-hot idols in the Japanese pop cultural world, not only sells jeans, mobile phones and candies, but is also helping to move books off the shelves with his looks.

And we’re not talking about the manga series called Detroit Metal City (DMC) or the one titled Death Note.

The young actor is known for his leading roles as a very confused singer in the movie adaptation of DMC and uber-cool detective L in the movie versions of the latter.

Kadokawa summer 2009This year, he became the face of Japanese publisher Kadokawa Books’ marketing campaign “Discover: Kadokawa Books – 100 Books of Summer” (発見。角川文庫 夏の100冊).

Apparently, the 60-year-old publisher has been rolling out its marketing blitz every summer. (And so I reckoned I should be posting my entry here before summer is over in the Northern Hemisphere.).

And where can Matsuyama’s presence be found?

On TV, in black and white commercials that featured him reading or walking in surrealistic environments. Think dialogues that go: “‘How are you? I am a human being.’ ‘I’m a human being too. Nice to meet you.'” You get the idea.

If you don’t, try this:

And on airwaves, in radio commercials featuring Mastuyama’s readings of excerpts from the late writer-director-photographer Shūji Terayama’s (寺山修司) novels. Nothing fanciful. Just Matsuyama’s calming voice luring you into the world of the spoken words, and hopefully the written ones as well.

Matsuyama bookmark frontOn the bookmarks in the 100 books recommended for summer reading. This might have driven some fans to lay their hands on as many copies of the books as possible, though you might wonder how many books sold are actually read.

Of course, plastering his face all over the books probably does the job best. Like printing special editions of classics with him as the cover boy instead of featuring the regular illustrations on the book cover. So now, you can have a forlorn-looking Matsuyama gazing into the stars on your copy of Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad (銀河鉄道の夜).

And we see how the publisher has harnessed star power to sell books, even age-old ones.

A cool and edgy Mastuyama aside, there is also a cute hippo mascot doing the job of attracting buyers for reasons other than the books themselves. Like mobile phone accessories, tote bags, tee shirts and even a trolley suitcase which readers could exchange for with their hard-earned loyalty points chalked up over several purchases.

The publisher even offers pretty protective book covers which come in seven designs. Readers are entitled to one for every two books purchased.

Unfortunately, our local bookstores do not offer the same promotion here…

So there goes my classy Girl with A Pearl Earring book cover. And the cheery Keroro Gunsō cover.


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bookmarksBooks are a wonderful invention. So are bookmarks.

And Japanese publishers seem to have the knack for binding the two in a perfect union.

Japanese books, especially novels, often come with delicately designed bookmarks nestled between the pages. And you never know what illustration or design your copy comes with.

I find delight in discovering the leaf of paper between the pages of my newly bought book. Like my latest purchase, that came with a sleek bookmark bearing the image of Japanese idol Ken’ichi Matsuyama of Death Note fame. (More about that another time.) Wonder if any other reader shares this tiny ripple of excitement as I do when opening a new book.

This slip of paper probably doesn’t cost the publisher much, but it definitely goes a long way towards giving the reader greater convenience and a more gratifying reading experience. Not to mention how well it serves as a constant reminder to the reader of the name of the publisher.

A practical touch, for publisher and reader alike.

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