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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Silver Spoon - A Book Review

Stone Bridge Press recently sent me a copy of The Silver Spoon (Gin no saji) book written by renowned Japanese author Naka Kansuke (surname first) (1885-1965)... it's a non-fiction book childhood memoir that was originally serialized in a Japanese daily newspaper back in 1913.

Called a 'children's story for adults', I was sure I would hate it, as I just don't like reading autobiographical stories... which if you know me seems pretty damn stupid considering that's what the original intent of Japan-It's A Wonderful Rife was all about.

In my case, however, I tend to prefer to read historical books, as well as fantasy or detective stories with either a science-fiction bend to them or preferably if they are set in some time in the past before the advent of jet planes and DNA analysis... it means I like it when science doesn't make things so difficult for the criminal... and when detectives relied more on deduction than a crime lab to do their dirty work.

How, I thought, could I possibly be interested in the childhood tales of a Japanese writer I've never heard anything about?

Boy, was I wrong. The Silver Spoon is a fascinating look at the personal lives of the average Japanese person in those heady early years after samurai had their power taken away, and when Japan was just beginning to open itself up to the West and Western societal idealogies.

It was a time when Japan was confused between new and traditional... with traditional taking a backseat to things the rest of the world had to offer.

But that's not what the stories are about.

Naka is a master weaver of words... drawing the reader into an era none of us have experienced for ourselves.

Naka Kansuke's story is hardly sentimental.... and that's what makes it good. There's nothing wrong with sentimentality if things are interesting, but heck, if it's not it becomes schlock.

I wonder now, however, if the authors story is perhaps MORE relevant as a poignant look back at life in Japan 125 years ago... than it was when it was first published in 1913, when it could only have been a sentimental look back as his youth.

One of my favorite stories/chapters in the whole book is Chapter 3, regarding his old Aunt who comes to live with him, the sickly child.

His aunt had previously had white mice all over their house--a critter considered to be a good luck charm by the Japanese. Me... I would figure one such mouse to be lucky, and any more a veritable infestation... and I think the author with his adult sensibility relays that to the reader from his perch in 1913.

Besides coming to look after the young Naka Kansuke, the Aunt requires a change of pace after her husband has died from cholera back at her good luck charm house.

While the more astute among us might postulate that perhaps the cholera and the plethora of mice might indeed be connected, we instead learn that the Aunt instead believes her husband's death to be caused by a pox delivered by Christians coming from their far-off lands to try and kill the Japanese.

Not only does it speak of 1880s Japan's superstitious nature and disregard for science--perhaps that aspect of medical science had not yet been talked about in Japan--but it also discusses Japan's belief that maybe the gaijin (foreigners) aren't nice...

Could the gaijin threat to Japan and her traditional ways be a deadly threat? Is this not a warning for Japan to shun the ways of the west lest Japan's traditional ways die?

Not all stories are as excellent as that, but they are darn near close.

I really thought I would hate the book. I've read a few Japanese writers in the past, and despite everyone raving about them, all I ever took out of them was Japan's self-loathing... and to be honest, I'm surrounded by people who self-loathe or have mental illness and dammit, as long as that's the case, I'd rather read something that's going to entertain me...

The Silver Spoon (Gin no saji) did just that. I wish I had a paper book version rather than the electronic one I received (I don't have any form of device other than a table top computer), so reading it involves me having to part my butt down on a hard chair and scrolling.

Granted many of you folks enjoy that... but I'm a traditionalist who likes to read about people's traditions.

The novel has been expertly translated by Sato Hiroaki (surname first) has won the P.E.N. American Center Translation Prize and the Japan-United States Friendship Commission Japanese Literary Translation Prize. Considered one of the foremost translators of Japanese literature and poetry, he has over 40 works of classical and modern Japanese poetry, prose, and fiction published in English.

It is a work of art and an excellent translation of a wonderful set of stories.

Perhaps we - you and I - should order our own copy directly from: Stone Bridge Press over at

The 208-page book can be purchased for US$19.95 or CDN$24.99.

At Stone Bridge Press - thank you Michael for sending me this book.... it is brilliant and a wonderful look at what Japan was like for the average person 125 years ago.

I do love me some history.

Andrew Joseph

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