Growing pains




By Shogo Oketani and translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa
(Berkeley, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 2011, 212 pp., $9.95, paperback)

A wonderful and poignant story told through the eyes of 9-year-old Kazuo Nakamoto, who comes of age in Tokyo. Shogo Oketani manages to entice the reader, through simple everyday images and details, to experience a changing, confusing, and even a self-doubting post-war Japan. Kazuo shares his everyday life, book-ended by Japan’s rise out of the ashes of World War II, the Tokyo Olympics, and the country on the cusp of “Japan Inc.”

Oketani deftly explores the inevitability of change, search for identity, and even self-doubt through short nuanced snapshots of J-boys’ lived experiences in less than a year’s time.

Oketani describes a Japan where a 9-year-old Kazuo and his friend are being inundated with forces beyond their control: American TV programs like “Leave it to Beaver,” Lassie,” “The Three Stooges” and “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.” Kazuo and his friends live in an era where they can play in an empty lot in Tokyo, practicing to be the next Olympic gold medal winner like Bob Hayes, where families still inhabit small company housing, and one can still pick up fresh handmade tofu daily at the neighborhood tofu-ya.

Of course, the owner/maker of fresh tofu dies and Kazuo, while practicing to be the next Bob Hayes, realizes that he is not built like Hayes and, in fact, sees that there are no runners who look like him. Moreover, he knows that Japan suffered its first defeat ever during World War II. He is also aware that a non-Japanese won the gold medal for judo during the Tokyo Olympics.

Oketani uses Kazuo and friends to explore roles of memory, community, self-doubt and the inevitability of change. Japan and the Japanese after the hubris of 1980s and lost decades are no doubt undergoing Kazuo’s wax and waning of the past.

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