Tomo: Friendship through Fiction (Japan), for Asian Heritage Month

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada, and while it doesn’t exactly nudge my blog in a new direction (at least half my content is Asian), I thought I’d formally acknowledge it by posting this review of Tomo, an anthology of Japanese teen stories.


Tomo is a collection of Japan-themed young adult short fiction commemorating the March 2011 earthquake; proceeds from the book’s sales support relief efforts in Tohoku. The anthology’s contributors are all connected to Japan via their heritage or lived experience.

The thirty-six stories are very loosely connected (in terms of both style and content) and have been grouped together thematically. Only five of the stories (gathered under the heading “Shocks and Tremors”) overtly deal with the earthquake, but tellingly, most of the stories embrace hope, positivity, and the possibility of new beginnings. The book emphasizes the normal preoccupations of teens everywhere—identity, belonging, the first stirrings of romance, the longing for supernatural powers, Facebook…  Tomo means “friend” in Japanese, and the editor envisions this book as way for teens around the world to understand their kinship with teens in Japan.

Several pieces deal with protagonists who are half-Japanese (haafus), often with conflicting loyalties; in some cases, the events of the earthquake exacerbate their conflicts. Other stories reach back in history—we hear voices from the internment camps for Japanese-Americans during WWII, for instance, while in another piece, the post-earthquake radiation scares evoke the aftermath of atomic bombing half a century ago. To paraphrase a character from the story “Paper Lanterns”, a story about grieving and remembering, this collection is a group memory bank, with varied accounts of teens growing and evolving in Japan.

The wide-ranging nature of this book inevitably implies that the reader will take some stories more to heart than others. I have a weakness for ordinary-meets-odd, and one of my favorite pieces was Alan Gratz’s “The Ghost who came to Breakfast”, a well-paced ghost story with an end-twist that characterizes the best in this genre. The linear storyline of Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s “Kodama” is elevated into greatness by her anything-but-linear sketchbook format, in which handwritten sentences writhe on the page in unexpected tangents (you have to turn the book ninety degrees in some instances). And then there’s “Yamada-san’s Toaster” by Kelly Luce, where the manner of a person’s death is etched onto a slice of bread by a very special toaster.

There’s plenty for seekers of more realistic fiction too, in the sections titled “Friends and Enemies”, “Insiders and Outsiders”, and “Families and Connections”. The teen protagonists are written with sympathy and intuition, and the stories are all executed with confidence. Sure, a few of the pieces feature some heavy-handed symbolism and could have used a lighter touch, but there isn’t a single dud; this collection was divided into ones I liked, and ones I liked more.

The stories also provides fascinating vignettes of contemporary Japan—the story “Signs”, for instance, is an Amelie-style mystery featuring a Purikura (photo) booth, a strange salariman, and a winning teen lead. From Pasmo travel cards to harajuku girls to face-offs between a Kendo club and a dance group at the school gym, Japan is placed vividly in the reader’s heart and mind. And that heart would have to be made of the proverbial stone not to feel for the people affected by the earthquake. But Tomo inspires more than sympathy—it ignites us to empathy.


Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction,  Holly Thompson (editor).

Stone Bridge Press, March 2012

This review appears in  The Asian Review of Books. Read more about the genesis of the book and its contributors at the Tomo blog.

Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

John at The Book Mine Set has asked bloggers to review Canadian books with a Japanese connection; if more than 10 books are reviewed this month, he’ll donate $200 to the Red Cross for their Japan earthquake relief efforts.

Skim is a graphic novel featuring Kimberly Keiko Cameron (aka Skim), a sixteen-year-old navigating the high school jungle with a characteristic mix of apathy and intensity.  Skim is half-Asian, chubby,  interested in the occult arts, and believes that her school is a “goldfish tank of stupid”. As you’ve probably guessed by now, she has few friends. But things shake up in school when a popular girl’s boyfriend commits suicide (perhaps because he was gay), and when Skim finds herself attracted to Ms. Archer, the new English teacher. As Skim slouches to adulthood, she learns that high school’s hothouse friendships can bloom and wither overnight, that adults aren’t always to be relied upon, and that love is a confusing but splendiferous thing. I want to congratulate Skim; I was way past sixteen when I realized this stuff.

The graphic novel format demands brevity, and if Mariko Tamaki nails Skim’s internal life as much with what she says as what she leaves out,  Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations  perfectly balance the absences in this story–odd angles and open spaces reinforce Skim’s isolation and loneliness.  I don’t have the technical vocabulary to describe the artwork, but damn, even my neophyte gaze can tell that the illustrations advance the story rather than just illuminating it. And for all the intimacy of the narrative (the story is framed around Skim’s diary entries), the novel also reads as a comment on the bigger issues of our time, including racism, girl-on-girl meanness, and homophobia.

Note: Skim resurrected my adolescent memories from their too-shallow grave, and I had to read me some Twilight to re-inter them.  Consider yourselves warned. And oh, if you read my previous post, you can see the sketch that Jillian Tamaki drew on the flyleaf of my copy of Skim.

Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
Groundwood Books, 2008

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus

I’d written about Heart of a Samurai a few weeks ago in the context of the lovely cover illustration by Jillian Tamaki, and since then, in the way these things happen, I’ve been seeing Tamaki’s work all over the internet, especially her embroidered covers of classic novels for Penguin. Yes, those covers, which  The Atlantic (rather condescendingly, IMO) termed “Etsy and Books Collide.”  Anyway, Tamaki is attending the Toronto Comics Arts Festival on May 7 and 8, and I’m planning to see her there, get her to doodle on my forearm, and then tattoo her work into permanency. Activating jealousy shield, now.

Onward to the review of the book, which deservedly recently won the 2010 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in the MG category. (The runner-up was the equally deserving Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins, which, in a pleasing convergence, I reviewed for the Asian Review of Books as well .)


It’s 1841 in Shikoku, Japan, and fourteen-year-old Manjiro is on a fishing boat, waiting to catch his dinner. Manjiro has always wondered what lies on the other side of the ocean, and he’s soon going to find out — when a freak storm hits the fishing boat, the crew is shipwrecked on a remote island until an American whaling ship rescues them. The Japanese now wonder if death by starvation might have been preferable: don’t the blue-eyed barbarians plan to cook them in the big pots on board?

Japan, which has long been in the grip of isolationist policies and misinformation, does not allow foreign ships to approach its shores, and the whaler hence drops the Japanese off at Honolulu. The Captain however has grown fond of the curious, intelligent Manjiro, and offers to take him to America as his adopted son. Now sixteen, now adept at whaling, and now called John Mung, Manjiro reaches Fairhaven, Mass., thus becoming the first Japanese person to set foot on American soil. But even as he develops an appreciation for fresh-baked bread and horse riding, family and homeland are never far from his mind.

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus offers a bounty of adventure and comedy (fuelled by cultural misunderstanding), with the added bonus that it’s all true. Preus’s primary sources include Manjiro’s story, which he narrated in 1852 and which was subsequently transcribed in a four-volume book, the Hyoson Kiryaku. Thrillingly, Heart… features Manjiro’s own drawings, and the epilogue includes his real-life portrait.

Manjiro is a charming protagonist, open-minded and enthusiastic about change even when it’s thrust upon him, and Preus’s fuss-free prose invests his tale with immediacy — we’re right there in Manjiro’s soggy shoes on a drenched boat, holding on to a harpoon than “seemed no more than… a darning needle” next to a whale, or clinging to a sea-turtle’s flipper as it races through the ocean. And I could gaze for hours at Jillian Tamaki’s hypnotically lovely jacket illustration; it’s as though we’re sitting in a glass-bottomed boat with the massive box of the whale’s head passing beneath. This is a beautifully crafted book in every sense.

Very occasionally, Manjiro’s opinions on cross-cultural empathy seem a bit message-y, but Preus mostly focuses on differences between the daily business of life in the two countries, and the narrative has an intimacy that’s often absent in historical fiction. And what charged history this is. In 1853, when Commodore Perry demanded American access to Japanese ports, Manjiro acted as the official interpreter. Manjiro’s last port-of-call before he finally met his family was Nagasaki. The reader’s knowledge of the heft of events to come gives Manjiro’s story a fearful resonance; most will read this book not just to know what happened next (a compelling reason indeed for this novel), but to ponder how a single life may harbor seeds of world-changing events. And as for the history-averse — Manjiro’s whaling adventures should convert even hardened Gameboy addicts to reading. Recommended.

(This review appears in the current edition of the Asian Review of Books).

Zen Attitude by Sujata Massey

Few thrills equal the pleasure of finding that an enjoyable crime novel is one of a decad.  Sujata Massey’s  Zen Attitude is the second book in the  Rei Shimura series, and it’s a fine caper indeed.  Rei is a half-Japanese, half-American (white) woman  who has an unerring instinct for finding and creating trouble.  When the beautiful chest for which Rei spent a bomb turns out to be fake–no, not that kind of chest, this one is an antique tansu cabinet–Rei is in serious financial trouble. But Rei’s troubles really take off when the dealer who sold her the chest is murdered; she’d better figure out what’s going on before she becomes the next victim.  Meanwhile, Rei must deal with the disintegration of her love-life due to her boyfriend’s blind affection for his layabout young brother–who seems to have moved in permanently.

Rei is the sort of person who couldn’t sneeze without a masked figure handing her a blood-stained handkerchief.  With embroidery that hides a message. Made from special cotton that grows in just one valley in Egypt… yes, the plot occasionally feels slightly forced and formulaic, but on the whole,  I enjoyed the book very much.  I was especially taken with Massey’s depiction of Japan, and, in particular, Rei’s position in this country–as an insider who can never quite become part of the system, Rei is excellently located as an observer of Japanese customs and culture. Massey’s writing is keen and fresh when describing the interior of a local police station, or the social and legal conventions of a fender-bender.

Together we surveyed the results of our collision. The truck’s damage appeared minimal: a bit of the Windom’s shiny black paint had rubbed onto his fender. But my left taillight was smashed. The driver picked delicately at the remaining glass chips, wrapped them up in a tissue and handed them to me.

“Domo sumimasen deshita.” The man’s formal apology startled me before I remembered that under Japanese law, the vehicle hitting the other is automatically at fault.

“I’m sorry, too. I was distracted.”

“It is solely my fault. And look at what I’ve done to your beautiful car.” The man’s voice cracked. I realized then that he was probably worried about getting into an accident while driving a company vehicle. I was going to reassure him that I wouldn’t sue, but he already had his hand in his wallet.

“What about the paint on your truck? Are you sure you won’t have trouble at work?”

He looked at his fender and shook his head. “It is ordinary depreciation they will not notice. But I must reimburse you. I will not leave until I do so!”

I had been drifting. He had been nosing into my lane. I supposed we both were at fault. I took the money without looking at it, still feeling guilty. “If you give me your address, I can send you a copy of the bill, and any change if you need it.”

“Please don’t trouble yourself!” He had jumped back into the truck again. Since no names or document information had been exchanged, he could rest securely and believe that the matter had ended.

Interesting secondary characters including a failed judo champion and a handsome monk further energize Rei’s adventures. While these characterizations are sometimes skimpy, Rei is really well done. I like her mix of brashness and wisdom.  I like her pride and her niceness and her energy.  I like  the judgement she shows in accepting some of the constraints  Japanese society places upon her and bucking others. No, I don’t want to be friends with Rei–I’d probably be coshed and kidnapped (and then saved and rewarded, but much later) because of our association. But I do want to read about her.  My library houses nine of the ten Shimura books; huzzah!