“It grows because you plant it. […] That’s how love is. If the love is true, then treat it the same way you would a plant – feed it, protect it from the elements – you must do absolutely everything you can. But if it isn’t true, then it’s best to just let it wither on the vine.”
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
While Tsukiko is drinking alone in a crowded bar near the train station, a man starts to speak to her. She recognizes him as her former high school Japanese teacher, though she cannot remember his name. As a result, she addresses him as ‘Sensei’ (a Japanese term used to address a teacher). Despite their age difference, they share similar tastes in food and love drinking. They later become drinking buddies and hang out at different places. As their friendship deepens, Tsukiko’s feelings for Sensei grow unabated.
The original Japanese title is 先生の鞄 (Sensi no Kaban) which translates more or less as ‘The Briefcase of Sensei’. The book is translated into English and published with the title ‘The Briefcase’ in US and ‘Strange weather in Tokyo’ in UK. So, the US title reflects the Japanese more accurately. I am not quite clear about the UK title though the weather is indeed strange when Tsukiko confess her feelings to Sensei. (This strange weather must be a result of the strange thing you said, Tsukiko) Then publishers do strange things with titles.
Strange Man’s Greeting
The story is narrated by Tsukiko Omachi, a thirty-seven years old office-worker, who is something of a loner. While she is drinking alone in a local saké bar, she met her former high school Japanese teacher, Harutsuna Matsumoto, by coincidence. She didn’t remember his name at first sight. Because he was’t her homeroom teacher and she wasn’t interested in Japanese class. Actually, they haven’t met each other since her graduation. She has been calling him Sensei since then.
Sensei is old-fashioned, didactic and often upbraids Tsukiko on her unladylike behavior. He’s older, and a widower. He has lost too much and is unable to grow close to anyone for fear of losing more. Unlike Sensei, Tsukiko is immature and quirky. She enjoys listening to Sensei recounting haiku or telling her about his collection of teapots.
Despite their difference in personality and age, they both share similar taste in food and drinks which makes them perfect drinking companion for each other. Although they never arrange to meet at the bar, they are always happy when they meet by chance. Whenever they are at the bar, they share a drink and pass the evening chatting. After that, they always leave separately and pay their bills separately.
The book contains 17 chapters of a bittersweet love story. The incremental closeness of the pair’s relationship is the driving force of the story. However, this is not a typical romance. They get stuck in social expectation – their difference in age should make romance impossible. Thus, Tsukiko tried to hide her feelings as much as possible. “It grows because you plant it.” Keeping her great-aunt’s words in mind, she tried to avoid meeting Sensei hoping her feelings would go away.
The plots tend to be slow, predictable and half the book was about Tsukiko and Sensei eating and drinking saké together. Though those don’t make the book less interesting. Each chapter of the book is like a haiku. It incorporates seasonal references to the moon, mushroom picking, and cherry blossoms. By vividly portraying the feelings of loneliness the characters feel, it makes the readers feel less alone.
There is also manga version available, if you are in interested in reading manga.
The photograph, Today’s Levitation, is by Natsumi Hayashi and spans both the front and back cover of the book. Visit the photographer’s website to see more levitation photographs.
Hiromi Kawakami is a Japanese writer born on April 1, 1958. She is famous for her off-beat fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. Her first novel, “Kamisama” (God), was published in 1994. In 1996, she won the Akutagawa Prize for “Hebi o Fumu” (Tread on a Snake).
In 2001, she won the Tanizaki Prize for her novel “Sensei no Kaban” (Strange Weather in Tokyo), which became an international bestseller. “Strange Weather in Tokyo” was on the shortlist for the 2013 Man Asian Literary Prize and the 2014 International Foreign Fiction Prize. She is one of Japan’s most popular contemporary novelists.
Kawakami’s work explores emotional ambiguity by describing the intimate details of everyday social interactions. Many of her short stories, novel extracts, and essays have been translated into English, including “God Bless You” (“Kamisama”), “The Moon and the Batteries” (extract from Sensei no Kaban), “Mogera Wogura”, “Blue Moon”, “The Ten Loves of Nishino”, and People in My Neighborhood.
Allison Markin Powell (Translator)
The translator of “Strange Weather in Tokyo”, Allison Markin Powell is a literary translator, editor, and publishing consultant in New York City. Her translation of The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami was in the list for nomination for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize. The UK edition (Strange Weather in Tokyo) was in the list for nomination for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.