Sunday, January 24, 2010

'The Housekeeper and the Professor' Discussion (JLit Book Group)


Welcome to the discussion for our first Japanese Literature Book Group selection for 2010, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, and translated by Stephen Snyder.

This is an open discussion, and you are welcome to talk about any aspect of the story you like.  Don't hesitate to ask any questions you might have, and I also encourage you to chat among yourselves.  I've removed comment moderation for this post for the next couple of days so that you will be able to discuss more freely.  I'd also suggest subscribing to comments so that you'll be notified when others have added their thoughts.
One note of warning, for the discussion it is assumed that you have read the book so the comments may contain spoilers.  If you have not yet read the book, please proceed at your own risk.

I've listed the discussion questions below that are available from the publisher.  Feel free to use them as a kick start for discussion, but don't feel obligated to answer them.  In addition to the more thought-provoking questions supplied below, also let us know simply what you thought of the book.
Did you enjoy it? 
I would also be interested to know...
What did you think of the translation?
If you've read any other titles by Yoko Ogawa, which did you like the best?
Have you seen the movie based on the book?  Would you like to?
How does this book compare to other Japanese literature that you've read?

The Housekeeper and the Professor reviewed by:
Book Dilettante
The Zen Leaf
Paperback Reader
Rebecca Reads
We Be Reading
kiss a cloud
If anyone has posted a review or other thoughts on the book on their own blog, leave a link in the comments and I'll add it here.

Much of the book and author information, as well as all of the discussion questions below were taken from the Picador Reading Group Guide, with some additional information from wikipedia.

About the Book

First published in Japan in 2003 as 博士の愛した数式 (Hakase no aishita sushiki), it won the Yomiuri Prize in 2004.

In The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa tells an intimate story about family, the nature of memory, and the poetry of mathematics. It is also, in a sense, a story about the simple experience of getting to know someone, but with a twist: the person forgets everything in eighty minutes. How do you form a relationship with a person who cannot remember? In this uplifting and often poignant novel, Ogawa seems to ask whether our immediate experiences are more important than our memories, since memories inevitably fade, and the eponymous Professor’s condition of limited short-term memory allows the author to explore this question with great creativity. At the same time, Ogawa invites the reader into the world of mathematics, using complex equations as a metaphor for the themes running throughout her book. The Housekeeper and the Professor is a rich, multilayered novel that offers much to discuss.  

About the Author

Yōko Ogawa (小川 洋子,) was born in Okayama, Okayama Prefecture, graduated from Waseda University, and lives in Ashiya, Hyōgo, with her husband and son. Yoko Ogawa's fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, and Zoetrope. Since 1988 she has published more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, and has won every major Japanese literary award. In 2006 she co-authored "An Introduction to the World's Most Elegant Mathematics" with Masahiko Fujiwara, a mathematician, as a dialogue on the extraordinary beauty of numbers.

Discussion Questions

1. The characters in The Housekeeper and the Professor are nameless (“Root” is only a nickname). What does it mean when an author chooses not to name the people in her book? How does that change your relationship to them as a reader? Are names that important?

2. Imagine you are writer, developing a character with only eighty minutes of short-term memory. How would you manage the very specific terms of that character (e.g. his job, his friendships, how he takes care of himself)? Discuss some of the creative ways in which Yoko Ogawa imagines her memory-impaired Professor, from the notes pinned to his suit to the sadness he feels every morning.
3. As Root and the Housekeeper grow and move forward in their lives, the Professor stays in one place (in fact he is deteriorating, moving backwards). And yet, the bond among the three of them grows strong. How is it possible for this seemingly one-sided relationship to thrive? What does Ogawa seem to be saying about memory and the very foundations of our profoundest relationships?

4. The Professor tells the Housekeeper: “Math has proven the existence of God because it is absolute and without contradiction; but the devil must exist as well, because we cannot prove it.” Does this paradox apply to anything else, beside math? Perhaps memory? Love?

5. The Houskeeper’s father abandoned her mother before she was born; and then the Housekeeper herself suffered the same fate when pregnant with Root. In a book where all of the families are broken (including the Professor’s), what do you think Ogawa is saying about how families are composed? Do we all, in fact, have a fundamental desire to be a part of a family? Does it matter whom it’s made of?

6. Did your opinion of the Professor change when you realized the nature of his relationship with his sister-in-law? Did you detect any romantic tension between the Professor and the Housekeeper, or was their relationship chaste? Perhaps Ogawa was intending ambiguity in that regard?

7. The sum of all numbers between one and ten is not difficult to figure out, but the Professor insists that Root find the answer in a particular way. Ultimately Root and the Housekeeper come to the answer together. Is there a thematic importance to their method of solving the problem? Generally, how does Ogawa use math to illustrate a whole worldview?

Yutaka Enatsu

8. Baseball is a game full of statistics, and therefore numbers. Discuss the very different ways in which Root and the Professor love the game.

9. How does Ogawa depict the culture of contemporary Japan in The Housekeeper and the Professor ? In what ways does is it seem different from western culture? For example, consider the Housekeeper’s pregnancy and her attitude toward single motherhood; or perhaps look at the simple details of the story, like Root’s birthday cake. In what ways are the cultures similar, different?

10. Ogawa chooses to write about actual math problems, rather than to write about math in the abstract. In a sense, she invites the reader to learn math along with the characters. Why do you think she wrote the book this way? Perhaps to heighten your sympathy for the characters?

11. Do numbers bear any significance on the structure of this book? Consider the fact that the book has eleven chapters. Are all things quantifiable, and all numbers fraught with poetic possibility?

Related links:
List of mathematical terminology that occurs in the story (from wikipedia)
Hanshin Tigers page

Photo source: The Hanshin Tigers logo, and the Yutaka Enatsu baseball card photo were taken from  The images are © copyright but reproduced here in low resolution under the terms of Fair Use.

The small print:  Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) contain my Associates ID.  Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission.  For more information visit my About Page.


  1. In my review, I discussed the fact that names are not important in the book, so the main characters, apart from the boy called Root, are only called the Housekeeper and the Professor.

    I enjoyed the book because of the unusual circumstances - the setting in which characters show how they can relate positively in spite of restrictions to normal communication.

    I also refer to the book as literary fiction versus genre fiction. My review is at The Housekeepre and the Professor, review.

    Thanks Tanabata for the chance to discuss this book!

  2. Harvee - Thanks for the link to your review, I've added it above.

    About the characters not being named, I actually hadn't really noticed which just goes to show that the relationships themselves were the core of the story. I really enjoyed the way their relationship developed despite the obstacle of the professor's memory. Unusual situation indeed.

  3. Well, to start out by answering my own questions...

    Yes I did really enjoy it which is actually quite an accomplishment in my eyes since math and baseball are two things I'm very much not interested in usually.

    I thought the translation read very smoothly. The other translation of Snyder's that I've read is 'Out' by Natsuo Kirino and I thought that one was very well done too. I think I'll purposely be looking out for more of his translations in the future.

    This was the first book of Yoko Ogawa's that I've read but I do have 'The Diving Pool' in my TBR and hopefully I'll get to it later this year. I'm certainly looking forward to reading more by her.

    I haven't seen the movie but would very much like to now. H saw it in the plane on one of his business trips abroad a couple of years ago or so and said that it was very good. Does anyone know if it's been released in English? According to imdb it seems like it was only released in Japan and South Korea.

  4. First, while my review was several months ago, I'll still add my link:

    Second, yay for discussing this book! It was one of my very favs of 2009.

    Third - questions.

    I did enjoy it, and thought the translation was manificent. Obviously I can't compare to the original but I didn't feel anything was lost. I've not read any other books by Ogawa and I didn't even know there was a movie based on this! And this is by far my favorite read in Japanese literature, though I have read relatively few.

    Discussion questions (skipping around some):

    1. I think them not having names made them more universal and allowed us to connect w/them on a very instinctual level. It was hearing they had no names that attracted me to the book in the first place.

    2. I have no idea how she did that. It was brilliantly done and I know I couldn't have done it.

    7. I think the two of them working together on the problem helped bring them closer together, and while I don't think that's what the professor intended, I think it was a nice piece worked into the story. The use of math in the story was so elegant and beautiful, as if it were poetry instead of something many people find frustrating.

    9. Honestly I was so caught up in the people that I barely noticed the cultural differences. To me, that was one of the best things about the book - highlighting where we're the same.

    10. She wrote in a way that it was impossible for me not to stop and see if I could solve the problem before the characters did. Now I like math, so maybe that was just me, but I did feel it pulled me into the story and allowed me to connect with them further.

    Thanks again for hosting this!

  5. Here's my review, Nat:

    I thought the novel was beautiful and thank you for giving me the prompt to read it.

    I noticed that the characters were all nameless and that interestingly there were only four of them (including the Widow but not including the Housekeeper's boss); I thought that this added an intimacy and closeness, emphasising the familial connections.

    I predicted the relationship between the Professor and the Widow so, yes, I think there are hints. I also think that the Housekeeper and the Professor's relationship was chaste but that there was such a tenderness there, an intimacy that was closer than a sexual one, a love that was platonic but full of admiration and sympathy and closeness.

    I didn't realise that the translator was the same one as that of Out; that surprises me as I have read criticism of the Out translation whereas I thought this was very well done.

    I loved discovering in the novel that "Tanabata" is the Star Festival and thought it very appropriate to learn whilst reading a book for a book group you were hosting :).

  6. Amanda - Well yay for coming over to chat about the book. :)

    I agree that by not having names the characters were very relatable. I'm interested that them having no names is what attracted you to the book. Do you generally like stories where the characters aren't named?

    As for the cultural differences, I'm always unsure whether I just don't notice things because I'm so used to many things here but I also felt that there weren't many obvious differences. Other than a couple of references, to chopsticks, or the Japanese names, for example, it really felt like the story could be taking place anywhere. I really liked that.

    OK, being completely math-challenged, I have a question...
    I didn't really understand the significance of the equation that the professor wrote down and which made the sister-in-law instantly reverse her opinion on the housekeeper. What was it.. Euler's formula? Can anyone enlighten me?

  7. Claire - You're welcome, but I'm glad to have had the nudge to read it too.

    I wondered about the relationship between the widow and the professor too so that wasn't a surprise. I agree about the housekeeper and the professor. It wasn't a romantic relationship at all in my eyes. It became like caring for an elderly uncle, or a family member at least.

    It's been a few years now since I read Out but at the time I thought it read quite smoothly. It was a different translator for Grotesque and I was quite disappointed with that one in comparison. Hmm, maybe I'll have to try another one by Snyder and see what I think.

    And yes, fun coincidence. We got married on 'Tanabata' (July 7th) which is why I adopted it as a screen name. :)

  8. The attraction to unnamed characters is actually because I used to write a lot of short stories with unnamed characters. At the time, peers and teachers told me that a story without character names was pointless and would never be published. I was discouraged from not naming. When I heard about this one, it was like proving that my way of writing had been validated and I wanted to see how a different author handled the unnamed aspect.

  9. I love the significance of tanabata for you! Thanks for the explanation.

    As for the significance of the Euler formula being used to end the fight ... it is beyond me. Perhaps the equation equaling '0' was the Professor's way of saying that the argument was 'nothing' and echoes back to an earlier conversation between him and the Housekeeper about the importance of the number zero?

  10. Oops! I forgot you asked about the Euler formula. Honestly I have no idea what that even is. I say I love math, but I never went any higher than college required courses. I found math fun and easy but not terribly interesting in a long-term way, if that makes sense. My brother's a mathematician, though. If he wasn't in Paris for the next 5 months, I'd ask him for you...

  11. My review ...

  12. My review is up too!

    It was a really nice book to start the year with; such a gentle story. I believe it shows that people can get to know each other in a intuitive way; so that might even happen with someone you've never met before.

    Of course the characters do have names of a sort: they're just descriptive instead of meaningless ornament. But Japanese names are never really nonsensical, are they?


    [AARGH Open ID is being difficult; switching to google account]

  13. I posted about my thoughts on the book HERE.

    First, I did not know that there's a movie based on this book. I'm definitely interested in watching it, especially if it was made by the Japanese, because movies like Okuribito and Love Story have convinced me that the Japanese are excellent in making subtle movies that just move people.

    On about the book.

    I love you question about Euler's Formula. I didn't quite get it in the beginning either, but when you asked the question, I thought I'd look through the book again. There's a paragraph on p.127:

    "A number that cycled on forever and another vague figure that never revealed its true nature now traced a short and elegant trajectory to a single point... Everything resolved into nothing, zero."

    I think that's probably why the equation was so significant. It's like, everything is so never-ending and confusing, and seemingly unrelated to each other, but yet, with a simple nudge (+1) to the equation, everything is resolved beautifully. That's what I think.

    I think the nameless characters probably contributed to the story having a very universal feel to it. But I did feel that there was something distinctly Japanese about the way the whole book was done, probably because I've not read many non-Japanese books that can be so successful in being subtle and quiet, but very very interesting.

    I actually really like the question 11. It presents mathematics and numbers in form of music and notes. Like how there are basically only 7 notes, and 10 (including 0) numbers, and yet they can produce such magical things like symphonies and beautiful mathematical equations.

    6. I do think that Ogawa perhaps did leave it ambiguous on purpose. The way the story was told, it felt like she was happy for us to interpret the relationships between the professor and the widow and the housekeeper in any way we feel comfortable. I felt like if their relationships were more obvious, it might have taken some of the magic away from the relationship between the professor and Root.

    Thanks for hosting this discussion Tanabata! (I did think of you straight away when I read about it in the book.) And it is such a coincidence, the significance of the date for you. =)

  14. Amanda - Ah, I can understand that. I know I've read other books where the characters weren't named but of course the titles are escaping me at the moment.

    I had a terrible Algebra teacher in Grade 11 and he instilled my hatred of math. But if you happen to be talking with your brother... :)

    Claire - That's a good point about the equation referring back to their earlier discussion about the importance of zero.

    Kristen - Thanks for your link.

    Gnoe - True, the characters are still defined by who they are. Japanese names are a lot of fun, they always have a meaning that was carefully considered before given to a new baby.

    Michelle - It seems that the movie hasn't been released in the US or other English-speaking countries, at least from what I can gather. I may have to try to watch it in Japanese now that I know the story. I still haven't seen Okuribito or Love Story but plan to once I get my hands on the DVDs with subtitles. It's so ironic that I usually have to buy Japanese movies from outside Japan to be able to watch them.

    Thanks for the quote, that does make sense.

    And yes, Japanese literature (and movies) do tend to have a certain subtlety and quietness about them. The fact that the relationships were left somewhat ambiguous reflects real life in a way, I think. Relationships are rarely uncomplicated and easily defined.

  15. I see you found my review! Sorry it's taken me a day to get back here.

    I too am not a math person so what I liked was the aspect that showed how math is so beautiful. I have never thought that before. LOL.

    I still don't get Euler's equation: why is going back to 0 a significant thing? I like the quote and I like the concept but I still don't QUITE get it I don't think. I did read these comments.

    Anyway, I did enjoy it and I'm really looking forward to reading more JLit. Thanks Tanabata (and I love learning the significance of you screen name!)

  16. Rebecca: I can't be sure, but I think it's because 0 in itself is significant. Like, it's a number, but it has no value. But without '0' as a figure, we don't ever get 10 or 100 or so on and so forth. It is something, and it is nothing at the same time.

  17. Sorry for coming late into the discussion. I actually posted my thoughts last weekend, here, but have not had the time to go back and reply to the comments yet, and read the other posts.. but will do so later. :)

    Anyway, to answer your questions.
    Yes, I liked it. A lot.
    I thought the translation was fine, it felt much like a Japanese novel, like other translations I've read, so it must have succeeded. :)
    This was my first Ogawa, and I'm not sure if I'd like to read The Diving Pool, though some say it's better, but not sure if I'd like the themes she uses there. I chose to read this one because I love mathematics very much.
    I didn't know there was a movie, but would like to see it now. :)
    I thought it was similar in feel to other Japanese novels I've read.. very quiet and subtle and a lot of depth. I loved it.

    Thanks for hosting!!

  18. OI! I have a sudden question that I hope to get a reply at from those of you that can read Japanese -- or know how to find the answer in another way.

    In Dutch the word for 'root' and 'carrot' are the same: wortel. In English obviously they're not ;) But... how about Japanese? If it's the same word (character) it might be interesting to think about the Professors love for the root sign and 'Root', the Housekeeper's son, as opposed to his dislike of eating carrots... (and the Housekeeper's efforts to make him eat them anyway). Then they would both be able to do magic with their own sort of 'wortel' ;)

    A bit far-fetched, I know, but I do wonder about it!

  19. Oops. I just realized I never got back here to reply to your comments.

    Rebecca - I'm totally not a math person either. The book didn't suddenly make me interested in it but, like you, I did appreciate the beauty of it.

    As for Euler's equation, I think what Michelle says about it having no value as being key. Maybe it's too straightforward, but perhaps the professor saying an equation that results in 0 was the same as saying the sister-in-law's concerns about the housekeeper also had no value?? In other words, there was no reason for her to worry.

    claire - No problem, you're welcome to comment anytime. There's no time limit to the discussion.
    I actually have no idea what the themes are in The Diving Pool, but as I have a copy I'll just have to read it to find out. :)
    I'm hoping to try to watch the movie in the near future, and will report back if I do.

    gnoegnoe - Interesting! No, in Japanese the words for 'root' and 'carrot' are different. 'Root' is kon, while 'carrot' is ninjin. Nice idea though. :P

    Thanks so much everyone for joining in the discussion!

  20. I hope you guys subscribed to follow-up comments so you'll see this.

    Last weekend H and I watched the movie of The Housekeeper and the Professor, which is actually called 'The Professor's Beloved Equation', a more literal translation of the book's original title. There were some changes to the original story but it was pretty good. One notable difference was that the movie is told as a flashback almost, told from the perspective of Root as a grown man, a math teacher, to his class of students about why he came to love math. So occasionally in the movie, the story would return to the "present" where Root, the teacher, would explain some of the math concepts to his students. I thought this was a good way to make the math even more accessible.

    Anyway, the reason I wanted to mention all this is because this is how the movie explained Euler's Formula.

    Paraphrasing somewhat...

    "i" is the square root of -1 and an imaginary number that never shows itself.

    π (pi), a number that continues to the end of the universe.

    The value of "e" is 2.7182818284....
    Just like pi it goes on and on and on forever. It's an irrational number.

    From an infinite universe, pi and e come together with i. None of them are connected. But if a single human adds just one thing, the world is transformed. The contradiction is resolved to zero.

    Euler found a natural relationship between apparently unrelated numbers.

    What at first appears complicated becomes nothing.

    -->So I think in terms of the story, the formula basically represents the relationship between the housekeeper, her son, the professor, the sister-in-law. How unrelated, completely different people are brought together to create a beautiful relationship. This also reflects back to the professor explaining about the amicable numbers, the housekeeper's birthday and the number on his watch being a wonderful connection between them.

    Also that even though at first the relationship might seem complicated, or unlikely, in fact it is quite natural.

    Does all of that make sense?

    gnoegnoe - Also, to add to your discussion of 'root' and 'carrot', the math term root in Japanese is actually just said as the English "root" [ruuto]. ;)

  21. Thanks for the update, Nat! That is so interesting and completely understandable now. I like the relation of math to the word and how you can take apparently arbitrary numbers (people) and connect them in a universal way.

  22. Interesting...Thanks for the information! That whole formula is almost incomprehensible to me...

  23. Claire - When explained like that, it really is a lovely equation, isn't it? :)

    Amanda - The math is still pretty beyond me but I like the sentiment behind it, at least what I think it means. :)


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