Thursday, January 31, 2013

'The Briefcase' by Hiromi Kawakami

I ordered a copy of The Briefcase not too long before it was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, but even if it hadn't been selected as a contender for the award, I knew I wanted to read it. Heck, I'm always interested to discover a new-to-me Japanese author but the story appealed to me as well.

From the back cover:
Tsukiko, thirty-eight, works in an office and lives alone. One night, she happens to meet one of her former high school teacher, "Sensei," in a local bar. Tsukiko had only ever called him "Sensei" ("Teacher"). He is thirty years her senior, retired, and presumably a widower. Their relationship - traced by Kawakami's gentle hints at the changing seasons - develops from a perfunctory acknowledgment of each other as they eat and drink alone at the bar, to an enjoyable sense of companionship, and finally into a deeply sentimental love affair.

As Tsukiko and Sensei grow to know and love one another, time's passing comes across through the seasons and the food and beverages they consume together. From warm saké to chilled beer, from the buds on the trees to the blooming of the cherry blossoms, the reader is enveloped by a keen sense of pathos and both characters' keen loneliness.
The story begins with Tsukiko meeting her old high school teacher, "Sensei", by chance at the local bar (izakaya). For a while they remain simple acquaintances who occasionally drink together, but as time goes on their relationship deepens.

Like many Japanese stories, The Briefcase revels in the small details of everyday life. On the surface, it can appear that not much is happening, but it all slowly builds to a certain important moment, much like their relationship does. As they begin to spend more time together, and to learn more about each other, we can almost see the quiet affection growing between them.

One thing I always loved about living in Japan is the reverence there for nature and the distinct seasons. I thought Kawakami did a lovely job in The Briefcase to express the passage of time, from mushroom hunting in the autumn, to celebrating the New Year, to picnicking under the cherry blossoms in spring. And I have to say all the descriptions of seasonal dishes made me hungry. And thirsty.
Yudofu had always been one of my favorite dishes. It's not the kind of thing that children usually like but, since before I started elementary school, I always loved my mother's yudofu. In a small cup she mixes sake with soy sauce, sprinkling it with freshly shaved bonito, and then warms the cup along with the tofu in an earthenware pot. When it's hot enough, she opens the lid of the pot and a thick cloud of steam escapes. She heats the whole block of tofu without cutting it, so I can then ravage the firm cotton tofu with the tips of my chopsticks. (p. 54)
There was one rather strange episode in the book for which I don't understand the significance. Was it a dream? Or some kind of shared consciousness? For me, it just didn't fit with the rest of the story, but this is only a minor complaint in an otherwise lovely story. Although if you have read the story, can you enlighten me?

At its heart, The Briefcase is a love story, but there is sadness as well. A melancholy flavour to it that the Japanese do so well. Both Tsukiko and Sensei are lonely souls, for the most part drifting along in their own individual worlds. It is difficult for them to connect with others, and to abandon themselves to love. Despite the obvious age difference, and the difference in their personalities: Tsukiko is often childish and impulsive, while Sensei is always very traditional and proper, they develop a strong, emotional attachment to each other.
"That's how love is," [my great-aunt] used to say. "If the love is true, then treat it the same way you would a plant - fertilize 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." (p. 147-8)
In the end, this is the story of two people whose lives crossed, and touched each other's, for a short time. The ending was rather poignant and tied up the story beautifully while leaving the reader with a final image that lingers long after having closed the book.

This was my first time to read Kawakami but it will not be the last. I'll definitely be picking up the previously published Manazuru at some point, as well as the new, Strange Weather in Tokyo, supposedly coming out later this year.
4 stars

Other thoughts on The Briefcase:
Tony's Reading List | Dolce Bellezza | Contemporary Japanese Literature | Winstonsdad's Blog

The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami
Original Title: センセイの鞄 (sensei no kaban)
Originally published in Japan in 2001
Winner of the Tanizaki Prize, 2001
Shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, 2012
Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell
Counterpoint Press, 2012
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Mogera Wogura by Hiromi Kawakami - a very bizarre short story in the Paris Review.

January in Japan

The small print: I purchased this book for my personal library. Links in this post to Amazon or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively. Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission. For more information please visit my About Page.


  1. Second review that's positive. I do plan to read the book and try to figure out that dream or not dream scene!

  2. Nice review :) J-Lit does like to paint its pictures against the passing of the seasons - as I mentioned in my post, it reminded me of Kawabata's 'The Old Capital' in that way.

    Where was the dream sequence again? I actually read this a while back now, so I can only vaguely remember that part...

  3. I loved this book, having not heard of it until Tony mentioned it for his read-along. Is no one wondering why the briefcase was empty but me? That's probably not important, for as you so eloquently said it's the melancholy mood, the nature and the relationship which strike my heart.

  4. Really can't wait to read this book:) Like you, the story just seems to appeal to me.

  5. This sounds so sweet and sad - I think it would be perfect as an autumn/winter read.

  6. Hi there, the February edition of Books You Loved is open for entries. Here is the link Books You Loved February Edition Please do pop by and link in a post about a book/s you loved. Maybe this post? Have a great week.

  7. I've just finished reading Manazuru and - if you like Kawakami's style of writing and storeytelling - I do highly recommend it.

  8. You know, in Kawakami's writing there's no stricte line between reality and dream, between that what really happened and what we only think it happened. Sometimes there is even no line between that what is real and what does not exist (in our world). And I think it's very Japanese in some way.

  9. thanks for linking this in. We are starting to get a lovely collection of book links. I have just signed up to follow you. A follow back to Carole's Chatter would be wonderful – or are you already following? Cheers


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