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Tsumura Kikuko: Potosu Raimu no Fune

O Voi

Tsumura Kikuko 津村記久子『ポトスライムの舟』 (Potosu Raimu no Fune, The Lime Pothos Boat). 2009. Winner of the 140th Akutagawa Prize, for late 2008.

The title story is the winner: a novella that could be translated as “The Lime Pothos Boat.” This title (despite sounding like something Angel Investigations might have fought in Season 2) combines two of the key motifs in the book: a lime pothos plant the narrator has growing in her garden and a Papuan outrigger canoe she sees in a travel poster.

The protagonist — rarity of rarities, an Akutagawa Prize-winner written in the third person — is a thirtyish woman named Nagase. She’s working four jobs, all of them low-paying and part-time, taken after quitting a corporate career due to harassment from her boss. Neither the details of this harassment nor the trauma it inflicted on her are ever quite spelled out, but it still affects Nagase several years later when the book begins, and not just because the event ruined her chances to make it as a career woman. In fact, we come to suspect that she works four jobs not just to make ends meet, but also because she’s made herself a workaholic, trying to escape the thoughts that come to her when she’s idle.

This idea puts the story into the stream of recent Prize-winners examining the lives of women in the workplace (see Aoyama Nanae, Itoyama Akiko, even, in a way, Kawakami Mieko and Daidō Tamaki). But it goes in a different direction from those stories, partly in that the book is not entirely focused on the protagonist Nagase.

One of the things Tsumura gains by breaking away from the first-person fixation of most A-Prize bait is the chance to create more than one actual character. The story is seen through Nagase’s eyes, but we get to know several of the women around her, including her mother, three of her college friends, and one of her coworkers. The result is a sort of composite portrait of two generations of women living in the age of divorce and more-or-less full female participation in the economy.

They show a diversity of experiences when it comes to love life. Nagase and her college friend are single. Nagase’s mother is divorced, and another of her college friends separates from her husband in the course of the story. A coworker is contemplating divorce. The third friend stays silent, but is clearly feeling trapped as a full-time homemaker. Everybody but the last-mentioned is working. But Nagase is really working.

We follow Nagase for a whole year. As the story starts she sees the aforementioned travel poster — an advertisement for an around-the-world cruise that catches her imagination. She works out that it would cost the equivalent of a year’s wages from one of her jobs, so she decides to save those earnings and live on what she makes from the other three. If she can save the money in a year, she’ll take the voyage, she tells herself, although it’s likely that the trip itself is less important than the idea of having something to work for.

In the meantime, one of her college friends, Ritsuko, leaves her husband and brings her kindergarten-age daughter to live with Nagase and Nagase’s mother in their large Nara home. Much of the story concerns Ritsuko working through her problems, and Nagase’s mother bonding with Ritsuko and her daughter. A lot of this happens just out of Nagase’s ken, as she’s always working and is therefore somewhat shut out of the lives of the other people in her house. These sections of the novella are deftly handled, conveying Ritsuko’s situation without weakening our sense of Nagase’s work-imposed fog.

The story climaxes with Nagase collapsing from overwork, which forces her to take time off for the first time in years. We might expect that this would also force her to confront her own reasons for overworking, but she does not really dwell on the issue. She does begin to despair about saving enough for the cruise, but eventually gets a couple of lucky breaks, allowing the story to end on a note of hope. (Although we don’t find out if she actually goes on the cruise.)

What about that lime pothos? As I mentioned, this and the boat motif tie the work together — the story works on the renga logic of Kawabata as well as on the teleology of plot. The boat motif clearly comes from the travel poster and reminds us of what the narrator desires. The pothos is harder to identify. It’s an extremely hardy plant: you can clip off stems and put them in a jar of water and they’ll just keep growing. Nagase does this repeatedly, until there are pothos clippings at two of her workplaces as well as all over the house. I think this hardiness is the key: like Nagase, her mother, Ritsuko, and many of the other women in the book, the pothos can thrive without much encouragement.

They’re survivors, in other words, although that makes the story sound more clichéd, and in fact, more decisive than it is. Nagase, at the end, may or may not actually be thriving. Maybe having enough money will allow her to take that trip — but will it do her any good, if she can’t get over whatever trauma was driving her to work herself half to death?

As I wrote earlier, the story ends on a note of hope, but also on a note of irresolution — a typical strategy for Japanese Serious Literature. This, however, works in Tsumura’s case: The story captures a snapshot of its characters at a certain moment, with only bare hints of what comes before or after. These hints, however, are carefully chosen, highly suggestive, and aesthetically rich.

But “Potosuraimu no fune” significantly differs from the typical A-Prize story in other ways. The plot is more linear than most, with fewer flashbacks and far more plot events. In fact, this story offers a variety of novelistic pleasures we don’t always expect to find in Japanese fiction — vividly realized secondary characters and carefully constructed scenes — as well as pleasures we do expect to find there — delicately modulated moods and intriguingly open-ended use of poetic motifs. In fact, this the best written Akutagawa story in some years. All the way through, you feel as if you’re in the hands of a master writer of fiction, somebody who knows precisely what she’s doing.

The omake story in the volume, “Jûnigatsu no madobe 十二月の窓辺” (At the Window in December), is quite complementary. It’s about a woman named Tsugawa working in a company for a difficult boss, and how she decides to quit. There’s no formal connection with “Potosuraimu,” but we might as well be reading about how Nagase ended up where she is in that story.

Like “Potosuraimu,” “Junigatsu no madobe” is third-person, long on plot, and short on flashbacks, with several neatly suggested characters (almost all of them female). It feels very timely, given the renewed interest so-called popular culture has taken in the last few years in exploring the work environment — particularly from a female point of view and often with an eye toward revealing the bullying and abuses that take place there. Think Haken no hinkaku and Hatarakiman.

“Junigatsu no madobe” is closer to the former than the latter, with none of the suck-it-up-it’s-good-for-ya of Hatarakiman. Rather, it’s a gripping exploration of the bruised psyche of a bullied employee. What does it do to her? What does she do about it? The focus is always so tight on Tsugawa that we never get any distancing perspective. We don’t know, for example, if she’s really incompetent at her job, or if her boss is really unreasonable, or both; we only know how it makes Tsugawa feel to have to face this situation day after day. It gets claustrophobic; it gets painful. That’s the point.

As with “Potosuraimu,” Tsumura gets her point across through carefully constructed scenes and a plot that features far more suspense than you might have thought proper in junbungaku. There’s a subplot about a series of assaults taking place in the area around Tsugawa’s office, and while the story never quite turns into a mystery, the violence in the background serves nicely to enhance the depressed, desperate mood of the story.

The piece is ostensibly about women in the workplace: Tsugawa’s a would-be career woman, and her boss, the bully, is a woman too — real Devil Wears Prada stuff. But really, this story is universal, just like Haken no hinkaku and Hatarakiman. Men have to put up with their psyches being systematically crushed by the company hierarchy, too. Maybe it just takes a fresh perspective to see it.

Both stories make a strong case overall that Tsumura’s one to watch.

Sergeant TANUKI
March 9, 2009

Sergeant Tanuki — a nom de plume — first arrived in Japan during the Uno administration and has been going back and forth between the U.S. and Japan ever since. Currently he's a graduate student studying Japanese literature at an American university. He has translated five books of Japanese popular fiction into English. He maintains a blog on art/popular culture, both Japanese and non-Japanese, at

18 Responses

  1. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Your review surprised me when I first read it because I came away with quite different impressions: I didn’t feel like the 3rd-person did much to expand the focus–since we are constantly seeing into Nagase’s head but nobody else’s, it was a little less claustrophobic than a straight 1st-person narrative but not much more illuminating. I also wasn’t that impressed by the supporting characters–there’s a tough, independent friend who comes across as basically asexual; a weak, needy friend who got married too soon and is lonely as a homemaker; and a third friend making the transition from the latter to the former.

    The characters that most interested me were Nagase’s mother and Ritsuko’s daughter. Nagase’s mother I liked because of that line of dialogue (about Ritsuko’s daughter, actually) that gives us a sharp, almost shocking reminder of her personality beyond “mother.” Ritsuko’s daughter because I feel like her interactions with Nagase were the key to the renga logic you identify. Her final gift to Nagase (the book she made) felt more like the narrative’s high point, to me, than Nagase’s breakdown. It’s kind of hard to go into detail without spoiling it, but the description of her drawing of a strawberry really knocked me out.

    Another thing that intrigued me about this story was that although from the PR I was half-expecting a Dantean journey through Working Poor Hell, that wasn’t Tsumura’s goal at all. In fact the message seemed to be that your network can keep you afloat when times get tough (Ritsuko, Nagase when she gets sick), potentially shielding you from the worst excesses of Japan’s “playground slide society” (I forget the exact metaphor Yuasa Makoto uses) in which losing control of one part of your life sends you sliding right to the bottom–jobless, homeless, penniless, friendless.

  2. Sgt. Tanuki Says:

    I agree that Nagase’s mother was the most interesting of the secondary characters, in large part because we get glimpses of her as a person in her own right, not just as the narrator’s mom. The bit of dialogue you mention is a key place; I also like the seemingly throwaway detail that she’s into Kan-ryû. Maybe it’s just because my mother-in-law’s a Fuyusona addict, but this detail brought the mother into sharp relief for me as a person with her own interests beyond her daughter.

    I thought Ritsuko herself was pretty nicely drawn too, though. At least, she came alive for me beyond just her role as the friend going through a divorce. I’m not sure she’s a fully round character in the Forster sense, but I did perceive her as a person in her own right, not just an extension of Nagase’s consciousness. Maybe it’s a trick of the narration. I’m thinking of the scene where Nagase’s listening to Ritsuko talk on the phone; the details of Ritsuko’s attire, and the way Nagase kind of overhears and kind of doesn’t, succeed for me in invoking Ritsuko’s problems as being something just beyond Nagase’s capacity to really deal with at the moment. Tsumura’s simultaneously evoking Ritsuko and fleshing out Nagase. I thought it was a neat trick.

    I agree that this story wasn’t really a Working Poor novel, although if it makes people think about that particular social problem, all the better, I guess. The second story I think worked more in that vein, with its secondary message of how workplace counseling doesn’t really work if all they can tell you is “ganbare.”

  3. W. David MARX Says:

    This reminded me of our Goodbye Madame Butterfly interview in that female “strength” is measured by sheer endurance of bad situations. Yes, Japanese women are “strong” in the sense that they put up with a raw deal and are not allowed to publicly grieve about it. The Western feminist response, however, would be to use that “strength” to more proactively change women’s condition into something better. The “men have it bad so women should also have it equally bad” feels like a terrible compromise on gender inequality, but probably describes the current state of feminism in Japan. How do you cause social change in a culture where masochistic suffering is the highest virtue?

  4. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    That’s a little extreme. Where do you think improvements in maternity leave etc. come from, if not feminism? Not the gov’t or other traditional power wielders–they’d rather women stayed home entirely to have their kids.

    I didn’t read the omake story, but I didn’t feel that PLnF glorified suffering. Nagase seemed more surprised than anyone to find that she’d been at breaking point, and Ritsuko was just job-hunting and arguing with her husband (whom she broke up with proactively), not dying of consumption or anything.

  5. W. David MARX Says:

    (I got rid of the Tokyo Fire Bombing comment because it was out of place in this entry rather than because of the content.)

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    Where do you think improvements in maternity leave etc. come from, if not feminism?

    First, it’s hard to point to any real improvement compared to a country like France, where the government has gone out of its way to help working mothers. You can be a “career woman” in Japan now, but you can’t be a “career mother.”

    Here is Kawakami’s quote from our interview with her:

    “I came to the conclusion after reading this book that Japanese women are very strong. They are not powerful like, ‘This is me, and I do it this way.’ They tend to work their way out of a situation. They persevere. They just want a comfortable life, and they will do anything to keep it. In a way I felt, oh my gosh, these women are really powerful and strong.”

    Seems like a lot of strength used to get from negative to zero, rather from negative to positive.

  7. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Okay, France is better, but I don’t see any reason to attribute this to pro-suffering sympathies in Japanese feminism. To switch examples, feminists have made great progress reframing domestic violence as not okay. Are there still people and works that glorify the man who “loves you enough to beat you out of jealousy”? Sure! Keitai shosetsu FTW. But I seriously doubt that “Japanese feminism” is any happier about that than any other country’s would be.

    Kawakami, what can I say. She has a book to sell, she herself is an outlier. She’s entitled to her opinion but a few anecdotes doesn’t constitute a soiciopolitical analysis. I see no reason to prioritize her claims.

  8. M-Bone Says:

    For women in senior management positions, for example, France is not a great example – Japan is 7%, France is 10%, Germany and Holland are around 11% and 12%. Compare this to Philippines at 50% and Thailand at 39%. But of course, women in the Philippines and Thailand face other huge problems. Not all feminist movements are created equal – there are different priorities – and Japan is not an terrible outlier when considering the elite career track.

  9. M-Bone Says:

    Marxy, you should check this out.

  10. W. David MARX Says:

    Wow. That book looks great. I think the word “yankii” has a lot of pejorative baggage, but perfectly describes working-class delinquent tastes. But it’s kinda like saying something is “white trash.”

    We are off topic.

  11. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    M-Bone, I knew you would succumb if Marxy and I argued long enough.

    I am actually reading that book right now. I could not resist the obi: “オタク論にはもう飽きた!!” If you guys read it too, we could have a symposium up in here. I call the cautiously conservative position bemoaning the lack of rigorous evidence.

  12. M-Bone Says:

    To get back on topic, all we have to do is start talking about female yankii, realistic life expectations, and the cooption of feminism by consumption networks (or something).

    Seriously, the character Nagase’s problem seems to be a lack of ability to deal with the real – replacing it with an “international” consumption image to keep herself going. Echoes of Oe’s “A Personal Matter” where he used Africa as a fantasy (but not, interestingly, consumption-based) escape zone through his “personal matter”. Yankii chicks are too smart and pragmatic for things like that.

    “I think the word “yankii” has a lot of pejorative baggage”

    Kinda like “otaku”, no? I see the same kind of cooption here – in the early 2000s scholars and critics, and then the bonehead press took “otaku” and “moe” and turned them into something like oddball chic. Yankii is already mainstream and this sort of legitimation could be just what you have been calling for – for people to admit that this sort of style is just BETTER for working class people (and middle class wannabes).

    “I knew you would succumb if Marxy and I argued long enough.”

    I tried to stop myself, I really did!

    “I call the cautiously conservative position bemoaning the lack of rigorous evidence.”

    Isn’t that my shtick? I guess I could always break out my “celebrating youth cultures of resistance” hat.

    I have a lot on my plate and probably won’t be able to read it until May, but count me in if you guys are still game at that time.

  13. Sgt. Tanuki Says:

    M-Bone, nice call. The world cruise in this story does seem to hark back to the Africa obsessions in Oe; I hadn’t thought of that. I’m not a hundred percent sure one is more consumption-based than the other – it’s been a while since I read A Personal Matter, but didn’t the narrator’s fetish involve buying maps and guidebooks? Meanwhile, Nagase’s interest in the Papuan outrigger isn’t really spelled out, but couldn’t it reflect a desire for a simpler, non-consumption based lifestyle? Of course it costs money to get there…

    Re the earlier discussion of feminism and gaman. I’m not sure I’d say “pro-suffering sympathies” within Japanese feminism are the problem, but rather that the respect for gaman in the society as a whole somewhat limits the appeal of feminism among Japanese women. In Japan as elsewhere feminism (like other activist movements) is about pointing out what’s wrong and working to change it; precisely the kind of actions that are (often) viewed as immature in Japan. Combine that with the obviously pitiful situation of the normal salaryman – which some women might look at and say, if equality means I’ve got to be like that, no thanks – and you’ve got some difficult built-in obstacles for feminism in Japan to overcome.

  14. M-Bone Says:

    “M-Bone, nice call.”


    For me, I don’t see Oe’s Africa images as being consumption based. In 1964, I don’t think that it was really possible for the average Japanese (and Oe does position the book’s lead character as unstable financially) to visit Africa. The number of Japanese travelling abroad only began to increase dramatically after 1970. Also, the popular culture of the early 1960s was ruled by foreign images like “Taiheiyo Hitoribochi” – both the book and the film – that pictured going abroad as some sort of dramatic, near impossible project. This was the era when Mishima or Endo going to Europe (paid for by Bungei or whoever) would have been considered a “window on the world” by Japanese readers who could not expect that kind of contact. So given the position that Oe’s “I” narrator is in, I read Africa as an otherworldly fantasy that he was creating – creating a fantasy object of his escape was part of his escape from his brokeass marriage and the birth of a severely handicapped son.

    He was buying maps and atlases, but I’ll borrow a concept from Oe now and suggest that those were just feeding his “inner life” which takes center stage in the way that the narrative is put together. Oe has focused on certain “objects” or “artefacts” like these (think the film in Shizuka na Seikatsu or Blake elsewhere) and their connection with inner life / turmoil in many of his works and I don’t think that consumption is the point around which these revolve.

    At present, if a Japanese tells me that he or she wants to walk the length of the Nile, I know immediately that they can do it if they save enough money and that doing so probably won’t be a big problem. With this background in mind, I read Nagase’s story differently from Oe’s (I’s).

    The Papuan outrigger represents a simpler, non-consumption based life style…. which is an image that is being ruthlessly marketed all over Japanese popular culture. The closest most of us in developed countries ever get to this romantic pre-mass consumption world is consuming carefully mediated mass produced images of it. That won’t save Nagase. I’m not sure that becoming an Uber-Salary(wo)man would either.

  15. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Here’s the thing about the outrigger canoe, though: it’s not just a generic symbol to Nagase. She studied the south Pacific and their canoe culture “a bit” in college, in a 選択講義. Right from the start she is able to explain the difference between a double and a single outrigger, and that outriggers are designed to ride on the waves rather than go against them, making them hard to tip over.

    So in terms of symbolism, there’s the general noble savage thing M-Bone identifies. But the type of canoe has meaning in and of itself, as well. The way it connects Nagase back to her college days (presumably her golden age–certainly before her workforce trauma) is also suggestive to me.

  16. M-Bone Says:

    Good point. And that reading makes it all seem closer to Oe. The question is – direct influence? Or simply a part of how many Japanese authors create some fantasy outside dream?

    It is not like only Japanese do this either – Japan itself has served as a fantasy space for French intellectuals like Foucault, Barthes, and Baudrillard and I can’t help but think that part of the whole “Japan Cool” thing has to do with those on the outside imagining Japan as their ultimate fantasy. You know, the kind of place where knowing the language might interfere with how mystical it all is.

  17. Sgt. Tanuki Says:

    Plus, notice how we don’t actually know if she takes the trip, or even if she fully intended to. It was something for her to work for, something to keep her going day to day that was a little bit more spiritually nourishing than her previous goal, which was saving enough to remodel her house. In that sense, I’m not sure it’s too dissimilar to the “inner life” significance of the Africa trip to Oe. Just because in Nagase’s day lots of Japanese people can afford to go to Papua New Guinea doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a commodity without any deeper spiritual/emotional significance to her.

  18. M-Bone Says:

    We don’t get to see if Nagase goes on the trip, but we do get to see how she orders her inner life – she writes “Potosu Raimu no Fune”. More or less.

    I share Oe’s view that tortured people won’t find escape through consumption images (which can also have spiritual significance but usually don’t maintain that significance if bought or wish fulfilled) but rather through creative production or family / close personal connections.