The Great Passage by Shion Miura is a lovely book and you must read it. If you like Japan and books – and why else would you be reading this site? – then this is a tale that has been exquisitely hand-crafted to hit you in all of your sweet spots.
The lengthy working relationship between Kohei Araki and Professor Matsumoto in the Dictionary Editorial Department at publisher Gembu Books has brought into the world a number of excellent dictionaries but will soon come to an end due to Araki’s scheduled retirement. Before he leaves, he pledges to find a replacement to bring the Professor’s latest project – to be called The Great Passage and to be written with the characters for ‘crossing the ocean’ – to fruition.
You need extreme patience, a capacity for endless minutiae, a love of words bordering on obsession, and a broad enough outlook to stay sane. What makes you think there are any young people like that nowadays?
Existing junior employee of the department, Nishioka, is not felt to have the right stuff, being what can only be described as ‘a bit of a lad.’ However, he has crossed paths with someone who may be more suitable, sales department misfit, Mitsuya Majime. His very surname is a play on words for the Japanese for serious or diligent. His personal grooming habits may be a bit shabby, but he has an instinct for lexicography that makes Araki sure he is their man.
Fond of his pet cat, living on cup noodles, hanging out with his elderly landlady, Také, Mitsuya could be the archetypal herbivore man. But he does somewhat seize his opportunity for romance, writing a love letter to Také’s granddaughter, chef Kaguya, so full of obscure Japanese characters that it takes her three weeks to decipher that it is a declaration of love.
From the rainy streets where they drink after hours, to the small restaurants where Kaguya serves up delicacies to make the reader’s mouth water, The Great Passage captures the real Japan of inter-office competition, baffling edicts from on high and ruinous over-time demands. Nishioka gets shuffled around to a new role, a reluctant Midori Kishibe joins from the fashion magazine department – feeling her new assignment to be a bad joke played on her by her superiors – Mrs Sasaki dispenses quiet wisdom as she tops up the glasses and slowly, steadily, The Great Passage sets sail.
Dedication to a task, fanatical attention to detail, sacrifice towards an at times seemingly unachievable goal, all while being beset by the human tides of love, life and death, as well as finding time for eating and drinking, this isn’t so much the story of how to create the ultimate Japanese dictionary as it is one of how to build a life of creative endeavour that can be looked back on with pride at having been well-utilised.
And, of course, for lovers of books, of words, of etymology – not to mention the perfect printing paper – there is much to tug at the heartstrings here:
…memories are words. A fragrance or a flavor or a sound can summon up an old memory, but what’s really happening is that a memory that had been slumbering and nebulous becomes accessible in words.
The Great Passage has already inspired a film as well as an anime. And it is a treat for lovers of Japanese authors that it has now been translated into English – by Julie Winters Carpenter – in a wonderful edition that evokes enough of the original language and its etymology without leaving novices feeling bemused. The Great Passage is a journey you will not regret embarking upon.
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I received a discounted copy of The Great Passage, but that did not influence my review.