Unravelling a mystery is the opportunity not only for a gripping ‘whodunit’ but also a deep dive into Japanese society and its concerns around the triple disaster of 2011, attitudes to minorities and a unique form of identity theft in this A Man review. A Man is the first of Keiichiro Hirano’s novels to appear in English, published by Amazon Crossing and translated by Eli K P William and my first review for this year’s January in Japan and Japanese Literature Challenge 14.
The story is told from the perspective of a novelist who hears it from a lawyer called Kido over drinks in a bar. His client Rie’s young son died in especially tragic circumstances, which causes her marriage to break up. Following her divorce, she returns to the small town where the family stationery shop still limps along. Daisuke comes in to buy paints and a friendship of sorts is sparked. What he tells her of his past life arouses her sympathy and they soon marry and have a daughter, Hana. He told her never to contact his family if anything were to happen, but when he is killed and she does, his sleazy older brother Kyoichi turns up and, on seeing a photograph, tells her that the dead man is not his brother.
As the police are not interested, Rie turns to her former lawyer, Kido. He is noted for being kind to taxi drivers and gives up his seat on the train to a pregnant woman (both unusual behaviours for older Japanese men!) He begins by speaking to Kyoichi, whose aging playboy schtick does not go down well. The story Rie heard belonged to the real Daisuke, but where is he and why did this stranger know all the details?
Kido himself is married to Kaori, with a small son, Sota. They both juggle work and home duties and Kido is a relatively hands-on dad. Kido and Kaori now sleep apart, ostensibly so he does not disturb her if he is working late, but a certain coolness has come into their relationship. He is dealing with this in the time-honoured manner of listening to jazz alone in the dark while drinking vodka straight from the freezer.
Kaori is from a well-to-do family and lives in the same district she grew up in. Rie’s story makes him wonder how much of his wife’s previous life he can know and how he would uncover if she had lied to him about it.
…people are incapable of telling others their entire past, and regardless of their intentions, the past explained in words is not the past itself.
She is not bothered by Kido’s Zainichi Korean family background, something that Kido did not think about too much himself until the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake, when the media began to talk about the massacre of Koreans that followed the 1923 Tokyo earthquake. He grew up outside the Zainichi communities, largely unaware of their history or culture and sheltered from any direct discrimination.
Kido starts on Daisuke’s trail by speaking with his ex Misuzu, who works at a bar in Shinjuku called Sunny after the Bobby Hebb song. She adds more details but has not seen Daisuke since his disappearance. When Misuzu’s boss suggests that Daisuke might have been abducted by North Korean agents, Kido braces himself for abusive comments, while replying that it has not been common since the 1980s. He feels a link to Daisuke because of the questions of his own Japanese identity and also because he is drawn to Misuzu: they bond over Billy Preston’s version of You Are So Beautiful before he spends some time agonising over the hidden meaning of her Facebook likes. He tells her:
It’s unbearable to have your identity summed up by one thing and one thing only and for other people to have control over what that is.
Although missing persons cases happen in every country, in Japan the system of family registers makes Rie’s husband’s case more difficult for her to navigate. Kido has to remove all mention of Daisuke and reinstate Rie under her maiden name. This means that their marriage effectively never existed, making Hana illegitimate. Rie’s son Yuto is old enough for his own perceptions and thoughts about the situation, wanting to keep the surname of the dead man even though Rie must now return to her maiden name. Rie must consider what to tell them. Her uncertainty causes her to reflect on everything she did since meeting ‘him.’
When she thought about this, she felt a sort of mystified harrowing sadness, and lost all concrete sense of whose life she herself was leading.
That sense of the impermanence of life consumes Kido too. Away from home, he begins to impersonate Daisuke, using his name and relating his past history. He takes pleasure in slipping into another life temporarily and receiving some of the sympathy that was due to Daisuke but feels guilty when he next meets Rie. Keen to tell her the story of the person he begins to think of as ‘X,’ he continues his search. His mood is linked to his faith in X as a good man, but could he be a murderer or a criminal?
The family register is a peculiar feature of this case, but the complexity is clearly explained. As long as the registration system has existed, there have been people desiring to operate outside it and those making a living by helping someone erase a difficult past. Ironically, some of those keen to do so were Zainichi Koreans. His search pulls Kido into this usually unseen part of Japanese life. Visiting an inmate imprisoned for a similar crime of “past laundering” seems to be a good lead, but Omiura is a conman, full of potentially tall tales with a penchant for sending the lawyer mucky hand-drawn postcards.
Kido is also working on a ‘death by overwork’ case, where an employee is pressured to work overtime to the point where they commit suicide out of despair. The family law cases he has worked on cause him to question everything about his relationship with his own wife and child. Kaori is suspicious about his trips away. He wants to volunteer but she does not see why; an attitude which may seem callous, but which was fairly common in Japan, at least until the Kobe and Tohoku earthquakes. When Omiura’s clues lead to an art show of works created by people condemned to execution under Japan’s capital punishment laws, Kido’s views are again out of step with his wife’s – as well as most Japanese people’s.
The 2011 earthquake looms large. When Rie and Kido meet up again after a long gap, they talk about what he was doing after it hit, a common topic of conversation in the months afterwards. Kido worries about the major Nankai Trough earthquake that is predicted to hit Tokyo at some point soon and considers the fear of death before your children are ready to move on in life without you, or have got to an age where they might remember you. The sense of dread that followed the earthquake is hitting him hard, as he tells his wife:
…for whatever reason, investigating the person I just told you about takes my mind off it. I don’t really understand it myself. But the result is that I’m able to get in touch with my life indirectly through someone else’s. And I’m able to think about the things that I need to think about. There’s no way for me to do this directly. My body rejects it every time I try. That’s why I said it’s sort of like reading a novel. No one can deal with their suffering on their own. We all seek someone else to be the conduit for our emotions. And… I probably seem gloomy all the time, so I can understand why you’d think I’m no fun to be around.
It may be that I am at the right age and mental state for this book, but – as with Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs – it is one I recommend to readers looking for an insight into Japan as it is now. Even before the pandemic began, these were anxious times. Almost everyone in the book is middle aged, but no one is running around chasing young girls or disappearing down wells to ponder. Work is tough. Time off is short. Life is lonely.
It was a bottomless middle-aged kind of loneliness that he could never have even conceived of when he was younger.
There is a sense that the cards have been dealt and here we are. Maybe because of that, music and books and the sense of escape they bring are important to many of the characters. Fellow lawyer Nakakita plays in a band that sounds like the Gadd Gang. He reasons that X must have been a good dude because Kido tells him they share a love of Michael Schenker’s music. Rie and Yuto bond over a Ryunosuke Akutagawa short story, Kido compares himself to Levin in Anna Karenina and listens to Masabumi Kikuchi and Masahiko Togashi duets to unwind.
Kido is an almost Chandleresque figure, the everyman investigator who will discover as much about himself as he does about the man he is looking for. Questions of identity, and whether that stems from background, upbringing, or decisions made, fill the book. A Man is a very middle-aged novel, where almost every character is in that age bracket and contemplating what their lives have become and their hopes amounted to. It moves slowly at times, but that is all the better to savour it.
Are you reading any Japanese authors for either of the challenges taking place this month? Let me know in the comments below…