Strange Weather in Tokyo: A Novel by Hiromi Kawakami is an #OwnVoices Japanese Contemporary fiction novel and was one of my most-anticipated reads for the 2018 year. A large part of me had the feeling that I would enjoy this book, even if the premise felt a tiny bit taboo, yet I never would have expected to fall so wonderfully in love with it.
Strange Weather in Tokyo surrounds a 38-year-old office worker, Tsukiko, who lives alone. One evening she runs into her former high school Japanese professor, whom she’s only ever referred to as Sensei. He’s thirty years her senior, retired, and seemingly a widower. As they begin to spend time together, they develop a small acknowledgement of one another that gradually turns into an uncertain intimacy, and finally emotional love.
This was a marvellous book. It is simple, evocative, and quiet.
The main focus of the book is on the theme of loneliness. You have two individuals who, through various circumstances, find themselves to be utterly alone. One of them fills his time with interesting things that he has minute passions for, while the other one just goes through the humdrum routine of living—working, stopping by the pub for a pint afterwards, going home, and starting afresh the very next day. A twist of fate brings them together and the examination of loneliness, as well as how it feeds into the inherent fear of being wholly forgotten once you no longer exist, begins to take root.
I am definitely someone who is terrified of dying alone. My brother died alone in a hospital. Hundreds of miles separated us to the point that I could never be there for him like I wanted or wished. No matter how much we think we can prepare for the inevitability of death and demise, the honest truth is that we cannot. It will come and when it does, even in the midst of a room full of family and friends, you die alone. This notion is absolutely fucking horrifying to me.
“I feel pity for these batteries that worked so hard for my benefit, and I can’t throw them away. It seems a shame to get rid of them the moment they die, after all these batteries have illuminated my lights, my sounds, and run my motors.” -Sensei
The specific exploration of loneliness in Strange Weather in Tokyo is done with exquisite simplicity and an eloquent vagueness that is quite unique to Japanese prose, and it is splendidly captured with Ms Allison Markin Powell’s translation, which is some of the finest I’ve come across in a long time. Interwoven with motifs of love, complex emotions, an inherent feeling of inadequacy, and fear—of being alone or losing the ones you love—that burns down to the bone, the novel is nothing short of a work of art. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to finish the book in the span of a day, yet I found myself utterly mesmerised and taken by the interactions of the two individuals with whom we see these themes flourish, and in fact couldn’t put the book down.
The nature of Tsukiko’s and Sensei’s relationship is breath-taking and a perfect allegory for what it means to grow older. They are awkward with one another—strangers with the barest familiarities from a period forgotten by time— that slowly begin to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for one other through the small and irregular chunks of time that they spend together. The bond is never crude or illicit, but genuine, homely, and, once again, lonely. The intimacy between them isn’t physical, but emotional and even psychological.
You have Sensei who has already experienced a tragedy with love, making him hesitant, afraid, and cautious. Then you have Tsukiko who is still very much a naïve child in many respects, and she is impatient, impulsive, and emotional. The duality of their personas also creates a duality of what it means to grow up. When you’re young, like Tsukiko, it’s the fear of what is to come that makes you want to live in the moment with thoughtless vindication. When you’re older, like Sensei, it’s about slowing down and appreciating things in the moment for what it is, to truly take in the fact that you are alive with an abundance of life experiences for the fear is in relation to what you leave behind. Even with how they differ, the two complement one another and work to formulate a parallel that blooms into an astoundingly lovely bond.
This book is extraordinary. It’s beautiful and heart-warming, and I feel that I can talk about its brilliance forever. If you like simple stories with deep meanings and contemplative motifs, then I recommend you read Strange Weather in Tokyo, more so if you are an aficionado of Japanese literature. It’s pure Japanese fiction at its finest.