Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko

Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu KanekoAuthor: Misuzu Kaneko, David Jacobson
Illustrator: Toshikado Hajiri

Translator: Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi
Publisher: Chin Music Press
ISBN: 9781634059626
Released: September 2016

Misuzu Kaneko, who in the 1920s was a well-known author of poetry for children, almost faded into obscurity after her early death at the age of twenty-six only to have her work rediscovered in 1982. Since then her poetry has been met with great admiration and acclaim. Despite having her work translated into nearly a dozen different languages, Kaneko is relatively unknown in English. Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, published by Chin Music Press in 2016, is a beautifully illustrated and crafted children’s book created by a multi-national team with members hailing from Japan, the United States, and Canada in an effort to bring Kaneko’s work to a larger audience. Before reading Are You an Echo? I was unaware of both Kaneko and her poetry. After reading the volume I can only hope that more of her work will be translated in the future–the book is a marvelous introduction.

Are You an Echo? consists of two main parts. The first is a biographical narrative written by David Jacobson, a journalist and editorial consultant at Chin Music Press, which outlines both the life of Kaneko and the history of her work and its rediscovery by Setsuo Yazaki, another poet who also provides the foreword to the book. Although Are You an Echo? is meant for a young audience, Jacobson is honest and touches upon some of the sadder aspects of Kaneko’s story such as her unhappy marriage, unfortunate illness, and eventual decision to end her own life. However, the topics are handled with gentleness and sensitivity. Several of Kaneko’s poems are incorporated directly into the narrative while the second part of Are You an Echo? is specifically devoted to a selection of her work. The poems are presented in both their original Japanese and in an English translation jointly composed by Michiko Tsuboi and the poet Sally Ito.

Are You an Echo?, page 5The format is somewhat unusual for a children’s book, but I feel the decision to include a biography along with a selection of Kaneko’s work in a single volume is ultimately a good one. Are You an Echo? not only introduces Kaneko’s poetry, it also places it within a greater context. Jacobson’ s narrative is easily accessible and the story of how Kaneko and her work have come to positively influence the lives of so many people is a wonderful one. Hajiri’s illustrations are likewise captivating. The artwork is colorful without being garish and has a gentle softness to it that complements both Jacobson’s text and Kaneko’s poetry. Hajiri depicts scenes from Kaneko’s life and imagination and provides a lovely visual accompaniment to and interpretation of her work.

Twenty-five of Kaneko’s surviving five-hundred-twelve poems are included in Are You an Echo?. The translators have taken obvious care in rendering Kaneko’s work into English. Kaneko wrote in a feminine form of Japanese which doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English, but Ito and Tsuboi have successfully crafted a translation that reads well and captures the feelings and intentions of the originals. The poems collected in Are You an Echo? are utterly delightful. One of the things that I found most striking about Are You an Echo? is the tremendous empathy that Kaneko exhibits through her work. Though a touch of melancholy can frequently be found, the poems embody the natural curiosity, wonder, and earnestness of the children for whom she was writing. Kaneko’s poetry is immensely charming and deeply compassionate; I am so incredibly glad to have encountered it. While the book may be intended and suited for younger readers, there is still plenty for adults to enjoy and appreciate about it, too. Are You an Echo? is a treasure.

Thank you to Chin Music Press for providing a copy of Are You an Echo? for review.

Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan

Author: Leslie Helm
Publisher: Chin Music Press
ISBN: 9780984457663
Released: March 2013

When Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan by Leslie Helm was released in 2013 by Chin Music Press, it immediately caught my attention. I tend to keep my eye on Chin Music Press—the books it publishes are always interesting in addition to being beautifully designed. Yokohama Yankee is no exception. I was delighted when Chin Music Press offered me a copy of Yokohama Yankee for review. Helm was born and raised in Yokohama, Japan and served as foreign correspondent for Business Week and The Los Angeles Times in Tokyo for eight years. Currently, Helm is the executive editor of Seattle Business. Although he holds masters degrees in both journalism and Asian studies and has a background in political science, giving Helm significant expertise from which to draw, Yokohama Yankee is a much more personal work exploring his family’s history in Japan and his and his wife’s adoption of two Japanese children.

Coming from a multicultural family of German, American, and Japanese ancestry, Leslie Helm’s personal relationship with Japan is a complicated one. When he and his wife Marie decided to adopt Japanese children, Helm decided to reconnect with his family’s Japanese roots. The Helms’ connection to Japan began in 1869 when Helm’s great-grandfather Julius Helm, a German immigrant, arrived in Yokohama by way of America. After pursuing a number of different enterprises, including assisting in the modernization and training of Wakayama’s military, Julius would marry a Japanese woman and found a shipping company, establishing the Helms as a prominent merchant family in Yokohama. From there, Helm traces his family’s relationship with Japan through the decades, interspersing his own personal experiences with the country among the historical discoveries that he makes. Despite the close ties that he and his family held with Yokohama and Japan, they were generally considered foreigners.

Yokohama Yankee is an incredibly engaging, fascinating, and revealing family memoir. Helm ties his present to his past, uncovering connections he wasn’t previously aware of and confirming stories he had been told by other family members. The Helms’ history in Yokohama Yankee is closely intertwined with the history of Yokohama and Japan—its foreign community, its economic ups and downs, its natural disasters, its wars. All five generations of the Helm family faced varying degrees of discrimination due to their mixed heritage. In Japan they were seen as gaijin and outsiders; in the West they were seen as inferior because of their Asian blood. Deciding to adopt and raise Japanese children also presented its own set of problems and challenges. The culture, purpose, and reasons behind in adoption in Japan tend to be quite different than those in America.

While writing Yokohama Yankee, Helm conducted over one hundred interviews with friends, family members, Japanese scholars, and former employees of the Helm Brothers company. His research encompasses not only his family’s history, but also the historical background of Japan. In addition to being an engrossing read with a unique perspective of Japan, Yokohama Yankee is a beautifully presented book. Found in its pages are reproductions of hundreds of historic and family photographs, maps, postcards, stamps, and other ephemera. They were a lovely addition to the book. I enjoyed Yokohama Yankee a great deal. It’s a family history, but it’s also a history of a country—an insightful story of one multicultural family’s five generations and their relationship with Japan.

Thank you to Chin Music Press for providing a copy of Yokohama Yankee for review.


Author: Todd Shimoda
Illustrator: L. J. C. Shimoda

Publisher: Chin Music Press
ISBN: 9780984457670
Released: May 2012

Subduction, a novel written by Todd Shimoda with artwork by L. J. C. Shimoda, was published by Chin Music Press in 2012. Todd Shimoda is an American author who lived for at time in Japan and who frequently includes Japanese themes in his works. L. J. C. Shimoda is a book designer and artist who also happens to be Todd Shimoda’s wife. The two have collaborated on several other novels together including Oh! A Mystery of Mono no Aware (also published by Chin Music Press), The Fourth Treasure, and 365 Views of Mt. Fuji. Before reading Subduction I wasn’t familiar with their work although it does seem to be well received by readers and critics. I was happy when Chin Music Press sent me a review copy of Subduction for review so that I could experience the Shimodas’ work for myself. I’ve read a couple of Chin Music Press’ nonfiction publications, but Subduction is the first novel from the publisher that I’ve had the opportunity to read. I continue to be impressed by the physical quality and beautiful design of the books from Chin Music Press.

Jun Endo was a young doctor completing his residency in Tokyo when one of his patients dies unexpectedly. He is blamed for her death and ultimately as a result he is sent to the remote island of Marui-jima to serve as the doctor for its aging population. The small island is plagued by earthquakes. Due to the increase in seismic activity the Japanese government tried to evacuate its community but a small number of older residents have refused to leave. They’re not too happy with Dr. Endo’s presence on Marui-jima, either. Only two other outsiders currently live on the island: Aki Ishikawa, a seismologist who hopes to develop an early warning system for earthquakes, and Mari Sasaki, a documentary filmmaker who is collecting the stories of Marui-jima and its people. Aki and Mari are also the only people even close to Endo’s age. The rural, secluded Marui-jima is a far cry from the urban, crowded Tokyo. Unless there is a disaster, Endo is destined to remain in the unwelcoming environment for four years.

L. J. C. Shimoda’s artwork is a lovely addition to Subduction. I liked it quite a bit. The pieces are largely abstract with a heavy influence from Asian calligraphy traditions. She occasionally includes portions of photographs in her artwork, creating a simple collage-like effect. At first I didn’t consider Shimoda’s art to be an integral part of Subduction, but after finishing the novel I came to realize that it added a layer to an already layered story and that it helped to establish the overall mood and tone. Without the artwork, Subduction would have been an entirely different book. Also included in Subduction is a retelling of the myth “Kishima and the Giant Catfish.” I found its placement to be a little strange—it interrupts a chapter partway through—but it’s a wonderful tale. Shimoda changes her art style for this section of the book, using more color and taking inspiration from traditional woodblock prints associated with the story.

I mentioned that the story of Subduction is a layered one. Once Endo arrives at Marui-jima, the residents’ stories begin to overtake his own. He slowly learns more about those living on the island, but he doesn’t come any closer to really understanding any of them. Tragic events from forty years ago continue to have profound consequences on the island’s community. Aki, Mari, and Endo all bring their own demons with them, too. The intersections of people’s pasts and personalities as they come up against those of others create fault lines in their relationships that are just as dangerous as Marui-jima’s. The atmosphere of Subduction is vaguely ominous as Endo is confronted with the fact that he is unwanted. The older residents form an insular community and they are willing to protect it in any way necessary. I found Subduction to be a very intriguing novel with some suspenseful twists. Based on Subduction, I’d certainly be interested in reading more of the Shimodas’ work.

Thank you to Chin Music Press for providing a copy of Subduction for review.

Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage, and the Modern Japanese Woman

Author: Sumie Kawakami
Translator: Yuko Enomoto
Publisher: Chin Music Press
ISBN: 9780974199535
Released: September 2007

Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage, and the Modern Japanese Woman by Sumie Kawakami, published in 2007 with an English translation by Yuko Enomoto, was written specifically for the publisher Chin Music Press. I recently discovered the publisher and happened across Goodbye Madame Butterfly while browsing its backlist. Unfortunately, the volume is no longer in print—a shame since physically the book is quite lovely—but there are plans to release Goodbye Madame Butterfly in a digital edition soon. Chin Music Press was kind enough to send one of the few remaining print copies to me for review. Although there are several examples of Kawakami’s writing available in English, Goodbye Madame Butterfly is her first book-length work to be translated. Kawakami, a writer and journalist in Japan, is no stranger to to the subjects of sex and marriage and has written about them before, including coauthoring the book Tsuma no Koi (“Wives in Love”) with Taro Ohata.

Japan has a thriving sex industry that is not at all hidden. In fact, it is fairly high profile. And yet at the same time, Japan ranks among one of the lowest countries when it comes to sexual activity and sexual contentment according to a survey conducted by Durex. Despite a prominent and prevalent sex industry, which could either be seen as a symptom or as a cause, the number of sexless couples in Japan has been on the rise. Between 2005 and 2007, Sumie Kawakami interviewed a number of women and a few men about their sex lives and relationships. The results of these interviews form the essays that make up Goodbye Madame Butterfly. Although some details such as names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved, all of the stories in Goodbye Madame Butterfly are true. The women come from a wide variety of backgrounds—some are single, some are married, some are divorced; some are professionals while others are housewives—but they all share some amount of dissatisfaction with their personal lives.

Each of the eleven essays included in Goodbye Madame Butterfly begins with a title and the name being used for the interviewee, as well as their age and profession. From there, Kawakami tells their story. The essays are intimate not just because they touch on sex and other private matters but because it is readily clear that the interviewees were open and honest with their thoughts and feelings while talking with Kawakami. The presence of the women is always felt while reading Goodbye Madame Butterfly, even in the case in which the interviewee is a man. This is especially true for the two essays that have been written in the first person. Kawakami allows the women and their stories to speak for themselves. She makes no attempt to analyze, contradict, or defend them, but simply allows them to be just as they are.

To be completely honest, Goodbye Madame Butterfly can be somewhat depressing with all of the failed marriages and relationships that are revealed. But it just goes to show that life is complicated and messy no matter who the person is. The women whose stories appear in Goodbye Madame Butterfly are real people dealing with real and often unfortunate circumstances. Life is not always happy. Even the author is a divorcée and a single mother, characteristics that she shares with many of the other women in Goodbye Madame Butterfly. One thing I found particularly interesting about the book is that Kawakami made a point to interview women that she personally admired in some way. Even if the decisions they make in their lives aren’t always the best ones, these women exhibit strength and perseverance. I may have only caught a brief glimpse of their lives but I, too, found women worthy of admiration.

Thank you to Chin Music Press for providing a copy of Goodbye Madame Butterfly for review.

Otaku Spaces

Author: Patrick W. Galbraith
Photographer: Androniki Christodoulou

Publisher: Chin Music Press
ISBN: 9780984457656
Released: April 2012

A bit of an otaku myself, I was naturally interested in Otaku Spaces, written by Patrick W. Galbraith with photography by Androniki Christodoulou. I was very happy to be selected to receive a review copy of the book from the publisher Chin Music Press through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. I was also thrilled to be introduced to Chin Music Press. Originally established in Tokyo and now headquartered in Seattle, much of the publisher’s catalog is devoted to Japan-related titles. Although I haven’t read it yet, I know Galbraith as the author of The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan. And while I am not personally familiar with Christodoulou’s work, she is an award-winning photographer who has recently been focusing on traditional and contemporary Japanese culture and on otaku culture in particular. Otaku Spaces seemed like it was in good hands and so I was excited to have the opportunity to read it.

While there have been plenty of books and articles exploring the otaku phenomenon, there has been a tendency, as Galbraith points out in the introduction of Otaku Spaces, to “talk about them but not to them.” Otaku Spaces changes that by including profiles and in depth interviews with nineteen people, most of whom self-identify as otaku, in an attempt to challenge the stereotypes fostered by popular culture. Otaku Spaces begins with an excellent introduction that briefly examines the origin of otaku culture and the history of the term itself. The introduction is followed by a brief glossary before Otaku Spaces turns to the real showpiece of the book, “Otaku Interviews and Portraits.” Each profile is accompanied by a photograph of the individual posing with their collection. The next sections are the photographs and profiles of “Otaku Places” such as Akihabara and Ōsu, interviews with “The Experts,” and additional “Supplementary Material.”

Galbraith and Christodoulou interview a wide variety of otaku, from those interested in underground paraphernalia to those interested in pop culture collectibles. Otaku are commonly associated with anime and manga, which are certainly well represented in Otaku Spaces, but they can frequently be involved in other subject areas as well. Stereotypically speaking, otaku are usually thought to be male, but there are plenty of female fans included in Otaku Spaces as well. I was surprised to discover that I was actually already knew of some of the otaku interviewed for Otaku Spaces, such as the cross-playing champion kickboxer Nagashima “Jienotsu” Yūichiro. But for every otaku I already knew there were four or five that I was meeting for the first time. Otaku Spaces provides a wonderful opportunity for them to share their knowledge of and passion for the things that they love, whether that be calculators or video games or just about anything else.

While many of the questions that Galbraith and Christodoulou ask the interviewees are tailored to their specific interests or collections, there are several questions that they make a point to ask each individual. These include questions like “Are you an otaku?,” “Will you continue to collect in the future?,” and “What is the difference between an otaku and a collector?” among others. The answers vary from person to person, emphasizing the fact that there is really no one type of otaku but that they are all experts in their own way. They may not always agree, but that is a valuable lesson in and of itself. The otaku in Otaku Spaces are real people with real lives, proving that there is more to otaku than just stereotypes. Otaku Spaces is an enlightening and engaging volume. It’s also a very attractive book with full color photography and simple infographics. Otaku Spaces is easy to recommend to anyone interested in otaku specifically or in Japanese pop culture in general.

Thank you to Chin Music Press for providing a copy of Otaku Spaces for review.