Japanese Literature Challenge 13

The Cake Tree in the Ruins by Akiyuki Nosaka

Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

It’s the 13th year of the Japanese Literature Challenge, hosted by Meredith of Dolce Belezza – it runs from January through to the end of March – find out more here. I hope to read more than one book for it, but will begin with one that caught my eye at the library recently – being a Pushkin Press edition it did stand out amongst the other paperbacks!

In 1945, Nosaka lived through the Allied firebombing of Kobe, losing his mother and father in the raid, and his sister shortly afterward, becoming one of the yakeato generation (the generation of the ashes). This collection of short stories was inspired by his memories of that time. Nosaka died in 2015.

The short preface explains that on 15th August 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan to the Allies – this was broadcast on the radio, and is considered as the day WWII ended. It is celebrated in Japan each year as a memorial for the war dead, and more recently as a day to pray for peace. It coincides with the traditional Obon festival in which Japanese honour their ancestors. That day and these events became immediately apparent when I turned the page to the first story, which is set on the 15th of August 1945. I would go on to discover that the same is true for all twelve of the stories collected here – which adds powerful resonance to the tales.

We begin with the tale of The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine. A Japanese submarine is hiding submerged in an inlet, and the captain doesn’t believe the surrender broadcast to be true; he is set on continuing to search for and sink American vessels. Meanwhile, an oversized, mateless, male sardine whale finds the submarine and begins to play with it. The whale won’t leave the submarine alone, swimming alongside when they go out searching for American ships to sink. You sense that this story is unlikely to have a good end – in this case for the whale – who takes the depth-charge dropped saving the submarine.

I’ve told you the ending of this first story to illustrate one of the major themes in this collection – that of sacrifice. This notion also occurs strongly in The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach, in which the cockroach is a pet, but the Red Dragonfly is an old and slow training airplane, now expendable, as were their young pilots who had been effectively radicalised in today’s terminology.

Even in the cockpit of the Red Dragonfly as it rose into the air, the youth thought only of his mother. She could take pride in him dying an honourable death as a kamikaze pilot, and with his soldier’s pension she would never have to sell vegetables again. Gazing at the photograph of him, brave and smiling, surely she could live content.

You can’t expect a straight-forward tale of a kamikaze run though. Nosaka takes us through the young pilot’s mind, as run after run is thwarted when they can’t find any ships to die crashing into.

Other major themes of these stories are starvation and waiting. The second tale, The Parrot and The Boy, has a child in a bomb shelter with only his pet parrot for company, waiting for his parents to join him, as firebombs had rained down around them. As the boy loses his will to communicate, the parrot keeps up his side of the conversation, until someone comes, if they will. In The Elephant and Its Keeper, we see a zookeeper’s struggle to keep his beloved creature alive, the one creature they hadn’t been able to cull. Nosaka tells us in an aside:

Too many undernourished people and animals appear in these stories, I know, but it was wartime, after all. There were probably some plump people with glossy skin even at that time, but you never saw them among the regular citizens.

A Balloon in August was rather different to many of the other stories, describing how Japanese children were involved in manufacturing giant balloons from glue and paper, which would be filled with hydrogen and set loose into the jet stream towards America, ten percent reaching their target, but few causing much actual damage.

I am once again reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 (see here), which was Vonnegut’s response to his survival of the firebombing of Dresden as a PoW. Billy Pilgrim’s mantra, ‘So it goes’ would aptly apply here too, with that certain inevitability in many of these stories, often wistful, be it leading to starvation, survival, or doing the honourable thing!

This story collection turned out to be profound and moving in its exploration of the states of mind of the different Japanese protagonists on that day. The translation is elegantly handled with simple clarity by Ginny Tapley Takemori (who also translated Convenience Store Woman – reviewed here). It is not always an easy read, but I would highly recommend these short stories, and will look out for Pushkin Press’s forthcoming translation of Nosaka’s novel Grave of the Fireflies. (9/10)


Source: Library. Akiyuki Nosaka, The Cake Tree in the Ruins (Pushkin, 2018) flapped paperback, 160 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s or Amazon UK (affiliate links).

10 thoughts on “Japanese Literature Challenge 13

  1. Liz Dexter says:

    That sounds a moving and interesting collection of stories. I have been seeing this challenge mentioned a few times and I’ve just remembered that I have a Japanese book on the TBR (at least I THINK I have) so am off to poke around now.

  2. Bellezza says:

    I’m so sad that the whale took the charge for the submarine! Even though I, too, was suspecting his demise as I read your post.

    Thank you for reading this collection and sharing it with us. Pushkin Press has a definite way of standing out above the rest with the quality of books they cover, and this set of short stories sounds fabulous. I will also keep it in mind for the Deal Me In Challenge, which focuses on short stories throughout the year. (It’s at Bibliophilica.wordpress.com)

    I am so glad you participated in the Japanese Literature Challenge 13! It is wonderful to have your inside and reviews.

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  4. Mel u says:

    I read this story last year. Truly magic

    In “The Cake Tree”, set in a Kobe after it was firebombed in 1945
    we are presented a very moving account of the daily existence of a group of children, ages five to ten. These lines show the impact on the children

    “Adults were better at enduring these conditions, but it was really tough on growing children, especially since it was the grown-ups who had gone to war in the first place while the children were simply innocent victims. For those children between the ages of five and ten in 1945, it really was a miserable existence—they had never eaten anything tasty, while however hungry the grown-ups were now they could remember eating their fill of delicious food in the past. They would reminisce about the tasty eel in suchand-such a restaurant, and the mouth-watering tempura in another, especially the shrimp and vegetable fritters”

    The search for food became the work of the children:

    “Rice had been rationed since 1941, sugar was hard to come by, the cakes and candies that had once flooded into the ports had vanished, and by the end of the war the only sweets available were dried bananas and sweet potatoes. In order to survive, the children formed gangs to go scavenging for the tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins and other vegetables people had started growing in the ruins. They knew it was wrong to steal, but survival was more important to them, and they could sniff out exactly where tomatoes were turning red or pumpkins were swelling up nicely. “Hey, what’s this tree?”

    The tree’s story is just so beautiful, magic realism with the touch of a master. I don’t want to tell the marvelous close of this story but I loved it. Nosaka, drawing on his own experiences, in just a few pages bringing to life a world now largely forgotten

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