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Review: Jasmine
November 30, 2013

Jasmine
Noboru Tsujihara

The author of the novel Jasmine, Noboru Tsujihara, is not well known outside of Japan, despite having won four of the major Japanese literary awards (Akutagawa, Yomiuri, Tanizaki, Kawabata). That is unfortunate because his novels are deftly written with themes based on historical events, and woven with a touch of the implausible which he makes believable. Jasmine, which falls squarely in this oeuvre, is a well-mannered novel of political intrigue set in Japan and China during the post-war era through the mid-1990s. Yet at heart, the novel is a love story.

After the Japanese defeat in World War II, the communists ultimately took over China. During the struggle, a few of the defeated Japanese were enlisted through various secret agencies to help with one side or the other. The father of the main character, Aki, was one of those who helped the anti-communists. After the Tiananmen Square uprising was quashed, and after his wife died suddenly, Aki, an international development specialist, finds himself adrift. With the measured encouragement of his half-sister Mitsuko, he begins to research his father's life in China and ultimate disappearance.

His father, Waki, worked for a movie company in Shanghai, and wasn't repatriated until five years after the end of the war. The movie company had been a cooperative venture between the Japanese army and the Chinese nationalist government. The victorious communist regime deemed the films to be "degenerate" and had them destroyed. After five years in Japan, Waki returned to Shanghai without giving Aki's mother a reason, and shortly after was arrested for spying. He hadn't been heard from since, but as Aki tells Mitsuko, "I heard he might be alive."

Before leaving for China, Aki runs into an old family friend, the Chinese expatriate Xu Liping. They discuss Aki's father briefly but Xu doesn?t dissuade him from looking for Waki. On a ship to China, which Aki chooses over a plane for the nostalgia, he meets Cai Fong, supposedly a director of the Beijing People's Foreign Friendship Association. As they disembark at Shanghai, Aki sees a beautiful woman meeting Cai. Then next day, Aki visits a film studio of a friend, and finds the same woman there. Li Xing is an actress, playing a spy who trades sexual favors for information.

All of these seemingly coincidental meetings of course are not coincidences. Tsujihara skillfully draws the threads together, including a love affair between Aki and Li Xing. She has a secret identity, as do most of the characters, and this secret leads her to danger, resulting in a five-year separation from Aki. Now Aki's search is not only for his father but also Li Xing. He finds many obstacles and just when he starts to lose hope, he finds her, now living under a new identity?of course.

If you know recent Japanese events, you will remember the horrific Kobe earthquake in 1995. Tsujihara adds this disaster to the story as a setting to reveal the truths of Aki's father, as well as the connections between the characters. The title of the novel comes from a rare blend of tea, mild yet with a subtle yet piquant fragrance. This metaphor also applies to Tsujihara's voice and writing style. Like the flatness of a Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock print, the characters' emotions are rarely explicitly described, although this makes the final scene of the novel richly poignant. For example:
The cab was heading east on Huahai Road. Aki let his eyes meander over the flood of people moving along under the arching plane trees that lined the street. So his father had been a spy in his youth. How did that tie in with his arrest on charges of espionage? A funny coincidence, if that's what it was. Those were the thoughts swirling in his brain. In the other half was the swirling figure of the actress Li Xing.
While the main character is Japanese, the novel is as much about China as Japan. The dual setting and its thematic treatment of China's politics is relatively unusual for a Japanese novel, and is timely given the current friction between the two countries. Jasmine is highly recommended for those interested in Japanese history, culture, and literature.

COMMENTS

Number of comments: 1
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Jo Reed
Sounds fascinating, despite the flat style as you mention. It seems many of the "older" Japanese authors write in that style. It is part of their psyche?

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