Rating: 3 stars
My best friend lent me this book. She knew that I would enjoy it, and she was right.
Within the first couple of pages, Durian Sukegawa’s description of the novel’s setting made me yearn for Japan and the holiday adventures my husband and I like to take exploring the side streets and everyday bits of Japan away from the tourist attractions. The description of the dorayaki shop where Sweet Bean Paste is set made me think of the Japanese drama series Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories.
Sentaro runs the shop, trying to pay off a debt. He makes a cheat’s version of dorayaki, using ready made anko (餡こ) sweet bean paste because it takes him less time to prepare the day’s produce than if he made the paste from scratch.
One day, a 76-year old woman, who introduces herself as Tokue Yoshii, appears at the shop and offers her services as assistant at half the rate shown in the advertisement in the shop window. Sentaro isn’t convinced that a person as old as Tokue will be of much help, so he politely turns her down.
So begins the story of an unlikely friendship.
Sentaro and Tokue both have pasts that they would rather forget. Sentaro had dreams of becoming a writer, but ended up in prison and now owes money to the owner of the shop. Tokue had an illness as a child that has left her with disfigured hands and a fixedness in her face. Initially, neither character wants to reveal to the other what their past lives have been like.
Tokue makes anko so delicious that, once he’s tasted it, Sentaro can’t help but take her on as his assistant. His motivation is mercenary. He thinks the taste of the dorayaki will improve so much that he will sell more and be able to pay off his debt more quickly.
Tokue believes that you can tell something about the person who made the anko from the quality of its taste. This reminded me of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. Sweet Bean Paste isn’t a magical realism novel, however.
Tokue is a funny, persistent woman who doesn’t take no for an answer. She’s quietly determined and believes she knows best. Sentaro is less determined. He talks about determination, but he will do anything for an easy life. As we learn about his past and how he has ended up where he is, it’s clear that his lack of actual determination is at the root of his drifting existence.
Sentaro reminded me of the male characters in Murakami’s novels, endlessly drifting, incapable of action, unwilling to make a decision in case it’s the wrong one, resigning themselves to whatever life presents to them.
Sentaro and Tokue form a bond akin to parent and child, and when prejudice against Tokue’s condition ends their partnership, Sentaro finds himself adrift once again. It takes the arrival of Wakana, one of the schoolgirls that Tokue befriends over the summer, to shake him into action and track Tokue down again.
An aspect of Japanese history that I knew nothing of is at the heart of the story. It’s a sad moment in Japan’s past and something that still has repercussions for the people affected. It made me think about the survivors of the A-bomb in Hiroshima, and the prejudice they received immediately after the war and for years afterwards, and how some of them started to talk about their experiences in the hope that other people would treat them with less hostility.
Tokue writes a letter to Sentaro at the end of the book in which she talks about seeing the world differently, of bearing witness to the things around us, of finding meaning in simply existing and not solely in being an agent in the world. These are things that appear in theories of mindfulness, and they have links to Buddhism. One of the things I like most about visiting Japan is the fusion of Shinto with Buddhism and the sense of simply being in the world, finding harmony with it, and Sukegawa seems to be trying to capture that in this tale.
In the author’s note at the end, Sukegawa explains what inspired him to write the novel. It’s an exploration of what existence means and how the prejudice of others can strip a person’s life of meaning. It’s also an exhortation to not let the immediacy of life grind you down but instead to find meaning in your everyday.