The Gentle Inclusivity of Kawakami Hiromi

I’m delighted to announce that my short essay “The Gentle Inclusivity of Kawakami Hiromi’s ‘Summer Break'” was just published in the 21st volume of the Proceedings of the Association for Japanese Literary Studies. Here’s the abstract…

“Summer Break” (Natsu yasumi), the second story in Kawakami Hiromi’s 1998 collection The God of Bears (Kamisama), is narrated by a young person who spends a summer working as a laborer in a pear orchard. Like the other stories in The God of Bears, “Summer Break” operates according to the logic of magical realism, which is perhaps why the owner of the orchard tells the narrator not to worry about the small, talking creatures that run through the trees and devour fallen fruit. The narrator nevertheless forms a bond with one of these pear spirits, whose panic attacks mirror the narrator’s own dissociative episodes. At the end of the story, both the pear spirit and the narrator grapple with anxiety and suicidal ideation, but the story’s conclusion embraces self-acceptance.

From the first publication of the award-winning title story of The God of Bears in 1994 to the appearance “Summer Break” in the complete collection in 1998, various public figures attempted to address the social malaise that characterized Japan’s economic recession. Several highly influential public intellectuals, including the clinical psychologist Kawai Hayao and the cultural critic Saitō Tamaki, viewed mental illness as a symptom of broader cultural forces.

In “Summer Break,” however, Kawakami portrays the experience of mental illness as embodied and personal instead of abstract and societal. This paper analyzes how the fantasy elements of “Summer Break” render its treatment of mental illness as sympathetic and relatable, an aspect of the story that is enhanced by its use of magical creatures that externalize the narrator’s psychological state. I will place this analysis within in the context of recent narratives in Japanese fiction and popular culture categorized as ijinkei (“about nonhuman characters”), as well as critical discussions of the folkloric qualities of this period of Kawakami’s writing.

…that’s a lot of material to cover in such a short essay, but I think I did a decent job of contextualizing the story. This piece of writing was intended to serve as an introduction to my translation of the story itself. Unfortunately, despite almost a year of constant work and the assistance of multiple high-profile translators, we weren’t able to secure the publication rights. It’s a disappointment, but I hope the silver lining is that there are plans for the full God of Bears short story collection to appear in translation soon.

My essay is available on JSTOR; but, since I understand that not everyone has institutional access, I’ve also made a copy available on my website (here). Although it’s unofficial, you can download a PDF of my translation of the short story “Summer Break” (here). Years ago, I translated all of the stories in The God of Bears, and the illustrator I was once planning on working with to create illustrations is Maru, who you can find on Twitter (here). And finally, you can learn more about the Proceedings of the Association for Japanese Literary Studies on their website (here).

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