Friday, September 14, 2012

The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto by Kenji Nakagami.

Burakumin ( hamlet people/village people) are a Japanese minority group who have faced discrimination in Japan. The Burakumin, although one of the main minority groups in Japan, are racially and ethnically identical to other members of this country. Most historians trace the creation of a rigid outcaste class back to the early eighteenth century, when the Toku-gawa government issued a number of edicts defining outcaste status and listing rules to regulate outcaste dress code and freedom of movement, going so far as to cover what style of house they could live in (no windows facing the street). Some scholars claim more ancient origins tracing outcaste communities to the 14th –15th century, these conflicts notwithstanding, Ian Neary* traces a development over time in the formation of outcaste identity: “ whereas  before 1600 the emphasis was on occupation afterwards it was on bloodline”. Although they were legally liberated in 1871, with the abolition of the feudal caste system, this did nothing to put a stop to social discrimination or lower standard of living.

Todays Burakumin are descendants of these feudal era outcaste communities, whose occupations would have mainly comprised of work considered unpure, tainted with death or ritual impurity (such as executioners, undertakers, workers in slaughterhouses, butchers or tanners) and traditionally lived in their own secluded hamlets and ghettos. This isolation, added to the long history of taboos and myths concerning the buraku, has left a legacy of social desolation. In the early 1970s the Japanese government who could no longer ignore the widening gap in the living standards between the prosperous middle classes and the outcaste community, began to throw loads of money at the problem, bulldozing the old housing and replacing with concrete prefab buildings. Since the 1980s more and more young buraku have started to organize and protest against their plight, with movements whose objectives range from "liberation" to integration with the aim of ending this situation.

The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto

*Burakumin in contemporary Japan” Japan’s minorities, ed.Michael Weiner (London, Routledge, 1977)

The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto, contains three early tales of Kenji Nakagami set in and about the Burakumin community, a segment of society he was familiar with, being a member of the baruku himself. In these stories he reveals a section of Japanese society that most will never wander through, the alleyways and “unclean” spaces, recording the dialect of the labourer, the uneducated manual workers & leather workers. By using the local idiom of the outcaste, he created a prose style that captures all the nuances and richness found there.

Kenji Nakagami won the Akutagawa Prize in 1975 for The Cape, becoming the first author born in the post-war period to win this prize. The Cape tells the story of a tough burakumin family, gathering together to hold a memorial service for the first husband of the matriarch. Akiyuki, the son of a women who although married twice, but never to his father grows up in a world of half-siblings. One of these is Ikuo, a half brother who engages in violent against Akiyuki and his mother after she remarries and moves in with her new husband. Ikuo commits suicide when Akiyuki is twelve. We learn all of this as the memorial service is being organised and yet the shadow of violence is never far from Akiyuki and its spectre raises its head once more as Akiyuki’s in-law murders Furuichi (his own brother in law). All of this isolates Akiyuki even more and in search of answers to who he is, he turns to his natural father, which merely piles confusion upon confusion.

The second tale, House on Fire, is a study of an ordinary man, constantly ambushed by his own rage, endlessly reliving the memory of his father’s acts of violence. This story is framed around the illegitimate son of an arsonist, who hears that his father is in a hospital bed, his body shattered in a motorbike crash. This tale moves back and forth in time, between different characters and perspectives. The uniting force between father and son is violence, the one clear memory that the son has is of his father fighting another man at a school fair, this act seems to define for the son ideals of sexuality and manhood. This legacy follows the son into adulthood, although now, his own violent impulses shows themselves in the petty and sordid acts of bullying committed against his tired wife or in the destruction of inanimate objects. This tale plays out the drama of identity, as the protagonist tries to piece the shards of his life, sifting through what is memory and myth, caught in this riddle the son ends up alienating all. 

The third tale in this collection is Red Hair, and possibly the most straight forward of these tales.  Kozo, a construction worker picks up a red headed women at a bus stop, what follows is a tale of sexual excess as Kozo & this unknown insatiable redhead explore each others bodies, punctuated only by the other bodily needs and Kozo’s job. This account of sexual obsession is raw, it burns off the page with a brute force and a passion that could light up a major city and yet?Within its twenty four pages, this book hints at a lot more, insinuations that this mysterious women has a dark past, carries a lot of emotional baggage, then there’s the screams each morning from a neighbour who’s addicted to amphetamines and wakes them up with her cries.

These three tales are dark and foreboding, the people involved live lives, not of quiet despair, their pain is writ large. The tragedies could be picked out of any line up, the usual suspects of alcoholism, murder, rape and suicide, of people bound by a fickle constraint. The stories, like the characters go nowhere, confined within the limitations of their world, leaving you with no egress, no key to why - just endless questions. Kenji Nakagami doesn’t detail the disease but shows the symptoms of a life where discrimination isn’t that awful thing that happens to someone else, but is the entirety of ones existence.

Kenji Nakagami

Stone Bridge press


  1. Excellent review, Gary. Appreciate the background on Burakumin that you provided.

  2. I remember that this was a bit of a taboo topic back when I lived in Japan - only one group of students even acknowledged the issue (and a couple of them looked very edgy).

  3. Burakumin and Kenji Nakagami and his stories are totally new to me, so I appreciate the introduction to both, especially since I enjoy learning, and reading stories, about the Orient. Many thanks...

  4. Many thanks for this post, I've got a copy of this to read and am looking forward to reading it. Sounds like many of the themes similar to that of Snakelust can be seen in this collection. It's surprising that so little from Nakagami has appeared in English translation, it would be great to see one of his novels in translation.

  5. Nice review, and it was interesting to read the background about Burakumin. I love the cover of this book, so eye-catching and dynamic!

  6. Hello Rise, Thought the background info was necessary for the tales (was for my understanding'

    Hi Tony, seems it's still a subject fraught with problems,463af2212,49747c292,49749cfec,0,,,.html

    Hello Prashant, hope you find & enjoy them.

    Hi Me, would love to read more, knew about Snakelust but would be interested in any info on the novels.

    Hello Andrew, the cover's fantastic & makes a change from some sedate scenery.

  7. Oh, Gary, you make me want to buy this book immediately! I had no idea about this "subculture" (not a good word, I realize) that exists in Japan. This line from your post: "the Japanese government who could no longer ignore the widening gap in the living standards between the prosperous middle classes and the outcaste community began to throw loads of money at the problem, bulldozing the old housing and replacing with concrete prefab buildings" sounds exactly like what happened in Chicago. Only, now they've integrated the 'ghettos' with suburbia, throwing everyone into confusion and, I must admit, resentment on the parts of the people who have held down jobs and standards of excellence/cleanliness. The schools also struggle with incorporating students whose parents haven't valued, or been able to acheive, education. Ah, I sound judgemental here, and that's not what I mean to do. I only indicate that the difference between the social classes is quite strong and always difficult to amend.

    I love that this book won the Akutagawa Prize! Those winners have never disappointed me.

    A story in particular which interests me is the Red Hair one, hinting at something more, and 'burning' off the page.

    What an excellent review, for which I thank you. xo

  8. Ciao Bellezza, This was an element of Japanese society, I knew nothing about, for more info on this subject there's this book Nakagami, Japan: Buraku and the Writing of Ethnicity by Anne McKnight. As to Red Hair, it's quite a raw sexually obsessive tale that the tiniest minutiae are dissected & placed under Nakagami's microscope, but it is different from almost J-lit normally experienced.

    1. Hmmm...a raw sexually obsessive tale sounds like just the ticket for Readers Imbibing Peril this October. Wonder if I can get it on my Nook.

  9. I've never heard of this ethnic situation before - amazing all the things in the world that go on isn't it. What an unusual book this is - hardly mainstream, but obviously well-worth stumbling across. Thanks for bringing it to your readers' attention

  10. Of course, Nook has never heard of such a thing...still, off to search for it on

  11. hi Bellezza, It's not on Kindle either, but is available as a physical copy, quite easy to track down.

    Hello Tom, Not my normal J-lit read, but was enjoyable.

    Hi Mel, this should be great for you, Japanese & 3 short(ish) stories.

  12. It's so sad to me that members of this subculture, who are racially and ethniclly the same as the majority culture, could not more easily blend in, over time...

  13. Hi Harvee Lau, True & was tweeting with someone & it is still current.

  14. I never knew about this before, thank you for the info. This sounds like a book I'd be very interested in, thanks!

  15. hello Claire it is a great read & different from most J-lit, the nearest is probably the writing of Hitomi Kanehara.


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