Hiromi Kawakami: The Briefcase – Sensei no kaban (2004)

Hiromi Kawakami is one of my favourite writers. Three of her books have been translated into German two of which are available in English as well. I loved both books I’ve read so far (Manazuru and Mr Nakano and the Women) and was looking forward to this third one which has been published last year in English.

I often hear people say they don’t know any Japanese literature or don’t know where to begin. I usually recommend Banana Yoshimoto as a first author but now I think Kawakami’s The Briefcase may be even a better starting point.

The Briefcase is a love story between a retired college professor and his former student Tsukiko. When you read “love story”, you may have some expectations but you will have to throw them overboard as nothing will quite match this story which is as far from a Western love story or romance as can be.

The professor or sensei and his former student  meet accidentally one evening in a bar. Tsukiko is 38 years old, a loner who doesn’t believe she will ever find true love. She isn’t too sad about this though, she is unconventional and likes to live on her own.

The professor is somewhat startled to meet a woman in such a bar and drinking a lot of sake at that but soon they are both delighted to find out that they like the same food and drinks and that they enjoy hanging out together. The relationship is very formal at first, nothing hints at a possible love story at all. Tsukiko is quite quirky and in the beginning the professor tells her constantly that she isn’t acting very ladylike, only she couldn’t care less. It becomes soon obvious that he isn’t less quirky. They never  make appointments, they just meet at the same bars week after week until one day pick when they a fight over something really silly. It’s only when they do not see each other any more for a long time that Tsukiko realizes she has fallen in love.

The way they slowly and carefully approach each other, and get to know each other is so lovely. They really take their time and only decide to be real lovers when they have spent a long time together and have seen each other at their worst. But they are also both very shy and not very experienced and have been on their own for a long time. Why the professor has been alone will only be revealed in the end.

The way this relationship is described is very Japanese. It’s filled with respect and an almost ritualized slow approach of another human being. None of them would ask the other any direct questions, the way they get to know each other is far more subtle. Through shared moments and mutual attention and observation.

There are many wonderful and typically Japanese elements which could have turned the book into a cliché if a lesser writer had attempted to write about them. Food is extremely important and we read about an incredible amount of different meals. Vegetables, mushrooms, fish we’ve never heard of are mentioned.

Japanese poetry, Haikus, the cherry blossom festival, calligraphy and many other things are very important as well and reading the book is a bit like a trip to Japan. Or at least like I would imagine it.

What I liked is how the book reads as if it had been painted with one of those very precise and fine calligraphy brushes. Kawakami can evoke an atmosphere and emotions in a few lines, and artfully captures how they are changing constantly. The story takes up almost a year and the change of seasons is captured as well as the change of emotions.

The end was a real killer, beautiful but quite sad. I highly recommend this wonderful and lovely book. It is a great introduction to Japanese literature, its sensibilities and esthetics.

I’ve read the book as a contribution to Tony’s January in Japan and Bellezza’s Japanese Reading Challenge.


Japanese Literature Challenge