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

51 thoughts on “Hiromi Kawakami: The Briefcase – Sensei no kaban (2004)

  1. It sounds wonderful. I like love stories that slowly develop. Of course the better half and I waited six years to have our second date so that may be a reason why.

    • It’s a perfect book to get back to Japanese literature.
      I^ve only read The Golden Pavillion. Very different.
      Both events, Japanse Readaing Challenge and January in Japan run until the end of the month. You can join at any time.

  2. This sounds beautiful! Unfortunately,. there’s not one book by Hiromi Kawakami in our entire provincial library system. It will have to go on my amazon wish list *sigh*

    • Thanks, Sigrun. I could imagine you’d like this a lot. Of the three I’ve read I liked this one best and then Mr Nakano (maybe you could find a Norwegian translation?). It’s such poetical writing.

  3. Beautiful review, Caroline! I haven’t read much of Japanese literature (a few works of Yoko Ogawa and one by Natsuo Kirino) and so I always love getting to know new Japanese writers. This looks like a beautiful novel. I loved what you said about the book – that it looks like it has been painted precisely by a calligraphy brush. I love the beautiful winter scene in Japanese style art on the over. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • Thanks, Vishy. You know what, I think Peter Stamm reminds me a little bit of her but I like her writing even more. I’m sure you’d like this too. There is a subtlety in the writing which can only be compared to drawing.
      Ogawa and Kirino are quite different I suppose.

      • I will add ‘The Briefcase’ to my ‘TBR’ list. I liked your review of the book so much. If Kawakami is better than Stamm then she must be really amazing 🙂 I liked Ogawa a little bit better than Kirino, because Kirino writes very bleak stuff, but otherwise I liked both their works.

  4. This sounds wonderful, Caroline. The only Japanese writers I’ve read are Gail Tsukyiama (The Samurai’s Garden) and Yoko Ogawa (The Housekeeper and the Professor) and their stories sound similar to this one. I love that quiet, subtle manner of writing.

    • Yes, that’s what I like too. Very subtle, very quiet. I should have attached the German cover. It’s a phto of a couple in a boat on a lke completely covered by cherry blossoms. I’m sure you’d enjoy her. I have to look up Tsukyiama, I don’t know her. I read Ogawa quite a long time ago hen it came out in France. I can’t remember it so well anymore. The title was Hotel Iris, not sure which one that is.

    • I think it’s a wonderful introduction to Japanese literature, or to some of it. I can highly recommen all of her books. But I wouldn’t start with Manazuru, it’s a bit different.

  5. Thanks for the review Caroline 🙂 We’re actually doing a group read of this for the challenge (although the group part consists merely of everyone posting on the 31st!), so I’ll link back to this when we get there.

    I finished it a couple of days ago and was pleasantly surprised. I was expecting it to be something akin to Yoshimoto or ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’, but it was much better than that. There were a few soppy moments towards the end, but on the whole, I think Kawakami did a great job of keeping the reader interested. I’m definitely interested in trying another of hers anyway 🙂

    • I’m sorry about the group read. I didn’t know. My laptop is dead at the moment and I’m on an old computer which doesn’t allow to navigate. I can’t really visit other blogs or access the reader or I would have seen it.
      I meant to read this since 5 years. It’s the first I bought but the last I’ve read. It was worth keeping it.
      I think she is far better that Yoshimoto – with the exception of Kitchen which I really love – and certainly more subtle than Ogawa. Yes, the end was a bit soppy but I liked it.
      Manazuru is not as good but you can always read her in a German translation. 🙂
      I’ve read the German and I’m confident it’s well translated as the trasnlators are a duo German/Japanese and they do a terrific job.

  6. I didn’t read your post carefully, because I’m reading the book as I write (well, not literally, but I am on page 25 or so). I’m liking it very much, and when I finish it I’ll come back to chat with you more about it.

  7. And happily this is available in the US and in paper! I’ve added it to my wishlist. It sounds wonderful. I have not read a lot of Japanese lit–I have enjoyed Banana Yoshimoto and Natsuo Kirino–was thinking I should read more, but I don’t know that I can fit a book in still this month, but I will certainly order this one to have on hand!

    • I know that you will like this. It’s nice to read a book which is so well written, with engaging charcaters and beautiful descriptions. I remeber when I read her first 4 years ago. I kept the others until now. 🙂

  8. I do appreciate books that take concepts we are over familiar with, like the love story, and render them completely differently due to a different cultural understanding. I like Assia Djebar so much because the way that women in her stories inhabit their domestic space is so strange and it made me see my own culture with different eyes. I have read shamefully little Japanese literature, although I do hope to read The Makioka Sisters this year.

    • I agree, it’s fascinating to see things we take for give filtered through another culture. It was precisely for that that i studied cultural anthropology. I’m looking forward to read Assia Djebar this year. I’ve read other Islamic authors and the way they inhabit the domestic space, as you just said, is very different from what we know. There is another power in that.
      I could imagine that Japanese literature could hook you. The different way to write about emotions and express them is quite facsinating.

  9. This sounds fascinating & appears to have that aesthetically pleasing quality I find in a lot of J-lit This is an author I’m aware of but have yet to read, this sounds like my introduction

  10. I have never heard of this writer before. it sounds lovely although it doesn’t sound like the kind of book I usually read.

    I haven’t gone to the library and borrow a Japanese book eventhough I love to participate.

  11. Very interesting. Like others of your commenters this is a writer I have never heard of. I shall now do an Amazon search and investigate further. I have now got Yellow Birds waiting to be read next on my Kindle – looks really good.

    • I’d be so interested to read what you think of Kawakami.
      I’m quite sure you would like her.
      I haven’t read much of the Yellow Birds yet but what I’ve read really looked good.

  12. Pingback: The Briefcase, by Hiromi Kawakani, translated by Allison Markin Powell « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  13. I’ve never heard of this writer, thanks. There are lots of her books translated into French.
    I’m on a book buying ban but I’ll keep her on my wish list. Who knows, I may read her for next January in Japan! 🙂

    • You’re worse than me, planning this far ahead. 🙂
      I was pretty sure you’d find her in French and you might really like her.
      But it’s importnat to stick to the ban. I hope you bought loads of great books before the end of the year. 🙂
      My book buying has atwsit. I want to stick to one per week but wait to buy the first as long as possible.

  14. Pingback: Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami | JoV's Book Pyramid

  15. Pingback: The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami | Dolce Bellezza

  16. Pingback: Rezension Japan-Roman: Der Himmel ist blau, die Erde ist weiß, von Hiromi Kawakami, 2001 – 4 Sterne | HansBlog.de

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