Monthly Archives: October 2014

Japanese book review: “Humorous short story collection” by Endo Shusaku (遠藤周作:ユーモア小説編

“Humorous short story collection” by Endo Shusaku is one of the books I picked up at an Japanese grocery store in Orlando that just happened to have a rack of used books. At the time I thought it was from a different writer, but after discovering my mistake I decided to try reading it anyway. Unlike most other novels I’ve read, this book had no blurb on the back describing the plot, genre, or anything for that matter – all I knew is that the short stories were likely to be “humorous” in some way.

The first story (of 12 total) was quite memorable and involved the main character utilizing the latest in medical technology to shrink himself to micro-scale (think “Honey I Shrunk The Kids”) and entered the body of a women to treat her medical condition. It just so happens that he was infatuated with this woman. The “humor” aspect seems to be the contrast between his romantic feelings for this person and the fact that he travels all throughout her body, and at some point in the story he remarks about this. Without giving all the details away, I’ll just say that part of his journey involves quite “un-romantic” parts of her body . Because of the time period this book was published in (around 1968), I think this story was likely heavily influenced by the film Fantastic Voyage from 1966 which shares much in common with it. The above picture of the cover is a funny representation of this story, and the fact it was picked for the cover implies to me others also felt it as one of the most likable or sellable of the set.

The other stories also have unique or thought-provoking ideas, including one where the main character meets a near-identical twin of himself, another where a man enters a small country town to find he is mistaken for a famous comedian and pampered accordingly, and another story where two housewives compete over who can get the first driver’s license in their area of town.

In all honesty, I felt that several of these stories were not really “humorous”, but trying to understand what the author was trying to convey was very rewarding. I also learned a bit about certain aspects of Japanese culture, like that the area of Karuizawa is (was?) known for being a common place for summer houses. A few of the descriptive passages stood out as being very well-written, like one which compared the headlights of cars speeding by at night to colored cellophane candy paper.

If there was one thing in common with all the stories, it was they all seemed to be written with a great amount of thought by the author, and gave me the impression of a hidden meaning, even if I didn’t always understand it completely. In addition, I felt several of the stories were either direct or indirect satires on some aspect of society (like the “Karuizawa” story).

I briefly read about the author after completing this set of stories, and it seems he was well-known for his belief in Christianity and it’s heavy influence on his works, as well as the fact many of his character were allegories. Had I known this before reading the book I might have interpreted several of the stories in a different light. As it was, I didn’t detect much in terms of obvious religious references.

Linguistically, this book was quite a challenge because it was written before I was born, with many old expressions and kanji I was not familiar with. To make things worse, furigana (reading hints over kanji) was pretty sparse with only the most rare words covered. At least one or two of the stories had some non-Tokyo dialect which was a bit tricky to follow completely. Fortunately some chapters were easier than others, and most of the dialogue was pretty easy. Overall though, I wouldn’t recommend trying the Japanese version unless you have strong kanji knowledge and overall reading ability. A quick search didn’t come up with an English version (the title’s translation is my own), but there may one available somewhere.

With over 300 pages of tough Japanese, it was quite an epic feat for me to finish this book, but I stuck to it day after day and finally finished after roughly 2-3 months. Although much of the Japanese used will not directly help me in the terms of words or phrases I can use in everyday conversation (good luck fitting in words like 有象無象 or 猿股 into your conversations), the satisfaction of completion plus the cultural knowledge and depth of the stories made this overall a read that was well worth it.

Thinking back on this set of stories, I feel as if I have just read a classic of sorts, though it appears this work was not very popular compared to some of his others. If I have a chance to get my hands on another of his works I just may dive headfirst into the thought-provoking world of Mr. Shusaku again.

For now, I think I’ll take a short break from Japanese literature as I contemplate what to read (or write?) next.

See some commentary of this book (in Japanese) here: 

(Note: the featured image of the book’s cover comes from a slighty different version of the one I bought used and read. Mine was published a few years previous to it and contains one additional story. I’m not sure if the one I have is for sale anymore.)


Japanese restaurant review: “Mikan” of Pembroke Pines, Florida

It’s been quite a while since I’ve come across any great Japanese restaurants, but this weekend me and my family happened to  dine at an incredible, authentic Japanese place which I’ll review in this post.

Mikan Japanese Restaurant ( is a newly opened restaurant in Pembroke pines, not too far from the Trader Joe’s grocery store which also just opened. Though Mikan has only been open for a few months, we spoke to the Owner briefly who told us he had another restaurant of the same name in downtown Miami for 17 years after which he decided to move to this location. The place is fairly small, but with very nice decor – the lighting of the sushi bar was particularly memorable. The word ‘Mikan’ (usually written in hiragana as みかん, sometimes in kanji as 蜜柑), means “mandarin orange” in Japanese.

A long-time study of Japanese language, I was pleasantly surprised when one of the waitresses gave us a welcoming “Irasshaimase”, with quite good pronunciation (I say this because some restaurants have adopted this customary greeting even though few, if any of them, actually speak Japanese). This waitress happened to be Russian and had lived for some time in Japan. She spoke to us completely in Japanese the entire time, and was very nice to our young son.

The owner himself is Japanese, something which is surprisingly rare in South Florida Japanese restaurants, and we spoke to him briefly in Japanese. The other waitress who took our order was also Japanese and spoke to us in Japanese most of the time. I emphasize the linguistic element here not only because I enjoyed it, but because it was the first time I’ve been to a Japanese restaurant in Florida where there were three fluent Japanese speakers.

As for the actual cuisine, there was a large variety of authentic-looking Japanese dishes, some of which had words I’ve never heard of before (ex: Motsuyaki – chicken liver). But not to worry, old standards like Teriyaki, Tempura, Chiken Katsu, and of course many types of Sushi were all available.

I went for a risky choice – the Miso Ramen. I say risky because I’ve had Ramen several times in the area, and every time was a disappointment (don’t get me started on the horrible “Cinnamon Ramen” we had in Boca). But I was pleasantly surprised when I got a large bowl of fresh noodles, traditional toppings like bamboo shoots  and narutomaki (fish cake that always remind me of little erasers), and well-seasoned pork. The broth was also very flavorful.

My wife got the Pork Ginger Bento box, which tasted great, and our son had a Natto Sushi roll. We rounded out the meal with an order of the “amaebi” Shrimp Sushi where part of the shrimp was used for a typical ‘nigiri’ style (with the shrimp laid upon rice) and the rather large head was served separately in Tempura style.

I dared to take a bite into one of the whole shrimp and was greeted with a crunchy, complex texture.

We finished our meal with an assortment of mochi ice cream balls: azuki red bean, green tea, and vanilla. These were pretty typical of other places but tasted great nontheless.

Prices were pretty reasonable for this type of place, but honestly with a belly fully of great food I didn’t care much about the bill.

All in all highly recommended!


Japanese podcast review: 子育てカフェ (childcare cafe)

For quite a while I was listening to a science-related Japanese podcast (here), and then after getting a bit tired of that I decided to take a break from podcasts for a few weeks. For my next podcast to use as Japanese listening practice, I went to the NHK podcast site, which generally has episodes with both high production quality and useful content.

The first one I tried out happened to catch my attention so I’ve decided to listen to all the episodes available online. It’s called 子育てカフェ (childcare cafe) and as you would expect from the title it’s all about childcare, with topics ranging from bullying, sex education, and “is my child normal” type of questions. I’ve only listened to a few episodes so far, but much of the talk has been about children in the range 3-6 years old.

This podcast has several points that make it worth listening to. First, the recordings are no-nonsense without commercials, background music, or weird intermissions that some other podcasts or audio blogs suffer from. The content also is very well structured, with experts discussing childcare-related issues by answering questions emailed in from everyday parents, and they are very frank and straightforward on many of the issues which are brought up. As a result, each episode is very information dense and I feel I’m making a good use of my limited time.

The Japanese itself has been completely 標準語 (standard Tokyo dialect) so far which is nice, and the speakers all enunciate well which makes listening easy, especially for someone like me who has a hard time following conversations when several people are talking at once, or there is bad recording quality. Some of the participants join via a phone line and occasionally I have to struggle a little to understand, but it’s bearable.

If you are currently a parent yourself with a young child you will find the content interesting and that will motivate you to pay more attention, and as a result your retention rate will increase. Of course, if you are raising your child (or children) bilingual Japanese then this is the perfect listening exercise!

Regardless if you agree with all the viewpoints presented or not, thinking about different childcare approaches (hopefully in Japanese) will do wonders to help your linguistic abilities.  Even if you don’t have a child yourself, the discussion is an interesting window into Japanese culture including things like morals and the Japanese school system.

Check out the podcast and let me know what you think:



The amazing educational Shimajiro! (followup)

Sometime back, I wrote a post about Benesse’s distance program learning for children, in particular their Shimajiro series of books.

In my household we have been reading these books fairly often to our young son, and he has really grown to love them in a way that surprised me. On several occasions he will run to his room and ask me to read of the books in the series (neatly organized on his bookshelf), and once that is finished he’ll proceed to the next and the next. Sometimes we’ll keep reading until the entire series (at least the ones we own) is exhausted, which is over 12 books! And it’s more than a passive interest, he’ll participate often and with increasing frequency is able to pronounce many of the words. There is no doubt these books have a major positive effect on his Japanese education.

Though he has shown some interest in English books, it’s not nearly at the same level of intensity.

Again, I want to highly recommend this series, especially to those who are raising one or more children bilingual Japanese.

Though the materials themselves are well made, I feel that part of his attachment is due to the fact we read these to him often (sometimes with just mommy, just daddy, or as a family), and try to make the stories as fun as possible with voice acting and interactive questions (the latter is built into the series). Also the fact we show him Shimajiro videos and play together with Shimajiro toys helps complete the educational “ecosystem”. It may sound a bit obsessive, but he has many other toys he is interested in and plays with daily. It’s just that Shimajiro seems to stick as something he enjoys as he gets older.