While libraries in Oregon generally have a much better selection of Japanese books than what I have seen in east coast libraries, the Beaverton library is one of the best, with an entire aisle of books in Japanese. On a recent visit, I stumbled across the book “What’s so great about being 90 years old?” (九十歳。 何がめでたい) by Aiko Sato (佐藤 愛子), and was told it was a highly reviewed work, so I decided to try it out.
It turns out that Mrs. Sato is a writer who was born in 1923 and has written a huge number of works, including several that have won major awards. “What’s so great about being 90 years old?” was written by her around six years ago when she was 92––which in itself is a pretty amazing achievement.
Each chapter of the book consists of an essay about some topic, and these are generally a mix of social criticism and the author’s life. Mrs. Sato has been writing for longer than I have been alive, and the prose of this book showcases both her excellent description abilities and her knack for making what might normally be a droll story into something entertaining.
The topics were a mixed bag, everything from a heartwarming story about a beloved dog, to a poignant one about youth suicides, and another about the difficulties of losing the ability to comprehend the speech of others due to old age. The author is quite good at making her points, and I found myself nodding in agreement much of the time.
However, I don’t think this book is really that great when considered just for the social criticism or the autobiographical elements. Rather, I found the most enjoyment and learning from the historical and cultural knowledge that is interspersed throughout the text. Many of the stories have an underlying theme of “this is how things used to be 50+ years ago”, and I found it very intriguing to see what Japan was like back then and how it has changed today.
This book has a large number of high ratings on Amazon Japan, but perhaps many of those are from (biased) readers who were already familiar with Mrs. Sato’s many works. But I didn’t care too much about what she had written before; instead, I was amazed by how the book seemed to give me knowledge that I would normally expect to only obtain from living in Japan. Given I am generally not a big reader of nonfiction (in either English or Japanese), it was really an eye-opening experience. Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be an English translation, so for the time being only readers that understand Japanese can enjoy it.
For those learning Japanese, I think that getting through this book will be fairly difficult due a few things: many cultural references, 4-letter kanji compounds, old kanji usages (ex: 讀む instead of 読む, though these generally have furigana reading hints), and other unfamiliar vocabulary words. There is also a bit of Kansai dialect interspersed here and there, and for the unfamiliar readers these will be more things to look up (or make a best guess about using the context).
Another nice point about the paper edition of this book is that the font is larger than normal (perhaps equivalent to English ‘large print’). For those of us who struggle to read tiny Japanese characters this is a real boon, not to mention it makes the pages go by faster. (By the way, there is also an Ebook version if you prefer that.)
Finally, after reading the book I now have a really good impression of Aiko Sato as a person with a very strong character, great descriptive skills, and a pretty good memory. She is an excellent representative of a period that the majority of us have never experienced nor never will, at least directly. Someday I may check out some of her other non-fiction books, or maybe even some of her fiction ones.