Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 7, 2013

The Briefcase, by Hiromi Kawakani, translated by Allison Markin Powell #BookReview

The BriefcaseShadow Man Asian logo 2012Reading The Briefcase, from the vantage point of one who has very little experience with Japanese fiction, it seems to me that it’s a bit like Japanese food.  You either like its elegant simplicity and the artful way that very restrained flavours are arranged, or you don’t.  And if you don’t, you may think this book rather lacking, in the way that you might prefer the robust flavours of Italian cookery or the complex artistry of French cuisine.

Well, I quite liked The Briefcase.  It’s been longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, but (like Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House) has been nominated long after it was first published, because it’s only just been translated into English.

The plot is very simple: it’s a May-December relationship between Tsukiko, a single woman of 38, and Sensei, a widower who long ago was her teacher of Japanese at high school.  It’s a very controlled, aloof sort of relationship, told from her point-of-view in first person narration.  They meet by chance in a bar, they have desultory meetings and a minor falling out over what seems like nothing at all, she tries to get by without him, and they end up having an affair. She always calls him Sensei, which means ‘teacher’.   It’s all very low-key: two lonely people coming together, meeting each other’s needs in ways that are barely perceptible.

It came as a surprise to find – about one-third of the way into the novel – that Tsukiko has a family.  She seems so self-contained, and so disassociated from other people that it almost seemed incongruous.

Even though they were in the same neighborhood, I rarely visited – I just couldn’t bear going back home to the boisterous house where my mother lived with my older brother and his wife and kids.  At this point it wasn’t about them telling me I ought to get married or quit my job.  I had long ago gotten used to that particular kind of uneasiness.  It was just dissatisfying in some way.  It felt as if I had ordered a bunch of clothes that I had every reason to think would fit perfectly , but when I went to try them on, some were too short, while with others the hem dragged on the floor.  Surprised, I would take the clothes off and hold them up against my body, only to find that they were all, in fact, the right length. Or something like that.  (p54)

Reading a passage like this made me wonder why it is that this novel ‘works’ for me, when Another Country by Anjali Joseph, also longlisted for the Man Asian did not.  (See my review). On the surface they are both about women negotiating relationships.  Both women are egocentric.  They are entirely preoccupied with themselves.  Neither of them are ‘likeable’; they seem selfish and carelessly unkind. But Kawakani has rendered Tsukiko intriguing whereas Leela in Another Country is merely vacuous.

Kawakani reveals little about the origins of Tsukiko’s reserve but scanty hints conspire to make the reader curious about her.   Perhaps the absence of a father in this household explains her attraction to a much older man?  And is there something rather odd about her belief that other people should fit themselves around her, rather than she make some adjustment towards them?

It surprised me that these two drank so much.  Every other moment, they seemed to be drinking sake by the bottle.  Clearly they are both very inhibited characters, and perhaps they were in the habit of drinking alone in these bars to relieve their loneliness.  Perhaps Tsukiko goes drinking in bars to assert her modernity.  (The Spouse, who has been on a business trip to Japan, says that he never saw women in the restaurants he was taken to, except as wait staff.  Neither of us have any idea whether this is normal in contemporary Japan or not).

Perhaps Tsukiko and Sensei both needed the sake in order to relax with each other.  But even with the sake there are niceties to be observed and they rarely relax those.  She, apparently, doesn’t pour the sake in an elegant way, and so he likes to pour his own.  He is very stiff and formal, wearing his tweed suit when they go mushrooming, and carrying his briefcase everywhere.  In a novel as restrained as this, the moment when he is empty-handed is pregnant with possibility…

There’s a lot about food too.  Eating seems to sustain this relationship in a way that is significant (sorry about the pun).  Tsukiko doesn’t have anything except food to talk about with her mother … and on her own in her apartment, on the one hand she forgets to eat and on the other she considers herself a gourmand. Food is clearly more than nourishment, it’s associated with emotion, with the passage of the seasons and time (which Sensei does not have to spare)   – and with sexual politics.

With a previous boyfriend, cooking was tied up with Tsukiko’s rejection of male dominance:

I had no particular interest in packing lunches for him or going to his place to cook for him or inviting him over for hom-cooked meals.  I was always afraid that doing so would put me in a compromising position – trapped in the kitchen so to speak.  And I didn’t want him to think that he was the one that had put me there either.  It may not have mattered whether or not I found myself trapped there, but somehow I couldn’t manage to make light of it. (p. 56)

But eating out in bars, or spending a frosty morning out searching for mushrooms with Sensei is different.  The food they share together isn’t loaded with ideas about masculine oppression.

On the other hand Tsukiko not only tolerates Sensei ticking her off for her minor indiscretions, she seems to delight in the way he is control of the relationship.  There is a childlike element in her relationship to him, but it’s so gently controlled by the author that it’s not creepy.

Although this story seems slight at first glance, before long I found myself fascinated by Tsukiko and the way she seems to be trapped in a Japan that is not as contemporary as she is.  She lives an independent life, she has a demanding job and she has a sense of self that would seem perfectly normal for a woman of her age in the West.   She would like a boyfriend to assuage her loneliness, but is not prepared to trade her independence to be a traditional Japanese wife.  She fears emotional intimacy yet she longs to love.  She opts for a father-child relationship almost as if setting aside her adulthood is the only option left to her.  A very complex character indeed.

Other reviews are a bit hard to find but there’s one at Jun Bungaku, another at Be My Knife and another at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, but the best of them is at The Complete Review.

Killing two birds with one stone, I also read this book for January in Japan, coordinated by my ‘copinaute’  Tony of Tony’s Reading List.  You can check out other reviews of Japanese literature by clicking the link and following #januaryinjapan on Twitter.

I read this book as a member of the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize jury.  To read my reviews of other Man Asian Literary Prize nominations see here and to see reviews by other jurors, please visit the SMALP Jury Notes at Matt Todd’s A Novel Approach.

Author: Hiromi Kawakami
Title: The Briefcase
Translated by Allison Markin Powell
Publisher: Counterpoint, 2012 (first published 2001)
ISBN: 9781582435992
Source: Personal library

Fishpond: The Briefcase


  1. Have seen a couple of reviews on this now & as a lover of J-lit it appeals immensely.

    • Where did you see the reviews? I could find hardly any, and being so new to JapLit, I’d like to see more of what others think of it.

  2. Wow. I do like the sound of this. I haven’t read much Japanese fiction but the books I have read appear to share common themes — alienation, loneliness and the role of women in society — and all are written in a kind of distant, detached prose, a style I very much like.

    • Apparently the author writes feisty essays too, so there’s that undercurrent of feminism and how it plays out in Japan.

  3. It would seem that you have the main one I was referring to but I thought I’d seen it elsewhere possibly on Nihon distractions, but couldn’t find it so it may have been g reads. If I ever recall where I’ll let you know. Ps if you’re looking for more J-lit check out my post on Kiku’s Prayer by the wonderful Shusaku Endo

    • Pps for some wonderful suggestions on everything Japanese lit etc Nihon Distractions is a fantastic blog

      • Thanks, I’ve had a look at it, it is very good, I just wish it had a search function!

  4. I will be reading this soonish Lisa I do think it will be one I like but I’m not a big Jlit reader either ,A ll the best stu

    • I’ll be interested to see what you think of it, Stu. You are very good at getting to the heart of relationships novels.

  5. I wasn’t planning on reading but now I am wondering whether the library has it… Sounds a very intriguing character study.

  6. I love Japanese literature as you know so this one appeals though I haven’t read this author at all … Eating and drinking are important parts of Japanese culture … They a big drinkers. And like much of what they do these activities are surrounded by a lot of ritual. I think this underlying ritual is what often, without always being obvious, what gives Japanese novels their very specific tone that often feels simple on the surface but with a lot going on underneath.

    • Are women big drinkers too, Sue? I like a glass of wine or two, but gosh, I would be under the table if I sat drinking spirits all evening like she does. There are a couple of times when she has clearly overdone it, including one rather droll occasion where she has no memory of letting her inhibitions go, but most of the time she’s been scoffing 5-6 bottles of sake and is ok. (What size are sake bottles in Japan? like bottles of Scotch? Or the size of what we call designer beers that people buy in pubs?)

      • Oh, particularly men but by no means exclusively so. Sake bottles can come in various sizes … Pretty much like wine. I think, from the bottles I’ve had, that 750mls is the most common, but you can get bigger. At bars, or izakayas, regulars can have their own named bottles, like you see in other countries with spirits. It is often served in little porcelain bottles from which you pour into your little nip sized glass/cup. It’s probably those she’s referring to. Not sure the size of those. Maybe 80-100 ml?

        • Ah, I think I know what you mean, yes about 100 ml. Mind you, you could still get pickled quite soon with a few of those under your belt…

          • Absolutely you could … Though one can build one’s tolerance (or so I’ve heard!)

  7. Glad you like it :) I finished it earlier this week, and while I was subconsciously preparing not to like it, I actually loved it. It has that wonderful, sparse, need-to-know-basis style of story-telling that J-Lit does so well.

    As for drinking, I think that it is pretty prevalent – business culture is built around after-hours parties, and even (!) the women get involved occasionally.

    As for more reviews, I suspect there’ll be a few more by the end of the month (there’s already one on the Book Reviews list at the January in Japan site!).

    • *grumpy frown* Well, no wonder I didn’t find it when I Googled for reviews of it, the review hasn’t been tagged *sigh*.
      Anyway, I’ve added the link above, so thanks for the recommendation.
      PS Thanks for adding my review to Mr Linky at January in Japan, I just went there to do it, and there it was already!

      • What do you mean by ‘tagged’ (it’s probably something I never do to my reviews…)?

        • Hi Tony, I will email you about this, it’s a bit technical (and long and boring) for readers)…

  8. Hi Lisa. I tend to agree with you here. I’ve sometimes wondered if you need to be on the right wavelength for J-Lit – lots of people adore it, but it seems to leave others utterly cold. My experiences with Marukami and Yoshimoto last year didn’t bode well. I had my doubts, but then the Basho haiku just did it for me. From that moment on, I loved it and felt entirely tuned in. Not my favourite, but certainly wouldn’t begrudge it a shortlist place.

    • Hi Mark, I just read your summary post, and it made me wish I’d read all the others too. I can’t really judge, but of the four I’ve read, I wouldn’t begrudge either Silent House or The Briefcase a place, would skip Clay and Dust and (as I’ve said elsewhere) would abandon the Man Asian forever if Another Country won it.
      We’ll know soon whether the remaining three on my TBR make the shortlist, or whether I have to go shopping for more!

  9. Re: the whole drinking thing in Japan…

    Like Tony and Lisa said above, drinking is a culturally required part of out-of-work enforced bonding that takes places at almost all Japanese companies. And as a non-drinker, I can guarantee this is very annoying.

    In fact, there’s this thing you can do at bars called nomihodai (飲み放題), where you pay a set amount (usually about 2000 yen), and then have unlimited drinks for two hours. It gets messy, very fast. Particularly if there are a bunch of Western exchange students involved…

    • Gasp, imagine if they introduced that all-you-can-drink idea here in Australia…

      • I know! It goes against all Responsible Service of Alcohol laws. Absolute insanity.

        • And when you say, ‘messy’ – is there a culture of aggression and punch-ups and making repulsive advances to women around the bars as they make their drunken way home afterwards?? I am not liking the sound of this at all…

          • I’ve never seen evidence of the former, but I usually bail before the night is out because I don’t like dealing with drunk people.

            The latter, I’ve seen. Just another sign of, if you’ll excuse the expression, f—ed-up* gender relationships in Japan.

            *[LH] Edited in accordance with ‘family-friendly’ house rules, Matt!

            • Why is this, Matt?? What is it about Japanese culture that has limited the development of feminism in Japan? Is it because The Female Eunuch was never translated there at the critical moment LOL?

              • Probably. ;-)

                That, and an ageing population clinging to “traditional” ideas of gender roles; a lack of support for women who want to have a career AND a family; a lack of high-powered women in the public and private sectors to act as role models.

                • Oh dear. I shall bear this in mind when I read more of their literature, which I am keen to do after reading this one:)

              • Actually there has been feminism in Japan, past and present, but I know little about it. Will see what I can find.

  10. I once went to a nightclub in Leeds called Planet Earth – revolving dancefloor, foam parties etc – and paid £10 to drink that sickly-sweet alcoholic lemonade Hooch non-stop all night. If I’d known as I toppled from my chair that I’d actually engaged in nomihodai, I would have felt quite cultural.

    • Ah, ‘Planet Earth’, I know it well :)

      • ROTFL!

      • *like*

  11. Great review of yet another of your books that I am eager to read.

  12. […] the opportunity arose?  Well, it was because I have read so little Japanese literature. I enjoyed The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakani when I read it for the Shadow Man Asian Award Jury and Ogawa is admired by Kenzaburō Ōe, who […]

  13. […] –         The Briefcase – Hiromi Kawakami (Japan) (see my review) […]

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