The Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama (2007, 422 pages)
The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is the most recent novel by Gail Tsukiyama. She has written a total of six novels, mostly historical novels set in the World War II era in China or Japan. She was born in San Francisco. Her mother is of Chinese ancestry, her father Japanese.
The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is set in Tokyo. It begins in 1939 and ends in 1966. It is the story of the lives of two orphaned brothers living on The Street of a Thousand Blossoms. We see their lives develop from the horrible days of World War II, through the seven years of the occupation of Japan by the Americans up to the beginning of Japan's period of great prosperity.
The brothers, Hiroshi and Kenji live with their grandparents in a part of Tokyo quite removed from the city center. They feel the war in terms of growing shortages of food and collections of their personal goods for the war efforts. (Pots and pans for bullets and wood furniture for building material and fuel are among the items collected.) One minor but quite despicable character is in charge of these "voluntary" donations. To refuse to donate is seen as very unpatriotic and could get you reported. Somehow the person in charge of the collections of these donations on The Street of a Thousand Blossoms keeps getting richer and richer while others around him get thinner by the day. Even after Japan begins to be subject to very heavy bombing by the Americans the area where the brothers live is undisturbed. People in the area say it because the region is remote and has no targets of military or economic import, just wooden houses. The attitude of the people toward the war is one almost of bewilderment. Everyday they hear in the media of how Japan is triumphing over the allies. People begin to realize that the war has nothing to do with the interests of the ordinary Japanese but no one can come out and say this without the risk of the secret police. Then the inevitable happens and a massive incendiary raid hits their neighborhood. Life goes on. Kenji walking the streets one day as an early teen finds a shop of a master carver of Noh masks. He is completely fascinated by this and begins to work for free in the shop, cleaning up and such. He develops a life long passion for designing these masks. One of the very interesting aspects of the book for me was learning about the creation of Noh masks and their place in Japanese culture. The other brother, Hiroshi, develops an interest in becoming a sumo wrestler. The books focuses well on the day to day lives of people and seeing how history plays out in the background. As we advance into the years of American occupation (1945 to 1952) we see Japan still very traumatized by the war but things begin to get better. Both of the brothers are able to pursue their passions. The people on The Street of a Thousand Blossoms were continually indoctrinated to believe the attacks of the Americans on Japan were an unprovoked attack on a peaceful country. Americans were portrayed as savage barbarians. The people on The Street of a Thousand Blossoms hate the occupying Americans and see them as huge monsters. I thought this was a very honest portrayal of their attitudes. (As I read it I could not help but imagine how a Japanese occupation of a defeated America, the Germans had told them they could occupy the west coast of a defeated USA, would have compared to the American treatment of the defeated Japanese.)
As time progresses we learn what the life of an apprentice Sumo wrestler was like. We see Kenji begin to master the art of Noh mask creation. A lot of things happen in the brothers' lives and we get a good feel for the passage of Japan from a defeated nearly starving nation to a very prosperous country. We can see how this happens in the novel's portrayal of the commitment of the brothers to their crafts and the very strong work ethic displayed by the characters in the novel.
On the cover of my copy of the book there is a quote from Lisa See, author of Shanghai Girls and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. (I have reviewed both of these set in China historical novels recently) See says Tsukiyama has given us a peek into the lives of those living on the home front in Japan in WWII:
The flow of events in The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is a bit slower than in the works of Lisa See and there are not so many terrible events in the forefront of the story. The characterization maybe is a bit better in the work of Lisa See but we do care about and get to know well both of the brothers in The Street of a Thousand Blossoms. I do not have a clear preference for the work of one of these authors over the other. Both make very good use of detail to allow us to enter into the past. I could see some seeing Lisa See's novels as more exciting and I could also see a justification for saying Lisa See makes use of constant turns of events and melodrama to keep us interested where Tsukiyama creates a more vivid world out of a mass of small details and does not rely on constant exciting events to keep us interested. I would really endorse both of these authors to those who enjoy historical novels set in Asia (as I do). For those interested in learning about the post WWII experience from a Japanese point of view One Man's Justice by Akira Yoshimura is a superlative work.She has long been known for her emotional and detailed stories. This time she has gone even deeper to explore what happens to ordinary people during frightening and tragic times.
I will read other works by Tsukiyama. I am surprised that her work is not more often blogged about. Dolce Bellezza has a very good post on The Street of a Thousand Blossoms. At the end of the book there is an interesting interview with the author and a set of reading group questions. Of her work I think I will next read The Samurai's Garden, also set in WWII Japan. I will start read Peony in Love by Lisa See today.
I am reading this work for the POC challenge.