Under the cherry blossoms trees in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo. Photo: Getty
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To be Japanese today is to negotiate the conflicting dreams of east and west

It’s not surprising that alienation is a persistent theme in much of the country’s fiction.

Parade 
Shuichi Yoshida
Harvill Secker, 230pp, £12.99

Just So Happens 
Fumio Obata
Jonathan Cape, 160pp, £16.99

My grandpa was on the outskirts of Hiro­shima when the bomb fell on 6 August 1945. He walked through the city as it burned and fled by boat, having witnessed scenes of destruction and death that are hardly imaginable to me. But when the war ended, he loved the music of Bing Crosby and took his family to church for Christmas, not for religious reasons but for the romance of all things western.

Imperial Japan had fallen, replaced by a capitalist dream seemingly magicked into reality by American New Dealers. High schools were set up on the US model; industry shifted towards technology. As the money started to flow in, some, including the film-maker Yasujiro Ozu, mourned the passing of a more traditional culture. In Tokyo Story (1953), the aspirational bustle of young Japanese is shown to be a betrayal of older values. Similarly, Shusaku Endo’s novel When I Whistle (1974) tells the story of a war veteran’s emotional estrangement from his son, a doctor, who puts success in his career above family: the dereliction of a duty sacred to the national imagination.

To be Japanese today is to negotiate the conflicting dreams of east and west. Old-fashioned reserve and collectivism jostle with assertiveness and individualism. Visit Tokyo as a foreigner and much of it feels unreal: the sheet glass, air-conditioning and underground shopping districts alongside the Shinto shrines, street-food vendors and coin-bearing good luck cats. Perhaps it seems unreal to the Japanese, too. The country has worked hard to modernise – and to “modernise” has often meant to “westernise”. The homeland has become a strange place.

It’s not surprising, then, that alienation is a persistent theme in much of the country’s fiction. Shuichi Yoshida’s debut novel, Parade (2002), newly translated into English, is a curious entry into the canon of Japanese anomie literature. Unlike, say, Taichi Yamada’s In Search of a Distant Voice (1986), which follows an immigration officer’s attempts to track down a woman with whom he may have a telepathic link, Parade shows us a world where disconnection has become a paralysing norm. The characters here are not interested in interpersonal bonds, tele­pathic or otherwise.

The five twentysomething protagonists – flatmates “playing at being friends”, as the male prostitute Satoru describes them – make vague attempts at intimacy but are happy to float along, cut off from the mess of meaningful relationships. Ryosuke is a university student pursuing a mentor’s girlfriend. Kotomi is involved with an actor who occasionally calls her up for hotel dates. Mirai is a hardened drinker; she haunts the Tokyo gay scene, where she encounters Satoru and takes him under her wing. Finally, there is Naoki, the professional of the group, who doles out elder-brotherly advice when he isn’t out jogging or at his office.

The novel’s set-up evokes a sitcom – there is constant banter between the flatmates and their stories are woven together – but Koto captures the dynamic when she cheerily compares their home to an “online chat room”, whose users are “free to come in or out at any time”. To these shallow lives, Yoshida slowly introduces the threat of violence. Ryosuke begins to suspect that a neighbour is running a brothel; police officers knock on the door, warning of a prowler who has been assaulting women in the area.

Mirai first suspects Satoru but the perpetrator could be any of them, or none. Parade’s chilling denouement is all the more disturbing because the first 200 or so pages are committed to exploring the trivialities of city life – choosing which movie to rent, which takeaway meal to get for dinner. Imagine if Friends had ended with the revelation that Chandler was a psychopath – and that Joey, Monica, Ross, Phoebe and Rachel weren’t bothered by it. Yoshida locates horror less in violence than in the kind of atomisation that would permit it.

Out of the ashes: a funeral scene in "Just So Happens"

Fumio Obata’s graphic novel Just So Happens also addresses the impediments to real connection in modern Japan. Like me, Yumiko is a first-generation immigrant living in London. After over a decade here, she feels anglicised and increasingly cut off from the cultural rituals of her birthplace. When her father dies in a hiking accident, she flies home to attend his funeral.

Though rich in detail, Obata’s crisp drawing invites the reader to skip from panel to panel. It works best when it’s at its most documentary: a fireworks festival is captured in all its noisy wonder, as is Yumiko’s escape to a Shinto shrine where she witnesses a rehearsal by Noh actors. Noh becomes a motif for “codifying human forms” – a formalising of human feeling which, though “exquisite”, is ultimately restrictive. “I don’t want to be a part of your stupid play any longer,” says Yumiko to a masked actor in a dream, having decided that her life doesn’t fit into the conservatism of old Japan.

Maybe the Japanese – even those at home – will relate to Obata’s expat and her struggle to find an authentic world-view. Tradition will always be there but, for generations, the tug of a more western lifestyle has been equally compelling. Together, the books seem to suggest that we should pick a side or find a compromise between the two. Let one cancel out the other and Yoshida’s dystopia will surely follow. 

Yo Zushi’s new album “It Never Entered My Mind” will be released by Eidola Records in July

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge