A few months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing B. Jeanne Shibahara, author of Kaerou. I’d like to share that interview with you all today.
At the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to purchase the book, as well as an excerpt.
Hope you enjoy!
J: Can you give us a brief overview of the book for those who may not be familiar?
B. Jeanne Shibahara: One-sentence summary: A Vietnam War widow (Meryl) living in Arizona returns a bloodstained WWII Japanese flag to the family of the soldier it belongs to in Japan.
But what the reader finds tagging behind Meryl through the bright lights of Osaka, the cultured architecture of Nara, and the vistas of mountainous Akita, is a landscape of thoughts and memories, regrets, hopes, love, and a deep connection to life. It’s a character-based story, meandering through the private side streets of the lives of Japanese and British/US characters. The narration switches back and forth between WWII (including the firebombing of Osaka) and modern Japan.
It’s also a mix of genres: history, romance, mystery, and humor.
“In Japan…everywhere…red strings tie all people we meet together. Some strings are weak. Some have tangles. Some strong.”—Ms. Kawanishi, Kaerou
J: What was the inspiration behind writing Kaerou?
BJS: In 1995, a friend in Osaka, showed me a bloodstained WWII Japanese flag (sent to him from a penpal in the States). He asked me if I knew anyone who could advise him on what to do with it. His father and my father had served in WWII in the Pacific, had both come home safely. We touched the flag, worn by an enemy soldier when he had been bleeding out, and we imagined his last thoughts, where he was, who he had killed before someone killed him, how old he was, who he had loved, and who had loved him. We thought about our fathers and about how we were comfortably living in a country that had been the bitter enemy of our nation…well, how futile was war? And then the acknowledgement—My friend and I and many people we knew wouldn’t have been born, if not for WWII. My parents would never have met. A generation was lost during the war, but the generation that was born after the war wouldn’t be as it is now if there had been peace. So the ideas of “What would life be if there hadn’t been a war” and “Because there was a war my parents met, fell in love, and here I am” worked in my mind for years and led me to write Kaerou.
J: Did any experiences from your own life influence or end up as part of the characters or story?
BJS: My father was in Saigon during the Vietnam War. One of his jobs: evacuate family members of US military personnel. I was four when he left home…I couldn’t understand why my mother let him go.
Many years after I came to Japan, my future father-in-law, who had served in the Japanese military during WWII, told me that he had never forgiven his parents, the ones who brought him into the world and loved him, for “letting him go.”
Those ideas of letting someone go to war appear in a few of the characters in Kaerou.
Also, I’m fortunate to know two women (one, my mother-in-law; one, my former English conversation student!) who were born in the 1920s and lived in Osaka before, during, and after WWII. Their backgrounds and schooling (both studied ikebana, Japanese traditional dance, the shamisen) are similar, as are their war experiences. They both love kimonos. I blended their histories, mixed in some fiction…Voila! the gracious character, Ms. Kawanishi. Women like them saved the traditional arts from disappearing with the ravages of war. It’s through the eyes of Ms. Kawanishi that we understand what these women thought of war and how they differ from the “modern” women in the story.
J: Are there any interesting things you learned as you were researching and writing?
BJS: Yes! Japan trivia! (not found in Kaerou)
a. If you shine a light on a piece of Japanese jade in a dark room, it glows like fireflies.
b. Wolves had once lived in Japan. They were hunted to extinction for two reasons: rabies entered the country as a result of a pet boom for exotic dogs; European influence (hunting = sport) brought on a period of uncontrolled hunting by the nouveau riche. In Shintoism, wolves were thought of as gods. Wolves thrived where farmland met woodland, hunting deer and wild boar that came to eat vegetables and rice. Farmers loved the wolves. The last wolf was killed in Nara Prefecture at the turn of the 20th century. Now, deer and boar populations have increased throughout Japan. More than 6,000 deer and boar are culled in Kyoto Prefecture every year.
c. A katana (Japanese sword) over 800 years old, representing a Shinto god and enshrined in Kasuga Grand Shrine, had been kept hidden until last century when the Japanese government confiscated it. Leaders at Kasuga Grand Shrine asked master artisans throughout Japan to make a replica. They agreed. This new katana appeared in a TV documentary before it was enshrined. Can you imagine the design that was engraved on the blade? Answer: a cat, in a playful pose, hunting a bird and then killing it.
J: What is the key takeaway you want readers to walk away with after reading Kaerou?
BJS: Visit another time and place, learn things, open their minds to think thoughts never thought before. Be entertained. As with reading any novel, the life experiences of the readers determine the key takeaway.
Here’s an excerpt from the book:
Fusako Morikawa was an adorable child, the eldest of three.
She had straight black hair as shiny as moonlight on the still waters of a rice paddy in late spring. Every day her mother tied it up and complained, “You have too much hair! I can’t hold it all in one hand.” Fusako had a sweet mouth that everyone loved. Her lips were full, even as a baby. Her father loved them the most and often explained why. “Full lips mean you’ll always be rich. I won’t have to worry about you one bit!” And she had a round mole on the back of her neck. Her grandmother had told her, “A mole is like a little pouch that fills with wonderful things; one on the neck is for clothes. You’ll always have something new to wear.” Fusako also had earlobes that were a little longer than most everyone’s. Whenever she said anything that sounded enlightened, her friends would say, “You and the Buddha!”
In 1929 and six years old, Fusako started studying the shamisen and never had but one teacher, her Osshohan. She called him in the Osakan way, a softer term for the standard “Oshishoosan,” meaning a teacher for theatrical arts.
From her first lesson Osshohan captured her heart. It was in June when fuzzy green fruit dotted the plum tree in the garden. She wore what would become her favorite kimono…one the color of new willow leaves, with a pattern of bouncing balls striped red, white, and black. Her obi was tie dyed shades of purple wisteria and textured in tiny puckers, which looked like melting snowflakes. It was knotted behind her in the shape of a butterfly.
Fusako was sitting on the tatami floor when Osshohan came into the room. She didn’t wait for him to sit down, as her father had told her to, but instead bowed her head, moved her hands to the proper place in front of her, and with the most polite words, asked him to teach her.
He smoothed his kimono, kneeled down, sat in front of her…and laughed.
“You sound like a grown-up lady!”
Fusako had wanted to sound exactly like a grown-up lady and had practiced what her mother said whenever she asked someone to do something for her. Osshohan noticed and said something.
From a melody of giggles came “I did it!”
“So you are a little girl after all.”
She nodded yes, at the same moment felt bashful, and lowered her eyes. “I’m a little girl.”
“Well then, I’ll have to teach you the shamisen if you are a little girl.”
He began by showing her how to hold it. But since her shamisen was too large to set on her lap, he put it at her side, leaning it against her. And when he saw how her obi had been tied, he made up a verse—
“sway morning willow
wisteria candy sweet
red butterflies dance”
Fusako had never been happier.
She was Osshohan’s youngest student.
Fourteen years later, playing the shamisen was prohibited.
The War had been fought for about a year, then the news of military losses. How could anybody have fun after that? Dancing, playing instruments, reading mysteries, going to movies…banned. The government took over the theaters. No more gutsy Garbo or leggy Marlene. Only war propaganda films. Kabuki and bunraku performers were sent to battle.
Fusako felt the world was coming to an end.
If you’d like to check out Kaerou, here is where you can find it: