I am a reader of many books, as you may have noticed from the years of my brain battling books on these pages. But I am also a reader of many books at one time. I have a book for reading over breakfast, one that I read when I sit down for some serious reading time, another that I read when I need a quick break from work and I am trying to ween myself off too much time on Twitter (that cursed birdsite), I keep a book in my bag to read on the train when I go out. Different books for different situations. I don’t want to get really engrossed in something over breakfast because I will make myself late for work. But when I take my afternoon reading break, I do want something that will suck me in for an hour and leave me feeling refreshed and ready to get back to translating when I come up for air. And the book that comes everywhere with me in my bag needs to be compact in size, but dense in text for reading so that I don’t zip through it on a long train ride and end up left with nothing to read before I make it back home.
Bunko books in Japanese are basically perfect for carrying around. Small and lightweight, but there is no way I’m going to make it through two hundred pages or more of a book in my second language in a single sitting. I’m a fast reader, but I’m not that fast. Back near the end of the Before Times, I tucked 30 to 40 no Aida into my bag for trains and waiting rooms. And then the pandemic happened and I have been on the train and in a waiting room exactly twice. (To go to the dentist because a pandemic doesn’t mean you can neglect your oral health.) So I wasn’t getting very far in the book and I basically had to start it over because it had been so long since I started it in the first place. So I pulled it out of my bag to make it a breakfast book. Because it is really the perfect book to read in small bites over coffee and a bagel.
If you’ve been hanging around here for any length of time, then you know that Takinami is a manga artist, and her debut series Rinshi!! Ekoda-chan is one of my favourite manga. But she is also an essayist and outspoken feminist, and 30 to 40 no Aida is a collection of around thirty personal essays reflecting on her own life and the world around her, capped with a page of comics on the same theme. The overarching premise of the collection is a kind of call and response with herself, pairing essays she wrote in her early thirties with ones written in her late thirties. The majority of the book is short essays on lighthearted subjects like the place to go on a first date or cleavage creation or more serious subjects like the concept of sexlessness in Japanese society and women as slave labour. But even when she tackles more serious ideas, Takinami keeps it light, bringing humour to pretty much every topic she examines. She then comes back to each of these subjects as a woman closer to forty than thirty and alternately sighs over how naïve she was or how exactly on point she was back then.
In one particularly hilarious pair of essays, she lambasts a magazine article giving women tips on things to avoid to keep her man from loving her less than his car by insisting that women do all of the things the article says not to in order to assert their own feminine power and not become slaves to male desire. And in the late thirties response, she makes the most compelling case for 知るかボケ to be translated as “Shut the fuck up” that I have ever seen in writing. That is not the point of the essay, which is actually about how people telling women how to be need to shut the fuck up. But the way she writes it, I couldn’t help but translate the whole thing in my head as I was reading it. Because yes, shut the fuck up companies telling people who menstruate to use tampons because our periods are an inconvenience to men.
The last part of the book is devoted to longer standalone essays about an equally diverse variety of topics, from Namie Amuro’s retirement to Takinami’s experience with childbirth. My favourite of these longer works was probably her discussion of the word “busu” (ugly) and the power it holds to hurt women and girls and assert the dominance of men as the status quo. She accidentally turns busu and her own perceptions of it upside down when she tells her daughter that her backpack strap is “busu” in a moment of brain fog. She meant that it was twisted, but couldn’t find the word. But when her daughter questions her use of the word, she explains it as meaning “out of order” or “not in its usual, neat state” and suddenly “busu” in her household comes to mean something that is wrong, rather than an insult to girls. As a language nerd, I love that we can have these personal paradigm shifts when it comes to words, shifts which have the potential to ripple outward and change the way we use language (which is essentially what happens when we reclaim words that were once slurs used to harm us).
I am past forty and can barely remember thirty, so I’m maybe not quite the target audience for this one. But Takinami’s writing is engaging and thought-provoking no matter how old you are, and a nice peek into a side of Japanese culture and thought that we don’t get to see as much as I might like. Plus the majority of the essays are two or three pages long, nice bite-sized chunks that are perfectly digestible with breakfast before you make the long commute to the desk next to your table and get to work for the day.