Did you know I translated a sprawling historical saga this one time? Red Girls: The Legend of the Akakuchibas by Sakuraba Kazuki. The story spans the immediate post-war era until the right now, following three generations of a family through the dizzying changes that each period brought about. The rapid rebuilding of Japan after the war with psychic Manyo, the heady rise of the Bubble Era with her daughter punk manga artist Kemari, and the slump of the “lost generation” with granddaughter Toko. It’s a fascinating story about a country and a family all wrapped into one, the fate of the family dependent on which way the winds blow the country.
I couldn’t help but think about Red Girls as I read Mikazuki. Although Mikazuki lacks the fantastical murder-mystery elements of Red Girls, both stories follow a family through the same time periods and use that family as a touchstone to examine larger trends in Japanese society, so maybe it was inevitable that I would draw a parallel between the two. (Also the original family name in Mikazuki is Akasaka, which like, what?) But unlike the supernatural thread that runs through the pages of Red Girls, the driving force of Mikazuki is the Japanese education system. Which seems…less engaging. If anyone had told me that I would cry at the end of a 600-page novel about cram school, I would have laughed in their face if only because I would never read a 600-page novel about cram school. And yet here we are.
By 1961, Oshima Goro has been working as the live-in maintenance janitor/all-around-stuff guy at an elementary school in Chiba for three years. He starts helping a couple kids out with their homework and pretty quick, this escalates into “Oshima’s Classroom”. Kids from all grades start coming to him when they are having trouble understanding because he has a real knack for explaining this stuff and genuinely likes helping the kids out. And then Fukiko shows up. She’s asking for help, but unlike the other kids seeking his assistance, she catches on very quickly and actually doesn’t seem to really need his help at all. He soon discovers that she was sent to his “classroom” by her mother Chiaki to spy on his methods. Chiaki’s heard about Goro and thinks he might be the perfect teacher for this new business she’s starting, a cram school, something that barely exists in Japan at the time. Oh, and she’d also like him to be her husband.
And so begins the journey of the Oshima family and the Japanese education system, a journey for which the central question is: what is education? What does it mean to teach? What role should society at large shoulder for the education of its children and what role is education meant to serve for that same society? A lot of big questions that I’ve never really considered, despite having been involved in that very education system for many years. I have some pretty firm ideas about education—grades are bullshit, Western education is more about producing compliant worker bees rather than sparking curiosity and a thirst for knowledge about the world around us—but they’re all in reaction to an already prevailing education system. I haven’t thought too much about what education should be, about what we should be teaching our children so that they can succeed in their lives, and what success even should mean.
But these are the questions that consume Chiaki and push her ever forward in her quest for the ideal of education. Goro follows her lead, but has his own ideas. And young Fukiko grows up to have still different ideas, as do the children Goro and Chiaki have together. And then there are the grandchildren who usher in yet other ideas about education and equality and a whole bunch of very pertinent issues.
Mori started out as a YA novelist and spent a fair chunk of Colorful (translated by yours truly and available wherever you get books now!) on the impact of testing and education on young people, so it’s not really surprising that she would dig even deeper into the systems by which we educate our children. What is surprising is how powerfully emotional that deep dive becomes. Chiaki’s grudge against the Ministry of Education resonates even as it is used as an explainer for pre- and post-war war education in Japan, while Fukiko’s rebellion against her mother is also an explanation for how education has changed since her mother’s time. Mori somehow also manages to squeeze in the student movement of the late sixties and the shift away from that kind of organized and powerful activism to an uncoordinated flailing against unfair social norms.
Her writing is as powerful and fluid as ever. Mori makes you love ever single one of these flawed and real characters. Some are more likeable that others, but she makes sure that you always understands why each of them is doing what they’re doing and why they are the way they are. The novel is an excellent balance between the smaller scope of the Oshima family and the larger scale of Japanese society over generations. It’s beautiful and painful and frustrating and awful. And yes, I cried. More than once. Over a story about education. If that isn’t the work of a master storyteller, then I don’t know what is.