BOOK REVIEW: Basho’s Haiku Journeys by Freeman Ng

Basho's Haiku JourneysBasho’s Haiku Journeys by Freeman Ng
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 19, 2021

The first thing a prospective reader should be clear about is that these aren’t Basho’s haiku. Basho wrote travelogues in haibun (a spare form of prose typically matched with one or more haiku,) and so one might expect the poems to be from them. On a related note, while all of the poetry is haiku in form, not all of it is haiku in substance. That is to say, it’s all presented in a three-line 5 – 7 – 5 syllable format, but some of it reads like a prose description of events chopped up into 5 – 7 – 5 syllable bit-sized pieces. That’s not to say that there aren’t many poems that do have the feel of true haiku, presenting spare natural imagery juxtaposed but not explained, analyzed, or judgement-laden. It seemed like the further into the book I got, the more of the poems felt like proper haiku.

It is a children’s book, so I don’t think it’s a major concern that it focuses on the most rudimentary elements of haiku (i.e. syllable count and nature imagery) at the expense of subtler elements. The Zen nature of Basho’s haiku might be challenging for a young reader. I addition to the colorful and whimsical artwork, showing prominent places from Basho’s travels, there is a single page explanation of haiku to help get kids writing their own.

If you’re looking for a book to get a child interested in nature, haiku, or travel, you should give this one a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: Tokyo Junkie by Robert Whiting

Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and BaseballTokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and Baseball by Robert Whiting
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Tokyo is the river that runs through this book, which for large tracts reads like a memoir and at other turns reads like a broad overview of things Japanese. I’ve only been to Tokyo once, for about a two week stay, but it’s impossible to miss the almost alien level of distinctiveness of the city. It’s the largest city in the world, but in many ways feels like a small town. The subways shut down at midnight, creating an alter ego to the city, aptly depicted in Haruki Murakami novels.

Whiting’s Tokyo journey begins with his time posted there in the military, a time which happens to correspond with the city being readied for the 1964 Olympics, through the present day COVID Pandemic challenges (which happens to correspond with the 2020 Tokyo Summer games being delayed — and it remains to be seen whether these games will ever happen given the fact that the COVID virus is not taking our plans for vaccine-driven herd immunity sitting down.)

As Whiting’s book is part memoir, it gives particular scrutiny to the subjects of his earlier books, in as much as those topics touch upon life in Tokyo. One of these subjects, the more extensively discussed, is baseball and the very different way the game is played and reported upon in Japan. The other key subject is organized crime and the legendary Yakuza. Crime in Japan is a captivating topic because it is both invisible and infamously brutal. I enjoyed the view through these niche lenses because (particularly) the latter is not so conspicuous, but is riveting stuff. [When I was in Japan, I was taken to a bathhouse (not considered strange in Japan as it sounds to an American.) Before we went, I was told that if I had big tattoos, I couldn’t go; and, if I had a small tattoo, I’d need to use a washcloth to keep it covered the whole time. This is apparently because reputable establishments don’t want the taint of Yakuza on their premises. So, this is how much they keep things on the down-low.]

Whiting led various lives in Tokyo, he was an airman, a student, a salaryman, an unofficial advisor to a Yakuza gang, a journalist, and a nonfiction writer. These allowed him to see the changing city from a number of varied perspectives, offering much deeper insight than the run-of-the-mill expat.

In addition to the modern history of Tokyo, Japanese baseball, Yakuza, and Whiting’s various lives in the city, the book makes a lot of fascinating dives into a range of Tokyo topics, such as: sumo wrestling, the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the city’s distant history, salaryman drinking habits, the demographic crisis (i.e. its aging population has been approaching the point of too many retirees per working taxpayer,) etc. The book offers a no-holds-barred look at the good, the bad, and the ugly underside of the city. It at once praises the city’s politeness, cleanliness, and smooth-running order and rebukes its dark side – dirty politics, toxic workplaces, xenophobia, etc.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It offered great insight into Tokyo, Japanese culture, as well as many niche areas that I probably would never taken the time to investigate, otherwise. If you are interested in learning about Tokyo, particularly modern Tokyo, this is an excellent read.

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POEM: Tokyo Noir

Neon animates a puddle
long after trains have quit.
It seems quiet and abandoned,
excepting those who flit
between afterhours rendezvous
where sake cups go “clink.”
And a bare-chested yakuza
gleams with glistening ink.
An urgent rapping at his door
interrupts the spring sale,
granting coitus interruptus
he ‘s too few fingers to fail.