~written by Shogo Oketani
~translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa
When Shogo Oketani's book J-Boys: Kazuo's World, Tokyo, 1965 was offered by Stone Bridge Press for review through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program, I immediately requested a copy. I was very happy when I was matched with the book. Stone Bridge Press published J-Boys in 2011 with a translation by Avery Fischer Udagawa. Some of the individual chapters and stories had previously been published in various journals and anthologies, but as far as I can tell this is the first time they've been released as a collection. I also believe this is Oketani's first full-length work of fiction. Oketani has previously written a collection of poetry called Cold River and frequently works with his wife Leza Lowitz as a co-author and co-translator. I have never read any of Oketani's previous works, but because of my interest in Japan and because I've enjoyed other books released by Stone Bridge Press, I was glad to have the opportunity to read J-Boys.
J-Boys is told in a sequence of fourteen stories organized chronologically by month. The individual stories could easily be read separately but are tied together by the same characters. Kazuo Nakamoto is a nine-year-old boy growing up in the city of Tokyo in the 1960s. He lives with his mother and father and his younger brother Yasuo in a small home in the Shinagawa Ward. Kazuo leads a fairly typical life, going to school, hanging out with friends, and helping out at home. But he's old enough now that he's starting to notice that life in Tokyo and in Japan is changing. The nation still lives with memories of World War II while at the same time it is becoming more and more Westernized. In particular is the influence of American pop culture. While Japan is busy reestablishing itself as a world power, Kazuo is busy growing up.
I am not particularly familiar with 1960s Japan, so J-Boys was a treat to read for that reason. J-Boys is semi-autobiographical; Oketani has based the stories off of his own memories of growing up in Japan in the 1960s and some stories were inspired by other kids that he knew. In some ways, Kazuo almost seems to be a stand-in for the author himself. There's certainly a sense of nostalgia that shines through. One of my favorite things about J-Boys was the inclusion of photographs of Japanese schoolchildren from the 1950s and 1960s, many of which depict scenes described in J-Boys. Oketani also includes brief side bars that explain in more detail specific concepts mentioned in J-Boys, everything from tofu, to Japanese terminology, to pop culture references.
While I found J-Boys to be interesting and informative, as an adult reader I didn't find it to be particularly engaging as a collection of short stories. However, I could easily see the book being incorporated into an educational unit for middle grade social studies. It almost seems that J-Boys was written with that very purpose in mind and the reading level is appropriate for younger readers. The individual chapters are very straightforward and there is very little narrative tension or embellishment. Although the stories feature recurring characters, there isn't really any overarching plot. Oketani is simply relating what it was like to be a kid in 1960s Tokyo. So, while J-Boys may not have readers hurriedly turning pages to discover what happens next, I still think that the book is valuable if approached within an appropriate context. I know that I learned some interesting things about what it was like to live in Japan in the 1960s, which is something I knew very little about before.