I bought this for 30p in a charity shop simply to read for enjoyment – it features Japan after all and written by a half-Japanese author, so I thought I’d probably find it interesting! I had no idea what it was actually about except that the premise is a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing a diary that may have been washed away from the Fukushima tsunami all the way to Canada. I never thought it would inform my spiritual path in any way.
But in fact, Japanese spirituality, in particular Zen Buddhism, is a central theme to this book – perhaps not so surprising when you consider that Ozeki is herself an ordained Zen Buddhist priest. Since I haven’t reviewed any fiction on Japanese spirituality yet, I thought now would be a good opportunity.
This is a deep and complex novel with lots of sub-plots and diversions, but there are two main stories. Firstly there is that of Nao, a teenager writing an account of her life while sitting in a maid cafe in Tokyo. She’s been raised in America and since having to return to Japan due to her father losing his Silicon Valley job, her life is going from bad to worse. She is bullied relentless at school, is homesick for her former life in America, struggles with Japanese language and culture, and on top of all this, both her parents are struggling with mental problems. Her only real comfort is Jiko, her great-grandmother who lives in a Zen temple in Sendai and is Nao’s source of wisdom and hope.
The other story is that of the author herself, Ruth, who discovers Nao’s account and is slowly reading and sharing it with her partner and others around her. Piece by piece, she discovers that the mysteries in Nao’s writing grow deeper and deeper the more she reads. The narrative jumps between Nao’s story and Ruth’s in real-time as she reads at the same pace that we the readers do.
In all honesty, Nao’s story would have been worth reading even without the added dimension of Ruth’s narrative. Nao’s tale is emotional, harrowing, and brutal – yet it remains gripping. This is largely due to Nao herself, who is such an honest and determined character that you can’t help but like her, even when she does things that are rather despicable in order to feel better about herself. She is funny and vulnerable and very real, while her story (which involves lots of subplots and delving into her family’s past) is compelling in itself. In contrast, Ruth’s story is somewhat bland. Unusually considering that the author is using herself as a character and elements of her real life in the story, Ozeki writes Ruth’s account in the third person (while Nao’s account is written in the first person). This may seem gimmicky at first, but the possible reasons for this, and indeed the reason why Ruth is even a part of this story, gradually grow apparent.
For this is a book with layers and layers of connecting themes, one of the most important ones, as you can guess from the title, being time. Both Nao and Ruth find themselves contemplating the nature of time continuously, and emphasise the importance of “now,” the time being (hence Nao’s name, a common one in Japan which is pronounced “now”). This in turn leads the narrators to explore the repetitive nature of history, quantum physics, and religion.
Those interested in Japanese spirituality will also get plenty of insight into the more practical aspects of Zen Buddhism. Ozeki includes detailed descriptions of zazen meditation, the way of life at a Zen temple, and an account of a Japanese funeral. But the most valuable aspects of this book as a source of information on Japanese religions are its commentaries on their philosophies. Many of the teachings in Zen Buddhism and Daoism are referenced in A Tale for the Time Being‘s ongoing discussion on the nature of time, and in particular the range of possibilities that each moment in time gives the individual. While I don’t think anyone could accuse this book of proselytising, I have no doubts that Ozeki, as a Buddhist priest, has written this book as a celebration of Buddhist teachings and perhaps to gently encourage the reader to take an interest in this path (it worked for me!).
In case you were wondering, Shinto is absent from this book. Which does make sense in context. Shinto is less about philosophising and more about ritual and action. It also has much less to say about death than Buddhism – and death is a key theme in this novel.
At the centre of the book’s spiritual aspect is great-grandmother Jiko, who is such an important and interesting character that she deserves a proper mention. Jiko is very much the key behind many of the story’s mysteries, the link between Nao’s past and her present predicament and ultimately driving force behind the characters’ destinies. She is such a key figure that she even appears to Ruth in a kind of vision or dream. She may even be a metaphor for time itself, a sort of “Grandmother Time” – I’m pretty certain that Ozeki took her name, one that I’ve never heard of in Japan, from the Japanese word “jikoku,” meaning “time” (the word jiko itself also means “accident” – I don’t know whether or not this is a coincidence). There’s a beautiful moment in Nao’s story in which she describes watching Jiko take a bath, and says that her naked body simultaneously reflects all stages of womanhood – the child, the seductive woman and the old crone. Not only did my Pagan heart leap at the interesting parallel here with the Triple Goddess, but also because this description seems to support the idea that Jiko is a symbol for time – a real “time-being,” if you will.
As deep, rewarding and gripping as this book is, it isn’t without a few issues. Firstly, there are points in both Nao’s and Ruth’s narratives that stray very much into the fantastic, which is slightly at odds with the otherwise very realistic portrayals of both characters’ lives. Considering that the very nature of reality, as opposed to fiction, is one of the key issues questioned in this novel, I suppose it makes sense that at times some rather unbelievable things happen (after all, what is real and what is not in the story is never made fully clear). But sometimes it would get confusing. At one point, Nao’s class decide to hold a mock funeral for her, which Nao herself watches on the internet. Even considering that Nao is a continuous victim of bullying by her class (including her teacher), this part doesn’t quite ring true – she describes that her classmates genuinely appear to be grieving for her. I thought it would turn out to be a twist, and that Nao would be dead all along – but if we read the narrative at face-value, it would appear that it really was just a staged funeral after all, held simply to bully Nao. This may be a clue to suggest that Nao’s ultimate destiny is up to reader interpretation, but it still seemed rather strange considering that the other things that happen to Nao seem firmly grounded in reality. It did leave me rather puzzled.
Another very minor point is that at times, Ozeki’s Japanese is a little dubious (Japanese is not Ozeki’s first language). Some of the Japanese and kanji used occasionally differed from the Japanese I know – but again, this was fairly rare and for the most part I thought the Japanese was sound. What’s more, Ozeki covers herself by having Nao write in English with smatterings of Japanese as Japanese is also not her first language – so any inaccuracies could be attributed to Nao’s less than perfect Japanese!
Such a complex and multi-layered text would require essays and essays to analyse it fully, so I think I’ll leave it there. It made me smile at some times, and literally shed a tear at others, and I found it hard to put down. Highly recommended, especially to those who want to explore the philosophical concepts behind Japanese spirituality.