One kind of reading that has brought great pleasure in the time since leaving Tokyo is stories or remembrances of Japan by non-Japanese writers. Something about the recent distance or separation from that country has made the recollections of others somehow poignant. Another might describe it as mere sentimentality, and there is definitely some of that in it, but beyond these emotional responses there is always the other’s perspective of a culture very familiar to me.
In New Orleans the other day I came across something in a dusty bookstore that I had never seen before, not even aware that it was out there. And that is surprising in that the book was published in Japan in 1992 at a time when books about Japan by well-known American writers were hot under my radar. The book is Tokyo Sketches: Stories by Pete Hamill, published by Kodansha International. Hamill writes in the introductory notes of the book, ‘So much of life in Japan is encoded that a stranger could spend a lifetime trying to crack the codes and still fail…’ He also explains that his stories grew from ideas and impressions gathered during his trips to Japan with his wife, who was born there, that they are about people sharing some common trait: a broken communication, a misunderstood word, a clash of myths and the enormous, unforgiving power of the past.
Of the thirteen stories in the collection, “The Opponent” is among my favorites. In ten fast pages we get a look at boxing in Japan, the action in the ring as well as the politics and fixing that can go on in the fighter’s dressing room. Hamill gives his reader a glimpse of the honor that often colors Japanese sports and the greed that threatens to besmirch both athlete and sport. Hamill has written much about boxing and his knowledge of the sport guarantees that his two fictional boxers are far more than cardboard cutouts. “The Price of Everything” is another fine story, and a sad one about a wealthy but lonely Japanese businessman and his efforts to win over a younger woman.
In a career both long and distinguished Pete Hamill has written about war, about urban riots and has covered local and national politics. He has written about jazz, rock 'n' roll, boxing, baseball, and art. At different times in his life he has lived in half a dozen foreign countries, in the end always returning to New York.
In 1968 he published his first novel. This was followed by a short semi-autobiographical novel. Most of his fiction is set in New York City. His eleventh novel, Tabloid City, was published in 2011. In addition to his novels, he has published more than 100 short stories in newspapers and two volumes of short stories: The Invisible City: A New York Sketchbook (1980) and Tokyo Sketches (1992).
The cover of this first edition of Tokyo Sketches shows a detail of a painting by Kenzô Nakahara, a riverbank with a bridge and Tokyo in the background. Nice cover.