This is a book review for the novel We are Alive(生きる僕ら) by Harada Maha(原田マハ). I purchased this novel from Amazon.jp for 759 yen as a part of a bulk order late last year. Harada Maha is a very popular author in Japan and out of all of the books that she has written, this book stood out to me the most. I am obsessed with stories of people moving to the country side so I knew immediately that I had to buy this book.
Jinsei is a Japanese man in his earlier twenties who hasn’t left his house in 4 years. Due to bullying he experienced in school from a group of boys in his class, the outside world grew more and more unbearable to the point where Jinsei could barely imagine a world outside of his room. Instead of working or going to school, Jinsei spent time on his computer playing games and using the internet as a small window to the outside. His lifestyle was supported by his single-mother who spent most of her time working low paying jobs to survive. Before his mother left for work, she would leave some food from a local convenience store for him to eat everyday. His diet was basically instant noodles and rice balls. At this point, the two barely spoke to each other.
It seemed to Jinsei like things would continue like they had been forever until the day his mother broke. She was overworked to the point where she could not handle it any more and disappeared from the apartment that they shared. She left an envelope full of cash and a stack of New Year’s postcards from friends and relatives. On the table there was a note saying that she could no longer help him but that maybe he could find someone out of the stack of postcards that might be able to.
Out of all the cards, only one stuck out to Jinsei. It was from his grandmother. He used to often spend time with her in the countryside when he was younger and looked back on those memories very fondly. Sadly, he hadn’t seen her since the divorce of his parents. On the post card, his grandmother mentioned that she was sick and only had a short time left on earth. Jinsei panicked. It had been already been a few months since the post card was sent and he wasn’t sure if his grandmother was still alive. He threw a few things into his bag and left the house right away to start on his journey to find her.
Without even realizing, he was able to finally step out of the front door. He also spoke to someone at the ticket counter for advice about how to get to the address written on the card. He hadn’t spoken to anyone in years! Once he arrived at the closest train station, he ran into a restaurant owner that knew his grandmother and off he was. After being dropped off, Jinsei was surprised to find that there was a young girl living with his grandmother named Tsubomi. Turns out it was the daughter of the women that his dad remarried after the divorce. The three soon adjusted to a lifestyle of living together as a family while helping their grandmother with her dementia. Tsubomi and Jinsei worked on getting stronger, recovering from past traumas, and learning how to live lives as adults in Japan.
This is my first time reading Harada Maha and I really enjoyed her writing style. It felt really straight forward but warm at the same time. She has a way of making this simplest of objects or actions have a deep and loving meaning. I feel that Japanese culture as a whole definitely values ‘nostalgia’ more then my own culture and its something that I really appreciate when I see it reflected in novels. But this is not to say that some of the warmth I feel in this book is reflected in real life Japan. I remember at one job I had, a few of the Japanese staff members would speak very poorly about one of the other employee’s lunch. They would say that his wife much hate him because she only makes him onigiri(rice balls) for lunch everyday. I guess they saw onigiri as a lazy lunch and felt like the wife wasn’t putting much effort into talking care of her husband. But in Harada’s novel, a coworker complimented Jinsei’s daily onigiri lunch. The character mentioned that the onigiri was a beautiful shape as it was made by someone who cared about him with both hands coming together like a prayer to form the shape. I thought the character’s comments were really sweet and a nice thought for me to have to counter other memories that I gained from work. I think this is a really good book to read to remember to appreciate those that care about us in our lives. Tsubomi and Jinsei often comment about how the people of this rural village are all ‘cool adults’ and how they look up to each one for the different skills and view points that they add to each situation that they come across.
While the problems that arose in this book were realistic, each solution ended up being the best possible outcome and was backed with community support. It really depends on what you as the reader are looking for in a book to see if this is the right type of plot line for you. I think that a lot of Japanese plot lines tend to end on a open note that a lot of people might find unsatisfying. If you fall into that group, this books tends to neatly tie up the endings to the problems presented. Just a warning, the ending is super cheesy.
My experience reading this book:
Moving to the country side and living an earth-friendly lifestyle is kinda a big dream of mine. I was really inspired by this novel and the different ways they lived and made use of everything that they had. I really want to try out the soap recipe! I never fry foods at home as it seems like such a waste of oil. But I never thought of using ‘old’ cooking oil to make soap before. I am for sure going to try out some of the ideas in this book in the future. I loved all of the descriptions of the natural sensory and bio-dynamic farming methods. One thing I always felt sure about was that I never wanted to make rice. I planned to make all of the vegetables for my family to eat for the year… but rice? I could just buy it at the store. But the romantic way that Harada describes rice farming makes me want to try it too!
This book took me about a week to read. As I am still in the beginning of my journey to Japanese literacy, I still really enjoy simple wording. My worst fear is opening a book and finding flowery language. Hopefully I will get to the point of being able to read ‘literary’ novels soon, but that feels pretty far away. Since I haven’t read anything else by this author its hard for me to say for sure, but she seems like she would overall be a very accessible writer for language learners. Her books are very popular as general fiction and seem like easy reads for native speakers.
My enjoyment factor for this book was 5/5 as it hit my requirements for being an uncomplicated read that covers one of my favorite topics.
I am still working on increasing my ability to sit and read for longer periods at a time. I had pretty good focus in the beginning of 2020, but work really stressed me out and I started to lose my ability to read for long periods at a time. This month I have been using Tadoku.app and found that it really helped me with my goals! I started small and would just log my reading after 5 pages. I slowly extended the page numbers in-between logs and I think Tadoku.app is becoming a really useful tool for my reading journey! I am not trying to win the contest or anything, but I get a community feeling from this website and it does help to encourage me to reach my reading goals.
Just to give some background to my current level. I have been using Japanese for a long time now, but just decided somewhat recently to be more serious about gaining fluent literacy. In 2020 I finished reviewing over JLPT N2 materials and have started on N1. I am planning on taking N1 in 2021. I started reading novels in 2020 and have read over 20 to completion.
Vocabulary: N2 student level
There are a few specific vocabulary groups to think about when deciding whether this book is a good choice for you: natural scenery, farm life, and traditional Japanese home interior. If you are not interested in these topics, this book might be hard for you to get through as these are words that you are going to need to learn to get through the story.
The vocabulary repeat value for concrete nouns in this novel is very high. If you are interested in learning vocabulary involved in growing rice, you will walk away from this book with those words cemented into your brain. This point really makes this novel easier to read then it otherwise would have been just looking at the vocabulary alone. Besides the concrete nouns related to the specific vocabulary groups that I mentioned, overall the words used in this novel are pretty basic and a N2 level student should not struggle too hard to get through this novel.
While there are words that a N2 student is not likely to know, I do not think that an N1 student would be in a better situation either unless they have a strong interest or background in farming.
Grammar: N2 student level
This book is written in third person and is more descriptive sentences as opposed to dialog. Despite the third person perceptive, its still feels like it was written in a way that an average young Japanese man would if that makes sense. The grammar is straight forward and easy to understand. Its not flowery or literary.
Despite the rural setting, all of the character in this novel speak in standard dialect. I am guessing this is related to the fact that the towns location isn’t really that far from downtown Tokyo as Jinsei was able to get there just by using local trains. Even the older characters in this book speak in a way that is really easy to understand. I think that this is the most unrealistic part of the novel. I think that the author, Harada, tried to explain away how some of the character spoke using their job titles as a reference. For example, Jinsei’s grandmother had a clear voice that reflects her grade school teaching past. There was also the geriatric nurse that used basic therapeutic language that spilled over into his everyday speech. While yeah, I guess professions can have a large impact on speech patterns, but I still think that there would have been some location based and generational speech differences that would come up if the dialog was written in a more natural and realistic way .
As a language learner, this book features my favorite type of main character! A young guy/girl who has no idea what is going on! Anything that is being introduced in this book that is new to you is likely to be new to the main character as well. This means that someone in the book will have to really spell it out to the character so they can get on the same page as everyone else.
When this type of main character is used, learners do not have to worry much about having previous knowledge of Japanese culture. You will learn new things along with the characters in the book.
The style that this book was written in kind of reminds me of the linguist Stephen Krashen. In many of his videos, he asserts that a lot of the basic world knowledge that the average person has is from fiction as opposed to non-fiction. There are a lot of writers that really take the time to research different subjects and share that knowledge with readers throughout character’s actions and dialog. I really appreciate all of the knowledge that I gained about rice from this novel.
Who should read this book?
N2 level students who are looking for a novel that has a young man as the protagonist to help with getting used to how that group would use causal Japanese. Those who like farming and are interested in reading a novel the describes country side and nature landscapes. Those who are interested in traditional Japanese culture but like to read stories with more modern settings.
This novel is around 415 pages long. Once books hit 400 pages I start to find them a bit intimating, but this book really seemed to be the right level for me and I did not find the length to be a challenge. I was just happy to have found a book that I enjoyed that I could spend even more time reading.
I feel like this novel is like the more grown up version of Kaho Nashiki’s The Witch of the West is Dead(西の魔女が死んだ). In Kaho Nashiki’s novel, the main character is a junior high school student who became unable to attend school as she felt bullied and like she did not fit in. Her parents took her to spend sometime with her grandmother in the country side where she was able to get a new perceptive on life and able to over come her own personal weaknesses. While I found the vocabulary in The Witch of the West is Dead to be more challenging due to the fact that names of plants and rocks were brought up often, newer readers may find this book more manageable thanks the fact that it is aimed at a younger audience and its shorter length.
The story also reminds me a bit of Miura Shion’s 神去なあなあ日常. Where 18 year old Yuuki is forced by his parents and teacher to move to the country side and take up forestry as a trade to combat his like of direction in life. This is my favorite book out of the three, but I am sure you guys are able to see the theme that I love books about people moving to the countryside of Japan.