Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being opens with sixteen-year-old Naoko (Nao) sitting over a cup of coffee in Tokyo’s Akihabara district, also called Akiba Electricity Town for its array of bright electronics stores and frenetic gaming parlours. Nao is writing a diary, using purple ink in a repurposed copy of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. She plans to write the story of her great-grandmother Jiko’s life: “a nun and a novelist and a New Woman of the Taisho era.” For reasons soon told, Nao plans to take her own life. In the next chapter, the diary is found in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, washed ashore on the Canadian Pacific Coast, by a Japanese-American writer named Ruth. The story is told in these two alternating voices: Nao in Tokyo, Ruth in Canada.
Ozeki captures the simultaneous existence of past and present that a visitor to Japan feels yet finds difficult to articulate: we come home with photographs alternating between moss-dusted statues at hilltop temples, and Shibuya’s renowned intersection crowds. We remember the quiet order of the onsen spa—shoes off, ticket, locker, towel, bathe—and the clockwork chaos of a morning subway in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya. It’s all there; it all works together somehow.
Ozeki, whose mother is Japanese, was born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut but refers to her “long and ongoing relationship” with Japan. She visited as a child, returned for graduate school and worked in a Kyoto bar before returning to the U.S. to pursue filmmaking, writing, and later, Buddhism. She was ordained a Soto Zen priest in 2010. The sections told from Ruth’s perspective feel close to the real; Ozeki herself has said she sees Ruth’s story as a “fictional memoir.” The reader follows Ruth as she buries herself in Nao’s diary and begins to trawl the internet for information. Has Nao died? The diary washed ashore months after the 2011 tsunami in Japan—was Nao a victim?
Alongside Ruth we are pulled into the mind of this young, pained, funny, quirky Tokyo girl. Nao moved with her parents to California when she was a child and her father had a job in Silicon Valley. Her idyllic life there came to an end with the dot-com bust and the family returned to Japan without money or hope. Nao’s relationship with her father is strained by an inability to communicate. While she struggles with horrific schoolyard bullying—called ijime—her father is mired in his own depression and lost career while her mother drifts further away from both of them. Their father-daughter walks to school are both a source of pleasure for Nao and a reminder of the distance between the two. On one of these walks, Nao describes how: “The long route took us through all these old neighbourhoods and shopping streets and finally past a tiny little temple in the middle of a bunch of ugly concrete office buildings. The temple was a special place. There was the smell of moss and incense, and sounds, too—you could actually hear the insects and birds… We were right in the middle of Tokyo, but when you got close to the temple, it was like stepping into a pocket of ancient humid air.”
In Japan this gentle clash exists at every turn: exit a restaurant in a busy street near Nagasaki’s Chinatown, and you’ll find the road tilts upwards, gradually drawing you to a series of temples that overlook the new city. And yet Ozeki presents no idealised view of modern Japan: the traumas of the past make their way to the present, which itself contends with suicide and hikikomori (the recluse who seals themselves off from society), the loneliness of a city and exploitation of the maid café.
There is also incredible solace. Ozeki’s Japan is vividly alive when describing Nao’s visit to her great-grandmother’s temple in the mountains. Zen is conveyed not only through the descriptions of Nao learning zazen (sitting and meditating), but through the rituals of the ordinary. You can see this in the care grandmother Jiko and her companion Muji take in washing and reusing plastic bags, wrappings, string and cloth, and their appreciation and acknowledgement when finally disposing of something beyond material use. Ozeki uses simple, unadorned words to describe Zen practices and Jiko’s movements; a lucid example of language echoing content. It is Nao’s connection to her grandmother and to Zen that ultimately saves her. Nao’s ability to be in the now—the word play is no coincidence—means she can connect with her father and cope with her own traumas.
While the Canadian coast is battered by storms, Ruth works away during a power outage, piecing together Nao’s fate by contacting names mentioned in the diary. She reflects on her two light sources: “Oil lamps and LEDs. Old technologies and the new, collapsing time into a paradoxical present.” It could be a metaphor for the Japan represented in the novel. Through a dual perspective, within and outside of Japan, Ozeki’s portrait of a modern country tightly threaded with the past leaves us not with concrete explanations but a feeling for the country’s delicate ambiguity.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, 2013, 422 pp.