Sensei and Sensibility


Writers tend to seek outsider status, which may explain why so many from the less micromanaged West, such as Booker finalist David Mitchell (Number9Dream) and Pico Iyer (The Global Soul), find in Japan a dependably sacrosanct home away from home. “In countries as hospitable as America,” Iyer told the Voice, “I have one foot inside the community, one foot out. But in Japan, where I always have both feet out, I find solace.” But what of the half-Japanese writer, the foreigner whose native-looking features might blur the lines between insider and outsider?

“My experiences in Japan were dichotomous,” admits novelist Todd Shimoda during an interview in San Francisco, the principal setting for his new novel, The Fourth Treasure. “As a foreigner in Japan who spoke little Japanese, I was an outsider, of course. But as a Japanese American who at least looked the part, I could pass as an insider. If I didn’t say too much.”

Shimoda is a third-generation Japanese American, but his easygoing demeanor and faint twang betray his Southwestern childhood. The 47-year-old author and his wife and collaborator Linda, a visual artist, lived in Shizuoka prefecture from 1986 to 1987. Shimoda’s Western rationalism (he had worked as an engineer) gave way to what he calls “something a little deeper. I climbed Mount Fuji with one of my Japanese students. He didn’t speak much English. We could feel what one another was thinking, relating to each other on a Japanese level, in silence.”

Shimoda’s first book, 1998’s 365 Views of Mt. Fuji, takes place in Japan. Fuji is the story of a disenchanted salaryman—an outsider from Japan’s corporate cliques who gets drawn into a familial web of madness in pursuit of aesthetic fulfillment. Critics praised Fuji for its ambitious scope, its intertwined stories and impressionistic, ukiyo-e-inspired illustrations. But reading it can be as unsettling as a high-speed Internet surf: There’s a surplus of pleasures, but you finish feeling kind of battered.

The Fourth Treasure is more satisfying. It traces the borders of insider/outsider status through an unlikely admixture of shodo (Japanese calligraphy) and science, combining stories of love (lost and found) and mystery with a bildungsroman, sounding a literary lament in a muted key.

The interrelated narratives coalesce around Hanako and Tina Suzuki: the former an immigrant who left Japan and her marriage after an illicit affair in the ’70s, seeking solace and anonymity in a San Francisco tempura restaurant, and the latter her illegitimate daughter. The action shifts from California to Kobe and Kyoto with ease, pursuing the mystery of Tina’s unknown father while recounting the fate of a missing shodo inkstone (the eponymous “fourth treasure”), a centuries-old talisman that enables its owner to transcend pain through art.

Yet personal identities remain as intangible as cultural boundaries—a challenge for the novelist and the reader. Tina is Shimoda’s clearest protagonist, but she is a cipher even to herself. “Tina is confused, not only ethnically, but at a deeper level: who she is and who she can be,” says Shimoda. She doesn’t know who her father is. She doesn’t know any Japanese and hasn’t been to Japan, though she’s sleeping with an archetypal American Japanophile, an ESL teacher named Mr. Robert, who is about as sexy as a Western tourist in samurai garb. She drifts through her graduate studies in neuroscience until a Berkeley-based shodo sensei, Mr. Robert’s teacher, has a debilitating stroke, becoming the subject of Tina’s research.

The Fourth Treasure is designed to meld Shimoda’s Japanese heritage with his penchant for so-called “postmodern” conceits. Notes from a shodo instruction manual and a neuroscience textbook, together with poetic-sounding snippets from the recesses of the sensei’s dreams, run down the margins in delicate typeface. Kanji, Japanese characters, appear in the margins courtesy of Linda. But the trained (or native) eye will quickly note distinctive idiosyncrasies in an art form known for its rigid formality. The kanji are frequently lopsided and expressionistic, and grow more so with the sensei’s demented mind.

“The calligraphy in the novel was intended to be stylized,” Shimoda says now, “to show the effects of the sensei’s living in America, as well as the wracking emotions he brought with him. Many of the links between neuroscience and shodo, as shown through the sensei’s stroke-induced brain damage, worked themselves into the story.”

Shimoda wants to join disparate worlds: Japan and America, art and science, age and youth. He acknowledges Kobo Abe and Haruki Murakami as models, but he writes more like a careful, fact-juggling scientist with a searching imagination.

The author identifies most with a marginal figure in his novel, a private investigator named Kando, who follows Hanako from Japan to California at the behest of her crooked and powerful ex-husband. “His cool reaction to being confronted by thugs is one of resignation,” explains Shimoda, “knowing that he crossed the insider-outsider line in Japan—and got caught.”