ELLA KELLEHER WRITES — Not every love affair has to target a person; a lucky few who travel the world get to experience falling deeply in love with a country in its entirety. Appreciating both the city life and the tranquility of the countryside requires dedication and a pleasant open-mindedness. David Joiner, the author of the novel Kanazawa (2021), has both virtues. A foreigner who has a deep appreciation for Japan’s historic small towns, Emmitt must make a fateful choice between his loyalty to his city-obsessed wife and his dream of living like the famous ascetic Japanese writers of antiquity.
In a similar fashion to so many other globetrotters, American author David Joiner fell in love with Japan during his study-abroad experience in Hokkaido while in university. After living in Akita, Tokyo, and Fukui, Joiner decided to settle down in the quiet, idyllic town of Kanazawa. Nestled in the remote Ishikawa prefecture, Kanazawa is known for its Edo-period architecture and natural beauty. After his debut novel, Lotusland (2015), and his self-published Stray Cat City (2016), Joiner’s newest piece is a love letter to his new home, Kanazawa (2022).
Filled with lush greenery, formidable mountains, historic castles, and a vibrant local community – it is no wonder why Emmitt became so enamored with Kanazawa after moving in with his Japanese wife, Mirai, and her family who call the tranquil town their home. However, for many young Japanese, a fascination with the countryside could hardly be considered typical. In fact, for many decades, the trend for Japan’s youth was to ditch the small towns that exist harmoniously with nature for the loud and exciting lifestyles abundant in cities like Tokyo and Osaka. In today’s uncertain world, exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19, the trend-pendulum is swinging the other way. Thirty-six-year-old Emmitt embodies the mental shift of the modern Japanese desire to revert to the country, where life is both safer and cheaper – and in some ways, perhaps, deeper.
Fed up with being overworked at his English-teaching job and eager to distance himself from the hustle and bustle of non-stop Tokyo, Emmitt seeks comfort in his dream of owning a Machiya – a traditional wooden townhouse found throughout Japan. Mirai agrees to tour and visit several options, though she ultimately ends up not appearing at the crucial moment when Emmitt must sign the contract to buy the Machiya of their choosing. Unable to make the fateful decision on his own, Emmitt backs out of the deal, much to his real estate agent’s dismay. Upon confronting his wife about her own absence, Emmitt learns the truth he feared most – she yearns for the city life, and worse, she’s been offered a job in Tokyo.
Stunned, Emmitt quits his teaching job and retreats into a new life of interior contemplation by translating works by Japanese authors such as Izumi Kyōka and other literary notables. Interestingly, Mirai works as an ikebana artist, an ancient Japanese art form involving flower arrangements. Despite her artistry’s refined and traditional roots, she cannot understand her husband’s drive for a humble rural existence. Emmitt himself is stumped. He asks himself, “Why is Kanazawa so important to me?” and figures out the answer: “Kanazawa was his home. It had given him everything he’d ever wanted, and he’d only scratched the surface of what he could learn and experience here. Maybe it was true that Tokyo could offer him more but [he] felt rooted in Kanazawa.” Roots, that is what Kanazawa has that Tokyo lacks. A place to grow, not just for oneself but also for future generations.
As Mirai distances herself from her husband, Emmitt grows closer to his eccentric and mysterious in-laws. His father-in-law, Otōsan, spends much of his time drawing images of his wife naked, surveying remote statues of women throughout Kanazawa, and gearing up to hike Mt. Hakusan. Suspiciously unhappy with Otōsan’s artistry and obsession with conquering the great mountain, Emmitt’s mother-in-law only gets more bitter and unsettled by the behavior of the men that surround her. The family tensions constrict tighter around the small household until one day when Otōsan goes missing during a family outing to a local sumo tournament. Mirai and her mother stay behind while Emmitt frantically searches the stadium grounds, local cafes, and even nearby forests. He pauses once he realizes that there is only one place the elderly Otōsan could be – attempting to ascend the highest peak in all of Kanazawa. The reader, alongside Emmitt, is equally confused and mystified about the nature of Otōsan’s undying obsession with the mountain. What does Mt. Hakusan represent to this feeble artist, and why does Emmitt’s mother-in-law seemingly understand her husband’s fixation?
Kanazawa casts a shimmering layer of magical novelty around the countryside that has too long been reserved for prominent cities ever since Japan’s industrialization in the early 20th century. The city of Kanazawa has not known literary romanticization since the era of the early legendary writers who understood and cherished the beauty of nature and small towns. As Mirai explains to her still-learning husband, “Perishability is a central theme in traditional Japanese art. Every [artist] will tell you that beauty is ephemeral.” The frailty of nature is precisely the source of its magnificence and why mere humans should actively treasure and protect it. Ephemerality is exactly the intangible essence that Joiner mystifies and sentimentalizes in his writing – a cultural quality that few non-Japanese writers understand so well.
LMU English major graduate Ella Kelleher is the book review editor-in-chief and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.