Tag Archives: Japan

‘The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance’ by Edmund de Waal

Netsuke: A carved button like ornament, esp. of ivory or wood, formerly worn in Japan to suspend articles from the sash of a kimono.

This book is about so many things…family memoir, inheritance, art history, people and culture, real life adventure, the sadness of war, travelogue…. all wrapped into a very compelling story for non-fiction. Before picking up this book I had never heard of netsuke so I really learned something about these intriguing sculptures and all of the places and times in which this particular collection lived.

The story begins with the author’s Uncle Iggie and his 264 netsuke on display in a glass vitrine in Japan.  Then it goes back and traces how these items were acquired and the remarkable story of the collection and its owners.  De Waal (who is an accomplished potter himself), in telling about the amazing survival of this unique collection,  lovingly crafts an amazing history of his family. He is eloquent when he talks about the fascinating ways in which they and also we, acquire things and how we pass them along to others or future generations. Veronica Horwell puts this aspect of the book beautifully, in her review in The Guardian (Sat. 26 June 2010). “If you have ever cleared a house after a death you will recognise this feeling, that each handmade thing matters of itself, even when mortality casts it loose sequentially from maker and owners; the sense that responsibility for the present of an object is also a duty to its past, and an obligation to its onward transmission.”

Even though there are many pictures and maps in the book, oddly there are no pictures of the netsuke themselves except for the ‘hare with the amber eyes’ on the cover. De Waal does describe some of them and he does such a good job, I can see them in my mind’s eye. Perhaps it was his intention to allow the reader to imagine. However, they can be seen on de Waal’s website and my guess is that with the resounding success of this book, future publishings will include some photos of these amazing sculptures, none of which is bigger than a matchbox.  I think my favourite is the turtles. I wish I could hold one in my hand or keep one in my pocket too. They are unusual and beautiful. Here is the link to the website:

Netsuke Gallery

‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet’ by David Mitchell

In the late 1700’s Japan’s only connection with Europe was around trade that took place on Dejima, an artificial island on Japan’s doorstep which was essentially a collection of warehouses built by the Dutch mercantile empire in Nagasaki Bay.

No matter how intriguing this historical time period was, despite an adventure in the middle and a few other interesting twists and turns, I found parts of this book a real slog. It was necessary for me to do some research on Dejima (Wikipedia) to even make a start and be able to understand what was going on.

Jacob De Zoet is a Dutchman who finds himself far from his Dutch fiance on the island of Dejima and falls in love with a Japanese woman. The naive accountant  is surprisingly clever at dealing with tricky cultural issues and crooked sailors. His honest approach somehow results in career achievements which are brilliant in a place where survival was not easy. Some of the descriptions of early surgical practices are visceral and the ‘nunnery’ where Orito ends up is horrific. Jacob De Zoet is not a character you will soon forget even though his Dutch cronies and Japanese translators were actually so non-descript after awhile, that I lost track of who was who (but it didn’t really matter).

If you are a great lover of historical fiction, this would be an excellent book for you. If you want an engaging captivating read, you might want to take a pass. I would put this book in the “lost opportunity” category. He had a great thing going with the story, the characters, the setting, and the adventure, but it’s too bad it got so boggy because it could have been a blockbuster. If you are good at skimming over bogs and finding the solid nuggets, by all means give it a go. There are plenty of really great parts too. Mitchell is a famous author and there is genius in the writing. I am actually glad I read it for when the movie comes out – it would make a great Pirates of the Caribbean type film!