Reviews / June 2013 (Issue 21)


The Stark Reality of Japan: Charlie Canning's The 89TH Temple

by Michael Tsang

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Charlie Canning, The 89TH Temple, Outskirts Press, 2012. 212 pgs.

My first cultural shock in Japan was seeing an entire shelf in a Tokyo bookstore filled with books about the collapse of the Japanese school system (or gakkyuhoukai). Like many, I admire much about the Japanese people and culture, so it was shocking to learn that its education system is rotting and becoming a major social problem.

Charlie Canning's electrifying debut novel reminds me of this episode because it addresses the issues of bullying and juvenile crime that are plaguing Japanese society. In it, seven young adults, each of whom has committed manslaughter, are picked to join a supervised pilgrimage in Shikoku, Japan, which involves walking to 88 temples and carrying out prayers and rituals at each. The young offenders will be released if they complete the pilgrimage, but, while the authorities are willing to give them a chance, in the eyes of society they still are, and will always be, dangerous and merciless murderers. Released from their reform schools and in touch with the outside world for the first time in years, the youngsters' past soon catches up with them, even while they are slowly growing accustomed to the taste of freedom.

Canning taught English in Japan for a decade before writing this novel, so presumably he is giving us an "insider's" observations. The author's intimate knowledge of the country is shown in the first few chapters, where the names of the young offenders are given in initials, demonstrating his sensitivity to Japan's Juvenile Act which forbids the publication of offenders' names. Readers also get the back stories of the youngsters, and it is from these stories—which portray typical bullying scenarios in Japan—that we understand that the murders they have committed should be seen more as self-defence than cold-blooded crimes. In short, it is society that is to blame, not the individuals.

The publisher's press release compares the novel to Lord of the Flies, but they are different books with different achievements. In William Golding's classic, bullying is a primitive part of human nature that is awoken and becomes extreme when people are forced to survive in an isolated environment. In Canning's book, bullying is legitimated by collective society. Japan's economic development in the post-war era demanded unity and devotion to work, but simultaneously erased individuality and the enjoyment of life, often to the exclusion of those who showed unusual or "deviant" behaviour. Many meaningful passages in the novel, such as the one below, capture this problem vividly:

Those who were the best at stringing words together were the ones who created the reality for everyone else. They made the labyrinths. And like the gardener who had planted the ten-foot hedges, only they knew the way out. For the rest of them, it was a half-blind meandering through lanes that turned upon themselves or circled back to the beginning.

[…]

It was odd that the only way that you could become fully conscious of the artificiality of things was by either losing your mind or your place in society. As long as you were in the game, you couldn't see that what everyone was referring to as reality was actually just mass belief. Things were because most people believed them to be so.

This form of mass delusion is perhaps common to many modern societies, but it is especially true in Japan. The irony is that an accurate view of society is only available to people who have done things deemed wrong or abnormal. Canning's youngsters thus find themselves stuck in a double bind that paves way for the novel's tragic ending: "People talked of reintegration but that was impossible. There was no going back. You knew too much." In this context, the novel's title, The 89TH Temple, carries many meanings. Literally, it refers to a small temple, not on the pilgrimage route, where the youngsters receive humane and respectful treatment from the temple priest. But, more importantly, through this outcast temple, the reader realises each of us has an 89th temple in our own heart, from which you can draw "the power and the wisdom to protect you[self] from those who had stopped believing in anything worth knowing or having," as the novel's closing sentence muses.

Although the novel's subject matter is insightful, Canning's treatment is somewhat blunt and under-achieving. The constant use of "you" (as shown in the quote above) reveals the novel's didactic embrace of individuality, and Canning's use of the third-person omniscient narrator makes it difficult to discern between the characters' and the narrator's opinion. Also, while the novel is introduced as a young adult novel, thus, perhaps hoping to excuse its overly direct tone and lack of subtly, the general adult reader wants a more complex dissection of the Japanese society. The collective spirit of the country, after all, once propelled its economy to the top and lead to the development of distinct corporate culture that has been studied by Western companies. And the "artificiality" of Japan has attracted millions of visitors and language learners. It is trite, therefore, to suggest that the problems of Japanese society can be solved simply by embracing individualism.

Perhaps because the novel is so one-sided, the plot also tends to be rather thin. Instead of making the characters look like archetypes (for example, Ishimoto, one of the supervising wardens, is the typical rough, middle-aged Japanese male whose opinions mirror those of mainstream society), the novel could have built up more generational conflicts, or even explored tensions among the youngsters themselves. Several threads in the novel are also not fully developed: the possible romance, for example, between two of the adult characters is forgotten in the second half. And despite its sympathy for the young offenders, it is strangely insensitive to other outsider groups in Japan. Canning mentions the hikikomori, (people who shut themselves at home from the outside world) but quickly dismisses them as being "dead inside […] like the candle or the flame that was meant to burn for all of their days had been snuffed out." The novel might have created a richer portrait of Japan had the pilgrimage included a mixture of young offenders and hikikomori—the former group learning to empathise with others and the latter regaining their spark for live.

Anyone who wishes to know more about Japan should read this novel, and there is no doubt about Canning's dedicated attention to the ills of the country. However, I wanted him achieve more: to historicise, to complicate and to dig deeper into the dilemmas that plague modern Japan.

 
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