Kuhaku is a difficult book to classify. Part cultural observations from long-term foreign residents in Japan, part translations of essays and stories by Japanese authors, and part insight into a street populated with cartoon rabbits and a family of cubes. Canned coffee, extra-marital affairs, a kegger at a buddhist temple, a stay at a hotel that caters to dogs, a man writing his way to a Nobel Prize by doing articles about sex shops in Tokyo; Kuhaku is nothing else but varied in the stories it tells.
But the one thing that Kuhaku systematically achieves is a vision. The vision is to capture a feel, an attitude -- the zeitgeist if you will -- of contemporary Japan. This vision however is never truly fulfilled, and it was never meant to be; this the book never makes any apology for being what it is. Kuhaku invites the reader into a niche of a culture and lets the reader take away what the reader wants to from it. For the most part it is an attempt to break away from the typical foreigner-stuck-in-Japan literature, (Which tend toward quirky anecdotes about old ladies, packed train rides, sexual escapades, funny English, and superficial observation just beyond tourist insight masquerading as brilliant nuggets of anthropology, et cetera.), and tries to offer a more lucid, a more respectful and honest appraisal of life in Japan, here and now. In this aspect, Kuhaku is one of the best books -- with a foreign slant -- on contemporary Japanese life available; and I have read many. It can be appreciated by somebody who has never been to Japan, and yet very elucidating to those who call Japan home.
Kuhaku is a compilation of the works of fourteen authors and artists. Some stories appeared elsewhere in magazines or in their original Japanese in other books; other sections were written and designed specifically for this book. The section on Japanese canned coffee convinced me to try some after two years of living in Japan without one sip. The ten page cartoon-like spread on a typical Japanese street is a delight of graphic design. And the three stories of Japanese housewives engaging in affairs at first seemed like an over-tapped subject used for the sake of naughty literature, but ended up being the most insightful part of the book. All three tales were devastatingly penetrating in their insights into the world of marriage, love versus lust, and the pressures of society on one's life and well being. They read better than most novels and were at times more fulfilling. The essay that explores contemporary problems in Japanese society, that starts with the concept of youths beating up businessmen, is a brilliant short exploration of a very large issue. But it is the glossary at the end of Kuhaku that makes for a perfect capper to these stories. More than just simple definitions, some words have full stories of love, betrayal, and slice of life fables that even after three or four readings still put a smile on my face.
Even the weakest parts of Kuhaku still offer nuggets of wisdom that make them worth the reading, if not exactly memorable. The short story about the man who takes his dog to a hotel that caters to dog owners teetered close to the over-assumption of Japanese social mores based off of very simple anecdotal evidence that foreign authors are helpless to exercise. But it is a story about dogs and dog hotels and Japanese names for dogs, so I should let my high-handed Lafcadio Hearn proclivity rest every once in a while. And the one-page ditty about an editor's lunch break seemed unnecessary, but in hindsight, even the occasional mediocre moments of Kuhaku (and they tend to be the shorter stories anyway) add a nice seasoning to the total meal the book offers.
I fear this book caters more to the experienced visitor to Japan, but thanks to the glossary and and inviting attitude of the design, I think Kuhaku would make a welcome edition to anybody's collection of Japanese cultural literature. Plus it comes with a bookmark thread, and I appreciate that.