“Sometimes,…our ignoble desire to read private letters is matched by a letter-writer’s ignoble desire to be read.”

I used to send my first ex-boyfriend postcards from each new city I visited, for quite a while after we stopped seeing each other  – unsigned, of course; a dramatic moment never passes me by.  I’d usually get a coy text message in response, “someone’s been sending me mail, I wonder who that could be…”

Cute, right? Vomit inducing. But I still wonder what happened to those postcards, even now nearly a decade on – are they tucked away in a drawer somewhere? Were they read and chucked straight in the bin? Were they even read, and I mean read, those short lines I’d imbued with so much meaning?

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A postcard I sent to my parents from NY. It still holds pride of place on their fridge.

And there is meaning in hand-written communication; the particular weight that time, thought, and effort offers up, that can’t be replicated by any other means – emails and text messages are but pixels; even a typed, printed letter doesn’t quite have the same power as something hand-written.

imageIt’s this power that John O’Connell explores in his book, For the Love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication, published 2012.

I don’t generally like light history books; I tend to find them a bit toothless in both content and analysis, and a bit forced in their attempts to be airily amusing. The blurb on For the Love of Letters’ dust jacket made it sound like just that kind of book, but I’m glad I worked through my initial cringe and read it anyway. O’Connell is not only genuinely witty and deeply knowledgable about the history of letters, but the deeply personal context of the book set it apart for me.

The book opens with O’Connell preparing to pen a reply to a letter of condolence, hand-written and sent by a friend following the death of O’Connell’s mother; and closes as he completes his reply – a copy of which is included as an epilogue, a touch which adds a particular legitimacy to the narrative. What happens between is an agile trip through the history of letters, from the rhetorical theory set out by Isocrates around 400 BC, the origin of the modern postal system, to famous letter writers and styles – love letters, advisory letters, letters confronting death.

It’s light history, light philosophy, and light humour, but it’s the personal and charming elements of the book that make it a satisfying read – it feels far more like having a conversation with an old friend than anything else.

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I’m always interested in how people attempt to shore up their lives against time, the kinds of precautions we all take to safeguard our experiences against the unsympathetic eye of reality and history, so I am likely the kind of reader O’Connell imagined appreciating his book.

…the reason we write letters is the main reason we write anything: to convert the chaos of our lives into solid, time-locked narrative.
The writing of narrative, any kind of narrative, helps us stay sane by convincing us that we are stable, autonomous individuals moving smoothly through the world. (p. 22)

Perhaps I’ll spend this holiday season writing some letters of my own.

There’s plenty of things I miss about living in Japan, but pretty high on the list is book shopping. Hard-copy books and brick-and-mortar book stores still occupy a space in Japanese life that they sadly no longer do in other countries (like Australia, unfortunately). Even though I was only back in Japan for a two week holiday this time around, with a tightly scheduled itinerary (…well, tightly scheduled stumbling from bar to restaurant to bar to late night ramen), book shopping was still high on the priority list.

Straight white men are sadly overrepresented in my bookshelf, and I make a point to seek out and support writers that aren’t straight, white, or male. I do have a particular interest in the experiences of women, so I was excited to discover Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women by Kittredge Cherry waiting for me on a Fukuokan bookshelf.

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Cute dust-cover.

Womansword is a collection of short essays on the context, use, and implications of a number of common Japanese words and phrases relating specifically to the experience of womanhood in Japan.  The words are collected loosely into themed chapters – childhood, work, domestic life, sexuality, and ageing. 

Some of the terms included in the book are hilarious, and probably going to make their way into my speech. One such fantastic term is gokiburi teishu – or “cockroach husband”. As Cherry notes, “what could be more useless, annoying, and downright repulsive than a cockroach in the kitchen? A husband in the kitchen…” – not the most fair, modern, or accurate take on the division of domestic duties, but justified by the idea “that meal preparation actually takes longer with the ‘help’ of any inexperienced cook”, and that the kitchen was traditionally one of the only places that women felt “no pressure to bolster the male ego” (p. 58).

Cherry also explains the structure of the kanji characters used for many of the words and phrases. For example, the character for woman (女) repeated three times forms a character which means cunning or wickedness (姦). This character forms part of the verb “to seduce” or “to rape” (姦する), or part of the adjective “noisy” (姦しい). Charming. As Cherry notes, “there is no character composed of three male ideograms”, the implication of this being “that a trio of men getting together is nothing remarkable.” (p. 26)  While the commentary on the ideograms used in Japanese is particularly interesting if you have a knowledge of Japanese (and would have been really helpful while I was studying!), the explanations are both clear and succinct enough to be interesting to anyone with an interest in how languages work.

While the book is focused on the specific experience of Japanese women in Japan through the lens of Japanese language, many of the issues described in the book parallel the experience of woman worldwide, from the silly to the serious – clashes with mothers-in-law (p. 133), the struggles of infertile women (p. 90), the difficulties of finding equal work for equal pay (p. 103).  I started writing this review a fortnight ago, in a very different state of mind. Japan could certainly do better by women, but the recent US presidential election has proven that plenty of places can do better by women. I also believe that it’s white ignorance and complacency that leads to so many problems. I’m certainly not ignorant of the privileges I enjoyed living in Japan as a white, Australian woman; that as an outsider I had a wider degree of latitude to say and do things that other women don’t have, especially at difficult times. The only way forward is to understand where our own privileges lie in a system that benefits certain populations over others; and when not challenging that systematic privilege, to use it to bolster those who don’t share it.

Anyway. Womansword was first released in 1987 and reissued in 2002. The updated introduction to the 2002 edition notes a number of the cultural and legal changes in Japan since the book was first published – broader sexual harassment and child abuse laws, rising numbers of single mothers, and controversy surrounding the legalisation of the contraceptive pill – but the content of the book remained (as far as I can tell) unchanged. Unsurprisingly, the book is now somewhat dated, but remains nonetheless a fantastic read – especially to see what has (and hasn’t) changed.

One part that tickled me, and that I had never heard of before, was door-to-door condom saleswomen, known as “skin ladies”: I thought that this was surely too weird to be true to any great extent (rare to say regarding Japan), but it was actually a thing, from the end of World War 2 to the early/mid 80s!

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Definitely better to buy door-to-door than from this nasty condom vending machine on the streets of Kyushu… including super racist packaging!

I was pretty happy to learn that a 30th Anniversary Edition of Womansword is due to be published later this November (it’s already added to my Christmas list…) While some online reviews of the forthcoming edition note some of the more recent inclusions – Prime Minister Abe’s “womanomics”, and the term “x-gender” for people who identify as non-binary or genderqueer, for example – it’s hard to tell exactly how much has been updated. But given the speed at which Japanese slang emerges and morphs (and the changes in legal and social attitudes to women in the last 30 years, of course), I would like to think that a significant amount of the book has been updated. I can’t wait to find out!