Sweet Bean Paste is a charming novella by Durian Sukegawa that details life in contemporary Japan in an unexpected way. From small touches that describe how interactions take place between different age groups, to an unexpected lesson in prejudice, Sweet Bean Paste is an unforgettable tale of bittersweet friendship.
This review contains quotes and spoilers from the book.
Sweet Bean Paste follows Sentaro, a man who has made his fair share of mistakes in life. After being involved in a shady drug exchange, he is given time in prison, only to find his connection to his family severed by his mother’s death. In debt, he finds work at a stand on a rundown street that sells dorayaki, a Japanese sweet featuring red bean paste that closely resembles a pancake.
One day, an old woman named Tokue approaches the shop named Doraharu, having noticed a job advertisement in the window after purchasing dorayaki the day before. Although she has difficulty using her hands, she seeks employment at the confectionery as a means of rejoining society and passing on her craft, for little does Sentaro know that Tokue has had a rough life, ostracized from society as a result of Leprosy.
By using a traditional Japanese confection, dorayaki, Sukegawa tells an incredibly important story about the nature of prejudice, exploring the consequences of unfounded assumptions and fears concerning personal differences. At the same time, he presents an unknown fact about Japanese history – patients diagnosed with Leprosy were sent to sanatoriums and ostracized from society until multiple Leprosy prevention laws were repealed in 1996.
Although Leprosy is not something that we really think about today and is a very uncommon, yet treatable disease, Sukegawa makes it a point to revisit this aspect of Japanese history in order to make point about unfounded prejudice. Although Sentaro does not know that Tokue was afflicted by Leprosy at one point in time, she is treated differently by the owner of the shop for having the disease. In fact, when it becomes known, Doraharu suffers financially as a result, despite the contemporary setting of the novel.
In addition to the detailed history lesson found within the pages of Sweet Bean Paste, traditional aspects of Japanese culture are brought to the forefront where craftsmanship and food are concerned.
Over time, Sentaro and Tokue begin working together to create dorayaki. Instead of using canned sweet bean paste, Sentaro begins to learn a traditional craft that Tokue has been working on for over fifty years, and Sukegawa makes a point of providing a detailed, step-by-step process of its creation. By doing so, not only does he offer a glimpse at what goes into making Japanese sweets, but he touches on the idea of sentimentality that comes with dedication and craftsmanship. Where traditional objects are concerned, it is not uncommon for more traditional members of society to question the feeling behind the object, for it is believed that the feelings of the individual come to life in the work that is created, which can be seen when Tokue criticizes Sentaro’s dorayaki.
Bean paste is all about feeling, young man.
I couldn’t tell anything about the feelings of the person who made it.
– excerpt from Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste
Sweet Bean Paste is one of the few works of Japanese literature that I felt was lacking in terms of translation, which is not the fault of translator Alison Watts, but rather the intricacies of the language. While some of the words and phrases felt a little out of place, I believe that the novella would have had more of an impact if read in the original language due to the emphasis on specific elements of Japanese culture, namely cherry blossom trees and dorayaki.
A few elements of the translation were done well and really mimicked Japanese speech in regard to formality, a feat that is quite difficult in localization. For example, many things in Japanese speech are implied, including subjects and word endings. Furthermore, it is very common for rejection to be implied instead of implicitly stated in order to avoid confrontation.
Early on in Sweet Bean Paste, when Tokue approaches Sentaro about working at Doraharu, Sentaro politely rejects her, not only because of her age, but her appearance as well. Not only is this the first case of prejudice, but it also provides insight into Japanese culture, as Sentaro does his best to avoid offending Tokue through implication and deference when he says: “Ah, I think…No, I’m afraid it won’t work. I hope you understand.” Although he does reject her, he does so in a way that is considered polite – he ignores the topic directly.
From the timeless symbolism that comes with the blooming of the cherry blossom trees, to the unexpected history lesson, Durian Sukegawa’s latest work is bittersweet to say the least. Full of intense emotion and unexpected friendships, Sweet Bean Paste is a touching examination of contemporary Japanese culture.