Nipponia Nippon

(by Kazushige Abe, translated by Kerim Yasar)

Nipponia Nippon was a random library find for me: whenever I return or pick up a book, I also look at the “New books” shelves to see what catches my eye, and the first line of this Japanese novella (written in 2001, but only translated into English in 2023) intrigued me: “Haruo Toya narrowed his options down to three: breed them, free them, or kill them.”

We soon learn that Haruo is thinking about birds—crested ibises, to be exact, a number of which live in captivity at a conservation center on the island of Sado (the species went extinct in the wild in Japan in 1981). Haruo (who’s seventeen and lives in an apartment in Tokyo on his own—we learn more about the reasons for that as the book progresses) ponders further: “By letting the birds go, he could feel proud of himself—a hero, a liberator of weak, captive innocents. On the other hand, by killing them, he would be an agent of chaos, crushing the world’s good intentions, and he could revel in the ecstasy of a cold-blooded executioner.”

Well: whatever he decides, Haruo realizes he’s going to have to learn more about the conservation center and figure out how he’s going to get into the cage where the birds are kept. Surely there will be a night watchman. And he needs to figure out how he’s going to get to Sado to begin with, and how he’s going to get around once he’s there. The book brings us along on Haruo’s research process: we learn about his internet searches and his online purchases and the various articles he reads about the crested ibises themselves, which strengthen his conviction that he needs to do something. We also get some information about Haruo’s middle-school and high-school years, which involved a lot of unpleasantness (by others directed at him, and by him directed at others)—and which were also actually the start of his interest in crested ibises. (His surname contains the same kanji as the word in Japanese for the bird; later, he wonders if his ancestors had some connection to crested ibises or to the places where they once lived in the wild.)

The first half of the book is slow, but the pace really picks up once Haruo sets his plan into action. I liked both aspects of the book, the part where Haruo is reading about the ibises and the breeding and conservation efforts undertaken by the Japanese government, and thinking about the birds as symbols of the nation and nationhood, and thinking about whether human efforts to intervene in the natural world are ultimately self-serving, and the part where the plot kicks into high gear and we get one event after another. Haruo’s head is an uncomfortable place to be, and learning about various things he does/has done and the thoughts he has is unpleasant—he’s what we would now call an incel, and just, ick—but I found this a satisfying reading experience nevertheless. (Until the ending, which I’m not sure what to make of.)






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