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The Great Passage by Shiona Miura: a voyage through words

The Great Passage by Shiona Miura  is the perfect choice of novel for people ho love words and language
Japanese Literature Challenge 2021

Until I read The Great Passage my understanding of the complexities involved in writing and publishing a dictionary was next to zero. Apparently even a pocket size version requires a myriad of decisions about paper quality; which words should be included; how many can safely be excluded and how best to organise the pages.

How much more complex this endeavour becomes when the job in hand is the creation of a 2,900 page dictionary. It’s to be titled “Daitokai : the Japanese word for The Great Passage/大渡海– and is intended as a scholarly work; the most comprehensive guide to the Japanese language ever produced.

This is the monumental task confronting the small team in the dictionary editorial department at Gembu books. The department head, Kohei Araki, would love it to be his crowning achievement but after thirty-seven years of creating dictionaries, it’s time for him to retire.

The young man he selects as his replacement is an odd character. Mitsuya Majim is a rumpled-looking loner working in the sales department. He’d rather buy books than sell him, stuffing his small apartment with old editions acquired during forays into Tokyo’s student district. But it’s his passion for language, rather than his ability to sell or communicate that makes him perfect for the dictionary project.

The dictionary project, with its many obstacles, challenges and successes, forms the plot of the book. But its title stands as a metaphor for the effect the project has upon everyone involved.

Changing Lives

Kohei Araki believes that a dictionary is a ship that carries people across a sea of words, guiding them through darkness to knowledge of how to express their thoughts accurately. “Without dictionaries,” he says, “all any of us could do is linger before the vastness of the deep.” Immersion in the task of creating this vast volume enables the individuals involved to emerge from their personal dark waters of loneliness, cynicism and low self-confidence to find love, friendship and a new sense of purpose in life.

This moral progression was the weaker element of the book for me. It felt rather predictable and safe, lacking a real sense of drama. I enjoyed much more the detail of how a dictionary is created, particularly one that is intended to be a definitive guide to every interpretation and nuance of a word.

We learn a lot about the processes involved: finding experts to write explanations and histories of key words; cross-checking each entry and choosing the paper. Too thick and the dictionary will be too heavy to handle but if the paper is too thin, text from one page will show through on another. And then there’s the challenge of fitting all those words into one book. At one point Majime tells an assistant that most dictionaries skimp on words towards the end of the vocabulary:

By the time they get to words starting with ra and wa the publication date is near, and its a battle for time. Words get left out because there isn’t enough help to do the checking or space to squeeze in one more on the page.

I’ve never noticed this myself but I’m now going to have to check.

This is a good choice of a book for anyone who has a love of words and language, since it includes many conversations between team members as they wrestle with some of their entries.

All this detail about dictionary production processes, paper quality the precise meaning of words, might sound rather dull but these passages about are frequently enlivened by humour. So for example, Mitsuya can reel off multiple meanings of the word “ai” (used to denote love) yet it takes him several hours to write a letter to tell his landlady’s niece he finds her attractive. He’s such a misfit that we can’t help rooting for him, willing him on to succeed and bring The Great Passage to life.

The Great Passage by Shiona Miura: Footnotes

The Great Passage was published in Japan in 2011 under the title of Fune wo amu (Knitting the Boat). It became a film in 2013 and was entered into the Best Foreign Language Film category at the  Academy Awards but failed to get a nomination. The English translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter was published by Amazon Crossing in 2017.

Shion Miura started an online book-review column before she graduated from university. In 2000 her debut Kakuto suru mono ni mar  (A Passing Grade for Those Who Fight), was published, a novel based in part on her own experiences during her job hunt. She has published thirteen novels and more than fifteen collections of essays.

Juliet Winters Carpenter attended the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Tokyo. Her first translated book was Kobo Abe’s Mikkai (Secret Rendezvous). Carpenter’s other translations—more than fifty—include nearly every genre of fiction and nonfiction, as well as film subtitles and song lyrics. A professor at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto, Carpenter has lived in Japan since 1975.

I read The Great Passage as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14. You can learn more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March 2021, here. It also counts as book number 1 towards a #TBR21 project which is an attempt to tackle my mountain of unread books by reading 21 books from my TBR by the end of 2021.

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