It is hard, I think, to ever really know our parents as people. How can we? To most of us, for most of our lives, they are parents, a class of people somehow removed from the everyday realm of jobs, reactions, and relationships. A piece of us certainly knows that our parents have their own lives and were fully realized humans before they ever had us, but somehow the terms “mom” and “dad” end up superseding all of that. A Journal of My Father (Chichi no Koyomi) is Jiro Taniguchi‘s exploration of that topic as seen through the eyes of Yoichi, a man who left Tottori for college in the 1960s and deliberately never looked back.
To a degree, this book is very much about the experiences of the Baby Boomers and their relationships with their parents. Certainly, that’s partially due to the setting, but beyond that, it also illustrates how quickly the world and its expectations changed post-World War II. It’s hard to overstate how much that war reshaped things, even for people born post-war whose parents simply lived through it without fighting. Entire nations had to reframe their contexts when the smoke cleared, and even though the protagonist of Taniguchi’s book never truly says that aloud, we can easily see how he’s living in what we might call a more modern era than his parents did. The subtle ways this is communicated is one of the triumphs of the volume: Yoichi’s assumption that he doesn’t have to take over his father’s barbershop butts up against his older sister’s belief that he does, and we can sense the quiet sadness of his father and stepmother when he announces that he wants to study photography in Tokyo, not get his barber’s license. When Yoichi visits his father’s tiny fishing village hometown, which is only really accessible by foot or by sea, we understand how much smaller the world was for his parents in the sense that you simply couldn’t go many places, with a firm definition between urban and rural spaces. That Yoichi’s father moved to Tottori from the village is perhaps the only reason why he can even feign being able to understand his son’s drive to move further afield and do something different, because that’s what he did in his own youth. The major difference is that once a summer he returned to the village; Yoichi feels no such compunction once he leaves home.
The story is told through flashbacks. In the present (1994 or so), adult Yoichi talks with his wife, journeys back to Tottori, and discusses his father with his sister and uncles as they sit by his father’s body. Each discussion or point raised makes him think about something in his youth, and, by virtue of either the additional information his relatives provide or simply the patina of experience that Yoichi now has, he is forced to look beyond his own memories to see more of what was really going on. This works well because we can see both the childish selfishness that young Yoichi exhibited and where it came from as he works through his family traumas and remembered experiences. The combination of the two makes Yoichi fully human in a way he never allowed his father to be, and even as he can’t quite bring himself to be proud to be “like [his] father,” he does understand that maybe that isn’t the bad thing he once felt it was.
As we might expect of a piece spanning the time between 1950 and the mid-1990s, there are references to historical events. The two primary ones are the American occupation of Japan post-WWII and the 1953 Great Fire of Tottori. Both of these things are pivotal in Yoichi’s early life – the former shows how the American GIs didn’t necessarily treat the Japanese people with any sort of respect and the latter being the death knell for his parents’ marriage. There’s a bit of a parallel drawn between Yoichi’s mother Kiyoko, the only daughter of a wealthy sake brewer, and the entitled American soldiers, with Kiyoko ultimately unable to understand why her husband is so insistent on working to rebuild their home without being saddled with loans from her family, which eventually leads to her losing interest in what she sees as a man who has become too serious. Essentially, Kiyoko acts like the soldier who refuses to pay for his haircut; she doesn’t, or can’t, appreciate the hard work that is being done for her benefit.
To a degree, this trait is inherited by Yoichi, who can’t quite stop seeing his father through his mother’s eyes. This is interesting because after she leaves the family, Yoichi only sees his mother once: when he runs away to find her. He sees her holding a baby, a half-sibling it never occurred to him that he might have, and while that doesn’t stop him from continuing to blame his father for the divorce to a degree, it also leaves him feeling as if he is truly motherless. It is a little difficult to read the way that Kiyoko is portrayed, because it’s very much in line with old stereotypes about the sort of “bad” woman who would divorce her husband, but it’s also an image that Yoichi would have been raised with – and one that his father never expresses buying into.
A Journal of My Father isn’t an easy book, and it’s not a fast read. It made me think of my own father’s relationship with my grandfather more than my relationship with Dad, and I do think that’s in large part due to the time period the story covers and the age of the protagonist. But there’s still something very recognizable about the way that Yoichi can’t quite see his father as a whole person – he is and always will be “father” to him. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something worth thinking about, because if we never try to see our parents as something more than “parents,” the book suggests, then maybe we’re forfeiting truly seeing them for who they are.