The Chronicles of Lord Asanaro (Red Circle, 2020) is an unusual and rewarding story that lingers in the consciousness longer than more overtly dramatic works.
In line with British imprint Red Circle’s innovative format, it has never previously been published in English or Japanese. It is particularly welcome, as Kanji Hanawa himself has had little exposure in the world of English language publication, despite having been twice a candidate for the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious literary award.
A Story in Context with Its Era
The story is set in the very early Edo Period (1603-1868) when the Tokugawa Shogunate has put an end to civil war, and the samurai class — previously “sanctioned murderers,” in the author’s words — are transitioning into accountants and bureaucrats.
The title is gently ironic since Lord Asunaro achieves nothing worthy of chronicling, apart from begetting 70 children, the result of his insatiable pursuit of “horizontal pleasures.” Indeed, his castle becomes known as the “Watermelon Residence” because of the common sight of numerous heavily pregnant women.
“Asunaro” is a nickname, meaning “going to be one day.” It is used as the name of an obscure type of pine tree that, according to legend, yearned to become a hinoki cedar, admired for the strength and beauty of its wood.
Like the “going to be one day” tree, Lord Asunaro lives in the shadow of a dominant presence. His father, a cunning politician, tough-minded administrator, and aficionado of literature and the martial arts, maneuvered himself into the affections of Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, thus securing the long-term future of his domain.
The old brute has little patience with the clumsy dimwit who is destined to succeed him. Indeed, the son is an utter embarrassment, picking his nose until it bleeds, neglecting his studies, and even biting a chunk out of the ear of a respected Confucian scholar. No wonder the father openly doubts his paternity, thereby angering his own wife.
Hanawa evokes a society in which townspeople send their dogs off on pilgrimages to the Ise Shrine, rich merchants distribute rice in order to avert riots, abacus competitions are recruitment sessions for domain personnel, and senior officials go in disguise to the kabuki. The unheroic Asunaro proves the perfect fit for an era in which peace reigns and members of his class have lost their raison d’être as defenders of the realm.
Asunaro in Real Life
Asunaro was a real historical figure. The judgement of contemporaries was harsh — “a fool from birth and lacking all judgement.”
Yet, as Hanawa points out in his favor, he bequeathed to posterity an outstanding garden and some examples of accomplished calligraphy. Condemned to a life of leisure and deprived of any possibility of doing anything useful, he became “what anyone in his situation would become.”
He also has some positive traits, which were not considered such in his time. He broke through class distinctions, being willing to talk and drink with people of much humbler standing. He questioned the usefulness of military fortifications in a time of peace, the relevance of hidebound Confucian scholarship and, implicitly, the whole superstructure of hereditary status. It would take another century and a half for him to be proved right.
An Author in Tune with the Story
Intriguingly, Hanawa dedicates the story to his own father, a senior judge who died in 1962, having lived through the global version of Japan’s Warring States period. Today’s Japan is, as in the early Tokugawa period, a peaceful place where nothing much happens. The father-son relationship can only be a matter of speculation, but the author himself identifies very clearly with Asunaro, who he sees as “a modern man, a normal man…a man like you or me.”
Hanawa is a scholar and translator of French literature and intersperses his narrative with references to contemporaneous events in Europe. He even makes a startling comparison between Asunaro and Meursault, the passive antihero of Albert Camus’ L’Etranger.
The book is Hanawa’s second publication in Red Circle’s series of specially commissioned Japanese fiction. Backlight (2018), his previous Red Circle outing, featured a story ripped from recent headlines — the case of an eight-year-old boy who disappeared into a bear-infested forest in 2016, after his parents briefly abandoned him for being naughty.
That is a world away from the routine of a 17th-century daimyo. Yet there are similarities in the authorial approach, which is oblique, subtle, and meditative, offering hints and suggestions rather than narrative drive or startling revelations.
Asunaro is spoiled, selfish, and mediocre in every respect. Yet, ultimately, we sympathize with his petty rebellions, the one chance of love that he loses through politics and bad luck, the way he blunders through life learning so little.
We know this “unimpressive man.” We see him every day on the train, in the convenience store, in the mirror.
Red Circle has so far put out five mini-books of specially commissioned original Japanese fiction. All are well worth exploring and The Chronicles of Lord Asunaro is one of the most satisfying.
About the Book:
Title: The Chronicles of Lord Asunaro
Author: Kanji Hanawa
Publisher: Red Circle, January 2020
To learn more: See the publisher’s web page at this link.
To purchase the book: Click the “Buy From” option on the publisher’s website for links several booksellers.
Book Review by: Peter Tasker