Thirty-eight year old Tsukiko Omachi recounts the story of her connection with her former high school teacher Harutsuna Matsumoto who she encounters by chance while drinking in a bar. She didn’t remember the name of this man 30 years her senior, so she calls him Sensei, and continues to do so. They meet by chance over many months, drinking saké and eating together, most often at a particular bar. Tsukiko falls in love with Sensei and though they enjoy food together and like getting drunk together, Sensei keeps a distance between them.
We learn little about Tsukiko’s work, but know that her life is solitary; she tells why she rarely visited her family: “It was just dissatisfying in some way. It felt as if I had ordered a bunch of clothes that I had every reason to think would fit perfectly, but when I went to try them on, some were too short, while with others the hem dragged on the floor. Surprised, I would take them off and hold them up against my body, only to find that they were all, in fact, the right length. Or something like that.” Our narrator cleverly illustrates a point, then distances herself from it; that sums up this book in many ways. I never know if it is Tsukiko’s odd worldview or my lack of knowledge of the Japanese culture at work.
When Sensei and Tsukiko go to a cherry blossom festival, Sensei talks to another woman closer to his age and Tsukiko encounters an old schoolmate. He’s interested in a romantic relationship which Tsukiko rejects. They meet and drink together multiple times, always at a bar that serves cocktails and western food in contrast to the saké and Japanese food described when she’s with Sensei.
After a drunken night, Tsukiko declares her love and Sensei’s reaction is this comment about the thunderstorm in the distance, “This strange weather must be a result of the strange thing you said, Tsukiko,” Later Tsukiko notes that no matter how much she tried to get closer to him, Sensei would not let her near; it was as if an invisible wall were between them.
The relationship of Sensei and Tsukiko illustrates Shakespeare’s message, “The course of true love never did run smooth. True love always encounters difficulties.” Difficulties are encountered here and there, but eventually they melt away. Sensei is old-fashioned, well-dressed, in good shape physically, and prepared for all eventualities. In contrast Tsukiko is brash, unable to walk long distances, is not culturally knowledgable, and does not dress properly for the occasion. Ultimately, though, their relationship flourishes.
Hiromi Kawakami, Strange Weather in Tokyo, trans. Allison Markin Powell, first published as The Briefcase, 2012, Counterpoint, 179 pages. Available at the public library and from Amazon.