Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa


This turned out to be an excellent book for these times. A post in A Life in Books about Japanese novels tells that it features an elderly woman who had Hansen’s Disease (formerly known as leprosy) as a young teenager and spent her life confined to a sanatorium though she had recovered. Even after the law was changed allowing former patients to leave, Tokue had no home to go to, and her disfigured hands and face limited her. Having recently read Pam Fessler’s informative book Carville’s Cure, I was aware that the disease is difficult to transmit and not a threat to public health. Nevertheless, the societal view of it is great, unreasonable fear.

As an elderly woman, Tokue stopped outside a dorayaki (two pancakes with sweet adzuki bean paste between them) shop, admiring a blooming cherry tree. She tried to talk the man who ran the shop into hiring her for half the usual price, but Sentaro refused. She kept visiting him until he relented and agreed to hire her to make the bean paste in the back of the shop and leave before customers arrive. Sentaro was happy with the paste she made:

The aroma seemed to leap up at him, as if it were alive, racing through his nose to the back of his head. Unlike the ready-made paste, this was the smell of fresh, living beans. It had depth. It had life. A mellow, sweet taste unfurled inside Sentaro’s mouth.

Sentaro knew that Tokue’s disfigurement would make it impossible to have her work in a food shop; nevertheless he appreciated her skill and care in making the bean paste, as well as her rapport with the teenager girls who frequented the shop. Business improved for a time, but her secret was uncovered and she had to leave. Sentaro’s own story was a complicated and sad one and his connection to a person who suffered this tragic life enriched his own life. He came to have hope and to be nurtured by whatever confronts him in life. This sad book does remind us to pay close attention to whatever is in our lives. And that bean paste can make one think of fresh, living beans.

Durian Sukegawa, Sweet Bean Paste, One World Publications, 2017, 224 pages (I read the kindle version). Available from Amazon.

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