Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction

Published on the one-year anniversary of the Japanese tsunami and earthquake, this collection of short stories and poems about Japanese teens is weird and wonderful, studded with the unique color of Japanese teen pop culture, as well as the impact of defining events from the twenty-first century to the present: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, the tsunami, earthquake and nuclear disaster.

There’s something fabulously specific about the pop culture references that can make reading Tomo: Friendship through Fiction feel like a virtual tour of Japan. A boy commutes with salarimen while reading cell phone novels on “turquoise blue Docomo phone with a black plastic rat dangling from the strap.” A girl listens to a band called Unicorn Lemon, covets a Monster Island bento box, and suspects that her family’s good luck is coming from a ghost. There is a ghost blogger. A boy is scolded by his mother for taking kimono-sewing classes; a girl is scolded by her mother for caring more about clothes than she does her ninja training. A boy stars on a new TV show called “Wan-derful English,” “about an American family who moves to Tokyo and adopts a robot dog and they have to ‘teach’ it English.” A girl decides she wants to be a “teen idol” after watching her favorite singer win the the Shiseido Cosmetics Super Pink Peachy Tour and hangs out in Harajuku waiting for the paparazzi to catch she and her friends in their Peter Pan collars and lime-green platform high tops, while her mother warns her that being a corporate pop star isn’t so different from being a salariman:  “You’d be a company man like your father — an employee of Morita Pro Music. It’s a job, you know.”

Halfsu — or bicultural kids — are a prominent theme. In America of the 1940s, they eat “rice and pickled plums with milk and potatoes, they all go together.” Later, after Pearl Harbor, those same children and their families are rounded up and placed in internment camps. In contemporary Japan, a child believes his parents are “the most beautiful people on earth” until he overhears his Japanese aunts gossiping about how his American father married his mother because he just didn’t realize that she wasn’t very pretty for a Japanese girl. After the tsunami, a girl’s mother sends her to school with an “emergency kit that takes up my whole backpack: a copy of my passport, water, chocolate, a radio.” Some of the bicultural kids realize that having a parent with dual citizenship gives them a real chance to leave Japan when their parents fear for their safety. As one boy with an American father says: “All this time, I have done everything to fit in, but I can leave. I have that choice.”