Tansu – Ryo Hanmura

 Apostolou- Best Japanese “Tansu” (shortstory) by Ryo Hanmura
From Apostolou & Greenberg’s The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories (1989)
Original: Japanese, 1973
Translated by Shimizu Hitomi, Joel Dames, Stephen Davis, and Grania Lewis, 1983
”A strange story concerning an old wooden chest” (40)

Synopsis: An elder mother recounts a tale of a fisherman named Ichisuke who was married and had eight children. One night the youngest boy fell ill and sat upon the tansu wooden chest meditatively. The father was terse with the boy but he persisted on sleeping atop the chest. Later, the man’s parents, his wife, and all eight children sat cross-legged upon on a number of tansu chests. Unable to cope, the man escaped his own home to set sail.

Analysis: Firstly, a tansu chest is an ornate wooden hutch dating back more than 500 years in Japanese culture. The tansu can be seen a relic of the past, an anchor to Japan’s long history from the ship of modern change. This change can be visually seen in metropolises but it also affects life upcountry in subtler means.

Ichisuke is a man uncomfortable with change. First, he berates his youngest son for sitting atop the hutch (the youngest being the newest generation and typically the trendsetter—perhaps he simply wants to embrace the ancient ways). As the rest of his family follows suit, meditatively perched on the hutch, they too clutch at the safety of history’s breast. The family even rescues an abandoned hutch found on the shore, a forgotten relic of errant history, jetsam of the ages, to which they also blindly clutch.

With the family’s complete change to ancient ways (clutching at the past—not actually sleeping on the wooden chest), Ichisuke loses his composure and escapes from his own home. Being a fisherman by nature, he returns to what he knows—the sea—though the sea tends to offer gifts in disguise (like the hutch). After a few years, his ships anchors off shore from his home and the draw to his personal and cultural past are strong to him.

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