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B : interesting for insights into Japanese workplace(s) and culture
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Seventeen not only has a pretty good hook -- the worst single-craft airplane accident ever, the 12 August 1985 crash of Japan Airlines flight 123, with 520 dead (and, amazingly, four survivors) -- but author Yokoyama was there. As he mentions in his Preface:
At the time, I was working as an investigative/police beat reporter at a local Gunma newspaper. I arrived at the crash site after trekking for more than eight hours up a mountain with no routes or climbing trails. The terrain was steep, unimaginably narrow, and it was the rare lucky reporter who didn't inadvertently step on a corpse. After sundown, I spent the night on the mountain, surrounded by body parts that no longer resembled anything human.Readers thus might expect a raw, up-close thriller of an air disaster; instead, what Seventeen offers is essentially a very grounded workplace novel, mainly set in the office, away from the crash-site action -- a get-the-newspaper-out procedural, as it were. Yes, Seventeen is a variation of the Japanese business-novel (see, e.g., Azuchi Satoshi's Supermarket), an inside look at journalism (and corporate culture) in the provincial backwaters of Japan.
The main character is Kazumasa Yuuki, forty years old at the time of the crash, when most of the action takes place. Yuuki is -- unusually -- still a reporter, a dark episode in his past having given him an excuse to avoid the usual moves up the career ladder (which are moves away from reporting):
This was not the usual vision of people in the profession. To turn one's back on a managerial post and dream of spending the rest of your days at crime scenes, pen in hand, was definitely proof of a healthy attitude towards reporting. But if you looked at the actual structure of the newspaper, the only people who remained reporters their whole lives were those who were deemed incompetent by management and packed off to some tiny branch office in the mountains. Yuuki's existence had disrupted this pattern.When news comes that the plane has gone down nearby the editor-in-chief of the North Kanto Times decides that Yuuki will be: "JAL crash desk chief. You're in charge of seeing this story through to the end." Which also means Yuuki -- and the novel, centered completely around him -- are tied to a desk, rather than on site.
Of course, at first it's unclear even where that site might be -- and, amusingly, Yuuki kind of hopes its not square in their patch, but rather more (in)conveniently in Nagano prefecture (rather than their local Gunma), which would give them an excuse not to try to be on top of everything: "A feeling close to prayer came bubbling up. Let it be Nagano !". No such luck, of course -- and once it's clear this is their territory, pride and professionalism about the biggest story ever to land in their laps ensures that they'll put all their resources into covering it. (At least, for a while .....)
Yuuki had actually intended to go mountain climbing the next day with a colleague, Anzai -- a passionate climber who had finally convinced Yuuki "to make an assault on Devil's Mountain", Mount Tanigawa, a famous death-trap (a total of 779 climbers having lost their lives there by the time Yuuki makes his next attempt, in 2002 -- a total Wikipedia now puts at 805, another dozen years later). Yuuki of course can't go, because of the breaking story -- but, as it turns out, Anzai collapsed and wound up in a persistent vegetative state before heading out for the mountains. So while Yuuki is working day and night at the newspaper, his friend is in hospital; Yuuki's thoughts are with him, and he also goes to visit several times -- including to comfort Anzai's wife and son; it is among the few breaks he takes from working at the office. And it is Anzai's son Rintaro, thirteen at the time, with whom Yuuki sets out seventeen years later to complete the climb he never got to with Anzai in a secondary storyline that gives the novel its (English) title, as the opening and closing chapters, and occasional ones along the way are set seventeen years after the plane crash. (The Japanese title is, in fact, English: クライマーズ・ハイ -- 'climber's high', described as: "It's where your mind gets taken over by excitement or stimulation, and you become immune to any sense of fear".)
Seventeen offers an intimidating forty-nine-person 'Cast of Characters', with brief descriptions, at the beginning, but readers shouldn't be too concerned: roles continue to be fairly clearly defined all along the way (the hierarchical structure of the Japanese business place means the significance of status and relationship come into play in almost every interaction, so there's a great deal of emphasis on this), while Yuuki and Anzai's are the only two families who really figure in the story. So the 'Cast of Characters' is a useful reference, but it's not like readers have to memorize it or anything.
Yuuki's own fatherless background plays a role in the story too, as he still feels great shame about his mother having prostituted herself when he was a child. He also worries that this secret might get out and affect his career -- and, indeed, one person in the organization does appear to be familiar with it. Meanwhile, Yuuki is also having a hard time at home, especially with his son Jun (described as: "A gloomy thirteen-year-old who largely ignores his father") -- but then he's barely ever home anyway, especially during the time the plane crash dominates the newspaper coverage. Yet part of the evolution-process for Yuuki in these days comes from seeing how lost Anzai's son -- the same age as Jun -- is, and bonding with him, which in turn seems to help him find a way to connect with his own son. Climbing -- which offers an opportunity to face one's fears as well as to get away from the stifling, rigid world of the workplace -- comes to be the useful fall-back for the story -- relevant in part, too, because the reporters who are sent out to cover the crash need to climb all over the crash site -- without becoming too large a part of the novel.
The plane crash is, of course, the top story for the newspaper, not just on day one but for quite some time thereafter. But it's not the only story -- competing, that first day, with Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's controversial decision to visit Japan's notorious Yasukuni Shrine, for example. As the days go by, there is also increased pressure to displace crash coverage with the usual local fare, as Yuuki has to contend with the various local factions -- reporters as well as employees from other fiefdoms in the organization, such as those responsible for distributing the paper -- and their different priorities. There are also still some old hands who have long lived off the North Kanto Times' previous big stories -- a serial killer case in 1971 and the Japanese Red Army siege at Mount Asama in 1972 -- and who are jealous of this now becoming the biggest story of them all.
Seventeen follows the sleep-deprived blur of bringing out paper after paper on this huge story, with Yuuki in charge of directing coverage and deciding what is fit to print -- not that those decisions always hold, given the other forces at work at the paper. A great deal of the coverage they rely on are the Kyodo News Service wire reports -- the Japanese equivalent of AP or Reuters -- but Yuuki insists that they get as many reporters on site as possible, and he works hard to see to it that personal accounts are included in the coverage -- though he repeatedly disappoints his reporters by not being able to get their reports into the paper. He even has the good idea to collect these personal accounts and pitches a collection of them as a book to the North Kanto Times' Book Publishing Division -- but they, who basically only do what amount to printing self-published works, don't see the commercial possibilities (arguing, hilariously, that only victims' families would be interested in buying such a thing, and since there was only one local victim it wouldn't be commercially viable).
As desk chief, Yuuki is repeatedly called on to make tough calls, from extending the printing deadlines (which ridiculously pisses off the circulation department, whose only concern is keeping their outlets happy) to publishing the big break in the case (the cause of the crash) to publishing letters the crash victims wrote to their loved ones as they plunged to their doom to whether to publish a controversial letter from someone not involved with the crash. Unusually, Seventeen is not the story of personal and professional triumphs, the little paper that breaks the big stories and the editor thrust into the limelight making all the brave decisions and being proven right. More often than not Yuuki fails -- sometimes because the powers that be are too strong, sometimes because of his own cowardice -- and while the paper's coverage is impressive, they also clearly repeatedly fall short. So also, many of the reporters' stories simply wind up in a drawer (from which even Yuuki's book-idea can't save them).
All along, the institutional dynamics have an outsized bearing on what actually gets done: there's an internal power struggle with the chairman of the company which Yuuki isn't involved in (though Anzai was) but which obviously overshadows much of the jostling in the offices. The different departments defend their own little fiefdoms at all cost -- often to the detriment of putting out a good and successful product -- and it comes to numerous physical confrontations. At one point, Yuuki stoops to stealing the keys from a delivery truck, to win a bit more time .....
The role of women in the workplace figures peripherally, too -- the grabby chairman chased one employee from her position, while the one woman trying to become a reporter struggles greatly in this environment (with Yuuki among the many who doesn't act particularly enlightened about this). (Disappointingly, too, we learn from the scenes seventeen years later that she did become a reporter -- but then came the kids, and she: "would have liked to come back to her reporter's job after giving birth to the first, but it was too difficult to balance the life of a reporter with parenting" (though that seems to apply only to her, not her reporter- and then editor-husband ...).)
The repeated daily get-the-newspaper-out drama, and the small and larger stories being pursued help give Seventeen a sustained sense of urgency, but it is very much a workplace novel, focused on personal rather than professional issues in the office. The constant petty jostling, especially from and among those who aren't reporters -- even though they used to be, before moving into various forms of management -- is stunning (and thoroughly unprofessional), and the North Kanto Times comes across as a real two-bit operation. Yuuki's -- and obviously Yokoyama's -- contempt for those in charge is both understandable and shines very much through.
As Yuuki's story, Seventeen is also an interesting personal and worker story, because there's very little traditional triumph here. As one person eventually calls him out in public:
He's a total coward. Every time he has to make a big decision, he just runs away. That sums up his capability for the job right there.Admittedly, Yuuki was thrust into the desk-chief position for this story, and maybe he is better purely as a reporter, but the judgement, while harsh, isn't that far off. Yuuki does make some tough calls, and stands behind them, but overall he's obviously not suited for this editorial role, and many of his actions are questionable. So also at home, where he's not particularly close to his family (though his wife is completely devoted), and he used to smack around his son. Still afraid of his own ignoble family past coming out, Yuuki is running scared way too much of the time. Climbing is a possible outlet -- but it's only seventeen years later that he conquers the great face, a triumph a long time coming. While Seventeen does give Yuuki a sense of personal satisfaction -- he finds the place he's suited for -- the bigger picture is one of pretty abysmal failure.
Yuuki does have decent self-knowledge -- he's known all along that he isn't suited for climbing up the usual career ladder at the newspaper, which would mean leaving reporting behind -- and his stint covering the plane crash reïnforces the idea. We learn what happens to him afterwards -- when he apparently found a satisfying balance -- but Western readers will certainly find it a somewhat surprising outcome (not least in that it removed him further from his family -- apparently a sacrifice that isn't regarded as that unusual (and which is presented as bringing him closer to them ...)).
Seventeen is somewhat lumbering, and Yuuki an odd and often frustrating protagonist, but it offers fascinating insights into the Japanese workplace and culture. It's not a great plane-crash story, but it is an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the covering of a story -- though the dominant and more interesting parts have less to do with the story being investigated and covered and more with the office- and cultural-dynamics.
- M.A.Orthofer, 2 October 2018
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Japanese author Yokoyama Hideo (横山秀夫) was born in 1957.
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