‘Sweet Bean Paste’ by Durian Sukegawa

Sweet Bean Paste

Fiction – paperback; OneWorld; 224 pages; 2017. Translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts.

Hot on the heels of my thoughts on Convenience Store Woman, here are my thoughts on another rather delightful Japanese novel in English translation.

Author Durian Sukegawa says he wrote Sweet Bean Paste as an attempt to explore “the meaning of life with a fresh perspective”.

The result is a bittersweet tale about finding friendship in the unlikeliest of places, living your best life, no matter how humble or difficult that might be, and the importance of doing what you love and making a contribution to society.

The confectioner and the old lady

Written in gently nuanced prose, the book focuses on two main characters —Sentaro, who runs a Doraharu shop selling dorayaki (pancakes filled with sweet bean paste), and Tokue, a 76-year-old lady who enters his shop and offers to work for him — and a subsidiary character, school girl Wakana, who is a regular customer.

Initially, Sentaro is skeptical of Tokue’s offer. He’s got a troubled past and is only working in the shop to pay off a gambling debt. He doesn’t want to do anything to rock the boat or put his job in jeopardy.

But when Tokue not only offers to work at a vastly reduced rate but happily prepares a batch of sweet bean paste that tastes incredible, he can hardly say no. She’s hired, but on one condition: she must not be seen by the customers because she has severely deformed hands that might turn people off.

Before long, Sentaro is selling more and more dorayaki thanks to Tokue’s delicious bean paste, while Tokue, desperate to help out in the increasingly busy front-of-house, ignores Sentaro’s rule and begins spending time with the customers — mainly schoolgirls who love her tendency to chat and offer kindly advice.

**Spoiler alert**

To temper the risk of the story becoming overly cloying (and sickly sweet) at this stage, the author delivers a sucker-punch about half way through: we discover that Tokue’s hands became deformed when she contracted Hansen’s disease (once known as leprosy) as a young girl. She’s no longer infectious, but rumours have spread and now the confectionary shop’s booming business is on the slide.

Sweet Bean Paste then morphs into a melancholic, deeply thoughtful rumination on what it is to be an outcast and survive. It shows how the stigma of Hansen’s disease had long-lasting and often tragic repercussions on patients who were forcibly removed from their families and made to live in state-run sanatoriums for decades — often long after being cured.

While there’s an element of spirituality that runs throughout the narrative — about the simple ways in which we find purpose in our lives —  it’s done with a lightness of touch, so it never feels too obvious.

I found it a rather delightful read, both poignant and poetic, the kind of story that is super easy to read but stays with you long after you’ve reached the final page.

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17 thoughts on “‘Sweet Bean Paste’ by Durian Sukegawa

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed this, Kim. Tokue’s such an endearing character. The stigma attached to her illness and the Japanese government’s draconian restrictions on survivors came as a shock when I read the Afterword. By coincidence, our house is built in the grounds of an old leper colony.

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    • Did you review this, Susan? If so I’ll link to yours…

      I had no idea about leper colony’s in Japan so this book was a real eye opener. I thought the author did it really well: it was educational & informative without feeling like he’d shoehorned his research into the story.

      How interesting that your house is built in the grounds of an old leper colony. Do you know much about the history?

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      • I did. That would be lovely. Thanks, Kim.

        I had no idea, either, but it was all handled with a light touch. I appreciated the note from the author about it too. I don’t know as much as I’d like but there’s a chapel associated with the colony at the top of our road next to what was once the leper hospital. It’s tiny, and one of the oldest buildings in Bath.

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    • It’s a wonderful read, Cathy. It had the potential to be overly saccharine but the author pulls it back nicely to deliver something much more bittersweet and melancholy than the blurb might suggest.

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  2. Oh oh oh, I came here to comment and say that I used to read quite a bit of Japanese fiction but that it has dropped off in recent times – and that I’d love to read this. But then I started reading your post and realised that I’ve seen the film adaptation of this. It was DE-LIGHT-FUL but with substance as well. It was so Japanese, so quiet and gentle but the whole untouchable story gave it some bite. The film was called An or Sweet Bean.

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          • I think you’ll like it regardless, but in Japan there are a lot of these little specialist doriyaki stalls, so we loved seeing that. As I recollect too that the film takes place over a year, which you watch through the changing environment, particularly a cherry blossom tree. It’s just beautiful. Tender.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this novel. I completely agree its really touching but not overly sweet or sentimental. I had no idea there was a film adaptation, following Sue’s comment I’m going to hunt it down!

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