Kazumi Yumoto Biography (1959-)
Kazumi Yumoto' novels speak to the universal nature of human feelings while also capturing elements of Japanese urban culture. Translated for an English-speaking audience by Cathy Hirano, Yumoto's award-winning works show children and teenagers wrestling with the big issues of life and death, not from idle curiosity but with deep engagement and commitment. Yumoto's first novel, The Friends, won the prestigious Boston GlobeHorn Book award for fiction, and it announced the themes that would pervade her work: confrontation with death, the power of inter-generational friendships, and the understanding of the arc of life that comes with maturity. "Children in Japan have difficulty appreciating life's worth because they are unable to conceive of the limitless possibilities that each life offers," the author said in her acceptance speech for the Boston Globe-Horn Book award. "And that is why fiction is so important in this day and age," she added. "Fiction nurtures the imagination and gives the reader a creative vision of the diversity of life's possibilities. This is fiction's greatest power."
The Friends tells the story of Yamashita, Kawabe, and Kiyama, three twelve-year-old boys who are fascinated by death. None of them has ever seen a dead person, and they wonder aloud about the moment at which life ends, whether there is an afterlife, and whether ghosts exist. In search of answers, they begin to spy on an elderly man who looks as if he's nearing death. The man soon discovers their efforts and elicits their help with his household chores. In the process of helping him with gardening and laundry, the three boys come to understand the man's humanity, and a friendship is forged that profoundly affects the youngsters when the man finally does die. From a morbid fascination with death, the boys learn to see it as part of a full life's process in which the memories of loved ones enrich others' lives.
It is never easy to translate from Japanese to English, and Yumoto has publicly expressed her gratitude to Hirano, who managed to convert the childish slang of Japanese youngsters into something to which an American audience could relate. According to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, The Friends is "an eloquent initiation story that first touches and then pierces the heart." Hazel Rochman in Booklist felt that readers would be moved by "the terror of death, the bond across generations, and the struggle of those whom society labels losers." In Horn Book, Nancy Vasilakis declared that the boys' unusual curiosity about dying "is artfully transformed into a celebration of life and friendship."
The finality of death is juxtaposed with the everchanging emotions of adolescence in The Spring Tone. Told from the point of view of Tomomi Kiriki, The Spring Tone addresses guilt, anxiety, and the difficulties of growing up in a strife-filled household. After her grandmother dies, Tomomi worries that she wished death upon the old woman. Tomomi is plagued with nightmares in which she turns into a monster. Her mother is obsessed with a boundary dispute, and her brother disappears to run the city by himself. Only when Tomomi accompanies her brother to his secret place—a junkyard—does she discover a kindly eccentric who feeds stray cats and helps her to sort out the jarring changes in her life. Given the freedom to express herself, Tomomi finds comfort from her grandfather, whose own life has held its share of monsters. A Horn Book reviewer found The Spring Tone a "sensitive coming-of-age novel" in which all the characters "are fully realized and sympathetically drawn." In Publishers Weekly, a critic also cited the novel as a "sensitively wrought story," adding that the author "offers remarkably wise and deeply personal insight into the pains of growing up." Booklist correspondent Susan Dove Lempke praised the book for its "fascinating glimpse into Japanese urban living" and its "compassionate look at the difficulties . . . in family life."
A grieving child grows into a healthy young adult in The Letters, Yumoto's third novel. Chiaki Hoshino attends the funeral of a woman who had helped her, years ago, to reconcile herself to her father's untimely death. The woman, Mrs. Yanagi, had promised that when she died, she would deliver letters Chiaki wrote to Chiaki's father in the afterlife. The many letters Chiaki wrote and gave to Mrs. Yanagi helped heal the grief, and friendship with Mrs. Yanagi broadened Chiaki's view of humankind. All of the warm feelings Chiaki holds for her friend come to fruition at the funeral, where Chiaki discovers that many others had written letters to their loved ones for Mrs. Chiaki to deliver as well. This story "effectively portrays nature's healing gifts," to quote Jennifer M. Brabander in Horn Book. Brabander added that The Letters is "a reflective, affecting novel about life and death." In a starred review, a Publishers Weekly critic noted that the novel "once again addresses the subject of death with extraordinary grace and dignity. . . . The author offers a consolatory message for those left behind."
In her Boston Globe-Horn Book award acceptance speech, published in Horn Book, Yumoto said that one memorable incident in her childhood shaped her decision to become a writer. A lonely child who hated school, she found a fledgling sparrow that had fallen from its nest and nurtured it until it became tame. The sparrow became attached to Yumoto, and so its death was particularly difficult for the young child to bear. She took to her bed and wept. Her mother, hearing the grief, consoled her with conversation and affection, reminding her that all things must die and that God controls the time of death. Gradually the youngster felt soothed and stopped crying. "Whenever I think of the power of words, I recall that night and cannot help but be grateful to my mother," the author recalled. "Were it not for this incident, I might not have become a writer."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, October 15, 1996, Hazel Rochman, review of The Friends, p. 425; December 15, 1997, Jeanette Larson, review of The Friends, p. 711; May 15, 1999, Susan Dover Lempke, review of The Spring Tone, p. 1689; October 15, 2001, Lolly Gepson, review of The Spring Tone, p. 428.
Horn Book, November-December, 1996, Nancy Vasilakis, review of The Friends, p. 741; November-December, 1997, Kristi Beavin, review of The Friends, p. 701; January 1, 1998, Kazumi Yumoto, "'The Friends': Boston Globe-Horn Book Acceptance Transcript"; January 1, 1999, Cathy Hirano, "Eight Ways to Say You: The Challenges of Translation"; May, 1999, review of The Spring Tone, p. 341; September-October, 2002, Jennifer M. Brabander, review of The Letters, p. 585.
New York Times Book Review, July 18, 1999, Deborah Hautzig, review of The Spring Tone, p. 25.
Publishers Weekly, October 14, 1996, review of The Friends, p. 84; February 8, 1999, review of The Spring Tone, p. 215; April 15, 2002, review of The Letters, p. 65.
School Library Journal, December, 1996, Carol A. Edwards, review of The Friends, p. 124; May, 1999, Francisca Goldsmith, review of The Spring Tone, p. 133; June, 2000, Barbara Wysocki, review of The Spring Tone, p. 86.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Carlos Watson Biography - Was a Student Journalist to Stefan Zweig (1881–1942) BiographyKazumi Yumoto (1959-) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights