Dover Book

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    Have a yen for some great Japanese wit and wisdom? OK, so that was a really bad pun, but this is a really, really good book. I couldn't put it down, and read nearly all 168 pages in three sittings. It was written in 1906, and translated into English from Japanese in 1922.
    It is not so much a story with a plot as a running narration by Botchan (boy-master), interspersed with lessons of ethics and honorable behavior. It is very funny, entertaining, poignant, and a breeze to read.
    Botchan begins life as a trouble-maker, or at least he sees himself that way. "A great loser have I been ever since a child, having a rash, daring spirit, a spirit I inherited from my ancestors," the book begins. He goes on to say that he jumped out of a second story window of the school house because someone had dared him. He cut and scarred his thumb because one of his friends told him his new penknife was dull. He threw his bratty neighbor boy down the hill and ruined a farmer's carrot field by wrestling in it with other boys. Everything he did was mischievous. His parents hated him and so did his brother. When his mother was very ill, he turned somersaults in the kitchen and hurt himself on the oven door. He was sent away from home and his mother died a couple days later. The one person who did love him was their old servant, Kiyo, a woman of wealth whose family was ruined during the Restoration., and had found a home serving Botchan's family.
    Botchan had no idea why Kiyo loved him, and did not appreciate it at first, partly because he thought he was not worthy of love. "Believing I was born to be hated, I did not take it amiss to be ill treated like a chip of wood, and rather thought it strange to be so much loved by Kiyo." She would slip him special treats, and one time gave him money, which he lost down the toilet, so she fished it out and washed it, but it still smelled.
    When his father died, his brother inherited everything, but he gave a small amount to Botchan to be used as he pleased. The property was sold, as his brother had a good job lined up. Kiyo went to live with her well-off nephew, but longed for the day when Botchan would have a house and she could be with him.
    Botchan decides to invest his money in school, and studies mathematics, though he doesn't seem that interested. When he graduates, he is offered a job as a teacher in a country school far away from Tokyo. He accepts.
    In the Foreword of the book, translator Umeji Sasaki explains that the story is really about the juxtaposition of the old Japanese values with the new ways. Though Botchan sees himself as worthless, we see as the book progresses that he is honorable, just, honest, virtuous, and courageous, along with being a rebel, outspoken and often brash. Yet he always stands up for what he believes to be right, no matter what the consequences.
    In opposition to his upright character, many of the teachers at the boys' school are dishonest, two-faced, lying, cheating, phonies. The boys are cruel and out of control, and he gets little support. Botchan gives nicknames to all the faculty, and uses those names, which is probably not a good idea. The Dean, who always wore a red flannel shirt, even with the weather very hot, became Red-Shirt, and the Principal, Badger. An English teacher who had a sickly complexion was Green Squash, because Botchan remembered Kiyo telling him the people who looked sickly like that were so because that was all they ate. Another math teacher became Porcupine, and it was he who first befriended Botchan, and helped him find lodging. Of course, Botchan is so naïve, he doesn't realize that in such a small boring town people apparently have nothing better to do than spy on other people, and then use their information to ridicule them. But he finds out.
    When he stops at an eatery and has four bowls of tempura, the next day he comes to school to find it advertised all over the blackboards. He is warned by the Dean to not stop in a little shop to eat buckwheat because it's not proper, and is mocked because he goes to the hot springs each evening and swims in the tank. When his turn for night duty comes along, the students had his bed filled with grasshoppers. He confronts them but none would confess. "I thought it was simply a waste of time to talk to such worthless, rotten-spirited schoolfellows"
    He is asked by the Dean to come along on a fishing trip with him, and another teacher, an artist called Clown. But he soon realizes they are whispering together and mocking him. He doesn't like Dean Red Shirt, or trust him, but upon disembarking, the Dean pulls him aside, and tells him that a certain teacher is aiming to upbraid him and cause trouble, and hints that it is Porcupine.
    Porcupine is one of the few teachers whom Botchan respects, but soon finds that he has become mean toward him and tells him that he is no longer welcome to stay at the lodging that he secured because his friends have complained.
    Botchan now also realizes how much he loves and misses Kiyo. She writes him long letters, but he struggles to write, being uncertain what to say.
    Little by little, Botchan figures out that Dean Red-Shirt is the real agitator and trouble-maker. He finds new lodging at friends of Green Squash, who is a quiet, peaceful and honorable man. He also learns that the Dean has stolen Green Squash's fiancé, Madonna, from him. Soon Porcupine and Botchan are reconciled and both understand that it was Red-Shirt who had caused the trouble in their friendship. He is so dishonorable and unscrupulous, and they decide to teach him a lesson. Green Squash, meanwhile, has been forced out of the school, since Red-Shirt wants his woman, then Porcupine is asked to resign. So he and Botchan hatch a plan to catch Red-Shirt and Clown frequenting Geisha houses. They wait and wait, and finally do. They follow them home late at night and beat them up, then jump on a train and head back to Tokyo.
    Porcupine goes his own way, and Botchan is reunited with his Kiyo.
    This story is sweet, funny, and endearing, and you will fall in love with Botchan. Highly recommended reading!

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