Review: A Man by Keiichiro Hirano (trans. by Eli K.P. William)

Review: A Man by Keiichiro Hirano (translated from Japanese by Eli K.P. William)

My Quick Take: One of the best books I’ve read so far this year, this is a gem of a tale about false identities that uses the story to ask questions about life, death, and what we choose to make of it.


I’m travelling to Japan next month and wanted to read some Japanese literature. At the same time, I saw that the North American Japanese Literary Forum in Vancouver was bringing Keiichiro Hirano to speak at the  UBC Department of Asian Studies, co-sponsored by the Japan Foundation and the Japan P.E.N. Club. These two facts brought me to A Man, and it is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Middle-aged lawyer Akira Kido is investigating Rie’s deceased husband, who was not who he said he was, leading Kido to pursue another missing man. This query into missing persons and false identities is the fertile ground for Kido to begin questioning his own identity. He’s Japanese, but also Zainichi Korean, a third generation Korean living in Japan and only in middle life beginning to wake to his “other” status.

A Man marries excellent writing, what seems to be masterful translation, a slow-burn but compelling mystery of identities, and philosophy. The book explores the idea of identity, which we create for ourselves via our context: our nationalities, our jobs, our relationships, and also the choices that we do and don’t make. At some point, if our identity is tightly tied to any one thing, our foundations can be horribly shaken if what we believed to be true becomes less true.

Kido (as well as Rie and the men in the story who have literally changed their identities) confront this, and it leads to a void of emptiness and existential anxiety that threatens the integrity of the self. What to do? This novel presents options. At times, it might be compelling to escape into another person’s identity:
I am happy right now, [Kido] reiterated in his mind, but this was merely an irritated call for the strange emotions stirring in his chest to relent.

To throw away everything and become someone else–imagining doing this undeniably aroused in Kido a certain beguiling excitation. It was not necessarily only in the midst of despair that someone might be placed at the mercy of such a yearning but also when happiness was interrupted by ennui.”
Alternatively, is it possible to reinvent oneself through new love, or changing one’s career? Perhaps solace can be found in nationalism, which is a fraught issue for Kido and his nascent relationship with his Korean heritage. And–most finally–the book touches on the existential question of death and suicide.

After reading the book, I attended a lecture by Hirano in Vancouver on his ideas about identity, much of which are reflected in the novel. He’s coined the term Divisualism, which notes that our identities are numerous and contextual. There’s resilience in this system, because if one change shakes the foundations of our identity, it doesn’t spell disaster for the whole self. In his lecture, he also placed the novel in the context of Japanese society, set soon after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 and raising the issue of Japanese right wing nationalism.

Hirano noted that for many Japanese people, identity had been tied to their lifelong profession, though that system is breaking down with economic strain. In the novel, Kido is a lawyer and sees hope and meaning in that. It is a key to his stable sense of self. However, he’s beginning to question his choices in the light of the 2011 earthquake:
Who am I? Except it was not a simple repeat of the words that had perplexed him in his youth. Although the meaning of the question had hardly changed, its form had evolved in keeping with his age. Now he asked, Did I make the right choice?

As was typical of someone in middle age, Kido saw his life as composed of several stages linked together by a shared name, with himself as their culmination. A significant portion of hie life given continuity by the label “Akira Kido'' that had once lain ahead had already been relegated to the past, and so his identity was in large part already determined. Of course there might have been other paths he could have taken and therefore other people he might have been. Perhaps an infinite number. It was in the light of such considerations that he confronted his former question anew. The problem now was not who he was in the present but who he’d been in the past, and the solution he sought was no longer supposed to help him live but to help him figure out what sort of person to die as.”
The book is certainly weighted towards the cerebral rather than the truly emotional, in my opinion. It deals with loss, death and trauma, but takes a slightly distanced stance. Kido is a thinker, and I heard the author’s voice speak through the character many times. I liked this approach because it suited the topics and the philosophical discussion well. I had the sense that reading A Man was engaging in a conversation of sorts with Hirano, an impression that strengthened after I listened to his lecture. 

There’s so much to this novel, and reading it was an absorbing journey through the slippery notion of the self. It was a polemic against black and white thinking, full of nuance. It satisfyingly balanced compassion and common sense, avoiding sentimentality while being real. In the end, it led me to wonder the following: in a time of identity crisis, what is the merit in re-invention, escape or denial of pain? Is it the braver thing to stay with the hard things and muddle through? I suspect–of course– that there is no clear answer, and A Man is able to give voice to all of these possibilities.

I hope that this book gets a reasonably wide readership outside of Japan; it’s one of those novels that makes me happy that I’m reading novels in translation. I came away not only with questions and themes that are relevant to me, but I learned about the Japanese social context, history and events in the process.