The Housekeeper And The Professor (Japan)

book coverby Yoko Ogawa

Purchased at Auntie’s Bookstore


Tokyo, Japan. When a high-school dropout brings her fatherless son to her new job keeping house for a brain-injured professor of maths, a quirky new family is created. It’s a beautiful and hopeful story of people who do not belong finding someone to belong to. And this is in a society that coined the proverb: “The nail that sticks up gets pounded down.”

Unexplained Questions

  1. Yamanote line trains
    a Yamanote line train. In Tokyo, these trains arrive once every 3 minutes.

    What did the Professor communicate to his sister-in-law with the mysterious equation that instantly wins the argument?

  2. What exactly was the relationship between the Professor and the widow?
  3. Why does the housekeeper try throughout the book to sneak carrots into the Professor’s food when she knows he doesn’t like them? No other vegetable has this honor.
    1. A note about carrots: In my experience with people from this part of the world, they LOVE carrots! What the heck?My friend Asa and I drove two Australian students up to Edmonton, Canada one time from Spokane, and the boys insisted that we eat at every Subway sandwich shop along the route. And they peered through the plexiglass at each one, looking for a bright orange mass which wasn’t there, wistfully explaining that at home, THERE ARE CARROTS AT SUBWAY! Sorry boys, you’re not in Darwin anymore.


Mount Fuji
Because of pollution haze, Mount Fuji can only be seen from Tokyo in the spring and the fall

he Bullet Train: I sped back and forth between this book and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children just as in real life I took the Shinkansen from Tokyo to India’s Golden Triangle and back with Gary and Julia from Cornwall. What struck me was that the Japanese book was simple, sparse, clean, precise, elegant and tiny, narrowly-focused, much like my visible Japan–while the Indian book was large, loud, messy, chaotic, exuberant, colorful, and spicy–just like my visible India. Each was a sort of relief from the other.

You Can Lead an Artist to Math

Just looking at the pink cherry blossoms on the blue cover makes you feel the purchase was worth it.

schoolboys in uniform
Tokyo schoolboys are usually led around to museums and historical sites in huge groups by schoolteachers wearing white gloves

Also, during the book Ogawa-san achieves what my high school algebra teacher could not: I enjoyed math! Now that’s some kind of miracle. Although the Housekeeper does make up stories about the emotions of the numbers as I used to do–the 5 with his arms stretched out proudly, enjoying the center of attention.

Even the baseball bits were interesting–and I am not the least bit interested in baseball.

Best Character Name: The Housekeeper’s son, who is called Root because the Professor says his square, flat head reminds him of the square root symbol.

More Odd Things: The characters eat 90% Western-style food in this book, which was definitely not my Tokyo experience, although a rice cooker does occasionally make an appearance. The characters also “scream and yell” at baseball games–also not my Tokyo; I have seen an entire room full of salreymen watching a televised baseball game in total silence, arms crossed. I once attended a U2 concert in which, except for the singing, you could have heard a pin drop.

Ueno park
Ueno park, a delightful escape from big city life

I hope this wasn’t the translator changing things to make it not-so-foreign to Westerners. I hate it when they do that.

Overall Experience: I have added Ogawa Yoko to my list of favorite Japanese authors. Yoshimoto Banana being the first.

Sushi and Ume Rating: 5 Plums!

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