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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction / poetry

The Kobe Hotel

Saito Sanki

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To purchase The Kobe Hotel

Title: The Kobe Hotel
Author: Saito Sanki
Genre: Fiction / Poetry
Written: (Eng. 1993)
Length: 203 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Kobe Hotel - US
The Kobe Hotel - UK
The Kobe Hotel - Canada
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Saito Masaya
  • Most of the stories in The Kobe Hotel were first serialized between 1954 and 1956; the last five were first published in 1959.
  • The haikus collected in in The Kobe Hotel are taken from various collections by Saito and were written between 1933 and 1962.

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Our Assessment:

B : unusual civilian-in-war-experience tales, and decent selection of poems

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 12/9/1993 Charles Solomon
World Lit. Today . Winter/1995 Marleigh Grayer Ryan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Available for the first time in English in Saito Masaya's spare translation, Sanki's work depicts the struggles of ordinary people to endure war, defeat and occupation." - Charles Solomon, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The Kobe Hotel, two-thirds short narrative segments, the remainder selections from Saito's extensive haiku production, finds its value in its ability to reveal the sickening monotony that characterized the lives of the "outsider" under the military. (...) It is difficult to know quite how to characterize the narrative text. In her introduction, the translator Saito Masaya, who does not appear to be related to the author, refers to the chapters as "stories," but there is little to identify the elements as fiction, or even as separate entities." - Marleigh Grayer Ryan, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Kobe Hotel collects both Saito's fifteen stories about his wartime (and early post-war) experiences in Kobe, as well as a selection of several hundred of his haikus.
       The 'Kobe Hotel' stories are, at best, thinly disguised fiction. Written in the first person, they appear to offer a relatively accurate autobiographical account of Saito's life, experiences, and acquaintances, with almost each story focused on one particular person he knew during the war, most of them guests at the unusual Kobe hotel on Tor Road into which he moved in 1942 (after abandoning his wife and child in Tokyo).
       Halfway through the stories he wonders about his undertaking, and suggests:

     Little by little I have grown to understand that my writing has but one purpose, which is to reveal the stupidity of one being, known as Saito Sanki. That is why these tales seem not to be written for anyone but myself. Though they may cause me dishonor in the eyes of future generations, I desire to expose the full extent of my witlessness, which can strike at the worst of all possible moments.
       Actually, Saito doesn't come off looking all that bad -- though his weakness for women and the good (or at least rather frivolous) life certainly cause him a few problems. He mentions a bit of his background, and the (too-)brief Introduction by translator Saito Masaya provides additional information, and it certainly was a rather dissolute life: trained as a dentist, Saito had a practice in Singapore for a while -- but seemed to prefer the easy- and night-life. Dancing seems to have been one of his passions, and he gave dancing lessons (and converted part of his dental practice into a ballroom ...). He returned to Japan bankrupt, and worked in various positions, but found a new calling as a haiku-poet, and achieved considerable success at that as well. He was briefly jailed in 1940 ("The ultranationalist government regarded the new haiku poetry movement as subversive" !), and then in 1942 left Tokyo for Kobe -- but continued his "bohemian life".
       He certainly landed at the right place: as he describes it, the hotel in Kobe catered to an unusual clientele: there were many women there, most of whom worked as prostitutes, as well an assortment of foreigners, including one of only two Egyptians living in Japan at the time and a "Turkish-Tartar" couple. Almost immediately Saito hooked up with a woman named Namiko, and lived together with her for the next four years -- but:
Those four years did more to ruin my nerves than the war itself.
       Indeed, the war (and then the transition to the American occupation) barely register, beyond the inconvenience caused by the packed trains when traveling, the difficulty of getting food, and the general poverty that affects everyone (though, again, Saito seems to manage just fine most of the time, even as he grumbles about how poor business is). Saito is a bit better prepared than most, and high-tails it out of the hotel when the American bombings come closer: once Osaka is hit he knows Kobe is next, and so he rents a big house in a spot that he thinks will be safe and moves there (along with some of his fellow hotel guests -- though he ultimately balks at turning the house into a bordello ...).
       A typical kindred spirit is Shirai:
     We were also two cosmopolitan, good-for-nothing human beings, unable to believe in the value of a stable life, satisfied with an almost aimless existence, knowing that we would be quite unhappy leading the lives of responsible family men.
       Kobe -- where people: "are open, and yet never interfere with one another's affairs" -- is just the right spot for him, and with his laid-back attitude he manages just fine. It's an odd kind of wartime experience, with even the military and secret police (who closely watch some of the foreigners at the hotel) hardly feared and the German and then American servicemen just another set of people who make the town what it is. Sure, the hotel eventually goes up in flames, but except for the poor cats who couldn't escape no one is really very bothered. Bad things happen, and Saito sympathizes (and occasionally does his best to help), but for the most part life goes on and Saito takes it as easy as he can.
       As he notes regarding a coincidence:
There is no such thing as fate in Japan; the place is just so small that these things are bound to happen.
       That pretty much sums up his philosophy of life.

       The haikus -- which are not translated with syllable-counting precision (i.e. are not, strictly speaking, haikus in English) -- are something entirely different. Written over the span of some thirty years, they also do not overlap with either Saito's Kobe-years, or the period when he wrote the Kobe stories, making for an odd fit.
       There is a lot here -- several hundred haikus -- including a few variations on a theme, such as:
A machine gun
scatters cartridges.

A machine gun,
the low moon,
round and resounding.

A machine gun --
in the middle of the forehead
a red flower blooms.
       It is a worthwhile (though very dense) selection. And one poem even addresses the question posed by Saito's quasi-fictional approach to his Kobe-accounts:
What does it mean,
realism ? How sour
the grape tastes.
       The Kobe Hotel offers both an unusual account of civilian life (of a certain kind) during wartime, as well as a generous selection of Saito's poetry, and makes for an interesting volume.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 September 2009

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Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Saito Sanki (西東三鬼) lived 1900 to 1962.

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