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Johannes Stjärne Nilsson
A young woman's struggle to master an ancient art in Japan
Rosa is a tall, young European woman who has come to Tokyo to learn from a master of filleting fish. She immediately stands out wherever she goes in the giant city. She is curious, inquisitive, and has a sense of humor that helps here to cope in a city where she is alone and "foreign." She shows an eagerness to learn about fish and how to prepare different kinds for customers who enjoy eating it raw. At first she has difficulty convincing the master to accept her but she perseveres. She begins working with a group of young Japanese men and a few women who are either silent or reticent about speaking to her, probably because they do not speak a foreign language.
She feels her isolation everywhere she goes. Very few people can speak or understand English or any other Western language. She stands a head above most people there. She has to find her way not only in her apprenticeship but also in her living arrangements. The one thing people understand is money, especially rent money. Eventually, she meets a young Japanese woman who speaks some English and helps her to feel more at home. They go out shopping and even enjoy some night life together.
As she is learning the art of filleting and makes a mistake, the master silently shows his displeasure. At one point she has to start over again. When she succeeds in filleting an especially difficult fish in his presence to the amazement of the other apprentices, he watches, then leaves without offering any comment. At another time, she inadvertently intrudes on a group of European tourists watching the master conduct a demonstration of filleting. She looks on from a doorway behind him. When he is finished the audience applauds. The filleted fish is placed on a small tray for the tourists to sample and a young Japanese woman takes it from person to person. Each of them spurns the fish. When she comes to Rosa, she immediately takes a piece and devours it with a smile. The master recognizes her and is not happy. She must continue to struggle with what appears to be a Sisyphean quest to acquire perfection in the art of filleting fish. Unlike Sisyphus, she has not been deceitful but nevertheless must constantly strive to prove herself to the master. This forms the backbone of the story.
It is a story of cultural identity and the difficulties a foreigner faces in Japan. I sympathized with the young woman; I once spent a few weeks in Tokyo on assignment and felt that it was the most foreign city I had ever visited. For one thing, no one spoke English (or as far as I could tell another Western language). I spoke several languages but none of them helped me. People in the city were always polite but also distant. After some time, I grew accustomed to this, especially when I used the subway or tried to shop. My experiences were similar to those of Rosa although she chose to engage the master and the other apprentices in their daily routine and I was on a different, more limited stay. A visit to a Buddhist temple and the purchase of a book in English (and Japanese) of Buddha's teachings helped me to understand better the behavior and values of many people I encountered. Rosa took a different yet similar path learning to appreciate fish and the intricate and correct way of addressing a fish and cutting into it and filleting it. In doing so she grew through her experiences and acquired a greater understanding of herself and the strange world she had chosen to live in.
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