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  • Writer's pictureStone Bridge Press

What is The Thorn Puller by Hiromi Ito about?

Updated: May 1

The first novel to appear in English by award-winning author Hiromi Ito explores the absurdities, complexities, and challenges experienced by a woman caring for her two families: her husband and daughters in California and her aging parents in Japan. As the narrator shuttles back and forth between these two starkly different cultures, she creates a powerful and entertaining narrative about what it means to live and die in a globalized society.

Ito has been described as a “shaman of poetry” because of her skill in allowing the voices of others to flow through her. Here she enriches her semi-autobiographical novel by channeling myriad voices drawn from Japanese folklore, poetry, literature, and pop culture. The result is a generic chimera—part poetry, part prose, part epic—a unique, transnational, polyvocal mode of storytelling. One throughline is a series of memories associated with the Buddhist bodhisattva Jizo, who helps to remove the “thorns” of human suffering.

The Thorn Puller by Hiromi Ito, translated by Jeffrey Angles is available everywhere now in both print and digital. Get your copy here.

Read a sample from The Thorn Puller below.


Translator’s Introduction

Hiromi Ito is one of Japan’s most prominent women writers—a fiercely independent poet, novelist, and essayist who has consistently explored issues of motherhood, childbirth, the female body, sexuality, and mythology in dramatic and powerfully vivid language. Following a divorce, she left Japan and settled in southern California in 1997, beginning a life of shuttling back and forth across the Pacific that eventually culminated in her taking permanent residency in the United States and citizenship in 2018. In the years since she first resided in America, she has moved beyond her earlier focus on the female body and started writing about migration, national identity, death and dying, and the cultural pressures placed upon women to be caregivers.

In 2006 and 2007, she serialized what would become one of her most ambitious books, the strikingly original and stylistically innovative Thorn Puller: New Tales of the Sugamo Jizo (Toge-nuki Jizo: Shin Sugamo Jizo engi). She routinely describes this work as a long poem rather than a novel. If anything, the text is a generic chimera; readers will find many places in the narrative, sometimes even mid-­sentence, where she shifts from a prose-like style of writing into lineated verse, and then back again. However, even the sections that appear to be prose are filled with carefully embedded rhythms and creative flourishes that give it a playful, poetic sensibility. Yet the blurring does not end there—just as the book blurs the line between prose and poetry, the plot too blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction, between realism and surrealism.

The book takes its name from a famous statue of the bodhisattva Jizo in Sugamo, a historically working-class part of north-central Tokyo, immediately adjacent to Iwanosaka, where Ito’s grandparents lived. In Buddhism, many enlightened beings are worshipped like deities, and one of the most popular in Japan is Jizo (Ksitigarbha in Sanskrit), known for guiding lost souls, travelers, and children. He most often appears in art and religious tales in the form of a monk with shaven head and a walking stick to help him traverse vast distances to help people in distress. In Sugamo, however, there is a special form of the bodhisattva known as the “Thorn-Pulling Jizo” (Toge-nuki Jizo), believed to have the ability to remove the “thorns” of suffering that afflict worshippers. For this reason, Sugamo became an important pilgrimage site, especially among the elderly, and even now, centuries later, tens of thousands of worshippers pour each month into the streets around the temple on pilgrimage days to seek Jizo’s divine help in healing whatever afflictions trouble them.

Ito wrote The Thorn Puller at a time when her own elderly parents were growing increasingly infirm, and so it is not surprising that in caring for them, Ito was reminded of the pilgrimages she took as a child to the temple with her mother and grandmother to ask the benevolent deity for help. In the passages describing the narrator’s memories of these trips, one quickly realizes that for generations of working-class, largely uneducated women, visits to Jizo were one small way in which they might seek refuge and succor from their difficult and troubled lives, perhaps even gaining some small, temporary sense of agency. The book weaves stories of visits to the Thorn-Pulling Jizo in the busy streets of Sugamo into a larger narrative loosely based on Ito’s own experiences racing back and forth between southern California and Kumamoto (the southern Japanese city where she maintains a second home) while caring for her ill and aging parents. In language that is often self-deprecating and funny, the narrator describes the endless absurdities of maintaining two households on opposite sides of the Pacific, each with their own distinctive and profoundly separate cultures.

Although the book is rich in its depiction of daily life, one of the major themes she explores in her humorous, brash style is the differing conceptions of family in the two countries, and for this reason, the book deserves to be recognized as a contemporary masterpiece of Asian-American literature. In Japan, where filial piety is an especially important value, the expectation is strong that children will dutifully care for their parents in their advanced age, but in the West, the bond between spouses comes before all else. The book’s central conflict is the tension between the Japanese expectation that she spend time in Japan with her ailing parents and the American expectation that she prioritize her Californian family, caring for her elderly husband, whose health is also shaky, and her children, who are undergoing their own growing pains and emotional difficulties. The “husband” mentioned so often in this book is modeled after Ito’s partner whom she never married, the British-born artist Harold Cohen, famous for his experiments programming artificial intelligence to produce original works of art. He was twenty-eight years older than Ito and died in 2016 after an extended period of decline, part of which is described in the book. After his death, Ito returned to Japan, where she continues to spend her time teaching, writing, and mentoring a new generation of writers.

The novel is also important for how it reflects larger social concerns, particularly the demographic crisis currently afflicting Japan. There, in the nation with the world’s longest life expectancy, the number of senior citizens is swelling to enormous proportions, leaving already aging children to become caregivers, even when they have their own families and problems waiting at home. One of the biggest reasons this book hit such a nerve in Japan was that Ito shares in it her frank thoughts and observations about the inter­related processes of aging, dying, and death—subjects rarely discussed honestly and openly—with a readership of peers facing similar situations in their own families. At the same time that she describes what it means to die, Ito beautifully illustrates what dying means for the caregiver, showing how caring for elderly parents prompts one to consider one’s own position, career, legacy, ideals, and dedication to family at almost every step.

Ito weaves into this semi-autobiographical tale elements from folklore and classical Japanese literature, producing a wildly imaginative and sometimes even surreal tale. This novel can be enjoyed on many levels—for its detailed descriptions of the life of an immigrant who ends up shuttling back and forth between cultures; for the amusing and often absurd plot, which sometimes veers into the surreal and imbues scenes of everyday life with mythological grandeur; or for its clever use of literary devices, including its deployments of folklore, archetypes, and frequent literary references. Like Yoko Tawada and Haruki Murakami who frequently veer into a mythological, dream-like, and even surreal mode of story­telling when writing about contemporary society, Ito produces a tale of daily life that is enhanced and enriched by legends, stories, poems, memories, and the force of imagination. Certain passages, especially those that describe the narrator’s walks in Tokyo, Kumamoto, and California, are reminiscent of James Joyce’s Ulysses in the way the narrative abandons ordinary logical strictures and incorporates various points of view, literary styles, and modes of narration. Ito’s novel is certainly funnier than Joyce’s classic, but like her literary antecedent, she draws on different types of language, including profane and elevated registers of speech, onomatopoeias (some of which are unusual even for readers of the original Japanese), and little snippets of poetry and prose culled from all over.

Throughout the text, Ito includes passages, turns of phrase, and ideas borrowed from prominent writers, poets, novelists, lyricists, manga artists, singers, storytellers, and monks. Almost never does she use quotation marks, however, giving the impression that the literary language of Japan, as well as the language of her friends, fellow writers, and contemporaries, flows through her narrator, shaping her worldview and modes of expression. At the end of each chapter, Ito cites those whose voices she has “borrowed,” but an astute, well-read Japanese reader might recognize a number of the references through the text alone. Partly owing to Ito’s borrowing from so many sources, the language of the original Japanese is unusually rich, rapidly switching between various literary styles in amusing and entertaining ways, while deploying the spectacularly rich vocabulary and register of Japanese stylistics to its fullest. (Alas, in English there are often only one or two ways to say what in Japanese may have numerous possibilities of expression, each with its own specific sound, implication, and linguistic register. For example, the various forms of the copula da, desu, degozaru, degozaimasu, dearu, and nari, all of which Ito uses to produce various effects throughout the text, all simply turn into the verb “to be” in English.) It was partly because of the book’s stylistic richness that it received the rare distinction of winning two of Japan’s most important literary prizes—the Sakutaro Hagiwara Prize in 2007 and the Murasaki Shikibu Prize in 2008.

Most of the references from Japanese will not be familiar to English-language readers, and indeed, most of the texts she cites do not even have translations. However, her creative, sometimes silly, sometimes poignant redeployments of other people’s turns of phrase reveal how Ito, an infinitely innovative, creative, and well-read author in her own right, is constantly drawing upon everything around her, absorbing, synthesizing, and transforming language to create a richly textured, polyvocal world that is, ultimately, entirely and uniquely her own.


Ito Returns to Japan and Finds Herself in a Real Pinch

Mom’s question came at me through the phone: When are you coming back to Japan?

Not this month, Mom. I’ve got too much going on.

Okay, I guess it’s a good thing you’re busy, she said.

But I’ll come in August.

I call my parents every other day from the States, but sometimes I’ll wait an extra day to get Mom to pick up the phone and call me. If I’m the only one who does the calling, I’m afraid she’ll forget how to call me if there’s an emergency.

When are you coming to Japan again? She asked me this question only two days after I’d told her I’d be going in August.

Remember, I told you. I won’t be visiting this month, Mom. Too much work here.

Okay, I guess it’s a good thing you’re busy.

But I’ll be back in August.

Then three days later: When are you coming home again?

August, I told her. Say, are you asking because there’s something you want me to do? In April she’d done the same thing, asking me over and over when I’d be back. When I tried to figure out why, she admitted, well, it’s no big deal really, but I’d like you to go to the post office for me. So when I went home a month later, I went to the post office.

This time too, she said, well, it’s no big deal really, but I’d like you to go with me to the hospital. The other day I went to a surgeon to talk about my varicose veins, and he told me an operation would help. Next time you’re home, I want you to go with me and hear what he’s got to say. No hurry. Next time. He said it can wait until September.

I arrived in Kumamoto on August 24. The heat was brutal.

This isn’t so bad, people were saying, but I’d grown used to the dry air of southern California, and the humidity was sheer torture. I felt like I was being broiled alive, like I might melt away in a syrupy mess. I’d brought my daughter with me this time. She was sweating from head to toe, and her thin, soft hair stuck to her skin everywhere it touched. I was so annoyed at her sloppy appearance that I couldn’t look at her. As the sweat poured off me, I blew up. Why don’t you ever listen? You don’t know what summer is like in Japan, but I do. Why don’t you listen? I tell you to tie your hair up, off your neck, but you never pay attention.

The next day, my computer broke. It wouldn’t boot up. I’d been thinking of getting a new one for a while, so I calmly went to the computer store and picked one up—tower, monitor, keyboard, software—the whole deal. When I sat down to use it, however, I realized I’d made a huge mistake. It had a new operating system, which made me feel like I’d left everything I knew behind for a brand-new life. I couldn’t figure it out at all—nothing worked like I thought it should. What was the damn machine for if I couldn’t use it to write? I couldn’t figure out the most basic things, like how to send emails in Japanese. Just imagine! A poet who writes in Japanese, finally back in Japan, but only able to type in English! What was I to do? If all I could do was write “Ito Hiromi desu” (This is Hiromi Ito) and “gera OK desu” (The book galleys are OK) in English letters, the machine wouldn’t do me any good at all. What a disaster.

Meanwhile, Mom had no idea anything had happened to my computer. It didn’t even cross her mind that I might have another problem that was driving me nuts. As soon as she saw me, she’d start talking about her legs, and then she’d show them to me. Her wrinkled legs. Her poor wrinkled legs were dappled with dark spots from her knees to her ankles.

Here, look, she complained. This isn’t how legs are supposed to look. They’re all stripy. What do you think’s going on? It’s not urgent, but I’d like you to go with me and hear what the surgeon’s got to say. He said an operation might help.

Could we do it in September? I asked. She had told me the doctor said it could wait until then. The next day, however, she repeated, here, look at my legs.

I’d come prepared to be frank with her. Mom, listen. Aiko’s going to start school in September, so I’ll have a lot more time then. Can’t we wait?

Sure, she said. September will be fine.

Except for the problem of her legs (and the post office too, I suppose), Mom was able to live normally and have normal conversations, even though she was aging quickly.

She’s depressed, Dad told me one day when she wasn’t around. After he’d undergone surgery for stomach cancer, his legs had grown weak and he spent whole days sitting, barely moving. He’d grown hard of hearing and didn’t like talking anymore. Mom was left all alone trying to deal with him. She had to shout for him to hear, but he seemed to get by, floating from day to day, buoyed by her support and verbal abuse.

She’s depressed, he said. She just wants to get the hell out of here.

Early the next morning, I got a call from Mom. The first words out of her mouth: Will you take me to the hospital today?

Didn’t I tell you yesterday I’d be happy to take you in September?

I want to go today, she said. It doesn’t matter if you come with me or not.

What do you mean, it doesn’t matter? If I don’t go, who will? Of course, I didn’t say the last part out loud.

Of course, nothing would be nicer than if you’d come too.

Yesterday you said we could wait until September, but now you want to go today? What’s going on?

I’ve been in pain since last night.

Once she admitted that, I knew we had to go. I pushed everything aside and took Mom to see the surgeon, dragging Aiko along too.

Hospitals and medical clinics are places of stagnation. The buildings are old, warped, and rotten—full of so many holes that if you had trouble walking, you’d get stuck and never find your way out. The surgical clinic we went to was no exception. Dozens of people with swollen legs, mostly around Mom’s age, were waiting in the long hospital corridors. They were so old and motionless, it was like they were playing dead. They waited with such quiet, single­-minded devotion that I wondered if they had forgotten who they were and what they were waiting for. As we waited, my mind wandered. Why doesn’t the hospital make appointments? My god, I wanted to get the hell out of there. If I’d known how long this would take, I would’ve brought a book or some work, but honestly, I probably couldn’t concentrate. Why am I so scatterbrained? Time inched slowly forward.

Aiko started whining, I’m bored, I’m bored. I gave her a book and told her to read it, but she refused. I’ve memorized it, every word, I’ve read it dozens of times since we got here from California. She’d brought the book from the States. She’d read it in the airport, in the airplane, then again after we got here. She’d read it over and over because it was the only thing she had to read—just a cheap American paperback, already falling apart. Please, Mommy, she whispered reproachfully. If I just had a Gameboy for times like this—a Gameboy like all my friends in California. They’ve all got one, Mom, all my friends.

Mom’s legs and feet had even more dark purple spots now, from her knees down to the tips of her toes, and the swelling was terrible. One leg had developed ulcers and grown inflamed—she had holes in her flesh, and the skin around them was turning black. She wasn’t registering a fever, but the ulcers burned like charcoal.

The surgeon supported Mom’s leg, held some sort of machine to it, and listened. It’s just like I told you the other day, he said. It isn’t bad enough to warrant surgery. The veins are still working and the blood’s getting through. If anything, I think your problems are more in the realm of dermatology. Go see a dermatologist. And with that, he wrote her a referral to a dermatology clinic.

As we were leaving the surgeon’s office, Mom tripped. There was nothing to trip over, but she still fell flat on the ground. A man ran over and tried to help me get her up. She squirmed as she rose unsteadily, trying to regain her balance. With an embarrassed smile, she said, my goodness, that was quite a tumble, wasn’t it?

The next day, I took her to a dermatology clinic.

Dozens of people sat quietly in the waiting room, all with itches, rashes, and blisters. Aiko was mumbling, I’m bored, I’m bored, so I gave her some change and told her to go outside and buy some juice.

You think she’ll be okay? Mom asked. She’s just come to Japan, she doesn’t know her left from her right, but you’re sending her out on her own? Aiko darling, don’t let anyone spirit you away, okay?

Aiko grumbled in English, she thinks I don’t know anything. She thinks I’m helpless. Aiko left the room haughtily, only to rush back moments later, screeching, the machine ate it, it ate my money! I didn’t get anything, I don’t know what happened, what should I do?

Sure enough, as the expression goes, she didn’t know her left from her right. I had to go to the store with the vending machine out front and ask the clerk for her money back.

There’s a problem with her blood vessels, the dermatologist said. He opened a thick book and looked for a photograph. He showed us a picture of someone with festering legs. They looked badly burned—blistering and full of pus. Necrosis, he said. You’re in real trouble if it gets this bad. I’ll write you a referral to a doctor in the big hospital. He knows all about this sort of thing, okay?

Mom said, tomorrow’s the day I get my medicine. I’ll let my regular doctor know I’m going to have to go to the big hospital. And that was how it came to be that, on the very next day, I took Mom back to her usual doctor in the very same clinic where she goes every two weeks. And that was also the very same day Aiko was supposed to start school.


The Thorn Puller by Hiromi Ito, translated by Jeffrey Angles is available everywhere now in both print and digital. Get your copy here.



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