The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Note: I occasionally accept review copies from the publisher. Posts written from review copies are labeled. All opinions are my own. Posts may contain affiliate links. I may receive compensation for any purchased items.

Because of my positive experience reading Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, I thought I’d try some more Japanese literature. Amanda wrote a positive review of The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa and I noticed that this was the selected book for the Japanese Literature Book Group run by tanabata at In Spring it is the Dawn. Then I noticed it was less than 200 pages, and I thought it was sign I should give it a try.

Obviously, comparing Ogawa’s modern novel to Shonagon’s 1000-year-old journalistic notes is like comparing apples to oranges. If you ask, I’ll say I much prefer the old classic. But I did enjoy the Japanese novel too. Now I feel I am about to embark on a new genre of interest: Japanese literature, classic and new.

The professor of the title was once a famous mathematician, but a car accident 25 years ago left him unable to remember more than 80 minutes at a time. Now he lives in the past and every 80 minutes he must learn again the events and people from the 25 years he’s forgotten. Nevertheless, the housekeeper is able to develop a friendship with him as she learns about the beauty of numbers. Mathematics, not memory, is a universal language of their friendship. Although the science of the memory aspect of the book seems suspect, the themes of friendship are universal. In the end, it was an enjoyable book, although not a favorite.

As a part of the book group, Tanabata at In Spring it is the Dawn asks a few questions and includes the publishers’ book group questions. Note that this post (and probably the comments) will include spoilers as a part of the discussion of the book.

Did you enjoy it?

I did enjoy reading the novel. I don’t read a lot of modern fiction, but this was a nice addition. I can’t say it was a favorite novel, but I’m glad I read it.

The one thing that bothered me was the portrayal of memory loss as an 80-minute increment thing. I thought the author did not make it very realistic in her portrayal, although I struggle to pinpoint just why. I recently listened to one of Oliver Sacks’ audiobooks about neuroscience and memory; Sacks talked about some people with 15 second memories, but the professor’s memory was so unbelievably following a clock, it just seemed a little unrealistic to me. I’m nitpicking here, but the mathematics was so well-researched (it’s obvious the author is a mathematician) that the science of the memory seemed, by contrast, off.

How does this book compare to other Japanese literature that you’ve read?

As I mentioned above, the only other Japanese literature I’ve read is Shonagon, which doesn’t really compare. Reading Housekeeper, though, I was struck by the universal quality of the novel. It didn’t feel “Japanese” at all, and maybe that’s because the characters were nameless (see next question). I felt like it could have taken place anywhere, at any time.

The characters in The Housekeeper and the Professor are nameless (“Root” is only a nickname). What does it mean when an author chooses not to name the people in her book? How does that change your relationship to them as a reader? Are names that important?

Because the characters are nameless, I forgot I was reading a “Japanese” novel. I know it doesn’t matter where a novel is written but one thing that was hard with The Pillow Book for me was all the long names that I couldn’t pronounce in my head. I found myself skimming over them. Without names in Housekeeper, I felt I was reading a book from anywhere: baseball and mathematics, memory and friendship became the themes, not the setting. I enjoyed that aspect. I admit I need to get over my difficulty with Japanese names and words, but still, the book became like mathematics: anyone and anywhere can understand mathematics, once you learn the language of mathematics.

How is it possible for this seemingly one-sided relationship to thrive? What does Ogawa seem to be saying about memory and the very foundations of our profoundest relationships?

I think what kept their friendship “alive” was the current events. Although the housekeeper was able to remember the details of the professor’s preferences, because she kept doing things with him and for him, their relationship continued to grow. It’s interesting that for the professor, it’s as if it never happened. I think it’s a lesson for all of us in relationships: in order to keep it alive, we need to build on the past but also keep doing new things that we enjoy. We have to enjoy the present.

At the same time, it didn’t seem one-sided, and again, this is where the memory problems didn’t convince me. Why was the professor still feeling close to the 22-year-old Root at the end, when before he only felt close because he was a child and he loved children? There seemed to be something unexplained there about his memory. Did Root somehow become an unconscious part of his memory?

Generally, how does Ogawa use math to illustrate a whole worldview?

I love how Ogawa uses mathematics (which I’ve always hated) as a universal language of friendship. The professor meets the housekeeper at the door with “What is your shoe size?” and finds connections between her birthday and his own award number. I loved the entire concept of “amicable numbers” and thought it a good comparison to amicable people too!

Baseball is a game full of statistics, and therefore numbers. Discuss the very different ways in which Root and the Professor love the game.

The professor seems obsessed with all the statistics, but it seems to me that Root is more interested in the action of the games. The professors’ interest in numbers seems to rub off on Root, though, in the end. And the professor definitely appreciates the baseball players too, especially when they are wearing a perfect number!

Ogawa chooses to write about actual math problems, rather than to write about math in the abstract. In a sense, she invites the reader to learn math along with the characters. Why do you think she wrote the book this way?

I think Ogawa wrote the book with the mathematics as well because that was such an imperative part of the housekeeper’s friendship. If the housekeeper hadn’t fallen in love with the concept of amicable numbers and prime numbers and all that, she wouldn’t have been so fascinated by the professor himself. It was their connection. Besides, I think Ogawa is a bit fascinated by numbers. I suspect she hoped we’d all become converted as well! Although I can’t say “I like math” now, I still found it interesting.

As I said, I enjoyed this book, but it wasn’t a favorite. I’m still looking for my next Japanese literature read.

Questions for You

What favorites of Japanese literature have you read (classic or new)?

Do you struggle when you read foreign names? I have a hard time because I want to pronounce them right. (I have the same problem with Russian literature.)

Reviewed on January 25, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I’m really pleased that you’ve discovered Japanese literature! I love it! I haven’t read The Housekeeper and the Professor yet, but have been wanting to for ages.

    I don’t normally struggle with Japanese names. I’ve been there 3 times now and seem to find that they are pronounced exactly how they are spelt, so don’t worry about it too much.

    I hope that you find many more Japanese books to read – I’m a big Murakami fan, but plan to diversify a bit more soon.

  • The memory thing didn’t bother me. I’m not a science person, but from everything I’ve read on this sort of looping memory loss, it’s common for people with the memory issues to grow a subconscious connection to the people constantly in their lives. I thought that felt very natural, and it helps that because Root and the Housekeeper knew the Professor so well, they would be able to bring up the things he loves right away as they went to visit him later.

    I’ve seen a couple movies with this sort of memory loss as well – Momento, Fifty First Dates – and while they’re fictional and dorky, they also carry this sort of getting to know someone subconsciously while not actually remembering them on the surface.

    I loved this book so much. I’d never read any Japanese literature before it and it was the perfect place to start I think.

  • I do struggle when I read foreign names and sometimes just make up an Americanized version of it in my head. I have this book in my TBR pile and look forward to reading it.

  • How neat that you were able to answer all tanabata’s questions! And that you liked the book of course 😉

    I’ve read quite a few Japanese novels by now (I guess I don’t really have a problem with foreign names 😉 so it’s hard to choose favourites… I guess The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is one, and Strangers, Be With You, The Old Cappital… I could go on! 😉

    My review of The Housekeeper is here.

  • I didn’t read past your spoiler warning because this book is sitting on my to-be-read shelf, but I’m glad you liked it (despite some reservations). It sounds like a quiet, refreshing read.

    I just discovered Kenzaburo Oe (I read “A Quiet Life”), and LOVE him. Am planning to read more soon. I bet you would like that book – it’s subtle, humanist, compassionate, realistic – I can see it appealing to you. It moves at a pace similar to Cather.

  • Jackie, I’ll have to try Muraki, as it seems he’s a big favorite!!

    Amanda, I like nonfiction, so I think the thing that bothered me was one aspect (math) was convincing, while the science side wasn’t. But yeah, maybe a reread would make it less unbelievable to me. I just tried to enjoy the story instead of worrying about it!

    Kathy, I hope you enjoy it!

    Sherry, thanks for the suggestion!

    Gnoe, welll, I skipped around on the questions. Thanks for the JLit suggestions! adding to my list.

    Emily, It was refreshing because it was short but I enjoyed the themes. I hope youe njoy it too. Adding your suggestion to my list! thanks!

  • Thanks again for joining in the discussion, and I’m sorry I’m so late to get back to comment. I really enjoyed your thoughtful comments on the book. I’m curious about why the author chose such a specific time frame too. I asked my husband if 80 had some significance in math but he couldn’t think of one. My husband is a total math and science guy, the complete opposite of me! Like you, she didn’t convert me into loving math, but I think I can understand the beauty in it now.

    I don’t struggle with Japanese names since I’m quite used to them, but I do struggle with others sometimes, especially languages that I’m not at all familiar with and that end up being spelled in English with lots of consonants. 😉

    Favourites? Murakami, although it took a couple of tries before I truly got into his surreal style. I’d recommend The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki to you. It’s a lovely story of sisters and changing traditions after the war.
    There is still so much Japanese lit that I haven’t read though. I’m really looking forward to the other books on the schedule this year and discovering some more great Japanese literature.
    .-= tanabata´s last post on blog ..‘Pillow Book’ Friday: Week One =-.

  • I forgot to mention that I added a comment to the discussion post about Euler’s formula, in case you aren’t subscribed to follow-up comments. And since I’m here, I think the professor would have felt close to Root later when Root had grown up because of the fact that Root had come to love math and would surely have chatted math with the professor whenever they saw him.
    .-= tanabata´s last post on blog ..‘Pillow Book’ Friday: Week One =-.

  • Tanabata, I saw the comment on Euler’s formula. Still doesn’t make everything clear to me, but very interesting! Thanks for the JLit recs. I saw your post on the Makioka sisters and liked the idea of an Austen-esque romance via JLit!

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}