Written by Durian Sukegawa, Sweet Bean Paste is a book I struggled to put down, filled with twists and moments that made me ponder isolation, being a member of society, and pursuing an interest despite the challenges ahead. The book starts by setting the scene, where Sentaro, a man who makes dorayaki, a sweet pancake made with sweet bean paste, sees an old woman staring at the shop where he works, Doraharu. Over time, Sentaro engages with this woman, finding out that she was a confectioner capable of making sweet bean paste.
The woman wanted a job at Doraharu. Given her age and the state of her hands – indeed, her hands were malformed – Sentaro was not eager to bring on the old woman, Tokue, despite her willing to work at a lower salary than was advertised. Sentaro changed his mind when he tasted a sample of sweet bean paste given to him by Tokue, which was much better than the paste he bought from a wholesaler to put inside his dorayaki. Indeed, Sentaro was never good at making sweet bean paste. He did not even want to work at the dorayaki shop; he was paying off a debt to someone who helped him when he was in need.
Tokue was a good worker. She turned up early and helped Sentaro make bean paste, asking for his help to carry heavy objects. Tokue claimed she could hear the beans. Whether or not she could, the bean paste she made was of the highest quality. The bean paste attracted many customers, boosting sales for the shop. The story took a turn when one person suspected Tokue had leprosy, which caused one’s hands and other body parts to become distorted. Tokue never told Sentaro what happened to her hands, but after seeing her work Sentaro did not see any problem.
As word spread, the owner of the shop – the wife of the man who had helped Sentaro out – asked Sentaro to fire Tokue. Despite her good work ethic and the quality of her bean paste picking up sales, sales were declining, which they all believed was due to rumours spreading about Tokue. Sentaro, unfortunately, had to let Tokue go, but this did not mark the end of their relationship; indeed, it was just the beginning.
After Tokue departed from the store, Sweet Bean Paste turned from a book about a confectioner stuck in a job he did not want to do into a book about friendship and the meaning of being isolated. Tokue lived in a sanatorium. She was freed after the Leprosy Prevention Act, which confined anyone who had leprosy to sanatoriums for the rest of their lives, was repealed, but that was only after she had spent decades in isolation from society. She could meet with people but only those in her community. The area was surrounded by false holly designed to keep the patients indoors. Even though Tokue recovered quite early on – leaving only her hands and her face quite distorted – she was not allowed to leave until the Act was repealed.
In this time, Tokue joined the Confectioner’s Group and made bean paste, which is where she acquired her skills. Sentaro found out that she lived in a sanatorium but this did not put him off visiting. Sentaro and a young person who was fond of Tokue, Wakana, visited Tokue, and then it was revealed how difficult of a life Tokue had. She lived in isolation, unable to have a life like everyone else in society. She could not find a job outside of the sanatorium. She was taken away from her parents at a young age and her name was changed by the government. She was removed from her official family register.
Through Tokue’s experience, it was made clear how badly people who had leprosy were treated in sanatoriums. Until I read this book, I did not realise leprosy was such a problem in Japan. Indeed, people inside the sanatoriums were eventually allowed to leave because there were no active patients – people who had the disease – but the damage had already been done. People emerged in their sixties and seventies, which made having a “fresh start” very difficult. This was why Tokue was willing to work on reduced pay: she just wanted to work and use the skills she had acquired outside of the sanatorium.
Over the course of the book, Tokue and Sentaro grew closer together; Wakana remained interested in Tokue, who took in her canary after Wakana’s parents said she could no longer keep the bird. Tokue encouraged Sentaro to experiment with new foods, such as salty dorayaki, and over time Sentaro realised that working at a dorayaki shop was not so bad. He was paying off a debt at the start but Tokue opened his eyes to the possibilities in his life. Although, challenges were ahead: the owner of the shop wanted to change the store and serve other foods, despite Sentaro’s resistance.
Sweet Bean Paste left me with one big question: what did Sentaro do with the rest of his life? But even though this question remained unanswered, a bigger message was left in my mind: life is about living. Indeed, Tokue, despite her being in isolation for most of her life, thought to herself that life was about being able to experience the universe, something she realised by her not being able to contribute to the outside world. She did not let her disease hold her back: she spent a lot of her time helping Sentaro, both in the shop and after she had left.
Sweet Bean Paste is a thought-provoking read and I’d highly recommend giving the book a read. If you are like me, you will find yourself thinking about what it must have been like for the people “shut up” in sanatoriums (Tokue’s words), how meeting one person can change your life, and how existence is about living to see what the world has to offer.