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The Street of a Thousand Blossoms



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About The Author

Gail TsukiyamaGail Tsukiyama

Gail Tsukiyama is the bestselling author of five previous novels, including Women of the Silk and The Samurai’s Garden, as well as the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Award and the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award. She divides her time between El... More

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Reading Group Gold

It is Tokyo in 1939. On the Street of a Thousand Blossoms, two orphaned brothers dream of a future firmly rooted in tradition. The older boy, Hiroshi, shows early signs of promise at the national obsession of sumo wrestling, while Kenji is fascinated by the art of Noh theater masks. 

But as the ripples of war spread to their quiet neighborhood, the brothers must put their dreams on hold—and forge their own paths in a new Japan. Meanwhile, the two young daughters of a renowned sumo master find their lives increasingly intertwined with the fortunes of their father’s star pupil, Hiroshi.

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is a powerfully moving masterpiece about tradition and change, loss and renewal, and love and family from a glorious storyteller at the height of her powers.



A Child of Other Histories

An Original Essay by the Author

The greatest gift of being a writer is the ability to live many different lives. As author David Malouf writes: “Fiction allows us to step beyond what we are, and what we think we know and believe, into other skins and other lives; to become, in imagination and for a time, the children of other histories; to understand from within how the world might look from there, and how we might, in other circumstances, respond.” It’s a lovely definition of both the writing and the reading process.

I’ve always considered myself a child of other histories. My mother was Chinese from Hong Kong and my father was Japanese from Hawaii, though I was born in San Francisco and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Growing up, I loved to read and hear my mother’s stories, which surely stirred my imagination and my desire to travel and write. Little did I know that these two cultures would play such a big part in my writing identity. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with the customs that make up a culture, and I relish my early travels to Hong Kong and seeing stacks of wooden boxes filled with snakes, whose gall bladders were squeezed out and drank down with rice wine to increase male virility, or hearing the high singsong voices of the fruit vendors calling out as they came down the street, balancing baskets of oranges, star fruit and bananas on wooden poles across their shoulders. I can still see my grandmother step out on the terrace to bargain with them down on the street below.

So much of that history is sadly gone now, but I can thankfully resurrect them in my stories. The richness of the Chinese and Japanese cultures is endless, layers that I’m constantly uncovering. And what better way to explore and define a culture then through their subcultures? My curiosity about social groups who have managed to exist outside mainstream society and create their own fascinating worlds, their own sense of family, has been an ongoing theme in my work, whether it be the silk working women in my first novel, Women of the Silk, the leper colony in The Samurai’s Garden, or the mother and daughter separated from the world due to illness in Dreaming Water. It’s a theme that continues to intrigue me in my new novel, The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, which follows two brothers, Hiroshi and Kenji Matsumoto, growing up in Japan through World War II, the occupation, and into adulthood, spanning the years from 1939-1966. Hiroshi will eventually become a sumo wrestler, while the Noh Theater plays a big role in the life of his younger brother, Kenji.

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms allowed me to discover the world of Sumo, a social group that has long fascinated me. Like many people, I’ve always wondered how and why such young men would train to become so big, only to fight in matches that might last no more than a minute or two. What I learned was that strength and speed were just as important as size, and that their regimented lives were extremely arduous and disciplined. When I visited Ryogoku, the sumo district in Tokyo where the tournaments are held, one of my greatest highlights was seeing the sumotori walking down the street, the sweet lingering scent of bintsuke, the wax used to hold their topknot in place, wafting through the air. Those who reach the ranks of champion and grand champion are national heroes, and are as popular as the movie stars in Japan. They were fascinating to watch, both imposing and dignified, still keeping the traditions that were begun some fifteen hundred years ago.

In the process of researching and writing, I realized the sport of sumo was symbolic of the Japanese culture itself—in its rituals and religion—and in its belief of honor and defeat. Writing Hiroshi and Kenji’s story gave me a glimpse into a complex world that moved far beyond what began as an interest in sumo. More than anything, The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is the story of family and love, the futility of war and the resilience of a country and her people. Hiroshi and Kenji represent part of the new generation after the war, whose family and country become a source of their strength and inspiration. Ultimately, as distinctive as all cultures are, it’s our common humanity that provides the greatest stories. In the end, we are all children of other histories.



What inspired you to write The Street of a Thousand Blossoms?

It came mainly from my desire to learn more about the Japanese culture. I’ve also always been fascinated by social groups who live and work outside the mainstream. So the world of sumo wrestling within the Japanese culture had been an ongoing interest, something I’ve always wanted to write about. It covered such enticing material and I’ve always had so many questions I wanted answered: What was the process of becoming sumotori? How were they selected? What was their training like? Those were the seeds that began the story, which soon grew into an exploration of culture, family, the inhumanity of war, and the perseverance of the human spirit.  

Your novel spans three decades of Japanese history. What type of research did you do when writing the story? How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?

It’s always difficult to know up front how much information you need because so much of the writing process is discovering as you write. I was originally going to begin the book after the war, when Hiroshi just enters the sumo stable, but then I began to ask myself the same questions a reader might ask: Did he always want to be a sumotori? Was he always a strong boy? Who determines that you’re sumotori material? In order to answer the questions linearly, I pushed the story back a decade. That of course led me through the war in Japan and its devastating outcome. And because all the families in the book lived in Tokyo, I concentrated on the firebombing, which was also horrific, though we Westerners know more about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the story progressed, according to time and place, I began to instinctively know what to include and what to exclude to keep the storyline moving forward. The hardest part was keeping the story in the forefront and the research materials in the background.

When describing Hiroshi’s grandparents, you write: “It was a marriage that hadn’t faltered in forty years, despite the heartache of losing Misako and the raising of their grandsons. They had lived two separate lifetimes together, nurtured two families, and even with the hardships of war and rationing, she never felt their family strength waver.” Why do you think they were able to cultivate such a solid connection, despite everything—the loss of their daughter, his blindness, the war? What can be learned from their attitude on life?

I believe the strength of Fumiko and Yoshio’s marriage has a lot to do with the time period they live in, and in the Japanese culture itself. I don’t think they ever had the notion that they wouldn’t always be together through thick and thin. Theirs is a true love story, with a combination of loyalty, humor, and devotion that seems to be an anomaly in today’s world. It’s something we can all learn from.     

What is the significance of the watchtower, in your eyes? Is there further significance in its fall?

It was Yoshio’s way of helping the boys rise above their childhood misfortune. The fall represented the subsequent end of their childhood. Many of the young characters are orphaned in the book. Haru and Aki’s mother is killed during the firestorm. Sadao’s parents were burned as well. Hiroshi and Kenji lost their parents in a boat accident. I can’t possibly imagine what that fear must feel like at such a young age.

How did you manage to get inside their heads in order to make that fear palpable for readers?

Much of it has to do with the process of character development, tapping into my own psyche, asking myself the questions: How does this affect them? What do they do in order to survive? How do they react to the people and events around them? How and what makes them keep living? I’ve always held the belief that if I could make a reader understand a character’s motive and establish an emotional connection, they would follow that character no matter where he/she led them. 

Following the end of the war, Fumiko says, “The number of lives lost abroad and at home was staggering. And in the end, what was it all for?” How poignant. And how true. Couldn’t this same sentiment also be voiced today? Do you think humans will ever learn?

Bless you! It was so important to me to show the utter futility of war. What’s occurring today was very much on my mind when I wrote the firebombing scenes, the senseless loss of lives, the dislocation of families and loved ones. And the aftermath of destruction that often hurts those who are innocent the most. It’s sad to think that we as humanity still haven’t learned that war is not always a means to an end.

“Up until now, Haru had thought her life in Nara was extraordinary, but as the beating of her heart calmed and the sharp pull in her lungs subsided, she realized that gaining one thing meant losing another. Wasn’t that the way it always was? It was that simple: her mother’s life for that of Aki and her; her life in Nara for that of marrying Hiroshi.” Do you think Haru was content with the way her life turned out? Why or why not?

In many ways, I saw Haru as the most complicated character to write because she was so balanced outwardly. It’s always hard to be the good girl because the people around you tend not to see you. Emotionally and culturally, she would always outwardly accept the way her life turned out, even if inwardly she felt otherwise. But I do believe Haru was content in the end, having found her place in raising Takara and returning to teach in Tokyo. I also think she came to see Hiroshi’s respect, trust, and even love for her.

“When he was a boy, Hiroshi always believed he would track down the man who had left him and Kenji orphans. As a man, he knew the past was best forgotten. What had it to do with his life now?” Why do you think Hiroshi felt this way in the end? Do you think you would feel the same if you were in his shoes?

I believe time and age changed his views, that living through the war and struggling to become a sumotori gave him more perspective and distance. I do think I would come to the same conclusions if I were standing in front of a defeated, old man, and keeping in mind that it was an accident and not deliberate makes a world of difference. The fact that the captain ran away from the accident and didn’t take responsibility is something he’ll have to live with for the rest of his life.   

Part of what makes reading The Street of a Thousand Blossoms so enjoyable is the insertion of time as a factor in each of the characters’ relationships. Two obvious examples are Hiroshi and Kenji’s relationships with their wives. Both start out blissful, then hit a stagnation point, then move on to a fuller, deeper understanding of each other. What are your thoughts on this ebb and flow? How is this different than, say, the way some people approach relationships and marriage today?

A story’s narrative demands ebb and flow when so much time is covered. There has to be change in order to create movement in a story. And then again, the time period and the culture had a lot to do with their staying power. Today, the world is much more fast-paced, and hitting a stagnation point might mean the end of a relationship.

Death looms large throughout the book, leaving no character untouched. How do you think each character changed after the death of a loved one? And as you wrote, did you know these deaths were necessary to take your characters in new directions?

When my niece was young, she read one of my early novels and said very succinctly, “I know how to write a book, first something good happens, then something bad happens, then something good happens at the end.” In her simplified way, she realized conflict was needed to keep a story going. Each character has to change or mature after the death of a loved one, pick a path that takes them in new direction, which also keeps the plot moving. They all had to find ways to cope. I don’t always know what’s going to happen until I’ve reached the point in which it does happen.

What do you make of Aki’s actions in the end?

Aki was fragile from the time she was a little girl. After the war, she’s always haunted by the past. Then again after childbirth, everything becomes magnified when her bout with postpartum depression sets her on a path from which she never really recovers. It couldn’t help but ultimately catch up with her.

When Hiroshi and Kenji were growing up, their grandfather had always told them: “Every day of your lives, you must always be sure of what you’re fighting for.” What are your thoughts on this advice?

I think it’s a mantra we should all live by.

In the last few chapters, Hiroshi looks back on his life and attempts to make sense of what happened to him and how it shaped who he is as a person. Why did you choose to include this section, and what does his change in perspective say about his character? His feelings for his family and his country?

Hiroshi’s change in perspective gives him a very human quality, one that wasn’t so evident when he was younger and his one big goal was to be sumotori. It’s only when he gains age and wisdom that he’s able to see how much his career has cost him.

You were born in San Francisco to a Chinese mother and a Japanese father. In what ways did your childhood and your family’s background lend themselves to writing this novel?

My mother was from Hong Kong and my father was from Hawaii, so my cultural influence growing up was primarily Chinese. My mother’s father also had an import/export business out of Japan, so the connections were always there. Having grown up in the Chinese culture, it seemed a natural progression to want to learn more about my Japanese heritage as I continued to write. I’ve always felt a mixture of both. The subject of this novel was something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but I wasn’t quite sure how to execute it. And while there aren’t any sumotori or Noh mask-makers in my family, the sense of cultural tradition and how the world is viewed remains very similar.    

What is the significance of the quotes you chose to accompany the title page of Parts One, Two, and Three?

I started my writing career as a poet, so poetry has always been very important to me. The three Japanese poets quoted state beautifully, in so few lines, the core of what I wanted to write about in each section. I felt it would give the reader a wonderful introduction to each.

You include a variety of Japanese words throughout the story, weaving them seamlessly into the text. Why did you choose to use this technique?

One of the gifts of being a writer is living many other lives. To write about another country and not include some of its language seems to lessen the impact of the story and the characters. I always hope to finish writing a book having learned something, and I hope that’s the same way a reader feels when they finish reading the book—that they’ve come away having gained something beyond the story, whether it’s knowledge about the culture, the people, or the language. The more I write about other countries, the more I see how much we’re alike.

Do you have family who witnessed World War II firsthand?

My mother and her family were in the thick of it as the Japanese were making their way through China to Hong Kong. Her family eventually moved to Macau during the Japanese occupation and spent most of the war there. My father was born and raised on Oahu, and I remember him telling us that he climbed a tree as a boy and watched the bombing of Pearl Harbor from there.

What are you working on now?

I’d begun what I thought was a short story but it seems to be growing into something longer. I’ll just say that I’m back tapping into my Chinese roots, so we’ll see how deep they go. It feels too early to talk about it, other than I can see some of my ongoing themes of family and isolation developing.

Excerpted from Bookreporter.com. All rights reserved.

© Copyright 2007, The Book Report Network.  



1. Tradition plays an important role in THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS, and one way for traditions to be passed down from generation to generation is through storytelling. Discuss various stories in the novel and their significance for some of the characters.

2. What lessons do Hiroshi and Kenji learn from their grandparents, and how do those lessons serve them in a changing world? How would you compare the marriage between Yoshio and Fumiko to those of their grandsons?

3. Even though no one in the novel ever fights on a battlefield, in what ways does the war shape their lives? How might their lives have been different if there had been no war?

4. Yoshio tells his grandsons on page 23: “Just remember….Every day of your lives, you must always be sure what you’re fighting for.” What implications does this have for Hiroshi—who literally becomes a great fighter—as well as for other characters in the story?

5. Both Kenji and Aki feel like “ghosts” among the living. In what other ways are they similar—and different? Why do you think Kenji survives, while Aki gives up?

6. Art and beauty are obviously central in the lives of Kenji and Akira, as well as the violinist Mariko. What roles do they play in other characters’ lives? How does beauty help—or not help—sustain the characters in difficult times? What does Haru mean when she says that she sees “such beauty” at the end of the Prologue?

7. The four central female characters—Fumiko, Aki, Haru, and Mika—lead very different lives. In what ways do they represent the changing roles of women, and in what ways do they represent their individual natures and circumstances? How do you regard each of these characters?

8. Kenji gives Hiroshi a poem before his first big match: Winter solitude/in a world of one color/the sound of wind. What do you think it means to Hiroshi? To Kenji?

9. Hiroshi, Akira, and Kenji all achieve considerable fame. What are its rewards and pitfalls for them?

10. Members of the kasutori generation are filled with “guilt and grief,” clinging to the past while also struggling to find their own way in a “new” Japan. In what ways do Kenji and Hiroshi, as well as Aki, Haru, and Mika, rebel against the “old” Japan of their childhood? In what ways do they embrace it?

11. The novel spans several stages in the history of Japan: pre-war, war, reconstruction and post-war boom. What happens to the landscape of Tokyo in these different stages? How does the changing landscape affect the characters?

12. Discuss the role of family in various characters’ lives. What joys and sorrows does it bring them?

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