Book Review: The Great Passage by Shion Miura

(Translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter)

Rating: 3/5

Although the title sounds like the book is about travel, or perhaps escape, I was quite surprised to find that it is about dictionaries. It’s a detailed look into how Japanese dictionaries are made and the lives of their passionate editors.

The premise of the book doesn’t sound interesting. Indeed, I had thought of giving up on it well before the halfway mark, but I decided to plod on only because I wanted to know which direction Majime’s life would take.

Majime is an eccentric lexicographer who is brilliant with deriving the various meanings of words but hopeless at communicating with his fellow beings. The book is a heartwarming look at how he evolves into an efficient editor, even though he never loses his bizarre ways. I am reminded of Don Tillman from The Rosie Project (by Graeme Simsion)–there are some parallels between both characters in terms of how they’re not considered “normal.”

I feel a proper understanding of the Japanese writing system would have helped me appreciate the book better. I also feel that since the book is a translation, some of the beauty of the original language is lost.

I struggled through references to Japanese dictionaries and Chinese classical poems. I couldn’t quite understand how a single character in Japanese can have a variety of meanings depending on the context. But, what I did understand was how enormous the task of Japanese dictionary editing is–five sets of galley proofs to checked!

Miura also brought to life the perseverance needed to see the publication of a huge dictionary through–from selecting entry words and framing definitions to painstakingly correcting proofs and selecting just the right paper for printing.

“Editing a dictionary isn’t like editing any other book or magazine,” the professor pointed out. “It’s a peculiar world. You need extreme patience, a capacity for endless minutiae, a love of words bordering on obsession, and a broad enough outlook to stay sane. What makes you think there are any young people like that nowadays?”

Throughout the mostly serious tone of the story, there are some light moments. For instance, Majime falls in love with Kaguya, his landlady’s granddaughter, and writes a 15-page love letter to her, filled with classical Chinese poetry. Kaguya is so confused that she fails to respond. Majime then waylays her at the foot of the stairs in the dead of the night (when she’s returning from work–she’s a chef) and demands an answer!

Another scene is particularly funny. Years later, Kishibe, a new hire at the Dictionary Editorial Department, meets Majime (who is now Director)–and he offers his business card to her by way of introduction. Kishibe is confused–did people have to exchange business cards with their bosses?

“The Great Passage” is the name of an ambitious, 2,000+ page dictionary of the Japanese language–and the culmination of Professor Matsumoto’s life’s work. He is the editor-in-chief of the dictionary, and along with Kohei Araki, a senior lexicographer, he embarks on a 15-year-journey to enable the dictionary to see the light of day. Mrs. Sasaki, Nishioka, Majime, and Kishibe are employees of the Dictionary Editorial Department (at various times) and their lives more or less revolve around the dictionary.

“Words and the human heart that creates them are absolutely free, with no connection to the powers that be. And that’s as it should be. A ship to enable all people to travel freely across the sea of words—we must continue our efforts to make sure The Great Passage is just that.”

The dictionary is finally completed only because Araki and Majime do not give up on it (for 15 years!) despite their publishing company, Gembu Books, considering the project a “money pit” and repeatedly deprioritizing it over revision projects of existing dictionaries, which would guarantee the company a quick buck.

I must say Miura has the art of elevating the ordinary struggles of bringing a dictionary to life into a beautiful story of passion, hope, and love.

You can get a copy of the book here.

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