Uploaded by Ashley J.

A Tale For the Time Being Essay

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Ashley Jung
Ms. Welch
AP Literature and Composition
Final Response: A Tale for the Time Being
Throughout the novel, A Tale For the Time Being written by Ruth Ozeki, the concept of a
“time being” and the entanglement of time is illustrated by the life of a teenage girl named Nao
and her onlooker, Ruth, the reader of her diary. Japanese, as a culture and language, is used as a
symbol to provide insight into the interconnectedness, flexibility, and occasional disconnect of
time beings and how the characters within the novel are impacted by it. Connections, or the lack
thereof, are directly strengthened by the connections characters have with their culture as
displayed through the use of Japanese characters, culture, and dialect.
Okeki utilizes Nao’s identity of being Japanese and her inability to truly connect with it
to highlight the generational disconnect between herself, her parents, and her surroundings. At
the beginning of the novel, Nao describes herself as, “totally fucked, because [she] identified as
American and even though [her family] always spoke Japanese at home, [her] conversational
skills were limited to basic, daily-life stuff like where’s my allowance, and pass the jam…”
(Okezi 43) as she had been raised in America and never got the opportunity to integrate into
Japanese culture and language. This disconnect between herself and her culture leads to a
generational disconnect with both her parents and her peers. Her interactions with her father
were limited and, due to his suicidal nature, were filled with lies and false hope. Since losing his
job in America, he had attempted suicide and lied about getting a new job to bring the family
hope of starting a new life. The family silently decided to believe his suicide attempt was an
accident which lead to limited conversation as enough interaction would lead to the
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the eventual acceptance of the miserable truth. Nao’s generational disconnect between herself
and her mother is highlighted when Nao’s mother, who had always been more deeply connected
with Japanese culture, tries to console Nao after finding out about the “いじめ (ijime)” (Ozeki
44) or bullying Nao had suffered at school. In Asian and especially Japanese culture, it is
common for individuals to reach “過労死” or “death from overwork” (Ozeki 82) and many
believe that working harder or applying one’s self more is the solution to any problem. This
highly competitive culture has been engrained in Nao’s mother and proves to be a main
contributing factor between herself and her daughter. When attempting to help Nao, she advises
her to join more after-school activities to become more involved with the peers that tormented
her. Despite Nao’s protests, “[Nao’s mother] wasn’t hearing [Nao]” (Okezi 75) and insisted that
she would talk to her teacher. This conflict of interest caused by Japanese culture and Nao’s
mother’s adherence to it highlights the divide between the characters as they are both time beings
or beings that exist within time. Japanese culture, and Nao’s inability to identify with it,
emphasizes the disconnect between herself and the people around her
The supernatural connection between characters existing on different planes of time is
another concept highlighted by Ozeki through the Japanese language and culture. Ruth, the
reader of Nao’s diary, becomes entangled and obsessed with Nao’s life and feels a sort of
supernatural connection between her world and Nao’s despite being on completely different
timelines with no tangible connection. Much of this connection and strange obsession is due to
Ruth’s “off and lingering sense to… what? Help the girl? To save her?” (Ozeki 29) when first
picking up Nao’s diary. Much of this is due to Ruth’s past as she had lived and been raised in
Japan before moving away. This initial connection between their cultures as well as the
possibility of Nao being dead caught Ruth’s initial interest and began the spiral down the rabbit
hole that was Nao’s story. Ruth’s ability to read and somewhat understand the basics of the
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Japanese language enabled this supernatural connection to ensue as she later clearly dreams of
Nao’s life and world as her own, disregarding her own responsibilities and timeline.
Nao’s initial disconnect with Japan and its culture is changed when she visits her
grandmother Jiko over the summer. She learns her family’s history and learns to appreciate the
practice of zazen, Buddhist meditation, through her grandmother. This development deepens her
connection with Japanese culture and in turn, allows her to connect with her ancestry and the
people around her. The supernatural connections between characters in the novel are again
showcased through Nao’s interaction with her deceased great uncle, Haruki #1. Nao’s
unfamiliarity with the Japanese language again inhibits interaction with the ghost but her
newfound ability to better identify with her culture allows her to see and speak to her ancestor in
the ghost at all. Both Nao and Haruki #1 is described as time beings that existed on different
planes of time and yet are still able to make contact. Nao participates in a Japanese ceremony for
the dead, osegaki, and is later again confronted by Haruki #1 who tells her his story and the
experiences he went through as a kamikaze pilot during WW2. He tells the tale of how he was
taught how to kill himself and the terrors he faced during the war, as, “[before they showed
[them] how to kill [their] enemies, they taught [them] how to kill [themselves]” (Ozeki 240),
which later greatly impacts Nao as she seeks to learn more of her family history later on. The
mentioning of Japanese practices throughout his story accentuates how he is telling a personal
story about his life and the culture in Japan and the world at the time.
The Japanese language is specifically used to demonstrate the fluidity of time,
understanding, and interaction between characters. While learning more about her culture and
ancestry, Nao is given Haruki #1’s pocket watch with the Kanji characters, “空兵” (Ozeki 249)
engraved on the back face. She translates these characters as either “sky soldier” or “empty
soldier”, with either translation seeming to correctly describe Haruki #1’s character. The ability
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for these interpretations to be interchanged because of the different meanings within the language
itself showcases the unique ability of the Japanese language to offer a possible second meaning
to any word. This translation is especially important as it is later revealed in the novel that
Haruki #1 had in fact, died by committing suicide and flying his plane into the ocean as to not
harm any other person, redefining and recharacterizing his personality and history. Jiko’s death
near the novel’s closing was preceded by the ritual of her writing her final poem. In her final
moments, she chose to write the word “生” (Ozeki 362) to which the meaning “nobody could
agree [on]. Some of them said it was the start of a poem that she hadn’t been able to finish.
Others said no, that it was a complete statement which showed she was still clinging to life”
(Ozeki 366). In reality, people interpreted her poem in the way they wanted it to mean, possibly
to instill better meaning into their own lives and the connections they carried. It is implied that
the poem was directed towards Nao and her father as they had both been struggling with
thoughts of suicide and Jiko’s final poem were meant to urge them to survive exhibiting their
connection through language. The open-ended nature of Kanji, or Japanese characters, allows for
Ozeki to implant myriad meanings into the text without having to explicitly state each meaning
and highlights the connections between characters through their interpretation.
The author highlights many important issues like bullying, suicide, generational
disconnect among many through the use of Japanese as a culture, language, and dialect. The use
of Japanese as a symbol throughout the novel powerfully how culture can cause division within a
family through the characterization of Nao’s family and Nao’s disconnect with Japanese culture
and language, the supernatural connections between characters because of their connection to
their culture through the dialogue between Nao and Haruki #1, and the concept of open
interpretation of time and existence through the many interpretations of the Japanese language
through irony.