Review: Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa



My Interest

I’ve enjoyed most of the Japanese literature I’ve read in the last few years, so this year I signed up for the Japanese Literature Challenge and the Year of the Asian Challenge. This book fits the criteria of both and I do not see a problem with crediting it to both challenges since they are only for fun.

The Story

“I began to understand that we were born in order to see and listen to the world. And that’s all this world wants of us. It doesn’t matter that I was never a teacher or a member of the workforce, my life had meaning.” (p. 199)


Released from prison for a routine drug offense, Sentaro has been working in a very small pastry shop selling pancakes filled with sweet bean paste. His life is dull, he has debt, and nothing changes. Then one day an elderly woman, Tokue, asks him to let her make the sweet bean paste. She keeps asking–finally bringing a Tupperware bowl full of the sweet bean paste she’s been making for 50 years. In spite of her crippled hands and her advanced age, Sentaro agrees to hire her. Life begins to change.

“I made all those sweet things for all those who lived with the sadness of loss.” (p.202)


My Thoughts

“The only way to get over barriers…is to live in the spirit of already being over them.” (p. 210)

I did not expect to be so moved by this little book! Wow, it packs quite an emotional punch.

Nor did I expect an education in Hansen’s Disease, aka “Leprosy.” Before reading this book I knew only that it featured in an episode of Call the Midwife and that, back in the day, Queen Elizabeth beat Princess Diana by decades in shaking hands, gloveless, with a patient of a fear disease. When she shook hands with a “Leper,” it lessened public fear of what was by then a treatable, and curable, disease.

Tokue’s memories of her life in the Lepers Sanctuary from age 14 to her present advanced age, evoked images of concentration camps. state mental hospitals, and a lot of other institutions to which people are forced. I was left staggered, trying to imagine knowing no one outside the colony,  never seeing family again and, of all things, having to accept a new name. This last reminded me of colonial children, such as Nelson Mandela, being forced to use a new name to go to school at mostly mission-run schools or of the children stolen from conquered nations and given to SS families by the Nazis.

Tomorrow I have a post on novels set in some of those places (but not in concentration camps).

I’m told the movie adaptation of Sweet Bean Paste [movie link] is also very good.

Now, if I could just taste one of those pancakes with Tokue’s style of Sweet Bean Paste! Or that New Year’s dish!!

My Verdict


Possible favorite book of 2020, too!

Sweet Bean Paste [book link] by Durian Sukegawa

6 thoughts on “Review: Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa

  1. I have heard nothing but good about this novella; I must get my hands on it! I especially like when a novel touches on ‘deeper’ issues such as loss and suffering. Thank you for this wonderful review. Also, I was so glad to read (on my blog) that you are enjoying The Makioka Sisters. I responded to your comment there, and I thank you for participating in the read-along, making it more meaningful to me as we can chat together about a common book.

    Liked by 1 person

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