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The Great Passage

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A charmingly warm and hopeful story of love, friendship, and the power of human connection. Award-winning Japanese author Shion Miura’s novel is a reminder that a life dedicated to passion is a life well lived.

Inspired as a boy by the multiple meanings to be found for a single word in the dictionary, Kohei Araki is devoted to the notion that a dictionary is a boat to carry us across the sea of words. But after thirty-seven years creating them at Gembu Books, it’s time for him to retire and find his replacement.

He discovers a kindred spirit in Mitsuya Majime—a young, disheveled square peg with a penchant for collecting antiquarian books and a background in linguistics—whom he swipes from his company’s sales department.

Led by his new mentor and joined by an energetic, if reluctant, new recruit and an elder linguistics scholar, Majime is tasked with a career-defining accomplishment: completing The Great Passage, a comprehensive 2,900-page tome of the Japanese language. On his journey, Majime discovers friendship, romance, and an incredible dedication to his work, inspired by the bond that connects us all: words.

224 pages, Kindle Edition

First published January 1, 2011

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About the author

Shion Miura

68 books254 followers
Shion Miura (三浦しをん) (1976–) , daughter of a well-known Japanese classics scholar, acquired her love of reading at a very young age. When, as a senior in the Faculty of Letters at Waseda University, she began her job hunt looking for an editorial position, a literary agent recognized her writing talent and hired her to begin writing an online book review column even before she graduated. Miura made her fiction debut a year after finishing college, in 2000, when she published the novel Kakuto suru mono ni maru (A Passing Grade for Those Who Fight), based in part on her own experiences during the job hunt. When she won the Naoki Prize in 2006 for her linked-story collection Mahoro ekimae Tada Benriken (The Handymen in Mahoro Town), she had not yet reached her 30th birthday—an unusually young age for this prize; in fact it was her second nomination. Her novels since then include the 2006 Kaze ga tsuyoku fuiteiru (The Wind Blows Hard), about the annual Ekiden long-distance relay race in which universities compete, and the 2010 Kogure-so monogatari (The Kogure Apartments), depicting the lives of people dwelling in an old rundown wooden-frame apartment house. In 2012 she received the Booksellers Award for the novel Fune o amu (The Great Passage), a tale about compiling a dictionary. A manga aficionado, Miura has declared herself a particular fan of the "boys' love" subgenre about young homosexual encounters.

Source: http://www.booksfromjapan.jp/authors/...

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,363 reviews
Profile Image for Always Pouting.
568 reviews694 followers
January 9, 2020
Kohei Araki has worked on dictionaries for all of his life and has a deep love for words and their various meanings. With his impending retirement, Araki must find a replacement to work on the dictionary that he has helped to start, an ambitious project undertaken by a department that is understaffed and underfunded. He soon meets Mitsuya Majime, discovered by another one of the staff members, who's quirks and eccentricities make him ideal for the job.

I'm not sure if it's because this book is a translation, but I had a hard time getting into it. The characters were definitely amusing and I enjoyed the relationship between Masashi Nishioka and Majime the most. It was actually really great to see Nishioka's growth and though he's kind of a douche his relationship did make me smile, especially when he realizes he loves her and eventually seems to get past his previous emphasis on more shallow things like looks. Other than that though I did get bored while reading this book at a lot of parts. I especially was annoyed at the jump in years that felt like it came out of no where and when the new character, Midori Kishibe, is introduced.

After that I had to force myself to keep reading, even though the book was still not that bad, I just had gotten into the characters and time line that was already established and felt irritated at this sudden jump. The book itself had some interesting aspects, especially those behind the meaning of language and the dynamics in many of the relationships. Plot wise though it felt sluggish and I wasn't really all that interested in seeing what would happen. Dictionary making is actually just as boring to read about as it sounds like it would be.
Profile Image for Helen.
421 reviews94 followers
June 13, 2017
How can a book about a small department at a publishing house creating a dictionary be so wonderful?

Wrapped up in the main story about the creation of the dictionary there are three different stories about the people in the dictionary department. One is about a man who learns to connect with people, one is a woman who learns not to judge others, and the other is about a man who learns that it's ok to show that you care about things.

The translator has done a great job. There is a lot of discussion about the meaning and origin of words and I'm impressed by how these have been translated from the original Japanese to still make sense in English. A couple of times I had to re-read paragraphs a few times to follow the meanings, but the majority of them were easy to follow.

The geeky side of me enjoyed the bits about describing words and the look at how a dictionary is created. The three stories with their quirky characters provide a warm, human element that I could connect with.

I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. It made me smile while I was reading it and even though the ending has some sad moments it left me happier and I'm glad I took a chance on it.

Also, I love the cover!
Profile Image for Saadia  B..
180 reviews62 followers
August 16, 2021
3.5 Stars

Araki loved dictionaries and bought them from his pocket money. He wanted to become a physiologist or a scholar of the Japanese language so that his name could also come on a dictionary. Worked at Gembu Books for the last 37 years making dictionaries. Araki was retiring soon hence started looking for his replacement.

He found one in the form of Majime from the Sales Department. Araki requested for his transfer which was approved instantly, so Majime became part of the Editorial Department and was given a desk beside Nishioka.

Majime was good with words in terms of their knowledge but lacked communication skills. He met Kaguya, his landlady's grand-daughter who later became his girlfriend. Kaguya was a chef by profession and owned a restaurant, where Majime and his colleagues often met.

The Board gave them approval on one commitment that they will revise the Gembu Student Dictionary of Japanese along with the new dictionary as students were likely to buy the revised version otherwise due to shortage of funds they were to shelf the project which was named as "The Great Passage".

Nishioka was transferred to another department which meant the entire responsibility for the Dictionary Editorial Department laid on Majime's shoulders. Even after 13 years of work, the dictionary still required a lot of checking and rechecking of examples, usage of words and their place as space was premium with so many words trying to get a slot for itself. Majime spent most of his time in the office trying to complete the final version of the dictionary and once it was done, the dictionary was published.

Majime who initially even struggled to strike a conversation with anyone got everything sorted: married Kaguya, worked on a ground breaking dictionary, made lifelong friends and managed a department and became its Head - all with the help of words.

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Profile Image for Tim.
470 reviews590 followers
January 10, 2019
Warning: While I don’t go into many plot details, there are a few lines that hint at some developments. So, those wanting to know nothing about character development can consider this a slight spoiler warning.

A while back I started my review of The Nakano Thrift Shop with the following: “This is the type of book that pretty much all my friends would expect me to hate, but that I always love. A slice of life novel, more on the humorous than serious side and with little to no plot. Strange for someone who is usually found reading horror or fantasy…”

I begin again with that as I can pretty much copy/paste the exact same reaction here. I find that Japanese literature captures slice of life moments better than any other country I’ve read. It’s the combination (for me at least) of mundane life, but with the added twist in all the ways Japanese lifestyle is different from my own (as someone from the US). The little differences are fascinating, and the major ones even more so.

This novel, from what I gather, was a huge success in Japan. After its release, it had both a film adaptation and an eleven episode anime adaptation; both of which were received fairly positively around the globe (though I confess I have not seen either yet).

The plot follows the staff of a publishing house as they work on creating a new dictionary, The Great Passage of the title. It’s a multi-year project, and staff comes and goes as the dictionary takes shape. Though the main story follows the progress of the dictionary, we get many side stories along the way. From newcomers to the project and their reaction to the rest of the office, to people leaving and following their last days on the project. Through these almost short story chapters we get to see the lives of our cast evolve. Life goes in many directions for them, and I’d be lying if I said some didn’t work better than others from a plot standpoint, but all around it leads to some well-developed characters.

The best of these characters, in my opinion, is Majime, who starts off as a new editor in the department at the beginning of the novel. He’s a character I related to a bit more that I was probably supposed to. He enjoys company, but finds it difficult at first to associate with his co-worker, and can more often than not be found with his nose in a book. "No matter how poor he was at communicating with people, with books he could engage in deep, quiet dialogue." His plot is thoughtful, and we see the most development from him… though thankfully the book never tries to “fix” his personality, and his flaws remain consistent.

One area of this book I must praise is how it treats its cast. It’s a common cliché to have academics be humorous, stuffy characters. This book avoids that completely, with one of the early scenes of the novel being a professor and an editor discussing their first dictionaries and joking about how the professor never looked up “dirty words.” While the novel is not an outright comedy, there are many of these humorous moments of dialogue that humanizes the characters and keeps them far from the classic academic cliché.

I find it hard to find many flaws in this novel, as it does pretty much everything it sets out to do successfully. The funny bits are genuinely amusing; the emotional bits succeed and feel earned. If I had to come up with something, I would say that the character of Kishibe changes a bit too fast. It seemed almost as if her attitude towards the job flipped as I sat the book down for the night. I get that there was a time-skip, but it seemed to happen a bit too fast. But that is a very minor complaint.

All around, this is one I greatly enjoyed and would highly suggest to fans of Japanese literature or those who enjoy a slice of life story. A solid 4/5
Profile Image for Liong.
119 reviews64 followers
October 30, 2022
First of all, I thought this is a travel story.

I was wrong and this is a story about making up a new dictionary title "Great Passage."

This book tells about love, friendship, landlord, workmates, and jobs.

The making process of this new dictionary by a publisher involves a few stories and it took many years to complete it.

You will roughly know the process to compile a new dictionary from looking for word definitions, topics, design, sales promotion, and the selection of quality papers and ink to print this new dictionary.

It takes a lot of effort and time to complete the Great Passage.
Profile Image for Melki.
5,659 reviews2,320 followers
June 24, 2017
A dictionary is a ship that crosses the sea of words.

This is the surprisingly fascinating story one man's nearly impossible feat - to assemble a comprehensive dictionary. While I loved the bits about the planning of the dictionary: which words to cut, the choice of paper - not too thick, and not too thin - the story became bogged down with too much backstory, and too many characters' love lives. I'll mostly remember this one for the fantastic quotes I jotted down:

Words and the human heart that creates them are absolutely free, with no connection to the powers that be.

No matter how poor he was in communicating with people, with books he could engage in deep, quiet dialogue.
Profile Image for Sandra.
212 reviews49 followers
December 29, 2020
This definitely was an unusual read from my World Literature section on my Kindle.
Set in Japan this was about a publishing company’s, ever decreasing dictionary department. The type of dictionary a company publishes has kudos, is shows them as a serious concern, even though it may not be a money spinner.
The story opens with Kohei Araki on the brink of retirement trying to find his replacement to carry on his passion to put together a new dictionary called The Great Passage.
This dusty little department is in the annex, a department most employees didn’t even know existed, but through this story we follow this small group of employee’s lives and loves.
I loved the feel of this book, the language and the discussion about Japanese words.
It’s so excitement finding an gem of a book full of surprises. This may not for everyone but it certainly held my attention. Great read.
Profile Image for Ashley.
673 reviews51 followers
June 4, 2018
"Gathering a huge number of words together with as much accuracy as possible was like finding a mirror without distortion. The less distortion in the word-mirror, the greater chance that when you opened up to someone and revealed your inner self, your feelings and thoughts would be reflected there with clarity and depth. You could look together in the mirror and laugh, weep, get angry."

Words are powerful tools and The Great Passage wields them well.
Profile Image for Peter.
12 reviews13 followers
June 16, 2019
One of the benefits of owning a Kindle and having an Amazon Prime membership is that they give you a free book each month (from a selection of six). This month, I downloaded The Great Passage and was pleasantly surprised at its depth and sincerity. If you had told me that I'd enjoy reading a book about writing a dictionary, well I'd probably believe you. But this book is so much more than that.

The Great Passage has two primary themes: the complexity of language and being passionate about a project.

Language is all about trying to convey ones thoughts and feelings as accurately as possible. To do so, we must use the imperfect vehicle of words. Words have subtle nuances, differences in both connotation and denotation, that makes finding exactly the right word a challenge. When talking with a friend or writing a speech to be delivered before millions, we use our words to help others understand what we are thinking. Even now, as I write this review, I am cherrypicking my words to help you understand what I think about this book. Dictionaries, therefore, help us by allowing us to find words that can effectively share our message with as little misunderstanding as possible. But this is a constant battle between the gradual changes of language and the desire to keep things static. Any language is a complex and dynamical system. Over time, languages change and evolve as people use words in novel ways. And that is why we must constantly be on our guard for new words, and new ways of using words.

The second theme Miura explores is how it feels to be truly passionate about something. In this story, the members of the team are all devoted to seeing the creation of their dictionary through to the very end. And that kind of enthusiasm can be infectious when shared correctly. Even for doing something like reading through definitions of thousands of words, if you love the work, it will be truly enjoyable. And it's more than just enjoying the work itself. If the people around you are enthusiastic and help teach you their joy, you can partake of it too.

Ultimately, I greatly enjoyed reading this book. Japanese is a nuanced language, with a great amount of wordplay. The translator did an excellent job of explaining the meanings of things without interrupting the narrative flow. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in communication, be it written or spoken.

Some of my favorite quotes from the book:

"Gathering a huge number of words together with as much accuracy as possible was like finding a mirror without distortion. The less distortion in the word-mirror, the greater chance that when you opened up to someone and revealed your inner self, your feelings and thoughts would be reflected there with clarity and depth. You could look together in the mirror and laugh, weep, get angry."

"Awakening to the power of words—the power not to hurt others but to protect them, to tell them things, to form connections with them—had taught her to probe her own mind and inclined her to make allowances for other people’s thoughts and feelings."

"He says that memories are words. A fragrance or a flavor or a sound can summon up an old memory, but what’s really happening is that a memory that had been slumbering and nebulous becomes accessible in words."
Profile Image for Lauren .
1,699 reviews2,298 followers
January 2, 2022
"However much food you ate, as long as you were alive, you would experience hunger again, and words, however you managed to capture them, would disperse again like phantoms into the void."

From THE GREAT PASSAGE by Shion Miura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter // 2011 Japanese, 2017 English.

A team of lexicographers work together to achieve a dream: to compile a definitive modern Japanese dictionary. The Great Passage follows their work, and their personal lives over 15 years of time.

Miura's characters are lead by Majime, an eccentric and awkward linguist who regularly eavesdrops on people's conversations to hear language in its natural habitat and has trouble expressing himself, so he uses antiquated poetry and metaphors to help. There's the elderly Professor Matsumoto who obsessively scans used books stores for words, the editor Araki, the secretary Mrs. Sasaki, and a younger set of editors, marketers, and proofreaders, etc. Projects are shifted, their department has the reputstion of a "money pit" but they form a tight-knit group working towards this publication.

There were some diversions into character's romantic lives which went a little afield for me, but others may like this part of the story. Some interesting work/culture observations as well, and just how different office politics, authority structure and chain of command differs from the work environment in my country.

Overall it was an endearing story of the beauty of words and language. Perfect for book lovers and many beautiful passages about the power of words:

"Awakening to the power of words—the power not to hurt others but to protect them, to tell them things, to form connections with them—had taught her to probe her own mind and inclined her to make allowances for other people’s thoughts and feelings."
Profile Image for Huy.
731 reviews
August 13, 2016
Cuốn sách nói về những người làm công việc biên soạn từ điển, nghe đã thấy chán, cộng thêm cái tiết tấu kể chuyện đều đều chậm rãi kéo dài suốt 20 năm mà chờ hoài chẳng thấy tiến lên chắc hẳn sẽ khiến ai đó thiếu kiên nhẫn nản lòng.
Thế nhưng, "Người đan chữ xếp thuyền" lại khiến tôi đọc không dứt ra được, câu chuyện tưởng chừng không có chút gì hấp dẫn lại khiến tôi cảm động bởi cái sự giản dị của nó, cái cách tác giả kể câu chuyện một cách chân tình, không có cảm giác loè loẹt tô vẽ đã đi vào lòng tôi lúc nào chẳng hay. Cái tình yêu vô bờ bến của các nhân vật trong cuốn sách dành cho ngôn từ quả thực rất đáng ngưỡng mộ, họ sẵn sàng hy sinh thời gian, tiền bạc, tuổi trẻ của mình cho một công việc tưởng chừng không có hồi kết, thành quả thì ở xa tít tắp dễ khiến người ta bỏ cuộc. Và điều tác giả làm được, đó là khiến tôi tin tưởng rằng trong cuộc đời ngoài kia vẫn có những con người lặng lẽ âm thầm cống hiến cuộc đời của mình cho những công việc như thế, điều ấy không hiểu sao khiến tôi cảm thấy được an ủi vô cùng.
Profile Image for Jonas.
173 reviews13 followers
August 22, 2021
The Great Passage is just the kind of book I love. The focus of the narrative is love of the written word as well as the passion and dedication of the dictionary editorial staff for words. The book explores the relationships within the dictionary editorial department and the lives of three characters outside of work, but the primary focus is on the life, growth, and development of Majime. I love this character and I believe fans of The Big Bang Theory would as well. I love how he turns the first floor of the boarding house into his own library. His relationship with his landlord is so sweet and touching and leads to a relationship with her granddaughter.

Nishioka is such a funny and memorable character. He has his own story arc (middle third of the book), with his own growth and development in his personal/love life and professional/work life. In the final third, we meet Kishibe. She finds her place in the dictionary editorial department and her own love interest along the way. All characters have a reverence for the professor and his protege, Araki. The Great Passage is a touching and moving story.

I experienced this story across all media. I read the Kindle version while listening to the Audible narration. The narrator is one of my favorites and he did a masterful job. I also watched the Anime (Japanese animation) series on Amazon Prime Video (in Japanese with English subtitles). I loved all versions and it has inspired me to learn Japanese. I bought a Japanese/English dictionary and am using the Duolingo App. This book has left a lasting impression on me.
Profile Image for Chậu Tưởng Kí.
79 reviews28 followers
August 19, 2016
Đọc xong thấy tác giả đặt cái tựa sách quá sức ý nghĩa <3. Mỗi chương là lời của một "người đan chữ xếp thuyền" làm cho công việc biên soạn từ điển trở nên sống động và chân thật hơn. Mình rất thích chương nội tâm của Nishioka và chuyện tình của ảnh với Remi dù thật tình là không liên quan lắm. Đoạn cuối ảnh vui mừng vì được in tên lên phần dẫn của Daitokai thấy cưng ảnh gì đâu. Hây mọi người, vất vả rồi \m/
Đọc xong biết thêm nhiều thứ hay ho ghê ví dụ cái miếng bọc ở ngoài sách (mình chẳng bao giờ vứt đi) gọi là obi :D
ôi nhưng đối thoại còn nhiều chỗ kịch quá .____. người bình thường mà nói chuyện với mình như thế dù có đam mê cách mấy cũng nổi hết da gà lên thôi.
Profile Image for Satomi.
775 reviews13 followers
July 10, 2017
I downloaded this book with using the benefit of "Kindle First" in May 2017. I was curious how it is translated into English, since this book cannot be discussed without Japanese words and phrases.

Brilliant!! The translation is so great and flawless. I read this one with both in original Japanese and the translation, the feel is the same.

I want to recommend this book to all the non-Japanese people, and I would like to hear what they think!!
Profile Image for Kaora.
559 reviews280 followers
May 26, 2018
However much food you ate, as long as you were alive, you would experience hunger again, and words, however you managed to capture them, would disperse again like phantoms into the void.

A beautifully written book that makes me wish that I could read and understand Japanese to truly appreciate the masterpiece that this is.

In Japanese like English, words have many different meanings and we rely on things like context to give us clues. This book follows several people in a department trying to make a dictionary. Words have a vast number of meanings, so to define words in a way that is relevant and useful to its users is a struggle, but with all these words at our disposal it is still hard to find the right ones for any situation.

I enjoyed the journey this book took me into the "sea of words" and I recommend it for anyone who loves "words" as much as I do.

And if you want something a little more humorous about the different meanings of words look up the comedian Ismo on the word "ass".
Profile Image for Valkyrie Vu.
179 reviews85 followers
October 2, 2016
Đọc xong cuốn này tự dưng có cảm hứng đọc từ điển :)) . Trước giờ dùng từ điển hoài nhưng chưa bao giờ thắc mắc xem chúng được tạo ra như thế nào .

Đây là một trong số ít những cuốn sách mà mình ưng cái tựa . Rất giàu chất thơ . Tuy cái bìa không hiểu sao cứ làm mình liên tưởng hoài đến ngôn tình . :)) . Đây là cuốn sách lý tưởng của những người yêu ngôn từ vì nó nói về một đám người ngộ chữ tối ngày bơi trong những con chữ :)) . Trong truyện mình thích nhất là Nishioka , tuy lúc nào cũng bị miêu tả là hời hợt và phù phiếm nhưng xét ra lại là người có tâm và có tình nhất trong truyện . Hint của Majime vs Nishioka trong truyện hơi bị nhiều và hơi bị nặng đô làm con tim fangirl của mình suýt thì trụy mấy lần . :)) . Cái đoạn Nishioka đối phó với lão giảng viên mất dạy ý , mình chỉ muốn gào lên : THÂM TÌNH ĐÓ !!! BIỂU HIỆN CỦA TÌNH YÊU ĐÍCH THỰC ĐÓ . =))

Đọc cuốn này xong càng thấy khâm phục thêm tinh thần của người Nhật , làm việc không mệt mỏi và là những perfectionist đích thực <3.

Một điều cuối mà mình rất thích ở cuốn này là nó rất thân thiện với LGBTQ. Mấy đoạn định nghĩa lại "tình yêu" với "giới tính" thực sự rất ý nghĩa vs người đọc là queer như mình <3 . Đoán chị tác giả là hủ :)))
Profile Image for Calzean.
2,590 reviews1 follower
May 23, 2017
A fascinating and entertaining story of a small group of dedicated people who worked over 15 years to produce a new Japanese dictionary. I especially enjoyed the sections where there was a debate about a specific term or word, which highlighted the nuances of the Japanese language, are truly gobsmacking. I now fear writing any word knowing how easily the meaning could be misunderstood.
The complexities of producing a Japanese dictionary including the five proofs, type of paper, editing to fit definitions on a page, choosing which words to include or not, maintaining currency of words all made the book a fascinating read.
The book also was a feel good story as it delved in the editor, his staff, and their relationships to show that lexicographers may be oddballs but are people with immense skills, quirky personalities and an attention to detail that is formidable.
Profile Image for Jeanne.
931 reviews64 followers
November 3, 2018
I downloaded Shion Miura's The Great Passage from Amazon's 2018 World Book Day selections, but I didn't feel like reading a book about a Trail of Tears-like mass exodus, which is what I believed it was from the title. The Great Passage sat on my "shelf" for months, unread. It actually has far too much good company on that shelf. (So many books, so little time.)

The Great Passage is actually a charming novel about writing dictionaries, which was translated from the original Japanese. It dovetails well with Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, a lovely memoir from a lexicographer that I read earlier this year. Had Kory Stamper read The Great Passage in the original or are the stories of lexicography so universal that anyone from the field would describe lexicographey similarly? Regardless, who knew that reading about dictionary-writing and writers could be fun? (True confession: I read dictionaries and encyclopedias – and cereal boxes – as a child.)

Where does the title come from? The Great Passage is the dictionary the book's lexicographers are writing. Japanese dictionaries apparently have much more interesting names than those in English: Wide Garden of Words, Great Forest of Words, and Great Sea of Words are three of the more interesting names of the real dictionaries cited.

It's also a great passage for Majime, the book's central character, who is transformed over the course of the book from a geeky, awkward man, the sort of man that inspires others to want to kick sand into his face, to Director of the Dictionary Editorial Department. Imagine Clark Kent and Superman.

If Superman was a nerdy lexicographer.

When [Majime] had first transferred to the Dictionary Editorial Department, he hadn’t known how to proceed with work or get along with his coworkers. He’d felt as if he’d been blindfolded and sent to grope his way through a labyrinth. (p. 172)

It's not only Majime who is transformed. Nishioka, the partying, superficial man in their office, engages with their work and, as a result, life. He found himself falling in love with his "dog" of a girlfriend and considered proposing to her. What would she say? He had no idea, but he was done averting his eyes from his real feelings. No more masquerading. (p. 111)

Kishibe had a similar experience: Awakening to the power of words—the power not to hurt others but to protect them, to tell them things, to form connections with them—had taught her to probe her own mind and inclined her to make allowances for other people’s thoughts and feelings. (pp. 156-157).

This is a book about obsessions and passion. Majime, even while courting Hayashi, becomes obsessed by words and his attempts to decode them – and it's hard not to follow him as he attempts to distinguish between two Japanese words. (Don't know Japanese? No problem.) Nishioka, in describing his work with dictionaries said, “It was tedious at first, but once I get into it I lose track of time.” (p. 111)

This is a book of hidden treasures: of words, of course, but also people.
Profile Image for Stephen.
443 reviews48 followers
March 18, 2020
A quiet read but fascinating for its peek into a slice of Japanese culture I was unaware of--a fondness for dictionaries. The Great Passage traces the work and lives of employees of the fictional Gembu Dictionary Editorial Department. It is about passion: for words, language and craft. Passion that spans a lifetime.
Words are necessary for creation. Kishibe imagined the primordial ocean that covered the surface of the earth long ago--a soupy, swirling liquid in a state of chaos. Inside every person there is a similar ocean. Only when that ocean was struck by the lighting of words could all come into being. Love, the human heart...Words gave things forms they could rise out of the dark sea.

A dictionary is a repository of human wisdom not because it contains an accumulation of words but because it embodies true hope, wrought over time by indomitable spirits.
I wondered if it was true this reverence for dictionaries. My daughter queried her Japanese friends and found that indeed personal dictionaries are a thing in Japan and apparently widely used. Her friends related how as students in Japan they kept a dictionary handy to look up words they didn't know, and now find them vital for studying in the US. Her roommate keeps one front and center on her desk.

If you liked Kory Stampers Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, you'll certainly like The Great Passage. If you like the Gembu DEP revere words, you'll like The Great Passage. If you have any interest in Japanese culture or just want a quiet, well written book that explores a unique slice of life, you'll like The Great Passage. Winner of Japan's Booksellers Award in 2012, a film version was released in 2013, winning many awards in Japan and Japan's entry in the 86th Academy Awards for Best Foreign films. It has also been adapted as an anime series. Bottomline: Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Jemppu.
499 reviews90 followers
September 13, 2022
I was surprised how familiar this felt from the very beginning; easy to listen narration from start to finish, on educationally/occupationally/preoccupationally close topics of book making, and linguistic peculiarities. Plus, in Japanese setting, which has also always been near and dear fellow culture and language of interest for me.

The romance plot, I must admit felt a bit thrown in - didn't move, or bother one's focus one way or another. But, that might be just because my mind was quite adequately enough served by the various aspects of the book making geekery alone.

This felt like a curious one to have been picked for translation, too, as it resolves a lot around uniquely Japanese linguistic concepts. The translation is inescapably to chafe against itself as the words which have no English equivalents would have to be kept as they are, in Japanese, thus making them appear very clunky and inorganic in the context of the story; where words and mundane aspects of life need to be explained for a 'foreign observer'.

Yet, this might've also been just another aspect to serve as an intellectual stimulant to keep the work that much more engaging.

While this didn't pull much heartstrings, or move me beyond most casually familiar observations and fixations, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Surprisingly, it spoke one's own language.

Reading updates.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,767 reviews213 followers
August 9, 2022
The Great Passage is the name of a dictionary intended to be the most comprehensive of the Japanese language ever compiled. The process of compiling it forms the basis of the plot. This is also a story of friendship, dedication, teamwork, and interpersonal relationships. Many challenges must be surmounted by a sparse and underfunded staff. The title represents both the outcome of the project and the personal growth that occurs in the team members.

It is set in Japan and infused with cultural elements – foods, customs, and business practices. The characters are eccentric and colorful. The author adds a good bit of humor into the conversations among them. It will appeal to those who love quirky characters, language, or vocabulary. It also contains an educational element of the many aspects that go into the creation of a dictionary (quite a few of which I had never thought of before).
Profile Image for Quang.
94 reviews24 followers
January 30, 2021
Tiểu thuyết Nhật đầu tiên của mình!

Các bạn có bao giờ tự hỏi là trên một tủ sách tập hợp tất cả các loại sách thì cuốn nào là ... cô đơn nhất không? Đúng rồi đó, từ điển cô đơn nhất. Nó không có được sự lôi cuốn theo mạch truyện của truyện trinh thám, không có được những tình tiết dựng tóc gáy của truyện ma, và càng không có được những khoảnh khắc lãng mạn của ngôn tình, tiểu thuyết lãng mạn... Từ điển - một tập hợp toàn chữ và chữ, đôi khi là hình minh họa (bây giờ đã có từ điển tranh ảnh) thì mở cuốn từ điển ra ta chỉ có ném lại nó một cụm từ : vừa nặng vừa chán. Ta chỉ tìm tới từ điển khi thực sự bế tắc trong việc cắt nghĩa một từ trong tiếng mẹ đẻ hoặc ngôn ngữ thứ hai, thứ ba chúng ta đang theo học. Còn không, cuốn từ điển nặng như chì ấy sẽ bị vứt vào xó cho đến khi đóng bụi. Bụi sẽ càng dày hơn trong thời đại số, các app từ điển trên smartphone cũng như các trang web từ điển online miễn phí đã trở nên thông dụng. Cô đơn lại càng thêm hiu quạnh !
Thế nhưng, cuốn sách "Người đan chữ xếp thuyền" cho tôi một cái nhìn khác, một cái nhìn nhân văn hơn và trân trọng hơn với từ điển bởi đằng sau tập sách dày cộp toàn chữ ấy, chính là bao công sức. tâm huyết, thời gian, sự hi sinh cá nhân thầm lặng cho đam mê của một người hay một nhóm người quyết chí cống hiến cho đại dương ngôn ngữ bao la vô tận. Cuốn sách kể về một nhóm người biên tập từ điển và nhân vật chính là một anh chàng có cái tên nghe phát biết luôn tính cách: Majime (tiếng Nhật có nghĩa là siêng năng và cũng có nghĩa là nghiêm túc). Ở anh hội tụ các phẩm chất phù hợp với công việc biên soạn từ điển. Sau khi được phát hiện ra tố chất và thuyên chuyển công tác về Phòng biên soạn từ điển, hành trình gian khổ làm nên cuốn từ điển Daitokai của anh Siêng Năng bắt đầu. Cũng từ đó, tác giả tường tận vẽ ra cho người đọc thấy từng phân đoạn nhỏ trong quá trình biên soạn từ điển nó khó khăn và gian khổ như thế nào trong 15 năm trời. Từ những việc nhỏ nhặt như note các từ vựng mới vào thẻ mẫu câu, sắp xếp thẻ, soạn bản thảo, ngoại giao với các giảng viên ngôn ngữ nhờ họ giúp hoàn thành bản thảo, đọc morat, sửa morat, kiểm duyệt, làm bìa, thương thảo với công ty giấy để chọn ra mẫu giấy "cực phẩm" phù hợp với quyển từ điển ( đây là phần làm mình hứng thú nhất), cân bằng ngân sách , và cả những vấn đề như bị đì, bị dị nghị cho việc làm từ điển quá tốn kém tiền bạc các kiểu ... Nếu quyển sách chỉ có thế thì nghe qua sẽ cực kì chán vì chả khác những video How It's Made trên channel khoa học phải không? Cái làm nên sự khác biệt cho cuốn tiểu thuyết này chính là tác giả đã thổi hồn, những tâm hồn sinh động, nhân văn và đậm chất văn hóa Nhật Bản vào trong những nhân vật phải làm những công việc cực kì nhàm chán, khô khan ở Phòng từ điển. Vượt qua những đặc điểm tẻ nhạt, dở tệ trong giao tiếp, và có phần hơi lập dị mà người người vấn gán cho các thành viên làm công việc biên soạn từ điển, suốt ngày cắm mặt vào các con chữ, thì ở trong sâu con tim họ đó là những ngọn lửa luôn cháy bỏng khát khao làm bạn với từ ngữ để một ngày họ có thể dừng từ ngữ truyền tải tâm tình mà bấy lâu bị nén kín cho người mà họ quan tâm, yêu thương. Cũng từ đó, cùng sự phát triển mạch truyện, những tình cảm hết sức mộc mạc, chân thành giữa người với người được vẽ nên qua những hành động từ nhỏ nhất cho tới thiêng liêng vô cùng. Từ cái nháy mắt đáng yêu của bà chủ nhà Take, cho tới tập thư tình độc nhất vô nhị của ông ngố Majime, hay là bữa ăn khuya hiếm hoi của đôi vợ chồng Majime - Kaguya, hay bức thư cảm ơn đầy xúc động của thầy Matsumoto... Tất cả những chi tiết ấy, làm nên 2 cuốn từ điển lớn đáng ngưỡng mộ. Một cuốn từ điển quốc ngữ Nhật Bản Daitokai dày 2900 trang và một cuốn từ điển về tình người dày 384 trang.
Nhận xét ngắn về cách dịch của dịch giả Nguyễn Kim Hoàng: cực kì thích cách dịch này vì khi đọc cá nhân mình thấy không có dấu vết của việc chuyển ngữ mà như thể đây là do một tác giả người Việt viết vậy. Mình nghĩ đây là điều làm mình ưng nhất ở bản tiếng Việt của cuốn sách này.

*Tái bút: 14 ngày cho quyển này vì khúc giữa hơi chán, nhưng chương cuối đã làm nên tất cả. 5 sao cũng vì chương cuối !
Profile Image for Bri.
17 reviews6 followers
April 23, 2017
Holy flipsicles, this is probably going to be one of my favorite books of the year, and I literally stumbled across it on accident. I was looking around NetGalley for my "second" (the real second title was a bust) title to review, and I liked the description of this book, so I picked it up.

The book is narrated by multiple characters, each story revolving around the creation of The Great Passage, a "comprehensive 2,900-page tome of the Japanese language." My favorite narrator is by far Mitsuya Majime. He is completely scatterbrained but passionate about his work.

First, I love quirky people who have really complex thought processes and people who seek to examine the world through a different lens. Some of the thoughts in this book resonated with me as things that I think about, but can't figure out how to express. It was really refreshing to hear people talking about how lonely a Ferris Wheel is, or wonder about things like "What if the interior of a room mirrors the interior of its inhabitant?"

"Thinking is no problem, but conveying my thoughts to other people is hard for me. The simple truth is, I just don't fit in." THIS. IS. ME.

Also, all of the main characters are well rounded. You get to peek into their lives and see what goes on behind the scenes of the dictionary work. The plot isn't very complex, you're literally following through the entire creation of the dictionary to publication, but I was enamored by the everyday lives and thoughts that the characters had.

I think Shion Miura and Juliet Winters-Carpenter did a fantastic job working together and I would definitely read other works by the two of them.
Profile Image for Deanna.
921 reviews53 followers
January 7, 2020
3.5 uneven but not unhappy stars.

I enjoyed the central “plot” and details of creating a bold new dictionary. And I would say this book is specially and only for word nerds.

The characters are likable and interesting-ish but lacking the strength to carry a book.

The plot lines around the characters as separate from the dictionary project—and it’s not easy to separate them are gentle rather than gripping, though the author did get me to care in some way about each of them.

I would have found the book a little more engaging if not for the plentiful narrative telling rather than active showing, and the distraction of language that’s a bit awkward—is it the translation, the writing, the cultural difference? I have little experience with Japanese literature beyond the mighty Murakami.

It’s a nice read, and one I’ll remember for the dictionary word nuggets more than anything else.
Profile Image for micha.
249 reviews13 followers
April 21, 2019
Toller Roman über die Liebe zu Büchern und Worten. Mit einer irrsinnigen Hingabe, die nur die Japaner kennen. Shion Miura beleuchtet die Geschichte aus mehreren Perspektiven, und eigentlich sind alle Figuren symapthisch und bekommen ausreichend Profil. Der Knaller ist dann der "verschüttete" Liebesbrief ganz am Ende von Majime an seine Frau Kaguya. Der Roman ist auch großartig konzipiert, einfach aber effektiv.

THE GREAT PASSAGE hätte eigentlich 5 Sterne verdient; einige Längen im letzten Drittel aber fallen leider ungut auf. Auch habe ich den Eindruck, dass Shion Miura noch etwas besser kann, und irgendwo ein Meisterwerk schlummern muss. Bislang sind aber erst zwei Romane der Naoki-Preisträgerin in westliche Sprachen übersetzt. Eine dicke Empfehlung, jedenfalls.
Profile Image for Lady Clementina ffinch-ffarowmore.
742 reviews163 followers
April 14, 2020
The Great Passage is a Japanese book first published in 2011 and translated in English in 2017 by Juliet Winters Carpenter. The dictionary department of Gembu Books is undertaking a new mammoth dictionary project, The Great Passage—but the one capable full-time employee Kohei Araki (whose interest in words was piqued at a young age) is about to retire (and thus can come in only part time), and the only other employee, Nishioka is not a really committed lexicographer. But on Nishioka’s recommendation, Araki poaches from another department, a young man, Mitsuya Majime who has a similar interest, even though he doesn’t initially seem confident of his abilities. Together, Araki and Majime, along with Professor Matsumoto, their editor, begin on a journey to compile their ambitious project—with them is their assistant Mrs Sasaki, and along the way others including a new employee, Midori Kashibe, and endless students and collaborators. The dictionary takes a long time coming—over a decade—in which time the department finds itself having to devote attention away from it and to other projects like revising previous dictionaries and putting together an encyclopaedia on a popular anime series. Alongside we also follow the lives of the characters—the people associated with the department—their lives, interests, and romances—and also how being associated with dictionaries, and words specifically changes their view of things.

This was a rather interesting read for me—the opening, learning Araki’s story and how he became interested in words reminded me very much of another Japanese title I read recently, Forest of Wool and Steel. The whole process of dictionary making and the level of effort, and indeed time it takes was something that really came across to me in this book—also the nuances of the language itself (This is something I’d noticed before in a travel programme I watch where the hosts are also at times confused with the various characters in place names and not clear as to the exact meaning of the word.) Collecting definitions of words from different contributors, making certain they meet standards, and even that the illustrations are not misrepresenting the word they are associated with, besides going through several proofs makes the task a labour of love indeed. From the nature and thickness of the paper to of course each word included (or left out), every aspect consumes time and attention.

I also enjoyed following the personal stories of the different characters as well—Nishioka brings in a lot of humour (though he isn’t the only source) and improves as the story goes on (initially he was a little obnoxious I guess), and sees the project through the way he can, besides supporting Majime and others (in a fun way). Majime finds love (he and his wife suit each other’s temperaments rather well—and both are somewhat eccentric), as does Miss Kishibe. Professor Matsumoto too is eccentric in his own way, obsessed with words, and wanting to use every opportunity to truly understand the meaning of words—his idea is that one can define it best if one experiences it. Since the journey is a long one, one witnesses life’s ups and downs too—the happy moments and sad. The story doesn’t move continuously in time-there are lapses where certain events have taken place.

I also loved how the actual interactions with words, learning new meanings, or just understanding what words meant specifically impacted the characters’ lives as well—giving expression to their vision or simply helping them understand or interpret things in a specific way. Even Nishioka who is mechanical in his approach to his work compared to others begins to feel for the project, and Midori Kishibe who previous worked in the fashion magazine department and becomes associated with it begins to understand what dictionary-making is all about and becomes committed to the task. The end is bittersweet and also realistic—reaching the end of one project, simply means beginning another.

I enjoyed this one a lot (and yes, Majime’s endless collection of books seemed like a place I’ll be at at some point—and I loved that there were two cats in the story too!)
Profile Image for Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ....
1,862 reviews43 followers
September 26, 2019
The Great Passage is a book about words and their place in our world. Language is close to the heart of any reader and for that reason alone I thought I might love this book. Unfortunately id didn't work for me. I felt it was clunky, and lacked emotion. I believe it could be due to the translation, or the fact that I am not Japanese and do not know enough about how the literature of that area is written and what it is trying to impart. But, I never connected to the story or characters.

The story is about Kohei Araki who has created dictionaries throughout his life. He loves words and language, and enjoys exploring the various meanings for words. He is retiring soon and must find a replacement to work on his latest dictionary. It is the one he has always wanted to publish. It is his passion project and he needs to find someone who will have his passion for the project. Luckily, he meets Mitsuya Majime who fits the bill perfectly. The book follows the progress of the dictionary and the decline of Araki.

The book is born just as Araki dies. That structure and mirroring is beautiful. However, there was something cold about the book. There were elements that should have pulled my heartstrings. Unfortunately it never happened. The pacing was odd. At one point the book made a significant jump in time without any real purpose to it that I could see. It didn't add to the story in any way. Overall the book was boring.
Profile Image for Karolina.
Author 10 books840 followers
April 25, 2018
I really liked the plot itself - the making of dictionaries. However, the way book handles the important topics such as love, attitude to work and friendship is really naïve. It's a good Sunday read, but unfortunately even though it talks so much about the beauty and meaning of works, the way it's written is just okay.

There is quite a lot of attention placed on human interactions - be it between the boss and the employee, between co-workers, between lovers, but the way it's described just made me cringe a bit. At parts it felt like it was written by a teenager - people falling in love at first sight, marriages that are 100% happy, even if the guy spends all of his life at work, great relationships at work and people being happy at the thought of having a month-long "camp" at the office. No depth :(
Profile Image for Vishy.
668 reviews209 followers
January 10, 2021
I have wanted to read Shion Miura's 'The Great Passage' ever since I discovered it last year.

'The Great Passage' is about the making of a Japanese dictionary. The main characters work for a publisher which brings out dictionaries. The editorial department decides to bring out a new, big dictionary of the Japanese language. They recruit a person called Majime from the sales department, who is unsuited for his current job but who is a word-nerd. The rest of the book is about how the dictionary project proceeds through different phases and what challenges the main characters face. There are also a couple of romantic stories which form part of the book.

I enjoyed reading 'The Great Passage'. This book is a beautiful love letter to words and the art of making dictionaries. I learnt a lot about dictionary projects and the art and science of lexicography through the book. It is amazing how long it takes to compile a dictionary from scratch. In this story it takes 15 years. One of my favourite parts of the book was about the paper which is used in dictionaries and how the paper company designs the right kind of paper for this particular dictionary. It is very fascinating. The book inspired me to dip into a dictionary I have and order a couple of more dictionaries 😁

One of the things I love about contemporary Japanese literature is this. Sometimes Japanese authors take a field of study or a thing or an activity or a profession and write a beautiful love letter to it and shine a light on its glorious beauty. Yoko Ogawa's 'The Housekeeper and the Professor' is about the beauty of mathematics and baseball, Ito Ogawa's 'The Restaurant of Love Regained' is about the pleasures of food, Natsu Miyashita's 'The Forest of Wool and Steel' is about the beauty of piano tuning. Shion Miura's 'The Great Passage' follows in this beautiful tradition and sings an ode to the beauty of words and dictionaries.

I'll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

"Words were necessary for creation. Kishibe imagined the primordial ocean that covered the surface of the earth long ago—a soupy, swirling liquid in a state of chaos. Inside every person there was a similar ocean. Only when that ocean was struck by the lightning of words could all come into being. Love, the human heart . . . Words gave things form so they could rise out of the dark sea."

Have you read 'The Great Passage'? What do you think about it?
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