A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

This post was contributed by Catherine Engh, Ph.D.

Core Text

Ozeki, Ruth. A Tale for the Time Being (New York: Viking, 2013).


This novel begins when Ruth, a Japanese-American writer based in Waletown, British Columbia, finds a hello kitty lunchbox on the beach that carries within it the diary of Nao, a California-born teenager who moved to Japan with her family after her father lost his Silicon Valley job in the 90s. As Ruth becomes immersed in the drama of Nao’s life, she begins to worry that Nao’s journal was carried across the Pacific in a gyre after the 2011 tsunami. The catastrophe that looms ominously over Nao’s story is just one among many crises that she faces. After failing to find a job as a computer programmer, Nao’s father makes several failed suicide attempts and becomes a “hikikomori” or recluse. Nao herself faces violent bullying at school and online. She drops out of school only to then unwittingly come under the wing of a madame who coerces her into going on dates with older men. The dot-com bubble of the 90s, the bad economic conditions in Japan in the early aughts, the academic pressures placed on Japanese teenagers, the internet-fueled sexualization of young girls, the militarism of the second-world war and the “war on terror,” and even the mass extinction of species are all enveloped by the looming crisis of climate change in this novel. The book is not, however, without hope: Nao spends a summer with her 104-year-old great-grandmother Jiko, an anarchist-feminist writer turned Buddhist monk, who teaches Nao how to “sit zazen,” develop her “superpower” and “withstand astonishing amounts of pain and hardship.”

Teaching Resources

  • Preface to 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan, Richard Samuels. In 3.11, Richard Samuels offers the first broad scholarly assessment of the disaster’s impact on Japan’s government and society. The events of March 2011 occurred after two decades of social and economic malaise-as well as considerable political and administrative dysfunction at both the national and local levels-and resulted in national soul-searching. Political reformers saw in the tragedy cause for hope: an opportunity for Japan to remake itself. The Preface to this book could be taught to give more historical context on the catastrophe that is both the first and last event of Ozeki’s novel, as well as on the economic conditions in Japan at the time that her story is set.
  • From Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global, Ursula Heise. Sense of Place and Sense of Planet analyzes the relationship between the imagination of the global and the ethical commitment to the local in environmentalist thought and writing from the 1960s to the present. Part two, which focuses on conceptualizations of environmental danger, might be particularly relevant to the book. This section connects environmentalist and ecocritical thought with the interdisciplinary field of risk theory in the social sciences, arguing that environmental justice theory and ecocriticism stand to benefit from closer consideration of the theories of cosmopolitanism that have arisen in this field from the analysis of transnational communities at risk. Such an analysis might help students think through the demands that Nao’s diary makes on the American reader as it details the risks to which she is exposed after moving to Japan. Is the act of reading Nao’s story a first step towards a cosmopolitan environmental politics? If so, what does that politics look like?
  • The Cambridge Companion to Asian American Literature, edited by Crystal Parikh and Daniel Kim. 
  • “Rethinking Embodiment and Hybridity” by Cathy J. Schlund-Vials and Cynthia Wu. This Companion explores the variety of historical periods, literary genres, and cultural movements affecting the development of Asian American literature. Covering subjects from immigrant narratives and internment literature to contemporary race studies and the problem of translation, this Companion provides insight into the myriad traditions that have shaped the Asian American literary landscape. The essay on hybridity could be particularly useful in thinking about how Nao translates Japanese culture for an American reader, and how she herself negotiates between dual American and Japanese roots. However, this companion also has a section on the importance of the second world war for Asian American literature, which might be relevant if a goal in reading the novel is to focus on Nao’s family history, and the anti-war position the novel develops.

Discussion Questions

The “suspense” we feel about Nao’s fate with regard to the tsunami is at times hard to distinguish from the suspense we feel about Nao’s survival and well-being with regard to the other traumatic events she undergoes.

  1. How does the effect of suspense help us to understand the human dimensions of “disaster” and, with it, the blind spots of spectacular portrayals of climate crisis?

If one source of hope for the future is given by “old Jiko,” another is given by the reader who Nao interpolates into her story. 

  1. What responsibilities does Ruth bear to Nao as the reader of her story? 
  2. How does Ruth respond to Nao’s diary, and how do her concerns about Nao translate into action? 
  3. What responsibilities might we as American readers bear towards the voices and testimonies of members of transnational communities most at risk of climate disaster?

Ruth often tries to verify the details in Nao’s story as we indeed might be tempted to do as American readers.

  1. Should we be skeptical of this impulse or should we credit it as a part of Ruth’s and our own necessarily limited effort to understand the position from which Nao speaks?

The novel contrasts the vulnerability of Nao with the relative security of her former school-mates and of Ruth.

  1. How might we in turn reflect on our relative security in comparison to citizens of the global south?
  2. Why might story-telling be crucial to the process of first acknowledging and then addressing global inequalities?