Reading notes: 舟を編む, part 5 and Review

Finally, the last chapter of 舟を編む! As I haven’t taken many notes for this chapter, I will also write my review of the novel in the same post.

Reading Notes


The missing word on the fourth galley proof is 血潮・ちしお which means both “spurting blood” and “hot blood” or “hot-bloodedness”. Hence Majime’s joke 「血潮が凍る事態です」

p. 312 The monk Xuanzang

There is a reference to the Chinese story of monk Xuanzang (in Japanese: 玄奘三蔵・げんじょうさんぞう) who travelled to India (called 天竺・てんじく at the time) to bring sacred books (経典・きょうてん) of Buddhism to China. The story of the monk Xuanzang has inspired the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West.

p. 312  Zenkai

There is also a reference to the priest Zenkai 禅海和尚・ぜんかいおしょう (和尚・おしょう means “a senior Buddhist priest”). I never heard this name before, so I had to check the Wikipedia page. Zenkai lived during the Edo period. One day, after visiting a temple, he saw that people and horses had to use a dangerous kind of bridge or path, going along the cliff, to reach the temple (?). I don’t know exactly how the bridge looked like. I guess there was a river and along the river a dangerous cliff. People and horses had to pass some kind of suspended bridge maybe? Anyway, many fell and died. Seeing this, Zenkai decided to dig out a tunnel through the cliff. It took him 30 years to complete it.


I am very happy to have finished this novel, it was a very challenging one and I know that I didn’t grasp all the jokes or word games that are in it. But I am glad and satisfied with how I read this book.

This is the first novel I read in Japanese that is not by Higashino Keigo. It took me several months to read it, mainly because I left the book untouched for long periods of time between two chapters. Reading this book required a lot of concentration and I always needed to make a pause when I reached the end of a chapter.

If you have watched the film adaptation, the story is pretty much the same. The whole novel covers about 15 years during which Majime works at the dictionary department of Genbu publishers and gives form to professor Matsumoto’s dream: the new dictionary 「大渡海」.

I liked the film very much but I much more appreciated the novel. First of all, the novel is full of humour. There are also a lot of moments filled with emotion and tension. The reader is taken into the adventure of the 「大渡海」like all the characters that come across Majime. In my case, seeing the little team working hard to produce the 「大渡海」echoed my own efforts to read this book in Japanese. As their work is to get the correct definition for words, I felt like I was a part of the team myself, anytime I looked up words in my dictionary.

The many references that fill this novel (like the two mentioned above, for example) were what made it challenging to read to me. But it also arose my curiosity and I learnt a lot of things through them. There is always a temptation to just continue reading and not pay attention to these references. They are not essential to understanding the story. I may have missed a lot of humour and wits by laziness or lack of concentration. But I also worked my way through many parts that didn’t make any sense at first. When the meaning of an obscure reference shows itself, it provides a real sense of achievement!

I would not recommend 「舟を編む」to Japanese learners looking for a novel easy to read. But if you are looking for a challenging book, why not? As the whole novel turns around the making of a dictionary and covers every aspect of the process, anyone interested in words and books should be more than happy with this novel.