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1. Masuji Ono
Ono is the novel’s protagonist and narrator. He is, at the time of the narration, an aging retired artist in post-war Japan. He has a somewhat mysterious past, which he reveals in small pieces, and it seems that his role in the art world once involved encouraging Japanese imperialism and nationalism during the Second World War. He expresses some nostalgia for the height of those movements and some resentment of both Japan’s post-war American leadership and the younger generation’s acquiescence to it. For the sake of his younger daughter’s marriage prospects, though, he spends much of the novel trying to publicly make amends for or paper over that past. As the story wears on, Ono begins to reveal slowly that the trajectory of his life has perhaps been both sadder and more ordinary than he had previously implied. Though he remains passionate about art, his primary interests and pastimes now involve home and family, especially his young grandson, Ichiro.
Setsuko is Ono’s older daughter. By the time the novel begins, she is already married and living in another city with her husband and son. Setsuko is strong-willed and somewhat uptight. It is she who encourages her father to repair the damage caused by his earlier political views for the sake of her younger sister’s marriage negotiations—although, later on, she and Ono disagree over the content and meaning of those conversations. Setsuko routinely irritates her father by disagreeing with him and by establishing strict rules for her son, Ichiro. However, Setsuko and Matsuji Ono tend to see one another as equals, and Ono usually listens to Setsuko, even if he outwardly professes skepticism.
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Noriko is Ono’s younger daughter. The first half of the novel revolves largely around the process of her engagement. Noriko is more spontaneous and bold than her sister, and she often pokes fun at their morose father. She also loves children. Noriko was previously engaged to a young man in a love match, rather than as part of a traditional arranged marriage, but the man’s family has broken off the engagement for mysterious reasons.
Ichiro is Setsuko’s young son and Matsuji’s grandson. He is more or less a typical energetic child, and he provides comic relief over the course of the novel, though he appears increasingly worried about his grandfather’s mental state. Ichiro, as the youngest character, often serves as a kind of meter for other characters’ concerns, neuroses, and opinions. Therefore Ono tends to identify Ichiro’s resemblance to his dead son, Kenji, and becomes distressed when Ichiro is interested in American rather than Japanese heroes.
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5. Chishu Matsuda
We first encounter Matsuda as an elderly man, when Ono goes to visit him over the course of Noriko’s marriage negotiations. He and Ono met when they were young, and Matsuda influenced Ono’s aesthetic and political beliefs. He remains openly committed to his long-held stances, which include the belief that Japan should be a leading imperial power in the world. Matsuda is the character who seems to know the most about Ono’s past, not only artistically but personally: Matsuda was instrumental in Ono’s engagement to his now-late wife, Michiko.
6. Seiji Moriyama
Often referred to simply as Mori-San, Moriyama was Ono’s teacher, mentor, and sponsor during the early years of his artistic career. Moriyama owned a villa in which he housed young artists and introduced them to his beliefs, techniques, and social circle. Moriyama painted works which fused Japanese and European techniques, focusing on nightlife in the city’s “floating world” of drinking and partying. He believed firmly that art should aim to capture fleeting beauty. When Ono’s art became explicitly political, the two parted on bad terms.
7. The Tortoise
The “tortoise” is less of a three-dimensional character and more of a symbol, meant to serve as a foil to Ono. His real name is Yasunari Nakahara, but Ono refers to him almost solely by his nickname. The two of them meet while working together at a factory-like art studio, where the Tortoise earns his nickname while being teased for his slow work. Ono defends him and brings him along when they go to Moriyama’s studio, leading to a years-long power imbalance. The Tortoise is not only slow but earnest, obedient, hardworking, and somewhat obtuse. He works for years to grasp Moriyama’s principles, which Ono masters easily, but feels shocked and betrayed when Ono abandons those principles voluntarily. Ono looks down on him as a symbol of meekness and caution.
Shintaro is a former student of Ono’s, and the two of them remain friends. At the time of the novel’s narration, they are the only two remaining customers at Mrs. Kawakami’s. Shintaro is not a particularly passionate person, and when feeling unfavorably towards him Ono compares Shintaro to the Tortoise, noting his cautious and practical personality and his inability to live up to the role of the talented, driven artist. However, at other times Ono expresses regret that he did not pay more attention to Shintaro when he was a teacher. They have a falling-out during the novel, rooted in a disagreement about whether or not to disavow their shared past.
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Suichi is Setsuko’s husband, making him Ono’s first son-in-law. Ono frequently invokes him even though he appears rarely in the novel. He stands, in Ono’s mind, for the decline and Americanization of Japan’s younger generation. Suichi has strong anti-war and pro-American beliefs, and even prefers that his son, Ichiro, watch American television and movies over Japanese ones. He is a successful businessman, causing Ono to resent both his beliefs and his ability to thrive in occupied Japan. Suichi is not afraid to be open with his father-in-law about their different views, causing the two of them to get into a charged argument while burying the ashes of Ono’s son, Kenii.
Ono’s former favorite student, Kuroda remains a mysterious offscreen figure for most of the novel. Flashbacks tell us that he was a remarkably talented young artist who hero-worhshipped his teacher. Ono fondly remembers their shared nights at the Migi-Hidari, discussing art and the “new spirit” of Japan, but it is clear that something has soured in their relationship. Kuroda’s assistant unceremoniously kicks Ono out of Kuroda’s house upon learning his identity, and Ono becomes anxious when he learns that they have a new mutual acquaintance, since he suspects that Kuroda has spoken unflatteringly about him. Towards the end of the novel, it is revealed that Ono leaked Kuroda’s name to a committee meant to censor unpatriotic art. This act caused Kuroda and his family terribly pain during the war, and Kuroda does not forgive Ono during the novel.