The Past, Future, and Nao

Immediately following the earthquake, the tsunami and the Fukushima meltdown, Canadian-American writer and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki decides to scrap her original attempt at her third novel believing her work was no longer relevant for the forever changed Japan. The result of her revisions: A Tale for the Time Being. Since its publication in 2013 the novel has had quite a bit of success and recognition including the 2013 Man Booker Prize Finalist, the 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, and the Kitschies Red Tentacle for best novel. [1] Ozeki’s novel was also named a New York Times Bestseller and recently awarded the 2015 Association for Asian American Studies Award. [2]

The novel explores two interlocking narratives—Nao’s diary and the story of diary’s finder, Ruth. Nao is a sixteen-year-old girl writing in a French café somewhere in Tokyo. Due to her father’s recent unemployment after the dot-com crash, Nao and her family has relocated from California to Tokyo. During this time, Nao faces the struggles of poverty, ruthless school bullying, and a suicidal father. Unable to bear all of her loneliness and her classmates’ bullying, Nao decides that there is only one escape. However, before ending her life, Nao decides to write a biography of her late great-grandmother, a century old Buddhist nun who was once an active anarchist and feminist in her younger years. In her attempt to write this biography, Nao reveals her struggles in navigating her own existence.

Not too long after the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima meltdown, a Hello Kitty lunchbox washes upon the shores of Vancouver Island. Ruth, a novelist, discovers that within this lunchbox hides several different artifacts including a diary. Upon reading the diary, Ruth is pulled into the past as she tries to solve the mystery of Nao’s unknown fate.

Despite being somewhat irritating at times with her moments of teenage angst and cruel encouragement of her father’s attempts at suicide, Nao is the most dynamic and endearing character within the novel. The reader witnesses Nao’s transformation from helpless victim of school bullying to a tragic figure contemplating suicide and finally to a young woman finding her superpower and the strength to live. Even though she endures more in her short sixteen years of life than most adults face within an entire lifetime, the style of Nao’s narration, meant to mimic a diary, makes the reader feel an immediate connection with the character. This connection is even established on the very first page:


My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be. As for me, right now I am sitting in a French maid café in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you, somewhere in my future. And if you’re reading this, then maybe by now you’re wondering about me, too.

You wonder about me.

I wonder about you. (3)

Not only does Nao create her connection with the reader with this short introduction, but she also introduces one of the novel’s most thought-provoking themes: the fluidity of time and persons in time. All of the major characters within this novel are concerned with some aspect of time. For Nao, time provides her with a connection to all beings in her otherwise emotionally solitary life. Other than Nao’s own musings on time and her existence as a time being, Ozeki masterfully blends different philosophies concerning time ranging from Schrodinger’s quantum superposition to the works of Proust and Dōgen to display the human desire to connect with one another through writing and time.

Do not think that time simply flies away. Do not understand “flying” as the only function of time. If time simply flew away, a separation would exist between you and time. So if you understand time as only passing, then you do not understand the time being. To grasp this truly, every being that exists in the entire world is linked together as moments in time, and at the same time they exist as individual moments of time. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being. [3]

This novel is for any reader who is ready to think and to potentially reread several portions of the story in order to pick up on some of Ozeki’s most subtle clues. The reader might also have to do some of his/her own research to understand multiple references to Japanese culture and complex philosophical ideas (even though Ozeki provides some footnotes and appendixes on these subjects). Even though this reading requires some work and agency on the reader’s end, Ozeki’s unique tale that travels across both seas and time is well worth the effort.

A Tale for the Time Being

Ruth Ozeki

403 pages. Published by the Penguin Group

Hardcover: $19.08 Paperback: $10.27 (


  1. “A Tale for the Time Being.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation, 09 Feb. 2015. Web. 09 April 2015
  1. “Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being Wins 2015 Association for Asian American Studies Award.” Newsroom. Penguin Books, 3 Feb. 2015. Web. 9 Apr. 2015. <;.
  1. “A Tale for the Time Being Quotes.” Goodreads: A Tale for the Time Being Quotes. Web. 09 April 2015
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