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Four Lessons from Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa

Sweet Bean Paste is an international bestseller book written by a Japanese author Durian Sukegawa. First published in 2013, this Japanese novel has been translated into English by Alison Watts in 2017. It tells a heartwarming story that brings up leprosy or Hansen’s disease and a mundane life.

The book narrates a man named Sentaro, who sells dorayaki to pay off his debt to the late owner of Doraharu—the dorayaki shop’s name. He uses bought bean paste for the filling and homemade batter for the pancake. Although it tastes average, he has never finished eating one piece of his own dorayaki because of the sweetness. Working alone for four years, he decides to look for a coworker to accompany him and be someone he talks to, not necessarily because he needs help with the shop. One day, a woman in her seventies, named Tokue, comes to the shop, asking for a job. At first, she got rejected. But, after some persuasion with her homemade bean paste that tastes scrumptious—nothing like Sentaro had ever tasted, she is finally hired. They make bean paste from scratch, from the bean-sorting until the process of sweetening the bean paste. Unexpectedly, customers keep coming and eventually they run out of bean paste and have to close the shop earlier than usual. The situation gets Sentaro to add twice the quantity of adzuki beans for the next batch production. Working day and night nonstop wears Sentaro out. One morning, he gets tired and can’t even move his hand. Despite this exhaustion, he just closes the shop for one day.

Later on, a rumor about Tokue’s sickness is spreading because of her gnarled fingers. Although she is already healed, which means that she can’t infect others, people think that she still has an infectious disease. As a result, the sales fall off and Tokue is at risk of getting fired by the shop’s owner—the late owner’s wife. Reluctantly, Sentaro lets Tokue go of her free will. The sales still slump, and the owner wants to renovate the shop into an okonomiyaki shop. Nevertheless, Sentaro is still determined to keep the legacy of Tokue. He visits Tokue in the sanatorium for lepers. Not only does he learn more about her story, but he also opens up to Tokue about his past. He knows that he can’t make bean paste as good as Tokue’s, instead, he wants to create his own version of bean paste.

Reading this book made me realize even more that some things are more precious than we notice. And these are four lessons we can get from the novel Sweet Bean Paste, containing quotes from the book.

1. Everyone is equal

The story emphasized that society still can’t accept people who have suffered from Hansen’s disease even though the Leprosy Prevention Act had been repealed in 1996, two decades before the story took place. From that, we know that the society where this story occurred hardly changes although the situation had already changed. They have a stigma towards people who are different from the majority. Thus, the lepers might go beyond the sanatorium’s wall feel unwelcomed in this world. It’s like we only see the surface of other people, but we never know their deeper sides. How can we judge them based on insufficient facts?

“Are you telling me to fire someone who’s not sick, just because she was in the past?” (Sukegawa, 2013/2017)

In Sweet Bean Paste, equality is depicted by Sentaro. He listens to his heart and the truth that Tokue isn’t ill anymore, so she has no harm to the others. Moreover, he sees no reason why he should fire her just because of her past.

2. Give it your best shot

Tokue makes sure that each bean used for the bean paste is of their best quality–such as excluding the split beans from the batch production–and also ensures the batch isn’t burned while mixing the bean paste with syrup because it will affect the final taste.

“You have to do it properly or else all the trouble you’ve gone to this far will be wasted.” (Sukegawa, 2013/2017)

Learning from Tokue to expect a great result, we should give things we do our best shot whether it is an important or a trivial thing. In addition, she likes to put her face close to the beans and claims that she can hear their sound while the beans are being boiled.

If you live in the belief that they can be heard, then someday you might be able to hear them (Sukegawa, 2013/2017).

We don’t necessarily need to listen to boiled beans, but we should try to listen to our surroundings, and be more aware of others and nature. The quote above from Tokue reminded me of wisdom about personal development, which says that even though at first you’re lying to be the self you wanted to be, if you do it continuously, it will become a habit and a part of you. Accordingly, it is important to believe in yourself that you can do anything, even beyond your imagination, and it is okay to be bold in achieving your dream.

3. Put your health first, say no to toxic-productivity 

“Well then, why don’t you take a day off and have some fun?”

“Why don’t you find something to do with yourself?” (Sukegawa, 2013/2017)

We might think that being productive feels good. However, we need to know our boundaries. Do not let yourself overwork just like what happened to Sentaro. Wanting to pay back his debt quickly, he worked really hard every day each week without taking a break. Eventually, Sentaro got sick of not paying attention to his health. This might happen to us as well. To overcome this, make sure to take a break after working for some time, so you won’t be overwhelmed at the end of the day.

4. Find your own uniqueness

When you can say with certainty that you have found your style of dorayaki, that will be the start of a new day for you (Sukegawa, 2013/2017).

Nowadays, there are many great people to look up to. Often, it even confuses us on who should be our role model. Regardless, finding out our own uniqueness and passion is also important. For, after we found them, we will figure out what we want to do and know ourselves better. This can help us perform better to achieve our purpose. In Tokue’s letter to Sentaro, she mentions that Sentaro should find his own uniqueness and create his own version of bean paste, even though he thinks that Tokue’s version of sweet bean paste is the best he has ever tasted. To conclude, every life has a purpose and meaning. Yours is not the same as anybody else’s, but it is something that is only meaningful for you.

Photo source: Goodreads

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