The Great Passage – How Can A Dictionary Change Your Life?

Book Review : The Great Passage

By Shion Miura
Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

Spoiler Alert!



A charmingly warm and hopeful story of love, friendship, and the power of human connection. Award-winning Japanese author Shion Miura’s novel is a reminder that a life dedicated to passion is a life well lived.

Inspired as a boy by the multiple meanings to be found for a single word in the dictionary, Kohei Araki is devoted to the notion that a dictionary is a boat to carry us across the sea of words. But after thirty-seven years creating them at Gembu Books, it’s time for him to retire and find his replacement.

He discovers a kindred spirit in Mitsuya Majime—a young, disheveled square peg with a penchant for collecting antiquarian books and a background in linguistics—whom he swipes from his company’s sales department.

Led by his new mentor and joined by an energetic, if reluctant, new recruit and an elder linguistics scholar, Majime is tasked with a career-defining accomplishment: completing The Great Passage, a comprehensive 2,900-page tome of the Japanese language. On his journey, Majime discovers friendship, romance, and an incredible dedication to his work, inspired by the bond that connects us all: words.
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Adult Point of View

I picked up The Great Passage as part of my summer reading to try more foreign authors. It’s been interesting to read from perspectives other than the American point of view. For some reason, I did not expect to find this book from Japan to be humorous. Too often humor doesn’t seem to translate across cultures. However, I was proven wrong and was laughing so hard at different moments through this book – for that reason alone I would recommend it.

This is one of those silly moments where Majime is reading the instructions for making noodles:

“Five hundred liters of water will reach the boiling point.” “You should break noodles after throwing them in.””Enjoy eggs, green onion, ham, and so forth.” Five hundred liters of water seemed altogether too much, but Majime liked the earnest tone of the instructions, and lately he’d been eating a lot of Nupporo Number One.” (Page 24)

Here is another funny moment that tickled me:

“Of course he’d never been a junior high school girl, so this was pure supposition.” (Page 63)

The overarching theme of The Great Passage would be passion. What is our passion? How does our passion change us? What is life without passion?

“Reading the dictionary could awaken you to new meanings of commonly used words, meanings of surprising breadth and depth.” (Page 2)

“A dictionary is a ship that crosses the sea of words,” said Araki, with a sense that he was laying bare his innermost soul. “People travel on it and gather the small points of light floating on the dark surface of the waves. They do this in order to tell someone their thoughts accurately, using the best possible words. Without dictionaries, all any of us could do is linger before the vastness of the deep.” (page 20)

Several people discover passion while working on creating the new Japanese dictionary. Majime connects with others through the power of words which drives his quest in finishing the new dictionary. His wife loves him because of his passion for the dictionary, while he also respects her for her passion in becoming a chef.

Human being had created words to communicate with the dead, and with those yet unborn. (page 200)

They had made a ship. A ship bearing the souls of people traveling from ancient times toward the future, across the ocean rich with words. (page 200)

The salesman, Nishioka, who didn’t seem to fit in the dictionary department, discovered it had changed him and even when he was sent to a different department, he retained the desire to help the dictionary in anyway possible. He left a “guide” for the next person, had exerted pressure – some would say blackmailed – contributors and marketed the project when it was ready from his new department. I didn’t like Nishioka at first because he seemed so shallow, so it was interesting to see how he changed, but retained his core personality.

“No woman had ever praised Nishioka for his sincerity. He lied when the occasion called for it, and he was tender, or not, depending on his mood. Wasn’t that being truly sincere,” (page 74)

The newest member of the team, Midori Kishibe, who arrives after Majime has worked on the dictionary for over 12 years, doesn’t believe she is the right person to help. Over time, she too discovers a passion for the work. Perhaps one of the lessons learned is that when working with passionate people we discover more about ourselves and want to emulate them in discovering our own passion to live.

I loved The Great Passage for it’s quirky nature, delving into multiple meanings of words, the intense descriptions of working on a dictionary with such dedicated passion, the people who find their life’s purpose and the funny moments that made me laugh. It was like I had stepped into a different world. I recommend this book because it is intelligent and thoughtful.

There are discussions about how to include definitions of love, and how to be politically correct with gays, there are a couple of love scenes, but not graphic and a little cursing.

5 out of 5 stars

5 star


If you want more fun and quirky books to read try:

The Hawkman, A Fairy Tale of the Great War By Jane Rosenberg LaForge

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie By Alan Bradley

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate By Jacqueline Kelly

Moon Over Manifest By Clare Vanderpool

The Lost Book of the Grail By Charlie Lovett

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles


About Tales Untangled

I am a mother of four children and have a passion for reading. I love sharing my treasury of books with my kids. I also do experiments in cooking which includes such things as Indian Tandoori Chicken slow-cooked in a tagine. I write stories and illustrate in ink.
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