7 of the best books and stories from Japan
Japanese literature was one of the things that first sparked my interest in Japan. I was in my early teens when I chanced upon Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore” in my local bookshop. I enjoyed it so much that I really couldn’t put it down. That was the beginning of my incursion into Japanese literature, and since then, I have read many other books and stories from Japan. Today, dear reader, I would like to share seven of my favourites with you. The following works not listed in any particular order, although I’ll let you know which ones are my absolute favourites. I’ll try to write about them without giving away too much!
“The Woman in the Dunes” by Abe Kobo
Nikki Jumpei is an office worker and hobby entomologist (insect expert) who travels to a fishing village on the coast of Japan. Engrossed in studying the insect life of the village’s dunes, Nikki misses the last bus home and is guided by a seemingly helpful villager back to the dunes, where he is told that he can stay for the night. The place that Nikki is led to is the house of a single woman who lives at the bottom of a deep sand-pit which can only be reached by climbing down a ladder. When Nikki awakes the next morning, the ladder is gone. In many ways an existentialist tale, I would recommend this book if you liked Albert Camus’ “The Outsider”.
“Confessions of a Mask” by Mishima Yukio
Mishima is, unfortunately, well known in the West for his failed attempt to lead a military coup in 1970 and his subsequent ritual suicide by seppuku (suicide by disembowelment). He was one of the most important Japanese writers of the 20th century, and continues to occupy an important place in the Japanese literary canon.
“Confessions of a Mask”, published in 1949, was Mishima’s breakthrough novel. The protagonist of the book is a young school boy, Kochan, growing up in pre-war Japan. Japan at this time was a burgeoning empire caught in a frenzy of ultra-nationalism, and “Confessions of a Mask” reflects the strange atmosphere of the period. Kochan doesn’t fit in with the other boys at school, who are physically stronger than he is, and who like to talk to each other about girls, a topic alien to Kochan. He is obsessed by the physical strength of his male classmates, but feels himself lacking in such strength. He becomes transfixed by a painting which depicts the crucifixion of St Sebastian, which he views almost as pornography. Kochan grows up and comes to realise that he is sexually attracted to men, a realisation that plagues him with guilt. He learns to hide his homosexuality from the world and to present a false image of himself in order to fit into society.
The book was translated into English in 1958. A very interesting New York Times review from the time said:
“Kochan…is a homosexual who is determined to conceal his true nature from the world, and the story that he tells is an almost clinical account of congenital sexual inversion… In “Confessions of a Mask” [Mishima] has chosen to write for the few rather than the many. This book will increase American awareness of his skill; but it will also, I imagine, arouse in many readers as much distaste as respect.”
Times have changed, and it is thankfully no longer such a taboo to write about being gay, (although I think that it is still is taboo to write about homoerotic crucifixion fantasies). If you are interested in LGBT issues in Japan, or if you have any interest in mid twentieth century Japanese history, I would recommend this book to you. “Confessions of a mask” is pithy, thought-provoking, interesting, extremely well written, and illuminates some important elements of Japanese society and history.
“Kafka on the Shore” by Murakami Haruki
Murakami is one the best known authors on this list, certainly in English speaking circles. His 2002 book “Kafka on the Shore” follows the intertwining and parallel stories of 15 year old Kafka and middle aged Nakata. Kafka runs away from home in order to escape his father and find his mother and sister. He ends up far from home, in the city of Takamatsu on the wild island of Shikoku in Western Japan. Nakata can communicate with cats but cannot read or write due to a strange accident he had when picking mushrooms as a child during WW2. A transgender librarian, the spirits of WW2 soldiers, and talking cats all make appearances in this work of contemporary magical realism. With key themes including loneliness, identity, coming of age, sexuality, the past, fate, and prophecies, this is certainly a very interesting novel. I read this book last over a decade ago, and I am sure that my current tastes and sensibilities are very different to those of my teenage years, however, I remember this book being gripping, fascinating, stimulating and just really rather interesting (but I apologise if it is pretentious at points, which I fear it may be).
“The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”
This is an ancient tale, so ancient that no one really knows who wrote it. Thought to be written in the 10th century, the oldest surviving manuscript dates to the late 16th century. This tale has inspired countless books, manga, and films. Most notable is Studio Ghibli’s 2013 film “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”. The book tells the story of an elderly bamboo cutter who finds a glowing baby princess inside a bamboo stalk. He knows that the princess is a blessing from the Gods, and decides to raise the princess together with his wife. The elderly couple are surprised when the child princess (Kaguya) grows into a woman in the space of only a few months. Piles of gold begin to appear in other bamboo stalks, which the wood-cutter uses to build a grand house in the capital and to dress the princess in exquisite silk kimonos. The enchanting Kaguya is quickly inundated with wealthy suitors, but herself overwhelmed by an indescribable sadness and longs for something that she can’t quite explain. I shan’t give the rest of the story away. “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” is a painfully beautiful tale, and somehow manages to transport the reader to ancient lands and mystical plains whilst also being about the timeless emotions of joy, sadness, and longing.
“Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories” (Penguin Classics) by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, translated by Jay Rubin
I adore this collection of stories by Akutagawa (1892-1927). Both humorous and macabre, Akutagawa’s writing raises questions about morality, violence, loyalty, fear, death, truth, and insanity, amongst other things (but really rather a lot about insanity). Unhinged feuding nobles, an artist driven to insanity by his attempt at depicting hell, murderous samurai, a monk with an abnormally long nose, and other such characters populate Akutagawa’s vivid and bizarre fictional world. These stories are masterfully punchy, skilfully written, humorous, dark, and potent. Akutagawa is a master of the short story and this 2007 collection specially compiled for the English speaking reader is another excellent introduction to Japanese literature. Akutagawa’s writing is often said to reflect modern psychology through the depiction of ancient times and has inspired many films, namely Kurosawa Akira’s “Rashomon” (1950).
“The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories”
Edited by Theodore W. Goossen
If you haven’t read any Japanese authors before, and don’t know where to start, I would suggest that you start here with “The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories” edited by Theodore W. Goossen. It is a marvellous selection of Japanese short stories from a variety of authors —
from Natsume Soseki to Yoshimoto Banana, Tanizaki Junichiro to Murakami Haruki —
and covers a broad selection of times, places, topics, themes, moods, and genres. The following are three of my favourites:
Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s “In A Grove”
A murder mystery set in ancient Japan told from the perspective of several different witnesses.
Hirabayashi Taiko’s “Blind Chinese Soldiers”
A thought-provoking short story about the horrors of war, the plight of the Japanese working classes, and the wartime treatment of the Chinese by the Japanese.
Mishima Yukio’s “Onnagata”
A brilliant story about a kabuki actor who only plays female roles, and the effect his alluring beauty has on his fellow actors.
“Snow Country” by Kawabata Yasunari
One of the greats of Japanese literature, Kawabata’s work is the sort of stuff that children are made to read at school (I actually read this book at school, too, and it left an indelible impression on my brain). Poetic, beautiful, and vivid, Kawabata’s writing condenses many of Japan’s well-known characteristics onto the page. “Snow Country” is about a wealthy Tokyoite, Shimamura, who visits a hot spring town in the mountains of Japan’s snow country, the area of mountainous central Japan that receives extremely heavy snowfall each winter. Shimamura travels to the town to see Komako, a geisha with whom he began a romantic relationship on his previous visit to the snow country. He visits only once a year during the winter months, and is thus unable to maintain a meaningful relationship with Komako. Komako, too, is absorbed in her own world, but of entertaining guests rather than attending to business in the city. This is a relatively short book, and whilst the plot sounds simple, it is rich with the details of human relationships and emotions. The interaction between humans and the rest of nature is also an important theme in “Snow Country”, and the prose is full of beautiful descriptions of nature; of the sky, the stars, the mountains, the hills, and forests of Japan in winter.
I absolutely adore Japanese literature, and especially these authors, books and stories. I hope that this list has inspired you to begin your own journey into Japanese literature, and that you will find it all as exciting, enjoyable, and rewarding as I do!