Category Archives: Japanese authors
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa is the darkest, strangest book I’ve read in a very long time.
I found it in the library when I was scouting around for Japanese authors I could read for Japanese Literature Challenge #13. I’d read one book by Yoko Ogawa previously (The Housekeeper and the Professor) and thoroughly enjoyed it so this seemed a good bet. But I didn’t realise that Revenge isn’t a novel but a collection of eleven tales featuring characters who are seemingly disconnected.
As you read on, you realise that the lives of these hospital workers, schoolchildren, writers, hairdressers and bakers are linked by recurring images and motifs. Each story follows on from the previous one, becoming increasingly unsettling and rather macabre.
You wouldn’t know that from the first story “Afternoon at the Bakery” which is about a woman who goes to a bakery one sunny Sunday afternoon to buy two strawberry cakes. One for her and one for her son. While waiting to be served she gets into a conversation with another customer, a trader in spices, who is a regular at the bakery:
“I can guarantee they’re good. The best thing in the shop. The base is made with our special vanilla.”
“I’m buying them for my son. Today is his birthday.”
“Really? Well, I hope it’s a happy one. How old is he?”
This innocent chit chat suddenly turns darker with the first customer’s response:
Six. He’ll always be six. He’s dead.
Supernatural and Normal Lie Together
And with that one line, Yoko Ogawa turns the whole story on its head. It’s no longer a feel-good tale of an adoring mother wanting to buy just the perfect cake for her son, but one of tragedy and inconsolable grief.
This tale is the jumping off point for our immersion into a world in which eeriness and normality live side by side. The shock of the grotesque and unnerving is evident in all these tales.
In “Old Mrs J” for example an elderly woman digs up a carrot in the shape of a human hand: “It was plump, like a baby’s hand, and perfectly formed with a thick thumb and a longer finger in the middle.” Reading it you know this isn’t just one of those odd vegetables newspapers love to report on slow news days. But the significance doesn’t become apparent until right at the end when a body is discovered.
“Welcome to The Museum of Torture” introduces us to an ex butler who has become the self appointed curator of a collection of torture instruments. As he takes his latest visitor around, detailing the ways in which each instrument is used, she begins to imagine – with glee – using the them upon the boyfriend who’s just dumped her.
In the tale which I found the most unsettling, “Sewing For The Heart“; the narrator is a maker of bags and purses. He lives a simple life above his shop, spending his evenings sat at the window looking down on the passers-by. But his life changes when a customer, a night club singer, arrives asking him to make a pouch to hold the heart that lies outside her body.
And so begins an obsession; an overwhelming desire “to run my fingertips over each tiny bump and furrow, touch my lips to the veins, soft tissue on soft tissue ….” The pride he takes in his craftsmanship is destroyed however when the customer learns she can have surgery that will mean she no longer needs the leather bag; a development that propels him to seek revenge.
Dark Slice of Life
These stories have a cumulative effect as a detail from one carries over into the next. A dead hamster in one story turns up in the rubbish bin in the next tale and the abandoned fridge in which the child mentioned in “Afternoon at the Bakery” met his death, makes an appearance on the final page of he collection.
Sometimes the connection is hinted at rather than made explicit. “Lab Coats” for example ends with a hospital worker confessing how she killed her boyfriend, a respiratory medicine doctor, because he wouldn’t divorce his wife. The next tale, “Sewing For The Heart” begins with repeated pager messages for a respiratory doctor who is meant to be on duty but can’t be found. Two stories later and a different narrator learns that the doctor upstairs has been been killed.
The overall effect is chilling. In one line from the story called “Tomatoes and the Full Moon,” the narrator, after reading “Afternoon at the Bakery,” remarks: “there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again.”
Except that I didn’t feel I did want to plunge into these tales. I admit I am not the target audience for Revenge since I’m not a fan of short stories generally nor am I a fan of creepy, macabre kind of tales. I wouldn’t honestly have read this if I’d paid more attention to the description on the back cover.
I admired the way Yoko Ogawa wove these stories together, joining all the details seamlessly. I admired too, the precision of her language, which evokes atmosphere with just slight touches. But I didn’t enjoy the book. I kept wondering what point Ogawa was trying to make. That we’re all capable of revenge? That appearances can be deceptive? I got to the end and I was no clearer on the message. Without a driving theme, the book just seemed to rely on spookiness and oddities. After a while this became repetitive and I found myself just wanting to get to the end quickly.
Today is National Foundation Day (Kenkokukinen-no-Hi), in Japan, a day which marks the enthronement of the country’s first Emperor.
Although it’s a national holiday, there isn’t the same level of pomp and ceremony you see elsewhere around the world on similar occasions. No grand parades or huge firework displays. In fact apart from some parades and processions to shrines, there are no really big celebration events.
We’re just going to have to make our own fun in that case.
So pour yourself a glass of sake, or, if you prefer a cup of cha, and prepare a little otsumami (a light snack) to get yourself in the mood to celebrate one of the oldest literary traditions in the world. We’re talking seriously old – some of the earliest texts date from the seventh century CE.
Japan’s Literary Heritage
Many scholars consider Japanese literature to be comparable in richness, and volume to English literature. But it’s also rather more diverse; including poetry, novels and drama as well as some genres like diaries and travel accounts that are not as highly esteemed in other countries.
Until 2013 the only Japanese author I’d read was Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains Of The Day). Some purists might question if he even qualifies since he has spent most of his life in England. But in the absence of anyone else, I’m claiming him.
I’ve been trying to make up for lost time since then and my list of Japanese authors to explore, is ever expanding. I still consider myself to be very much a beginner in this world, particularly compared to the ‘experts’ in Japanese literature like Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza and Tony who blogs at Messenger’s Booker .
5 Of My Favourite Works of Japanese Literature
So I’m not qualified to give you a list of recommended book. I’m simply going to talk about 5 novels by Japanese authors that I’ve loved in recent years.
This was my first true venture into Japanese literature. Mishima Yukio is considered one of the greats of modern Japanese fiction; a highly creative and versatile novelist and playwright who became the first Japanese writer generally known abroad.
After The Banquet is not his most famous novel – that accolade goes to his tetralogy The Sea of Fertility – but it is still highly regarded. The New York Times called it “the biggest and most profound thing Mishima has done so far in an already distinguished career” I found it a fascinating portrait of a marriage between two people whose interests and perspectives seem diametrically opposed. It proved to be a good introduction to one of the key features of Japanese literature – it tends to be enigmatic and absent of the beginning/middle/end structure I’ve been used to in Western literature.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
Yoko Ogawa is a prolific author, with more than 40 titles to her name. Sadly only a few (nine I think at the last count) are available in English. The Housekeeper and The Professor, which came out in 2008 , is a slim work of a relationship between a maths professor who suffered brain damage in a traffic accident and his housekeeper, a woman who becomes fascinated by numbers and equations. It beautifully captures the subtlety of relationships across generations and between people of different backgrounds and experience.
Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto
Relationships are also at the heart of Goodbye Tsugumi, a wonderfully atmospheric novel about two girls who were once close friends. Their lives took them in different directions but they decide to meet once more at a small seaside inn where they spent many of their summers. I wouldn’t say this contains any really big ideas but it was nevertheless a delight to read.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
I bought A Tale for the Time Being at a library book sale, knowing nothing about the author beyond the fact she’d been listed for the Booker Award. It took me quite a few years to get around to reading it but then it became one of my favourite reads in 2017.
It’s a blend of a multitude of ideas and themes from Zen and the meaning of time to the Japanese tsunami and environmental degradation. It could have been a bewildering mess but instead Ozeki holds it all together with the aid of a phenomenally engaging narrator. Sixteen year old Nao (pronounced as “now”) Yasutani pours out her unhappiness in her diary but also relates the love and strength she finds through her relationship with her elderly grandmother, who lives in a remote Buddhist temple in north-eastern Japan. An absolute delight of a book.
Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Which brings me up to my most recent Japanese novel.
I’ll hazard a guess that Haruki Murakami is the most famous living Japanese author. In Japan, his novels can sell 1m copies in the week of publication but he also has a global reputation. His novels have been translated into 50 languages, received numerous awards and been on best seller lists worldwide. His name often comes up as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
I’ve felt for some time that I should give him a go but the sheer size of some of his novels is off putting. The Wind Up Bird Chronicle for example is around 620 pages, a mere infant compared to 1Q84 whose three volumes come in at more than 1200 pages. Added to this is the fact that his books are frequently described as ‘strange’ and bordering on magical realism – a genre I don’t relate to very well.
But I took the plunge in 2016 because I was assured Norwegian Wood was not magical realism. I loved it. This year I took advantage of Japanese Literature Challenge 2020 to make a return visit to Murakami with Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage .
Yes it’s ambiguous , particularly because some of the mysteries are unresolved, but not so much that it can’t be understood. It’s also full of atmosphere, sometimes darkly so, as the young central character experiences nightmares and dreams as he tries to revisit the past and discover why he was ostracised by his former school friends.
I know I didn’t understood the whole of the novel but I’m beginning to accept that this is par for the course with much of Japanese fiction. So now the big question is whether I can tackle one of his ‘meatier’ novels.
I’ve barely skimmed the surface with this literary tour of Japan. There are scores of Japanese authors and books that deserve a place on this list. What would you put on your list? Which of Murakami’s novels would you recommend I try next?
For the first time in 2020 I’m sharing with you all what I’m currently reading, what I recently read and what I plan to read next.
What I’m reading now
Last year I had the opportunity to listen to Matt Johnson, an author from Wales, explain how writing had helped him deal with post traumatic stress disorder. Matt had served in the army in Northern Ireland and then as a senior police officer in London, both experiences taking a toll on his mental health.
I’ve now been reading his debut novel: Wicked Game. It’s a fast-paced novel that draws on his experiences in the front line through the character of former special forces operative Robert Finlay. He’s just moved from the Royalty Protection team to a new job as a police inspector in a London suburb. But his past involvement in a terrorist siege is putting his new life in danger.
Matt self published this novel in 2012 but in 2015 it was picked up by Orenda Books – they also published his next two titles.
I’m half way through and can’t help wonder why we haven’t heard more noise about this author.
My current audiobook is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. It’s an extraordinary book. Kalanithi wrote it after he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at the age of 35 when he was on the verge of completing a decade of training as a neurosurgeon. He didn’t live long enough to see it published.
It’s more than a memoir about a man facing mortality; it’s a meditation on life; the relationship between doctor and patient, and the intersection of science and literature.
This is such a deeply moving book that I have to take it in small doses.
What I just finished reading
The year got off to a fabulous start with The Hours by Michael Cunningham and Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
But then it came crashing down with two books I had to abandon.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern was the book club choice for January. As a fantasy novel it was always going to be a challenge for me but I was willing to give it a go. After 50 pages I’d had enough. It had neither a plot or characters that interested me, nor was it particularly well written.
My attention turned to Independence Square by A. D Miller which is due to be published next month. I’d read his earlier, debut, novel Snowdrops set in post-Glasnost Russia and thought it was well paced and well observed but lacked good characterisation.
I expected he would have ironed out those flaws by his second novel only to find more of the same issues. His new book has a dual time narrative (frankly I’m getting rather tired of those now), moving between Ukraine at a time of political turmoil and London, 10 years later. Connecting the two threads is Simon Davey, a former senior British diplomat who lost his job because of something that happened in Kiev a decade earlier.
It had potential but fell far short of my expectations.
What I’ll read next
Usually this is a hard question because I simply don’t like to plan my reading.
But my reservation of the next book club selection Little by Edward Carey came through in the library. So of course when I went to collect it, I absolutely had to have a browse (yes you can roll your eyes given it was only a few days ago I said I had 264 unread books at home). And I found Revenge by Yoko Ogawa. I’ve been keen to read more by her ever since experiencing The Housekeeper and The Professor. It’s currently the Japanese Literature Challenge so what a perfect opportunity to do just that with this novella.
That should keep me quiet for a little while.
Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.
This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.
Events like the Japanese Literature Challenge give me a great excuse to have a rummage through the shelves and stacks of my owned but unread books (otherwise known as the TBR).
I was surprised to find I own more books by Japanese authors than I expected. Some of these clearly crept into the house when I wasn’t looking.
Let’s look a little more closely at what I could be reading over the three months of this year’s challenge.
Sixty Four by Hideo Yokoyama is his sixth novel but the first to be translated into English. It became a publishing phenomenon in Japan, selling at the astounding rate of a million copies in six days. This is the only crime novel in my little collection, focusing on the disappearance of two young girls. This is a massively chunky book , which is probably why I haven’t tackled it yet.
Then we have two authors of enormous international repute.
Haruki Murakami is an author I’ve been unsure about reading for some years because so much of his work seems to involve fantasy/surrealism elements. The only one of his books I’ve read is Norwegian Wood which I loved but which I understand isn’t typical of his style. Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is perhaps edging more towards the mysterious/strange atmospheric elements found in his best-known novels like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
Kazuo Ishiguro is the author of one of my all time favourite Booker Prize winners with The Remains of the Day. Oddly however I’ve never read any of this other novels. As you can see I have two options: the very fat The Unconsoled and the considerably slimmer Nocturnes. I’m not entirely clear why I bought Nocturnes since it’s a collection of short stories and I don’t typically enjoy reading those. Maybe this will change my mind?
The last author in this little group is another that I’ve only dipped my toe into as it were. Yukio Mushima is regarded by many critics as the most important Japanese novelist of the 20th century. I was mesmerised by After The Banquet although I admit that I didn’t understand many elements of the book.
The Decay of the Angel that you can just see in the image is a book I bought in a charity shop but I couldn’t have been paying close attention because it’s the fourth title in his famous Sea of Fertility tetralogy I don’t have the first three parts so there isn’t much point in reading this yet.
Which brings me to the big question? Which of these am I going to read first?
I’m going with the Murakami.
It might be the only one I get to read for Japanese Literature Challenge this year. But as I explained in my post about my 2020 reading goals, I’m focusing this year on short events rather than long reading challenges. So if I get to read just one book per event, I’ll class that as success.
If you are familiar with any of the titles I’ve mentioned do let me know what you thought of them. Do you have any favourite Japanese authors I can add to my list for future years?? Do leave me a comment with your suggestions and recommendations.
Strangers is an odd little book and isn’t my usual fare because it involves ghosts. Fortunately there was more to it than the spectral element.
Hideo Harada is a middle-aged television scriptwriter who has recently been divorced. The separation was costly and he can’t afford to buy a decent apartment so he sets up home in his office in a high-rise apartment block overlooking Tokyo’s busy Route 8. At night when all the office workers leave, silence descends on the building. He thinks he is the only person in the place but one evening looking up at his building from the outside, he sees one other lit window. A few days later Kei, an attractive woman fifteen years his junior shows up at his apartment with a bottle of champagne in hand.
On the night of his birthday, hit by a wave of nostalgia, he visits the entertainment district of Asakusa where he grew up. His parents died many years ago, killed in a road accident when he was 12 and they were in their mid thirties. In the old and now run-down streets he goes to the theatre where he sees a mediocre comedian. In the audience he is astonished to see a man who looks exactly like his long-dead sushi chef father. Invited for drinks at the man’s home, Harada is even more astounded to find that the wife looks exactly like his dead mother. They’re the same age as his parents were when they died.
How can that be possible he wonders? There is only one possible explanation he concludes – they are an hallucination caused by his solitude and grief. He thought he’d buried his grief for his parents but seeing them makes him realise that “Somewhere deep inside of me I had been yearning desperately for the warm embrace of parental love.
It’s that yearning that compels him to make return visits. Every time he does so, he feels bathed in the warmth of their welcome and their easy acceptance of him. Over the course of a few visits he relaxes enough to begin calling them Mom and Dad, finding a deep pleasure in their company and the opportunity to re-live happy childhood experiences as well as make up for lost time.
Kei isn’t convinced his trips to Asakusa are good for his health. She sees Heido changing day-by-day, becoming hollow-eyed, aged and emaciated. She’s even more worried because Heido himself cannot see these changes – when he looks at himself in the mirror he looks as healthy as ever. Can Kei save him from the ghosts of his past? Or is his desire to make up for the lost years of his relationship with his parents too strong to resist?
related in a pared-down prose style that matches well with Harada’s spartan life. He’s doesn’t seem to have any friends, he has lost touch with his only son and has no interest other than working on the script for a new series. Understandable therefore that he feels the pull towards this other surreal world.
It’s an engaging story that has a satisfying twist at the end. The supernatural elements don’t stand up to much scrutiny but I was more taken by the way Yamada deals with the psychological aspects. He deftly portrays the conflict Hideo experiences for example.
He is elated when he meets his ‘parents’ and is eager to be well regarded in their eyes. He desperately wants them to be proud of the man he has become so he takes them treats of cookies and fresh melon and orders in special delicacies for their meals together to show he can afford to do so. But he is also afraid that his girlfriend might be right: his dead parents are sucking the life out of him.
No matter how free of malice and mischief my parents’ intentions might be, there could be no denying that they had long since passed into the world of the dead. The return of the dead fundamentally undermines the order of the living and I wholeheartedly shared Kei’s conviction that contact with such beings was something to be avoided. Yet when it concerned my own mother and father, I could not bring myself to think of them as an evil to be fought.
Unfortunately Yamada hasn’t been well served by the translation. Some of the dialogue between Harada and his parents struck me as incongruous. Would a man who lived in the 1940s really use the greeting “Yo” for example or tell his son “Put ‘er there” when he wants to shake hands? His interactions with his son – it’s all “Whadja expect?” and “Okey-dokey” – struck too many false notes for me. I know the intent was to show how relaxed the man is with his son but Japanese idioms would have worked far bettr than these American English expressions. If you can ignore that then the book works fairly well as a story of uncanny events that is laden with atmosphere and a psychological portrait of a man who is emotionally starved.
About the Book: Strangers by Taichi Yamada was first published in Japanese as Ijin-tachi to no Natsu in 1987. It won the Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize, an award made each year to new work of fiction considered to exemplify the art of storytelling,. The novel was translated into English in 2003. My 2006 edition, translated by Wayne P Lammers, is from Faber.
About the Author: Taichi Yamada is the pen name of Taichi Ishizaka, a film and television drama scriptwriter. Strangers was his first novel. He has since written two more that are available in English: In Search of a Distant Voice, and I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While.
Why I read this book: I can’t remember why I bought this book or even when. It’s a second hand copy but from where I have no idea. I read it as part of Japan lit challenge hosted on the Dolce Bellezza blog.
Goodbye Tsugumi is the story of one summer in the lives of two girls who are related by blood if not by temperament.
Tsugumi Yamamoto is a mercurial character. An invalid from a young age she has grown up in a small seaside inn as a spoiled and occasionally mean spirited girl around whom everyone tiptoes, afraid to spark her ill-humour. According to her cousin Maria, Tsugumi “was malicious, she was rude, she had a foul mouth, she was selfish, she was horribly spoiled, and to top it all off she was brilliantly sneaky.”
Maria Shirakawa (the narrator) is a more thoughtful girl, a model of patience and affability who has learned to deal with the uncertain relationship of her parents – her father is a businessman living in Tokyo, her mother is his mistress who lives and works in the inn. She is aghast at some of Tsugumi’s pranks and hurt to be the victim of her acid tongue but she is still drawn to the girl.
It wasn’t narcissism. And it wasn’t exactly an aesthetic. Deep down inside, Tsugumi had this perfectly polished mirror, and she only believed in the things she saw reflected there. She never even considered anything else.
That’s what it was.
And yet I liked her even so, and Pooch [a dog] liked her, and probably everyone else around her liked her too. We all continued to be enchanted by her.
Part of Tsugumi’s attraction is that she has a vivid imagination which makes her fun to play with. She creates wild and inventive games for her and Maria, including their favourite “The Haunted Mailbox” in which they pretend to receive letters from the dead in an old rusted box behind their school.
When her father gets his divorce, Maria and her mother move to Tokyo and Maria embarks on a new path in her life as a university student. But a call from Tsugumi offers her a chance to return to the inn for one last summer before the place is sold. It’s a chance to recapture idyllic summers of the past and to deepen the bond with her difficult cousin. She acknowledges that Tsugumi is “really an unpleasant young woman” but that summer she sees for the first time the inner strength of her friend and has to face the real possibility that she could lose her.
In essence this is a coming of age novel in which Maria comes to appreciate that time does not stand still, that her childhood is in the past and loss is a part of growing up.
Summer was coming. Yes, summer was about to begin.
A season that would come and go only once, and never return again. All of us understood that very well, and yet we would probably just pass our days the way we always had. And this made the ticking of time feel slightly more tense than in the old days, infused it with a hint of distress. We could all feel this as we sat there that evening, together. We could feel it so clearly that it made us sad, and yet at the same time we were extremely happy.
This is a beautifully atmospheric novel rather than one which has a strong plot. We get a strong sense of sadness at the loss of the idyll of one’s youth (the goodbye of the title is not the end of a relationship but the end of childhood innocence) but there is also a feeling of hope as Maria comes to appreciate the potential of her own life in the future.
Yoshimoto’s description of nature and the beaches and the mountains at the resort have a poetic quality which also drew me in.
The whiteness of the flowers seemed to levitate in the dark. Every time the crowd of petals bobbed under a puff of wind you were left with an afterimage of white that had the texture of a dream. And just beside that dream the river continued to flow, and off in the distance the dark nighttime ocean stretched the glow of the moon into a single gleaming road. The black waters before us swelled up and fell back again, glimmering with tiny flecks of light, the dark motion extending all the way to infinity.
I also enjoyed her gentle, yet thoughtful style. Here is just one example:
Each one of us continues to carry the heart of each self we’ve ever been, at every stage along the way, and a chaos of everything good and rotten. And we have to carry this weight all alone, through each day that we live. We try to be as nice as we can to the people we love, but we alone support the weight of ourselves.
I’ve seen some comments from other reviewers that Goodbye Tsugumi isn’t as strong a novel as her debut work Kitchen. Since I’ve not read that or anything else by Yoshimoto in fact I can’t judge how accurate that assessment is. Goodbye Tsugumi may not be as rich in philosophy or big ideas as some of the other Japanese authors I’ve read but I still enjoyed it.
About this book: Published in Japanese in 1989, translated into English in 2002 by Michael Emmerich.
About the author: Banana Yoshimoto is the pen name of the Japanese writer Mahoko Yoshimoto whose debut novel Kitchen was widely applauded on publication in 1988. Yoshimoto began her writing career while working as a waitress at a golf club restaurant. Apparently she adopted the name Banana because of her love of banana flowers, but also because she considers it “cute” and “purposefully androgynous.”. She has written 12 novels many of which deal with themes of love and friendship, the power of home and family, and the effect of loss on the human spirit.
Why I read this book: I have a feeling I came across the name of Banana Yoshimoto when I was reading about the Japan in January project run by Tony at tonysreadinglist. It’s been stuck on my shelves for a few years now but I dusted it down ready for Japan lit challenge. It also counts as one of my 20booksofsummer reading list.