World Literary Tour: Visit Japan in 5 Books
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.
After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima
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?
28 thoughts on “World Literary Tour: Visit Japan in 5 Books”
Enjoyed this Karen. I’ve read quite a few Japanese novels over the years, starting a bit earlier than you, back in the early 1990s with Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. This is a wonderful book, and really wroth reading if you like Japanese literature. Around this time I read Karuki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, Sawako Ariyoshi, Yasunari Kawabata, Katsuo Kirino, Yukio Mishima, and some others. I have read more Murakami, Ariyoshi and Yoshimoto since blogging, plus Murata most recently. I have Ozeki on my TBR and I really want to read Ogawa.
I have never really counted Ishiguro as a Japanese writer – I have read five or six of his books, and reviewed once since blogging – because he went to England when he was 5 but mainly because he writes in English. I’m probably being tough, but that’s how I’ve seen it.
Thanks for all those recommendations – plenty of new names for me to explore. I get your point about Ishiguro. I hadn’t realised he moved to England quite so young but it does affect my perception of him now. He wouldn’t have had much of an immersion in Japanese culture
Great post! It’s a long book, but I just finished Murakami’s ‘Killing Commendatore’ and really loved it – I’ll be reviewing it later this week. I’d also recommend ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ by Hiromi Kawakami, which is nice and short but still has that characteristic sense of longing you mentioned in one of the comments above.
Just tried to get ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ but my library doesn’t stock it – they have two others by him, one of which I’ve heard of: The Thrift Shop – have you read that one? Is it any good?
What a shame! I haven’t read The Thrift Shop but I would love to hear your thoughts if you decide to give it a try.
I loved A Tale for the Time Being and I also loved Wind Up Bird Chronicles (though I’ve had mixed feelings about a few other Murakami novels). I’ve just started The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa and I’m really looking forward to reading more.
i’ll keep an eye out for your comment on The Memory Police – its one I have my eye on
What a great post to do! Really like the sound of all of these, but especially a tale for the time being. But all of these sound like a great way to visit Japan 🙂
Tale for the Time Being has some wonderful passages. Dual time frame novels are getting a bit tiresome now but this is one that definitely worked
My favorite of Murakami’s still is A Wild Sheep Chase, the book to which I was introduced to him. I also recommended Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
Would you suggest I start with these then Bryan?
A Wild Sheep Chase is short and when I first read, I knew I wanted to read more of his books. Like you, I also feel that I don’t quite get everything going on, but that’s part of the reason, for me anyway, that I like it. It’s such a different culture, but also maybe in his case such a different way of seeing the world.
Good point. Now I’ve read a few Japanese novels I’ve become more accustomed to the fact they don’t get wrapped up neatly
Good post! I loved the Housekeeper and the Professor but did not really enjoy the two others I’ve read from this list–both were well written, just not my thing. What you mention about the structure being different is what throws me with some Japanese books. I’m left feeling stupid and wondering what I missed in terms of nuance and between the lines reading. I’m doing the Japanese Lit Challenge, too.
Most of the Japanese books I’ve read have had a sense of longing and absences in the person’s life. So I just reckon that my absence of complete understanding of what I’m reading is appropriate 🙂
You have reminded me to re-read A Tale for the Time being. Thanks for a great post.
It would be a great one to read again. I might even get to understand that experiment with the cat that is explained
I’ve been searching for a copy of A Tale For The Time Being *forever* and just not come across one – I’m super keen to read it, it sounds amazing! I’d also be interested to give Tales Of Genji a go, generally considered to be the first “novel”, and written by a Japanese noblewoman in the 11th century. I’d highly recommend adding Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata to your to-be-read list, it’s short but breathtaking.
A good book theme with the Olympics heading to Japan later this year.
What a wonderful post! I, too, have loved The Housekeeper and The Professor (my favorite book of Ogawa’s by far), Good-bye Tsugumi, and Colorless Tzukuru Tanizaki. I haven’t read the others you mentioned, although I own A Tale for The Time Being, so I will take note of them. Murakami can be a challenge, both because of his length and ambiguousness. Once I embraced that I wouldn’t understand all that he was saying, I was best able to enjoy his work. You may like Kafka on The Shore, which isn’t as long as Wind-up Bird, but still magical. Thank you so much for giving us this lovely post, which I am adding to the review site right now. xo
I’ve never read any Murikami, mostly because I’m intimidated. A book by a Japanese writer that’s been on my list FOREVER is Out by Natsua Kirino.
great trip thanks on this special day.
Oh my, I haven’t’ read anything yet by Yukio Mishima. But happy to see Murakami on your list!
I don’t think I have read any Japanese Lit except Murakami, whom I came to via 1Q84 which in audiobook didn’t seem too long – 18 hours I think, and much shorter than War and Peace or Pickwick Papers. I had no idea it was 1200 pages. In the 4 or so years since I have read his early ‘realist’ ones (#3, Wild Sheep Chase begins his long deviation from straight fiction) and a couple of others. Love him!
I’m a huge fan of Mishima, but less of Murakami. I loved Norwegian Wood when it first came out but I never managed to get on with any of his other books. If you want to explore modern Japanese writing, I can highly recommend the Red Circle Minis! 😀
Is that an imprint?
It is – I reviewed some at Shiny New Books and some on the blog. Reviews of the first three releases here and there’s a feature on Shiny too!