Books on Japan: Japanese Fiction
Japanese Animation | Japanese Architecture | Japanese Art & Design | Japanese Children's Books | Japanese Fiction | Japanese Food | Japan Gay & Lesbian | Japanese History | Japanese Language | Japanese Manga | Japanese Martial Arts | Japanese Music | Japan Nature | Japanese Politics & Society | Travel in Japan | Other
The Narrow Road to the Deep North: A Novel
by Richard Flanagan
Richard Flanagan's 2014 Booker Prize-winning work about the Burmese railroad fiasco pulls off its brazen trick of appropriating - occupying, if you will - the title of the Japanese haiku master Basho's great travelogue Oku no hosomichi. But it fails to learn perhaps the greatest lesson of the medium: less is more. Its 464 pages, while often filled with arresting images, are about a hundred too many for its purpose; or maybe the problem is that the novel, much like its hapless protagonist, is unsure of its purpose, and thus marches on doggedly in a maze of blind alleys long after it should have packed it in.
While the novel treads the well-blazed path of the allied prisoner-of-war experience at the hands of pitiless Japanese soldiers (in the footsteps of such classics as The Seed and the Sower and The Bridge Over the River Kwai), this time it focuses on Australians' and Japanese' perspectives.
Ironically it is not the hellish details of deprivation and depravity that risk turning off the reader, but rather the hackneyed story of forbidden love that is overly intrusive at a time when the novel should be consolidating its narrative direction.
This second-rate melodrama of a frustrated young wife betraying her lumbering older husband for his surgeon nephew pales against the POWs' hard-earned solidarity in the face of suffering, and produces howlers such as this candidate for the Bulwer-Lytton prize:
"Afterwards, he remembered only their bodies, rising and falling with the crash of waves, brushed by the sea breezes that ruffled the sand dune tops and raked the ash that ate his abandoned cigarette."
Excepting such surfeits of relative clauses and personification, Flanagan is in fact at his best in his observations of the indifferent material world that envelopes human suffering, and of the suffering itself, be it at the hands of their own banality and thwarted sense of self (the Australians), or of a brutal samurai code evoked in war (the Japanese). Attendant is a portrayal of the frightening power of language, common to British and Japanese poetry, and Mein Kampf, to channel the human spirit into equally boundless nobility or sadism.
Thus it is that Basho's haiku ennobling the human aesthetic instinct - "Even in Kyoto / when I hear the cuckoo / I long for Kyoto" - is twisted by a Japanese colonel whose assured racial superiority is licence for an orgy of beheading of the dehumanised Chinese 'enemy': "Even in Manchukuo / when I see a neck / I long for Manchukuo."
Flanagan risks ridicule in employing the quintessential Japanese artform against itself, but such damning juxtapositions work, much as the Nazis condemned themselves by listening to Beethoven while overseeing the Holocaust. The point is that aesthetic sensibility is no substitute for human decency. The haunted army surgeon Dorrigan Evans realises (or as Flanagan intones ad nauseam, "understands") that about himself, even as he seeks solace, if not guidance, in the beauty of others' words throughout his bemused, empty life.
Though it is not a new insight, Flanagan is right to reiterate - writing as he is amid a rejuvenated era of revisionist right-wing politics, not only in Japan - that the starving man who gives half his meagre rice slop to a fellow sufferer is more eloquent in his gesture of universal human solidarity than a thousand poems lauding the unique spirit of a particular race. But sadly Flanagan felt the need to embroider what was essentially his laconic father's true-life experience as a POW with an amorous counterpoint, rendering the eloquent logorrheic and sending the narrative off-track into the jungle mud.
Memoirs of a Geisha
This is an insider's look at Kyoto's famed pleasure quarter, Gion, and the geisha who make their living there. It is based on the life of Nitta Sayuri, who rose from rural obscurity in pre-war Japan to the life of expatriate socialite ensconced in a suite in the Waldorf Towers in Manhattan. American Arthur Golden retells the story of how Sayuri is sold with her sister into Kyoto's legendary "water world" of the night.
Following the premature death of her mother, Sayuri's fisherman father feels he has no choice but to sell his daughters. There begins a journey that will change her life forever. Her less attractive sister is consigned to a low ranking brothel; Sayuri, after many fits and starts, becomes the most sought after geisha in all of Gion. Golden tells her story of exploitation and enchantment, power and the abuse thereof, in a flowing and lyrical style.
The first novel for John Burnham Schwartz, in places Bicycle Days is very readable. It is the story of a young American who goes to Japan following time at Yale. In Tokyo, he lives with a local family and struggles to learn both the Japanese language and local customs. The portrayal of the mother in this family is letter perfect, as are the descriptions of Takadanobaba and other parts of Tokyo.
The first 100 pages in particular are very well written. However, the relationship he has with a Japanese woman at times errs on the side of stereotype.
This is a relatively painless and enjoyable introduction into Japan and Japanese society.
Neutral War: A Novel of Soul-Chilling Barter, Bioterror, and High-Stakes International Poker
by Hal Gold
Hal Gold's World War II novel is set in Japan from the period before America's entry into the war following the attack upon Pearl Harbor up to the occupation.
Firmly based on historical facts, fiction is used to suggest unorthodox interpretations of many aspects of the politics of the war. Written as the memoirs of a Swedish diplomat stationed in Japan, the story begins with his friendship with Yamamoto, the admiral who led the attack on Pearl Harbor, and his correspondence with him comprises a large part of the story.
Another major character is Mariko, a young teacher who becomes the lover of the diplomat, and through her we are given insights into the reactions of those Japanese who opposed the militarization of their society. Through other characters and chance meetings the horrific details of Japan's biological and chemical warfare research program is revealed, and while avoiding sensationalism, the descriptions are perhaps more chilling than graphic descriptions would have been. Later the Swede becomes involved with the elements of the Japanese government and military that tried to find an end to the war.
There is a fascinating numerological thread running throughout the book that offers an interesting point of view for analyzing history. If you are interested in this period of Japan's history, the differing theories of how and why America allowed Pearl Harbor to happen, Unit 731 and the subsequent American cover-up, and the attempts by Japan to surrender, then the novel provides enough fact and provocative suggestions to send you to the library for more detailed research.
East is East
Short story virtuoso TC Boyle weaves a wild tale about Hiro Tanaka, a half-Japanese half-American sailor who jumps ship from a Japanese freighter and makes it barely alive onto the Georgia coast. Fleeing the racism and time in the ship's brig off Japan, Tanaka arrives on a swampy island inhabited by the descendants of slaves, lower class whites, and the self-obsessed denizens of an artist colony.
What ensues is at times hysterical: mistaken identity, self-delusion, pride, jealousy, hyperbole, and deceit. Tanaka, whose hippy mother became pregnant from a relationship with an American "barbarian", is taunted mercilessly as a "gaijin", though he was born and raised in Japan. He dreams of a place of half-castes and mixed-bloods, where he won't stand out. What he finds in America is misunderstanding and betrayal.
You may want to avoid eating before or while reading this thriller. Aside from that caveat, the only other recommendation is to set aside two days because you will not be able to put "Out" down. It draws in the reader with its letter-perfect character descriptions and tightly-constructed plot. Kirino's novel was originally published in Japanese under the same title in 1997. It was a cause celebre selling 300,000 copies and won Japan's top mystery award in 1998. Prior to that, Kirino won the Naoki Prize with "Yawarakana Hoho" (Tender Cheeks).
This hard-boiled novel examines the interrelationships between four women factory workers, who are drawn into covering up the murder one of them commits. This leads to more intrigue and, ultimately, the central premise of the novel: what would you do in similar circumstances? Would you reject a friend's entreaty? If yes, why and how? If no, could you take part in the horror--and then go back to your previous life?
The main character is the brilliant but ordinary-seeming Masako Katori, who works the night shift in a factory. When a co-worker murders her husband, Katori steps forward and enlists the help of two other women in covering up the crime. Katori lives with and takes care of her sexless and depressed husband and her sullen teenage son who no longer speaks to her.
To pigeonhole "Out" as a detective novel does no justice to it. For those who have lived in Japan for many years--or for those who only have the vaguest idea of Japan--this is stunning portrayal of the anomie of modern Tokyo. The portrayals of a Brazilian immigrant, a Yakuza nightclub owner, a Chinese hostess, the working class police detectives, and of course the women themselves are spot-on. Brilliant.
With a loyal following in countries as diverse as Italy, China, Brazil, the US, and her native Japan, Banana Yoshimoto is one of Japan's most well known writers. Kitchen, Yoshimoto's first novel, is the story of Mikage Sakurai, a young woman who has just lost her grandmother, her last living relative, and how she finds a new "family" when she is taken in by Yuichi Tanabe and his mother Eriko.
The story revolves around Mikage's growing sense of belonging with her new and unusual family, and of the importance she attaches to the kitchen - her favorite place. This short novella explores how the concept of family can transcend traditional definitions. Mikage is accepted by Eriko, the transsexual bar owner (and Yuichi's father). Mikage finds sustenance and comfort in the kitchen, both literally and metaphorically, as she rebuilds her life.
Banana Yoshimoto's NP opens with a darkly mysterious premise: everyone who tries to translate author Sarao Takase's ninety-eighth story commits suicide.
NP stands for North Point, the title of Takase's collection which was inspired by "an old, sad song." Though it's never revealed during Yoshimoto's novel, the lyrics of Mike Oldfield's song ("Have you ever been to Northpoint / to spend your time and pray / the prison walls are dark and cold and grey / the writing on the wall at Northpoint / speaks to a silent room / they shut the bars down, leave you to the gloom") perfectly describe the isolation felt not only by Takase's abandoned children, but by our narrator Kazami Kano, who's own lover committed suicide after translating the ninety-eighth story. When Kazami chances upon Takase's children (twentysomething fraternal twins Saki and Otohiko) and his stepdaughter (the psychotically spontaneous Sui) the heart of Yoshimoto's novel is revealed.
The love triangles that develop retrace their roots to the ninety-eighth story, the telling of Takase's unknowing seduction and affair with his stepdaughter Sui. The resulting relationship between these four characters is not only a story of incest and all that is taboo, it is a catalyst to recovery and a testament to survival. Yoshimoto again demonstrates the power of deceptively simple subtlety in her gracefully translated second novel, showing why she is one of the most successful writers in Japan today. Banana Yoshimoto is also the author of Kitchen, Lizard, Asleep, Amrita and Goodbye Tsugumi.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Call it fantasy, call it sci-fi, call it cyberpunk or post modern detective fiction, Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a genre-busting mystery where the clues are hidden within the tinkered up mind of the protagonist. Set in a futuristic/alternate reality Tokyo, our narrator is the high-tech instrument of an info-war between the Factory and the Data Mafia. With no database safe from hackers, super-coded information is deciphered by experimental, split-brained "shufflers" known as Calcutecs.
The side effects for our top of the line prototype? A dual reality in which the hero lives two separate, "shuffled" lives: one in the subterranean labyrinth beneath the traffic of Tokyo (Hard-Boiled Wonderland), and another in an ancient walled town where skulls speak dreams and his shadow develops a consciousness of its own (The End of the World).
Murakami masterfully interweaves these two worlds in alternating chapters, employing magic realism to create the Narnia that lies beyond Lewis's wardrobe, the Oz beyond Baum's rainbow, and, of course, the Wonderland at the bottom of Carroll's rabbit hole. A psychoanalyst's Rubik's cube, this book is more than a film noir spelunking through an Orwellian information underground; somehow, almost miraculously, it is a life affirming exploration of the human mind and spirit, and yes, maybe even of love.
Sputnik Sweetheart, as its title suggests, is essentially about loneliness (represented by the pioneering Russian satellite and the first dog in space, Laika) and love. Its lovelorn narrator relates the strange tale of his unattainable Sumire and her desire for an older woman.
There are some obvious parallels between Sputnik Sweetheart and Murakami's early novel A Wild Sheep Chase. Both come in at a modest couple of hundred pages; both involve an I-narrator that is a male in his mid-30s; both involve missing persons; and both haunt their modern urban settings with more than a touch of the supernatural. The prose style - short, spare sentences that send the excited reader careening into unexpected and disconcerting turns - also remains an essential Murakami trademark, filled also with western cultural references that betray his great love of music in all its forms.
What is different is that Murakami is exploring female characters with more depth than before, giving them centre stage rather than assigning them as objects of the narrator's musings; their lesbian relationship is as much about their self-definition as it is about being in love. However, it is interesting that he still feels the need to frame the story in a male gaze; while it has its purpose here, one wonders if one day he will be able to employ a female narrator, or follow female characters without masculine commentary.
Murakami continues to be a major international talent, and Sputnik Sweetheart enhances this. It is as good an introduction to his work as A Wild Sheep Chase, and some may find it more affecting.
Dance Dance Dance
New Yorker contributor and former Princeton lecturer, Murakami manages to garner critical acclaim while enjoying great popularity both in Japan and abroad in translation. The central character in Dance Dance Dance has recurring dreams about a Sapporo hotel he once stayed in years ago with a girlfriend who has since disappeared.
He returns finally to the old Dolphin Hotel and finds it has been transformed into a chain hotel but has retained the original name. In the parallel universe of the hotel, the lead character meets the teenage psychic Yuki, her bizaare mother Ame, and Dick North, Ame's one-armed American boyfriend.
In the search for Kiki, the missing girlfriend, Murakami takes the reader on a psychedelic ride. Translator Alfred Birnbaum has done an excellent job in staying true to the nuances in the original Japanese text.
In the Miso Soup
by Ryu Murakami
Frank, the psychotic American loose in the sleazy backstreets of Murakami's latter-day Tokyo, describes himself as a virus, something bad in that it invades the cells of society, sets up camp in them, and then destroys - but good in that it makes people stop, rethink themselves, and maybe even change for the better. Good contemporary fiction should also destroy our easy complacency, at least for as long as we're reading, and replace it with an ever-enlarging awareness of our actual state of existence. Murakami's short novel In the Miso Soup slips down our throats easily enough at first as a salty tale set in the red-light district of Kabukicho, then mutates in our literary digestive tracts into a horrifying concoction that some may find hard to hold down, just as the young, streetwise narrator Kenji does.
But for those of us prepared to stomach one particularly nauseating scene of slice-'n-dice, along with the occasional over-bland sentence (due to weakness in the original recipe', or dilution in the translation?), this is an intellectually satisfying piece of work that can be consumed voraciously in one sitting.
In the Miso Soup is at once an indictment of the soullessness of modern Japan, a fleeting evocation of what has been lost, and a sketch of the types - be they mindless, neurotic or malevolent - who Murakami envisages increasingly populating the coming generations if Japanese society continues its downward slide into a non-society.
Snow Country is the sad and beautiful tale of the detached Shimamura, a wealthy Tokyo dilettante, and Komako, a hot springs geisha who is wasting away in an isolated village beyond the mountains, in the snowiest region on earth. This setting, where "cold winds blow down from Siberia, pick up moisture over the Japan Sea, and drop it as snow when they strike the mountains of Japan," is the perfect symbol for the novel's heroine; Komako is confined by her debts to remain in service, winter after winter, ceremony after ceremony, far from the city and culture she yearns for and unloved by a man who comes and goes as he pleases.
Kawabata, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, reveals Shimamura's search for purity and Komako's unfulfilled love through his delicate use of nature imagery. Written like haiku in their economy and poignancy, these minimalist gems show the cycle of life and death through the changing of the seasons, paralleling the lives of Shimamura, Komako, and even the young and "unattainable" Yoko.
A Buddhist reading of Snow Country would say that Komako suffers because she clings to a life that is impermanent, that she is trapped as much by her mortality (as indicated by her transition from "girl" to "woman" in a brief span of pages) as by her occupation ("a wasted effort," perhaps). At the same time, the aesthetic Shimamura is so far removed from his life emotionally that he is a virtual non-participant, unable to appreciate the beauty and sincerity of Komako, unable, essentially, to live or love at all.
Though Edward Seidensticker's translation is good, it is not great - Snow Country could clearly benefit from a translation by Alfred Birnbaum or Jay Rubin . Still, Kawabata's use of imagery as a narrative device, his control, and his "brushstroke suggestiveness" pervade any translation. Snow Country will not be every reader's cup of tea, but it is undeniably beautiful, undeniably sad, and undeniably a masterpiece.
This is the third in a series featuring Billy Chaka, "hard-boiled" Tokyo-bound (and often based) journalist with the teen rag Youth in Asia who has a soft spot for beautiful women and risk-taking. Part film noir, part manga/anime - and, as author Isaac Adamson suggests, part Hong Kong action cinema - this is not a footnoted thesis on some abstruse element of Asian culture to set tongues wagging back in Chicago about the mysterious East. Rather, it is an imaginative and fun and at times very wild ride through modern, formless, neon Tokyo.
Billy Chaka is sent to Tokyo to find and interview a former rock star, the one-hit wonder Gombei Fukugawa. A seemingly straightforward assignment, everything changes when Chaka witnesses a beautiful woman have a seizure in a pachinko parlor. This leads Chaka where most would never go. He becomes involved in a blackmail scandal involving a Ministry of Construction official, the Yakuza, a strong-willed and attractive young woman called Afuro, an oddball private eye, and a Blue Velvetish hotel that could have been penned by Haruki Murakami. This leads to intrigue that has its roots in an incident dating to the end of World War II - and ultimately resolution of this riveting story.
A great tale. Isaacson is a wonderful storyteller and perceptive observer of modern Tokyo.
The Earthquake Bird
by Susanna Jones
This is the stunning debut novel by Susanna Jones. The novel begins with an earthquake and an arrest for murder. This is the story of Lucy Fly, an English translator living in Tokyo. It begins at the end - the murder of her friend Lily and the disappearance of her lover Teiji - and guides the reader towards the truth of what happened to them.
Jones jumps between the present - Lucy being interrogated by the police as a suspect - and what lead to these circumstances.
Living alone and utterly content with her life in Tokyo, Lucy meets Teiji one rainy night as he is photographing a puddle in Shinjuku. Teiji is lithe and obsessive and laconic about his past. Not understanding what he does with all of the photos he takes (Teiji claims nothing), one day Lucy sneaks into his flat and peers into the world he has recorded on film. Having opened the proverbial can of worms - and caught in the act when Teiji comes home - Lucy yields to an intense jealousy about the previous woman in his life.
This is compounded when Lily - an irritating, helpless nurse who befriends Lucy on the pretext of them both being from Yorkshire - and Teiji become involved on a trip that the three of them take to Sado Island. Lyrical in places, the novel is confident and insightful on the lives of the three main characters and on Japan itself. The earthquake-like ending will stay with you long after you have finished.
by Susanna Jones
This is Susanna Jones's second novel, following "The Earthquake Bird," which was her stunning debut. Once again, we are back in Japan and once again there is murder and intrigue and a powerful portrait of modern Japanese society. In "Water Lily," the protagonist Runa, a young high school teacher, steals her sister's passport and flees to Shanghai - after an affair with one of her students was about to be made public. She crosses paths with Ralph, a 40-something Englishman named Ralph who is in Japan looking for a new Asian bride. (He murdered his first wife, in Thailand, and is now doing the rounds of Bridal Agencies in Tokyo.)
Though perhaps a bit easier to guess what will happen at the end than her previous novel, "Water Lily" vividly explores stereotypes and the internal lives of two very different people. It is, moreover, written in a lean prose style that speaks volumes about its characters.
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
Based on the true story of a deranged monk who torched Kyoto's famed Golden Pavilion in the early 1950s, Mishima's work features the stuttering acolyte Mizoguchi whose obsession - the temple itself - drives him to an act of utter madness and destruction. The themes of male beauty, death, and violence permeate the novel.
Narrated in the first person, the novel has an immediacy that is stunning, if uncomfortable at times, as the novel wends its way to its awful conclusion. Though the characters are priests and the "action" takes place in a temple, religion per se is not a theme. Beauty and spirituality and, in a foreboding of Mishima's own final act, the perceived transcendence of violence course through the novel.
Mishima's final act was of course his failed coup d'etat in a Tokyo military barracks, in 1970. He entered the defense headquarters and called on soldiers to join him and overthrow the government. He was heckled by soldiers - "Go on, do it, kill yourself!" - which he did, ritually, and all of which was all captured on national television.
Sudden, unredeemable violence punctuate lyrical prose. Very powerful. And, perhaps somewhat ominous considering his politics, there is now in Japan a boom in Mishima studies.
A Burden of Flowers
Tetsuro (Tez'), a young Japanese painter, travels through Asia seeking inspiration, ending up in Thailand. Meeting the seductive German traveler Inge, he gets hooked on heroin, she having convinced him that his art will improve if under the influence. However, coming down, he realizes that what he's painted is rubbish, and flies back to Japan disgusted with himself.
In Japan the inspiration he seeks is not forthcoming, so Tez heads off to Bali. Tempted into trying heroin from a street pusher, after being deceived he ends up in a Balinese jail, drawing pictures of fellow inmates whilst awaiting his fate.
His sister Kaoru, a Europhile based in Paris, flies across the world to rescue her brother, more out of a sense of duty than any higher purpose, enlisting the help of an aging Japanese professor with extensive contacts in the country.
Lessons are learnt by both siblings through the prism of Indonesian society, their own background in Japan, and the separate paths each has taken up till this point.
The story is filtered through the eyes of Tez and Kaoru who give alternate narrative viewpoints on the emotional upheaval both feel, their relationship to each other and their parents and the experiences abroad that have shaped their respective personalities.
A reflective and spiritual leaning is found in the musings of the characters, particularly Tez, as he recalls his descent into heroin addiction and the two women who shaped his travels in Asia.
In Japan Ikezawa Natsuki is well known as a writer of literature, light fiction and numerous non-fiction essays, including a treatise on the state of Iraq prior to the current war. Difficult to put down once into, this fine book won the 2000 Mainichi Prize.
Note To Authors & Publishers
If you wish to have your title reviewed by JapanVisitor's team of Japan-specialist reviewers please contact us to arrange for a review copy to be sent to the editors.
JapanVisitor provides a thorough and professional review.
JapanVisitor works in cooperation with the following publishing houses: Kodansha International, Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, Penguin, Alexandra Press, Oxford University Press, Vertical, APA Publications, Columbia University Press, University of Hawaii Press, Dark Alley, ME Sharpe Inc., Tokyopop, Trafalgar Square Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, Grove/Atlantic Press, Tuttle Publishing, Yale University Press, Pantheon Books, Pan Macmillan, Bantam Press, Faber & Faber, University of California Press, Harvard University Press.