Books on Japan: Japanese Fiction
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The Haiku Apprentice
Stone Bridge Press
The famous haikuist Basho took a journey through Japan to find inspiration for his writing. For American diplomat Abigail Friedman, haiku became a journey in itself. Her engaging memoir, The Haiku Apprentice, is an account of how this form of Japanese poetry changed her life.
Friedman had always enjoyed reading haiku, but it wasn't until she met a survivor of the atomic bomb at an official engagement that she started to think about writing poetry herself. The man from Hiroshima, identified in the book by his pen name, Traveling Man Tree, invited Friedman to his poetry group. Though it was an hour and a half train ride from her residence, Friedman decided to give it a try. From that afternoon, she became immersed in haiku, and entered tutoring sessions with renowned haiku master Kuroda Momoko. From Kuroda, she learns about seasonal words, cut words, and other elements.
Friedman, an educated woman (B.A. with honors from Harvard, J.D. from Georgetown University) with an inquiring mind, is not afraid to ask questions. She succeeds in dispelling a few common assumptions about haiku. For instance, inscrutability is not necessarily a trait of the form. In fact, haiku poets often write lengthy explanations to accompany their poems. Nor does haiku have any intrinsic connection to Zen Buddhism.
While assigned to Tokyo, Friedman dealt with the North Korea portfolio. Her musings as an official on the kidnappings of Japanese citizens by the North Korean government add a certain piquancy to this memoir.
After leaving Japan, Friedman started her own haiku group in Quebec. She gives advice for others who may well be inspired after reading this book to do the same.
In The Pool
by Hideo Okubo
In the Pool is a collection of stories that presents in English the offbeat humor of Hideo Okubo. In the fashion- and image-obsessed Japan of 2006, a trip to the therapist is taboo - or at least if the visit is found out. Thus, as a way of circumventing this, depressed patients visit a "doctor of neurology" instead of a therapist (who, of course, is the one and same doctor).
One of them is Dr. Ichiro Irabu, a slightly wacky physician who always seems to come down with the condition that his patients suffer from. The result of Dr. Irabu sharing the identical stress-related ailment is that - in addition to the empathy - in spite of initially causing his patients to get much worse, they eventually get much better.
The patients include a magazine editor who as part of his mid-life crisis becomes addicted to swimming. He swims and swims and swims, threatening his marriage and job.
Another patient, recently divorced, has a permanent erection. It never goes down, is painful, and embarrassing. In another story, a young woman believes all men are stalking her. In "Cell," a high school student text messages "friends" obsessively. All find their way to Dr. Irabu, who suffers the same symptoms - and then helps.
Sardonic and funny.
Life in the Cul de Sac
by Senji Kuroi
Stone Bridge Press
What began as a series of interlinking short stories, Kuroi has woven into an unsettling whole in this novel of Japanese suburban dis-ease. The various families in the titular cul-de-sac, whom we visit several times over the course of a few years, spend almost as much time speculating about their neighbours as they do preoccupied with their own problems. And their problems are numerous: all the male-female relationships seem on the point of dissolution, with suppressed anxieties and dissatisfactions manifesting themselves as a wife's obsession with a stuffed raccoon doll, or a husband's straining to catch a glimpse of the vital young lovers in the place next door.
Kuroi spikes his prose with hallucinatory moments that he purposely does not set off from the mundane reality that has spawned them, leaving the reader momentarily off-balance and forced to work out whether they have actually happened, or are merely the product of a character's febrile imagination. Is the old well under the house overflowing, filling the kitchen? Does the little girl from next door have a thousand needles crammed into her mouth in a grotesque parody of an ancient Japanese vow of truthfulness? Such moments capture well the domestic neurosis that can overtake family units when there is nothing much more to them than the fact that they live together. The only evidence of closeness is shown in fleeting gestures between the women of the street, who at least are able to empathise with the others' plights. But in the end, no-one is shown as able to find their way out of their emotional cul-de-sacs.
Japanese for Travellers
In this collection of essays, first-time author Kitamura has chosen as her 'overriding' metaphor the bullet train making its way ever-westward across the main island of Japan. It is the present tense from which she muses, chin in hand, as it were, as memories and associations of Japan glide before her eyes. As her name suggests, she is an expatriate, educated overseas, who returns from the West to Japan on a regular basis and finds herself experiencing, not unexpectedly, "a feeling of displaced recognition". However, this time she returns with freshly minted PhD in hand, and it seems that she now feels obligated not only to reminisce and to observe, but also to analyse, to deconstruct, in the relentless fashion that is the hallmark of the Western academic, and so at odds with the stolidly unselfconscious nature of the average Japanese themselves.
This in itself is not necessarily undesirable. Kitamura's prose is at its best, and the reader best served, when she is relating intimate familial memories to the vast societal tectonic shifts that rent Japan after WWII. Her grandfather, father and uncle's destinies resonate with the vagaries of fate, and their depiction through her eyes helps to humanise the Japanese condition for the uninitiated Western reader. Her timely critique of the controversial Japanese film Battle Royale trenchantly lays bare the dangers of an epochal generation gap. But her voice falters when she feels the need, as part of her wholesale attempt to diagnose the Japanese condition, to turn her attention to the Japanese emperor's radio broadcast at the end of the war, the Sarin gas attack on Tokyo's subway system, or the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, events that she has neither experienced directly nor through her relatives. Kitamura's assertions about how people must have felt and why things are the way they are evince the easy certainty of the callow observer, the symmetrical vacancy of the sociolinguistic trope. Her dismissal of the memorial to the dead of Hiroshima is particularly problematic in its post-structuralist cynicism.
As someone who is from Japan but no longer of it, like the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, Kitamura has the opportunity to provide a little-explored viewpoint in Western writing - and furthermore from a badly needed female perspective. There is potential here, but she has yet to find her voice above the hubbub of academese, and still to establish the authority on her subject that can only come through many years of engagement both within and outside Japan. As she will find, Japanese for travellers is quite a different thing from Japanese for the long haul. Maybe it's time for her to 'disembark' her train of thought and spend some time living in, rather than travelling through, Japan.
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The Cape and other Stories from the Ghetto
The pace of change in Japan is unrelenting: go away for two weeks and four houses in your "old," established neighborhood in Kyoto have met the wrecking ball and are history. Close your eyes for a season, and the latest fashion style is nearly unrecognizable.
What about good old-fashioned human discrimination? In the 1960s, the government set out to concrete over and rebuild the slums, or buraku, that dot Japan, primarily in rural areas and in the cities of western Japan.
These slums were populated by the untouchables, the caste of people relegated to do unclean work who were and are considered tainted. In spite of the above building and affirmative action plans, to this day, the burakumin people earn less and have trouble marrying out.
Reading The Cape, though, is stepping into the recent past that is, like the change in fashion, almost unrecognizable in modern Japan - at least on the surface. Writer Kenji Nakagami, himself a burakumin, wrote a fictional trilogy on life in the ghetto.
The works document the life and family ties of Akiyuki, a construction worker who lives in the slums of Wakayama. There is madness, incest, and the specter of violence at all times. Surrounded by drunks and whores, confusion and murder - and the oppressive sense of being closed in and separate from the outside world - Akiyuki cleanses himself through his physical labor.
A brutal and disturbing look at Japan. Until the child of Brazilian immigrants living in housing projects takes up the pen, Japan may not see the likes of a Nakagami for a long time.
Nakagami, who died at the age of 46 in 1992, was the enfant terrible of the Japanese literary scene and winner of the Akutagawa Prize in 1976 for The Cape.
The Teahouse Fire
by Ellis Avery
Anyone who has ever spent time in Japan knows that tea is more than simply a kind of refreshment. Chado, or The Way of Tea, embodies a philosophy, a way of life. Ellis Avery studied tea ceremony for five years in New York and Kyoto. She brings a wealth of knowledge and insight to her first novel.
Like Arthur Golden's Memoirs of Geisha, The Teahouse Fire brings the reader into a world that was once closed to Westerners. However, while Golden wrote in the voice of a geisha--an insider--Avery chooses to observe the world of tea during the volatile Meiji Era through the eyes of a foreigner. Aurelia Corneille was born in New York to an unmarried French maid. When she is orphaned, she immigrates to Japan with her missionary uncle, Charles, a man she dislikes.
One night, she leaves the house and ventures out to a Japanese shrine. She makes a wish for any life but this one. When she goes back to the house, she finds that it is in flames. Aurelia takes refuge in a Japanese teahouse, where she is discovered by Yukako Shin, daughter of Japan's leading tea master, and a descendant of Rikyu, the founder of tea ceremony. Aurelia manages to pass herself off as a Japanese (some believe her unusual face to be the result of a botched abortion) and lives with the Shin family as a maid for the next 25 years.
Most of the novel takes place during the reign of the Emperor Meiji, a time of great reform and heavy Western influence in Japan. Samurai were required to lay down their swords; lowly merchants were suddenly given status. Electric lights and glass windows were introduced, along with the bustle and education for women. This period also saw many changes in the world of tea.
Although the ceremony was once performed only by male tea masters for other men of high social ranking, it gradually became a mostly feminine pursuit. Avery weaves these historical elements into a riveting story of love and betrayal. As in tea ceremony itself, there are many moments of great beauty. This is an impressive debut.
A Zen Forest: Zen Sayings
translated by Soiku Shigematsu
foreword by Gary Snyder
Zen sayings run from the accessibly profound:
On the saddle, no man; underneath it, no horse
To the archly counterintuitive:
Drive off the ox from a farmer! Snatch the food from a hungry man!
To the downright poetic:
Shattered and split - shimmering, dancing - the moon on the rapids.
What these different 'incarnations' share is the intention of shaking the mind out of its obsession with ratiocination and into a Zen state of intuitive understanding that can lead to satori, or the bliss of enlightenment. This collection, excerpted from two famous Japanese anthologies, is part of the 'Companions for the Journey' series that White Pine Press has released - modest-size, tastefully presented volumes of Asian poetry that will entertain and provoke you on your travels. Ink-brush illustrations by Zen artists further enhance the sojourn into one's own heart that these works represent.
Misako Imai has the gift of second sight or maybe it's a curse. At the beginning of Joan Itoh Burk's astonishing debut novel, One Chrysanthemum, as the wind of a typhoon "dances a garbage can down a dark Tokyo street," Imai has a vision of her husband with another woman. She realizes that he lied to her when he told her he would be staying late at the office on account of the weather. Another storm, a year before, churned up the bones of a young woman from the pond waters at a nearby museum.
Misako's grandfather, a Buddhist priest, has been keeping the bones in his temple, while he tries to figure out what to do with them. Throughout the following chapters, Burk expertly weaves Misako's story with that of Kensho, a gangly mixed blood Buddhist priest interested in clairvoyance, and the mystery of the bones.
The main characters in this novel are all Japanese, but Burk, a former columnist for The Japan Times, writes with an insider's perspective. Her knowledge, supplemented by research, is so complete that one could throw aside the usual guides to Japanese customs and read this book instead.
Kyoto: The Forest Within the Gate
text by Edith Shiffert
Photographs and preface by John Einarsen
This tiny book, a near-perfect fusion of haiku-length English poetry and black-and-white photography, is a perfect tribute to the city of Kyoto, and to Edith Shiffert, a poet who has resided in the ancient Japanese capital for more than 40 years.
Kyoto, for all that it has the trappings of a modern city, contains an inordinate number of green spaces sequestered in unexpected locations. It owes much of this encapsulated quietness to the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines that are spread throughout the city. In this collection, Shiffert writes with concise assurance about her favourite such spots and Einarsen provides silvery-textured counterpoints. My only regret is that the resolution of some images betrays a few clear pixels where the matt sheen of a film camera would have done better justice to the timeless forms. But most images are breath-taking in their beauty.
Leafing through this book the reader will feel a calm invade them, like a forest creeping inside the city gates. A little gem of a collaboration.
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Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
The overriding theme that coheres in this new collection of short stories spanning Murakami's writing career is existential loneliness. Whether the protagonist is man or woman, married or single, straight or gay, young or old, none is immune to the vagaries of fate, the touch of death, the uncomfortable nudge of happenstance. Characters frequently do not know what is happening to them, why it is happening, or what to say about it. The freak wave, the poor aunt, the phantom phonecaller, the ice man - all are simply manifestations of the unknowable darkness outside the campfire of quotidian human existence that waits patiently to envelope us.
Standout stories are 'Hunting Knife', a juxtaposition of connubial complacence and familial misery; 'Man-Eating Cats' (which was the basis of the novel Sputnik Sweetheart), a harsh lesson in life's unexpected twists; 'Tony Takitani', a study of absence that has recently been made into a feature film; and 'Firefly', a discourse on the inarticulateness that surrounds unexplained death. There are also a few stories, such as the final one, 'Shinagawa Monkey', that are more upbeat, allowing for the possibility of people's finding a kind of Sartrean sense of identity in an arbitrary universe.
Longtime Murakami translators Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin collaborate in this collection to achieve a very readable version of some of the author's best short fiction. Unmissable for a Murakami fan, but perhaps unsettling and perplexing for the uninitiated.
by Asa Nonami
Here is another great work of crime fiction featuring a female detective who works the Tokyo beat. Takako Otomichi's family is not thrilled with her career choice; her colleagues are openly scornful, particularly venomous is the old veteran Tamotsu Takizawa.
However, these pair of cops have to work together in search of a killer who is stalking the streets of Tokyo. They delve into the underbelly of the city: its nightclubs, brothels, and neighborhoods.
What they soon realize is more terrifying than anything they have ever experienced: the killer is some sort of wild animal on the loose in megacity.
The climax has Otomichi face to face with the killer, which of course means she must ultimately confront herself as well.
Writer Asa Nonami is still in her 40s but has already been awarded the First Japanese Mystery and Suspense Award, in 1988 for her debut work: A Happy Breakfast. The original Japanese version of The Hunter won the Naoki Prize in 1996.
Like Natsuo Kirino, who is perhaps the best known writer--male or female--of crime fiction working in Japan today, Nonami's non-crime related writing is as good, if not better, than the crime plot itself. Excellent commentary on contemporary Japan.
The Storm Rider
Recently deceased Akira Yoshimura is the undiscovered giant of modern Japanese literature. His work Shipwrecks, in particular, is a stunning work of art. This is a Japan you do not know about. Brutal and evocative--and a reminder of how much Japan has changed in such a brief period.
Having stormed through that title in a day, we eagerly awaited the delivery of Storm Rider, which is the semi-historical tale of a crew of Japanese that meets a storm en route from Osaka to Tokyo and is saved by an American crew. Foreign ships were still not permitted to enter Japanese ports at this time.
Set in the mid-19th century, prior to the opening of Japan thanks to the Black Ships and Admiral Perry, Storm is the story of the 13-year-old Japanese boy who, having been saved by the Americans, is then brought to San Francisco.
After many twists and turns--time in China, a longer period back in the US, terrible violence--the boy who is now a man returns home to Japan.
The boy was named Hikozo. On his journey however he becomes "Joseph Hiko," which is symbolic in many ways. The worst enmity he faces is ironically from fellow Japanese upon his return.
The Shyest Man In Japan (and other stories)
by Lawrence Knipfing
This is a collection of short stories by long-tem Japan
resident Lawrence Knipfing. The blurb on the back cover of the book states
that it is a must-read 'for all Japan fans, for anyone planning to visit
Japan', but unfortunately these stories fall far short of any kind of
incisive or even light-hearted look at contemporary Japan.
There are five super-short snapshots of differing views
of foreigners in Japan, designed supposedly to give a quick Polaroid of
the variety of experiences of foreigners in Japan. They don't come off at all, being roughly
a page each, without the kind of flow or rhythm that would keep the reader interested.
All in all though this is a weak collection of stories, and for those wanting to read about Japan before coming, a Japanese author such as Murakami Haruki, Murakami Ryu, Miyabe Miyuki, Kirino Natsuo or Ikezawa Natsuki offer a far better introduction to the complexities and nuances of contemporary Japanese society.
Set in three periods before the onset of World War II - 1922,
1937, and 1941 - "Tokyo Station" is a good old-fashioned
thriller that will keep you glued to your economy class seat for the duration
of the San Francisco to Narita red-eye. The protagonist is Harry Niles,
the son of bible-thumping Kentucky missionaries who are often far from
their home in Tokyo saving Japanese souls - which leaves young Harry
to run wild on the streets of the capital. He grows up in the 1920s on the streets
of Asakusa, the old entertainment district of Tokyo, a raffish and wild
and entrepreneurial American boy getting into trouble and fun with his
The Ocean in the Closet
Nine-year-old Helen Johnson is the protagonist and voice of Yuko Taniguchi's first novel. The setting is mid-1970s California, in a family wracked by the experiences of war: both World War II and Vietnam. Helen's mother was born in post-war Japan, the child of an American GI and a local woman and ultimately shunted off to the US to be adopted. Helen's father has recently returned from a tour in Vietnam, depressed and a different man.
Helen's mother finally gives in to her demons and has to be institutionalized. Helen and her brother are thus forced to live with their uncle, Steve. Indirectly, this empowers her to contact her mother's uncle, Hideo, as a way of coming to terms with her mother, of hoping to find out more about her now insane and lost mother.
At this point, the voice of the narrator appears to flip flop between Helen and Uncle Hideo. Helen's world has been destroyed, by war, by her parents' troubles, and her younger brother is not able to understand what is happening. The child and her uncle share moments of tenderness and understanding.
Though clearly if indirectly auto-biographical - Taniguchi left Japan at 15 to attend high school and then university in the US where she has settled - the novel examines the heart of a young girl.
The title of the novel comes from the tradition still alive in Japan of punishing a bad child by locking it in a dark closet. Going into this metaphorical closet, Taniguchi has written a story that portrays redemption and tragedy.
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