Books on Japan: Japanese Fiction
Japan Fiction 3
by Shusaku Endo
What would you do if someone posing as you were going round the red-light districts of Tokyo committing acts that besmirched your character? This is the conundrum faced by Suguro, the respected Catholic novelist who is Scandal's protagonist. The Kafkaesque premise of the licentious doppelganger is enough to engross the reader in a tale where the twisting alleys of Shinjuku, stalked by pimps and harlots, become a place to explore the darker aspects of what makes us human. Endo, as usual, explores morality and mortality through a uniquely Japanese Christian perspective that is more interested in considering personal responsibility and enlightenment than achieving some kind of heavenly salvation. Nor is Endo's purpose to judge and condemn, but rather to try to understand the human psyche. Indeed, the pursuing reporter who is the embodiment of moral indignation is shown to represent a red herring: it is not outside retribution that we should be afraid of, suggests Endo, but rather the power of our own minds to corrupt our lives. Scandal's main players are complex characters in which dark and light elements coexist - they are, Endo is telling us, moral doppelgangers of all of us.
Van C. Gessel's translation deftly retains the page-turning impetus of Endo's original, and propels the reader towards an ambiguous conclusion that reminds us how precarious our constructed realities are.
by Donald Richie (text) & Yoichi Midorikawa (photos)
Stone Bridge Press 2015 (originally published in 1971)
Contains Richie's forwards to previous editions.
Two twentieth-century western writers have arguably best captured Japan the passed-through: Alan Booth and Donald Richie. As a chronicler of the Japanese landscape and people, Richie is more lyrical and (generally) less cynical than Booth, though both bewail the loss of tradition. Booth oversaw stretches of the Japanese mainland in Roads to Sata and Looking for the Lost, but here Richie focuses exclusively on the Setonaikai, or Seto Inland Sea, a narrow ribbon between the main islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, itself containing hundreds of islets, mysterious in their supposed innumerability.
Writing more than a decade before Booth, in 1971, Richie mourns what he sees as the impending loss of nature and tradition in the giant maw of capitalistic modernisation, yet he also recognises that he is privileged to be present at an inflection point in history: "Old and new … continue to exist side by side, and the new is often built directly beside, rather than directly on top of. One may, for a time, compare; for a space, see history in the gap. … To talk to other people, to make pleasant acquaintances and perhaps friends, to learn something of what is now so rapidly vanishing, to be come close, if only for a moment, with someone, anyone - that is my quest. … I want to observe what people were like when they had time and space, because this will be one of the final opportunities."
Bearing witness to the vanishing is indeed what Richie does, time and time again as he wends his way among islands and the various manifestations of mainland. But this is no mere record. He somehow manages to make the local people, many of them happy in their self-sufficiency and aloof to the outside world, though aware of its encroachment, the protagonists of their land, rather than simply its inhabitants, or, as is occasionally the case with Booth, motley fools wheeled in to provide light relief.
This is a classic portrait of a unique place, an immaculately observed travelogue that makes you want to jump on the next boat - but at the same time dissuades you from such rashness with its eerie prescience of a kind of lived nostalgia, leaving us with the distinct impression that what Richie has so brilliantly immortalised in words simply no longer exists in reality. Yoichi Midorikawa's evocative black-and-white images reinforce the sense of authenticity, and of unbridgeable temporality.
by Shusaku Endo
Endo Shusaku's 12th book is not his most famous, but it might be his best. It is a story of life's inequities, callous indifference, sexual awakening and selfless love.
The majority of the story is told through the eyes of Yoshioka Tsutomu an unfocused college student, surviving but not thriving in post-World War ll Japan. He's a bit lazy, not of particularly high moral standards and cares about himself above all other things. He ends up usually getting what he wants, but rarely covers himself in glory in the process.
The rest of the story is told through the eyes of the main protagonist, Morita Mitsu, a young, unsophisticated country girl trying to make a living in Tokyo after altruistically leaving her hometown because she felt herself a burden to her broken family.
This is not a book where the reader has to worry about confusing the characters - besides the two main characters there are only a handful of characters that even appear, and they are well-developed and easy to follow.
As in all Endo Shusaku books, the main protagonist is clearly flawed, but in this case the main flaw of Mitsu is not greed, hatred or hard-heartedness, it is that she is too loving, too kind and too unselfish. The reader will cry out for her to stand up for herself.
If you are a feminist who likes her female protagonists strong, this book may not be for you - at least until the closing pages. Mitsu seems anything but strong, and in the afterword Endo laments that "...in contrast to women in the contemporary West who shape their destiny with their own efforts, Mitsu, the heroine of my story, is too submissive vis-a-vis the opposite sex."
This book is enjoyable for the incredibly touching story that it is, but some readers may also see it as an allegory, which, if you know Endo's books, is surely what he meant the book to be.
According to Endo's afterword, Mitsu is actually based on a real person. The reader should avoid at all costs peeking at the afterword until after concluding the book, as that may give away the heart-wrenching closing pages.
If this book doesn't move you, there is something wrong with your heart.
by Shusaku Endo
At first light comedy, then fast-moving thriller, Wonderful Fool gradually focuses on its Christian Japanese author's favourite theme, the suffering and redemption of the common mass of humanity, but is never bogged down by overt religiosity. Its central figure, the eponymous fool, is a Frenchman with the physique of a sumo wrestler and the heart of a child, reminiscent in his dogged innocence of Dostoyevsky's similarly named Idiot. Like Prince Myshkin, Shusako's Gaston Bonaparte is descended from noble stock, but where Myshkin is feeble in body, Gaston's lumbering form betrays no Napoleonic dignity. What Gaston shares with Myshkin, apart from a lack of wits, is an instinctive, Christ-like need to help those around them that first exasperates, then dumbfounds, and ultimately enriches the people who are fortunate enough to come in contact with him.
When devil-may-care bank-clerk Takamori, living in Tokyo, receives a letter from an old penpal, he has no idea what impact his French friend will have on the life of himself and his haughty young sister. Nor does Gaston realise that his unselfish desire to come to Japan to help others will lead him into the clutches of a ruthless killer who is out for revenge on those who framed his brother during World War II. Shusako employs cinematic-style parallel storytelling that contrasts two worlds of Japan to good effect - the quarters of comparative ease and affluence in a quickly modernising Japan of the 1950s, and the accompanying poverty- and crime-ridden shanty towns that fringe Tokyo like a crusty excretion of sin.
Perhaps the only fault of this 2000 printing is that the translation, first published in 1974, retains explanatory footnotes that are no longer necessary: who, for example, doesn't know what sushi is?! But Shusaku's style itself, at first playful and lighthearted, and then unswerving in its recording of sordid incident, is served well by Peter Owen's prose. Some may find Gaston, like prince Myshkin, a tiresome do-gooder, but Shusaku's unsentimental approach does much to give his misadventures a ring of reality. Gaston's fate is ambiguous, but his effect on those he has touched - which may well include the reader - is decidedly positive.
by Kenzaburo Oe
There are not many Nobel-prize-winning authors who would describe someone's anus, but Oe Kenzaburo has done just that in this novel - and memorably - as the "dried-up fruit of a jujube tree". Oe deems nothing beneath his observant gaze, and his literature, and the world's, is arguably better for that. If only there were more such down-to-earth observations in Oe's Somersault: in the end it amounts to little more than a 570-page spiritual shaggy-dog tale.
The premise is promising. Ten years ago, Patron and Guide, the leaders of a Japanese millennial cult, prevented a radical faction of the church from attempting to blow up a nuclear power plant and hasten the end of the world. They thwarted the attack by performing the somersault' of the title - a public, humiliating repudiation of their religious beliefs that not only prevented mass murder but also threw the group into chaos. Now, certain events are catalysing a reconfiguration of the church.
This idea clearly came to Oe in the wake of the cult Aum Shinrikyo's attacks on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. The story's core individuals explore art, literature, theology, philosophy, music and sex in often refreshingly direct ways, but neither the ideas nor the characters appear to amount to more than the sum of their parts by the end, which may leave many readers feeling like the original cult members after the somersault - disillusioned and lost! This is partly the fault of awkward dialogue and non sequiturs throughout. Here is an example that manages to achieve both:
"The names Patron and Guide - have they used these names ever since they first started the church?"
"I don't think so," she answered. "In the church they used others.
"So even though they left the church they still maintain the ties they made to it and use those names. In other words, the game continues?
The translator struggles and fails to overcome many such interruptions to narrative cohesion. It's surprising that this is some of the more recent writing of a Nobel-winning novelist, especially when one compares it to the relentless narrative thrust of his earlier The Silent Cry a devastatingly convincing exploration of fraternal and community conflict taken to (il)logical extremes.
Somersault is at its best when it grapples with the psychology of the cult phenomenon. Originally published in 1999, it taps into the millennial and post-millennial unease and lays bare the spiritual barrenness of modern-day materialism, but as a story of an alternative is equally as unfulfilling. The only spiritual certainly is some vague animism, a "power of the land" which is alluded to knowingly from time to time, and is also present, albeit more believably, in The Silent Cry. Here in Somersault, it is God Himself (and a quasi-biblical god at that) who is silent at the end, and Oe has done little to explain this and to convince us why we should care either about this silence or about the characters themselves.
by Susan Barker
Bad timing. After taking the Frankfurt Book Fair by storm in 2003, the then titled Tsunami Bar, a novel about a blond British bar girl paid to flirt in a "hostess bar" in Osaka, was set to do the same for the world. The world, however, intervened. Just prior to publication, a real tsunami wiped out much of parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and elsewhere on December 26th. The publisher, fast on its feet, realized it had to make a quick name change - hence, Sayonara Bar.
Before reading the actual book, the usual dread overtook me: another book by a former English teacher who spent perhaps two or three years in Japan. Another expert. Probably can't order from an izakaya menu. Would break out in hives at the ward office when filling out a simple form.
Then I read the book. It is no doubt heavily autobiographical: English woman goes to Japan planning to make some cash and then travel, but ends up working as an "economy geisha" and staying longer than she planned. What follows, I feared, would no doubt be snide commentary about Japanese, about the mizu shobai economy of such bars, and a blue-eyed expat's life in seedy Japan. In the process, however, the protagonist Mary comes into something darker and deeper than she bargained on - and the reader gets something both darker and deeper, too. Barker has a fluid style and writes sentences reminiscent of Haruki Murakami, observations like Natsuo Kirino.
The novel features several outstanding characters. While working as a hostess, Mary becomes involved with the bar mama's son, Yuji, who is connected to the Yakuza. And to which he professes the greatest loyalty. The introverted cook Watanabe observes all from an addled, manga-obsessed fantasy world. He believes he can perceive what others cannot. A third character, Sato the Salaryman, is an overworked lonely drone who finds solace in the smoke-filled bar, the only place he can forget his dead wife.
Barker's descriptions are spot on, the story a snapshot of a certain milieu but one that ultimately transcends it.
translated by Donald Keene
The original story The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, taketori monogatari, is believed to have been written in the ninth or tenth century, which makes it the oldest surviving work of fiction (Genji Monogatari was written about 1010). Taketori has come down into our era primarily as a children's story, and many versions survive. The names of the characters themselves are sometimes different - and at times there are even contradictions (the cutter says at the beginning that he is over 70 years old, but at the end we are told he has just turned 50!). This version is a modern rewrite from Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata. It has been translated by the foreign Dean of Japanese letters, Donald Keene. Lastly, it has been lovingly illustrated by Masayuki Miyuta. The story itself is quite universal and will be enjoyed by adults and children alike. It comes in a beautiful boxed set.
forward by Ruth Ozeki
Inside is a collection of the freshest and most vibrant women's fiction coming out of Japan today. This collection showcases some of Japan's brightest young and not so young talent. Among others it features: Tamaki Daido, Rio Shimamoto, Yuzuki Muroi, Shungiku Uchida, Chiya Fujino, Amy Yamada, Junko Hasegawa, and Nobuko Takagi.
With a forward by Ruth Ozeki, Inside gets, literally, inside the internal lives of modern Japanese women. It deals with the issues of motherhood, sexuality, work, changing societal roles and expectations.
The writers range from a high school student to middle-aged housewife, single to divorced, career woman to sex worker - and, of course, mother.
The stories include the life a sex worker, a fifty-year-old woman in the midst of a crisis, a single woman in her thirties, a high school's first sexual experience, and more. There is no better place to start to understand women in Japan today than this work.
translated by Gavin Frew
This is a delightful collection of eight stories. It brings to life early 17th-century Japan, when peace at long last reigns after centuries of internecine warfare. It is a period rife with intrigue, clan politics, and betrayal.
Samurai are still valued for the swordsmanship, and remain at the top of the social hierarchy. However, with no battles to fight, they struggle to retain pride and meaning to their lives.
Fujisawa's tales evoke the period and the people therein with color and irony and humor. He is the well-known scriptwriter, and this collection was the basis for the film The Twilight Samurai.
by Lewis Libby
Yuck...This is what happens when a diplomat has too much time on his hands; he attempts to write the great ex-pat Japan novel. The novel tells the story of a young man called "The Youth" (how original) who works as an apprentice at a rural inn in Northern Honshu during the winter of 1903. He gets entangled with a group of mysterious travelers and falls in love with a young female performer. Most of The Apprentice reads like a very poor imitation of a Kawabata Yasunari novel and the author lifts plot elements from In The Name of The Rose, Pulp Fiction and Blue Velvet. The bland prose also contains disturbing passages describing bestiality, incest, rape and pedophilia: "At age 10 the madam put the child in a cage with a bear trained to couple with young girls so the girls would be frigid and not fall in love with their customers. They fed her through the bars and aroused the bear with a stick when it seemed to lose interest." This decidedly unerotic writing would hardly get a mention if it wasn't for the fact that The Apprentice was written by Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was the Chief-of-Staff and National Security Advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney and Assistant to President Bush. The irony is that Libby seems to have great sympathy for the apprentice, an innocent bystander whose life is jeopardized by the covert actions of very powerful men in the government, yet he had no qualms about leaking the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame to the press and putting her life in danger.
This review was originally published in Kansai Time Out
Akimitsu Takagi's murder mystery was easy to read and digest from the very beginning. It tells the story of a young woman, Etsuko, who gradually falls in love with a university lecturer called Yoshihiro, after they (accidentally) meet in a cafe. Etsuko's father would like her to marry a young lawyer whom he has known for many years but she is far from keen on this plan of action. Yoshihiro's father died in prison and therefore he is reluctant to tell Etsuko about his past life. Although she has doubts about his past when he asks her to marry him, she agrees to be his wife against her parent's wishes. On their wedding night her new husband Yoshihiro receives an urgent phone call in their hotel room. He reassures Etsuko that he will be back very soon and then leaves the hotel in a hurry. Yoshihiro does not return to the hotel and so the mystery of what has happened to him begins. The author keeps the reader guessing and interested throughout the book with a fluid writing style similar in tone to his two other books translated into English. His style is deceptively simple and even-handed. Unfortunately the plot is too hurried towards the end of the book and the ending is somewhat disappointing, but nevertheless the book remains an interesting read to those interested in another side of Japanese society and life.
This book takes you into the fascinating world of the Japanese art of tattoos, with a great detail of emphasis on the amount of work that goes into this art form, and the design and pain of tattooing. The story also tells of a Professor who has an eerie fascination for tattoo skins, and this is the background for an intriguing page-turning murder mystery that has the reader guessing the identity of the culprit until the end.
It is post-war Tokyo in the summer of 1947, and the city is hot, humid and seedy. The main character, Kenzo Matsushita, is the younger brother of Detective Chief Inspector Daiyu Matsushita. Kenzo is young, and a future doctor of forensic medicine. He spies a poster advertising the first post-war meeting of the Edo Tattoo Society soliciting participants for a tattoo competition in the city, and feels that knowledge of tattoo culture would be useful in forensic medicine. Whilst at the competition he is approached by a very elegant young woman who asks for a match for her cigarette. They strike up a conversation and she informs him that she is entering the tattoo competition. The young woman, Kinue Nomura, tells Kenzo that she is the daughter of a tattoo artist. She wins a grand prize in the competition after exposing the tattoos on her naked body. Kenzo is fascinated by Kinue and asks to meet her again. They become involved with each other but not for very long, as Kinue is murdered in her house. Other murders are committed and although there are several suspects, finding the killer poses a big problem for the Detective Chief Inspector.
Akimitsu Takagi writes superbly in-depth on the art of tattoos but this murder mystery book is also about love, jealousy, obsession and greed. His greatest strength lies in unraveling the suspects one by one, making this a compelling readable novel. This is the best of his three novels available in English.
by Ryu Murakami
It is the summer of '69 - cue the Bryan Adams CD - and Ken, a 17-year-old student at a middling high school in middling town Sasebo, has been inspired by the actions of Parisian student militants, Vietnam protests, and the works of such French luminaries as Sartre, Genet and Godard (some of which he may possibly have laid eyes on) to stage a revolution against the reactionary establishment embodied in the stultifying teaching staff. No, scratch that - he's inspired by the thought of getting laid.
Ryu Murakami and his contemporary Haruki Murakami have drawn a lot of their energy and raison d'etre as writers from the influx of Western cultural artefacts, mainly in the form of popular and classical music and European literature. Here in the archly titled 69 we can see through the endless, if disingenuously jokey, name dropping of the thinly disguised protagonist how the young Ryu was totally in thrall of all things western, using their freshness as a springboard for his incipient literary talents. He is the anti-Mishima, dismissive of some sort of distinctive Japanese-ness. It seems that all that is left of Japanese culture is what he portrays as the mindless study and work ethic, something to be eschewed and subverted at every opportunity. This makes for an enjoyable enough ride as a novel, but leaves us feeling saddened that Japan apparently has no answer to the ideological challenge that this cultural influx represents. Ken the schoolboy vaguely resents the overweening presence of the Americans - how they have taken for themselves the best land in the town for their base, for example - yet is in love with their music, not least because it is one of the ways into a young girl's heart. When he learns how fickle that heart can be, he begins the inevitable process of growing up; yet it is clear that his love for the west will be lifelong.
Sylistically, while perfectly readable, indeed a page-turner, this is not one of Murakami's greatest works. In particular, unnecessary repetition mars the flow: after three or four descriptions of what makes Ken's best friend Adama cool, we get the picture, OK?! Lay off a little, man. Just let us enjoy the ride.
by Don Lee
W. W. Norton & Company
This first novel from Don Lee, acclaimed short story writer, interweaves the lives and longings of expat adulterers, Japanese detectives, Tokyo sex workers, and CIA agents. Part crime story, part exploration of the seedy intersection of corporate culture and Japanese sex clubs, and part meditation on race and identity in contemporary Japan, Lee traces the mysterious disappearance of Lisa Countryman, ainoko, or half-breed, who comes to Japan to search for the Korean woman who may be her biological mother, and to escape escalating feuds with her African-American sister. Along the way, Lee tells the stories of the two men who are searching for her: the obsessive-compulsive detective Kenzo Ota, tormented by his own self-failings and the ridicule of his peers; and Tom Hurley, a low-level American Embassy official who yearns to be loved by the wife of a high-ranking CIA spy.
In weaving through the tales and secrets of these characters, Lee's narrative slips back and forth through time and across continents, seducing the reader with clues and then withholding the answers as he dips back once more into each mystery's origin. In this way, the reader's search for meaning builds alongside the characters' quests for connection and belonging and, most of all, for a place to call home within their own skin.
Because of an unprecedented snowstorm in Tokyo and the ensuing flight cancellation (hence the title of this work), thirteen passengers are stranded overnight at an unnamed airport in an unnamed country. With nothing better to do, they begin telling each other stories. Their thirteen stories are set in thirteen countries with thirteen different protagonists. Apart from an uneasy sense that something is amiss in present-day society, all that they share is a sense of the magical immanent in the mundane - these are truly modern-day fairy tales in which their characters' drives and weaknesses lead the reader into unexpected mental and emotional territory. This is as once the strength and weakness of this ambitious first novel. While the writer wows us at times with unexpected denouements and memorable characters, and an apparently effortless depiction of each far-flung city, his magic-realism style is almost the only thing that the stories share. There is little attempt to combine the episodic into the epic whole, which may leave the reader impressed but unmoved in the end. I found myself wondering whether the author would have seemed so impressive if he had been telling one single, coherent narrative. That remains to be seen. At least Tokyo Cancelled's flights of the imagination may fuel in its readers a few fantastical dreams worthy of our jaded, jet lagged age.
by Soji Shimada
This mystery is both gory and intelligent, and it perfectly exemplifies a charge many make of Japanese culture: that its quiet veneer of kindness, patience, and civility covers nothing less than a roiling, profound violence. Shimada structures the book like a play, and he frequently dips into the narrative to invite the reader to follow clues and put forth hypotheses, along with his two protagonists, amateur detectives who take up Japan's "greatest unsolved mystery."
What we know is that the mystery encompasses a series of grisly murders committed 40 years ago, that they are at least tangentially related to the bizarre astrological beliefs of an artist who may or may not have been the first victim, and that these killings were executed, at least in part, because of this artists' fascination with building "Azoth," a perfect female constructed from the bodies of many other women. What we don't know is how these murders are connected, who committed them, why the bodies were found hacked to pieces along certain longitudinal or latitudinal axes, where - if anywhere - Azoth has been hidden, and whether our amateur detectives can answer these questions in the five days they've been allotted before fresh scandals emerge.
Tokyo Fragments was conceived to introduce the English-speaking world both to Tokyo and to five Japanese authors who remain relatively unknown outside their country, despite their domestic fame. Its preface claims that the book "is designed to help the reader build up a composite picture of the whole city from its constituent parts," and to "give some idea of the complexity and variety of life in a city whose population, were it a country, would place it thirty-fourth in the world, below Tanzania but above Canada."
Not surprisingly, then, the characters and their stories are so dissimilar that we are left less with a sense of a single urban landscape than of a kaleidoscope of disparate city-dwellers. Morita writes of the gritty life of two high school dropouts, whose penchant for glue-sniffing, voyeurism, and romance lead them into the underbelly of Tokyo's organized crime; Muramatsu's deceptively simple tale follows the mundane conversation of a group of pub regulars whose interests are finally piqued - along with the reader's - by a mysterious woman; Hayashi's protagonist longs for a love that looks as perfect as the polished streets of Aoyama, only to find that her own superficiality may be her deepest obstacle; Shiina follows the fortunes of a plucky salary man who discovers true comfort in a tent overlooking the city and freedom in the loss of his material possessions; while Fujino's depressed housewife copes with the claustrophobia of her banal existence by becoming obsessed with Tokyo's drab police boxes. What each of the characters shares is that, while all are in some way shaped by the place they call home, none actually ever seems at home within it.
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