On Modern Japanese Literature

January 14, 2009 at 3:13 pm (Essays, Reviews)

Just what the internet needs. Another American writing about Japanese culture, right? Well, I can tell you that my interest in anime doesn’t go beyond Shinchan, and while I enjoy Pocky, I’m just as content to eat Reese’s cups. My interest in Japan lies outside the realm of sweets and manga . . . and I have zero interest in the next cosplay convention! Some people may assume these stigmatized nerdy interests are all that Japan has to offer but they’d be neglecting decades of fantastic literature that has, via a batch of brilliant bilingual academics, become available to English speakers around the world.

My stack of books

My stack of books

The Dancing Sheep on the Shore, Wearing Clogs of Norwegian Wood, Gazing at Sputnik, Which is West of the Sun After Dark

To start, I’ll say that the very nature of something being foreign allows it more leeway in my mind. I’d guess that I’m not alone in “forgiving the foreign”: sometimes I’m less skeptical of the parts that build a story from a different culture—plot, dialogue, setting, and so on—partly because I’ve been raised in a culture that bends backwards to be tolerant. That may be why my first taste of Japanese literature with bizarre and fanciful Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore I found the absurd plot points, including talking cats, a homocidal Johnny Walker, and a pimp Colonel Sanders, less of a sticking point. I expected something “out there” from a popular modern Japanese author. But there was more to it than a patronizing tolerance given to the product of a culture (not to mention language) that I’d never really grasp. I was also touched by the characters, how they rang true despite their insane surroundings. Plausibility and resolution be damned, my love for Murakami sparked an interest in modern Japanese literature. The fantastic surrealism of Murakami never failed to delight me as I worked through his oeuvre. Well, except for the time I picked up Ryu Murakami’s seedy murder novel In the Miso Soup by accident. That served as an excellent (and gristly!) reminder to always check first names when getting a book at the library.

Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami

After reading many more Haruki Murakami novels (and subsequently failing to impress some well-read friends, who seemed to place Murakami a few rungs above cell phone novels) I branched out. An Oxford book of short stories, along with a class in Modern Japanese literature, enabled me to find those authors who had been canonized and translated. My next deep foray into Japanese literature came from Nobel prize recipient Kenzaburo Oe (pronounced OH-ay).

Oh, Oe

Kenzaburo Oe

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids has been described as a Japanese Lord of the Flies by reviewers. Abandoned reformatory school children battle a plague and malicious adults while finding brief respite in the utopia they create. The novel is set in a rural area, and is as allegorical as you might expect from someone who feels he is a member of the most important group of writers in Japan’s history (the post-war). His work was later reshaped around a less political theme after the birth of his mentally handicapped son Hikari, though he would still consider his work to be focused on the post-war generation. Regardless of the author’s intention, the novel A Personal Matter seems to me a study of personal relationships and parental responsibility that spans generational and cultural limitations. The incredibly brave manner with which Oe examines parental duty strikes the casual reader harder than the politically-charged post-war listless malaise that surrounds the narrator. The novel’s setting in Japan following the end of WWII shapes the novel, but the question that invades the reader’s mind is larger than any political matter: What would I do if I had a mentally handicapped child? A Personal Matter is a powerfully honest book that will leave you ruminating on a dark topic despite the story’s rushed “happy ending.”

I’ve had difficulty reading other works by Oe. The rest of the prose that I have read from him (written post-Hikari) seems to be exceptionally wordy and focuses on descriptive detail as much as plot itself. This can result in painfully slow going. The first time I’ve stopped reading a novel in years was on account of the wordy, obtuse writing of The Silent Cry. These are the opening sentences of the novel that I stopped reading after 75 pages :

Awakening in the predawn darkness, I grope among the anguished remnants of dreams that linger in my consciousness, in search of some ardent sense of expectation. Seeking in the tremulous hope of finding eager expectancy reviving in the innermost recesses of my being—unequivocally, with the impact of whisky setting one’s guts afire as it goes down—still I find an endless nothing. (1)

Painful. I’d like to know if the fault lies in translation or the original text is just as overly complex.

The first of four stories in Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is even harder to follow on account of a Faulknerian stream of conscious narration. The short stories anthologized are still much easier going than The Silent Cry. The third and fourth pieces in the collection were the ones I enjoyed most. The short story called Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is my favorite piece of Oe’s work. Predictably, it deals with a father and his mentally-handicapped son. The two share a daily ritual that involves biking to a Chinese restaurant for “pork noodles and Pepsi cola.” The lunch ritual is deeply moving in its honorable, yet futile goal: the father has tried desperately to escape his impending hereditary insanity by grasping at a bond with his son as a life preserver.

It is uncommon for a novel’s characters to wear the many masks that a society requires. Many characters in literature are mere sprites that serve a plot function. And yet here, in a 48 page short story, Oe has created a protagonist that must engage with the cruelly indifferent world as a father, son, husband, and as a member of society. He copes with each interaction in a correspondingly different way, though his meek manner and fierce, unrealistic love of his son remains the same. To summarize the crushing conclusions reached by the father at the story’s end would weaken the efficacy of Oe’s piece. I can’t recommend this short story strongly enough!

Difficulties in Translation

It is important to note in any discussion of foreign literature the importance of translation. Japanese is very different structurally than English. A translator’s duty then is not simply word substitution, but also preserving an author’s voice, diction, as well as altering idioms and cultural references in to not hinder a story’s flow. Hundreds of footnotes in a Shakespeare play are welcome, but in modern fiction they would serve as a distraction. The difficulties of translating Japanese are compounded on these universal translation problems. Japanese lacks definite and indefinite articles – “the” and “a.” There are also indicators in address and speech about who is speaking and in what manner which have no direct English equivalent. A prime example is Natsume Soseki’s novel I am a Cat. The Japanese title “Wagahai wa neko de aru” uses an exceptionally formal tone of reference for comic effect that is lost in the English translation. But a great translator is able to work around the honorifics in Japanese and create a text using English to express the nuances. For these reasons, translators deserve far more credit than they receive for their work.

Mishima’s incredible life and death

Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima

In the modern times of education many authors work directly with their English translators. Both Kenzaburo Oe and Yukio Mishima worked with Professor Johnathan Nathan. Mishima was a jack-of-all-trades. A body builder, playwright, short story author, novelist, movie actor, militarist, and more. But, his legendary death precedes his life. After a failed military rally Mishima committed ritualized suicide and cemented his position as staunchly conservative right-winger.

He is undeniably important as one of the first literary superstars to emerge from Japan via his consistent output and translation-friendly work. Personally, his work doesn’t hold my attention as much as other authors. I respect his obvious passion in learning, however, and his submersion in the topics he was writing about showed a commendable love of knowledge. His first novel Confessions of a Mask deals with a narrator who struggles against his homosexuality. While it was not meant to be an autobiography, the novel is an undeniably believable tour through the difficult realizations that come with sexual identity in Japan. It is no stretch to see the vicious circles of denial and desperation as autobiographical because of the detail and realism with which Mishima wrote. A biography by Professor John Nathan, Mishima’s translator, would be the first place I would turn if I wanted to read more on the life of Mishima.

Kowabun-, I mean, Kawabata, dude!

Yasunari Kawabata

Yasunari Kawabata

The only Japanese author to receive a Nobel prize besides Oe was Kawabata Yasunari. The introduction of Snow Country praises his delicate use of haiku-like contrasts. In fact, I challenge you to find a review of Kawabata’s work that doesn’t contain the words “delicate,” “elegant,” or one that doesn’t call him “quintessentially Japanese.” I enjoyed Snow Country, particularly when I slowed down enough to focus on the oft-mentioned contrasts in descriptive passages. Truly majestic writing (or translation, perhaps) would draw my attention without conscience effort. But sometimes I don’t mind working for pleasure, and this form of disciplined, conscious reading seems appropriate for the personal dramas that Kawabata wrote.

My largest complaint with Kawabata’s work is something I’ve never encountered before. I noticed that there are very rarely declarations of “he said” or “the geisha quipped,” or any sort of reference to who is saying what dialogue, nor must there be in the Japanese. I frequently found myself re-reading mundane dialogue in an effort to find who was speaking. Assigning characters via even and odd lines to a section of dialogue certainly hurt the overall effect of his writing. Perhaps someone with a background reading plays would have an easier go of Kawabata. For my own part, I didn’t dislike the books and they were brief enough to be read and ticked off my ever-growing “should read” list with pleasure. He is possibly most known for his semi-autobiographical short story “The Izu Dancer,” though of all his short stories I most enjoyed “Silence” which can be found in First Snow on Fuji. His life and work certainly merit your time.

What have I missed? A lot.

There are authors I haven’t mentioned and authors that I’ve never even read. To think that I could ever “complete” my readings in this area is foolhardy. Nevertheless, I hope to continue exploring with further reading by Kobo Abe, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Shusaku Endo, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Natsume Soseki, Osamu Dazai, and more. If you have any suggestions I would be delighted to hear recommendations for or against any authors or translators. I am currently reading, and enjoying, Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain

Naturally enough, my interest in the Japanese language has been sparked by all of this reading. Due to a full schedule and the huge learning curve, however, I have only recently begun to learn the kana and have no great plans to read any of these works in the original. If you have any recommendations about learning Japanese, please, let me know!


I have written this expository piece with the voice of a scholar who has been immersed in the texts for years. In actuality, I’ve been reading Japanese literature for less than a year, and always in English. I owe a great deal of my information, along with little tidbits that I’ve peppered in, to a very informative class that I’ve taken. I hope to encourage others to explore into this great, but manageable, field of reading. I hope that if I have made any factual errors or unfair representations that a reader will correct me. Please leave a comment with any kind of suggestions regarding things I should read, or comments on my writing style. I would love to add to this piece as I continue to devour Japanese lit.

Note also that I have put the surname second and “first” name first, as you will find these authors in American libraries and book stores. I have also omitted long vowel notations, such as Ōe, as this will not impede any understanding in English.



  1. Suze said,

    Nifty overview of Japanese lit 🙂 Murakami is destined to become classic literature, no fretting over your unimpressed friends!

    I’m going to link back to this blog from my book club’s blog, if that’s okay! We’ve had a bit of a mounting Japanese fiction (non-manga!) obsession.

  2. transientwriting said,

    Link away! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Gentian said,

    I really liked Black Rain. The movie was very good too.

  4. Suze said,

    Thanks for popping by my blog! I haven’t put up the link yet, been busy with job interviews and the like. Your comments to Raji were very thoughtful 🙂 I think I’ll go post a blog with the link right now!

  5. Mol said,

    The Difficulties in Translation paragraph is completely redundant , you stated the obvious. Other than that, good read.

  6. Bharath said,

    Kazuo Ishiguro??????

    • 4EverAnzu said,

      Technically, Kazuo Ishiguro would count as a British author not Japanese. He is a good author and more than worth reading, but he has a more British style technique due to his life in England. He was born in Japan but most of his life has been lived in England. Thus, people refer to him as a British Japanese (similar to what you mean by a Japanese American) writer. An Artist of the Floating World is seen as a good outsider’s perception of Japanese life (yes, he is considered an outsider rather than Japanese). Personally, my favorite is A Pale View of Hills.

  7. Bharath said,

    The quality of japanese writing, particularly of kawabata, is the resonating melody one hears long after the last page is finished, a deep suction of senses, a numbness that defies encaging itself into conventional feeling of sadness. I liked ” The house of sleeping beauties” the most. In spite of the terrible translation, the work stood out. The book’s gross outlines were vividly brought out for a reader to appreciate the inherent beauty of a complicated human mind at work. The book deals with the inherent limitation of old vis-a-vis young and the way the story elaborates upon a brothel that caters to an old clientele and, at the same time, protects their honor by putting the virgin prostitutes( again a reflection upon the inability and senility of old age)into deep sleep.

  8. transientwriting said,

    ive never heard of any of those authors, bharath, but ill check them out! thanks for posting

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