Thoughts on life after the PhD
I’ll be the first to admit that Japanese literature isn’t the first genre I turn to when I’m looking to read for pleasure. It has a reputation for being bleak, sexist, and for telling stories that just kind of unravel without a clear ending. That said, as a future professor of the subject (here’s hoping), I feel duty-bound to expose the general public to some of the more “readable” works of Japanese literature. There are, in fact, plenty of short stories and novels that not only offer a fascinating window into Japanese culture but tell moving and intriguing stories. And there are a wealth of excellent English translations available. For anyone looking to read a bit of J-lit but having no idea where to begin, here’s my own little list of favorites:
Okuizumi Hikaru, The Stones Cry Out (Ishi no raireki). Winner of the 1992 Akutagawa Prize (a major Japanese literary prize for new fiction), Okuizumi’s novel is a complex, confusing, and ultimately uplifting story of a man’s struggle to rebuild his life after the Pacific War, and the violence that haunts him. The translation by James Westerhoven is superb and manages to capture the beautiful, poetic language of the original.
Soseki Natsume, And Then (Sore kara). Soseki Natsume is the Mark Twain / James Joyce / William Faulkner of Japanese literature, author of numerous novels and short stories that many would argue embody the most basic characteristics of the genre. His other famous novels include Botchan (often compared to Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn), Kokoro, and Sanshiro. Soseki’s stories typically deal with men’s struggles to be both “modern” and “Japanese” in turn-of-the-century Japan. And Then is a Catcher in the Rye-esque tale of a wealthy young man who refuses to go along with the wishes of his family and his community. The character of the young man, Daisuke, is refreshingly rebellious and is often thought to be representative of Soseki himself.
Murakami Haruki, The Elephant Vanishes. Murakami is perhaps the Japanese author most well-known outside of Japan. The stories collected in The Elephant Vanishes are a wonderful introduction to his unique version of magical realism. Frequently set in Tokyo, they also offer an accurate picture of urban life in modern Japan.
Lawrence Rogers, Tokyo Stories: A Literary Stroll. Lawrence Rogers’ collection of short stories brings together some great translations of works by both famous and lesser-known authors, particularly women authors. Standouts include Inaba Mayumi’s Morning Comes Twice a Day, Hayashi Fumiko’s The Old Part of Town, and Ikeda Michiko’s An Unclaimed Body.
Abe Kobo, The Woman in the Dunes (Tsuna no onna). Made into an equally good film, Abe’s allegorical story of a man who finds himself trapped in a sand pit and forced to shovel sand day and night is a page-turner.
Ueda Akinari, Tales of Moonlight and Rain (Ugetsu monogatari). I’ll include a pre-modern work for good measure, though I tend to favor post-Meiji literature (and the encyclopedic length of pre-modern classics like The Tale of Genji can be daunting). Ueda’s collection of folk tales and ghost stories, decently translated (translating pre-modern Japanese accurately and readably is no mean feat), tells stories of vengeful female spirits, magic fish, and demons. Mizoguchi Kenji’s famous film Ugetsu combines two of the stories, “The House Amid the Thickets” and “The Lust of the White Serpent.”
Enchi Fumiko, Masks (Onnamen). There has been a “re-discovery” of Japanese female authors in the past twenty years or so, with numerous volumes of their work appearing in English translation. Enchi Fumiko’s rich, complex story of an aristocratic Japanese family draws on motifs of Japanese no drama and, like many of the author’s works, references numerous works of classical Japanese literature (particularly The Tale of Genji).
Edogawa Rampo, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination. His pen name was chosen for its resemblance to Edgar Allen Poe (say it out loud), and Edogawa Rampo was also well known as a master of dark tales. This collection translates of some of his best-known works, including the delightfully creepy “The Human Chair” (Ningen isu) and “The Hell of Mirrors” (Kagami jigoku).
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
tales of travel, research, and life
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