Colorful Chrysanthemum Petals: Japan and Its Unique Literature
By Vikas Datta
The traits of any country or culture would likely find a reflection in its literature. Japanese people, according to foreign perceptions or stereotypes, if you will, are homogeneous, exhibit a social and hierarchical sense of identity, value traditions, order and obedience, are polite and reserved, and are known for their aesthetic, complex and reliable know-how.
Does their literature meet this standard?
Among the oldest and richest literary traditions, and holding a number of singular achievements, ranging from the world’s very first novel to making comic books acceptable for reading at different ages – through famous “manga” – literature Japanese does not match most of these perceived traits.
Pick up works, spanning the last 10 centuries to the present day, and you won’t find much homogeneity or subsumation of individual identity, when there will be both overt and covert subversion of the order and tradition, the breaking of taboos and a lot of disorder – both personal and social, and even dystopia. But, yes, well-developed aesthetic sense and craftsmanship predominate.
And women, who have been the standard-bearers of the literary tradition from its earliest days, are always on the front line.
However, whenever Japanese literature is mentioned, the two names that usually come to mind are Haruki Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguro. This is despite the fact that the latter grew up in the UK and although his first two books – “A Pale View of Hills” (1982) and “An Artist of the Floating World” (1986) – had a Japanese setting. , it’s an “imaginary Japan”, as he himself once admitted.
There is also another Murakami – Ryu Murakami, best known for “Audition” (1997, 1999 film) and “From the Fatherland, With Love” (2005) – and about them it is safer to say that all those who are squeamish should stay away.
Then, those of a certain age can remember Yukio Mishima, especially for the way he died in 1970.
But like any other vibrant literary tradition, Japanese literature is also a vast expanse spanning all genres, from horror to romance, fantasy to crime, history to social commentary, and something to interest readers. .
Aficionados have their own favourites, but for those beginning the journey, let’s try to pick up a representative selection of the knowns and lesser knowns.
As mentioned, the 11th century “The Tale of Genji” by courtesan Lady Murasaki, the exuberant story of a royal prince turned commoner and his turbulent romantic life, is considered the very first novel as well as an invaluable portrayal of Heian- Japan period. But Lady Murasaki also had competition in her day, from near-contemporary female authors.
Although they did not delve into fiction, these two authors, a noblewoman known only as the daughter of Takasue or Lady Sarashina, after a province where her husband was stationed, and the courtier Shonagon Sei left equally compelling descriptions of their lives and daydreams.
“The Sarashina Nikki” or “As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams: Recollections of a Woman in Eleventh-Century Japan” (translated by Ivan Morris, 1975) can also claim to be the first travelogue. Recounting his life from his preteen years to his 50s, including his travels and pilgrimages, in clear, evocative prose, he also dwells on his dreams – with at least 10 featured in them.
“Makura no Soshi” or “The Pillow Book” (1967) by Shonagon includes personal reflections, his view of events at court and his contemporaries, and a number of lists, such as “Things That Arouse a Affect Memory of the Past” (e.g., a night with a clear moon) or “Things that give a feeling of cleanliness” (e.g., the play of light on water when poured into a container).
A period of conflict marked the next three centuries and its literature was therefore marked by descriptions of warfare and themes of honor and sacrifice.
It is however at the end of the 17th century that we come across a masterpiece, which is “Oku no Hosomichi” by the famous poet Matsuo Basho (“The Narrow Road to the Far North”).
Known as the ancestor of the verse form of haiku, although he himself expressed a preference for the collaborative poetry form “renku”, the poetic account of his travels in northern Japan — “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home” — is animated by his poetic work — e.g. “Summer Herbs – / Of the Dreams of Brave Soldiers / The Consequences”.
For the rest, we have to come to the 20th century, when the opening of the country to the world, the resumption of power by the Emperor and generalized modernization began to have their effects.
Natsume Soseki is considered the first modern novelist, and his debut novel “I Am A Cat” (1905, English 1972) is a biting satire of a society torn between tradition and modernity told from the perspective of an anthropomorphized domestic cat who uses the bombastic pronoun “wagahai” to describe himself.
Soseki’s other works include “Botchan” (1906), another humorous and satirical tale about the struggles of a teacher assigned to a regional school – drawing on his own experiences, coming of age “Sanshiro” , and more.
Authors such as Ryunosuke “Rashomon” Akutagawa, Junichiro Tanizaki (“A cat, a man and two women” or “The Makioka sisters”) and Yasunari Kawabata (“Land of snows”), the first winner of the Nobel Prize in Japanese literature, flourished before the World War. II, known for their masterful language and their explorations of love and sensuality in the militarized milieu.
Kenji Miyazawa’s classic fantasy “Night on the Galactic Railroad” / “Night On The Milky Way Train” (1927, English circa 2014) also dates from this period and has a powerful message of hope and life purpose.
Japanese literature, however, came into its own with the drastic post-war changes. Listing even a representative section is no easy task, but let’s try with a few, now that they’re available in English thanks to the efforts of publishers like Pushkin Press.
Let’s start with crime. While complex, locked-in crimes such as Yukito Ayatsuji’s “The Decagon House Murders” (1987, English 2015), Seishi Yokomizo’s “The Honjin Murders” (1946, English 2019), “Murder in the Crooked House” (1982 , English 2019) by Soji Shimada, and “The Devotion of Suspect X” (2012) by Keigo Higashino are known, the pioneer was Seicho Matsumo.
His “Inspector Imanshi Investigates” (1961, English 1989) is an atmospheric police procedural, traversing diverse backgrounds and demographics, as police first strive to identify a badly mutilated body found in a Tokyo train station, then , the reason for the murder.
As Japan combined its continued modernization with technological innovation to become one of the world’s leading economies, the individual and social constraints of its work culture also became key plot elements. And again, women led the charge – as well as the attack on gender roles and layering in some unique styles, ranging from surreal to Kafkaesque.
Hiroko Oyamada’s “The Factory” (2013, English 2019) is a somewhat allegorical tale of three employees who start working in a sprawling unnamed factory in an unnamed Japanese town, where they have all the conveniences but are expected to perform inexplicably meaningless tasks. A few curious animals like the “factory shags” in the enclosure add to the surrealism.
Murata de Sayaka’s “Convenience Store Woman” (2016, English 2018) is another cautionary tale of how the work regime can overtake lives.
Yoko Ogwa’s ‘The Memory Police’ (1994, English 2020), which takes George Orwell’s ‘1984’ to a more chilling level, while providing startling insight into the human attachment to objects, is also relevant to our times. shifting memories and contested narratives.
Life, love and relationships, no matter how strange, never go out of fashion anywhere and for that, “The Woman in the Purple Skirt” by Natsuko Imamura (2019, English 2021) or “Strange Weather in Tokyo” by Hiroki Kawakami (2001, English 2017), or “The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino” (2003, English 2019) or Banana Yoshimoto’s “Kitchen” (1988, English 1993) are must picks.
Last but not least is Mieko Kawakami, who caused a stir with “Breasts and Eggs” (2008, English 2020), a captivating look at women’s relationship with their bodies. However, it is his short story “Ms. Ice Sandwich” (2018), about a young boy’s introduction to love and the pains of growing up, that should be read first.
There are many more, but start with these.