Mighty Books of Japan
  Lists    January 14, 2016     Eric Larkin



When you whip that 1k Yen – Natsume Soseki

The Japanese put their writers (also a few samurai) on their money. Our money does not have our writers. (Samurai on US currency also currently equals zero.) Autobiographies (Franklin) and constitutions (Jefferson) only sorta count. Natsume Soseki,  Murasaki Shikibu (wrote the first novel ever) and Higuchi Natsu (woman writing under the male pen name Higuchi Ichiyo) all wrote novels and short stories.  Shotoku wrote important Buddhist commentaries. Nitobe Inazo wrote Bushido: The Soul of Japan, and Fukuzawa Yukichi, amongst other things, wrote children’s books in verse. They are all or have been on Japanese Yen. (Theodor Geisel on money would be the best thing ever, especially if they let him design his own bill.) But this is not really a post about money. I just want to hot-tip you towards some great Japanese lit, but can you see the extent to which they identify with their literary heritage? They carry it around in their pockets. They hand it back and forth to each other, every day. Not to make too much of incidental every day contact with a writer’s image on a piece of paper, but what you put on your money says something about your national values.




On with the writers and their books.


Natsume Soseki is arguably the most beloved writer in Japan. To understand why, a little background might be helpful. When Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay, forcing Japan open to the Western world, the Japanese government said, “Fine. But we’ll do it our way.” They set out on a “Modernize Hella Fast” program (I forget the Japanese word for it), wherein they dispatched their own experts to various Western countries to learn as much as they could on various subjects, and bring that knowledge back to Japan. Soseki went to England to study literature. Interestingly, he came back with knowledge of European literary trends (naturalism or some damn thing), and rejected them. This was a time when Japan’s identity was in limbo, and China – a nation they’d traditionally revered – was a bleeding caveat of colonization.  The question was “Does modernization (and therefore survival) equal Westernization or can we maintain both traditions and sovereignty?” Soseki answered the question with very modern novels that had a distinctly Japanese sensibility.




The book you’ll want to read is called Kokoro. Kokoro can mean heart, soul, mind – all wrapped up together. This is the story of a student’s friendship with an older man, as he watches him wrestle with demons from his past. It’s a pretty slow burn, the way you can get halfway thru a bottle of smooth sake before it hits you and you’re done. Kokoro is beautiful and dark and so Japanese it hurts. Soseki’s work is mostly serious like that, but if you want something fun, check out the hilarious Botchan. It is the adventures of a young teacher from the city in a podunk country school. Or the originally serialized I Am a Cat, which is an observation of a family from a cat’s point of view. The pronoun used for “I” in this case (there are a handful in Japanese) is wagahai, which is pretty formal. (Imagine the royal “we” in English.) So, right there in the title: WE Are a Cat. Very cat-like.




Nobel winner Kawabata Yasunari used to write from a room with a view looking down on the inside of Tokyo Station. (Probably watching the crowds, not getting much writing done.) Snow Country is his masterpiece. The opening sentence is very famous. In English, “The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.” I remember a professor in college saying it has an abruptness in Japanese. The Japanese is “Kunizakai no tonneru o nukeru to yukiguni de atta.” Yukiguni is a two part word, combining “snow” and “country”; de atta is the “to be” verb (more or less). So, there’s this long, rhythmic, dark tunnel, and then suddenly everything is white. (Reading lit in translation, you don’t always know what you’re missing. Always read the introduction, etc..) This type of visual is a Kawabata forte, hearkening back to the economical imagery of haiku – the ultimate mood-bomb literature (yes, even more so than limericks). Another traditional theme in this story is a sense of transience: of life, love, beauty. But you know, to say it’s “traditional” sounds like it’s some special Japanese thing. Not so. It’s a universally human thing, that Japanese writers have had a grasp on for a very long time. It’s that sense of futility, the best and most we can ever know – however wonderful – is doomed to fade and finally disappear. The rarity makes it more beautiful in the moment. The plot of this novel is not much to speak of; plot-centric stories were more of a Western thing to this point. A sort of shallow playboy frequents a mountain hot spring resort, develops a relationship with a geisha, who is there out of desperation. The man cannot hope to connect to the profundity of the woman’s situation, so the relationship is doomed. Stark, beautiful.


Could this guy possibly be any cooler? Every photo I've ever seen of him has that crazy hair.

Could this guy possibly be any cooler? Every photo I’ve ever seen of him has that crazy hair.


Akutagawa Ryunosuke was possibly a little nuts and definitely a rebel. There were several schools of literary thought at the time, and – like Soseki, who he knew – he rejected all of them. In fact, he was vilified by the literary establishment, and with his weird little stories, he fought on all fronts. Guess who won? A major national literary prize is named after him. (He has been called a Japanese Edgar Allan Poe, because of the often fantastic or macabre elements of his stories, but he was much more socially-minded than Poe.) His work sometimes used classic Japanese settings and characters, medieval samurai and such, to violently satirize any vanity or hubris he saw in his culture. Remember Kurosawa’s Rashomon? That’s a blend of several Akutagawa stories, including ‘In a Grove”, which itself is a swipe at the trendy, European style autobiographical confessionals many Japanese writers were aping. Its characters give conflicting, self-serving accounts of a crime, like Akutagawa is saying “Oh, you’re laying your soul bare for us? Well, why should we even believe you?” That said, he is not tied down to those contemporary conflicts. As Professor Yasuyoshi Sekiguchi says in this excellent article from Japan Times, Akutagawa wrote on “…timeless themes of world literature…. They involve contradiction, misunderstanding, uncertainty and illogical things. He also talks about God and the Devil.” He primarily wrote short stories, and they are available in a number of different collections. Look for Rashomon; it’s the one people have heard of.






This is what my copy looked like. Lent it to a friend it years ago. LENT it. Haven't seen it since. Bastard.

This is what my copy looked like. Lent it to a friend years ago. LENT it. Haven’t seen it since. Bastard.

A winner of the Akutagawa Prize is Shusaku Endo, who, like Akutagawa, was an outsider. It’s tough being Catholic in Japan. Shusaku converted at a young age and found himself a minority at home and abroad (he studied in France). This did give him an interesting perspective though: a view of Japan from both inside and outside. Just about everything he did was controversial to someone. His expressions of Christianity are in places unorthodox, and he wrote about subjects not exactly popular in Japan, including deadly medical experiments performed on American POWs during WWII (Poison and the Sea) and the slaughter of Japanese Christians in the 1500s (Silence). Still, he is highly regarded and came close to a Nobel in 1994. Silence might be his most important novel, and is being filmed by Martin Scorsese, perhaps getting its final touches at this very moment. Rather than being a straight telling of government oppression of a religious minority, etc etc, it’s actually about the crisis of faith of a few Jesuits in the face of brutal oppression and a silent God. Yes, it involves Japan’s relationship with the West, but like all great books, it’s more about the human struggle to make sense of things outside our control.




Ariyoshi Sawako’s The Doctor’s Wife explores the domestic relationships of women. When a woman marries a doctor, she has to contend for place against her mother-in-law. It’s about gender and age, but it’s also about modern versus traditional ways of living. The Twilight Years is about a professional woman who also has to care for her husband’s aging father, her husband doing nothing to help. Again, there are gender roles and old -vs- new modes of living. Hishoku is the story of a Japanese woman who marries an African-American and moves to Harlem. It’s yet another challenge to tradition, on several levels. Noticing a pattern with Ariyoshi (actually, with most of the writers on this list)? There is the way things are “supposed” to be done, and then there is the way Ariyoshi and her characters do them. You might not always beat the system, but you’re not really living if you don’t find the immovable wall of your own culture and push against it. Later in her life, she was even involved with environmental issues. Ariyoshi was another cutting-edge rebel in a long line of them.


These are some heavy-hitters of Japanese lit, but we’re barely scratching the surface here. We could easily do a few more of these lists, just piecing out the greatness like in an obento. Japan has an extraordinary literary tradition, and they are serious readers – so there’s no end in sight.  100 years ago, they were trying to understand our literature. Pfft. No need.


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