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Why do we love Japanese fiction so much when it is so elusive?

Japanese fiction needs to be read slowly. It deserves that. You cannot rush through it – even if it is a crime pot-boiler or a love story. It needs patience. Like a good brewed cup of tea. The beauty of Japanese fiction sometimes is only best understood when you read more and more of it and do not generalise it as one flooded by suicides or dark plots.

My introduction to Japanese fiction began when I was sixteen and picked up my first Yukio Mishima. Mishima’s works are dense, full of longing and, yes, suicides as well, talking of a Japanese era gone by – one of aristocrats and empires and emperors. His books are one of a kind – The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy is epic in its scope and story-telling. Moreover, the translation is just perfect. And that is where my love for Japanese literature took place.

Yasunari Kawabata is another underrated Japanese writer in my opinion. He wrote only a dozen books in all, most of them not even translated into English.But the ones that have been are small gems of brilliant literature. His language is simple and subtle, almost like haikus. Reading him is like enjoying a cup of sake and not being too greedy about it as even one cup satiates the mind and soul.

Kawabata wrote of the social issues of his time. A love story between a Tokyo dilettante and a Geisha is depicted beautifully in Snow Country, while one more ill-fated love story appears in Thousand Cranes. Kawabata’s short stories are full of eroticism (which is not in your face) and desire that stems and grows. In short, he is one writer I would urge you to read.

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10 Books set in Tokyo: Reading the motley city

Tokyo has been a subject of literature for centuries, and continues to inspire writers today. These ten fiction and non-fiction works capture Tokyo’s unique character, revealing multiple aspects of the city from its arts scene to its pop culture, and down to the depths of its underworld.

Fiction

After Dark, Haruki Murakami

Internationally acclaimed Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami has published many works set in Tokyo, including Norwegian WoodThe Wind-up Bird Chronicle and After Dark, which was originally published in 2004. In After Dark, Murakami depicts one night in the city from midnight until dawn, using a third person perspective to portray the many characters which occupy this night time sphere. From Denny’s Restaurant to a ‘Love Hotel’, the locations of the novel are reminiscent of the seediness of a bustling street in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho. Murakami captures the urban midnight landscape of Tokyo where different people’s lives interlink and where the boundary between today and tomorrow, reality and dream are blurred.

Almost Transparent Blue, Ryu Murakami

Ryu Murakami’s Almost Transparent Blue is based upon events from the author’s own life during the 1970s in Fussa-city, Tokyo, when he was in his twenties. Ryu, a hero of the novel, is living in an apartment located near the American military base in Fussa. On the margins of this base, Ryu and his companions lead a life of sex, drug and violence without any hope for the future. Although the story is depicted through Ryu’s perspective, Murakami maintains a sense of objectivity about everything which occurs, and relates it without any trace of empathy. Through the novel’s haunting emptiness, Murakami achieves a poetic depiction of the devastating life of the Japanese youth during the 1970s.

OUT, Natsuo Kirino

Natsuo Kirino’s OUT, the first Japanese novel shortlisted for the Edgar Awards Best Novel prize, is a story about four women working for a bento factory in the suburbs of Tokyo. Plagued by problems in their families and jobs, they are desperate to get out of such a tedious and repetitive life. This desperation manifests itself in a tragic form, as they are suddenly led into the violent underworld of Japan after one of them impulsively kills her abusive husband. In OUT, Kirino depicts the dark side of modern Japanese society with a profound insight into the reality of ordinary people’s lives right after the collapse of the ‘bubble economy’.

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9 Essential books by Japan’s Nobel Prize-winning writers

With the announcement of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners, British contemporary author Kazuo Ishiguro joins the small but extremely talented cohort of writers from Japan or of Japanese descent to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of picking up a work from one of these prize-winning authors, here are 9 essential novels to add to your reading list.

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Kenzaburo Oe

Kenzaburo Oe was born in 1935 and came of age during the post-World War II US occupation of Japan. While much of the literature from this period is marked by a bleak or despondent mood, Oe’s works are known for their sharp yet somehow uplifting humor. Many of his books are inspired by his own experiences raising a son who was born with brain damage. Oe was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994.

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (1958)

Oe’s first novel Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, or 『芽むしり仔撃ち』 Memushiri kouchi, published in 1958, tells the story of a group of young troublemakers who find themselves alone without adult supervision when plague breaks out during the war. The book has been compared to both William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Albert Camus’s The Plague.

A Personal Matter (1964)

Originally titled 『個人的な体験』 Kojinteki Na Taiken, the 1964 novel A Personal Matter is the dark comedy of a man who struggles with the birth of his developmentally disabled son.  The book is highly regarded for its existentialist meanderings and black, lyrical beauty.

Yasunari Kawabata

Yasubari Kawabata (1899-1972) became the first ever Japanese writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968. He’s known for his masterful command of prose, achieved through sparse yet hauntingly beautiful language that draws on traditional Japanese aesthetics.

Snow Country (1937)

The 1937 story Snow Country, known as 『雪国』 Yukiguni in Japanese, is considered by many to be Kawabata’s greatest masterpiece. A romantic tragedy about a married man from Tokyo and the geisha with whom he had fallen in love at an onsen resort many years before, the novel’s poetic descriptions capture the dreamlike beauty of the snowy onsenvillage with an almost haiku-like delicacy.

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How the visual arts shaped Japan’s modern literature

By the turn of the 20th century, “sketching from life” had become such a popular literary form that the editors of the literary magazine Hototogisu encouraged the submission of prose essays in this liberating new style.

Early on in Natsume Soseki’s 1908 campus novel “Sanshiro” — one of the most important expositions of the inter-connectedness of visual and literary art ever written — a young scientist, Nonomiya, looks up at a long, thin, white cloud floating diagonally in the sky.

“Do you know what that is?” he asks the titular Sanshiro. “That’s all particles of snow. When you look at it down here, it’s not moving in the least. But up there, it’s moving with a velocity greater than that of a hurricane. Have you read Ruskin? … It would be interesting to sketch this sky.”

When people think about the literature of modern Japan, they tend to think that most of its influences have been, well, literary, whether native or foreign in origin. But in fact — as I would like to show in this four-part series tracing the story from the 19th century to the present — revolutions in painting and visual art have played a defining role in the creation of diverse and often unappreciated aspects of modern Japanese literature.

When Japan emerged from two centuries of seclusion to enter the modern world with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, it struggled to reform and standardize its language and create literary works that could realistically depict the world in the manner of the Western novel.

The difficulties were considerable — the Japanese language itself needed new grammar, such as standardized verb tenses, the merging of literary and colloquial forms and even the creation of third-person pronouns. (The modern word for “she” — kanojo — was not in common currency until the Taisho Era (1912-26)).

Yet even as Japan was absorbing the influence of the Western novel, it was also undergoing a revolution in the visual arts.

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