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Where would we be without the words of Japanese women?

In Japan, female writers are stars within the country’s literary sphere, even if on the international stage their light seems to pale in comparison to the post-war wave of recognized, male writers such as Yukio Mishima (1925-70) or Haruki Murakami.

The contributions of female writers to Japan’s tradition of literature is immense. Looking through history, there are a number of examples of female writers who have outlasted their male compatriots to embed themselves in the annals of the present. While male writers such as Mishima and Murakami are deserved in their celebration, so too must we look toward Japan’s female canon.

Female Japanese writers have already proved their staying power. The two most famous works in classical literature during the Heian Period (794-1185) were both penned by women: “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu and “The Pillow Book” by Sei Shonagon. As with the beginnings of other literary traditions around the world, Japan, too, has its war epics (most notably the anonymously penned “The Tale of the Heike”), but ultimately it is the work of these women on the sidelines of the era that has proved most enduring.

Both “The Tale of Genji” and “The Pillow Book” illuminate court life; the intrigues and strategic maneuvering off the battlefield that defined the Heian Period in an arguably more complete, more complex rendering than the stark absolutes of war. “The Tale of Genji” is considered the world’s first novel; “The Pillow Book” showcases a distinctive Japanese genre, a blend of essays, lists, poetry and vignettes mimicking fragmented thought called zuihitsu, a style still popular today.

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The moon is beautiful tonight: On East Asian narratives

1.
Once a conversation with an Australian friend surprised me; she told me that Haruki Murakami, the world-famous Japanese novelist, struck her as “very Japanese.” “But why?” I puzzled, thinking of the Western pop culture references sprinkled throughout his works and his Englishized prose style.

“Many of his stories don’t have a real conflict,” she said. “Like in 1Q84, you feel all those surreal elements are built up for something, but in the end, nothing really happens. Even the romance between Tengo and Aomame ends up half-baked.”

That day, we were talking about story structure. I told her that very often my workshop friends comment that my stories don’t contain conflict. Their critique reminds me of the East Asian story-telling convention—at the risk of generalization, we tend to generate a plot without using conflict. As opposed to the West’s five-act or three-act, the term Kishōtenketsu is often used to describe the development of a classic East Asian narrative. It includes four different acts: introduction (ki), development (shō), twist (ten), and conclusion (ketsu). Introduction and development are comparable, though only slightly, to exposition and rising action, and conclusion to denouement. There’s not a climax that determines the character’s fate one way or the other in this setup. In fact, the present story in many East Asian narrative remains largely unaffected by the turbulent emotions roiling inside the characters.

Then, you may wonder, what’s the point of storytelling? Isn’t that boring?

It’s still intriguing. Take the great Japanese writer, Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Key. Written in diary form, the novel grapples with the sexual fantasies an elderly man harbors towards his wife, 11 years his junior, and his wife’s towards their daughter’s boyfriend. Both the husband and the wife lock their diaries in drawers, leaving the keys out purposefully—they hope the other will peek. The story is saturated with the couples’ intense suspicions of one another. Reading the book for a third time, I still found myself hooked till the very last page. However, Tanizaki’s work doesn’t involve a conflict in the Western sense.

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Takami Nieda on Translating Kazuki Kaneshiro: Love Before Trump

Just released by AmazonCrossing, Kazuki Kaneshiro’s 18-year-old novel ‘Go’ has found a new voice in Takami Nieda’s translation. It’s a timely indictment of today’s nationalism.

The happy gaze she casts on a sunny terrace outside the Tampa Bay Convention Center needs no translation. “Better than Seattle,” translator Takami Nieda says with the cryptic clarity of the teenager she’s brought to life in English this month.

Her translation of Kazuki Kaneshiro’s Japanese-language novel Go and its articulate, brat-boy protagonist Sugihara was published on March 1 by AmazonCrossing, the powerhouse translation imprint of Amazon Publishing. A bestseller in Amazon’s Kindle Store, the book now is collecting thoughtful write-ups and reviews from sometimes surprised consumers—many of whom are putting their fingers on the importance of translation:

  • “Although this novel was a love story,” writes one reader in a review, “the theme it tackles is discrimination. It illustrates a situation familiar in the US.”
  • “The story of a passionate young man negotiating prejudice with personal power,” writes another.
  • “This first-person novel allows the American reader to feel the identity confusion and alienation that’s the result of systemic discrimination,” says a third.

“It’s definitely his voice,” Nieda says about how she’s captured the idiosyncrasies of a talkative character. An English department faculty member at Seattle Central College, she spoke to Publishing Perspectives at this week’s AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Tampa. “I could translate in that voice all day because the words that come out of my mouth come out in that voice.”

This is a clue to why she spent seven years shepherding the book to its new English rendition. Nieda spotted the book and was captured by its canny, irreverent cadences. She got the author’s permission to translate it, created samples in English, and shopped it around for a publisher with a brand name the author would approve. That publisher turned out to be AmazonCrossing.

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Ryunosuke Akutagawa: Writing in the shadows of Japan’s literary giants

We are not sure of the exact date, but we know it happened on a Thursday in the fall of 1915.

That morning, Ryunosuke Akutagawa was extremely excited, but also nervous and perhaps even a bit queasy. Then 23 years old and still a university student, he had yet to make his mark as an author. All he had to his credit were a few translations of short works by Anatole France and W.B. Yeats and a small number of original stories of his own, none of which had attracted attention. In short, he did not have much of a resume.

By comparison, the people he met later that day were confident intellectuals with established reputations — most were at least a decade older than him. They knew each other well and, for a while already, had been gathering weekly at the house of one of their peers to discuss literature and the arts, philosophy and politics. Joining them would have been an intimidating prospect even for a confident man, something Akutagawa definitely was not. But this was also a unique opportunity to meet the individual hosting this salon, the most celebrated author of his generation and a man Akutagawa deeply admired. His name was Natsume Soseki.

It turned out to be a mesmerizing experience. Akutagawa later wrote that he had been so impressed by “the master” — he always referred to Soseki in this manner — that he had been almost unable to relax. The encounter also marked the beginning of a relationship, unfortunately cut short when Soseki died the following year, which was extremely meaningful for Akutagawa. With the help of his new mentor he was able to republish “The Nose” (1916), which Soseki greatly admired, in a well-known magazine. This brought him fame almost overnight.

Though their friendship spanned only a few months, the lives of Soseki and Akutagawa cover a critical period in the history of Japanese fiction. In the twilight years of the Edo Period (1603-1868) the genre was in a sorry state, a mere shadow of its former grandeur. …

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8 Contemporary Japanese novelists (who aren’t Haruki Murakami)

When Japanese bookshops opened up at midnight on Feb. 24 for his book launch event, Haruki Murakami was back in the news and back on our shelves. Although no publication date has yet been set for the English translation of Killing Commendatore, if you’re looking for a contemporary J-lit fix already available in translation, here are eight other authors worth exploring.

1. Hiromi Kawakami

One of the big translation events of 2014 was Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. This story of two lonely people passing the Tokyo seasons together is an excellent place to begin. Famous for being quirky and sometimes surreal, but far less twee than the more renowned Banana Yoshimoto, Kawakami is a must for readers who love to luxuriate in captivating prose.

2. Fuminori Nakamura

Sampling elements of noir and crime, Fuminori Nakamura writes bleak, violent existential thrillers that peel back Tokyo’s scabs and dig around in its wounds. His prose is sparse and haunting, underscored with a black sense of humor. English-language publishers have taken an interest, which has lead to six of his books translated in four years. His latest, The Boy in the Earth, is a vivid, vital story about a man still attempting to deal with the abuse he suffered as a child. A previous novel, The Thief, is guaranteed to make any Tokyoite avoid the darker streets at night.

3. Hitomi Kanehara

Writing in a style that reflects the uneducated “street” voice of her characters, Hitomi Kanehara is notoriously difficult to translate. As a result, she still only has two short novels in English — Autofiction and Snakes and Earrings — as well as a handful of short stories. Both are harsh, cynical books dealing with young women outside mainstream Japanese society. Open and honest about self-destruction, sexual promiscuity and the murky world of Tokyo subcultures; Kanehara’s fiction is a short, sharp shock designed to startle and unsettle. And it’s all the better for it.

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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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