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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

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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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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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8 Great Japanese Books in Translation That Aren’t by Haruki Murakami

We love Murakami, and all the cats, jazz, whiskey bars, mysterious women, and glimpses at modern Japanese life that populate his books. But there’s a world of magnificent novels out there by Japanese authors who don’t receive as much U.S. press for their work. If you’ve already devoured Murakami’s story collections (like Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman) and his acclaimed novels (including Kafka on the ShoreThe Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and IQ84), it’s time to add these contemporary Japanese books to your end-of-summer reading list. There’s something for everyone: mysteries and thrillers, teen horror, relationship dramas, and twisted, yakuza-related crime stories, all taking place in locales that may be unfamiliar to American readers. Each will get your imagination churning and your passport begging for stamps. Here’s a sample of our favorite modern books from the land of the rising sun.

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Chinese, Japanese literature experts exchange thoughts in east China

Literature experts as well as descendants of two famous Asian writers met in east China to boost friendly communication between China and Japan.

Descendants of late Chinese writer Lu Xun and late Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki, talked about the influence of both men on literature Monday in a seminar at Shaoxing University in Zhejiang Province. Lu Xun was born in the city of Shaoxing.

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Bridging the Gap to Early Japanese Literature: Translator Peter MacMillan

If you had to pick one book to introduce Japanese culture, what would you choose? For the translator and poet Peter MacMillan, it would be the thirteenth-century anthology Hyakunin isshu, which he rendered in English as One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each. “These hundred short poems tell us almost everything we need to know about the Japanese,” he said in a talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo on July 26, 2017. Continue reading


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‘Musashi: An Epic Novel of the Samurai Era’ encapsulates feudal Japan

By Kris Kosaka

 

mushashiThose with an interest in feudal Japan are urged not to miss Eiji Yoshikawa’s samurai epic, “Musashi: An Epic Novel of the Samurai Era” — just don’t expect historical accuracy. In telling the story of Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1685), the famed swordsman and author of “The Book of Five Rings,” Yoshikawa’s sprawling novel relies mostly on imagination and invention, much to the dismay of historians.

Yet the fact remains that “Musashi” has enjoyed great popularity since it was first serialized in the Asahi Shimbun in 1935, inspiring various movie and television versions and even becoming the basis of a popular manga. Read more

Source: The Japan Times


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Burton Watson, 91, Influential Translator of Classical Asian Literature, Dies

By William Grimes

Burton Watson, whose spare, limpid translations, with erudite introductions, opened up the world of classical Japanese and Chinese literature to generations of English-speaking readers, died on April 1 in Kamagaya, Japan. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by his nephew William Dundon.

For nearly six decades, Mr. Watson was a one-man translation factory, producing indispensable English versions of Chinese and Japanese literary, historical and philosophical texts, dozens of them still in print. Generations of students and teachers relied on collections like “Early Chinese Literature” (1962), “Chinese Lyricism: Shih Poetry From the Second to the Twelfth Century” (1971), “From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry” (1981) and “The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the 13th Century” (1984). Read more

Source: The New York Times


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‘Beauty and Sadness’: Yasunari Kawabata’s last published novel explores the extremes of human emotion

By Kris Kosaka

beauty and sadnessNobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata’s “Beauty and Sadness” is a sparse and elegant dissection of the messiest human emotions.

It’s also a study in Japanese aesthetics, as the central characters all have some connection to the arts, and Kawabata deftly paints their worlds with mesmerizing imagery and use of detail.

Successful writer Oki Toshio, 54, longs to hear the New Year’s bells in Kyoto with his former mistress, Otoko Ueno, who was only 15 when Oki seduced her. The forbidden, passionate affair had resulted in a stillborn child followed by Otoko’s suicide attempt. Married with a young son, Oki considers suicide himself until the couple are separated when Otoko’s mother intervenes. Read more

Source: The Japan Times

 


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Sawako Ariyoshi’s ‘The River Ki’ explores characters who swim against life’s current

By Iain Maloney

When we read Japanese history it’s easy to forget that the revolutionary changes that washed through the country from the 19th century into the 20th all took place within a single human life span.

Sawako Ariyoshi takes this notion as the premise for her 1959 novel “The River Ki.” The book follows the life of Hana, the daughter of a wealthy family in Wakayama, from her teenage betrothal to her elderly senility.

Raised to value the customs of old Japan, rapid modernization soon leaves her behind. Her daughter, Fumio, embraces feminism and Japan’s new international outlook, rebelling against her mother’s folk wisdom and superstition. Fumio raises her children abroad, ever on the move, until the outbreak of World War II forces them back to Japan. Read more

Source: The Japan Times