Japanese literature

As well as being a Japanophile, I’m also a bit of a bibliophile.  You might have guessed this from my post about Ochanomizu and Jinbocho.

The first Japanese novelist I ever read was Haruki Murakami.  I was idly browsing the shelves in my local Waterstone’s and came across an attractively white book with a picture of an LP on the front and black and red typeface.  It was Dance, Dance, Dance.  After I read it, I immediately wanted to read more by the same author.  Thus began my obsession.

I have now read all of Murakami’s novels, bar the first couple published by Kodansha, and most of his short story collections, and I have managed to infect a couple of other people with my obsession for this pared down, surreal author’s works.  My favourite novels are The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, 1Q84 and Kafka on the Shore.  My husband bought me What I Talk About When I Talk About Running as a gift once.  I don’t usually like reading authors’ autobiographies.  I usually find that knowing what they are like as people gets in the way of immersing myself in their novels.  But Murakami’s autobiography is more like a novel about Haruki Murakami, the runner.

I sometimes think I’d like to find some of the locations in Murakami’s books.  The ones that can be found in physical reality, that is.  Some of them might be a bit trickier, being all metaphysical and all.  I did find this post on the Kirainet blog, about the café that Murakami used to run with his wife, but it’s not quite the same thing.

The next Japanese author I read was Yukio Mishima.  I picked up a copy of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, because we were going to Kyoto on holiday and I wanted to see Kinkakuji while we were there.  I thought that reading a novel set in the temple would be a different introduction to it.  It was great – such misanthropy, such oddness – and an interesting insight into the mind of a Japanese person.

It was also interesting to read a novelist’s imagining of the story behind the destruction of the pavilion by a disaffected monk who lived in the temple grounds.  That part of the story is true.  Mishima’s imagining of why is, I think, complete fabrication.

It was good to see the real article (or rather the rebuilt article) when we went to Kyoto.  I like the fact that Kinkakuji was rebuilt in the way it was originally intended to be built and decorated, rather than the way the original had appeared.  It’s so very, very golden now.  So the monk probably did us all a favour, in a way.

I’ve read another Mishima novel, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea.  I liked that one even more, because it takes place inside the warped mind of a teenage boy who doesn’t like the man his mother has started seeing.  It’s quite psychologically disturbing.

After Mishima, I decided to try another living Japanese author and went for Ryu Murakami.  I’ve only read one of his so far – In the Miso Soup.  This book is set around the hostess bars of Shinjuku, which is an area we’ve visited on both our trips to Japan.  Not that we frequented any hostess bars there, mind you!  We concentrated on the game stations and arcades in Kabukicho instead.

Next time we’re there, though, I’ll maybe keep an eye out for plastic-faced Westerners being shown around by young Japanese men – and avoid them!  In the Miso Soup is a book of two halves, with a central episode which is violent in the extreme but, I think, necessary to give context to what goes on before and what transpires afterwards.  I’ve bought another Ryu Murakami book, Audition, which I’ve yet to read.

Haruki Murakami aside, I was beginning to wonder whether all Japanese novelists were writers with psychological problems of a violent and misanthropic nature.  My next novelist was Natsume Sōseki,  who is much gentler than Mishima or Ryu Murakami.  I started with Kokoro, a story of a student who becomes obsessed with an older man who has a secret past.  It’s a kind of allegory for the changes going on in Japanese society at the time Sōseki was writing – the Shogunate had ended, the Meiji restoration had taken place, and then the Emporer died and left a temporary vacuum in the lives of many Japanese who were uncertain about the country’s future.  The book takes place in various Japanese machiya, or town houses, and has sort of inspired me to book a machiya for our stay in Kyoto later this year.

A machiya on a street near Nijo castle, Kyoto

My husband has recently bought me a book of short stories that include three by Sōseki and a couple by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa as well.  The stories are in Japanese, with an English translation and vocabulary lists.  I haven’t started it yet (there are too many other books I need to read, plus if I’m not reading a novel, I’m studying for my AS in Japanese), but I will get round to it one day, if only because I want to read Rashōmon, which is one of the stories in the book.

The most recent Japanese writer whose works I’ve read is Keigo Higashino.  I saw his novel The Devotion of Suspect X on a display of crime books in Waterstone’s while I was trying to decide which of the non-Wallander Henning Mankell novels to buy.  It was only available in hardback at the time, but Mr. H bought me a Kindle shortly afterwards, so I got myself the Kindle version instead.  Higashino is apparently as popular in Japan as Agatha Christie in the UK, or James Patterson in the US.  I loved The Devotion of Suspect X – the characters were well drawn, the story was compelling, and the locations were places nearby to where we had stayed and visited in Tokyo.  I’ve decided that it does make a difference, when reading a novel set in another country, if you have been to the places being described and have experienced something of the culture that provides the background.  It was easier to imagine the various scenes along the Sumida river because I knew where the river was and what it looked like from having stayed in Asakusa and crossed one of the many bridges over the Sumida.

Bridge over the Sumida river at Asakusa

And that’s as far as I’ve got so far with Japanese novelists.  If anyone wants to recommend someone they’ve read who isn’t on my list above, feel free to comment and provide links for me to check out your recommendations.

Before I end this post, I will also mention David Peace, who is a British writer who takes real events and fictionalises them.  A little like Mishima with Kinkakuji.  He lived in Tokyo for a number of years and has written the first two of a trilogy of books set in Tokyo immediately after the Second World War and during the American occupation of the country.  I like the “critical perspective” on the British Council link above that says “For those who go to novels seeking comfort or consolation David Peace does not come recommended.”  I’d say that’s a fair assessment!

The first book in the trilogy, Tokyo Year Zero, is based on newspaper articles and reports about the serial killer Yoshio Kodaira.  It’s an odd book, flipping from one narrative to another, and it took a while for me to become comfortable with its style, which seemed a little contrived at first.  But once I was into it, the story was gripping.  The second in the trilogy, Occupied City, takes the story of the painter and alleged mass poisoner Sadamichi Hirasawa as its basis, and is a much easier read.  I’m now looking forward to the final part of the trilogy, tentatively titled Tokyo Regained, which is due to be published later this year.


7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by explorer12 on 27/10/2012 at 7:20 pm

    Do you know if Tokyo Regained already was published?


    • I don’t, I’m afraid. I’ve had a look on the Faber & Faber wedbsite but there’s no sign or mention of it. Some sites say that the hardback version was due out in May this year, some say that it’s due for publication in November this year, but if there’s nothing on the Faber site, I’d say the other sites were wrong!


  2. […] I last wrote about Japanese literature that I’ve been reading, I’ve added a few more authors to the […]


  3. It must be lovely to be able to see the places described in books, especially books you love and are deeply connected to. I’ve read bits and pieces of Japanese authors — haha, you’re right, so many of their works have dark shades of psychological disturbance. Beautifully written though they are, I wouldn’t mind a more tender, gentle story sometimes.


    • The Japanese people I know personally are pretty robust emotionally! I think tenderness is a private thing for them. Perhaps that also transfers across into private but public things like literature. The Guest Cat is the closest to sentimental I’ve read so far, and even that was tough. The Housekeeper and The Professor has tenderness, as does Strange Weather in Tokyo, but it’s not a gentle tenderness!


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