The Art of Japanese Literature

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 generalize it to be 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, yes suicides as well and of a Japanese Era gone by – that of aristocrats and empires and emperors. The books written by him are something else – 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 under-rated Japanese writer in my opinion. He had written all in all around twelve books and that’s that, most of which aren’t even translated to English. Having said that, most that are translated are small gems of brilliant literature. His language is simple and subtle, almost like haiku, almost like enjoying a cup of sake and not being too greedy about it as it satiates the mind and the soul anyhow. Yasunari Kawabata in his time wrote of social issues at hand – a love story between a Tokyo dilettante and a Geisha, depicted beautifully in Snow Country to another ill-fated love story as seen 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.

Then came the significant time in my life when I read the first novel so to speak, “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu, who was a Japanese noblewoman and a lady-in-waiting. It almost changed the way I viewed fiction and its importance in my life. It has all the elements of the modern novel – and is considered to be a psychological novel – probably the first of its times. The characters are defined by their function in the book, rather than their name and that stood out the most for me, giving an insight to early Japanese culture. The book recounts the life of a son of the Japanese Emperor, known to the readers as Shining Genji. The Tale of Genji takes us through his romantic life, the aristocratic society then and the barriers. It could have very well been an ancient Romeo and Juliet. The fact of the matter is that it is a great read, though strenuous at times.

I then lapped up Natsume Soseki’s “I am a Cat”, which spoke of a Cat’s life and the world through its eyes over three volumes. What I enjoyed about this one was the one singular voice of a Cat and the impact it had on me as a reader. The cat is aware of the human world and its fallacies and depicts it with great humour, sarcasm, and wit. So there is also the funny side of the Japanese writer.

Very soon other writers joined the bandwagon. The urge to read more Japanese literature was like no other. I wanted to know more about the culture – their behaviour patterns, the way they thought, the society formed – the way of thinking – ancient and modern and the conflict within. No better writer than Junichiro Tanizaki to put that in perspective. I have read five of his books, and each book down the line spoke of two themes – sexual freedom and the free will to think and act. Tankizaki’s characters are strong, with the hidden weak side that they do not want anyone else to know and that as noticed and understood through his writing is a treat.

Kazuo Ishiguro joined the forces very soon. Ishiguro, a native of Japan and now settled in England, speaks of varied themes. From cloning and unrequited love as depicted in Never Let Me Go (a brilliant film also) to the state of butlers and maids in The Remains of the Day, his novels are not traditionally Japanese – except for two, but his sensibilities sure are and that is what makes him a great writer – the sensitivity, the sparing and effective use of language and the best judgment displayed in making his characters feel and speak the way they want to.

Japanese Literature is not everyone’s cup of tea, quite literally at that. There are close to a thousand nuances probably out there in every second book. The plot doesn’t reveal itself till it wants to be seen. The reader almost gets frustrated and his patience levels do not sustain the beauty of the language at times. I have seen that happen to most people. One such Japanese writer who has currently taken the literary scene by storm is but definitely Haruki Murakami. Murakami’s works again are not easy to understand and yet he connects with his readers in a manner unlike anyone else. It does take time to seep in to his books, but once you have, then there is no way out for you. You will read and re-read and quote and be dizzy with his words and the beauty of translation. From unrequited love to a detective story to parallel universes and subtleties of love and heartache, Murakami touches on these topics and more like a true genius. My love affair with him started with Sputnik Sweetheart and still continues to this very day. Thank you for writing the way you do.

Akutagawa entered my life after I watched the film, “Rashomon”. On knowing that it was a short story on which the film was based, I had to read it. Sure enough, the short-stories written by Akutagawa were spectacular. It revolves around the murder of a Samurai and the rape of his wife, followed by four versions – the bandit’s story, the wife’s story, the samurai’s story and the woodcutter’s story – each version with a different twist and re-telling. I loved the stories. For me, that was a hallmark of short-story writing. There was so much there which was done in terms of language and description and yet so much left to the reader’s thought process.

I could go on and on about Japanese Literature. However there are so many writers I would urge you to explore if you have not already – Banana Yoshimoto being one of them, with her classic themes of loss of identity and voice, Osamu Dazai, well known for his character sketches and romanticism, Kobo Abe, with his skill in explaining the gore and the unknown nature of man, and Kenzaburo Oe, with his ruthless description of the dark corners of the human mind and soul.

Japanese Literature for me in most ways is the mirror to my soul. Every book read and every author speaks to me in different ways and on different levels.

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7 thoughts on “The Art of Japanese Literature

  1. Acid Free Pulp

    I’ve been trying to get more into Japanese literature but I never knew where to start. Thanks for all of the recs and info. I live near a Japanese bookstore and always feel so overwhelmed when I go in.

    Reply
    1. thehungryreader Post author

      Thanks so much for liking this post. I loved your blog. I so want to read The Night Guest and it isn’t available in India yet. Sigh.

      Reply
  2. Cecilia

    This is a wonderful overview of Japanese literature. I lived in Japan for some time and married into a Japanese family, but I have limited experience with Japanese literature (have read just a handful of books). I am definitely planning to read more. I love the quiet and subtle complexity of the Japanese language as well, and find that that in itself is a window into the culture. Thanks for this post.

    Reply
    1. thehungryreader Post author

      Thanks a lot Cecilia for liking this article. I have always been fascinated by Japanese Literature. Hence this post.

      Reply
  3. Chandani

    You are so right when you say Japanese writings are not for everyone. They are dark stories and do take a toll on your nerves. I read many Japanese authors but after a while i have to stop and read something lighter to loosen up.Nice post.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: #DailyBookQuote 28Nov13 : Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji | Whatever It's Worth...

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