I read a lot of books, always have. Ever since I have decided to move to Japan, I focused on reading Japanese literature (in translation, for now), because I think that’s a good way to get to know a country and its people.
On this page, I am collecting all the book reviews I have done on the blog before, you will find here a short synopsis of the book and, most of the times even shorter, what I thought about it. I am no literary critic, and I read simply for my own enjoyment, so please don’t expect any deep philosophical insights into an author or a particular book.
I will start out with Japanese literature, then I will list books about Japan, and the few films I have reviewed I will list at the end. The sorting inside the categories is by author. As before, there will be links to amazon if you want to buy the book online – disclaimer: they are now linked to my Amazon affiliate account so I can finally get rich. 😉
JAPANESE LITERATURE – BOOKS BY JAPANESE AUTHORS
Fumiko Enchi (1905 – 1986) was born in Tokyo. Since she was a sickly child, she was home-schooled and was taught English, French, and Chinese literature; through her grandmother she got to know the classics of Japanese literature. With 21, her first play was published, and from 1930, she began to write fiction, to not much acclaim. After a hiatus in and after WWII, she started to write again in the early 1950s, and finally received recognition as one of the most prominent Japanese writers of the Showa period.
Yasuko Togano has lost her husband Akio in an avalanche on Mount Fuji several years ago. Nevertheless, she has decided to stay with her mother in law Mieko, and also to finish Akio’s work on ghost possession. This work is her link to the friends Ibuki and Mikame, who both are in love with the attractive Yasuko, despite the fact that Ibuki has a wife and daughter.
Mieko Togano is a renowned poet, and although she tries to remain out of sight, it is in fact she who pulls all the strings. She is the hidden force when Yasuko starts an affair with Ibuki, and when Harume, the strikingly beautiful but mentally handicapped twin sister of Akio gets caught up in things, Mieko will do anything to see her long harboured plans bear fruit.
Mieko, although only prominent in the last third of the novel, is the main character, the driving force behind everything. She, who has lost everything and tries to regain a small piece of it, is not above sacrificing her own family.
This was a fascinating read about the strength of women. When Ibuki and Mikame muse about Mieko’s being a witch, possibly able to control other people with her mind, they make an interesting statement: The misogyny found in Buddhism and Christianity was simply a way for men to control that inner strength of women, which they always feared, but never understood…
Masks is a fascinating book – get your copy from Amazon!
The Waiting Years
Tomo is the wife of Yukitomo Shirakawa, a public servant in Fukushima, who is rapidly climbing the political ladder. Their two children do not keep Yukitomo from being a womanizer, and at some point he even orders his wife to find him a suitable mistress. Unwilling, but unable to stand her ground against her despotic husband, Tomo goes to Tokyo and after painful deliberations decides on Suga.
With the young girl’s arrival Yukitomo adds a new luxurious wing to the house and Tomo more and more finds herself in the role of household accountant. Both women soon arrange themselves with the new conditions forced upon them, but they change again when Yumi takes up service in their house and Yukitomo cannot keep his hands off her.
This is a very quiet novel, focusing on the women of the household. Though there are no open power struggles between them, and Tomo retains her elevated status of “wife” at all times, the common suffering of the women under Yukitomo’s reign is ever present. I enjoyed reading it, as it gives an almost psychological diagnosis of all persons involved, but if you are looking for action, this novel is not for you.
The Waiting Years is available on amazon – enjoy!
Shūsaku Endō (1923 –1996) was born in Tokyo, but lived in Manchuria for the first 10 years of his life. After his parents’ divorce, he moved back to Japan, where he became a Catholic. From the time he was a student, he published in literary magazines, and became chief editor of one of them in 1968. He often went abroad for work, and his perspective as an outsider and Catholic has strongly influenced his novels. He is considered part of the Third Generation, the third group of influential Japanese writers who appeared after WWII.
Jinpei Suda has just retired as the director of the local meteorological institute. He is considered the expert on the Akadate volcano that lies just across the bay. For years the volcano has been inactive, and Suda has declared it extinct. But with the arrival of a new, eager young member in the institute who challenges his judgement, Suda becomes insecure and starts to climb the volcano again.
Father Sato is exhilarated. He finally received permission to build a new church on the foot of the Akadate. It will be larger and more beautiful than any of the churches in the vicinity. The land is bought and all but cleared and he impatiently awaits the start of the construction.
(Father) Durand, however, the former priest of the parish has his doubts. He has had them for a long time now, not just about god but about almost anything. Having turned a cynical, sick old man, he hopes that the Akadate will erupt to wash away the old and make place for the new.
An interesting but rather slow novel about people’s fears and hopes and about getting old and seeing the new destroying or at least replacing what you have built. The stories of the three main characters above are only loosely connected; they live more next to each other than with each other. I found Durand, the expelled priest, the most interesting character. His cynical doubts and painful (self-) accusations make him the most memorable of the protagonists.
You can get Volcano on amazon – have fun!
Keigo Higashino (1958), born in Osaka, started writing while still working as an engineer for a Japanese automotive company. At age 27, his first novel won the prestigious Edogawa Rampo Award and he started to write professionally. Since then, he has written more than 60 novels and short story collections, many of which have won awards or have been turned into films or TV series. In the West, he is primarily known as a writer of detective fiction.
The Devotion of Suspect X
Ishigami lives next door of Yasuko, with whom he is secretly in love – not that she will ever find that out, of course. However, when Yasuko’s abusive ex-husband Togashi shows up at her apartment and in an unexpected outburst of violence is killed by her, Ishigami senses his chance and offers his help. A body found at the old Edogawa river is quickly identified as Shinji Togashi. Naturally, his ex-wife is questioned, but her alibi is sound. Somehow, detective Kusanagi of Tokyo Police is not satisfied, however, and he turns – yet again – to his friend Prof. Yukawa for assistance.
In a strange coincidence, it turns out that Yukawa and Ishigami were classmates at University; the former a gifted experimental physicist, the latter a genius mathematician. Soon, solving the murder case changes into a battle of minds and wits, and there can only be one to answer the question: “Which is harder: devising an unsolvable problem, or solving that problem?”
This is perfect light reading for summer time. While Yasuko has commited murder, it was done in self defence, and one cannot help pitying her throughout, especially when Ishigami starts weaving his web. Ishigami, the shrewd teacher of mathematics, is in fact the main and most interesting character, who devises a cunning plan to help Yasuko and from then on pulls the strings from the back. I could not even guess at the solution of the mystery, and when it comes on the last few pages it arrives as a shocking surprise.
Get The Devotion of Suspect X from amazon – and have fun!
A Midsummer’s Equation
Hari Cove is a sleepy resort town that has seen better days. The most exciting thing happening at the moment is the plan for underwater mining just off the coast, which has divided the people still living there and has brought physicist Prof. Yukawa to the town. But then, after one of the mining company’s meetings, a man is found dead and is later declared murdered. He turns out to have been a retired policeman from Tokyo, and thus Yukawa is drawn into the case. He finds himself unveiling a well-kept secret and, against his usual inclinations, must consider protecting the guilty – not just of this crime, but of another one from many years before…
Another first class crime novel by Higashino. I loved the twists and turns that brought me from Hari Cove to Tokyo and back again, and back and forth in time for more than 20 years. As usual in a Higashino novel, what really happened is only revealed on the last few pages and comes as a surprise. However, when reading the novel carefully (or a second time), you cannot help wonder if Yukawa hadn’t figured out everything right from the start already.
Keigo Higashino was born 1958 in Osaka and started writing while still working as an engineer for a Japanese automotive company. Already his first novel won the prestigious Edogawa Rampo Award and he was able to write professionally. Since then he has written more than 60 novels and collections of short stories, his books have been made into movies and TV series, and he has won many more awards, mostly for his crime fiction.
If you’re keen on solving a Midsummer’s Equation in your own holidays – it’s available on amazon.
Salvation of a Saint
Yoshitaka Mashiba is found dead in his livingroom. Soon it is clear that he was poisoned by arsenic in in coffee, and when it transpires that he had an affair with his wife’s assistant, the prime suspect is logical: Yoshitaka’s wife Ayane. But since she had spent that weekend in Hokkaido with her parents, she could not have committed the crime, could she? Detective Kusanagi is convinced of her innocence and tries to find another suspect, but his young assistant Utsumi is not so sure. And when she sees that Kusanagi is falling for Ayane, she must be ready to call on an outsider to prove her suspicions and solve the case.
This is another of Higashino’s crime novels featuring detective Kusanagi and his old friend Prof. Yukawa. Although not on speaking terms at the moment, Yukawa is intrigued by the ostensibly perfect crime that has been committed and agrees to help. Once again, the solution comes at the very end and with a twist that is completely unexpected and touches the reader to the core.
Salvation of a Saint is available on amazon – enjoy!
Yasushi Inoue (1907 – 1991) was born in Hokkaido and studied history and art at Kyoto University. He started writing very late, and his first short stories were published in 1949; they won him the Akutagawa Prize one year later. In the 40 years until his death, he was one of the most prolific writers of Japan, he published many short stories, but also full size novels. He is most famous for his accurate historical fiction and is still one of the most read Japanese authors in Germany.
The Hunting Gun
A man who calls himself Josuke Misugi recognizes himself as the figure described in a poem published in a hunting magazine. He writes to the poet and sends him three letters he had received from the three most important women in his life.
Saiko, Josuke’s wife, found out the identity of his long-term lover, and now wants a divorce. In a matter-of-fact way she not only tells him what she has chosen from their property, but also that she had been unfaithful as well for years.
Midori, Josuke’s lover and cousin of Saiko, has been sick for a long time. When Saiko finds out about the affair with her husband, Midori is ready to put a long intended plan into action. She writes a last letter to Josuke and then poisons herself.
Shoko, Midori’s daughter, finds her mother’s diary and is shocked to learn about the affair. Finding it hard to deal with it, she decides to end all contact with both Josuke and Midori.
The three letters tell the story of not only the three women’s, but also of Josuke’s life, and the only things we hear about him are seen from their perspective. The main themes of the novel are love and loneliness, and how the former may lead to the latter.
Of the four people involved, I mostly felt for Shoko. Finding her mother’s diary and seeing how she had suffered emotionally for so long, almost leads to Shoko’s own breakdown. Shoko’s letter feels the most distressing of the three, her new and thus still raw feelings are expressed beautifully and perfectly by the author.
The Hunting Gun is available from amazon.
The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan
Takeda Shingen is the daimyo of Kai province in central Japan and one of the greatest warriors of the Sengoku period. This book tells his story as seen through the eyes of Kansuke Yamamoto, one of Shingen’s 24 generals. The crippled, disfigured Kansuke is an excellent swordsman and a brilliant strategist, and his shrewd ideas win many a battle for his master.
Not only the men are scheming in this period though, the women are their equals, and sometimes even their betters. Princess Yuu, who wanted to kill herself upon her father’s defeat, becomes Shingen’s concubine, and, through a number of open and hidden plots, she secures the succession of her son as Shingen’s heir.
In the end, Kansuke dies in the battle of Kawanajima in what would turn out to be his greatest victory. Shingen himself however, is ultimately killed by the armies supporting Oda Nobunaga, one of the major players of unification of Japan.
Takeda Harunobu, 1521 – 1573, later named Shingen, was one of the strongest warriors in the Sengoku period, a time of uproar and fighting throughout Japan. The shogunate was very weak at that time, and the hierarchical order broke down, so that anyone who had the power and ability could aspire to lead and rise through the ranks. The banner Shingen carried in his campaigns bore the four characters fu-rin-ka-zan from Sun Tsu’s “The Art of War”, which can be translated as: Be as swift as the wind, as silent as the wood, attack as fiercely as fire, be as composed as the mountain.
The book starts shortly before Yamamoto Kansuke entered Shingen’s services and ends with his death on the battlefield. The main focus lies on the battles that Shingen fought with Kansuke’s help, but we also get some insight into the daily lives of the people of this period. Interesting to see is how Shingen keeps acquiring women as concubines for his pleasure – very much to the dismay of Kansuke, who is very devoted to Princess Yuu, maybe even more so than to Shingen.
Yasushi Inoue (1907 – 1991) was known as the master of historical fiction in Japan. Before becoming an author, he worked as a journalist, and already his first novel Togyu (A Bullfight) received the renowned Akutagawa prize.
If you’re interested in historical fiction, this book is for you – of course available on amazon.
Kazuo Ishiguro (1954) was born in Nagasaki, but moved to Great Britain when he was five, and became a British citizen in 1982. He has a degree in creative writing and is one of the most celebrated contemporary English writers. In 2017, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I was not sure whether to put him into the Japanese writers category, but at least one of my Japanese friends says that of the modern writers, his style is probably the most Japanese of all of them.
Never Let me Go
Kathy is 31 years old, and for the third time her life is about to change drastically: By the end of the year she will not be a carer anymore. So, this is the perfect time to revisit and reminiscence on her life.
The first part of it she spent in the English country side, in the boarding school Hailsham, where she lived from her earliest childhood. There she is one corner of a triangle of friendship comprising also Ruth and Tommy. While Kathy is the most reserved one, Ruth is outspoken and bold and Tommy struggles violently with his lack of creativity.
When school ends the three of them are sent to the “cottages”, an old farm a group of former students from different schools have to maintain. It is kind of intermediate station on the way to adulthood, which Kathy must leave first, leaving Ruth and Tommy, now a couple, behind.
Only years later, when Tommy and Ruth have both become donors, the three see each other again and together they try to at least delay the inevitable…
To be honest, the book itself does not have anything to do with Japan: It is set in the English country side, and we follow typical British kids coming of age in a Western world. And still, in the way many things about this dystopian world are always present but hardly mentioned, the writing is highly influenced by Japanese culture, where everybody is supposed to know things that remain ever unspoken. At the denouement in the end, when everything falls into place and yet no real explanation is given, you feel like a part of Ishiguro’s world.
So, judge for yourself if Ishiguro should be called a Japanese writer. You can get Never Let Me Go from amazon
An Artist of the Floating World
It’s just after WWII and Masuji Ono, a celebrated painter, is in the middle of marriage negotiations for his daughter Noriko. The procedures disrupt his quiet retiree life full with gardening, making house repairs and drinking with old friends in the local pleasure district – now all but abandoned. To secure a positive outcome for his daughter, Masuji is forced to revisit his past – both figuratively and literally in the form of old acquaintances from before the war, and not all of this is as pleasant as he might have wished.
We follow Masuji Ono from 1948 to 1950, in which Japan makes a rapid jump towards industrialisation, American style. While Masuji is more and more ready to accept responsibility for his past actions of glorifying the war through his art, it appears that the views of his surroundings take the opposite direction, as they are striving to let go of the past and look toward the future.
WWII is still a sensitive topic in Japan, and not readily talked about. Also in school, many parts of the war that are less than pretty are left out deliberately or are heavily censored and sanitised. I found Ishiguro’s view from the outside in – as an Englishman with Japanese roots – very interesting and enlightening.
Try out An Artist of the Floating World, an early novel by Ishiguro on amazon.
Tomotake Ishikawa, born in 1985, works in an office as a salaryman like millions of other Japanese. He writes in his spare time and on commutes. In 2011, his debut novel Gray Men won the Grand Prize of the second annual Golden Elephant Award, an open literature award for full-length novels written in Japanese.
Ryotaro has had enough of the relentless bullying at his workplace. As he is sitting on a park bench ready to commit suicide, a mysterious man in a gray suit sits down next to him, claims to be able to see what Ryotaro is up to and convinces him otherwise. After Ryotaro has helped the man with a jewellery heist in broad daylight, he is introduced to other people who were saved from the brink of death. Together, they are ready to implement and even die for Gray’s plan to destroy the current rule of the One Percent and to give power back to the disenfranchised of society.
This is an extraordinary thriller I found hard to put down. The things the rich and powerful do – and get away with – are depicted in gory detail at times. And when at the end push comes to shove and Gray threatens to take it all away from them, you see the real lengths they are willing to go through to protect who they are and what they have. You are left wondering how far fiction goes and what might really go on behind those expensive facades.
If you’re in for a quick read (that is a bit disturbing at times), Gray Men is available at amazon.
Hiromi Kawakami (1958), born in Tokyo, studied science, taught biology, and wrote short sci-fi stories before her first book was published in 1994. She counts among the most popular authors of Japan. This book received the Tanizaki Prize in 2001, and has been made into a movie.
Tsukiko is a 38-year old office lady in an undistinguished Japanese company, leading an average life. One evening, as Tsukiko orders her dinner at a small bar, she is addressed by the old man next to her. Surprised at the approach, she finally recognizes him as her teacher of Japanese literature from high school. From that evening on, they keep meeting each other – always unplanned – and marvel about how similar they are. Sensei and Tsukiko like the same food and drinks and eat the same snacks to their sake. After a while, they begin to meet on purpose, for short little trips to the local market or to the high school reunion. Their feelings for each other and the perceived unlawfulness of them leads to internal struggles for both. Will they overcome their fears and stop hiding their feelings?
This is a wonderful love story between two soul mates who struggle not only to overcome an age difference of 30 years, but also their own perceptions of what an “appropriate” relationship should look like.
If you want to find out whether Tsukiko and her sensei get together at the end, get the book from amazon!
Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972), born in Osaka, was one of the most renowned Japanese writers and the first Japanese to win the Nobel prize in Literature, in 1968. Orphaned at four, he lived with various family members before moving to a boarding house at the age of 17. He started to study English literature, but soon became known as a writer in the early 1920s and quickly rose to fame. Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for literature as the first Japanese in 1968, and died four years later under unclear circumstances – most people consider his death a suicide though. He considered The Master of Go his finest novel.
Beauty and Sadness
It is New Year’s Eve and Toshio Oki is on his way to Kyoto to hear the temple bells ring in the New Year. He is also about to meet his mistress of 24 years ago, Otoko Ueno, whom he hadn’t seen since he left her. Otoko, now a famous painter, unsure about his intentions, comes to the meeting with her young protegé Keiko.
While Otoko has forgiven Toshio all the pain he caused so long ago, Keiko, knowing the story behind the old lovers, is furious about it and is ready to take revenge on him and his family in Otoko’s name. So, Keiko sets out, using her beauty and cunning to ensnare both Toshio and his son Taichiro in her dangerous web. In the end, her plans prove to be deadly effective…
In this novel four completely different characters meet and eventually clash: Oki, whose affair with the only 15-year-old Otoko was the basis of his literary career, and who wants to reminiscence on the past without giving up his present. Otoko, however, who had to start over in Kyoto after he had left her, is content where she is now and prefers to look forward. Keiko, in love with Otoko, is ready to do anything to get the revenge she thinks Otoko wants and deserves. And Taichiro is fascinated by Keiko, but is unsure how to proceed. In the end, only Keiko’s determination is strong enough to get her what she wants – and the others can only stand in awe at the distruction her strong will causes.
This is the perfect book to read over New Year, with Kyoto’s temple bells ringing in the background! Even if you’re not in Kyoto, you can still get in the mood by buying this book from amazon.
The Master of Go
The Master of Go describes a single match of Go between the old master Honinbo Shusei and the young Otake of Seventh Rank. We follow the game from the single first stone played on June 26th to the final counting of the score on December 4th. While the novel’s main theme is the match, its focus lies on the characters of the players, especially the master’s. We hear about the reverence he expects (and receives) and how he is able to fully immerse himself in the play, forgetting everything else. During the recesses, however, he appears more human and his illness, which will lead to a 3 month interruption of the game, comes to the fore.
The Master of Go is a somewhat fictionalized account of the last match of Honinbo Shusei against Minoru Kitani, where Kawabata was present as reporter for a newspaper. The novel is often seen as an homage to the courteous Old Japan, that must make place – involuntarily but inevitably – for the formal New Japan, where strict regulations take the place of the ingrained behaviour of old. The match itself is legendary and is still used for teaching Go.
Now that computers have finally managed to learn how to play Go, I found it interesting that the book describes a similar culture clash between the retiring master and the young player. Both their characters, their backgrounds, and their dealing with problems on and off the Go board are described in great detail and bring to life what might otherwise have been nothing more than sports commentary.
The Old Capital (Koto)
Chieko is an adopted child, found one winter morning on the doorstep of Takichiro and Shige. Now Chieko is 20 and settled into the life and routines of a kimono wholesaler’s in Kyoto’s Nishijin area. But on a visit to a shrine during Gion festival, a young girl she has never seen before excitedly begins a conversation with her. It is Chieko’s twin sister Naeko who was raised by a poor family in Kitayama after the death of both their parents. Their unexpected meeting brings inner turmoil and outward complications to both sisters. But also the obi weaver Hideo, Chieko’s childhood friend, must choose between the two.
The book is set in Kyoto in the 1950s, and it provides interesting insights into the life of that time, where many people still wore traditional kimono when riding the modern tramway. What I found particularly interesting was the rigid class distinctions that existed between the girls, and which especially Naeko could not overcome – she keeps calling her sister “Miss” throughout the novel. In typical Japanese manner the ending is left open, but as Naeko departs from Chieko one still hopes for a happy ending for both sisters.
Koto was one of only three cited by the Nobel committee for their decision to award Kawabata the Nobel Prize in 1968 – and that although the first (official?) translation into English was published only in 1987.
You can get The Old Capital on amazon – have fun!
Natsuo Kirino (1951) is the pen name of Mariko Hashioka. She earned a law degree in 1974 and dabbled in different kinds of jobs before starting to write about 10 years later. At first, she wrote romances for women, but as this genre is not very popular in Japan, she turned to mysteries. Although she is very successful as a mystery writer, and even received the renowned Naoki Prize for fiction, she says that she does not like to read mysteries herself. For The Goddess Chronicle, she received the 2009 Murasaki Shikibu Prize for Literature.
The Goddess Chronicle
16-year-old Namima has just – against her will – been ordained to become the priestess of darkness on a tiny island called Umihebi. Obviously not content with her lot of living on the cemetary and watching the dead for the rest of her life, she flees with Mahito, her secret lover, who is just as outcast from the island’s society as she is. But when Namima gives birth to their child, she is killed by Mahito, who returns to Umihebi with their daughter. Meanwhile, Namima descends to the netherworld, where, grief-stricken, she becomes a priestess of Isanami, the powerful goddess of Death. Will the goddess allow Namima to return to the world of the living to seek closure – or maybe even revenge?
This is a beautifully tragic story about what women are often expected to bear under the name of tradition, or religion, or simply because they are considered “the weaker sex”. And even so, the women are the important and strong characters here, both in life and in death.
I love this book, I keep coming back to it ever so often. The story of Namima – the parts about the priestess of darkness on Umihebi – is based on ancient Okinawan traditions; whereas Izanami and Izanaki are the two gods who – according to the Kojiki – once created Japan. The stories are masterfully interwoven although totally different – and still they have something in common: the female Namima/Izanami has to suffer death, while the male Mahito/Izanagi lives happily ever after – until something unexpected happens…
Find out for yourself what happens to Namima and Mahito and if there is a happy ending after all: get the book from amazon.
Sakyo Komatsu (1931 – 2011) was a Japanese screenwriter and considered one of the Japanese masters of science fiction. Born in Osaka, he studied Italian literature at Kyoto University and worked at a number of different jobs afterwards. His career as fiction writer started in 1960, and he published his most famous novel Japan Sinks in 1973 after nine years of writing.
In a single night, a tiny, unnamed island of Japan sinks into the ocean and disappears forever. Nearby, long dormant volcanoes erupt again, one by one, And an inspection of the ocean’s floor at a depth of some 10.000 metres discovers signs of strange, almost inexplicable phenomena. Only Prof. Tadokoro has an idea of what’s going on: Japan – every last one of its islands – will sink into the ocean, destroyed by the same force that once has created it by splitting it off Asia. When evidence mounts that Day X is not more than two years away, there begins a frantic struggle of scientists and the government to make sure the nation of Japan and its people have some way of surviving.
This book does not focus on the disastrous effects of almost constant earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on the Japanese citizens, but a sense of terror and urgency is conveyed throughout. Instead, we follow a handful of scientists and politicians in producing evacuation plans, fully understanding that the death toll will rise to the hundreds of thousands regardless. A touching scene is a secret meeting with the Australian prime minister, who is presented with a priceless, 800 year old artifact while being asked to consider accepting one million Japanese refugees. “Our shrines and temples are full of such statues”, says the negotiator.
Even though the book was written back in 1973, it does not show its age. Written in a realistic manner without sensationalist effects, it brings up a number of timeless, interesting questions: What is a “nation” and how important is the actual land on which it was founded? What are the indispensable parts of a culture and how many – and which – artifacts should you try to save facing certain destruction? And how many people are required in one spot to make sure said culture is not doomed altogether?
For more questions, and possibly, a few answers as well, buy Japan Sinks on amazon.
Haruki Murakami (1949) is probably the best known contemporary Japanese author. Born in Kyoto, he studied drama in Tokyo and afterwards managed Jazz club in Tokyo. After a kind of epiphany at age 29, he started writing, and has since become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide. Even though many Japanese critics don’t like his work because they see it as “too Western”, he has won many prizes in Japan as well as abroad.
The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage
Tsukuru Tazaki is an engineer in Tokyo who is living his dream: building railway stations. Recently he started to see Sara, a travel agent, and as they get closer, Tsukuru opens up and tells her a secret: 16 years ago, when he was a student in Tokyo, the tight-knit group of friends he belonged to in highschool abruptly and without explanation cut off all ties to him. Sara urges him to find closure, and he agrees to visit his four friends in Nagoya and get to the bottom of the issue. Tsukuru returns to his old world of friendship, dominated by unwritten obligations to protect the weakest member under all circumstances…
The novel’s title is an allusion to the names of the five friends: All except Tsukuru’s last name contain a color: red, blue, white, black. Haruki Murakami draws an image of deep friendship among the five highschool students which is destroyed forever on outcasting one of them, who, for lack of understanding, is himself reduced to utter despair that lasts for years.
If you haven’t read The Colorless Tsukuru Tasaki yet, get it from amazon.
South of the Border, West of the Sun
12-year-old Hajime lives in the typical middle class suburbs of a typical post-war Japanese town, in a typical family among other, typical Japanese families. However, in a world where everybody seems to have brothers and sisters, he is an only child. In elementary school, the only friend he has is Shimamoto, new in town, whose father’s job requires her family to move frequently. Soon, the two develop a special bond, based on the fact that both are only children; but despite their attachment they lose touch when Hajime’s family moves.
25 years later, Hajime is a successful businessman in Tokyo, who loves his wife and adores his two daughters. But then, on a rainy night, Shimamoto appears in his Jazz bar, strikingly beautiful, rich, and surrounded by a mysterious air. The two rekindle their friendship, almost as had there been no interruption, and finally, Shimamoto tells him “You take either all of me or nothing”, and Hajime has to choose between his soul mate and the life he got so used to.
The story follows Hajime – whose name means “beginning” – through many of the beginnings in his life, but the special bond he formed with Shimamoto is never broken. And when she reappears all of a sudden and gives him one more chance to start afresh – isn’t that an opportunity we’d all like to have?
Get South of the Border, West of the Sun from amazon and see if you agree with Hajime’s final decision.
Ryu Murakami (1952) is the enfant terrible of Japanese authors. He started his artistic career as a member of a number of bands, before he moved on to film and eventually writing books. His first book was written when he was still in high school, immediately winning him the acclaimed Akutagawa Prize for fiction, and becoming a best seller in Japan. Most of his works center around the dark side of humanity, they describe sex, violence, drug use, and the abysses of the human soul in general very graphically, and are not for the faint of heart, so be warned!
It’s been six years since Ryoko’s death, but Aoyama is not even dreaming of dating, lest marrying again. Only when his teenage son, Shige, starts urging him to find a new wife, is he willing to give it a try.
When Aoyama tells his friend Yoshikawa about his plans, film director Yoshikawa is all ears and sets up an audition to find his friend not just any, but the perfect wife. The whole scheme is skillfully disguised as the well-publicized search for the main female character in an upcoming movie. Of the thousands of applicants, young Asami captures Aoyama’s heart at first sight, and they soon begin dating, despite Yoshikawa’s warnings, who feels that there is something wrong about her.
And indeed, at first, everything seems perfect, but how far is Asami – in her desire for love, undivided one, that is – willing to go?
I have read a few of Ryu Murakami’s novels, and this one is an easy introduction to his works. The book starts out with a desperate man trying to find love again – and succeeding quickly, to his great delight. Soon, however, a feeling of danger is creeping into the story, and the finale – very typical for Ryu Murakami – is drowning in blood…
If you dare taking part in this Audition – get the book from amazon!
Keiji Nakazawa (1939 – 2012), manga artist and writer, was born in Hiroshima and survived the atomic bomb attack together with his mother. He moved to Tokyo in 1961, and started to write about his experiences in Hiroshima after the death of his mother in 1966. Barefoot Gen is considered his masterpiece; it was turned into animated as well as live action movies and was translated into many languages. Nakazawa died in 2012 from metastasized lung cancer.
Barefoot Gen (A manga)
Gen Nakaoka is a boy from Hiroshima. He is six years old and goes to school where he has friends – and foes, of course. Gen is a normal but a bit mischievous boy and sometimes gets himself and his poor parents in trouble. Following Gen and his family through the early summer, this could be a nice kid’s book.
But it isn’t. It is the summer of 1945, and the Japanese troops fight all over the Pacific islands. Gen is excited about the war efforts – other than his father – and he cheers when his big brother goes off to join the Navy – other than his father.
And then, on August 6, 1945, the US air force drops an Atomic Bomb onto Hiroshima. Thousands are killed in an instant, and although Gen and his mother survive, they cannot save his father and younger siblings, who are trapped beneath their house and die in the subsequent fire. From there, we follow Gen, his mother and his baby sister, born only hours after the bomb fell, through Hiroshima where they meet other survivors who just try to figure out what’s next…
Barefoot Gen is a series of manga that describe – in a very graphic way – the life of an average Japanese family until the atomic bomb attack and the horrifying aftermath including the American occupation until about 1947. First published as magazine serial from 1973, Barefoot Gen was published in book form from 1975. There are 10 volumes altogether.
Check out the manga Barefoot Get – or better, the whole series – from amazon
Soseki Natsume (1867 – 1916) is considered the best writer of Japanese (modern) history, and he is still widely read today. He was born just before the Meiji Restoration in Tokyo and studied English literature from 1890. He spent two years in England, which he thoroughly disliked, and when he returned to Japan in 1903, he started publishing his works. I am a Cat was among his first published books, and is considered a masterpiece.
I am a Cat
The cat in question, which has not been named, lives in the house of a schoolteacher, Mr. Sneaze, a somewhat stingy and definitely dyspeptic man with a wife and three children. As soon as the cat arrives at this household, it begins to quietly observe his master and the friends that come to visit: Mainly Coldmoon, a former student of his master and now looking for a wife, and the rich Waverhouse telling his stories, whether true or false, and a number of others. The cat is always there, occasionally taking matters in his own paws, but mostly observing from the background and commenting on the three men and the things that happen to and around them.
The cat’s observations are pointed and witty, sometimes scathing, and always come from a somewhat aloof position. This way, the reader is presented with an interesting picture of humanity in general, and those living in Tokyo of the Meiji period in particular, where Western influences creep into Japanese culture and make for an especially interesting mix.
I am not entirely sure what to think of this book, and I have read it twice now. It has been written as a series of short stories that appeared in a magazine. The first story is hilarious, and its success prompted the author to write more stories about the nameless cat. The stories can stand alone, but there is a common arc throughout, which would have been better if the book had been planned as such from the outset, I think. And towards the end of the book, the cat (or rather: the author) loses himself in long and rambling philosophical meanderings, which are sometimes hard to follow.
Get I am a Cat from amazon and let me know what you think!
Kenzaburo Oe (1935) was born in a small village on Shikoku. When he was 19, he started to study French Literature at Tokyo University, and in 1957 he began publishing his own stories. In 1994 Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as the second Japanese after Kawabata. He is still writing and he has become very active in pacifistic and anti-nuclear movements.
Death by Water
Kogito Choko, renowned Japanese writer with dozens of literary awards to his name (including the Nobel Prize) is suffering from writer’s block. Suddenly his sister calls, offering him access to an old red trunk that is known to hold documents and letters of their father, who drowned when Kogito was a small boy. Excited to finally be able to finish the “Drowning Novel” about his father that he had begun decades earlier (to the dismay of his mother), Kogito decides to visit their old family home in Shikoku and to write what he believes will be his final novel – and his masterpiece.
The disappointment starts when the red trunk turns out to be devoid of anything useful – his mother had destroyed every important letter before her own death. Only at the end, with the reappearance of an old family friend, things seem to look up again…
This is a very, very slow book with lots going on that does not drive the plot forward. There is an amateur theatre group who wants to stage all of Choko’s novels, and a lot of time and space is devoted to them. The parts where Choko has troubles connecting with his disabled son – obviously autobiographic – are touching, but add to the feeling of “where is this going?”
Anyway, Oe didn’t get the Nobelprize for nothing, so if you are more the literary type, judge for yourself and buy your own copy of Death by Water from amazon.
At 8:15 in the morning of August 6th 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, immediately killing about 100.000 people. Twenty years later, from 1963 to 1965, journalist and writer Kenzaburo Oe travelled multiple times to Hiroshima where he visited hospitals, talked to survivors, and witnessed first hand the ongoing struggle of all Hiroshima people to deal with the aftermath of the bombing. Hiroshima notes consists of seven essays written in these two years. Oe talks about such divers topics as the fighting between different Japanese charities dedicated to help the victims; the marginalisation of the survivors suffering from radiation sickness; their own shame and guilt of being sick; but also the dignity these people are exhibiting regardless, up to their very last days.
This book is one of the few where a Japanese view on the Hiroshima bombings is exhibited, and with only 20 years after the facts it is a relatively early account. Although Oe should be one to understand the sentiments of the people he is talking to, one can feel that he is struggling greatly with what he hears and how he should interpret it, how he should make sense of it all. It is not an easy book to read, especially for somebody who is not familiar with Japanese culture, but still, if you are ready to delve into a book that will certainly provoke mixed feelings, it is worth it.
Check out Hiroshima Notes on amazon.
When Hirotada Ototake (1976) was born, he was one of only seven people worldwide with tetra-amelia syndrome. Throughout his life he insisted on leading a normal life as much as possible despite his handicap. He worked as a schoolteacher, TV presenter, speaker, writer, and presently lives in Tokyo.
No One’s Perfect
In Japan, everything has to be just perfect, so there are rules for everything: How deep to bow, how to answer the phone, how to dress, in short, how to live. Everything has to be just so, and not any other way, and if you dare to be different, you practically make yourself an outcast.
Hiro is most certainly not perfect. He was born with tetra-amelia syndrome, a gene-defect that left him without arms and legs. But he is no outcast. The first thing his mother says to him when she first sees him – three weeks after his birth and hitherto unaware of his condition – is “He’s adorable”, and Hiro takes it from there.
He visits normal schools and tries to do what other kids do, and his favourite subject is PE, where he signs up for basket ball, runs laps, and takes part in the sport meetings like all the other kids. He is always outspoken about what he wants and often ends up as the leader of various groups. Only when at university, he decides to do what no one else can do: campaign for a barrier-free world. And this is what he is still doing today.
This book is a fascinating read, because Hiro focuses on what he can do instead of what he cannot do. It is very uplifting to see him so determined, so positive throughout his life. Only a single chapter of the book deals with the difficulties he must be facing every single day, like not having wheelchair access, or not being able to buy a coffee from a vending machine. But he seems to take all this in his stride, and when you read the book you have the impression he lives a life as perfect as can be…
No One’s Perfect is a very inspiring and uplifting book, available on amazon.
Junichi Saga (1941) is a doctor in Tsuchiura, a little town northeast of Tokyo. He writes chiefly about the lives of his patients. Besides this biography of the head of a yakuza family, he has written a few other books, among them Memories of Silk and Straw, which was voted Best Book of the Year by the Foreign Press of Japan.
Confessions of a Yakuza
Junichi Saga is a doctor in a town near Tokyo. One winter’s day, an old man comes to his practice, asking for treatment, and a few weeks afterwards, the doctor is invited to Ijichi Eiji’s home, where he begins to tell about his life.
And what a life it was: born in the countryside in the early ears of the 20th century, he finds himself in Tokyo as a teenager and works at a coal-, later at a timber merchant. In 1924, the year after the great Kanto earthquake, Eiji gets to know a local yakuza boss who takes him into his rank and file, and from there, nothing is ever the same. We hear about the internal workings of the gambling places – the only business a respectable yakuza would do at that time – how the system of yakuza brotherhood works, and how to rise in their ranks. We also hear about Eiji’s three times in prison – twice innocently, once for murder – about his short stint in the army, and about his often unlucky dealings with women.
I picked up this book at an airport or other, probably because of the title promising a real-life crime mystery or something like that. The book is nothing like that. Not that Ijichi Eiji’s business was not criminal, but there were no big yakuza wars or standoffs with guns; instead, we hear about a life on the fringes of Japanese society in the first half of the 20th century. As such, I wouldn’t call the book “exciting”, but the story is interesting and worthy of being told.
If you’re interested in the Confessions of a Yakuza, get this book from amazon!
Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973 or 978 – c. 1014 or 1031) was a Japanese novelist and lady-in-waiting at the imperial court of the Heian period. She is best known as the author of The Tale of Genji, written between about 1000 and 1012. Murasaki Shikibu is not her real name, but has been taken from one of the main characters in the novel.
The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari)
He is the son of the emperor’s favourite concubine. As such, he is too far down in the line of succession to every ascend to the throne, so his father removes him completely by making him a commoner and bestowing the name “Genji” onto him. Genji is nevertheless raised in the palace and is almost unanimously loved at court. Growing up, he shows many talents in writing poetry, calligraphy, music, and in charming women of all ranks. His numerous conquests get him banned from court twice. Twice does he have to settle in a remote area, twice even there women fall for his charms, and twice is he reinstated at court after a while. Genji is a lovable character, and although a womanizer, he always takes care of his lovers in one way or the other, even after the end of their relationship. Only the lady Murasaki (meaning purple) can capture his affections throughout her life, and Genji is heartbroken at her death and dies soon afterwards.
Genji Monogatari can be called a biography of a Japanese courtier of the 10th century. Although fictional, it depicts court life in great detail: its intricate politeness (never use personal names), its unbelievable etiquette (unrelated men and women are always separated by screens), and its numerous festivals and ceremonies. The Tale of Genji is considered the earliest and finest example of Japanese literature.
I found Genji Monogatari a worthwhile book, but rather difficult to read, it took me about three months. There is not much going on, it is a biography after all, but the immense number of characters, most of which are never referred to by name, but rather by their ever changing ranks at court, makes the story difficult to follow at times. I have read the unabridged 2001 translation by Royall Tyler with lots of footnotes that help understand the implicit intricacies of the time.
If you have patience for a really, really long book, The Tale of Genji is available on amazon in a number of different translations.
Sei Shonagon (c. 966–1017/1025) was a court lady on the Heian court in Japan at about 970 – 1020. She began writing The Pillow Book when she received a book of fine writing paper as a gift, and her diary ends when the paper was used up. Her little vignettes tell of a time long gone and of strange customs that even at her time only a few people were privy to.
The Pillow Book
The Pillow Book is hard to describe. It is an ancient diary, not a novel, so there is not much plot. The entries are undated and although there are references to this or the other festival in this or the other season, it is hard to get a feeling of the flow of time. On the other hand, the little entries tell of a time and place so strange, that whatever moved the writer at her time seems to come from an entirely different universe and sounds like fiction after all. The individual entries talk about the routines of daily court life, interesting outings to festivals, and there is gossip of course, about friends, foes, and lovers alike.
The book is very strange, and every time I read it, I feel differently about it. Her stories, although they seem trivial at times – as diary entries are bound to be – still have an eerie way of drawing you in. I don’t know much about the customs of that time, but I wonder what people with a better understanding of them think about The Pillow Book.
Go find out for yourself and get your copy from amazon!
Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965), born in Tokyo, was one of the most popular modern writers of Japan. He began his literary career in 1909, and only a year later, he was well-known in literary circles. Many of his writings have sexuality and desire as their focus. In 1923, when he moved to Kyoto after the great Kanto Earthquake that destroyed great parts of Tokyo and Yokohama, his career was boosted to new heights, and after WWII, he was regarded as Japan’s greatest contemporary author. In 1949, he won the Asahi Prize and was awarded the Japanese Order of Culture, and in 1964, he was elected as honorary member in the merican Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, as the first Japanese writer. He died of a heart attack shortly before his 79th birthday.
Interested in spicing up your own marriage? Well, have a look what Tanizaki is doing here and get the book from amazon!
This is not the case for an elderly professor and his attractive young wife. Their married life has become dull and although they would never openly admit this to each other, they cannot suppress their desires for ever. So, each of them starts a diary to write about the things they cannot say openly. Although they carefully hide the books, they do expect the other to find and read it. The diaries, mutually read, soon provide the key to spice up their marriage, but things become rather complicated when Kimura, a young colleague of the professor’s arrives on the scene and arouses not only the daughter of the house but also the wife.
We read the entries of both diaries and follow the story of love and jealousy, sexual desires and their fulfillment. Both partners play their respective games, innocent in their talking, but highly dangerous in their writings. In the end the fire of their lust is all-consuming – was this what they wanted all along?
An interesting book, almost a psychological study. If you know something about your partner you shouldn’t know – how do you deal with it? Confront him openly? Get what you want – or what he wants – by sly manipulations? The end of the book comes with a shocking confession and nothing is what it seems…
Various Japanese Authors
The book below is a collection of writings by various Japanese authors on the 2011 Fukushima catastrophe.
March was made of Yarn
My personal favourite is “lulu” by Shinji Ishii: Lulu is a little dog that sneaked into one of the numerous shelters for orphaned children that were established after the quake. In the night, she sees mysterious, ghost-like women, who, coming down amidst a shining light from the ceiling, comfort the sleeping children. All of them, except five, who seem too wrapped up in darkness for the women to notice. So, Lulu decides to comfort these children on her own, in the only way she knows – the way of a dog…
Another story I enjoyed, although it is much darker, is “Grandma’s Bible” by Natsuki Ikezawa, where a man called Kimura tells his story to a rescue team: Though born in Matsubetsu, he lives in Tokyo, but has an offer to move to Arizona for business, which he is going to accept. Wishing to travel light, he packs his most valuable belongings into a trunk and sends it to his brother, still in Matsubetsu, for safekeeping. However, during the scheduled delivery, the tsunami comes and wipes out the little village, and Kimura now feels obliged to stay…
Note that not all of the stories talk about the tsunami or have a direct connection to it. The book is simply a collection of stories expressing the writer’s feelings at that time; in Japanese many things are left unspoken. A part of the proceeds will go towards disaster relief in Japan, and yes, even now in 2017, there are still charity events all over Japan for The Great Eastern Japan Earthquake.
If you feel like contributing, or if you’re simply interested in contemporary Japanese short stories, get March was made of Yarn from amazon.
Taichi Yamada (1934) was born in Tokyo province and studied literature before entering the Shochiku film studio. He left in 1965 to become a free screen writer, and some 30 of his scripts have won prizes in Japan. He has written mostly screen plays, but also a number of essay collections and novels.
I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While
Taura is shocked. The woman he had just spent the night with is 20 years his senior, and he already considers himself old at 48. Hidden behind the screen of the hospital room, both unable to move, they shared a night full of talk and erotic passion. When Mutsuko appears in Tokyo a few months later, Taura is surprised at her looks. Without timidity, Mutsuko tells him that she is getting younger, in painful attacks that can last for days. Taura, all but dumped by his entrepreneur wife and grown-up children, and transferred to the department for “special projects” in his company where he cannot do any harm, starts an affair with Mutsuko. She, aware of what her journey must inevitable lead to, attempts to live her newfound youth to the fullest, drawing Taura into a maelstrom of sex, adventure, and lies, that even gets him into prison for child abuse. And yet, he cannot let go of Mutsuko, and she keeps getting younger and younger…
The story is written from Taura’s perspective, and he tells it rather matter-of-factly, almost unemotionally. Except for Mutsuko’s reverse ageing, everything is realistic, but we also hear very early on about Taura’s mental instabilities. Is Mutsuko real, or does she just exist in Taura’s imagination?
What an interesting idea this story is! An old woman, at the end of her life, gets a chance to relive it and, literally, be young again. And this time she is prepared to live it to the fullest! Mutsuko’s affair with Taura seems to be the only thing that is stable in this new life of hers, and while at the beginning they meet irregularly, later on, when Mutsuko turns into a child, she must rely on him more and more.
You can get I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While at amazon – have fun!
Shuichi Yoshida (1968) was born in Nagasaki. He began writing at a young age and received the Bungakukai Prize for New Writers in 1997, and the prestigious Akutagawa prize in 2002. As of today, he has published 15 novels and 11 collections of short stories, however, only two of his novels have as yet been translated into English. Parade was his first novel, published in 2002 and translated in 2014.
In a small apartment in Tokyo live four young people in their twenties: Ryosuke, a student whose favourite pastime is to wash his car. Kotomi who faithfully waits in front of the telephone for her lover to call. Mirai, manager of an import company who spends her nights getting drunk in gay bars. Naoki, who works for a film distributor and goes running for stress release. Although they live together in rather cramped conditions with boys and girls sharing one bedroom respectively, each of them more or less remains to themselves.
Then Satoru is brought home by Mirai, and the 18-year old who “works in the night” stays on the couch in the livingroom. His sudden appearance promptly upsets the fragile balance of the roommates, and cracks begin to show…
The book is written in five parts – one from the viewpoint of each protagonist. Although the story stays chronological, this change of viewpoint makes it feel a bit fragmented. Also the fact that the four roommates are “good at playing friends” without actually being so – as Satoru observes – did not make me care for the characters or draw me into the story. And the end – a shocking revelation about one of the five, which was shrugged away and covered up by the others – left me very dissatisfied. Surely, this can’t be how young people live these days?
Parade is available on amazon – enjoy!
Akira Yoshimura (1927 – 2006) was a Japanese author who wrote more than 20 novels, some of which won prestigious Japanese literature prizes over the years. As a weakly child, he could start university only when he was 23. He quickly became the head of the literary circle there, where he met the group of Yukio Mishima. He published his first novel in 1958, and his life achievements for Japanese literature were crowned with the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun in 2006, the year of his death.
Finally, Isaku is 10 and thus considered an adult. He is the oldest son of a poor family in a fishers village where everybody is poor. Income is generated by selling fish – or you sell yourself into servitude, as Isakus father and many other villagers have done. During winter, when the weather is too stormy for fishing, salt is produced over large fires on the beach. This is done chiefly at night, in the hope that an Ofune-sama will arrive, a ship stranded on the sharp rocks, a special gift from the gods to support the villagers. One night, an Ofune-sama does arrive, but instead of the expected rice, the ship only carries dead people, dressed in expensive red garments. Is this Ofune-sama a blessing like the others, or a curse after all?
We follow Isaku through several years, while he tells the story of the village, his poor family and relations. We hear of his pride when charged with maintaining the salt fires at night, his relief when finally learning the intricate ways of catching saury, his plans for marrying the young Tami, and his grief at the death of his baby sister. The most exciting event in his life is the arrival of the Ofune-sama, it brings changes beyond his wildest dreams.
Would the book only describe the struggle of the villagers, it were uninteresting, too often have we read about such things, and we only need to turn on the TV for a modern take on the issue. But here, the Ofune-sama add another level, a level of deliberate deceit and cold hearted efficiency, which draws the villagers into a web of guilt they do not acknowledge until the price they are forced to pay becomes too high.
This very interesting book, Shipwrecks, is available from amazon.
BOOKS ABOUT JAPAN
The books listed below are various books about Japan or Japanese topics, travel guides, fiction set in Japan but written by Westerners etc. I have read a number of them too, mostly before I moved to Kyoto.
Isabella Lucy Bird
Isabella Lucy Bird (1831 – 1904) was an English explorer, writer, and naturalist. Isabella was frail from childhood, and since her doctors recommended an outdoors lifestyle, she learned riding from a young age. In 1854, Bird’s travelling life began with her first voyage to the US, and whenever she was abroad, she did not complain of any ailments. She travelled extensively in the Far East and the books she published were comprised of letters to her sister.
Unbeaten Tracks in Japan
The Meiji restoration in 1868 and the following opening of a country closed to outsiders for centuries sparked an enormous worldwide interest in all things Japanese. While the average Japanophile of the time was content with exported ceramics, kimono, art, or weapons, there were a handful that were not satisfied with second-hand accounts, but visited the country by themselves.
Isabella Lucy Bird was one of them. Already a seasoned traveller, she toured mostly the rural parts of Japan. Her trip of 1878 took her first from Tokyo to Nikko, and then all the way through the often hardly passable wilderness of the Japanese Alps to Aomori, the northernmost prefecture of Honshu. From there, she took a steamer to Yezo (Hokkaido), then a wild and untamed island inhabited by the native Ainu, a people of non-Japanese origin. Isabella travelled chiefly with man-pulled carts and on horseback, stayed at tiny local guesthouses where she – often grudgingly – had to eat the local fare, and was generally considered a major attraction for miles on end as the first white woman the local residents ever laid eyes upon.
Unbeaten Tracks in Japan is composed of letters she wrote to her sister, where she faithfully describes her impressions of the landscape and the Japanese and their strange customs. As a foreigner, she is often a special guest at various ceremonies or of high-ranking people, and especially her account of the Ainu and their long-lost customs holds many surprises even for modern Japanese.
I greatly enjoyed this book, it gives a glimpse into a Japan long forgotten, although some things still appear familiar. However, her writings are not at all politically correct, and she certainly never sugarcoats her opinions. She generally loves the countryside and is charmed by the children everywhere, but she despises the Japanese food she had to eat once her own provisions ran out, and she also views the Japanese adults unfavourably – she describes them as ugly, uncouth, and dirty, the last most likely because of their extreme poverty. Anyway, if you can see beyond her old-fashioned, almost missionary attitudes, the book is a great source for those interested in the really “old” Japan.
Unbeaten Tracks in Japan is available from amazon of course, and there are a number of different editions containing more or less letters (that’s how this book was published in the first place, actually). There is also a free e-book available from gutenberg.org, and, based on that edition, a free audio version from librivox.org.
Alan Booth (1946 – 1993) was born in London. Throughout his life, he was interested in theatre, and moved to Japan in 1970 to study Noh. There he soon began writing and wrote numerous articles and two books about his hikes through Japan. He died from colon cancer in 1993.
Looking for the Lost
The first journey “Tsugaru” describes Booth walking in the steps of Dazai Osamu, in a journey back to the writer’s home in Aomori prefecture in Northern Honshu. Dasai had walked there for three weeks and described his impressions in a book with the same name. The second journey follows “Saigo’s last march”, as Japanese hero and commander in the Satsuma rebellion, Saigo Takamori fled from surrender and returned to Kagoshima at the southern tip of Kyushu to make a final stand there. The third journey “Looking for the Lost” starts out from Nagoya and moves northwards through Gifu prefecture in an attempt to trace possible descendants of the clan of the Heike who were all but wiped out in the middle of the 12th century.
Throughout the book, Alan Booth mixes historical facts with his observations about contemporary Japan and muses about various subjects. On all his journeys, Alan Booth is walking through the countryside, obstinately refusing any other means of transport. He mostly stays on small roads and often stops for a beer or two at local liquor stores. Talking to the locals and staying at traditional ryokan provides him with new friends as well as unique opportunities to broaden his knowledge of Japanese life outside the big cities.
A fantastic book for those who want to get to know the “real” Japan and its people. You can get it from amazon.
Cathy N. Davidson
Cathy N. Davidson (1949) is an American scholar and university professor who spent some time living in Japan but in the end decided that she could not live here forever.
36 Views of Mount Fuji – On Finding Myself in Japan
Cathy and her husband Ted visit Japan for the first time in 1980 to teach English at Kyoto University. Expecting the typical Japan shown to the tourists, inhabited by flower-arranging geisha living in tiny wooden houses, they are shocked by the industrialized nation they encounter. However, they soon discover a Japan where tradition and modern life are not mutually exclusive. Although not everything can be changed and some plans fail outright, it becomes clear that the couple have lost their heart somewhere in Japan. This book contains 16 encounters with Japanese culture – profane, funny, and embarrassing ones, but always personal – and also describes their aftermath.
This book is extraordinary. Cathy Davidson describes her experiences with Japan and its culture, both the good and the bad ones, with unromanticised candor. And still, in every word her love for the country is palpable, just as is her pain at the realisation she will not be able to live there permanently. Highly recommended!
You can get 36 Views of Mount Fuji from amazon – enjoy!
Komomo and Naoyuki Ogino
Komomo is a Geiko of Gion, and Naoyuki Ogina is a Japanese photographer.
A Geisha’s Journey: My Life as a Kyoto Apprentice
A Japanese teenager living abroad suddenly misses her heritage and identity: What does it mean to be Japanese? On her quest for an answer she discovers the hanamachi, the geisha districts. Enthralled by this fantasy world of beautiful kimono wearing women and ancient customs, she decides to become the most Japanese woman of them all – and enters the hanamachi in Kyoto at age 15 to become a geisha. Given the name Komomo as an apprentice maiko, she starts a demanding training lasting five years to fulfill her dream.
This book tells about those years and gives a glimpse into the intimate details of the hanamachi of Kyoto. Always at Komomo’s side is Naoyuki Ogino, a photographer who is equally fascinated by the flower world and whose striking images of Komomo’s life add an almost magical touch to her story.
Komomo’s story is fascinating, and her change from an insecure teenager to an accomplished Kyoto geiko is obvious in Ogino’s photos. I especially enjoyed learning the little secrets of a geisha’s life. You could probably have guessed that a maiko cannot dress herself alone – but did you know that it takes a man (called the otokoshi) to tie her obi?
I put this book here rather than under literature because the text is less interesting than the photographs. If you are interested in taking a look behind the usually closed doors of a Geisha house, you should definitely get A Geisha’s Journey from amazon.
David Mitchell (1969) was born in England and came to Japan in 1994 where he taught English in Hiroshima for eight years.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Jacob de Zoet arrives at Dejima with Unico Vorstenbosch, who has vowed to rid the island of the ever present corruption and embezzlement. And Jacob is the right aide for this; the clerk, finicky, compliant, and honest to a fault beholds a rosy future. Of course, his incorruptability makes him some enemies fromt he start, but among his trusted friends are translator Ogawa and Dejima’s doctor, Marinus. And when Jacob becomes infatuated with one of Marinus’s students, Aibagawa Orito, and seriously considers marrying her, it seems that he is on top of everything.
However, his nice life is falling to pieces when Vorstenbosch is about to leave Dejima and in an interesting turn of events is revealed as the greatest crook of them all. On refusing to cover up his crimes, Jacob’s promotion is revoked and he is forced to fend for himself. Rock bottom is hit, when Orito – upon the death of her father – is forced to become a nun at a dubious Shinto shrine. What is Jacob to do? Everything seems hopeless, but then, an unexpected ship anchors in the harbour…
Dejima island near Nagasaki was a treaty port of the Dutch, and for a long time provided the only way for the West to trade with Japan. The novel is set at the end of the 18th century, and it gives an apt description of the scheming and corruption that must have taken place on both sides. Some of the events in the novel are based on historic facts. Only the happenings in the Shinto shrine seem to be far fetched, but they do provide the suspense that keeps you reading.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is available from amazon.
Writers in Kyoto
Writers in Kyoto is a small group of authors from or living in Kyoto and writing in English, whether as scientists, as journalists, or as bloggers. Since November 2018 I am a member of Writers in Kyoto, and I have contributed pieces on the Writers in Kyoto homepage or in the books below.
Encounters with Kyoto – WiK Anthology 3
Inside these covers lies the third collection of enticing works by Writers in Kyoto. From gardens to gangsters, temples to tourism, ceramics to Casablanca, the diverse writings of 22 authors will capture your imagination. Fresh new authors place their work alongside established and respected writers already known for their insights into Japan. All find inspiration from the muse of Kyoto city. The works include dreamy fiction, memorable non-fiction as well as remarkable poetry on the city that’s inspired a million poems. New works by Alex Kerr and Simon Rowe bookend the newest winners of the annual Writers in Kyoto Competition and much more. A captivating thread running through the anthology is the invitation to encounter and reflect on the splendour of the ancient city yourself. For those who are still to visit Kyoto, and those who have already been, what will your story be?
This book is available on amazon in paperback and (soon) as an e-book.
I don’t watch many movies these days, and it’s hard to get original Japanese films in translation. Here are the few films I have seen, many of them have won some (international) prize or other.
Abacus and Sword
The Inoyama are samurai who for generations have been in the service of the Kaga clan. Their weapon of choice, however, is not the sword but the soroban – they are expert accountants. The current head of the Inoyama family at the beginning of the Meiji restoration is Naoyuki who is called, both derogatorily and admiringly, “Mad Abacus”, for his extraordinary gift with numbers, cultivated since childhood. His pedantic nature allows him to uncover a conspiracy over disappearing rice, but, as is the fate of so many whistle blowers, he falls from grace…
From then on, the Inoyama family learns what it means to be poor, and as Naoyuki refuses to borrow money, their descent into rags is inevitable. Their struggle is not without funny moments, and in the background there is always the clicking sound of the soroban.
Abacus and Sword (Bushi no kakeibo), 2010,129 min.
Director: Morita Yoshimitsu
Cast: Sakai Masato, Nakama Yukie, Matsuzaka Keiko
The way how Naoyuki and his family make ends meet is timeless and some of their methods to save money, although very harsh, seem applicable even today. It’s not all about economizing though. The Inoyama never lose their humour to make the best out of everything, and not for a single moment do they betray their heritage as samurai. The film is based on the book by Isoda Michifumi.
Fun fact: I saw this film long before I came to Japan, long before I picked up soroban (the Japanese abacus) myself. But, interestingly, my very own soroban teacher taught the actors in this movie how to use their soroban. How exciting!
Unfortunately I could only find Japanese versions of both the book and the movie – they are available from amazon, if anyone is interested.
The Castle of Crossed Destinies
Imagine the following: It’s Japan, at the end of the 17th century. You are the shogun, the most powerful person in the country. Everything runs well, you have a lovely spouse, an attractive concubine, and a countless number of admiring – and admirable – courtiers. But then, your one and only heir dies unexpectedly from a disease – and suddenly securing succession for your family by producing another heir becomes paramount. The usual courtly intrigues are reaching new heights when the only solution is to ramp up your sex life, but…
…what if you’re a woman?
This film, based on a manga, turns history upside down by assuming matriarchy throughout 17th century Japan. The 5th shogun, Tsunayoshi, is a woman who desperately endeavours to conceive a daughter to secure her family’s succession on the throne. Interwoven with her story is that of Emonnosuke, a court noble from Kyoto who enters Tsunayoshi’s services as potential mate and remains at her side throughout her difficult task.
The Castle of Crossed Destinies (Ooku Eien Emonnosuke), 2012, 124 min
Director: Fuminori Kaneko
Cast: Miho Kanno (Tokugawa Tsunayoshi), Masato Sakai (Emonnosuke), Toshiyuki Nishida (Keishoin)
The old problem of succession seen from a completely new angle. Even in matriarchy, taking a different man to bed each night is frowned upon, and it does pose quite some difficulties for Tsunayoshi. Some true historical facts are hinted at, like the ban on killing dogs, but the film lives mainly from the reversal of the sexes and the elaborate costumes and stage designs. There is a lovely happy ending, though…
The Castle of Crossed Destinies is available in Japanese from amazon, but I have not found a version with subtitles.
Tomiko and Shukichi Hirayama, living on a small island on the Inland Sea, decide to visit their children who all live in Tokyo. Their eldest son Koichi, with whom they stay, is a doctor running a small clinic; their daughter Shigeko is very busy with running both her family and a beauty salon; only their youngest son Shuji, who works as a freelance stage hand, seems to be content with his life. He is most happy to see his mother, and tells her – as the only one in the family – about his girlfriend. Koichi and Shigeko mean well when they treat their parents to a few nights in a fancy hotel, but Tomiko and Shukichi feel isolated and rejected instead, as they expected to spend time with their children. The well-established routine grinds to a halt when Tomiko unexpectedly dies because of an accident and the one person holding the family together suddenly disappears. How will Shukichi fare, once he must return to his home on the island?
Tokyo Family (Tokyo Kazoku), 2013, 146 minutes
Director: Yoji Yamada
Cast: Isa Hashizume (Shukichi Hirayama), Kazuko Yoshiyuki (Tomiko Hirayama), Masahiko NIshimura (Koichi), Tomoko Nakajima (Shigeko), Satoschi Tsumabuki (Shoji)
This film is a remake of Tokyo Story from 1953. It is a very slow film without much of an exciting plot. It depicts life as it is in Japan; the tiny spaces and minimal pockets of private time that need to be carefully carved out from obligations towards others. Probably the best glimpse into busy Japanese city life I have yet seen.
A Japanese version of Tokyo Family with English subtitles is available from amazon.
The Woodsman and the Rain
Kishi Katsuhiko is a 60 year old woodcutter in a quiet rural village. One day his work is interrupted by a member of a filmcrew, asking him to be quiet while they are shooting. Some days later they meet again, and Kishi helps them find a suitable location for the next scene, in which he ends up playing a minor role. Koichi Tanabe, the insecure young man Kishi finds so annoying at first, turns out to be the director, and slowly a friendship between the two starts, beneficial for the both of them – and the movie. With Kishi’s knowledge of the best places for shooting and his connections to the other villagers, Koichi’s first movie becomes successful beyond his wildest dreams. In the end, Koichi has become more secure in his demands as a director, and Kishi has more respect for the plights of his own son.
The Woodsman and the Rain (Kitsutsuki to Ame), 2011, 129 minutes
Director: Shuichi Okita
Cast: Koji Yakusho (Kishi Katsuhiko), Shun Ogura (Koichi Tanabe)
Winner of the 2011 Tokyo International Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize
I went to see the film with very little expectations, but I ended up greatly enjoying it. I think it depicts the dynamics of a friendship between old and young quite well, and how important outside input can be when it comes to our own family relationships. But this is not a big drama – some of the scenes are outright funny, and the awkward and shy Koichi and the down to earth Katsuhiko who acts like a supportive father figure make a good team. It’s not high art – especially given that the movie in the movie is about zombies – but nevertheless time pleasantly spent.
There is an English version of The Woodsman and the Rain available at amazon.