Three Interesting Japanese Books published in 2021

book cover Murakami Haruki First Person Singular by Murakami Haruki

A collection of eight short stories. I liked ‘Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova’ and ‘On a Stone Pillow’ very much. As I have read the original Japanese text I cannot say much about the translation. I love to read Murakami Haruki’s books in Japanese. Some of the stories were published before in ‘The New Yorker’ or in ‘Granta’, some of them are new and exclusively in this book.

I know, short stories are not for everyone, but I like to read them. Murakami explores his past: it is about music (‘With the Beatles’ and Charlie Parker), about mysterious encounters and love in the days of his youth. As expected, the collection is written in Murakami’s unique style about everyday life with magical realistic moments, philosophical and not so philosophical thoughts.

Title in Japanese: 村上春樹: 一人称単数 , 2020.
Translated by Philip Gabriel, Knopf Publishing Group, 2021.

 

The Woman in the Purple Skirt

This is a weird and fascinating story told by a strange narrator: ‘the woman in the yellow cardigan’. The atmosphere is thrilling. You get to know nothing about the narrator’s identity in the first half of the novel. Very quickly you will understand that something is disturbingly wrong because the ‘woman in the yellow cardigan’ is stalking ‘the woman in the purple skirt’, but why?

It was a quick and very interesting read, very Japanese and weird. The female author Imamura Natsuko won the Akutagawa Award in 2019 for this novel. She was born 1980 in Hiroshima and was rewarded many times for her literary works in Japan.

Title in Japanese: 今村 夏子: むらさきのスカートの女, 2019.
Translated by Lucy North, Penguin Books, 2021.

 

An I-Novel
What is it about? The book is a diary, an account, an I-novel, which is a literary genre in its own in Japan. The book was written in English and Japanese alternately. Unfortunately, the bilingual effect could not be transferred into the English translation.

I struggled with the account of the protagonist: a Japanese woman, who immigrated into the US as a child and spent her life there. Japan became a “Sehnsuchtsort”, a place for yearning, impossible to reach for her, an idealized place with sweet memories of her childhood. So, after a while of homesickness and nostalgia she wants to go back to Japan and become a writer.

The text consists mostly of telephone calls with her sister and some backstories. The diary is an account about daily life, grief and depression. Although the title was very promising, I could not relate to the main character of the story because her narration was too depressive in my opinion. Maybe people with a similar experience can empathize more with the author.

Mizumura Minae was born in Tokyo in 1951. She has published several books, which are also translated into English. ‘The Fall of Language in the Age of English‘ and ‚Inheritance from Mother‘ sound interesting.

Title in Japanese: Mizumura Minae 水村 美苗: 私小説 , 1995.
Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, Columbia University Press, 2021.

Book Review: Sanshirô by Natsume Sôseki

cover book sanshiro“Sanshirô was feeling very much alone and hemmed in by the restless city”

A young man from the southern countryside of Kyushu comes to Tokyo. He wants to study at the university. It is his first time being alone in a city such as big as Tokyo. The story is about his first steps into adulthood. Sanshirô learns how to deal with everyday life as a student and to manage the challenges of modern life. He falls in love with a beautiful young woman and must deal with friendship and betrayal. ‘Sanshirô’ is set in 1907 with realistic descriptions of the historical Tokyo. It is a Coming-of-Age novel in the pure sense.

Natsume Sôseki 夏目 漱石 (1867-1916) is called the greatest modern Japanese writer. He was born in 1867. He wrote many well-known novels such as

And many more, which were also translated into different languages.

‘Sanshirô’ is his seventh book, published in 1908, first serialized in the Asahi Shinbun. It is based on the writer’s own experiences. Natsume Sôseki was a lecturer in English at the Tokyo Imperial University following the famous Lafcadio Hearn. In 1907 he quit his academical career to become a full time writer.

Evaluation
‘Sanshirô’ is a vivid and interesting novel with strong references to the historical background. I read a copy of Penguin Classics with an introduction by Murakami Haruki and Jay Rubin, which makes it easy to understand the historical circumstances and gain insights into Natsume Sôseki’s work. ‘Sanshirô’ is a classic Japanese novel, which I liked very much.

Reviewed Title
夏目 漱石. 三四郎. 1908.
Natsume Sôseki. Sanshirô. Translated by Jay Rubin. Penguin Classics, 2009 (Cover).

Three Interesting Spring Novels by Japanese Authors

book cover collageSpring is called haru 春 in Japanese. The spring season goes from March to May with its peak in late April and early May, highlight is the Golden Week as a national holiday.

Spring is associated with a new beginning, starting a new life and nature awakening from sleep. In Japan you see cherry blossoms, plum blossoms and hear chirping birds.

It is the time of hanami 花見 (cherry blossom viewing). Normally there are a couple of festivals held in spring. Some of the best known are for example the following matsuri.

A spring festival celebrated in Tokyo is the Sanja Matsuri. It is one of the biggest festivals with about 100 floats and a big crowd around the Senso-ji, normally on the 3rd weekend in May. (Here are some pictures to get an impression about the crowd and the festivities. link to: https://www.japan-talk.com/jt/new/sanja-matsuri-Tokyos-biggest-and-wildest-festival).

Aoi Matsuri is celebrated in Kyôto on the May15th at the Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine (for more information see pictures and explanation at https://matcha-jp.com/en/3892).

The charming Takayama Spring Festival is normally held on April 14th and 15th every year. See some pictures at  https://www.japan-talk.com/jt/new/takayama-spring-festival and https://matcha-jp.com/en/4233.

Thinking of spring, the following Japanese novels come to mind.

The Old Capital by Kawabata Yasunari
What is it about?
It is the most famous Japanese book by the Nobel prize winner. The love story begins in spring and takes place in extremely popular places at Kyôto.
Title in Japanese: 古都, 1962
Read the full review on Japan Kaleidoskop

Spring Snow by Mishima Yukio
What is it about?
‘Spring Snow’ is the story of a young man, Matsugae Kiyoaki, placed in Tokyo of 1912. He was raised in the family tradition of the aristocracy. He falls in love with the elegant and sophisticated Ayakura Satoko.
Title in Japanese:  春の雪, 1968
Read the full review on Japan Kaleidoskop

Hear the Wind Sing by Murakami Haruki
What is it about?
‘Hear the Wind Sing’ is the first novel of Murakami Haruki published in the literary magazine ‘Gunzo’ in 1979 and won the ‘Gunzo Prize for New Writers’.
Title in Japanese: 風の歌を聴け
Read the full review on Japan Kaleidoskop

Book Review: Where the Wild Ladies Are

Cover Image Where The Wild Ladies Are by Aoko MatsudaThe seventeen modern female short stories by Matsuda Aoko are inspired by Japanese folktales and traditional plays in her new book published in 2020. The Japanese female writer and translator made her debut in 2013 with the book ‘Stackable’.

Some of her stories in this anthology are based on plays, in Japanese rakugo 落語, which are performed on a Kabuki theater stage by a solitary storyteller.

Matsuda Aoko’s short stories are powerful modern ghost stories. You can understand them without knowing the Japanese traditional background. When it is necessary for the understanding there is a short introduction to the theme. In the back of the book, you find a list with titles of the original tales.

Many cultures believe that death is not the end but it is a transformation into another form of being. Folktales are based on myths, narrations about ghosts and strange occurrences. The strong ancestor worship tradition in Japan is a sign of this belief: this world and the afterlife is connected, and the dead can visit you.

Matsuda’s stories are not mere retellings, but original, sometimes funny, mostly empowering stories about contemporary women who meet a ghost, are ghosts or know about ghosts.

Many women grew up with the belief, that they are not good enough and with ideal body images, that results in the conviction they should be different. Matsuda is questioning traditional female role models and attributions. She writes about transience, change, self acceptance and empowerment.

My favorites stories of this collection are the following:

  • ‘Smartening Up’ is a hairy story of empowerment. An online version of this story is published at https://granta.com/smartening-up/
  • ‘My Superpower’– Leads to the question: “What is your superpower?”
  • ‘Quite A Catch’– A tale about skeleton fishing.
  • ‘Silently Burning’ is based on the famous Yaoya Oshichi folktale.
  • ‘The Missing One’– A homage to Okiku who inhabits the well of Himeji Castle.

This book is a gem and I really, really liked it. Matsuda Aoko has also inspired me to read old myth and folktales.

If you like to read more traditional stories, you can start with some old anthologies for free at gutenberg.org. Here is a short list of interesting titles.

Reviewed Title:
Aoko Matsuda. Where the Wild Ladies Are. Translated by Polly Barton. Tilted Axis Press, 2020 (Cover).

Book Review: Moshi Moshi

cover image Yoshimoto Banana Moshi Moshi“When we start something new, at first it is very muddy, and clouded. But soon, it becomes a clear stream, whose flow conducts itself quietly, through spontaneous movements.”

‘Moshi Moshi‘ is a love declaration to Shimo-Kitazawa, the beloved neighborhood in Tokyo with the hipster, Bohemian air. Famous for the many cafés, bars and restaurants, the secondhand shops. A lively, colorful atmosphere. The young and vibrant city district is known for its varied nightlife, local art, and design. Some call it the coolest part of Tôkyô.

Shimo-Kitazawa 下北沢 is six stops from Shinjuku with the Odakyû Line or four stops from Shibuya with the Keiô-Inokashira Line, a district in Tokyo (Setagaya).

But this quarter is in danger. City officials planned to build an 81-foot-wide thoroughfare, which will tear the neighborhood apart. In 2013 the train tracks were removed, and the station is under construction. Plus, it will be allowed to build higher buildings, which was restricted before. (links to articles about Shimo-Kitazawa with pictures: https://trulytokyo.com/shimokitazawa/ and https://www.shimokitazawa.info/ and https://www.odakyu.jp/station/shimo_kitazawa/).

The story in outlines
Yoshie–Yocchan– a young woman moves to Shimo-Kitazawa after the death of her father. He had died in a mysterious double suicide with a strange woman. On this day he forgot his cellphone at home and could not call for help. Ever since, Yoshie is haunted by dreams and her wish to call her dad because she wants to know who the woman was, and if he really wanted to die with her.

As she moves into a small, shabby apartment in Shimo-Kitazawa she feels free from the home of her parents. She tries to get rid of her memories. She grieves but gets better when she takes a job in the café Les Liens. Then, her mother comes to visit her, and asks if she can stay with her in Shimo-Kitazawa for a while. Imagine your mother wants to move into your tiny student apartment with you! So, that is the situation in the beginning.

Moshi Moshi もしもし means ‘hello’, especially on the phone. Or, if you want to say ‘excuse me!’, when calling out to someone. (for different use and meaning, please see: https://ejje.weblio.jp/sentence/content/もしもし).

Evaluation
The story is told by Yoshie’s point of view. You learn about her inner thoughts and her emotions in an interior monologue. The narrator reflects about the death of her father, about childhood and her future as the story moves on. The setting of Shimo-Kitazawa is essential. It becomes a symbol of the transience of all things.

Banana Yoshimoto’s novel sounds a little nostalgically, but it is understandable, because she describes changes, which are not only due to a natural cause, but due to gentrification of the beloved Shimo-Kitazawa. So, this is not mere regretting of the past, but some critical viewing about modern capitalism.

As always, I liked the writing style of Banana Yoshimoto. And I liked especially this novel, because I once knew the Shimo-Kitazawa, she is describing in her book very well. So, farewell lovely Shimo-Kitazawa, it was good to know you.

Reviewed title
吉本 ばなな. もしもし下北沢. 2010.
Banana Yoshimoto. Moshi Moshi. Translated by Asa Yoneda. Counterpoint, 2016 (Cover).