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.

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

Three Exciting Coming-of-Age Books by Japanese Authors


The ‘Coming-of-Age Day’ is celebrated in Japan on every second Monday of January as a national holiday since 1948. It is called 成人の日 – Seijin no Hi.
Japanese who turn 20 are celebrating this day, because from now on they are fully grown-ups with every right and responsibility legally speaking. And from now on they are also allowed to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. Young women are dressing up on the ’Coming-of-Age Day’ in a long-sleeved kimono and men in formal suit and tie.

Coming-of-age is an exciting topic described in world literature as in Japanese novels as well. The following books are good examples of what it feels to become an adult in Japan.

Kafka on the Shore by Murakami Haruki
What is it about?
It is a surrealist novel about a 15-year-old boy leaving his father behind and going on a secret journey. With only one photo in his hand, Kafka Tamura searches for his mother and sister, who left him and his father behind years ago. Read the full review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: 海辺のカフカ (Umibe no Kafuka) 2002.
Translated by Philip Gabriel. Vintage International (Cover 2006).

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Ôgawa Yoko
What is it about?
This is a story about an extraordinary friendship between the 10-year-old boy named Root and a retired math professor, who is slightly losing his memory because of brain damage. In the beginning they share only their passion for baseball, but soon the professor needs more help.  Read the full review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: 博士の愛した数式 (hakase no aishita sûshiki) 2003.
Translated by Stephen Snyder. Vintage International (Cover 2010).

Kitchen by Yoshimoto Banana
What is it about?
It is about a young woman dealing with life after the death of her beloved grandmother. A new friendship with a boy and his transgender mother. It is about mourning a profound loss and the beginning of a new life. All in all an emotional and touching debut novel of the now so famous Japanese author. Read the full review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: キッチン (Kitchin) 1988.
Translated by Megan Backus. Grove Press (Cover 1988)

Book Review: Pinball, 1973 by Murakami Haruki

‘Pinball, 1973’ (1973年のピンボール) follows ‘Hear the Wind Sing’ by Murakami Haruki. It was published in 1980 in Japan and is the third part of the ‘Trilogy of the Rat’.

The author depicts the wild lifestyle of the 1970’s in Tokyo and continues the story of the friendship between the nameless protagonist and his friend ‘The Rat’. This time the protagonist is sharing his apartment with two female twins. As in the first book J’s bar is one of the main places of the novel.

The book contains mainly stories about the superficial twins and meetings with ‘The Rat’ and their thoughts about love and life. A pinball machine becomes important in the latter half of the story.

The atmosphere can be characterized by the absence of real human connections, feelings of boredom and isolation. The storytelling is monotonous through most of the book, and the characters are painted in pale colors. The main character is lacking from a purpose in life until he becomes alive in the hunt for a specific pinball machine.

Murakami uses the same collage techniques as in his first book. The short novel is also written in juvenile language. Because the author talks mainly about daily vanities and pinball machines are not very interesting to me, reading became a drag towards the end.

In my opinion ‘Pinball, 1973’ lacks the freshness of ‘Hear the Wind Sing’ and cannot be compared to any of Murakami’s later books. It appears a little immature to me and maybe it was published too quickly after his first success.

Book title

村上春樹: 1973年のピンボール, 講談社 1980.

Murakami Haruki: Pinball, 1973, translated by Alfred Birnbaum. Kodansha International, 1985 (cover photo). A new translation by Ted Goosen is available since 2015.

Book Review: Hear the Wind Sing by Murakami Haruki

‘Hear the Wind Sing’ (風の歌を聴け) is the first novel of Murakami Haruki published in the literary magazine ‘Gunzo’ in 1979 and won the ‘Gunzo Prize for New Writers’.

Murakami wrote two following books and named it the ‘Trilogy of the Rat’. The second novel is ‘Pinball 1973’ followed by ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’.

‘Hear the Wind Sing’ is about friendship between two young men and the beginning of a love-story with a woman added by a mix of childhood memories, bar stories, therefore lots of alcohol and music.

A nameless student visits his hometown during the summer holidays in the 1970’s. He spends most of his time with his old buddy ‘The Rat’ in J’s bar. One day he finds a drunken woman in the restroom and takes her to her home. A love story begins.

The book contains mainly discussions with ‘The Rat’, memories of the protagonist’s childhood and ex-girlfriends. Thoughts about love and life in general.

Murakami uses collage techniques adding song lyrics and quotations of books. The novel is written in juvenile language and depicts the style of the 70’s in Japan.

Considering that ‘Hear the Wind Sing’ is the first novel of Murakami Haruki it was an interesting read. The potential of the then young author is clearly visible and the reason for the newcomer award of Gunzo in 1979. What I liked most about the book was the love story and the overall collage style.

Book title

村上春樹. 風の歌を聴け(kaze no uta o kike), 講談社 1979.

Murakami Haruki: Hear the Wind Sing, translated by Alfred Birnbaum. Kodansha International, 1987 (cover photo). A new translation by Ted Goosen is available since 2015 (Harvill Secker).