Japan on Japan: What the World Should Be Reading

I don’t want this blog to become solely lists, but I came across two in a book that I can’t help reproducing (and expanding upon) here, because I think they’re interesting in and of themselves, because the people who wrote them are noteworthy, and because I think it’s illuminating to find out what people in the Japanese literary world want the world to read.

In 2013, Motoyuki Shibata (an amazing English-Japanese translator and the editor of Monkey Business, the preeminent journal of Japanese fiction in English translation) and Gen’ichiro Takahashi (novelist beloved by your humble blogger) published a book called How to Read, Write and Translate Novels (小説の読み方、書き方、訳し方). It’s a conversation between the two about how the three supposedly distinct actions are interconnected (and much more, I’m sure, but I haven’t finished it yet).

Toward the end, each offers up a list of world literature they recommend to Japanese readers and a list of Japanese literature they recommend to the rest of the world. When these guys speak, I listen.

I’ve highlighted women’s names in green.

Professor Shibata’s list:

  1. ABE Kazushige (阿部和重) – Nipponia Nippon (ニッポニア・ニッポン). Recommended by the Nippon Foundation for translation. “The title Nipponia Nippon is also the zoological name for the Japanese crested ibis, a species on the brink of extinction. A seventeen-year-old boy whose family name includes the syllables “toki,” which is the Japanese word for the crested ibis, takes it upon himself to insure the purity of the bird’s bloodline. Learning that authorities intend to breed crested ibises with birds from China, the boy undertakes an elaborate plan to kill the Chinese-born ibises.For the teenager, who has a history of stalking, the Internet is his sole contact with the world. It is also his source of weapons. In his isolation—and in a tale reminiscent of Mishima Yukio’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion—nationalistic inclinations rise to an extreme.”
  2. Ii Naoyuki (伊井直行)- The Story of a Carving Still Searching for its True Name (本当の名前を捜しつづける彫刻の話).

  3. IKEZAWA Natsuki (池澤夏樹) – Reports from a Star World (星界からの報告).

  4. ISHIGURO Tatsuaki (石黒達昌) – Dr. Nobuhiko Akedera, who died from AIDS on May 2nd, 1991, and… (平成3年5月2日、後天性免疫不全症候群にて急逝された明寺伸彦博士、並びに、). TRANSLATED – as part of a collection from Vertical – Biogenesis and Other Stories, translator: Brian Watson and James Balzer.
  5. OGAWA Yoko (小川洋子) – The Museum of Silence (沈黙博物館).
  6. OKUIZUMI Hikaru (奥泉光) – The Stones Cry Out (石の来歴). TRANSLATED – ISBN: 0156011832, Harcourt, 2000. Translator: James Westerhoven.
  7. KANAI Mieko (金井美恵子) – Rabbits (兎). TRANSLATED – as part of Rabbits, Crabs, Etc.: Stories by Japanese Women, translator: Phyllis Birnbaum. ISBN: 0824808177, University of Hawaii Press, 1982. Available online here.
  8. KAWAKAMI Hiromi (川上弘美) – Dragon Palace (龍宮). TRANSLATED – https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2012/january/palace-dragon-king. Translator: Michael Emmerich.
  9. GENYUU Sōkyū (玄侑宗久) – The Festival of Abraxas (アブラクサスの祭).
  10. KOJIMA Nobuo (小島信夫) – Fading Light (残光).Recommended by the Nippon Foundation for translation. “[A] literary record, almost moment to moment, of the author Kojima Nobuo’s ninety-year-old state of being over a period of several months. It is a mélange of inscrutable repetitions, misstatements, and flashbacks—although it would seem pointless to question whether these “mistakes” were intended or not. This is literature at its finest. Kojima, famous for claiming never to go back and reread his work, has done so here at the request of a young author. With candor and self-deprecating humor, he recalls his daily existence of the time, the context of the writing, bemusedly owning up to “slips of the pen.” The result is the last and greatest masterpiece of an author for whom writing was synonymous with life itself.”
  11. SHONO Yoriko (笙野頼子) – The 200th Death Anniversary (二百回忌). Featured in my 2013 all-female shortlist. “A ‘slapstick fantasy’ tale of a woman visiting her estranged family for a ‘traditional’ event in which ancestors come back from the dead and time blurs.”
  12. TAKAHASHI Gen’ichiro (高橋源一郎) – The Rise and Fall of Japanese Literature (日本文学盛衰史). A summary from Contemporary Japanese Writers, Vol. 2: “To discover why it is so hard to write fiction today, Takahashi examines the history of modern literature, with the Meiji period (1868-1912) as his starting point. He summons literary giants of that era such as pioneer Shimei Futabatei, who like Takahashi agonized over his inability to write, and attempts to share his agony. [. . .] The author himself barges into this epic fantasy. Is he writing a fictional history of Japanese literature, or is he merely ridiculing writers?”
  13. TANAKA Komimasa (田中小実昌) – Drip Drop (ポロポロ).
  14. TSUTSUI Yasutaka (筒井康隆) – Virtual Men (虚人たち).
  15. TERAYAMA Shūji (寺山 修司) – The Crimson Thread of Abandoned Stories (赤糸で縫いとじられた物語).TRANSLATED – ISBN: 1937385493, University of Hawaii Press, 2013. Translator: Elizabeth L. Armstrong.
  16. NAKAGAMI Kenji (中上 健次) –  The Sea of Withered Trees (枯木灘)
  17. NAKAHARA Masaya (中原昌也) – Mari & Fifi’s Massacre Songbook (マリ&フィフィの虐殺ソングブック). If Tarantino wrote novels, he’d be Nakahara Masaya.
  18. NEKOTA Michiko (猫田 道子) – The Rumored Bacon (うわさのベーコン)
  19. NONAKA Hiiragi (野中 柊) – Mugwort Ice Cream (ヨモギアイス)
  20. HISAUCHI Michio – Perspective Kid (パースペクティブキッド). This is a comic.
  21. HIRAIDE Takashi (平出 隆) – The Guest Cat (猫の客).TRANSLATED – ISBN: 0811221504, New Directions, 2014. Translator: Eric Selland.
  22. FURUI Yoshikichi (古井由吉) – Yoko 杳子・妻隠.TRANSLATED – ISBN: 0939512793, University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies, Michigan Monograph Series in Japanese Studies, No. 18, 1997. Translator: Donna George Storey.
  23. FURUKAWA Hideo (古川日出男) – Sound Truck (サウンドトラック).
  24. HOSAKA Kazushi (保坂和志) – The Threshold of a Person (この人の閾) – 1995 Akutagawa.
  25. HORIE Toshiyuki (堀江 敏幸) – To the Suburbs (郊外へ)
  26. MACHIDA Kō (町田康) – Weeping Daikoku (くっすん大黒).
  27. MIURA Toshihiko (三浦俊彦) – たましいの生まれかた
  28. MORITA Ryūji (盛田隆二) – Street Children (ストリート・チルドレン)
  29. YOTSUMOTO Yasuhiro (四元 康祐) – (笑うバグ 詩集)
  30. WADA Tadahiko (和田忠彦) – (声、 意味ではなくーわたしの翻訳論)

TAKAHASHI Gen’ichiro’s list:

  1. AOKI Jungo (青木淳悟) – A Fairy Tale of Forty Days and Forty Nights (四十日と四十夜のメルヘン).From J’Lit: “In the present-day suburbs of Tokyo, the first person narrator has a part-time job distributing flyers to houses and apartments. The quota is demanding, but so many postboxes have notices refusing to accept junk mail that the narrator has no choice but to take the surplus home to [their] cramped public housing, where it fills the tiny one-room space and kitchen. The narrator attends a course in creative writing at a community center, where a part-Russian male novelist teacher urges [them] to write a new kind of novel, but an initial burst of enthusiasm leads nowhere. The narrator begins writing a diary on July 4, but can only keep it going to the seventh before rewriting the four days’ worth a total of ten times. Finally the narrator starts to write a fairy tale called “Flyers” about Claude and Chloe, a French couple, but then discovers s/he’ll have to move out as the housing block is slated to be rebuilt . . .”
  2. ABE Kazushige – Sinsemilla (シンセミア). Biography at J’Lit.
  3. ARAKAWA Yōji (荒川洋治) – 文芸時評という感想
  4. ITO Hiromi (伊藤比呂美) – La Niña (ラニーニャ)
  5. IROKAWA Takehiro (色川武大) – Diary of a Madman (狂人日記).
  6. OTSUJI Katsuhiko (尾辻 克彦) – Daddy has Disappeared (父が消えた). Awarded the Akutagawa Prize in 1981. Recommended by the Nippon Foundation for translation. “In the title story of this collection of short stories, an artist—who appears to be the author himself—walks through a cemetery in a Tokyo suburb, pondering where to bury his father’s ashes. The artist has come a long way. He recalls life in a public housing project in Nagoya, where his family of nine lived in two small rooms that felt like a crowded black hole. He and his siblings manage to find their way out eventually, but they must leave their mother and father. ‘Is there no happy way to die?,’ the artist wonders.”
  7. ŌE Kenzaburō – Farewell, My Books!  (さようなら、私の本よ!)
  8. OKUIZUMI Hikaru (奥泉光) – The Novalis Quotation ノヴァーリスの引用
  9. KATOU Norihiro (加藤典洋) – The Future of Novels (小説の未来) and Far Removed from the Text (テクストから遠く離れて)
  10. KANAI MiekoAn Epic of Love (恋愛太平記). Recommended by the Nippon Foundation for translation. “Echoing] Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s Sasameyuki (translated as The Makioka Sisters), [An Epic of Love] is the story of the enduring bond of a mother and her four daughters through the 1980s—a period of great cultural and social change in Japan. Each of the women undergoes challenges, which they share through smart, matter-of-fact dialogue. Yuka, at thirty-one the eldest daughter, divorces her husband in the United States and returns to Tokyo; Asako, a painter, embarks on a dangerous love affair; Masae, who works at a child-care center, yearns for a life of excitement; and Miyuki, an editor, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. In order to relieve stress, the mother shops (the bigger the brand name the better) and eats (Japanese, Chinese, French, and Italian, in that order). Together their lives offer a slice of Japanese life in an era of advanced capitalism and declining birth rates.”
  11. KAWAKAMI Hiromi – Drowning (溺レる).
  12. KOJIMA Nobuo  – Lovely Days (うるわしき日々)
  13. SHIMADA Masuhiko (島田雅彦) – Divertimento for Gentle Leftists (優しいサヨクのための嬉遊曲).Recommended by the Nippon Foundation for translation. “‘A porn novel masquerading as a tale of youth’ is how the author Shimada Masahiko describes this, his debut work, which was published while he was a university student. The protagonist, Chidori, joins a university club whose purpose is to support the Soviet dissident movement. Chidori’s activities, however, are child’s play, without connection to the leftist issues or student protests, and he himself is but a gentle, homely sort whose preoccupation in life is to marry the violinist Midori. Indeed, all he thinks about is making love to her. This bittersweet novel of youth is a reflection of the author’s own biography as a member of Japan’s ‘second suburban generation,’ born in the 1960s and raised in cookie-cutter suburban housing complexes by salaryman families.”
  14. SHIRIAGARI Kotobuki (しりあがり 寿) – Yajikita in DEEP (弥次喜多 in DEEP). This is a comic. A surreal take on classic, comedic Edo-period travel literature.
  15. SHONO Yoriko – Konpira (金毘羅).Featured in my 2013 all-female shortlist and recommended by the Nippon Foundation for translation. “On March 16, 1956, the first-person narrator—a spirit or consciousness without form or sex—enters the body of a female infant that soon dies. This narrator becomes a writer who, after a half century, realizes her true identity as Kompira, the Buddhist maritime guardian who originated from the Hindu water god. She devotes her energies to fighting against gender discrimination, at the same time visiting shrines to discover her roots, questioning the distinction between foreign Buddhas and native gods, and deconstructing the myths of the founding of Japan. Kompira is a novel of shattering imagination.”Takahashi himself commented on Konpira, saying: “To be Konpira is to believe. It is to offer ultrapersonal prayers. Prayer is not an illusion. It needs no interpretation or metaphor.”
  16. TAKAHASHI Gen’ichiro – May Your Reign Last Forever and Ever (君が代は千代に八千代に). It’s a bit cheeky to put your own book on your list, but it is a great collection.
  17. NAKAGAMI Kenji – Miracles (奇蹟).
  18. NAKAZAWA Shin’ichi (中沢 新一) – Cahier Sauvage (カイエ・ソバージュ).
  19. NAKAHARA Masaya – A Thug’s Diary for Children (子猫が読む乱暴者日記).
  20. HASHIMOTO Osamu (橋本 治) – Where the Butterflies Go (蝶のゆくえ).
  21. FURUI Yoshikichi – Nogawa (野川).Recommended by the Nippon Foundation for translation. “Nogawa is a short-story collection in which a man in his late sixties—who reminds us of the author himself—transcends time and the boundary between dreams and reality in his search for self in the minutiae of life.The title story, named after a river that runs through a Tokyo suburb, begins with the protagonist receiving word of a friend’s death. From there we are taken to the banks of the river his friend had enjoyed walking along; to his friend’s alluring daughter, who shares her memories of her father; to recollections of a different river where the narrator had escaped to during the Tokyo air raids of World War II; and, finally, to the war experiences of the narrator himself. Deeply infused with imagery of death, war, and sex, Nogawa adds a new dimension to the evocative writing of this important postwar author.”
  22. FURUKAWA Hideo – Belka, Why Don’t You Bark? (ベルカ、吠えないのか?)
    TRANSLATED – ISBN: 978-1421549378, Haikasoru, 2012. Translator: Michael Emmerich.
  23. HOSAKA Kazushi – Conversation Piece (カンバセイション・ピース).Recommended by the Nippon Foundation for translation. “In Conversation Piece, a writer moves with his wife and three cats into a fifty-year-old house in a residential neighborhood of Tokyo. The literal conversations of the couple and their assorted friends and relatives, and the unspoken memories of former residents of the house begin to fill the space. It is this space that constitutes the book’s real protagonist.”
  24. HORIE Toshiyuki  – One Day at Oji Station (いつか王子駅で)
  25. MAIJOU Ootaroo (舞城 王太郎) – 90909 (九十九十九)
  26. MACHIDA Kō  – Punk Samurai Slash Down (パンク侍、斬られて候). TRANSLATED – ISBN: 9781783081271, Anthem Press. Translator: Wayne P Lammers.
  27. MURAKAMI Haruki (村上春樹) – Kafka on the Shore (海辺のカフカ). TRANSLATED.
  28. YAMADA Amy (山田詠美) – Wonderful Flavor (風味絶佳). Awarded the Tanizaki Prize in 2005 and recommended by the Nippon Foundation for translation. “[H]er finest work to date, as she weaves the lives and loves of unlikely characters into the fabric of fiction: high-rise construction workers, trash collectors, crematorium employees, and movers. The title story centers on Fujiko, who runs a bar near a U.S. military base in the city of Fussa, and her twenty-one-year-old grandson Shiro, a gas station attendant. Fujiko goes out driving with men not much older than her grandson; and sympathetic but tough, she is able to slap Shiro out of his romantic woes. Her spirited words ring out in celebration of people like herself who are unafraid to live life exactly as they choose.”
  29. Baksheesh Yamashita (バクシーシ山下) – The Sexually Disabled (セックス障害者たち). A nonfiction title from an adult filmmaker.
  30. WATAYA Risa (綿矢りさ) – You can keep it.
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One response to “Japan on Japan: What the World Should Be Reading

  1. Lots to like here, if it ever makes it into English…

    By the way, after our conversation on Twitter about Yu Miri, I (drunkenly) ordered a second-hand copy of ‘Gold Rush’, and it literally just arrived (I think it was carried here from the US by turtle…).

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