January in Japanese literature
As part of #januaryinjapan, let me ramble a bit about the subtle, hushed beauty of the Japanese books I've come across. And maybe in that process, persuade you to give them a try.
There’s a quote about the English countryside from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day that reminds me of my feelings toward Japanese literature (at least the ones I’ve read):
“I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint.”
This quiet quality is one that I love the most when reading, and it’s one that I’ve come across so often in Japanese fiction. There’s something about my preference to read about someone yawning while reminiscing over a seemingly more thrilling plotline, but it’s something I’ve been guaranteed to find when picking up a Japanese novel. I think that “something” is the opportunity given to the reader during those ordinary scenes to be intimately acquainted with the characters and the places in which they exist, thus becoming more invested in them and the story; their tangibility makes me feel like I’m reading about someone out there in the real world instead of an imaginary silhouette. I find that Japanese literature excels in this capability in a subtly beautiful way - like a scene of quiet snowfall in Kawabata’s Snow Country - and in so many unique, creative realms of storytelling, whether it be dystopian or romance or magical realism. What I find more amazing is that even though all the Japanese books I’ve read so far contain this writing quality, they are all still so distinct from each other and are some of the most memorable stories I’ve had the pleasure of encountering.
If you’re interested in taking part in the #januaryinjapan bookstagram trend, I hope the book & author recommendations below give you the chance to explore some amazing works of fiction!
The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa
On an unnamed island that our female narrator - a novelist - lives on, the government is able to make objects disappear and thus, cause the inhabitants to lose their memories of them. When the narrator’s friend & editor is found to be immune to this, she and her elderly friend decide to hide him because they know the consequences for those who cannot forget. I found the idea of memory loss and its execution in this dystopian novel stunning. Written in a gentle and dreamlike prose, the beautiful passages and scenes arouse in the reader existential questions on the consequences of forgetting and remembering alike, while the three main characters’ friendship become the single hopeful flame glowing in a room gradually being swallowed up by the dark. Even though it’s set in a dystopia where things are taking a turn for the worst, Ogawa gives us an intimacy with the characters as they simply try to keep living as best they can.
Schoolgirl by Osamu Dazai
This is an extremely slim book about a teenage girl during a single day in her life. Having read it a long time ago I don’t remember too much besides the overall gloomy and slightly disconnected atmosphere that lingers throughout the book. The narrator has many meandering streams of consciousness and observations both on herself and the outside world that often had a pang of familiarity. Angst and fear are harbored within her as she tries to get through another day, which reminded me that no matter how young and seemingly innocent a person may be, their minds could be swamped in darkness.
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
For me this book resembles the most clearly my feelings about Japanese literature. I remember being spellbound and haunted by its ending, one that was shocking but still somehow hushed. At the time that I read this there was a silent gravitation not towards the central and doomed romance between Shimamura and the onsen geisha Keiko, but towards Kawabata’s depiction of the Japanese wintry landscape. It caused me to feel both tranquility and desolation for the landscape itself, and a portentous sense of tragedy for the main characters’ relationship. Reviews of this novel often describe Kawabata’s prose as reserved or restrained, and I can only concur. I think that was why the novel pulled me in so, because it was one of the first times I had read something so beautiful but still so hidden beneath a sheet of ice.
Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto
In this book are three novellas that revolve around predominantly female characters who, because of certain events in their lives, find either solace or a means of escape through sleep. I remembered feeling a melancholy that seemed to travel through all three stories so that by the last page, it had tattooed itself to me. Despite my noticing that the ending may have had a feeling of hope, Yoshimoto’s wistful and lyrical prose kept me from fully grasping onto it because I was so much more in tune with the grief, isolation, and sadness carrying the characters through their shadowing lives. In the end, the surface-level differences between the characters’ life events and struggles don’t mean as much as the similarity in their efforts to move on past their grief.
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Most likely the most recognizable name in contemporary Japanese literature, I have read four of Murakami’s books and have concluded that my opinion on his work is a conflicted one. In any case Kafka on the Shore was the first one I read and enjoyed. His signature of magical realism (that likes to take a very strange, sensuous turn) is strong in this story, which follows a teenage boy named Kafka Tamura and Nakata, an elderly man stripped of most of his mental faculties due to a childhood event during WWII. These two characters and their fates are gradually brought together to take the reader on an absolutely wild journey through a metaphysical reality that ended up engrossing me. I found the best of Murakami’s traits in this novel - his vivid characters and the intertwining of their lives to form an indistinct shape made of spider’s silk, his suspending worlds of glass and dream, the gripping storyline. This book would be a good place to start if you want to experience the brilliance of a Murakami novel without having to trudge through a thousand pages (I’m looking at you, 1Q84).
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
An enormously popular book about 36-year old Keiko Furukura, a long-time convenience store worker existing on the outside of society’s rigid expectations, I found this to be a strange but memorable story about an individual who can’t exist peacefully according to her wishes due to the absence of “normality” in her life, which everyone around her desires to be filled in even if the content itself is mediocre. Murata’s witty writing was able to make me ponder about how the ridiculously inflexible societal standards could cause more harm than good, since they are forced onto people without consideration for individuality.
Some of the recommendations might be old news to some folks, and I think it’s important for me to continue diving into more Japanese literature, learning about it, and to hopefully provide more recommendations in the future! If you have any Japanese book and/or author recs, I am all ears. ♡