My introduction to Japanese fiction began when I was sixteen and picked up my first Yukio Mishima. Mishima’s works are dense, full of longing and, yes, suicides as well, talking of a Japanese era gone by – one of aristocrats and empires and emperors. His books are one of a kind – The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy is epic in its scope and story-telling. Moreover, the translation is just perfect. And that is where my love for Japanese literature took place.
Yasunari Kawabata is another underrated Japanese writer in my opinion. He wrote only a dozen books in all, most of them not even translated into English.But the ones that have been are small gems of brilliant literature. His language is simple and subtle, almost like haikus. Reading him is like enjoying a cup of sake and not being too greedy about it as even one cup satiates the mind and soul.
Kawabata wrote of the social issues of his time. A love story between a Tokyo dilettante and a Geisha is depicted beautifully in Snow Country, while one more ill-fated love story appears in Thousand Cranes. Kawabata’s short stories are full of eroticism (which is not in your face) and desire that stems and grows. In short, he is one writer I would urge you to read.
The first novel
Then came the significant time in my life when I read what is acknowledged as the first novel - The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese noblewoman and a lady-in-waiting. It almost changed the way I viewed fiction and its importance in my life.
It has all the elements of the modern novel – and is considered to be a psychological work – probably the first ever. The characters are defined by their function rather than their name, and that stood out the most for me, giving an insight into early Japanese culture.
The book recounts the life of a son of the Japanese Emperor, presented to readers as Shining Genji. The Tale of Genji takes us through his romantic life, the aristocratic society of the time and the barriers. It could have very well been an ancient Romeo and Juliet. The fact of the matter is that it is a great read, though laboured at times.
Introducing the cat
After this I lapped up Natsume Soseki’s I am a Cat, which presents a cat’s life and the world through its eyes over three volumes. What I enjoyed about this one was the one singular voice of a cat and the impact it had on me as a reader. The cat is aware of the human world and its fallacies, and depicts it with great humour, sarcasm, and wit. (So now you know that Murakami’s cats have a precedent.)
The urge to read more Japanese literature was like no other. I wanted to know more about the culture – their behaviour patterns, the way they thought, how society was structured – the ancient and the modern and the conflicts within. There’s no better writer than Junichiro Tanizaki to put this in perspective. I have read five of his books, and each book down the line spoke of two themes – sexual freedom and the free will to think and act. Tankizaki’s characters are strong, with the hidden weak side that they do not want anyone else to know, which, as noticed and understood through his writing, is a treat.
Kazuo Ishiguro joined the forces very soon. Ishiguro, a native of Japan and now settled in England, works with varied themes. From cloning and unrequited love as depicted in Never Let Me Go to the state of butlers and maids in The Remains of the Day, his novels are not traditionally Japanese – except for two - but his sensibilities certanly are, and this makes him a great writer. The sensitivity, the sparing and effective use of language, and the judgment in making the characters feel and speak the way they want to are all extraoordinary.
Japanese Literature is not everyone’s cup of tea, quite literally at that. There are close to a thousand nuances in every second book. The plot doesn’t reveal itself till it wants to be seen. The reader almost gets frustrated and his patience does not always survive the beauty of the language. I have seen that happen to most people.
One Japanese writer who has used just these qualites to storm the literary scene is, of course, Murakami. Murakami’s works are not easy to understand, and yet he connects with his readers in a manner unlike anyone else. It does take time for his books to seep in, but once they have, there is no way out for you. You will read and re-read and quote and be dizzy with his words and the beauty of it all.
From unrequited love to a detective story to parallel universes and subtleties of romance and heartache, Murakami touches on every topic and more like a true genius. My love affair with him started with Sputnik Sweetheart and still continues to this very day. Thank you for writing the way you do.
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa entered my life after I watched the film, Rashomon. When I found out that it was based on a short story, I simply had to read it. Sure enough, Akutagawa’s stories turned out to be spectacular. This one revolves around the murder of a Samurai and the rape of his wife, followed by four versions – the bandit’s story, the wife’s story, the samurai’s story and the woodcutter’s story – each with a different twist and re-telling. For me, this was a benchmark in short stories. There was so much in terms of language and description, and yet so much left to the reader’s thought process.
There are many other Japanese writers I would urge you to explore if you have not already – Banana Yoshimoto being one of them, with her classic themes of loss of identity and voice, Osamu Dazai, well known for his character sketches and romanticism, Kobo Abe, with his skills at explaining the violent and unknown side of men, and Kenzaburo Oe, with his ruthless description of the dark corners of the human mind and soul.
Japanese literature is, quite simply, my personal mirror to my soul.
Vivek Tejuja works at Flipkart and loves to recommend books.