Since my last post on Murakami Haruki could potentially be seen as a bit of a downer, I thought I would take some time to make a post on Japanese book recommendations to counteract my critical tone. I get requests for recommendations a lot on Instagram, but never really feel that prepared to answer them, so I think compiling a few recommendations every once in a while on the blog will hopefully be useful to anyone who wants more exposure to Japanese literature. On one hand, there are the obvious answers when it comes to who to recommend: Natsume Sōseki, Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, Mishima Yukio, etc., and even though I do truly believe that these authors, and their ilk, are absolutely worth a read, I want to take some time to compile five books by Japanese authors that I personally think are truly worth reading that maybe wouldn’t be on that type of a list. These are not necessarily books that I think are under appreciated, incredibly unique, or even absolutely ‘crucial’ to read in order to understand Japanese literature. I am not interested in trying to define any more arbitrary boundaries outside of one: these are five books by Japanese authors that I really love and that I want to share with you!
Masks by Enchi Fumiko
I will begin with the text that I think most readers may already be familiar with as it is a staple of many Japanese literature courses and is a very popular title for people who want to read Japanese novels specifically written by women. Keeping all that in mind, I wanted to add Masks to my list because I think it is an absolutely fascinating and a multi-dimensional text that provides vastly different readings depending on how you approach it. Whenever I have heard Masks brought up, it’s usually in the context of female writers and that’s about it. However, aside from the fact that Enchi is an interesting figure herself, what I like about the text are the female characters and the themes that Enchi draws from. Enchi loved The Tale of Genji (even translating it into modern Japanese from the classical text) and draws imagery heavily from both the Genji and also from elements of kabuki theatre. What I loved about the characters and themes was the fact that Enchi presents a story about female agency and female power, but it is not necessarily clear where the power comes from or who has real agency within the narrative. Likewise, there are a lot of complicated relationships between the female characters themselves. Currently, there is a (generally fantastic) tendency towards presenting “strong female characters” in media, but sometimes the presentation of what actually constitutes such a character is fraught – which is something that I think a text like Masks presents really well. Part of what makes Masks so interesting is that the female characters are not clearly and unquestionably “good” nor are they really the people you want to root for all the time; in fact, there is a lot of tension between the desire some women have and how they go about fulfilling that desire. While some parts of the narrative could be read as female characters pushing back against their oppressors, sometimes that act of resistance perpetuates oppression or even further oppresses other women. Are the characters inadvertently reinforcing the system that they themselves want to destroy? The grey area aspects of the issues Enchi brings up – and never really answers – led to a lot of great discussion in my experience, and is what really made me enjoy this text.
The River Ki by Ariyoshi Sawako
It may be a little clearer from my first recommendation that I am all for pushing for female representation and female agency in literature (and beyond). However, my big issue is with how we go about achieving that desire. I am less interested in texts who have singular strong female characters and more interested in how female characters relate to one another within the text. I think that having multiple female characters within a single text, allowing each of them to “live” their respective lives on the page, and seeing how they interact with one another is so much more compelling than having one female that we follow who is great at everything. The reason why I like The River Ki is because, like Masks, it is nicely populated with intriguing female characters – in this case family members – who attempt to come to terms with their generational differences in a perpetually changing world. The novel follows three generations of women and the way they experience the world as it changes around them through war and modernity, as well as how their lived experience changes the way they relate to one another. I love Ariyoshi’s ability to write female characters because, like Enchi, many of these characters are complicated and flawed at times, so their interactions bear real weight in the narrative, which makes you grieve for them when their decisions don’t pan out the way they (and us as readers) wanted or makes you celebrate with them when they are able to pull through hardship. I think that a lot of family or domestically-focused stories can come across as a little too sentimental for me, but Ariyoshi does a fantastic job of describing the way women move through the domestic space and how they navigate a world that is often dictated to them by outside forces. It’s an interesting look, like Masks, at the question of female agency and how these characters use whatever power they have to shape their world.
Deep River by Endō Shūsaku
And now for something a little different! Endō’s work has been fairly popular in the West lately due to the Scorsese film adaptation of Silence that came out in 2016, but I remember hearing my mother mention his work when I was younger (she really liked his work and was that one who made me read him). Endō is an interesting figure within the Japanese literary tradition because of his Catholic faith; in a country where a very small portion of the country is Christian, Endō writes about how he situates himself within different belief systems in Japan. However, what I think makes Endō doubly interesting as a writer is not only his ability to write about the difficulties of a Western belief system in a non-Western context, but he is also so good at using that tension to highlight the problems and hypocrisies in Christianity itself (and, by extension, other belief systems). I think he does this to some extent in Silence, but this tension becomes a much bigger theme in Deep River, particularly in the character of Otsu. In my mind, there is no dogma in Deep River but there is, instead, an attempt to move towards a more individual and, above all, compassionate understanding of belief. Endō is not apologetic about his personal beliefs, but he is quick to grapple with the problems of being human and trying to situate belief within these problems. I think that a lot of American readers (particularly the evangelical camp), whose sense of Christianity seems to tend towards a “one-way” only approach to belief, would really benefit from the arguments that Endō presents for the co-existance of beliefs and allowing people to encounter divinity in a way that is true to them. Although I enjoy all of his work for different reasons, I personally love Deep River the best and found that other Japanese readers (and, interestingly, Chinese readers, too) I have spoken with also liked this book the best out of Endō’s work.
Fires on the Plain by Ōoka Shōhei
I know that war-time novels are not always everyone’s cup of tea, but I wanted to include Fires on the Plain on this initial list because I was actually not a fan of it when I first began reading. At the beginning, Ōoka’s description of the solider’s suffering is a bit difficult to swallow, particularly since they are in the Philippines and, looming over all of this, is the spectre of the horrors that the Japanese empire committed against people in other Asian countries. However, as I read through the piece, I started to become much more aware of what Ōoka was trying to accomplish through his work so, although it is definitely not perfect and although I think he is splitting hairs at some moments when it comes down to the issue of responsibility, I think he presents compelling questions to those of us who have never experienced war. What I appreciate the most about Ōoka is his desire to write the book because he was alarmed at how quickly Japan ‘forgot’ about the atrocities of WWII and subsequently became involved as a U.S. ally in the Korean War, a mere five years after the end of WWII. A lot of the novel centers around the ways human beings avoid responsibility, both on an individual level and on a collective level, which he is highly critical of. Yet, there is also a focus on an innate human desire to survive, which drives out any preconceived notion of ethics – in other words, when driven to the edge, human beings will almost always be selfish in order to survive. Ōoka’s focus on survival and on the absurdity of what humans do in such terrible situations, as well as the tensions between individuals and nations, and the ways that humans come to terms with horrific events after the fact, makes this a worthwhile read. He raises important questions to the reader, but I think it would be a mistake to say that he clearly delineates an answer for us or a clear path forward. Collective amnesia alarms him, as does the victim consciousness he sees in the post-war period, so this text is his attempt to remind readers of what happened and how important it is to not forget.
Diary of a Vagabond by Hayashi Fumiko
I stumbled upon Hayashi Fumiko’s work a few months ago completely by accident and fell unexpectedly in love with her work. Although she was new to me as a reader, it turns out that she is a very important figure in the Japanese literary tradition, particularly in terms of her autobiographical work, such as Diary of a Vagabond. Diary is a semi-fictionalized account of her own diary that she supposedly kept as a young woman living in a low socio-economic situation and the ways she tries to live her life in poverty as a struggling female writer. She touches on a lot of personal and financial hardships, but she also writes openly of her desires for love, sex, companionship, and a lot of very emotionally raw topics that I think will resonate with many readers. When I’ve mentioned this work in other contexts, I added in a little disclaimer that, in many instances, she will make you want to scream at her for the poor taste she has in men! Through all that though, what I enjoy so much about Diary is the Hayashi’s desire to break apart expectations of what the diary format can do and what autobiographical texts can talk about. Unlike a lot of other writers who came before her, whose work tended to set specific limits around what writing can do – and what can be written about – Hayashi’s work completely blows those rules up (which I love her for!). She has such a fun, lively voice throughout the text and she includes so many different styles of writing into the diary format, including her poetry, that I think more readers need to encounter.