January in Japan: Short Stories by Women

I cannot remember where exactly I came across this rather lovely little bilingual collection of short stories by Japanese women writers, translated and edited by Angus Turvill and sponsored by The Japan Society in the UK . Probably the London Book Fair, but it is available for purchase (mostly online). The collection features Kuniko Mukoda (gone far too soon), Natsuko Kuroda, Kaori Ekuni, Mitsuyo Kakuta, Aoko Matsuda. I had only read Mukoda in the original a long time ago and in translation only the last of these authors, Matsuda’s novella entitled The Girl Who Is Getting Married (translated by the same Angus Turvill).

The stories are presented in parallel text format, although of course it is not intended to be an absolute literal translation. Nevertheless, it makes me feel curiously powerful to be able to check the original Japanese on the left against the English on the right, especially when the original includes phonetic transcription of all the kanji characters that might prove a bit of a struggle to this rusty scholar of Japanese! It also includes a fascinating discussion of translation choices at the end, which demonstrates just how tricky translation can be.

The stories all take place in different settings – town, country, seaside, past, present. In all but one of them, the main character is a woman, at different stages of their life, and in scenarios that will sound terribly familiar to women outside Japan too. From the young girl shunned by her classmates in The Ball by Kuroda, to the young worker profoundly tired of ‘friendly working environments’ in Planting by Matsuda, from the mother mourning the loss of her stillborn infant in The Child Over There to a lonely older woman finding some kind of connection with the younger generation in Summer Blanket. What is very Japanese about these stories, if we can make any cultural generalisations, is the subtle, slant way of telling things. None of that ‘drumming home the point’ that we often get in what I like to call the MFA class of contemporary American short stories.

Having said that, my favourite story is probably The Otter, the one that follows the most typical Western-style short story format. (It was written in 1980, shortly before the death of the author in a plane crash). It is the only one where the main protagonist is an elderly man, whose pride and joy is his garden, a rare thing in an urban environment. He likes to sit on the veranda and admire it at dusk. He has been resisting his wife’s suggestion that he should sell off part of the plot of land to a developer to build a block of flats. But then he has a stroke and his wife takes matters into her own hands.

Throughout the story, Takuji compares his wife to an otter – he feels real affection for the energy with which she tackles most things, how lively and captivating she is. How easily she proffers little white lies to the travelling salesmen who come knocking at their door. In Japanese the word for otter is ‘kawauso’ (which is written throughout the story in hiragana rather than any kanji – significantly so, because kawauso also sounds like ‘kawaii + uso’ – which could mean ‘cute lies’). But then he remembers a painting entitled The Otters’ Carnival:

Otters are wanton in their destructiveness: they sometimes kill more fish than they can possibly eat, and lay them out on display. That kind of display is sometimes called an otters’ carnival.

In layer after layer of recollections, almost a list of the things he admires but also finds a little frustrating about his wife, he begins to realise what shaky foundations his life has been built upon.

Stories that felt like a breath of fresh air. I was transported to a Japanese seashore, was wrapped in a light summer blanket, and planted away my fear…

8 thoughts on “January in Japan: Short Stories by Women”

  1. Very glad to hear you enjoyed this collection, Marina Sofia. It sounds like a well-chosen set of stories. I know what you mean, too, about being able compare translation to the original. I like to do that, too, when a book is in a language I know. Besides that sense of agency, I think it does give an interesting perspective on the story that you can’ always get just from a translation.

  2. It does indeed sound rather lovely, Marina. I’ve read a fair amount of Japanese literature, but shockingly mostly male, so I need to rectify this. Dual language text is so intriguing but can be problematic – despite my amateurishness with French, I’ve found myself disagreeing with translators at times when the two languages are side by side… :s

  3. I’ve had my eye on this collection, so it’s really great to read such a positive review from you, Marina 🙂 Parallel text editions are so interesting, especially in Japanese, where you can see and learn so much from a translator’s word and expression choice.

  4. Gosh, that is a thing of beauty – what a gorgeous cover! The Otter sounds excellent, somewhat reminiscent of Soseki, perhaps? (The Gate, in particular.)

  5. I’m intrigued by your description of The Otter, not only in how bis wife might resemble ghe creature, but how he feels he has built his life on less than a solid foundation. It is interesting to look back at one’s life, and wonder what could have been, although that kind of thinking is only fruitful when one is content with the choices one has made. This sounds like a fabulous collection of stories, which would also fit in with my desire to read more of that genre as well. Thank you for reviewing them for me/us.

  6. Oh, I REALLY like the sound of this. I love short stories, and I want to read more women in translation (last year I found out that August is “women in translation” month)! Thanks for this!

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