#JanuaryInJapan: Dazai Osamu Rewriting Fairytales

Dazai Osamu: Otogizoshi: The Fairy Tale Book of Dazai Osamu, transl. Ralf F. McCarthy, Kurodahan Press, 2011.

How can I have a January in Japan/Japanese Literature Challenge 16 without sneaking in at least one book by my favourite Japanese author Dazai Osamu? I may have mentioned him once or twice before… Anyway, this year I dug out this slim volume of ‘retold’ fairy tales by Dazai, which was pretty much the only way that he could publish during the Second World War. In1945, as the air raids were destroying much of Tokyo (including his own house), he played around with four of the best-known Japanese folk tales, retelling them not just for children, but particularly for grown ups.

There aren’t any overt criticisms of the Japanese war strategy, or even much mention of the dire situation the country was in by that point. However, the war is included, because the stories start off with a short prologue in which the author/narrator (always a tricky matter to distinguish the two with Dazai) starts telling stories to his children while they are seeking refuge in an air raid shelter. Additionally, the narrator keeps interrupting the flow of his narrative to comment that he cannot ascertain a particular detail because he doesn’t have a dictionary or encyclopedia handy, or that he cannot recount the most famous story of them all Momotaro (which had been used for propaganda purposes by the Japanese government), because ‘an author who has never been number one in Japan – or even number two or three – can hardly be expected to produce an adequate picture of Japan’s foremost young man’. His sarcasm extends to samurai warriors and their ideology, to landed gentry (such as his own family) and the heroic interpretations of Japanese history.

Traditional representations of Urashima Taro.

For example, here he is having a pop at Urashima Tarō, who is rewarded for rescuing a turtle by being taken to the Dragon Palace deep underneath the sea and meeting the Sea Princess, and generally having a great time there. When he returns on land, he discovers he has been away for a hundred years. The story is so well known that it has been a set text for elementary school in Japan for over a hundred years. Urashima Tarō is generally portrayed as a simple fisherman devoted to his mother, but in Dazai’s eponymous story he becomes the eldest son of an old and respected family with many servants.

Among second and third sons one often finds that variety of prodigal who overindulges in liquor and pursues women of lowly birth, muddying his own family’s name in the process, but the number one son… comes naturally to acquire a certain steadfast stodginess…

You can’t help but feel he is remembering some of his altercations with his older brothers! His rather cynical views of married life and suffocating families also find their way in other tales, such as the farcical ‘The Stolen Wen’ (aka ‘How an old man lost his wen/boil/lump’). The old man in the folktale is not a drunkard, but Dazai was, so he can’t resist giving him this trait.

In short, this family of Oji-san is nothing if not respectable and upstanding. And yet the fact remains that he is depressed. He wants to be considerate of his family but feels he cannot help but drink.

Throughout, there are a few digs at people’s behaviour, uttered by some of the characters, for instance, the tendency to gossip about one’s neighbors (which I can imagine a lot of people had been doing about Dazai all his life). Here is another husband complaining to his wife in ‘The sparrow who lost her tongue’:

Who do you think made me such a taciturn man chatting and laughing about what over dinner? I’ll tell you what – their neighbors. Criticizing. Tearing others down. Nothing but backbiting, malicious gossip…The only thing people like you can see is other people’s faults and you’re oblivious to the horror in your own hearts. You people terrify me.

It’s hard to demonstrate Dazai’s humour unless you know the original folk tales, for he takes great pleasure in subverting them, adding a running commentary as the storyteller. His Oni ogres are anything but terrifying, and he makes the link with the literary world of his time:

We use the word [Oni] to describe hateful people, murderers and even vampire, and one might therefore feel safe in assuming that these beings possess, in general, fairly despicable personality traits. But then one spies in the New Books column of the newspaper a headline reading ‘The Latest Masterpiece from the Ogre-like Genius of So-and-So-sensei’ and one is perplexed. One wonders if the article is an attempt to alert the public to So-and-So-sensei’s wicked influence or evil machinations… One would think that the great sensei himself would react angrily to being called such nasty and insulting names, but apparently that isn’t the case. One even hears rumors to the effect that he secretly encourages their use…

‘Monstre sacre’ indeed, as the French would say!

If you want to discover the lighter side of Dazai Osamu, the brilliant conversationalist he undoubtedly was (despite donning the mantle of grumpiness whenever it suited him), then I would recommend starting with his short stories, and these retold folk tales fall into that category, showing how much he could achieve even working within formal constraints. It’s not easy to find though…

#JanuaryInJapan: Reading and Watching Tokyo Vice

Something completely different now for January in Japan – not really a Japanese literature challenge as such, but an account of Japanese vice and crime written by someone in the know – and the TV adaptation of it, which incorporates a lot of actual Japanese language and perceptions.

Jake Adelstein: Tokyo Vice, Corsair, 2010

I met Jake in person at Quais du Polar in Lyon in 2016 and we chatted a bit about Japan, so I felt compelled to buy his book, although it was ‘true crime’, a genre I don’t read that much. However, he described the book in the following intriguing way (in interviews):

You could also say it’s about a sleazy Harry Potter finding that he can oust yakuza Voldemort from power but only at a great cost. And Voldemort lives.

Over the next six years, I read certain passages from it, but not the whole book (it contains all sorts of stories from Adelstein’s time as a reporter for Yomiuri, one of the biggest newspapers in Japan)… until I heard that a TV series was coming out. Although the series was initially only available on HBO, I was finally able to watch it on BBC iPlayer throughout December and January. I like to watch one episode at a time instead of bingeing, but I watched it on consecutive nights, as it was quite thrilling.

So I was able to compare the two – and what month better to do so than in January in Japan?

In the book, there are many different anecdotes and characters – after all, the book covers approximately 12 years of crime reporting. The book has far more explanations and subtleties (far more shades of grey) – but it does not hide the fact that some investigations took years to develop and were often never satisfactorily resolved. In the TV series, some of the incidents and interactions were repeated verbatim, but other scenes or characters were conflated, woven together, and certainly made to seem concurrent or happening over a very short period of time to heighten the dramatic tension. I think those changes are justified most of the time – and charismatic performances from several of the Japanese actors meant that there was less of the ‘white saviour’ narrative here than there might have been in the book.

Actually, I am not accusing the book of that either. Yes, perhaps the author is a little proud of the corruption and horrendous stories he uncovered (he was involved in investigative journalism in the Lucie Blackman case, for example) and it is undeniable that the yakuza, the Japanese government and the media often have a cosy ‘understanding’ which makes it difficult to surface such stories. But I don’t think he is glorifying himself: on the contrary, I found his candour in admitting his mistakes, his cultural misunderstandings, and his disillusionment to be quite refreshing. In some ways, it reminded me of Lost Illusions by Balzac, which I am also currently reading. You go into journalism with the idea that you are chasing after the ultimate truth and that you will change the world… and then find yourself having to compromise and making very little real difference.

And yet the senior reporters and mentors at Yomiuri greet the budding journalist with an idealistic speech about the value of the work they do:

It’s not about learning – it’s about unlearning. It’s about cutting off ties, cutting out things, getting rid of preconceptions, losing everything you thought you knew… You learn to let go of what you want to be the truth and find out what is the truth, and you report it as it is, not as you wish it was. Journalists are the one thing in this country that keeps the forces in power in check.

Ah well, only if they do their job properly and are not funded by various individuals with particular political preferences…

Tokyo Vice – TV series

Of course everybody is very good-looking in the TV series. I’m not a huge fan of Ansel Elgort, and he is far taller and blonder than the real-life Jake Adelstein. However, that makes him stand out even more as a gaijin (foreigner). What surprised me is that the TV Jake is not necessarily presented all that sympathetically – he is stubborn, makes mistakes, is selfish, treats others badly at times. I was wondering how the real Jake felt about that – but when I read the book, I realised that the author is quite hard on himself too.

Meanwhile, I fell in love with the young Japanese actor Sho Kasamatsu, who plays a yakuza underling who gets a little too friendly with Jake and a foreign girl, and develops too much of a conscience.

But it’s not just the actors who are pretty: the production values and cinematography are quite good-looking too, even when we go off exploring the seedy underbelly of Tokyo. I particularly liked the bilingualism of the show – the American actors did their best to learn Japanese, while the Japanese actors learnt some English, and the dialogues incorporate both.

The first season ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, but I understand a second season is forthcoming. Of course, having read the book, I have my suspicions about how some of the storylines are going to end…

#JanuaryInJapan: Loneliness and Finding Your Passion

I was going to write separate reviews, or at least talk about them two by two, but in the end they all seem to speak to each other. So I have attempted something new: an audio review (podcast seems a bit too ambitious a term).

They are all books about misfits, quirky outsiders who seem to struggle to socialise with other people, who all have a passion for something, who put up with many disappointments and ultimately find some kind of resilience or escape. They are all written by women, but in two of the books the main protagonists are men, which allows for an interesting contrast. I discuss several common themes that run through all the books: the lonely, socially inept main protagonist who explores ways in which to live their life via their craft or hobbies; the yearning for human connection, perhaps even love; the mentor character; the pragmatic character who provides a strong contrast to our dreamy protagonist; finally, some thoughts about style and appeal.

https://anchor.fm/sanda-ionescu/embed/episodes/Four-Novels-about-Loneliness-and-Finding-Your-Passion-e1tgul1

Kawakami Mieko: All the Lovers in the Night, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd

Miura Shion: The Great Passage, transl. Juliet Winters Carpenter

Miyashita Natsu: The Forest of Wool and Steel, transl. Philip Gabriel

Plus a Taiwanese novel that also fits this theme:

Lee Wei-Jing: The Mermaid’s Tale, transl. Darryl Sterk

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. However, you can also set up a link to your favourite independent bookshop and they too will get a share of the sale price.

You may be surprised to discover that The Great Passage has been adapted for an animated TV series. Here are the characters from the book in their anime form.

#JanuaryInJapan: Two Crime Novels

Apologies, I still call this January in Japan, because I love the alliteration, but it is actually the Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Dolce Bellezza for the sixteenth year(!). I eased myself in with two books at the opposite ends of the crime fiction spectrum.

Matsumoto Seicho: Tokyo Express, transl. Jesse Kirkwood

This author’s work spanned most of the 20th century (born 1909, died 1992) and he is considered one of the classics of Japanese crime fiction. The blurb on the Penguin Classics edition of the book entitled Ten to Sen in Japanese (literal translation: Points and Lines) says ‘His exploration of human psychology and Japanese post-war malaise, coupled with the creation of twisting, dark mysetires, made him one of the most acclaimed and best-selling writers in Japan’. But I didn’t see much psychology in this book – on the contrary, it is the type of mystery that relies very much on tiny details and an encyclopedic knowledge of train timetables to break an alibi, more reminiscent of the work of Freeman Wills Croft (who was a railroad engineer before he started writing crime novels). It comes as no surprise to hear that the author holed up in Room 209 of the Tokyo Station Hotel with the train timetables while writing this in 1958.

Needless to say, this kind of story heavily reliant on accurate train times (with four minute gaps and consecrated platforms for each train) could only work in that particular place and time. Can you imagine trying to replicate that in the current chaos of train travel that has become the norm in the UK? (Let alone how expensive it would be to take a train to commit a murder – you’re better off hiring a contract killer!) It turns out that there is a whole subgenre of Japanese literature based on crimes occurring near or on trains (most recent examples: Bullet Train), or else where alibis rely on a timetable. Although commercial domestic flights had begun in Japan in the 1950s, it was not a widespread form of transportation yet.

The death of a young couple on a beach in Fukuoka is instantly classified as a double love suicide, which was still quite common at the time in Japan (Dazai Osamu died in this fashion less than ten years before this book was published). Interesting and rather sad sidenote: double suicide (or homicide-suicide) for couples is now far more common among the elderly in Japan, for economic or health reasons. A wily old local detective doesn’t quite buy it, and his Tokyo counterpart becomes equally obsessed with proving that there is something more behind it, possibly linked to government corruption. But all of their efforts to find evidence to support their theories seem to hit a brick wall, at least at first (and for most of the book). I thought it was an interesting look at the sheer drudgery of police work, checking and double-checking every minute detail, especially before the age of computers.

What spoilt the mystery element of it for me, however, was that the very first chapter pretty much gives away the whodunit and why, although not the details of how. We also gain next to no insight into the private lives of the two detectives, nor get a glimpse into the psyche of any of the characters, perpetrators or victims. Tthe entire focus of the book is on the puzzle – how all of the pieces fit together.

Onda Riku: Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight, transl. Alison Watts

By way of contrast, Onda’s book is all about psychology, about observing and outwitting each other, about digging deep into the past, into trauma and guilt. In fact, we are not even sure if a crime has been committed, or if it was an accident, although the two main protagonists blame each other for it.

Hiro and Aki, a man and a woman, have packed up all of their belongings and are sitting for one last night in their shared flat before going their separate ways. Their relationship has broken down, they no longer trust each other after going on an excursion in the mountains a year ago, where their guide had a fatal accident. They buy food and drink to last them through the night, and see this as an opportunity for a ‘face-off’, i.e. get the other to confess that they were responsible for the death of their guide. Along the way, of course, they unravel all sorts of feelings of guilt and resentment about their own unconventional love story.

Just like with the Aosawa Murders by the same author, this is not the kind of book you read for the crime element. Although it is a suspenseful game of cat and mouse, it is above all a sad story about loneliness and the need for connection. The fish metaphor of the title hints that there are hidden depths here, and that we can only ever hope to catch glimpses of the true nature of people and the essence of a relationship, but those are things that will always ultimately escape us.

If I were younger, I might have been able to let the emotions of the moment carry me along, and throw everything away. Or I might have been capable of ending our relationship with a single stroke and leaving on the spot. But the older one gets, the harder it is to do that kind of thing. All manner of compromises and caluclations must be taken into account, and above all the fear of loneliness is real. If a few sad memories and hurt feelings are the sole price, then closing one’s eyes to the other’s faults and curling up in retreat is easy enough to do.

The backstory feels a little far-fetched to me, but the author does a good job of drip-feeding us more details, with the chapters alternating between the two narrators, Aki and Hiro, which allows us to see differences in their approaches and ways of thinking. While not quite as ambiguous and clever as The Aosawa Murders, this is perhaps a more comfortable entry point for Onda’s work.

So this book was all psychological depth but no proper investigation, while Tokyo Express was all investigation and no psychological depth. If you want to read a book that combines both, I would recommend Higashino Keigo’s A Death in Tokyo, which made my best of the year list in 2022.

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January Summary: Japan and Beyond

This has felt like an endless month, although I only went back to work on the 10th of January. It is still too dark, too cold, too Omicron to do anything other than hibernate. And read, as you can tell by the good number of books I’ve devoured. As always, reading Japanese literature marks a good start to my year. It remains a passion of mine, even though I can no longer read anything but basic, short texts in the original. Luckily, there are many talented translators springing up, particularly female ones. I managed to read and review six of them (one is not in the picture below, because I read it in December). It was a pleasure to reread Yosano Akiko in a different translation, great to expand my knowledge of Endō Shūsaku, Murakami Haruki and Tanizaki Junichiro with lesser-known books by them, and great to discover a new to me author Nakagami Kenji, who shows an aspect of Japanese life that is seldom present in literature. I was somewhat less impressed by the style of contemporary writer Hirano Keiichiro, although I felt the themes he addressed were quite interesting. In retrospect, I realise that should have read more women authors – a spread of five men to one woman was not a good choice!

Many of the remaining books of the month provided some light relief or entertainment. They had me turning the pages late into the night, but have not particularly stuck with me. I would include the following in this category:

  • Nicci French: The Lying Room – have loved previous standalone pyschological thrillers by this author duo, but this one felt a bit implausible and dull
  • Janice Hallett: The Appeal – the format of the story (emails and other correspondance) was far more interesting than the substance
  • Samantha Downing: For Your Own Good – for Virtual Crime Club – the story of a manipulative teacher, but I read it a week or so ago and can remember next to nothing
  • Bella Ellis: The Red Monarch – I know there is only so much crime that the Brontë siblings can detect in Haworth and its surroundings, but the London location was less successful to my mind
  • Jill Dawson: The Crime Writer – quite a charming yet unsettling riff on the unsettling writer Patricia Highsmith, slippery like an eel, hard to tell what is real and what is imagination or paranoia

Two of the books were truly noir and therefore quite difficult to read at times. Swiss writer Joseph Incardona’s Derrière les panneaux il y a des hommes is about a serial killer targeting young girls at service stations on the French autoroutes, but also offers a cross-cut of society through the multitude of individuals who congregate in such liminal spaces. Willy Vlautin’s The Night Always Comes was an excellent description of the American dream of house ownership turning into a nightmare, with characters trapped in poverty and endless disappointment, although those lengthy expositions via dialogue were a strange stylistic choice (a bit like a Greek chorus).

I tried to get one book to fit in with Annabel’s Nordic FINDS project, and I did get around to reading (but not reviewing) Jacob Sundberg’s We’ll Call You, a collection of short stories about job interviews. A sharp, funny little book, translated from Swedish by Duncan Lewis, full of the absurdities of the corporate world and our own apparently endless capacity for self-deception.

My favourite books of the month were the two I was reading on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, so as to start the year right: Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know and Real Estate, the first and last volume of her ‘sort of memoir trilogy’. I have marked almost every third sentence in those slim volumes, they all speak to me so much (although it was the second one that I read a couple of years ago which addressed my own situation most closely).

I have also watched some Japanese films in honour of January in Japan month (to add to the constant roll of Japanese anime in our household). I put up with the overly sentimental but beautifully drawn Violet Evergarden movie for the sake of my younger son (although he too agreed that the series was better). We loved the adorable Ponyo (although I think I still prefer Tottoro) and thought A Whisker Away was a bit strange but charming, especially if you like cats.

Of the more grown-up films, I watched two by the same director, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, who is mostly known for his horror films. However, Tokyo Sonata is a smaller-scale domestic drama, with the fine yet understated psychological insight of his predecessor Ozu, while Wife of a Spy was a stylish mystery thriller set in war-time Japan, with echoes of Vertigo or The Third Man.

February will be dedicated to Australian writers, and I will attempt to read more women this time, to redress the balance. Sadly, my choices are limited by the books I can find over here in the UK, which is not much (and most of it second-hand).

January in Japan: The Poet Yosano Akiko

Yosano Akiko: River of Stars (Selected Poems), trans. Sam Hamill and Keiko Matsui Gibson, Shambhala, 1996.

For my last #JanuaryinJapan or Japanese Literature Challenge 15 contribution, I picked one of my favourite Japanese poets, who wrote both in freestyle ‘Western-type’ verse but also in the traditional Japanese tanka. The last time I wrote about a tanka poet was back in 2012, soon after starting this blog, and it remains one of the perennial favourites of my blog posts. It was about Tawara Machi, who exploded onto the literary scene in the 1980s and modernised the traditional tanka format. However, long before Tawara became the symbol of her generation of women, there was another woman writer who provoked scandal, ire, but also great admiration. That poet is Yosano Akiko and she is a true giant of Japanese literature, who deserves to be better known outside her own country.

She was also quite a contradictory person both in her personal life and in her writing. Born in a very traditional and reasonably well-off Osaka merchant/shopkeeping family in 1878, she demonstrated a precocious talent for poetry and, thanks to a family tradition of scholarship, was allowed to continue her education until she graduated from high school. At the same time, she was barely allowed to go out even in daylight without an escort.

Nevertheless, once she started participating in the literary circles of Osaka and Tokyo, she became involved with Yosano Tekkan, a still-married poet and editor. She soon joined him in Tokyo, they married and had no less than thirteen children, but he continued his affairs with other women, including his former wife. Akiko seems to have been devoted to him, but was also willing to engage in love triangles with her husband’s female admirers, with whom she even wrote poetry. Although eleven of her children survived to adulthood, she repeatedly protested against motherhood being the primary source of identity for a woman.

Above all, she continued her literary endeavours, co-editing the literary journal, publishing 20 volumes of poetry and many volumes of prose and essays, translating the epic novel Genji Monogatari and the Manyōshū (earliest collection of Japanese poetry) into modern Japanese, founded the first co-educational cultural college in Japan, and also became renowned for her feminist and pacifist activism. She dared to be openly critical of the Japanese Emperor during the Russo-Japanese War at a time when no one else raised their voice, saying that militarism was a form of ‘barbarian thinking which is the responsibility of us women to eradicate from our midst’… yet appears to have supported the rise of Japanese militarism in the Second World War (maybe it was what she had to write under censorship: she died in 1942).

For me, however, she is above all the poet who completely revitalised the traditional tanka form. By the late 19th century, writing a tanka had become a party trick more than anything else, following rules very closely, cliche-ridden, unimaginative. Akiko blasted through all the fussiness and cobwebs with her highly individual and erotically charged poetry in her debut collection Midaregami (Tangled Hair – or Bedhead in contemporary parlance). There hadn’t been that kind of frankness and sensuality, that uninhibited description of women’s passion for centuries. I think we do find some of it in the Heian period with Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu, and it’s not surprising that Yosano Akiko revered and translated these women writers, but she also added Western Romanticism and Modernism to the mix.

きのふをば千とせの前の世とも思ひ御手なほ肩に有りとも思ふ

Was it a thousand years ago or only yesterday we parted?

Even now, on my shoulder I feel your friendly hand.

ゆあみして泉を出でしやははだにふるるはつらき人の世のきぬ

Fresh from my hot bath I dressed slowly before the tall mirror,

a smile for my own body, innocence so long ago.

くろ髪の千すぢの髪のみだれ髪かつおもひみだれおもひみだるる

My shiny black hair fallen into disarray, a thousand tangles

like a thousand tangled thoughts about my love for you.

What was even more scandalous was the way she provokes (and somewhat mocks) the Buddhist priest who has renounced love and fleshly delights.

You’ve never explored this tender flesh or known such stormy blood.

Do you not grow lonely, friend, forever preaching the Way?

Throughout her love poetry, we find this contradiction between absolute confidence in her womanly power and the sadness or despair at never quite achieving the love she seeks. Some of it is no doubt stylised (see Genji Monogatari for similar examples), but some of it feels very personal, reflecting her own life. Compare:

In return for all the sins and crimes of men, the gods created me

with glistening long black hair and pale, inviting skin.

with:

Yesterday you spoke of your love life’s history. Alone and sleepless,

twisting, my jealousy burns through the merciless night.

The gods wish it so: a life ends with a shatter – with my great broadax

I demolish my koto, oh, listen to that sound!

Yosano Akiko

Finding Yosano Akiko’s work in English is not easy, so I suppose I should be grateful that this translation is available (out of print though, quite expensive second-hand), but I have some issues with this book. This has to do both with the selection of the poems (which do not necessarily give quite as comprehensive a view of her poetry, which is really versatile), and with the translation. Japanese poetry (especially tanka and haiku) is so full of allusions, ellipsis, references to classical poetry that the same poem can be translated in wildly different ways, for example:

“Spring doesn’t last,” I said to him…
“You don’t believe in permanence, do you?”
And I took his hands in mine
Leading them
To my young full breasts. (Roger Pulvers)

This autumn will end.
Nothing can last forever.
Fate controls our lives.
Fondle my breasts
With your strong hands. (Kenneth Rexroth)

Gently I open
the door to eternal
mystery, the flowers
of my breasts cupped,
offered with both my hands.

The final translation is the one contained in this volume, and it feels quite far removed from the original, as if the translator has already done all the thinking and feeling for the reader. As a translator, however, I am often tempted to do the same. What do you think? Do you like to have a puzzle to figure out when you read a translation, or do you prefer to have the work done for you?

The anime Yosano Akiko. Long may her memory live on!

P.S. For manga/anime fans amongst you, I should point out that Yosano Akiko is a popular character in Bungo Stray Dogs, the doctor of the Armed Detective Agency (an advocate of rather hardcore treatments, but also a feminist and pacifist).

January in Japan: Endo Shusaku – Scandal

Endō Shūsaku: Scandal, transl. Van C. Gessel, Peter Owen, 1988.

Back in the late 1960s to late 1980s, during the time of the Japanese boom, Endō Shūsaku was one of the most highly regarded and translated Japanese authors, regularly tipped to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. If Kawabata represented aethereal Japanese beauty and cherry blossoms, Mishima the darker yet more ornate world of modernity clashing against Japanese tradition, then Endō represented something more familiar to the Western reader: a practising Christian (a Catholic, moreover).

Often compared to Graham Greene (inaccurately, I believe, although the two authors are said to have admired each other greatly), he is best known for his historical fiction such as Silence (about a Catholic missionary in 17th century Japan) or Samurai (about a Japanese diplomatic mission to Mexico and Spain in the 17th century). This novel Scandal is very much set in present-day Tokyo (at the time the book was written).

It is about a well-known 65-year-old Catholic novelist Suguro (clearly the author is capable of being quite self-critical and poking fun at himself). He has won prizes, has been successful, is content in his marriage with a fellow Japanese Christian, even though it’s all become very routine.

In the seasons when her limbs did not ache they would sometimes have lunch together and then go out for a walk. They always took the same route… They would sit together on a bench in the park, watching the young people play badminton. Even if they said nothing to each other, after more than thirty years of marriage there was a poised tranquillity between them that Suguro could feel almost palpably as she sat beside him… he was a novelist who peered into the depth of his soul and disgorged what he found there. But as a husband he was careful not to expose himself beyond the essential boundaries.

This double standard has led some critics to accuse him of being a ‘phoney’, of being afraid to face sex (and other sins) openly. It all flares up when a woman shows up at an awards ceremony, claiming to know him from his regular nocturnal wanderings around the red-light district. Suguro vehemently denies it, but the rumours of sightings continue and he decides he must have a doppelgänger who pretends to be him, especially when he sees the sly, obscene smile in the portrait that a street artist has painted of him.

Suguro starts investigating, hoping to catch this man posing as him, while a hack journalist Kobari initiates his own investigation, hoping to make his name by uncovering a juicy scandal about the famous author who is not at all as moral as he claims to be. Suguro encounters a voluntary worker at the hospital, Mrs Naruse, who seems to have no qualms confiding her secret darker desires, despite appearing to be extremely caring and loving with the children that she looks after when they undergo surgery. She tells Suguro that she considers that ‘our erotic behaviour expresses our profoundest secrets, the ones we ourselves aren’t aware of’, making the author begin to question his own decent, quiet life, his distinction between ‘healthy and unhealthy sex’ and begin to confront his own dark desires that he would prefer to maintain submerged. He hears about one woman’s masochistic tendencies, which is in fact a death wish – and she does indeed die as a result of the sexual games she engages in. But it takes Suguro longer to admit to his own obsession with an underage girl (which seems to be a recurring theme in a lot of Japanese literature written by middle-aged men, and is very prevalent in Japanese culture more generally, which I personally find icky). However, in this novel, the purpose of this strand of the story might be for Suguro to get his come-uppance, to realise that he cannot blame all his wicked desires and impulses solely on a stranger who resembles him.

There’s magma buried inside every person at the time they’re born… Even a child has fun tearing the wings or legs off a dragonfly. These days even elementary school kids will gang up on a helpless child and beat him up. They do that… because it’s fun… When the magma erupts in the form of sex, it comes out as sadism or masochism.

I wonder how many of the readers of Fifty Shades of Grey would be interested in this quite slow-paced, cerebral analysis of the human soul? The main character wondering if he needs to go ‘to the very end’ so that he can express all the depths of the human soul as an artist. Especially when the characters start having conversations about Jesus:

‘As Jesus, bathed in blood, carried his cross to the execution ground, the crowds reviled him and threw stones at him. Don’t you think they did that because of the pleasure it gave them?… Jesus was too blameless, too unblemished … so much so that they wanted to destroy him… That feeling is shared by all of us…. but no one wants to stare it in the face.’

All this soul-searching is also related to aging, and there are several passages where the writer makes it clear that Suguro is beginning to doubt the value of his life’s work (and possibly his entire life). If he has not been truthful to himself, then how can he have been truthful with his readers? All of these questions that people are planting in his head, all these doubts and confusions that are besetting him, run contrary to his belief that things will become more peaceful and certain in old age.

Old age doesn’t mean being free from perplexity as Confucius claimed; there’s nothing serene or mellow about it. To me, at least, it has loomed up in ugly, nightmarish images. With death staring me in the face, I can no longer prevaricate, and there is nowhere to escape.

Endō plays around with the conceit of the Japanese ‘I-novel’ (what we now call auto-fiction), and you cannot help feeling that at times he is thinking aloud, as he too was in his sixties when he wrote this book and suffering from ill-health. I did not rate it as highly as the other novels I have read by him, but it certainly made me both squirm and think. Like it or hate it, it is undoubtedly a book that will make you uncomfortable, that asks tough questions about core values and whether virtue is a myth, an accident.

The last but one, I think, of my posts linking to Meredith’s Japanese Literature Challenge.

#JanuaryinJapan: Nakagami Kenji

Nakagami Kenji: The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto, transl. Eve Zimmerman. Stone Bridge Press, 1999.

Like many other countries, Japan has an outcast community of untouchables – the Burakumin. Unlike in other countries, this underclass is not discriminated against on the basis of race or ethnic group, but because of their occupation: traditionally, they engaged in jobs considered undesirable or polluting according to Shintoism or Buddhism. such as animal slaughter, leather-making, prison officers, executioners. They are mentioned as a separate caste during the Heian period, but it’s during the Edo shogunate (from the early 17th century) that they become considered as ‘less than human’. This discrimination officially ended in 1871 with the abolition of the feudal caste system, but the Burakumin continued to live in segregated communities until the 1960s, and are still socially discriminated against when it comes to employment or marriage if their ancestry is discovered.

So it’s not surprising that Nakagami Kenji was the only post-war Japanese author to admit that he was of Burakumin origin, and, throughout his short life, he tried to give a voice to this community on the margins of Japanese society. The Burakumin have a reputation for being poor, dirty, chaotic and criminal – so a handy comparison in Europe might be the Roma communities. Nakagami himself said once in an interview: ‘I write for a public that cannot read me. My mother, my sister, my brothers are illiterate like all the Burakumin.’ But at the same time, he is writing about the Burakumin families of his day to allow the rest of Japanese (and international) society an insight into their daily lives. He also felt that he was writing ‘against the clock’, as these Burakumin neighbourhoods were being pulled down in a well-meant (but ultimately unsuccessful) attempt at assimilation.

At first glance, these are indeed chaotic, brutal and sad lives that he describes. ‘The Cape’ is the first in a loose family chronicle of a post-war Burakumin family, seen predominantly through the eyes of Akiyuki, who feels like a double outsider: both in Japanese society and in his own family. He is the only son in his family who has a father who never lived with his mother. His family history is complicated by remarriages and adoptions: he has two older half-sisters who have married (and one has moved far away from their home town) and a half-brother who hung himself. He is a labourer in his shady brother-in-law’s construction company and lives with his mother, stepfather and a younger stepbrother. Akiyuki feels that the whole family is based on lies, whether outright lies or lies of omission. is constantly haunted by the image of his real father who had two other children by different mothers, one of which is a ‘coddled girl’ from a ‘proper’ family, while the other is a prostitute. He is terrified of ending up like his ‘lustful father’ and has thus far abstained from any sexual relationships.

It is an atmosphere of Greek tragedy, heightened by poverty, alcohol, obsession with sex and lack of education. There are petty (and not so petty) sibling rivalries and squabbles, family feuds and gossip, violent and drunken scenes, and it all escalates, leading to murder and incest. Yet would it be fair to blame it all on the outcaste status? The neighbourhood is full of other outsiders and misfits: drug addicts, prostitutes, new immigrants. Besides, in many ways, this reminded me of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, featuring another dysfunctional but far wealthier and certainly not marginalised family unable to escape their tragic fate.

There are two other stories in this volume, in addition to ‘The Cape’. ‘House on Fire’ is still very much rooted in Akiyuki’s family and universe, although the characters don’t appear with any names. Instead, we have ‘the mother’, ‘that man (father)’, ‘son’ and so on. This was an earlier version of ‘The Cape’, and it centers around the bastard son of an arsonist, who hears that his father has been badly hurt in an accident and remembers his father’s endless appetite for violence and destruction. Here too we have the matriarchal family line and the struggle and hatred between father and son powerfully described – which must have been revolutionary for Japan at the time, where family lineages are still very patriarchal.

The third story ‘Red Hair’ is quite different: far less plot, more reliant on atmosphere. Kozo is a disaffected young man whose unskilled job is about to be made redundant. The only thing he looks forward to in his life is the red-headed woman waiting for him at home. Very graphic sex with her provides a welcome release for all the frustrations going on in his life. Their relationship, however, is so fragile, as we see when they meet with a neighbouring couple, who try to dig into the red-haired woman’s past, which they suspect is unsavoury. Ultimately, as the young lovers look at the rain and decide to go back to bed, they recognise that all they have is that moment of pleasure, and the illusion that they can prolong it at will.

There are few translations of Nakagami available in English (the French seem to like him more), but this particular edition – if you can find it second-hand – has a very informative preface and afterword by the translator. Tony is the only other book blogger who has reviewed Nakagami, as far as I know, but if you have read him, do leave your comments and links below.

I am linking this once again to the wonderful Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Meredith.

January in Japan: Sputnik Sweetheart by Murakami Haruki

Murakami Haruki: Sputnik Sweetheart, trans. Philip Gabriel, Vintage, 2002.

Back in the 1990s – early 2000s, I really liked Murakami Haruki (although I would often say that I like the ‘other Murakami’, namely Ryū, just as much). This is because our Japanese professor really loved Norwegian Wood and we read it together in class. In fact, at the time I read the Japanese in parallel with the original translation by Alfred Birnbaum, which was intended for students of the Japanese language. Jay Rubin translated the better-known version available for Western readers and that is the one I have now on my shelves.

Kafka on the Shore (2002) and his non-fiction book about running (2008) were the last books of his that I truly enjoyed and I haven’t bothered much with his more recent novels (although I did fall for the hype and pre-order a limited edition of Killing Commendatore from Waterstones).

Sputnik Sweetheart was one of the earlier books (published in 1999) that I had not read, so I took advantage of January in Japan to see if I could recapture some of my earlier excitement about Murakami. And, on the whole, I did! There were fewer of the typical Murakami tics (or bingo sheet of elements) that crop up time and again in his novels and stories. It was more realistic, but with just a slight tinge of surrealism.

The narrator K is best friends with the idealistic and stubborn would-be novelist Sumire, who used to go to the same college as him. Now he is a schoolteacher and Sumire an aspiring writer. Truth be told, he is in love with Sumire, but she never seems to think of him in that way. Instead, she falls desperately in love with the glamorous businesswoman of Korean origin, Miu, who convinces Sumire to be her assistant.

Sumire shares her dilemma with K (without noticing the parallels to his own situation): should she tell Miu how she feels? Can she bear to be in Miu’s proximity without a physical relationship? Does a love affair like that mean she abandons her principles and aspirations as a writer or would it help her to gather the experience she needs in order to be a more well-rounded writer?

I particularly enjoyed reading the tongue-in-cheek description of Sumire’s writing abilities, which is evident in spite of K’s supposed admiration for her (and he hastens to add that he appreciates the direct power and honesty of her writing):

She had so many things she had to write, so many stories to tell. If she could only find the right outlet, heated thoughts and ideas would gush out like lava, congealing into a steady stream of inventive works the likes of which the world had never seen… A photo of her, smiling coolly, would appear in the arts section of the newspaper, and editors would beat a path to her door. But it never happened that way. Sumire wrote some works that had a beginning. And some that had an end. But never one that had both a beginning and an end. Not that she suffered from writer’s block – far from it. She wrote endlessley, everything that came into her head. The problem was that she wrote too much.

In the end, Sumire accompanies Miu on a business trip to Europe, which they wrap up with a holiday on a Greek island. One night, K receives a phone call from Miu: could he please come to Greece at once? Sumire has disappeared.

This isn’t really a detective novel, although they try to find out what has happened to Sumire with the somewhat lacklustre help of the Greek police. Although K never quite finds out what happened to his friend, he starts to uncover possible reasons why she chose to disappear, when she realised that Miu would never be the lover she would have liked her to be. Although the ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’ nickname that Sumire gives to Miu is a private joke (Miu mistakes the word ‘Beatnik’ with ‘Sputnik’), this book is very much about the essential loneliness of the human being, that no one ever fully understands or accepts us, or can travel the whole distance with us.

And it came to me then. That we were wonderful traveling companions but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal in their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for the briefest moment. In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing.

Just like Norwegian Wood, this is a coming-of-age novel full of yearning. K recognises what Sumire brought into his life and what is now missing when he loses her.

Like the tide receding, the shoreline washed clean, with Sumire gone I was left in a distorted, empty world. A gloomy, cold world in which what she and I had would never ever take place again. We each have a special something we can get only at a special time of our life. Like a small flame. A careful, fortunate few cherish that flame, nurture it, hold it as a torch to light their way. But once that flame goes out, it’s gone for ever. What I’d lost was not just Sumire. I’d lost that precious flame.

Call it the love of our lives, our youthful idealism, our illusions, our dreams – we all learn to live with our losses as we grow older, but we cannot always express them as wistfully or as wittily as Murakami does here.

I can now safely say that Sputnik Sweetheart is on my list of Murakami Haruki novels that I love (together with Norwegian Wood, Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). I still have to read South of the Border, West of the Sun, to see where it fits in. I also love this super-quick graphic summary of the book: https://www.deviantart.com/larsony/art/Sputnik-Sweetheart-144045829

#JanuaryInJapan: A Cat, a Man and Two Women

Tanizaki Junichirō: A Cat, a Man and Two Women, trans. Paul McCarthy, Daunt Books, 2017.

Tanizaki Junichirō (I’m sorry, I just can’t cope any more with the Western habit of reversing Japanese author names to suit our own standards – it is surname first in Japanese and in many other languages) was one of the leading Japanese authors of the 20th century and one of the contenders for the Nobel Prize in Literature in the 1960s (he died in 1965 and in the end it was Kawabata who was the first Japanese to win it). His obsessions with eroticism, fetishism and violence did not endear him hugely to me when I was a student, but I should add that not all of his books are like that.

He was a huge fan of Genji Monogatari and translated it into modern Japanese, so it’s no surprise that the clash between tradition and modernity, between East and West are recurring themes in his (often best) work. The Makioka Sisters has a Chekhovian or Thomas Mann Buddenbrooks feel to it (not just because of its title, which is actually Sasameyuki – or ‘thin/lightly falling snow’ in Japanese); it depicts the decline of a merchant family in Osaka, but also the end of an era. His collection of essays on Japanese art and aesthetics In Praise of Shadows is also worth a read. But I can’t say I ever found his work amusing or charming… until now.

The 120 page novella A Cat, a Man and Two Women is one of Tanizaki’s lighter-hearted works and was written perhaps as a bit of a relief from the struggles of working for five years on the translation of Genji. A love triangle – or should that be a square? – it clearly shows that the author understood cats (and perhaps women too) very well. Shozo is a simple, unsophisticated man, somewhat easily manipulated (certainly when it suits him) by his mother or his second wife Fukuko. Meanwhile, his spurned first wife Shinako claims that she wants custody of their tortoiseshell cat Lily. But why does Shinako, who seemed to be jealous of Lily while they were all living in the same house, really want the cat? Is it because she knows that Shozo is so smitten with his pet that he will start visiting her once more?

Each of the humans in the story sets out to use Lily as a pawn, but in the end the cat proves to be the mistress of them all, drawing out both the best and the worst qualities of the people fighting over her. What is most touching about the story is the description of Lily as she ages – these are the passages where it becomes clear that Tanizaki must have been a great cat lover himself.

There were many signs of Lily’s rapid decline: one of them, for example, was her no longer being able to jump up with ease to Shozo’s height and snatch a bite to eat… each year the number of leaps grew fewer, and the height she reached lower. Recently, if she were shown a bit of food when she was hungry, she would first check to see if it was something she liked or not, and then jump; and even so, it had to be held no higher than a foot or so above her head. If it were any higher she would give up the idea of jumping and either climb up Shozo’s body or, when even that seemed too much for her, simply look up at him with those soulful eyes, her nose twitching hungrily… When Shinako got that sad look in her eyes, it didn’t bother Shozo very much; but for some reason, when it was Lily, he was strangely overcome with pity.

It seemed oddly appropriate to be reading this story about love for one’s pet during the week when the Pope expressed dismay that people prefer pets over having children (Shozo does not have any children with either his first or his second wife). Certainly, the closeness between Shozo and his cat is excessive at times – forcing his wife to cook something she hates for the sake of feeding it to the cat instead of eating it himself, or exchanging farts under the bedcovers. Yet I dare any animal lover not to be moved by that final scene, when he holds Lily on his lap and she purrs and allows herself to be stroked, but doesn’t seem to recognise him. Of course, you can also see it as the transience of life and marriage itself…

A slight story, but a beautifully observed and sensitively written study of human (and feline) nature. Tony Malone reviewed this when it was first reissued by Daunt, Karen aka Kaggsy reviewed it for #1936Club, while Annabel reviewed it for last year’s Japan challenge. This post will be linked to Meredith’s record-breaking 15th (fifteenth!) Japanese Literature Challenge.