Contents Japan and the West
• “The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga” by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki
• “Behind the Prison” by Kafū Nagai
• Chapter 1 from Sanshirō
by Natsume Sōseki Loyal Warriors
• “The Last Testament of Okitsu Yagoemon” by Ōgai Mori
• “Patriotism” by Yukio Mishima Men and Women
• “Flames” by Yūko Tsushima
• “In the Box” by Taeko Kōno
• “Fading Flowers” by Kenji Nakagami
• “Bee Honey” by Banana Yoshimoto
• “The Smile of a Mountain Witch” by Minako Ohba
• “A Bond for Two Lifetimes—Gleanings” by Fumiko Enchi Nature and Memory
• “Peaches” by Abe Akira
• “The Tale of the House of Physics” by Yōko Ogawa
• “Unforgettable People” by Doppo Kunikida
• “The 1963/1982 Girl from Ipanema” by Haruki Murakami Modern Life and Other Nonsense
• “Closet LLB” by Kōji Uno
• “Mr. English” by Keita Genji
• “Factory Town” by Minoru Betsuyaku
• “Dreams of Love, Etc.” by Mieko Kawakami
• “Shoulder-Top Secretary” by Shin'ichi Hoshi Dread
• “Hell Screen” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
• “Filling Up with Sugar” by Yūten Sawanishi
• “Kudan” by Hyakken Uchida Disasters, Natural and Man-Made
• “The Great Earthquake” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
• “Hiroshima, City of Doom” by Yōko Ōta
• “Insects” by Yūichi Seirai
• “The Silver Fifty-sen Pieces” by Yasunari Kawabata
• “American Hijiki” by Akiyuki Nosaka
• “Pink” by Tomoyuki Hoshino
• “UFO in Kushiro” by Haruki Murakami
• “Hiyoriyama” by Kazumi Saeki
• “Planting” by Aoko Matsuda
• “Same as Always” by Yūya Satō
The following is from the introduction to The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories.
*From Seppuku to Meltdown
I once heard the story that when jazz drummer Buddy Rich was being admitted to a hospital, the nurse at the front desk asked him if he had any allergies. “Only to country and western music,” he replied. In my case, my only allergy is to Japan’s so-called “I novel”—the form of autobiographical writing that has been at the forefront of Japan’s modern fiction since the turn of the 20th century.
To tell the truth, from my teens to my early twenties, I read hardly any Japanese fiction. And for a long while I was convinced that, with a few exceptions, early modern and contemporary Japanese literature was simply boring. There were many reasons for this, but foremost among them may be that the novels and stories we were assigned to read in school were pretty bad. My “I-novel allergy” was also quite strong back then (these days, to be sure, it has become less intense), and since you can’t hope either to make your way through or to understand modern Japanese literature if you’re going to avoid its constitutional predisposition to producing “I novels,” I made a conscious effort while young to avoid getting anywhere near Japanese literature.
Reading is, of course, a supremely personal—even selfish—activity. Each person consumes reading matter in accordance with his or her own likes and dislikes, which no one else can pronounce simply to be right or wrong, proper or warped. People have an innate right to read the books they want to read and avoid the books they don’t want to read. It is one of the few precious liberties granted to us in this largely unfree world (though, to be sure, many situations arise that complicate the matter).
At the same time, however, viewed in purely dietary terms, a balanced intake of information and knowledge plays an important role in the formation of a person’s intellect and character, and though no one has the right to criticize me for having spent a lifetime consuming books in my own lopsided way, I can’t help feeling that it’s nothing to be proud of. Having become a Japanese novelist (once and for all), I may have something of a problem on my hands in saying that I know hardly anything about Japanese fiction—which is a little different from Buddy Rich saying he doesn’t listen to country and western music. This is why, after passing the age of 30, I made an effort to read as much Japanese fiction as I could, thanks to which I discovered quite a number of truly interesting works later in life but recall very few from those impressionable teen years I spent in the 1960s.
At the urging of friends, I read several works by Ōe Kenzaburō (b. 1935), who was the young people’s hero in those days. I remember having read classic figures such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892–1927) and Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916) back then, but I was never able to warm to such supposedly representative Japanese literary giants as Shiga Naoya (1883–1971), Kawabata Yasunari (1899–1972) or Mishima Yukio (1925–70). For some reason I can’t put my finger on, I was never able to keep myself immersed in their style. I’d often give up partway through a work and toss it aside. They and I were probably just temperamentally incompatible; unfortunately, it seems, they were not “novelists for me.” I don’t mean to call into question, of course, their talent or the importance their works. What should be called into question, I suspect, is my own lack of understanding.
Speaking personally, then, I learned practically nothing about novelistic technique from my Japanese predecessors. I had to discover on my own how one goes about writing fiction. This was probably a good thing in the sense that I didn’t have a lot of baggage to carry with me.
I was 30 when I debuted as an author, and almost 40 years have shot by in the meantime (hard as that is to believe), but I confess that, with only a few exceptions, I have not kept close tabs on young authors who have followed me into the literary world. This is not to say that I have been avoiding their works or have no interest in them, just that I have been narrowly focused, heart and soul, on doing what I want to do rather than making the effort to read and learn from other people’s writings.
James Joyce said something to the effect that imagination is memory, and he was absolutely right. Our memories (the wellspring of imagination) take shape while we are young, and once we pass a certain age, it’s rare for them to undergo any major change.
All of this may add up to nothing more than a long-winded excuse for why I know so little (or next to nothing) about modern and contemporary Japanese fiction. I hope I have made myself clear on that point. And if I’m not mistaken, I would guess that most readers of this book of English translations know as little about modern and contemporary Japanese fiction as I do (or nothing at all). At least in my approach here, I’d like to go on that assumption.
Which is why, in this introduction, I am not standing a step above you as your guide to Japanese literature but taking a position on the same level as you so that together we can think about how best to approach this anthology. Let’s just say that you are being guided through a foreign town by someone who lives in the country and speaks the language but who doesn’t know that much about the geography or history.
To tell you the truth, I’m reading most of the stories included here for the first time in my life. I had previously read only six of the thirty-three—including my own! And many of the rest I had never even heard of.
I’m not making excuses, but this has enabled me to encounter the works with a fresh attitude devoid of suppositions or bias or attachments, which may be all to the good. It’s always an interesting experience to chance upon the unknown. If I hadn’t had this opportunity (which is to say, if I hadn’t had this task presented to me), I might never have come across these works. One thing I would like you to keep in mind is that the works collected here are by no means all universally recognized modern masterpieces. Some, of course, could be characterized as “representative” works, but, frankly, they are far outnumbered by stories which are not. We also find here quite old works and very new works arranged literally side by side like an iPod and a gramophone on the same shelf of a record store. The only way to find out what the editor had in mind when he made this selection is to ask the man himself, but in any case an individually edited anthology like this tends to give priority to the editor’s intentions and taste over generalized principles of impartiality and conventional practice, and we have to make our way through the book following his lead. Another point to keep in mind is that, while the book includes a number of stories translated here for the first time, the choice of works has been largely limited to pieces that have already appeared in English.
In any case, this is certainly an unconventional selection of works by an unusual assortment of writers. Seeing this line-up, the average Japanese reader might find him- or herself puzzled. “Why is this
story in here? And why is that one
This is precisely why reading through this collection has been so fresh and interesting for someone like me with my spotty background in Japanese literature. Now and then I’d be quite astounded at the different and strangely compelling ways the fiction of my own country could be grasped. Above all, I found my curiosity piqued: “What’s coming next?”
Japan has long had a custom of selling fukubukuro
(literally, “good luck bags” or “lucky grab bags”) on New Year’s Day, sealed bags offered by retailers with no indication of what they contain. One bag will normally hold an odd mix of items, the combined value of which is guaranteed to be far more than the bag’s selling price. People have been known to wait in long queues at major department stores for these popular mystery bargains to go on sale, and to fight over the chance to buy them, anticipating the annual thrill of taking them home and discovering what’s inside. Probably more than the satisfaction of getting a bargain, it’s the mystery that must make these grab bags so irresistible. (I myself have never bought one.)
The comparison may not be apt, but the fukubukuro
was the first thing that popped into my mind when I finished reading this book, which offers the same kind of mysterious and unpredictably rewarding experience. I hope readers will open the bag and enjoy what they find inside.
Copyright © 2018 by Translated by Jay Rubin; Introduction by Haruki Murakami. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.