Haruki Murakami Introduces The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories

From the Collection Edited By Jay Rubin

By  Haruki Murakami

In 1970, nine years after he wrote “Patriotism,” Mishima died committing seppuku in a patriotic act of grieving for the fate of his nation. I was 21 years old at the time, watching the surrounding events on television in the university dining hall and wondering what I was seeing. Even after it finally dawned on me what this was about, I was unable to discover any urgent “meaning” in Mishima’s act. If it taught me anything, it was that there existed a huge gulf between bringing an idea to a literary apotheosis and doing it as an act in the real world.


Men and Women

Of the six stories in this section, five are by women. What could this extreme imbalance mean? That women are more suited to writing about relations between the sexes? Or more simply that it’s too hard for male writers to create accurate images of women and female psychology? Or that the long history of male-centered society in Japan has produced female writers whose gaze possesses a sharper critical spirit? Or perhaps all of the above?

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Tsushima Yūko (1947–2016) was one year old when her father, the famous writer Dazai Osamu, died in a lovers’ suicide. She grew up in the home of a single mother, and she herself, after her divorce, raised her children virtually on her own. It is a scene from this kind of life that we see depicted in fine detail in Tsushima’s story “Flames” (Honō, 1979), which is very much in the “I novel” style. Blood passed from mother to child; a man who abandons his wife and child; a child’s wordless outbreak of fever without clear cause or outcome: all are linked to the brilliant (and deadly) final explosion in the night sky.

Kōno Taeko (1926–2015) was born in Osaka in the very last year of the Taishō period (1912–26). A great admirer of Tanizaki, she steeped herself in his modernistic tendencies. “In the Box” (Hako no naka, 1979) is a very strange story. The (almost meaningless) nastiness or eccentricity of the woman portrayed here seems like something that would never occur to a man but which might inspire a woman to say, “Stuff like this happens all the time.” No men appear in the story, and I suspect that the very absence of men is, conversely, part of the message. All kinds of things seem to be going on in this box.

Nakagami Kenji (1946–92) is the first name that would come to mind if I were asked, “Whose was the strongest literary voice to appear after the Second World War?” He unfurls his unique world before us with a powerful style that all but nails his characters and scenes to the page, his stories set against forceful images of his home area, Kishū (southern Wakayama Prefecture). I was surprised to find, when I met him and spoke with him face to face, that he seemed far gentler and more sensitive than I had imagined from his works. That he fell ill and died at the height of his powers is greatly to be regretted. In “Remaining Flowers” (Nokori no hana, 1988), a young man lies naked with a blind woman in the darkness. Everything comes from the fertile earth, turns to bone and goes back to the earth. What emerges from the darkness returns to the darkness—a most impressive work.

Yoshimoto Banana (b. 1964) is the second daughter of the famous poet and critic Yoshimoto Takaaki (1924–2012). She made her literary debut in 1987 with the novel Kitchen (Kitchin), which won a great following among young readers and became a bestseller at home and abroad. Her early works paint a vivid panorama of the lives of young women using a natural style that seems to slip through space.

“Bee Honey” (Hachihanii) appeared in Yoshimoto’s short-story collection Adultery and South America (Furin to nanbei, 2000). The female protagonist leaves Japan owing to marital difficulties and goes to stay with a friend living in Buenos Aires. As she becomes acquainted with the customs and history and people of her temporary foreign home, she begins to have a clearer, more externalized view of herself in the context of her daily life in Japan. This would seem to have all the ingredients for a murky tale, but the author’s quiet, matter-of-fact sensibility can be strangely persuasive. This is Yoshimoto Banana’s unique world, without a hint of the old dictates regarding what constitutes “literature.”

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Ohba Minako (1930–2007) was born in Tokyo as the daughter of a naval surgeon and spent her girlhood in Hiroshima Prefecture, where her father was posted. Her experience of the atomic bombing at the age of 14 exposed her to horrific scenes that became a kind of take-off point for her fiction. Her dry, precise style is utterly devoid of ornamentation, and she has been highly praised for the way she uses it to whittle the world down to sharply rendered fragments. In “The Smile of a Mountain Witch” (Yamauba no bishō, 1976), the ancient Japanese legend of the yamamba or yamauba, a mountain-dwelling hag with supernatural powers, becomes a device for laying bare the life—the often performative life—of a normal contemporary woman. More often than not, the “supernatural beings” perceived by us are nothing more than images of ourselves reflected in a dark mirror. Many women may recognize an aspect of their own lives in the author’s “mountain witch.” The image of a woman who becomes a hobgoblin in the mountains but is perceived as an ordinary housewife when she lives among people is one of the most important motifs for the feminist Ohba. Enchi Fumiko (1905–86) debuted as a dramatist but in her sixties she became widely recognized as a novelist when her first work of fiction won great popularity. Daughter of the famous scholar of the Japanese classics Ueda Kazutoshi (or Ueda Mannen; 1867–1937), Enchi herself was deeply learned in the Japanese classics and produced a critically praised modern Japanese translation of the great 11th-century novel The Tale of Genji. The narrative of “A Bond for Two Lifetimes—Gleanings” (Nisei no en: shūi, 1957) is propelled by translated passages of the classic gothic short story “A Bond for Two Lifetimes” from the collection Tales of Spring Rain (Harusame monogatari, 1808) by Ueda Akinari (1734–1809), who is best known in the West as author of the ghost story on which is based the 1953 Mizoguchi Kenji film Ugetsu. I had no idea of the connection to Enchi when I used Akinari’s “A Bond for Two Lifetimes” as a structural element in my novel Killing the Commendatore (Kishidanchō o koroshite, 2017). Akinari’s classic story becomes the vehicle through which two men—the husband she lost in the war and the old professor who presses her for sexual union—reach out in the darkness for the flesh of Enchi’s female protagonist. But what is the true form of each? This is an extremely well-made—and frightening—story, and I recall Suzuki Seijun’s 1973 television adaptation of it, A Mummy’s Love, as a particularly good one.


Nature and Memory

Abe Akira (1934–89) became a full-time novelist in 1971 at the age of 37 after some years of writing in his spare time while directing radio and television programs. Most of his works concentrate on his family and daily life in the “I novel” style, and he is often identified as a member of the so-called “Introverted Generation” of generally apolitical writers active in the 1960s and 1970s. Nothing special happens in “Peaches” (Momo, 1971). We simply observe the author examining an old memory of his in this contemplative variant of the “I novel” sometimes known as a “mental-state novel” (shinkyō shōsetsu). The way the author brings his five senses into play, however, is quite vivid. It’s like watching an old black-and-white film gradually taking on color as the author’s memory assumes concrete shape on the page. The weight and fragrance of the peaches piled into an old pram, the chill of the night air, the croaking of frogs and the creak of the pram’s wheels are all immovable parts of the scene the writer brings back again and again. But then one day he begins to have grave doubts about his memory, and he is thrown into confusion. This fine work is an excellent example of one of the more important forms of Japanese fiction.

Ogawa Yōko (b. 1962) had her authorial debut in 1988, almost at the same time as Yoshimoto Banana, and the two attracted attention as women writers with a new sensibility. Ogawa has continued ever since to tell her stories at her own steady pace, and her quiet but solid style has won the support of many readers.

Every neighborhood has its own house of mystery where a mysterious individual lives, and local children are irresistibly drawn to it. There was one in my neighborhood, and I”ll bet there was one in yours, too. In “The Tale of the House of Physics” (Butsuri no yakata monogatari, 2010), Ogawa turns her story into a tunnel that brings you back to that mystery house of your childhood. The piece is remarkable for the storyteller”s tender-hearted, low-angled point of view.

Kunikida Doppo (1871–1908) was a Meiji-period contemporary of such literary giants as Mori Ōgai and Natsume Sōseki, but in scale he was more of a “minor poet,” perhaps a Turgenev to their Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. A devout Christian in his early twenties, Doppo turned to Wordsworth as  a guide to the natural world and supported himself as a magazine editor and war correspondent. He is best known as the writer of Musashino (1898), an essay-like description of the natural beauty of the rural Musashi Plain that surrounded Tokyo in those days, his fresh, new style leading the way for Japan’s developing naturalistic fiction. In “Unforgettable People” (Wasureenu hitobito, 1898), the author sketches a series of scenes and characters in a manner that still strikes us as lively today, the images rising before us despite the intervening decades. The story’s final twist is effective as well. I suspect that neither Sōseki nor Ōgai was capable of fashioning a sharp, little piece of this type.

The last story in this section called “Nature and Memory” is a simple sketch I dashed off when it came to me out of nowhere—and promptly forgot about. Though I may have forgotten its existence, I’m delighted as a writer to know that the editor of this anthology liked it enough to pull some strings to include it here, and though I still find it a little puzzling (and perhaps wanting as a piece of literature), I’m pleased to think that the reader may enjoy it as well. As with much of my writing, “The 1963/1982 Girl from Ipanema” (1963/1982-nen no Ipanema-musume, 1982) uses one of my favorite pieces of music to recall a certain mood and time; Stan Getz”s marvelous solo on the famous track is something I will never tire of listening to.


Modern Life and Other Nonsense

Uno Kōji (1891–1961) is thought of as an “I novelist” who was primarily active in the Taishō Period. “Closet LLB” (Yaneura no hōgakushi, 1918), one of his very early works, straddles the line between masochistic self-study and parodic humor, drawing us ever deeper into sympathy for the miserable protagonist, who has graduated from the university but can’t find what he wants to do with his life. He thinks he may have found it, but his high ideals are unaccompanied by genuine ability, his conceit unsupported by talent or perseverance. Where Natsume Sōseki described the life of an upper-class idler in his novel And Then (Sore kara, 1909), Uno’s protagonist is a very different kind of idler, having nothing to do with the upper class. He spends his days lying in his boarding-house closet, living in his dreams and despising the inability of those around him to appreciate his superior intellect. I guess you could just say, “There are lots of people like that even now,” and that would be the end of it.

Genji Keita (1912–85) won great popularity in the 1950s and 1960s publishing lots of entertaining “salaryman stories” for commercial magazines. His career overlapped with the period during which Japan’s economy experienced a rapid expansion and the necktie-wearing mid-level employee known in Japan as a “salaryman” was the star. The often humorous style with which he depicted the earnest struggles of these people who gave their all for the company day after day (usually with little to show for it) aroused the empathy of readers, many of whom found themselves in similar situations. Now that Japan’s famous “economic miracle” is a thing of the past, there are probably not many readers who turn to Genji Keita these days. The qualities that make any one age “contemporary” gradually fade and disappear with the passage of time. I suspect, though, that young readers of our day would find something quite fresh and engaging in this rather old-fashioned story, “Mr English” (Eigoya-san, 1951). It’s just a guess.

Betsuyaku Minoru (b. 1937) is well known as a dramatist. He was born in Manchuria when it was under the rule of the Japanese Empire and lived there until the end of the war. His theater of the absurd in the manner of Samuel Beckett was especially popular among young audiences in the 1960s and 1970s. He also wrote many works of fiction, among which there were a good number of fable-like stories for children—or pieces which at least took the form of stories for children. “Factory Town” (Kōba no aru machi, 2006) is one of those. It was written for a radio program that featured readings of newly created fairy tales. Reading it reminded me that in the old days (which is to say, when I was a kid) there were lots of factories all around belching thick, black smoke. You don’t see those any more now that manufacturing has grown less central to industry and people’s attitudes towards the environment have changed. Nowadays, you’d never hear anyone say, “That smoke makes me feel a sort of power rising up inside me.” Many women writers are active in the current Japanese literary scene —to the extent that the presence of male writers has begun to pale by comparison—and Kawakami Mieko (b. 1976) is one of the new writers who stand close to the central core of this scene. She is one generation down from the writers who appeared in the 1980s and early 1990s, such as Ogawa Yōko, Yoshimoto Banana and Kawakami Hiromi (not that these women constituted a “group” of any kind). The way I see it, her fiction is marked by a sharp linguistic sensitivity (before she turned to fiction, Kawakami was a poet) and a relatively relaxed working out of the story. The combination of sharpness and slowness gives rise to a unique groove. If you let yourself go with the groove, you will (often) find an unsettling twist waiting to take your breath away at the end. Kawakami wrote “Dreams of Love, Etc.” (Ai no yume toka) in 2011 and made it the title work of a volume of stories published in 2013. Having been drawn to the piano playing of a neighboring middle-aged housewife, where is the story’s female protagonist headed? At first glance just a cozy little slice of everyday life in a quiet, peaceful-seeming neighborhood, the story soon has an ominous presence hovering over it. Hoshi Shin’ichi (1926–97) is the writer who introduced the short-short story to the Japanese literary world. With only a few exceptions, he spent his life writing stories that end after a very few pages, and the style made him famous. Mori Ōgai was his grand-uncle, and his father was president of a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, a post which Hoshi himself briefly held. In my view, the most outstanding features of Hoshi’s work are its sharp wit and the clever devices he employs to surprise the reader. I remember how much I enjoyed his works when I was young. To be quite honest, though, a lot of his stories give the impression of following a fixed pattern, which is probably the unavoidable fate of any author who writes plot-driven stories—in high volume—as Hoshi did. For years, it is said, he used to complain that “It’s not fair for a writer like me to be paid by the page like a novelist,” and I can see his point. This was probably why he had no choice but to produce a spate of short works such as “Shoulder-Top Secretary” (Kata no ue no hisho, 1973).



As something of an heir to Natsume Sōseki, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892–1927) left behind several outstanding works that represent Japanese literature of the Taishō period (1912–26), but early in the succeeding Shōwa period (1926–89) he suffered a nervous breakdown and committed suicide. Akutagawa’s style underwent some major changes in the course of his career, but one consistently perceptible feature is a kind of evanescent beauty that floats like a light in the surrounding darkness. With his precise, fine-grained style, he was able to capture that light for the briefest of moments. In his early years, he tended to write tales based on the Japanese classics. His masterpiece, “Hell Screen” (Jigokuhen, 1918), is one of those. Written when Akutagawa was in his mid-twenties, it has lost none of its stylistic brilliance.

Sawanishi Yūten (b. 1986) is the youngest author represented in this anthology. He made his literary debut in 2011 and, while pursuing an academic career, has continued to produce a constant flow of strangely flavored pieces that appear in literary magazines. “Filling Up with Sugar” (Satō de michite yuku, 2013) tells the story of a woman whose mother is dying from a disease called “systemic saccharification syndrome.” It begins: “The vagina was the first part of her mother’s body that turned to sugar,” which has to be the most intense opening of a piece of fiction I’ve read in recent years. The situation of a daughter caring for her terminally ill mother is relatively common in fiction, but the author is clearly borrowing it as a device to create the mother’s fictional disease (one hopes it is a fictional disease) and thus to drive his quietly narrated story in surrealistic directions. The reader may find the end of the story quite shocking.

Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and now lives near Tokyo. His work has been translated into more than 50 languages, and the most recent of his international honors is the Hans Christian Anderson Literature Award, whose previous recipients include J.K Rowling, Isabel Allende, and Salman Rushdie. His forthcoming novel is Killing Commendatore.

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