Haruki Murakami Introduces The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories

From the Collection Edited By Jay Rubin

By  Haruki Murakami

Uchida Hyakken (1889–1971) was one of several talented “disciples” of Natsume Sōseki and a good friend of Sōseki’s single most famous disciple, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. He taught German at college level for many years, was happy in his cups and enjoyed the free life he found as a writer. Many readers still turn to Hyakken for the lively, amusing essays in which he displays his somewhat idiosyncratic view of the world. He wrote a lot, partly as a result of having lived so long, and I count myself an avid reader of the bizarre world he depicted. His many short stories can be reminiscent of Sōseki’s Ten Nights of Dream (Yume jūya, 1908). Instead of the sharp neurotic edge we see in Sōseki”s dream world, however, Hyakken presents us with an almost folksy, often humorous banquet of ghosts and goblins. “Kudan” (Kudan, 1922) one of Hyakken’s best and most representative stories, is a piece that only he could have created. The title is written with a character that combines the elements for “human being” and “cow,” displaying in written form the hybrid creature from Japanese mythology at the story’s center. The title alone is enough to give me the creeps.


Disasters, Natural and Man-Made

I’m not sure you can say that Japan has an especially large number of natural disasters, but there have certainly been many destructive earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and typhoons wreaking havoc on the islands since ancient times, and we have always lived with a sense that such natural disasters are close at hand and are something for which we have to brace ourselves. This sense of fear and awe towards nature seems to be part of our genetically inbred mentality. By contrast, we have little experience in our history of the kind of man-made disaster that comes with invasion from abroad—until of course, that is, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a plane bearing General Douglas MacArthur landed at Atsugi Naval Airbase in the summer of 1945. Another overwhelming man-made disaster struck Japan as a by-product of the Tōhoku Earthquake of 2011, when the natural disaster led to the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Surely these tragic events have given rise to more than one kind of mental rebooting of us Japanese. As both citizens and writers, we will have to pay close attention to the direction this rebooting may take.

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The Great Kantō Earthquake, 1923

A massive earthquake struck the Tokyo-Yokohama area on September 1st 1923, killing over 140,000 people. Here we see one brief record of the experience written by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. Little more than a fragmentary personal memoir that might have come from a diary entry, “The Great Earthquake” (Daijishin, 1927) gives us the kind of stunning graphic—and at the same time strangely quotidian—detail that could only have been written by someone who was actually there. We see in Akutagawa, too, the posture of the professional writer who wants to leave a record of the gigantic disaster captured from several angles by his practiced eye. Among his non-fictional pieces we find this:

Precisely because it was so huge, this earthquake greatly shook the hearts and minds of us writers as well. Through the earthquake, we experienced intense love and hate and pity and anxiety. Writers always deal with human psychology, but in most cases it is psychology of the most delicate kind. Now there may be added emotions that swing more wildly and trace a bolder line.

From a piece entitled “The Effect of the Disaster on Literature” (Shinsai no bungei ni atauru eikyō, 1923), this reflects what we writers who have lived through more recent disasters in Japan have been feeling deeply.

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“The Great Earthquake” was not published until 1927, after Akutagawa”s death, as part of his series of sketches entitled “The Life of a Stupid Man” (Aru ahō no isshō ), but it is included here as an introduction to the very strange story he published the year after the earthquake, “General Kim” (Kin shōgun, 1924). Until I read “General Kim” in this collection, I had no idea Akutagawa had ever written such a piece, and no one I know had ever read it. It depicts events surrounding Japan’s military invasion of the Korean peninsula in 1592, but what is surprising is that it takes the Korean point of view. The story can be seen as entirely fantastical, but it admits as well of a political reading. We know that Akutagawa was aware of the mass killing of ethnic Koreans in Japan in the chaos following the 1923 earthquake. In that sense, the story gives us a glimpse of Akutagawa’s ability to write about the modern world in ancient settings. Many of the adaptations he wrote of classic stories and other old tales were better realized than “General Kim,” but this little-known short piece has its own special quality.


The Atomic Bombings, 1945

Ōta Yōko (1903–63) was a Hiroshima native. She had been active in Tokyo since before the war as a writer of the “women’s school,” as female writers were pigeonholed in those days. Then she experienced the atomic bombing of the city when she chanced to be at home with her mother and she recorded in painful detail the horrendous scenes she witnessed as they were happening. “Hiroshima, City of Doom” (Unmei no machi, Hiroshima) is a chapter from her novel City of Corpses (Shikabane no machi, 1948). Her manuscript contained harsh criticisms of the American military, for which the Occupation authorities initially suppressed the work. The book contains many gruesome descriptions that can be painful to read and were undoubtedly more painful to write, but in this world there are things that can only be recorded for posterity, feelings that can only be conveyed and scenes that can only be described in written form. For those of us who make writing our profession, reading through such a work from beginning to end is both a valuable experience and an opportunity for soul-searching.

At one point in Ōta’s book, the author is speaking with a naked boy whose entire body is burnt and festering after he was exposed to the radioactive blast near ground zero. He tells her, “I may be dying. It could really happen. I’m in such pain,” to which she responds, “Everybody may be dying, so buck up.” The weirdly humorous logic of such a dialogue could never appear in an ordinary fictional world.

Seirai Yūichi was born in Nagasaki in 1958 and grew up near the location of ground zero. He wrote while working at Nagasaki City Hall, and in 2001 his novella Holy Water (Seisui) was awarded the Akutagawa Prize, an event that launches the career of many a young writer. In 2010, he became head of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. “Insects” (Mushi) was included in the volume Ground Zero, Nagasaki (Bakushin, 2006). The author was of course born after the war, but his works narrate the fictional memories of people who experienced the atomic bombing of his city. History consists of the communal memories of value to our society that someone must hand down lest they fade into oblivion or get rewritten to suit someone else”s agenda. The author here focuses on the desperate struggle between God and man from the point of view of a little insect, his narrator a descendant of pre-modern Japan’s hidden Christians. The insect itself sounds “dopey and amiable” when it asks the wounded protagonist, “Are you still alive?” in the Nagasaki dialect.


Post-War Japan

Kawabata Yasunari (1899–1972) is one of Japan’s most representative writers. He won the Nobel Prize in 1968 and, like Ernest Hemingway, died by his own hand a few years later. “The Silver 50-Sen Pieces” (Gojussen ginka, 1946) was included in a collection of his short-shorts called Palm-of-the-Hand Stories (Tenohira no shōsetsu, 1971). In the transition from pre-war to post-war Japan, practically everything underwent dramatic change. The story focuses on silver 50-sen pieces to give gentle, quiet and, perhaps we might say, middle-class expression on the page to these many changes. Near the end, it is unobtrusively revealed that the narrator’s mother died in the firebombing of Tokyo and that there is “not a single dog left in the whole burnt-out neighborhood.” This little piece may be seen as an example of genuine literary art.

Nosaka Akiyuki (1930–2015) made a huge splash in the literary world and beyond with his 1963 novel The Pornographers (Erogotoshitachi), which graphically and humorously depicts a professional pornographer going about his business. I remember how much I enjoyed the book back then when I was a teenager. Until that point, Nosaka had been nothing more than a weird guy in Blues Brothers-style dark sunglasses contributing frivolous pieces to men’s magazines and making outrageous pronouncements in the mass media, but all at once he was recognized as a capable and highly idiosyncratic novelist. Still, it was with the publication in 1967 of two heart-wrenching stories based on his wartime experience that he showed himself at his best: “Grave of the Fireflies” (Hotaru no haka) and “American Hijiki” (Amerika hijiki ). Just a boy during the war, Nosaka continued to carry with him the memories of his harrowing wartime experiences and to embrace a kind of nostalgia for a Japan that possessed nothing but the scorched earth with which the bombs had left it. He labeled himself a member of the “burnt-out ruins school” and continued to excoriate the hypocrisy of post-war Japanese society and the shallowness of its prosperity.

After graduating from college, Hoshino Takayuki (b. 1965) wrote for the Sankei shinbun newspaper until he left the company in 1991 to become a full-time novelist. “Pink” (Pinku, 2014) deals with a state of impasse reached by Japan after the war. The two elements of peace and economic prosperity that supported post-war Japan have reached a dead end, and  an abnormal weather pattern deals a further blow to the situation. At a loss, the young people try to give rise to a new wave by immersing themselves in a whirling “tornado dance” movement, and they become trapped into still more violently self-destructive activity. This is a fantasy, of course, but the story contains real elements that cannot be dismissed as mere storytelling. The generation of Nosaka Akiyuki, author of “American Hijiki,” had an archetypal landscape in mind of Japan transformed into a plain of smoking ruins. My own generation had an image of rapid economic growth and idealism in the 1960s. But Hoshino’s generation may have no such archetypal image worth telling about. To that extent (perhaps) the dystopian landscape is all the more urgent and vivid.


The Kobe Earthquake, 1995

I—Murakami Haruki, the author of this introduction—was born in 1949 and spent my boyhood in Kobe. When a huge earthquake struck the Kobe area in 1995, killing almost six and a half thousand people, I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The sight of black smoke rising from the city that I saw on CBS This Morning filled me with a frustrating sense of my inability to do anything to help from far away. The house of my parents—the house I grew up in—was left leaning at a strange angle.

If there was one thing I could do, it was to write stories about the earthquake once the situation had settled down. Five years later, I published a book of interrelated short stories called after the quake (Kami no kodomotachi wa mina odoru ) in which I decided the stories would (1) not describe the earthquake directly, and (2) not set the action in Kobe, but would (3) describe a number of changes that people had undergone because of the quake. I don’t know if these stories served any purpose, but to me at the time this seemed like the best thing I could do. “UFO in Kushiro” (UFO ga Kushiro ni oriru ), originally written in 1999, is one of those stories. What kind of effect did the Kobe earthquake have on faraway Hokkaido?


The Tōhoku Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Meltdown, 2011

The last three stories take their material—or background—from the triple disaster that devastated much of north-eastern Japan on 1 March 11th 2011: the gigantic earthquake, the nightmarish tsunami and the “unforeseeable” meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which continues even now, seven years later. What should we novelists learn from this event? What should we take from it? What form should we put it into? A very long time will no doubt be required to find the answers to these questions, a search that will involve both tasks that require great urgency and tasks that require us to settle in for the long haul.

Saeki Kazumi was born in 1959 in the city of Sendai in one of the prefectures hardest hit by the disaster, Miyagi. He started writing fiction while still working as an electrician and made his literary debut in 1984. He takes his material from the real-life events around him and creates his fictional world with a quiet, controlled style all his own. Asbestos he inhaled in the course of his electrical work seriously compromised his health. “Weather-Watching Hill” (Hiyoriyama, 2012) is a documentary account of the disaster. Saeki himself was on the scene when it happened, but rather than narrating it from his own point of view, he lets others recount their experiences, giving form to their individual humanity and lifestyles, and quietly letting them convey their own shock and sadness and their approaches to recovery. We cannot tell how much of the account is fiction and how much fact, but the distinction hardly matters in the face of such a reality.

Matsuda Aoko (b. 1979) was a theater actress until she made her literary debut in 2010. “Planting” (Māgaretto wa ueru, 2012) appeared in a special issue of the literary journal Waseda bungaku entitled Ruptured Fiction(s) of the Earthquake (Shinsai to fikushon no “kyori”) and containing fiction about or set against the Tōhoku disaster. This is a surrealistic story. Makiko, a “stupid girl, not yet 30,” calls herself Marguerite, disguises herself with glasses and a light brown wig tinged with white, paints wrinkles on her forehead and follows instructions by planting in the garden all the many items sent to her by her employer. This is her job. But the things she has been instructed to plant gradually change from beautiful flowers to ugly things and then dirty things and finally to nothing but fear. One can interpret this allegory in any number of ways, but if we take it to refer to the psychological state induced by the earthquake, then the earthquake itself might become one gigantic, inseparable allegory.

The tale that Satō Yūya (b. 1980) spins out of the earthquake (and the power-plant meltdown it led to), “Same as Always” (Ima-made-dōri, 2012), is another dark allegory. Most people will struggle almost painfully to keep irradiated food and water out of the mouths of their children. Some have gone so far as to leave the contaminated area or even move abroad. For the mother who is the protagonist of this story, however, the situation is the perfect opportunity for her to secretly murder her child. She can hardly believe her good luck, and she blithely goes on feeding radiologically contaminated food to her baby. This is a story that leaves a terrible aftertaste in which dystopia has ceased to be dystopian. Are we shown any way out, whether in real-world or literary terms?

The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.

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.

Murakami’s newest book, Killing Commendatore will publish on October 9, 2018 from Knopf. This introduction is to The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, which was edited and translated by Jay Rubin.

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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