Haruki Murakami Introduces The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories

From the Collection Edited By Jay Rubin

By  Haruki Murakami

The following is from the introduction to The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories.

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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.

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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.

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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 missing?”

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.

Now let’s look at the stories in each thematically organized section of the book.

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Japan and the West

This section features three of the most famous modern Japanese writers. All three of their works depict wealthy intellectuals bewildered by the great differences between the cultures of Japan and the West. Two of the three, Nagai Kafū (1879–1959) and Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916), had the experience of studying abroad. Sōseki lived in England for two years on a Japanese government grant which required him to do research on English-language pedagogical methods. Kafū spent four years in America, supposedly studyingbusiness at his father’s behest, after which he went to France for nearly a year. In those days, study abroad was a privilege permitted only to the richest or most elite members of Japanese society.

Kafū had originally hoped to go to Europe and found much about American life that set his nerves on edge, so when he finally got to France, he plunged into the free life he found there like a fish returned to water, but this only added to the difficult psychological adjustments he had to make once he was home again in Japan. The story included here, “Behind the Prison” (Kangokusho no ura, 1909), describes the clash between the ideal world he sought and the depressing reality in which he found himself confined. His search for the Japanese equivalent of the decadent, sophisticated free life he had experienced in Paris led him to the cafés and bordellos and strip joints he found in Tokyo’s seamier “low city” neighborhoods. He saw himself as an outsider, a fugitive from Japan’s elite circles. In Japan at that time, the freedom of spirit that he sought was to be found only in such places. Resigning in 1916 from the professorial post he had held for six years, he declared himself a lowly “scribbler” (gesakusha), rejected marriage after two brief flirtations with the institution, took no regular employment, sought no position of authority, and spent his life freely pursuing his whims. Sōseki, by contrast, though he shared many of Kafū’s cares, spent his life among the chosen. His deeply serious nature overwhelmed him while he was studying in London and led to a serious nervous breakdown.

Ordered home by the Ministry of Education, he was awarded a professorship at Tokyo Imperial University, the nation’s premier educational institution (for men only). While teaching, he published fiction on the side (to calm his frazzled nerves, it is said), and when his writing attracted a large audience, he left his academic position to become staff novelist for the Asahi shinbun, the most authoritative newspaper of the day, where he serialized novel after novel. His career as a professional novelist lasted a mere ten years, but all his works attracted an enthusiastic following and in many ways set the course for modern Japanese literature. Sanshirō (1908; the title is the protagonist’s given name) excerpted here, is one of his important mid-career novels, and it happens to be my favorite among his works. It vividly depicts the confusion and bewilderment of a country boy coming to the city for the first time, and in so doing conveys the conflicts between traditional lifestyles and Western culture. What Sanshirō feels is more or less what all young people of the time experienced—the same thrills and confusion and joys and depression.

Tanizaki Junichirō (1886–1965) did not have the experience of studying abroad, but he constructed the foundation for his sophisticated literature during the liberal, urbane period known as “Taishō Democracy” (the brief time of peace between the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 and the war with China that began in 1931 and led into the Second World War). He was born into a well-to-do family, but had to withdraw from school and go to work when his father’s business went bankrupt, though with the help of a teacher who recognized his academic talents, he managed to advance to higher school. The novella included here, The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga (Tomoda to Matsunaga no hanashi, 1926), depicts an individual whose personality is split between East and West. Although it’s a bizarre tale put together in the form of a mystery, it is a well-wrought allegory, with just enough plausibility to convey with a certain poignancy the confusion and turmoil of intellectuals of the day who were unable to commit fully either to their Eastern or their Western side. It was serialized in the magazine Shufu no tomo (The Housewife”s Friend) in 1926, the year the Taishō emperor died and the age changed from Taishō to Shōwa, literally a historical turning point.

What we see in these three works is primarily the cultural state of Japan prior to the Second World War, when the country was actively importing Western culture while taking severe measures to preserve the “national polity” known as the Emperor System and striving to fulfil the motto “Rich Country, Strong Army.” The situation changed dramatically after Japan’s defeat and the US occupation of the country, but even today the clash of systems Eastern and Western goes on in different forms. This sometimes gives rise to interesting stimuli, and at other times to a profound sense of depression.

If I may add a personal note concerning Tanizaki, when I received the “Tanizaki Prize” in my mid-thirties, I had the opportunity to meet Tanizaki’s widow, Matsuko, at the award ceremony. She was quite advanced in years but still energetic. She made a point of coming over to me to say how much she had enjoyed the novel of mine that had received the prize, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I felt honored to be awarded a prize in the name of Tanizaki, a writer I greatly admired.

The first time I visited the offices of the New Yorker, I was shown around by the then editor-in-chief, Robert Gottlieb. When we got back to his office, I noticed he had three copies of Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters (Sasameyuki, 1944–9) on his shelf and asked him why that should be. “I do it so people will ask me that question,” he said with a smile. “Then I can tell them what a great book I think it is and, if they show interest, I can give them a copy.” How pleased Tanizaki would have been to hear that.

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Loyal Warriors

This section contains two stories about seppuku, or hara-kiri, as it is often referred to in the West, the practice of ritual suicide by disembowelment associated with the samurai warrior class. Mori Ōgai’s “The Last Testament of Okitsu Yagoemon” (Okitsu Yagoemon no isho, 1912) deals with an Edo-period (1600–1868) samurai who follows his lord in death, while Mishima Yukio”s “Patriotism” (Yūkoku, 1961) depicts seppuku against the background of the Incident of 26 February, a coup staged by young army officers in 1936. The samurai writes his testament with almost perfunctory detachment while the young officer’s performance of this distinctive form of suicide rises to erotic intensity.

The original point of seppuku was to slice open one’s own stomach and, if possible, pull out the intestines so as to demonstrate to one’s lord or to the people of one’s world the purity of one’s intent. It was an honorable method of suicide permitted only to the warrior class. It could be practiced as an imposed form of punishment or as a voluntary expression of will. In either case, medically speaking, it was a terribly inefficient means of ending one’s life. It took a long time and was tremendously painful. Slashing a carotid artery or stabbing oneself in the heart was a far easier death. Precisely because it was so inefficient and painful and time-consuming, most likely, the samurai warriors clung to this form of dying in order to put their courage and resolution on display (though in later years, it is true, so as not to prolong the agony, the individual would more often have a second ready to lop his head off from behind as soon as he had jabbed the blade into his abdomen).

To be a samurai—a member of the elite military class—meant that one had to be prepared to take one’s own life at any moment if the occasion should arise. Nor would it be any exaggeration to say that the heritage of continued psychological tension has had an obvious impact on the society. Occasions calling for the physical slicing open of the belly may have ceased to exist, but the readiness to commit seppuku would still seem to be functioning as an aesthetic influence on the Japanese psyche. In the world of the contemporary salaryman and bureaucrat, one often hears a person saying “I’ve got to cut my belly open” or “They’re gonna make me cut my belly open” to mean he is going to take responsibility for something.

As an elite army officer, Mori Ōgai was an intellectual with a cosmopolitan sensibility nurtured by a period of study in Germany, but still, when he heard the shocking news that General Nogi Maresuke (1849–1912), hero of the Russo-Japanese War, had cut his stomach open to follow Emperor Meiji in death, he was deeply moved, and as Nogi was being laid to rest, Ōgai wrote “The Last Testament of Okitsu Yagoemon.” Okitsu was a historical figure who actually ended his life with seppuku, and he may have left some sort of testament to explain his actions, but the “testament” we have here is probably Ōgai’s fictional creation. Presented in the form of a simple, practical document, it reeks with a suppressed bloodiness from beginning to end. Because it is written in a formal Chinese style often used in official documents, the story is probably not read by many Japanese nowadays, but in it we see Ōgai’s cool, clean late style. Ōgai knew General Nogi well and must have felt deep sympathy for his manner of death. He went on to write several more pieces on samurai who follow their lords into death, most notably “The Abe Family (Abe ichizoku, 1913), a particularly sanguinary tale. We might note here that Natsume Sōseki, the other giant of Meiji-period letters, was also inspired by Nogi’s suicide to write his best-known novel, Kokoro (1914).

Mishima Yukio used to say that “Patriotism” had no real-life models, but it is generally held that there were people who could have been Mishima’s models. In fact, there was a military couple who actually took their own lives like the couple in the story. But Mishima would almost certainly have found it unbearable to see his idealized, purified literary image of Lieutenant Takeyama Shinji’s heroic seppuku and his wife Reiko’s self-immolation reduced to the level of sheer realism. No reader who reaches the end of “Patriotism” is thinking about whether or not the story has real-life models. Surely there are readers who are drawn to the beauty of the world depicted in the piece as well as readers who feel only revulsion. In either case, one cannot help but recognize Mishima’s thoroughgoing purification of a single idea as an outstanding literary accomplishment.

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.

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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?

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.”

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.

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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.

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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).

*

Dread

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.

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.

*

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.

“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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