A fine entry point into a rich literary world still waiting to be fully discovered and appreciated by the Western world.
In his introduction to the new collection of short stories by Japanese authors dating back over a century, writer Haruki Murakami plainly states that he himself is by no means an authority on Japanese fiction. In fact, until recently, he largely avoided reading the works of his fellow countrymen. This rather surprising admission allows the reader to come upon these stories in the same manner as Murakami, albeit without the greater body of cultural knowledge and social mores that dominate Japanese life. But it also shows just how under-recognized Japanese authors have been in the West.
The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories seeks to rectify this with a selection of stories that touch on all facets of Japanese life from the early part of the 20th century on into the new millennium. Editor Jay Rubin breaks up the collection by theme rather than a more traditional chronological approach. This approach helps ease the reader into some semblance of a Japanese state of mind. Appropriately, the collection begins with a trio of stories illustrating the Japanese fascination with Westerners and the lives they lead. This not only shows an important aspect of Japanese cultural (the struggle between the traditional and the modern), but it also allows Western readers a relatively easy access point by reflecting those parts of themselves the Japanese found so appealing in the early part of the 20th century and beyond.
Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s “The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga” (1926) opens the section entitled “Japan and the West” and offers the best illustration of this collision between the past and the present as the titular character proves to be one in the same, his appearance altering drastically based on the lifestyle he is at the time adopting. Almost like a sort of Jekyll and Hyde scenario, Tomoda/Matsunaga finds himself physically changing to adjust to either the traditional Japanese way of life he has known all his life and found himself stuck within and the more hedonistic urges and the freedoms associated with a more Western lifestyle. His changes are so drastic (a sort of Tom Hanks-in-Cast Away amount of weight loss and gain) that his own wife fails to recognize him in a photograph. The only clues to his true identity lie in a handful of artifacts that follow him through both iterations of self.
From here, Rubin dives headlong into the Japanese tradition of loyalty and honor with a pair of stories dealing with seppuku (aka harakiri, a form of ritual suicide by disembowelment). It’s a concept that is hard to grasp, particularly within the fractured social and political climate within which we are currently living, but the idea that someone would willingly die by their own hand in such a gruesome manner in order to retain or restore honor shows just how important this concept is within Japanese culture. Mori Ōgai’s “The Last Testament of Okitsu Yagoemon” (1912) attempts to shed some light on the mindset of those willing to commit seppuku, while Mishima Yukio’s “Patriotism” (1961) cuts right to the heart of post-WWII cultural pride.
The section entitled “Men and Women” offers up five stories by female authors, more than any other section of the collection and showing a more nuanced approach to the cultural differences between the sexes. Elsewhere, in “Disasters, Natural and Man-Made,” several of the most significant events in modern Japanese history are addressed directly. Ōta Yōko, who was born in Hiroshima more than 40 years before the city was decimated, pulls no punches in the harrowing “Hiroshima, City of Doom” (1948) from his larger work, City of Corpses, while Seirai Yūichi’s “Insects” takes a slightly more surrealistic look at the aftereffects of the bombing of his native Nagasaki. Despite being born more than a decade after the bombing, his take on the event shows the lasting cultural impact the bombings had on the Japanese people.
Finally, the Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear meltdown that occurred in 2011 is addressed in a trio of stories that show how, despite the inevitable march of time, disasters both natural and man-made are handled in a similar manner both culturally and artistically. Tellingly, the final story comes from one of the youngest authors collected here, Satō Yūya and is called “Same as Always.”
It’s by no means an easy culture of literature to enter without any sort of contextual knowledge or greater understanding of the historical implications of Japan’s involvement with both its Asian neighbors and the West, but The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories nonetheless serves as a fine entry point into a rich literary world still waiting to be fully discovered and appreciated by the Western world.