Sometimes we look hard for new things to enjoy when all you have to do is simply to go and discover another culture.
I grew up in Sakhalin, which is an island located in the Far East of Russia. Japan is the closest country to Sakhalin, they are separated by a forty-kilometer water boundary of La Perouse Straight, named after the great French sea-traveler. Since I was a little kid I’ve always been curious about the neighbor’s culture, especially its literature as it let me into the world of Japanese people and showed me the way they think.
The first Japanese book I read, if I remember correctly, was Hear The Wind Sing by Haruki Murakami. Since then I’ve read almost every book by this author. I was surprised with the honest, open and confident narration. Another thing appealed to me about his writing was the way he uses simple words to describe at times complex emotion with astonishing precision. I was also captivated by the mysticism, which I later discovered to be the trait of some other Japanese authors. I call Murakami’s style a video-literature for its vivid, poetic, emotional and cinematographic nature. My favourite books by this author: A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.
Later on, I discovered Japanese masters of literary fiction – Kenzaburo Oe and Yasunari Kawabata. Oe, the living legend of Japanese literary fiction, was heavily influenced by the Russian writer Fyodor Dostovesky. Both of them explored the suffering of human soul struggling to live in the imperfect and oppressive society. As another parallel with Dostoevsky, political themes are found in many Oe’s books too. The height of psychological analysis of the characters Oe created in his novels is, in my opinion, unsurpassed in Japanese literature. As Oe put it shortly: “I am writing about the dignity of human beings”. The Silent Cry is perhaps one of his finest works.
Yasunari Kawabata was a true biographer of Japanese life. In his works he focused on people’s relationships in the family and with friends, on themes of love, death, ageing. His literary style is somewhat inaccurately compared to neo-impressionism. Recommended read: The Sound of The Mountain.
My next discovery was Ryunosuke Akutagawa who is famous for his short fiction. I like his uniquely engaging narrative style. The very first Akutagawa’s short story served the basis for a famous Akira Kurosava’s film. It is called Rashomon. It is a shame Akutagawa died so early, just at the age of 35, he poisoned himself with barbital.
Another writer who killed himself (it was a ritual suicide after a failed coup d’état) was Yukio Mishima, a controversial figure in Japanese society. He’s known for his avante-garde writing style and enormous productivity. I’ve read one of his most notorious books, The Temple of The Golden Pavilion, based on a real story about a Buddhist acolyte who burnt down Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto. Mishima’s fiction has a lot of energy, perhaps it comes from the fanatical determination of the author himself.
Japanese literature has ancient roots. Its two most beloved masterpieces had been created during the Heian Period, when the early Japanese state and its art flourished. Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book describes the life and customs of the court in the royal palace and includes some exquisite poetry of that time.
Another work of Heian period is considered to be the world’s first novel and is called A Tale of Genji. It doesn’t have a fictional plot in a traditional sense, but rather follows life of Prince Genji at the court over the years, which is not an easy feat considering that the book features hundreds of characters. That’s what I call EPIC. So, prepare to be dazzled, it’s several volumes of brilliancy. I’ve gone through the first one so far 🙂
After Heian, Japan had suffered a difficult millennium of feudal wars and fighting warlords (shoguns). Those were the times of the rise (above aristocracy) and blossom of the samurai culture, which lasted untill 1868, when the Meiji restoration shifted the balance back to the Imperial family. During this medieval period Japanese literature gave the world several historical novels and polished to perfected its short poetry. Poets like Matsuo Basho really knew how to say a lot in just a few words. The haiku form is a hymn to minimalism.
Now then, let’s go out / to enjoy the snow… until / I slip and fall! [Basho, 1688]
When Japan opened itself to the world during Meiji period, Japanese people became influenced by European literature and the whole generation of new writers emerged: of which I only read some of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s work. I really need to catch up. Natsume Soseki is next on my list.
If I go back to where I started – the modern Japanese literature, – then its biggest share consists of comic books called manga. I’m not a fan of those, perhaps because I cannot read in Japanese. So I’ll keep going through my classics reading list instead.
I hope this post was a useful reminder for you about the great, unique, and often neglected in the West, Japanese literature. I know I have many blog visitors from Japan, I hope you guys can comment on this post and suggest other books and authors for us, ignorant gaijin.
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P.S. If you are keen to find out more about world literature these posts maybe of interest to you.