Happy Tuesday everyone! It is the second day of the week already but I hope everyone is doing well and is safe. Tuesdays also mean one thing, a Top Ten Tuesday update! Top Ten Tuesday is an original blog meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and is currently being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.
This week’s given topic is Freebie
There is no assigned topic for this week. We are free to come up with our own topic! I played around with a lot of topics but in the end, I decided to list my ten favorite works of Japanese literature. This is because I am in the midst of another Japanese literature reading journey. It is a part of the world of literature that I love returning to. My third most read group of writers, after Americans and the British, Japanese writers have provided me with a vast selection of books that spanned different genres and subgenres. Before I start losing myself, here are some works of Japanese literature that captivated me and left deep impressions.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
I am kicking off this list with no other than Haruki Murakami, one of the, if not the most popular contemporary Japanese writers. His name and works are ubiquitous, and I have to admit, curiosity made me want to experience the Murakami universe. I did struggle with my first Murakami novels. I guess this is in part because they are his most complex works: 1Q84, Kafka on the Shore, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. Just when I was on the verge of giving up on his prose, I read Norwegian Wood. It was the turning point as it marked a pivotal point in my appreciation of Murakami’s works. It was easier to digest and the elements of magical realism were not as pervasive as in the first books by Murakami I read. The novel charted the story of Toru Watanabe. Through flashbacks to his university days, the novel explored loss, grief, and romance.
Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki
While venturing further into Japanese literature, one of the names that inevitably crossed paths was Natsume Sōseki. I kept encountering his book I Am A Cat during my trip to the bookstores; it is actually the first Sōseki novel I wanted to read but ironically, until now, I am yet to obtain a copy of the book. This, however, did not stop me from reading his other works, such as Kokoro, which literally means “heart”. At the heart of the novel are the unnamed narrator, a university student; and his “sensei”, an older man he met during a summer vacation he spent at Kamakura. The premise seems simple, a typical interaction between a mentor and his protege. However, it goes deeper than that as the novel grappled with the growing generational divide in Japan, a nation at the center of a major political, historical, and societal shift. And yes, Murakami has cited Soseki as one of his influences, hence, the renewed interest in Soseki’s oeuvre.
Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata
Apart from Haruki Murakami, one of the first Japanese writers whose works captivated me was Yasunari Kawabata. He was Japan’s first Nobel Laureate in Literature when he earned the Swedish Committee’s nod in 1968. His works were rather slender, just like in the case of his debut novel, and also the first Kawabata novel I read, Snow Country. I liked Snow Country but it was Thousand Cranes that I have long been wanting to read. Like Kokoro, the novel captured a changing Japan, that of a traditionalist mindset to a Western one. The book appeals to the subconscious in a nostalgic manner by playing around with emotions to capture the imagination. However, Thousand Cranes appeals to the general reading public because it mirrors the imperfections of human nature, something that we all know something about.
The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa
Because of its vastness, Japanese literature offers a variety of unique and memorable reading experiences such as the experience with Hiro Arikwawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles. There are just no words that can describe how much I loved this book. I was initially interested in the fact that Japanese literature abounded with cats (refer to Soseki and Murakami) but I was slowly reeled in by the novel’s distinct voice. The novel’s premise was interesting and promising. And yes, the primary narrator was a cat! We have a stray cat finding a new home after he was picked up by Satoru. The way it roused a myriad of emotions – from warm and fuzzy to poignant and sad to heartbreaking – made The Travelling Cat Chronicles a riveting story. The novel also showed me a different dimension of Japanese literature and storytelling in general.
The Silent Cry by Kenzaburō Ōe
I have to be honest. I was initially apprehensive about reading any of Kenzaburō Ōe, mainly because he was a renowned critic of Haruki Murakami. I eventually got over that as the curiosity got the better of me. Besides, Ōe has earned the distinction of being just the second Japanese writer to be a Nobel Laureate in Literature. My exploration of his prose started with The Silent Cry, which is a little dark. Set in the early 1960s, the novel followed the story of two brothers, Mitsusaburo and Takashi. The crux of the story began with Takashi’s sudden return from the United States. The brothers then traveled to their native village, set in a hollow in the forest in Shikoku, one of the main islands of Japan. The novel is vivid with imagery and, typical of Japanese literature, the background plays a seminal role in translating the emotions of the main characters. It was a memorable reading experience that reminded me of my admiration for Japanese writers and their brand of literature.
The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
One of the titles that I have long been wanting to read since the first time I encountered it was Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. Tanizaki is one of Japan’s foremost storytellers and was nearly on the cusp of being honored by the Swedish academy. Anyway, it took me years before I was finally able to obtain a copy of and read The Makioka Sisters. It is a period piece with the titular Makioka sisters as its centerpiece. Set in Osaka in the years immediately prior to the Second World War, the novel grappled with the changing Japanese attitude; this is a recurring subject in novels written in the 20th century. The novel was also an homage to the past. Whilst the novel was drawn in the veins of traditional Japanese literary work, Tanizaki worked on contrasts, incorporating elements of the past and the present, the modern and the traditional, the East and the West, to produce one of the most highly regarded masterpieces of contemporary Japanese literature.
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Like The Makioka Sisters, Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen has long piqued my interest although it did take me some time before I was finally able to obtain my copy of the book. As soon as I did, I made sure to make the book part of my reading journey. The book charted the story of Mikage Sakurai, a young Japanese woman who was orphaned at a young age and, at the start of the story, lost the last member of her family, her grandmother who was her guardian since her parents’ death. In the midst of her grief, Yuichi Tanabe made his entrance. He was a friend of Mikage’s grandmother. In Yoshimoto’s first major work, she explored subjects that are close to the heart of many, death and grief. The novel also explored transsexuality and homosexuality in general, subjects that are rarely encountered in works of Japanese literature. The only thing lamentable about the book was its length. How I wish it was longer.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa
If there is one thing that Japanese literature is known for it would be slice-of-life narratives. This was palpable in Yōko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, one of those books that I randomly purchased despite having no iota on who the writer was or what the book was about. Nevertheless, I take comfort in the fact that it was written by a Japanese writer. The book is about the chance encounter of a young female housekeeper and an elderly professor. The professor was once a robust and decorated university professor who specialized in number theory. However, in 1975, he suffered brain trauma after getting involved in an automobile accident. He can only retain memories for roughly 80 minutes. The Housekeeper, however, was not the least inconvenienced by this and what ensued is a heartwarming story and friendship. It is about the tiny but unexpected connections we make with our fellows.
The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
Another Japanese literary icon is Yukio Mishima. He was a prolific writer and, at one point, a matinee idol. However, he was also one of the more controversial writers. This did not preclude me from immersing myself in his prose. It all started with The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea, a book I read back in 2019. Its slender frame belies an insightful story of post-war Japan. In a way, it shared the same elements with The Sound of Waves, although the setting is quite different. Rather than in the metropolis, I was transported to the Japanese countryside, in a magnification of themes and subjects prevalent in works of Japanese literature: the shifting attitudes and social paradigms as post-war Japan opens its borders to Western influences. These subjects were captured through the story of young lovers Shinji and Hatsue. But while it masqueraded as a romance novel, it was more than that.
The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe
Like most of the books I have been reading since 2016, my first encounter with Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes was on must-read lists. It was ubiquitous and also came in highly recommended. I was initially apprehensive because the book was giving me strong science fiction vibes, a literary genre that I am still exploring. I eventually relented because I surmised that it was an integral part of Japanese fiction. I was a little thrown off by the story and it took me a while to compose myself. I knew that it was not something common, at least as far as I have read in Japanese literature. I, later on, realized that it was setting me up for an unusual literary journey. What Abe did best was evoking the feeling of isolation, desolation, and desperation, in equal measures. There was an atmosphere of claustrophobia and hopelessness that transcended the story. And it all felt so real despite what one can perceive as absurd.