Happy midweek everyone! Wow. We are already halfway through the week. As it is midweek, it is time for a fresh WWW Wednesday update, my first this year. WWW Wednesday is a bookish meme originally hosted by SAM@TAKING ON A WORLD OF WORDS. The mechanics for WWW Wednesday are quite simple, you just have to answer three questions:

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. What have you finished reading?
  3. What will you read next?

What are you currently reading?

My foray into one of my favorite parts of the literary world is going pretty well if I may say so myself. Japanese literature, with its diversity, has never failed to leave me breathless. To make my journey across Japanese literature a more memorable one, I resolved to read the works of new-to-me Japanese writers, including Japanese American writers such as Lydia Minatoya and Julie Otsuka. I am now reading Mizuki Tsujimura’s Lonely Castle in the Mirror, a book I initially didn’t fancy when I first encountered it. The book’s English translation by Philip Gabriel, a name who has by now become familiar to me as he translated the works of Haruki Murakami as well, was released in early 2021 but the book was originally published in Japanese in 2017 as かがみの孤城 (Kagami no Kojō).

The book is as eclectic as its cover but I am taking it as a positive sign (as always). To reiterate, the diversity in Japanese literature is mindblowing. Anyway, Lonely Castle in the Mirror chronicled the story of Kokoro who decided to stop attending her junior high school, Yukishina No. 5. It bewildered her parents but accepted it as is. One day, the mirror in her room glowed and transported her into the titular Lonely Castle where she met a young girl with a wolf mask, or the Wolf Queen as she coaxed everyone to call her. I know, it is pretty farfetched but Japanese literature, well literature in general requires some suspension of reality. Anyway, in the castle she met six other junior high school students: Aki, Rion, Subaru, Fūka, Masamune, and Ureshino. They were given the task of finding the key to the Wishing Room. The one who finds the key gets to have their wish granted. Simple? It seems so but as the story moves forward, it gets more complex as it tackled dark subjects such as bullying, self-isolation (hikikomori again), and absentee parents. I can’t wait to see how the story pans out.

What have you finished reading?

After kicking off my journey into Japanese literature rather slowly, I have slowly gathered steam and gained some badly needed reading momentum. From completing three books last week, I managed to complete five in the past week, mainly because the books I read were rather slender and we got an extra holiday; at one stretch, I read one book daily for four days straight.

The book that commenced this was Emi Yagi’s Diary of A Void. Inspired by Kikuko Tsumura’s この世にたやすい仕事はない (Konoyo ni tayasui shigoto wanaiThere’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, 2015), Yagi, who was a female magazine editor worked on her debut novel 空芯手帳 (Kushin techō) which was eventually published in late 2020. It was a critical success and in 2022, it was finally made available to English readers. The short slice-of-life story chronicled a seminal event in the life of Ms. Shibata. When we first meet her, she was starting in her new company after she left her previous job due to the rampant perpetration of sexual harassment.

Ms. Shibata’s new job, however, was no comfort. She was the only female in the company; the company previously employed two other women but both resigned due to different reasons, thankfully not due to sexual harassment. So yes, Ms. Shibata’s new job barely offered her any reprieve. As the only female employee, she was EXPECTED – yes, expected – to perform the menial tasks historically reserved for women such as serving coffee for meetings and tidying them up once the meeting ended. Tired of this, she shocked her colleagues with the news of her pregnancy. But she wasn’t and it was supposed to be an experiment. The novel’s premise alone captures the readers’ imagination. Yagi’s debut novel grappled with contemporary workaday culture, underscoring the inequalities – from gender, age, and even race – that continue to persist in the modern workplace. But also through Shibata’s story, we read about loneliness and the struggles of women beyond the workplace. Traditional gender roles and expectations and consumerism were also explored in this slender novel.

As I have noted, there is a prevalence of cats in Japanese literature which rather surprised me. Cats are ubiquitous in the works of Haruki Murakami. There is, of course, Natsume Sōseki’s I Am A Cat; Sōseki was among Murakami’s chief literary influences. I Am A Cat, it seems, was also the precursor for the growing presence of cats in Japanese literature, from Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles (a book I loved) to Sôsuke Natsukawa’s The Cat Who Saved Books. Genki Kawamura made his own contribution with If Cats Disappeared from the World which was a literary sensation in Japan when it was published in 2012.

This novel conveyed the story of an unnamed postman living alone. Following the demise of his mother, he was estranged from his family as his relationship with his father was tumultuous. However, things are not looking for him as, when we first met him, he was diagnosed with terminal-stage brain cancer. He has only a couple of months to live. In this harrowing moment in his life, the Devil himself appeared; to reiterate, reading literature requires suspension of belief. The devil made a deal with the narrator: in exchange for a day more to live, the Devil must take something of value from the postman, make these things disappear. Some of the postman’s things were sacrificial lambs – he can’t take them to the grave anyway – but then this leads us to Cabbage, a cat who has kept him company in his isolation. What ensued were flashbacks to the halcyon days when his mother was still living. If Cats Disappeared from the World may be slender but it is a heartwarming and meditative story about the connections we make with those around us.

Another day, another book. My journey across Japanese literature resumed with Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine. It was through online booksellers that I first encountered the American Japanese writer and her novel When the Emperor Was Divine. As I had tons of books I wanted to read, I skipped the book but a couple of months later, I finally caved into my curiosity and to my natural tendencies for reading adventures. I just learned that this was her debut novel, so this makes the book all the more interesting, at least from my point of view I guess.

Unlike the other books in this list, Otsuka’s debut novel was primarily set in the United States but still tackled a very seminal subject related to the relations between the United States and Japan during the onset of the Second World War. The story, apparently, was loosely based on the experiences of Otsuka’s family during this period. It then makes sense that the members of the Japanese family at the heart of the short novel were unnamed, simply referred to as Mother, Daughter, Son, and Father; on the other hand, this namelessness gave the story a more universal appeal. Following the deadly attack by Japanese forces on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt ordered that all Japanese residing in the United States be moved to camps. I think I first came across the Japanese incarceration through John Hamamura’s Color of the Sea and I was surprised this even happened; history is so vast that some parts of me manage to surprise me. Otsuka captured this unfamiliar historical territory with objective lenses and gave the readers a vicarious experience.

From what I have observed, Japanese literature really took off during the twentieth century, with the rise of names such as Shūsaku Endō, Yukio Mishima, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Natsume Sōseki, and, of course, the Nobel Laureates in Literature Yasunari Kawabata and the recently departed Kenzaburō Ōe. Another prominent name from this seminal period in Japanese literature is Osamu Dazai who has recently been gaining global recognition with the reprinting of his works, among them No Longer Human. By the way, Dazai is the father Yūko Tsushima, another novelist. I also learned that Osamu Dazai is a pseudonym used by Shūji Tsushima.

If one is acquainted with Japanese literature, one won’t miss encountering the I-novel, a form of confessional literature built on actual experiences by the writer. Among the masters of this literary movement was Dazai and this was prevalent in No Longer Human (人間失格, Ningen Shikkaku, 1948). The main character of the novel was Ōba Yōzō whose notebook formed the structure of the novel. In the earlier parts of his journal, we learn about his childhood. While he was a child, he was sexually abused by two servants of her family. However, he did not report this but instead hid behind the veneer of buffoonery he was quite known for. At a young age, he felt alienated, not only from his family but also from life in general. Being a jokester was his escape. Ōba then takes us to the university he attended. There was a sort of awakening there as he interacted with different individuals, from activists to communists to passive-aggressive “friends”. As the story moves forward, one begins to understand the plight of Ōba, hence, the book’s title.

Concluding this stretch of one day a book journey was another short novel that – surprise surprise – involved a cat. Yes, I am referring to Takashi Hiraides’s The Guest Cat, a book that I first encountered through an online bookseller. I can’t recall why I didn’t hesitate to buy the book. Maybe I was feeling a little buoyant or generous that day. Anyway, I have for myself another “cat” book in my collection although it did take a couple of months before I finally lifted it from its passive state; it has been gathering quite the dust.

So yes, another book that involves felines; I really am surprised but also fascinated by Japanese writers’ fascination with these creatures. But what is even more interesting is how cats were used as vessels to explore a plethora of subjects, from books to relationships to mortality. In Hiraide’s short (yes, again) novel, a cat was a vessel for change and an examination of love and loss. Hirade transported the readers to the 1980s where we meet a childless couple in their early thirties; the husband was a writer while the wife was a proofreader. They moved to a small house in the corner of a garden containing a larger property. However, the arrangement was temporary as the country was grappling with skyrocketing housing prices. Neither husband nor wife, however, were fond of cats but into the garden entered Chibi, the titular guest cat. The couple played with the cat and soon enough, Chibi became a seminal part of their quotidian existence. As the bond between the couple and the cat strengthened, philosophical musings were slowly but astutely woven into the story. Like all the stories I read that had cats, I find this short novel heartwarming.

I will be concluding my April reading journey with Toshikazu Kawagushi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold. It seems that coffee is an integral part of any culture. To be fair, I saw a lot of cafes during my recent trip to Japan. I do feel that the first book in this trilogy – yes, this book was succeeded by two more – will be similar to Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thriftshop, at least where the observation of human interaction and relationship is concerned. I can’t wait to read this book.

From new-to-me writers, May will be dedicated to Japanese writers whose prose I have already explored previously. Kicking off this journey is Haruki Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance, his sixth novel and the (unofficial) fourth book in the popular writer’s Rat Trilogy. I was actually hoping that his latest novel, released in Japan last April 13, was already available in English. Unfortunately, I have to wait a little longer. From Murakami, I am planning on exploring the work of one of his major literary influences. Natsume Sōseki’s I Am A Cat – the father of “cat” books if I may say so myself – has long tickled my imagination and interest. However, I kept on holding back because I was hoping to encounter a hardbound copy of the book. It seems that the opportunity is not going to present itself soon so I just obtained a copy of what is available.

That’s it for this week’s WWW Wednesday. I hope you are all doing great. Happy reading and always stay safe! Happy Wednesday again!