And just like that, we are now in the fifth month of the year. Whew. April just blew past by although I must say I had quite a lot of memories in the past month. At the start of the month, I traveled to Japan, one of the top places I wanted to visit. I spent over a week there, the majority of which was spent exploring Kyoto. I suddenly want to go back there. Meanwhile, toward the end of the month, I tested positive for COVID-19, the second time I tested positive. Thankfully, all of my symptoms are gone and I am on the way to recovery. I am also glad April is done because it means that the tax season is officially over. I hope all my fellow accountants and our brothers in the profession, the auditors and tax accountants, have finally recovered from another grueling busy season. More importantly, I hope everyone is healthy and is doing fine, in body, mind, and spirit. Lest we forget, the pandemic is still present – as I have learned – so please still observe the minimum health standards.

Anyway, back to the purpose of this update. After two months of reading works of British and Irish literature, I pivoted back to Asia, to one of my favorite parts of the literary world: Japanese literature. Although Japanese literature month has become a tradition, I usually host it during my birth month; it is that special. However, I made an exception this year mainly because of my recent to Japan. To make this reading journey more special, I dedicated April to Japanese writers whose oeuvre I have not explored previously. As always, it was an interesting adventure, to say the least. A foray into Japanese literature is rarely boring. Before I lose it in a swirl of words, here is a peek into how my April reading journey shaped up. Happy reading!

The House of Nire by Morio Kita

I kicked off my journey across Japanese literature with Morio Kita’s The House of Nire. When I purchased the book, I barely had any iota about what it was about nor have I ever come across Morio Kita. I was only going with my gut, that the book was a work of Japanese literature, which it was. Curious about what the book had in store, I added the book to my 23 Top 23 Reading List. It was also my first translated novel for the year; I wanted to tip the scale toward translated literature this year. It was while searching more about the book that I learned that it was a parody of the works of Nobel Laureate in Literature Thomas Mann, a writer whose prose I badly want to read. At the heart of the novel is the Nire family who runs a hospital on the outskirts of Tokyo in the early years of the 20th century. We read about the family’s trials and tribulations; this family saga is attributed to Mann’s Buddenbrooks. The novel also grappled with mental health which is reminiscent of The Magic Mountain. Interestingly, Mann was one of Kita’s major influences. As such, don’t be deceived by its claim to parody as it belied the major subjects it tackled. There were humorous parts but there are also philosophical intersections. It is actually a lush novel juxtaposed to seminal historical events; the rise of Hitler and the studies of Sigmund Freud, for instance, were referenced. The first two-thirds of the book was centered on the family and their hospital while the last third dealt with the Second World War, marking the fall of the family. It was an intimidating read because of its length but I soon found myself lost in the story of the Nire family.

The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura

Compared to The House of Nire, Natsuko Imamura’s The Woman in the Purple Skirt is rather slender. However, if there is something I have learned throughout my reading journey it is to never be deceived by a book’s physical appearance. Even the most slender books can pack a lot of punch. This was certainly the scenario I was hoping for when I started reading my first novel by Imamura, a name that I first came across during the pandemic. Her novel The Woman in the Purple Skirt was ubiquitous. This naturally piqued my interest even though I barely had any inkling about what the book was about. I surmised that it was in the same vein as Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman or Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs. The titular Woman in the Purple Skirt is Hino but she was not the book’s narrator. Rather, she was the interest of the novel’s narrator who I thought at first was a man. As the story moved forward, one can get a sense that there was a level of obsession. Hino and the novel’s narrator worked together at a hotel. Hino was a new hire who seemed timid, especially at first, but she soon proved herself a capable worker. As the space between the narrator and Hino grew smaller, the narrator’s obsession grew deeper. Overall, it was an interesting story about loneliness, obsession, and power dynamics. It was also an examination of the current state of women in modern Japanese society. It had strong points but I felt like the book’s overall impact was ephemeral. I wished the book was longer.

The Doctor’s Wife by Sawako Ariyoshi

If there was something I have observed about 20th-century Japanese literature it is how it was dominated by men, with Nobel Laureates in Literature Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburō Ōe, and, by extension, Kazuo Ishiguro as the frontrunners. This is why I find the recent ascent of Japanese female writers a move in the right direction. This is not to dismiss the female Japanese writers who also made their mark during the 20th century, among them Sawako Ariyoshi. To be honest, I wasn’t aware of any female writers from the era until I encountered Fumiko Enchi and Sawako Ariyoshi. I would, later on, learn that Ariyoshi was the writer of The River Ki, considered a classic of Japanese literature. My first Ariyoshi novel, however, was The Doctor’s Wife, a book inspired by the story of Kae, the wife of a noted male physician named Hanaoka Seishū. While it is a work of historical fiction, parts of the novel were embellished. The focus of the novel, however, was not the relationship between Kae and her husband but rather with Otsugi, her mother-in-law. The relationship between the two women kicked off on the right foot, it soon soured because each woman saw the other as a competitor for Seishū’s affection; by this time, Seishū was slowly creating a reputation for himself. The relationship was toxic but to the outside world, their relationship was the paragon of the ideal in-law relationship. It was a compelling story but it skipped timeframes which hampered my overall appreciation of the story.

The Cat Who Saved Books by Sôsuke Natsukawa

My foray into Japanese literature started rather slow – thanks to the thick The House of Nire – but it didn’t take long for me to gather momentum. This can be attributed to how much I have been enjoying Japanese literature, with its diverse and eccentric mix. Speaking of eccentricity, one of the eccentricities I have noted about this part of the literary world is the prevalence of cats. Several books involving cats were published or translated into English recently, among them Sôsuke Natsukawa’s 2017 novel 本を守ろうとする猫の話 (Hon o mamorō to suru neko no hanashi) which was translated into English as The Cat Who Saved Books. The premise was heartwarming but it didn’t seem that way at the onset because the readers were greeted with the sudden death of Rintaro Natsuki’s grandfather. This left the management of Natsuki bookstore in the hands of Rintaro, a subpar high school student who had the proclivity of distancing himself socially from his peers; he was a hikikomori. Books were his comfort zone but he had to close his grandfather’s bookstore and to move in with an aunt he didn’t know existed. His reverie was disrupted by the sudden appearance of a talking cat named Tiger the Tabby. Tiger the Tabby had a mission to save imprisoned books. This seemingly lighthearted story was an indictment of the current state of the publishing industry, academia, and the encroachment of capitalism on the simple pleasures of reading. It was a quick but compelling read that also doubled as a coming-of-age story.

Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seichō Matsumoto

As I have mentioned, Japanese literature is very diverse. Under this huge umbrella are several subgenres. Imagine my surprise when I learned detective and mystery fiction was prevalent in Japanese literature. Honestly, it was one of the last places I expect when detective fiction is mentioned; this part of the literary world is packed with many pleasant surprises. However, Seichō Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates, however, is my first work of Japanese mystery fiction in nearly three years. There was no preamble with Inspector Imanishi Investigates. The story immediately brought the readers to the scene of the crime: Tokyo’s Kamata Railroad Yard where the lifeless body of an unnamed man was discovered. One of the detectives assigned to the case was the titular Inspector Imanishi. He was perplexed by the case. The clues they were able to gather, starting with an innocuous name “Kameda” overheard by a witness during a conversation between the victim and the suspect, only set Inspector Imanishi and his team into a wild goose chase that brought them as far as the Tohoku region on the northeastern part of Honshu. Despite his diligence, Inspector Imanishi was unable to make any headway into the case. Matsumoto, credited for popularizing detective fiction in Japanese literature, then masterfully built the suspense. Sure, the ending is predictable – works of detective fiction rarely veer off course – but the journey to get there was skillfully laid out by Matsumoto.

The Strangeness of Beauty by Lydia Minatoya

In a way, Lydia Minatoya’s The Strangeness of Beauty was, in a way, a deviation from the first five works of Japanese literature I read in April. First, Minatoya was born in the United States to parents with Japanese heritage. Second, the book was originally written in English. Nevertheless, I am still intrigued by the approach of a Japanese American writer toward what is palpably a work steeped in Japanese culture and history. At the heart of Minatoya’s debut in fiction writing was Etsuko. The year was 1921 and the setting was Seattle. Etsuko and her husband settled there after moving from Japan. Her sister Naomi eloped with her husband Akira they moved away from Naomi and Etsuko’s mother, Chie Fuji. Naomi, unfortunately, died during childbirth. Her daughter, Hanae survived and was sent by Akira back to Japan, to her domineering grandmother. There are several layers to the story. First, it was a work of historical fiction. Second, it grappled with the sense of belongingness and alienation often felt by Japanese (Asian in general) Americans. They belonged neither in the Americas nor in Japan. Family dynamics were also extensively explored by Minatoya and details of Japanese culture made this facet of the novel all the more interesting; the samurai culture was a prevalent example. However, one aspect that caught my attention was the novel’s commentary on a famed form of Japanese literature: the I-novel. Because of its several layers, this was a book I thoroughly enjoyed.

Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi

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), Emi Yagi, who was a female magazine editor worked on her debut novel. 空芯手帳 (Kushin techō) was eventually published in late 2020 and was a critical success. In 2022, it was finally made available to English readers as Diary of a Void. The short slice-of-life story chronicled a pivotal point in the life of Ms. Shibata. When we first meet her, she was starting in her new company; she left her previous job due to the rampant 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. 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. As a sort of experiment to see how her male colleagues would react, she shocked her colleagues with the news of her pregnancy. She wasn’t. Yagi’s debut novel grappled with contemporary workaday culture, underscoring the inequalities – from gender, age, and even race – that remain prevalent in the modern workplace. But also through Shibata’s story, we read about loneliness and the struggles of women beyond the workplace, from traditional gender roles to consumerism.

If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura

As I have noted, cats are ubiquitous in Japanese literature which rather surprised me; there are three books in this list alone. One of the most direct was, of course, Natsume Sōseki’s I Am A CatI Am A Cat, it seems, was the precursor for the growing prevalence of felines in modern Japanese literature. 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; isolation is pretty common in Japanese literature as well. He was estranged from his family after the death of his mother; his relationship with his father was tumultuous. Things were not looking up for him as he was diagnosed with terminal-stage brain cancer. He has only a couple of months to live. It was in this harrowing moment in his life that the Devil himself appeared. The devil made a wager with the narrator: in exchange for a day more to live, the postman must give something of value in exchange; the Devil will make these things disappear. Some of the postman’s things were sacrificial lambs – he can’t take them to the grave anyway. And then there was Cabbage, a cat who has kept him company in his isolation. As the main character flashes back to the halcyon days when his mother was still living, the readers were regaled with a heartwarming tale about the connections we make with those around us. Deceptively slender, the book packed a lot of punch.

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

It was through online booksellers that I first encountered the American Japanese writer Julie Otsuka 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 would, later on, learn that When the Emperor Was Divine was Otsuka’s debut novel, further piquing my interest. Unlike most of the books in this list, Otsuka’s debut novel was set in the United States. Nevertheless, it still explored a very seminal subject related to the relations between the United States and Japan, particularly during the onset of the Second World War. The story, apparently, was loosely based on the experiences of Otsuka’s family during this period. The members of the Japanese family at the heart of the short novel, however, were unnamed. They were 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. If my memory serves me right, I first came across the Japanese incarceration through John Hamamura’s Color of the Sea or David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. Honestly, 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.

No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai

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 period in Japanese literature was Osamu Dazai. He has recently been gaining global recognition as his works were reprinted, 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. Dazai is considered one of the masters o the I-novel. 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. His novel No Longer Human (人間失格, Ningen Shikkaku, 1948) was an excellent example of the I-novel. The main character of the novel was Ōba Yōzō whose journal was the structural backbone of the novel. His journal focused on pivotal events in his life, such as the sexual abuse on him perpetrated by two servants of his family when he was still a child. He did not report this but instead hid it behind the veneer of buffoonery he was quite known for. As such, 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 where he experienced a sort of enlightenment. 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.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

Another day, another book about cats. Yes, I am referring to Takashi Hiraides’s The Guest Cat, a book that I first encountered through an online bookseller during the pandemic. Albeit I had no iota about what the book was, I found myself owning yet another “cat” book. Like most of my books, it took a couple of months before I finally lifted it from its static 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. What I find 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 to examine changes, 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. The arrangement was temporary because Japan was grappling with skyrocketing housing prices. Neither husband nor wife, however, were fond of cats until they met Chibi, the titular guest cat; the cat made the garden his/her playground. The couple played with the cat and soon enough, Chibi became a seminal part of their life. 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, this short novel was heartwarming.

Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura

I first came across Mizuki Tsujimura’s Lonely Castle in the Mirror in the past year although I initially dismissed the book. There was a marked increase in new works of Japanese literature taking over bookstores but I had to limit my purchases. Ironically, I remembered the book when I started my April 2023 Japanese Literature month. Thankfully, the book was available so I did not hesitate in buying it. Originally published in 2017 in Japanese as かがみの孤城 (Kagami no Kojō), the novel introduced Kokoro, a freshman junior high school student. At the start of the novel, she decided to stop attending her classes after she experienced incessant bullying from one of her classmates. She did not report this to her parents. One day, she noticed a light emanating from her bedroom mirror, and, upon checking it out, she was transported into a mysterious fairytale-like castle where she was welcomed by a young girl with a wolf’s mask. Kokoro immediately retreated but returned the following day; she was a curious cat. Upon her return, she was introduced to six other junior high school students: Aki, Rion, Subaru, Fuka, Masamune, and Ureshino. They have contrasting personalities but they share one quality: they all stopped attending school. It was a touchy subject, however, that they skirted around. The Wolf Queen, as the young girl with the wolf mask wanted to be called, gathered them around to give them a task: find the key to the Wishing Room. The one who finds it will have one wish granted. It was a typical work of young-adult fiction but the plot twist toward the end elicited a tear or two.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Like the majority of the works on this list, it was during the pandemic that I first encountered Toshikazu Kawaguchi. I bought a copy of one of his books Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Café because I find it very cozy. I planned to read it last month but I changed my plans after I learned it was the sequel to Before the Coffee Gets Cold; a third book, Before My Memory Fades completes the trilogy. Thankfully, the first book in the trilogy was available. Once I had a copy of the book, I immediately dived in, making it the last book I read in April. The novel’s premise was pretty straightforward although it involved something fantastical. It involved time travel, a subject that has tickled the imagination of many a reader and even nonreaders. The story starts in an unassuming café on one of Tokyo’s alleys. Rumors abound that it can make its customers travel across time. As the old adage goes, where there is smoke there is fire. Sure enough, we meet four customers who wanted to avail of these services. Each of these customers has their own story. One was left by her boyfriend who pursued his career overseas. One was a mother who wanted to check up on her child. Each has a concern he or she hoped would be answered by a quick journey across time. There was one condition for their time travel, they must finish their business before the coffee gets cold lest they end up becoming ghosts haunting the coffee shop. Because of these four separate stories, the novel felt more like a collection of short stories but Kawaguchi managed to weave all these elements together into a cohesive and heartwarming tale about love, death, and life in general.

Reading Challenge Recaps
  1. My 2023 Top 23 Reading List5/23
  2. 2023 Beat The Backlist: 4/20; 27/60
  3. 2023 Books I Look Forward To List0/10
  4. Goodreads 2023 Reading Challenge: 41/70
  5. 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: 8/20
  6. New Books Challenge: 1/15
Book Reviews Published in April
  1. Book Review # 422: All the Lovers in the Night
  2. Book Review # 423: The Cat Who Saved Books
  3. Book Review # 424: Diary of A Void
  4. Book Review # 425: A Personal Matter
  5. Book Review # 426: Black Rain
  6. Book Review # 427: Quicksand

April was a busy month because it is the quarter-end. Couple this with the annual filings for income tax and I had a full house. At the start, my prospect was already gloomy and I thought I wouldn’t be able to publish more than four book reviews. Thankfully, I managed to squeeze in the time to complete at least six book reviews. Because of this, I am now left with just four books from my Japanese literature months in 2022 for review; I just published one of these reviews yesterday so I am actually down to my last three. Actually, I was hoping to complete all my pending reviews last month but, as I have said, it was busier than usual. This goal now shifts to May; I am also hoping to complete my review of four books from my 2022 Asian literature month. As always, I will just take it one step at a time.

Even before May started, I already resolved to dedicate it to reading works of Japanese literature. Yes, it is an extension of my April reading month but now my focus will be on Japanese writers whose prose I have previously explored. I have already completed Dance Dance Dance, my 13th novel by Haruki Murakami – it was also my first since 2021 – and Forbidden Colors, my fourth novel by Yukio Mishima. My current read, I Am A Cat, is my third novel by Natsume Sōseki. It is a book I long wanted to read; it has tickled my imagination for quite some time but I withheld buying a copy of the book. I was hoping to encounter a hardbound copy of it but I had no such luck so I had to settle with what is readily available. I have also lined up the works of Keigo Higashino, Yasunari Kawabata, Shūsaku Endō, Banana Yoshimoto, Yōko Tawada, Hiromi Kawakami, and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. Oh, it is going to be another full-packed reading month.

How about you fellow reader? How is your own reading journey going? I hope you enjoyed the books you have read. For now, have a great day and weekend. As always, do keep safe, and happy reading everyone!