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Japanese Literature Challenge: A Retrospective

I recently finished a self-imposed Japanese literature challenge (consisting of After the Banquet, Snow Country, I am a Cat, Naomi, and Ugetsu Monogatari).


Though I have previous read many other Japanese works, it is obviously not enough to draw conclusions about an entire country’s literature.  However there were certain themes I noticed;

- The meeting of and conflict between separate and disparate ideologies, two main themes being Traditional vs Modern and Western vs Japanese.

  • In I am a Cat many new, Western ideas and conveniences are largely embraced and the characters see nothing wrong with adopting many non-Japanese cultural aspects (yay modern plumbing!).  The main human character is even an English teacher.
  • The decades before and after WWII change the attitude; there is a national resurgence of interest in traditional culture along with increasing exposure to the West.  Some felt industrialization/modernization/Westernization had gone too far while others wanted to fully embrace it and felt Japanese culture to be too restricting.  Tanizaki especially loved this theme; his characters are always struggling to assimilate the two ideologies.  Too much of the “new” fractures relationships within families (The Makioka Sisters) or between spouses (Some Prefer Nettles, Naomi), but too much of the “old ways” repressed emotions and individuality.  Post-war Mishima’s scathing portrayal of Japanese politics in After the Banquet is a complaint against the imported democratic political system.  Kawabata also writes of incompatible Traditional and Western, but in a different way; he separates new (city life, ballet, etc.) from old (the Snow Country, traditional geisha) completely by giving them different locations in which to dwell.  I’ll stop before I write an entire thesis.
  • The Western theme is largely absent from Ugetsu Monogatari (written before 1853), however many of the stories still contain the Past vs Present theme- the past is glorified and treated with nostalgia, and many would prefer it to their grim and war-torn present.

- Loneliness and isolation.  So many of the characters feel separated, isolated, and unable to connect.

  • This is a big theme for Kawabata.  Snow Country is separate, only reached after a long train journey.  Komako, a geisha, is desperate to connect; she is often alone, or wandering in search of clients, or drunk at parties.  Shimamura, her frequent client, deliberately keeps a distance from everyone.  In Thousand Cranes each person is trying to connect with another character (mainly through affairs and tea ceremonies) because they want to remember someone else.
  • A more modern approach- Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.  Although more fractured than all of the other novels I read the characters exhibit the same isolation.  Toru spends most of his time alone in his apartment, his wife (and even the cat) have left, and his one main outside contact being May, herself a lonely teen.

Beauty, Aesthetics, and the Natural World.

  • In Snow Country the weather and mountainous countryside location are elevated to almost becoming characters in the novel.  In fact, all Kawabata works are heavy on aesthetics and beauty, focused by his succinct and lyrical phrasing.  Thousand Cranes continually comes back to the traditional tea ceremony; where every movement and object has meaning, and where a chipped cup can be more aesthetically pleasing than a perfect one because it symbolizes the impermanence of life.
  • Many characters take time to appreciate nature, and to enjoy the beauty of the world around them.  Kazu is most content in her garden, and walks in it every morning.  The four Makioka sisters have a tradition of viewing the cherry blossoms together every spring- it is a special event not only for the beauty of it, but also to be together despite their differences.
  • Ugetsu Monogatari tells several tales where elementsof the natural world play a role- including ghosts, oni, and the unexplainable, often intersecting with humankind.
  • I remember these themes being a large part of Genji; classic Heian culture according to Murasaki Shikibu was a lot of poetry writing, arranging flowers and clothing (so that color and pattern would be not just ascetically pleasing but also have hidden meaning), and rigorously observing ceremonies.

So- yes I did enjoy my literature challenge!  I would like to do it again, focusing on another part of the world; perhaps one I haven’t read anything from before.

*Further note: Part of me feels it is a bit arrogant to assume I can parse out the elements of an entire literary tradition based only upon books that have been translated from their original language.  Conclusion: I don’t know, but I will have to work with what I’ve got!

After the Banquet

After the Banquet is the last book in my self-declared “Japanese Literature challenge”.  I have read Mishima before, but it was ten years ago.  Also, it is sometimes difficult to read very famous authors with very famous deaths without having the author’s personality in the back of your mind as you read.  And Mishima is a very interesting character to have bouncing about in your head…

(FYI: Yukio Mishima was one of Japan’s most famous and beloved writer, artist, actor, director – basically a premiere artist.  He lived the flashy, full life of the avant-garde artist until he, with a small conservative political group, attempted a coup d’etat to restore the Japanese emperor to real (instead of symbolic) power.  When it failed he committed seppuku).

Moving on to the actual story- the story begins as Kazu, the middle-aged owner of a restaurant is walking in her garden.  Kazu is successful because she works hard, is friendly and gregarious, and has made her own way in the world without assistance.  She is charming and, from the first, I liked her.  Kazu holds a small banquet at her restaurant for some retired ambassadors – it is here that she meets Noguchi.

The courtship between  Kazu and Noguchi is awkward, but sincere.  These two are so unalike that I was at first unsure why an attraction ever developed.  Kazu’s vivaciousness is countered by Noguchi’s reserve and more “old-fashioned” ways.  There is no question of a passionate love- Kazu and Noguchi are no longer young and inexperienced- the attraction is a combination of extreme loneliness and a genuine regard brought about by admiring someone completely opposite to yourself.

Once she was married to Noguchi, Kazu at first attempts to keep her restaurant open, but finds it too difficult to be both a proprietress and a wife.  However, Kazu was too energetic to do nothing- soon she funnels all of her energy into a political campaign for Noguchi.  Noguchi loses the election, but not before Mishima gives a scathing description of the various campaign tricks and back-handed manipulations involved in Japanese political campaigns.

Mishima displays very well the collision course of two disparate personalities.  Noguchi’s loss proves a catalyst for the dissolution of his and Kazu’s marriage.  Kazu, who for a time lost herself to her husband’s wishes and aspirations, breaks free.  She decides that being lonely is not enough of an excuse for denying her true self.  The catharsis she felt at the end of the novel, as she is rebuilding her business and once again walking through her garden, was also felt by myself as I read it.

After the Banquet is excellent.  This book connected with me far more than one of those novels that really try too hard by giving the characters some roller-coaster ride of emotion.  I connected to Kazu.  She is charming, but constantly worrying and over thinking.  She is successful because of her own hard work.  She sometimes shows too much enthusiasm or passion, but she is sincere and never lets anyone else make her feel like she is lesser for it.  I felt a sinking in my stomach as I read of Kazu repressing her nature for her husband.  I thought that the end was inevitable- but Kazu surprised me with her refusal to be put into a box.

This novel can be read just for the excellent character of Kazu alone.  The salacious description of Japanese politics and the sad portrait of a marriage is just a bonus.

japanese painting -garden

Snow Country

Snow Country is a small, rich novel by Yasunari Kawabata.  Kawabata, partially in reaction to earlier, more verbose authors, and partially to evoke emotions over describing events, wrote the novel in a sparse style reminiscent of haiku – a short string of words meant to create an impression, a fleeting feeling, a juxtaposition.

The “snow country” of the title refers to the remote western part of Honshu where the story takes place.  The area is known for the large amount of snow that falls in the winter.  The area is also known for the small towns and hot springs that provide a break for city-dwellers willing to make the long train ride.  The hot spring inns are serviced by geisha – not the hyper refined and artistic geisha from the larger cities, but provincial geisha that are not particularly talented as entertainment and far closer to the label “prostitute” than their urban counterparts.

The story centers around the love affair between Shimamura and a geisha, Komako.  Shimamura is a wealthy but directionless man who fancies himself an expert on Western-style ballet – he has extensively studied the subject and ponders writing a book, although he has never seen a single performance.  Komako is a provincial geisha who, even though she tries to better her craft, knows that she will always be stuck in a backwater, dependent of the brief visits of men like Shimamura.

Digital Capture

Komako and Shimamura’s relationship deepens as they meet over several seasons.  Both the weather and location are part of the story, as their relationship deepen in summer and autumn until the final scene in winter.  As in the previous Kawabata novel I have read, Thousand Cranes, what happens is not as important as how it is written.  The ending is a bit incomprehensible, especially based on what had come before, and there is no real resolution.  The point of the novel is reading it slowly, for the language and writing.  I somewhat prefer Thousand Cranes to Snow Country because, though it is written in the same style, it is more comprehensible, and isn’t quite as obscure.  If you are going to choose one over the other I would choose Thousand Cranes, especially if the tea ceremony interests you.


I Am a Blog Post

I have finished Natsume Soseki’s long and rambling novel, I Am a Cat.  It did take a bit of perseverance on my part – the book is not only long, but often waxing philosophical on no one subject in particular.  Sometimes no action occurs for an entire chapter.  Some parts are laugh out loud funny (when the cat tries to catch a rat), some not so much.


I Am a Cat begins with a stray cat beguiling his way into a home- the home of an English teacher and his family.  Much of the remainder of the book is the cat (who is never named) observing and commenting upon his master, the master’s wife and daughters, and the small group of friends that can often be found discussing all sort of nonsense in the study of the house. Also, for some reason, all of the characters have very odd names (or odd in translation at least).  This may have been Soseki poking fun at them, but it is very odd to me to name the cat’s master “Mr. Sneaze”.

Most of the action occurs when one or more friends visit.  One friend, Waverhouse, always tells ridiculous (mostly fabricated) stories, and needles everyone.  Another friend, Coldmoon, is a “lost scholar” type, continually changing his focus to increasingly obscure subjects.  The cat sits in the study and listens to these ramblings.

This book could be very interesting if one was studying middle-class families in turn of the century Japan, or animals as main characters.  Otherwise I found that sometimes I lost the thread of conversations because they went on for so long (really most of the book is the overheard conversations in the study), and I am not an expert on Meiji-era Japan.  Since Soseki originally wrote the book in sections for a magazine (and indeed did not even intend to continue the story beyond the first chapter), I feel a bit is lost by reading it in book form.

This book, being so long-winded, is quite a change from the other books I am reading for the Japanese literature challenge.  Overall I felt that I enjoyed it the least.  It was alright, but cannot be read quickly, and is best read in bits and pieces.

Ugetsu Monogatari

Ueda Akinara’s Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain) is a collection of nine short stories, each containing supernatural and otherworldly elements.  The tales were written in the 18th century, although many are set during an earlier time in Japanese history.

The edition I have is invaluable for understanding the tales.  It is the Cambridge U Press edition edited by Anthony Chambers and in addition to the tales themselves it includes background on Ueda, Japanese history, and the literary foundations for the tales.  For instance in “Shiramine” the two main characters are a famous Buddhist monk, Saigyo, and a former emperor, Sutoko, who reigned from 1123- 1141 CE.  I would not at all have understood who these two were or what they were discussing without the information added by Chambers.

Many of the tales have Buddhist morals behind them, and several include monks as characters.  Ueda also uses several Chinese fables as basis for his tales.

Some of the tales don’t need quite as much exposition, though.  “The Carp of My Dreams” is a fun story of a man who dreams he is turned into a carp (yes, the title is literal).  “A Serpents Lust” steadily builds up the tension and becomes genuinely creepy.

Basically the tales are interesting if you like Japanese history or literature.  The tales are never “scary”, and sometimes the supernatural elements are a bit tame – they are used more for morality fables or to comment on history or Japanese society.

Naomi in Westernized Japan

In Junichiro Tanizaki’s Naomi, an older shy engineer becomes enamored with a fifteen-year-old cafe hostess.  Joji is attracted to Naomi because of her “Western” appearance and name, which to him represents a freedom that he feels he cannot find in traditional Japanese society.  He sees her as precocious, bright albeit uneducated, and free of the trappings of the rigid social order Joji wants to escape from.

Joji begins by thinking he should educate Naomi and takes her under his wing, having her take lessons and setting up a sort of idealized “play-house” where they can live together.  It was a bit off-putting at first for me- the whole older man taking a young girl and molding her into his ideal, so maybe if she turns out how he wants he will marry her (to be fair Joji never takes advantage of Naomi’s dependence on him – in fact his is really paranoid about not doing that).  Later Joji becomes obsessed by Naomi’s beauty and budding sexuality, as she becomes increasingly spoiled and manipulative.  As the novel progresses it becomes increasingly scandalous (and addicting!).

The collision of the two very different desires of Joji and Naomi is analogous with the collision of Western styles and influences versus the traditional Japanese.  Tanizaki, in his various works, repeatedly returns to the theme of West vs. Japanese.  It seems it is his personal obsession, to observe the changes in Japan, and to document them.  For more on this read one of my personal favorites, In Praise of Shadows.

Japanese Literature Challenge!

I was thinking to myself- what type of book haven’t I read lately?  The answer comes to me- Japanese lit!  I usually love any Japanese lit I come across (an exception being The Wind Up Bird Chronicles, which I really didn’t see why such a fuss was made over it- don’t hate me!).

I have just read/will read Tanizaki’s Naomi, Soseki’s I Am a Cat, and Ueda’s collection of supernatural short-stories Tales of Moonlight and Rain.  I am open to suggestions, and will probably come up with a few more myself.