It will be little secret to anyone who follows me on social media, or at my site, that one of my major obsessions is Japanese literature. While I actually lived in Japan for three years (a very long time ago now…), it wasn’t until I arrived in Australia that I developed an interest in Japanese writers, and over the past couple of decades, my personal library has gradually grown, overflowing the shelves devoted to it and forcing the literature of other nations to seek shelter elsewhere. My preference is usually for novels, the longer the better, but I do enjoy good short stories and am the proud possessor of many a collection and anthology, so I’m delighted to have this opportunity to present twelve excellent Japanese stories. Rather than simply choose my favourites, I decided to select one story from each of twelve collections or anthologies, with the aim of introducing a wide range of sources for anyone interested in reading more Japanese short fiction (for more information on these books, feel free to check out the reviews on my site). Hopefully, the brief taster provided here will inspire some of you to seek out these collections, and other work by the featured writers.
This recent collection contains ten stories by a younger generation of writers, making for a good introduction to contemporary Japanese literature, and Furukawa’s story starts the book off. On a small island near Tokyo, a disembodied presence observes a number of goats as they go about their business in their enclosure, and when the male goat is taken away on a container ship, the presence follows it. What seems slightly bizarre, and fairly quaint, turns nasty when the goat’s container is opened and the crew discover something very different to what they expected. Part philosophical musing, part wacky horror story (with an impressive body count), ‘Model T Frankenstein’ shows us a very different side to Tokyo in an allegorical tale looking at the anonymity of life in the big city, and at how the idea of a monster is a rather subjective one.
Included in The Book of Tokyo, Comma Press, 2015
Enchi, one of the most successful modern female writers, is well known for her interest in Japanese literary history, and ‘A Bond for Two Lifetimes – Gleanings’ uses Akinari Ueda’s Tales of Spring Rain, a series of supernatural tales, as the centre of its frame narrative. A widow of around thirty visits her former professor to transcribe his modern versions of Ueda’s tales, and we are privileged to hear the old man’s version of one of them (which is also the inspiration for Haruki Murakami’s novel Killing Commendatore). However, an erotic undercurrent pervades Enchi’s story, with the woman remembering life with her dead husband and passes the professor made at her in the past. Inevitably, then, on leaving the professor’s house, she encounters a man in the dark – but who could it be…
First published in 1957 andincluded in The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, Penguin Classics, 2018
This interesting story follows a young woman after the death of her mother, the long-term lover of a wealthy married man, examining her relationship with someone connected to the man’s family. What appears at first to be a heart-warming tale of two people becoming closer instead turns sour as the woman realises that she’s misjudged her partner, especially when she learns of another potential love interest. As well as looking at extra-marital relationships, ‘Lady of the Evening Faces’ also focuses on the communication, or lack thereof, inside a marriage, with the protagonist learning too late that relying on unspoken courtesy is likely to lead to unhappiness.
Included in The Mother of Dreams: Portrayals of Women in Modern Japanese Fiction, Kodansha International, 1986
Taken from the first of the classic Donald Keene collections, Ihara’s story takes the reader back to the late seventeenth century, where a beautiful woman, the titular almanac maker’s wife, meddles in the burgeoning relationship between a maid and one of her husband’s workers. However, in an act typical for this bawdy tale, she somehow ends up sleeping with him herself, upon which the two flee the capital and fake their deaths. Alas, as you may have guessed, their love is unlikely to have a happy ending, and after various escapades, the couple are brought to (rather severe) justice. Ihara was well known for his risqué books, and this tale was actually one of five in a work named Five Women Who Loved Love (again translated by de Bary, released by Tuttle Publishing in 1956), featuring five women whose inability to control their desires ended up costing them dearly.
First published in 1686. included in Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century, Grove Press, 1955
Enigmatic, subtle and poignant are adjectives often used to describe Japanese writing, but you do occasionally find stories that are more raucous and chaotic, and Itō’s 1938 piece ‘Nightingale’ is a wonderful example of the type. We enter a rural police station one evening in the company of an elderly woman hoping for news of a foster daughter taken from her years before, and we stay there for a day (and forty pages) as the hard-working local police officers do their best to cope with a deluge of visitors, including a woman accused of being an illegal midwife, an adulterer and a chicken thief coming to blows, and a shady character who has been fleeced of his money by a man dressed as a woman. The story rarely stops for breath, and though all these anecdotes of poor people trying to scrape by, the story of the old woman runs in the background, in a tale that never outstays its welcome. It’s a portrait of human nature at its best, with petty squabbles forgotten when someone really needs help – and I haven’t even mentioned the nightingale. This collection was out of print for a while, but Tuttle recently rereleased it (with a new essay included), so you should be able to find a copy fairly easily.
First published in 1938. Included in Modern Japanese Short Stories: Twenty-Five Stories by Japan’s Leading Writers, Tuttle Publishing, 2019
A man looks back twenty years to the summer when he was seventeen, one spent on the beach (and in bed) with his girlfriend, M. Yet what sounds like a gentle, nostalgic tale is anything but, with the narrator spinning a story of gender struggles, domination and depression. The story twists the summer, imagining dangerous headlands, dead stars spinning just round the coast, as well as the discovery of a stranger, left for dead on the beach, whose dark skin comes to represent the blackness inside the narrator’s soul. A warning: the writer’s use in this 1965 story of a ‘negro’ character, real or invented, might offend modern readers, but the overall sense of allegory and symbolism works wonderfully.
First published in translation Mississippi Review, Vol. 9, No. 1/2 1980. Included in Autumn Wind and Other Stories, Tuttle Publishing, 1994
This 1935 story is one of the better pieces in an intriguing collection of proletarian writing, mainly for the female slant it provides on the class struggle in Japan. In a highly autobiographical tale, a woman runs a childcare centre for local workers and visits her prison-bound husband whenever possible. Meanwhile, she liaises with activists trying to organise a strike, only to see that not everyone is pulling in the same direction – yet as a woman she’s powerless to help. The breast in question is her own, that of a woman who has never had children, and she represents a whole raft of women working hard to support the men plotting for better conditions, without really being able to have their say. She must put her trust in these men, even when she suspects that not all of them are who they say they are.
Written 1935-37. Included in For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution: An Anthology of Japanese Proletarian Literature, The University of Chicago Press, 2016
Ono’s two-part story, focusing on a man living with his young son in a small house at the edge of a strange wood, seems to be set in that uncanny place between dream and reality. In the first part, ‘A Breast’, the son brings an old woman wearing nothing but an old dressing gown back to the house from the wood, with the father puzzled as to where she could have come from. ‘The Pastry Shop at the Edge of the Wood’ then has the man taking his son to buy a birthday cake for the boy’s unborn sister – after a reminder from a pair of dwarves who pop by for a visit… Bizarre and compelling, ‘At the Edge of the Wood’ is enhanced, like all of the Keshiki chapbooks, by its excellent cover design, with this one opting for a sombre monochrome theme.
Published in Keshiki: New Voices from Japan, Strangers Press, 2017
Oyamada’s story is another two-part work, starting with a young woman’s formal visit to her fiancé’s home before moving on to a hospital visit years later when her husband is recovering from a car crash. Throughout the piece it’s what isn’t said that intrigues the reader, with secrets kept from family members, and the narrator, Yuki, acting as our access into this world. The two parts are connected by the titular flowers, called shibitobana in Japanese (‘dead man’s flower’), and the rumours about the plant’s qualities go nicely with the stories Yuki hears. It’s up to her, and us, to decide how much of it all is true.
‘Spider Lilies’ first published in English in 2014 in Granta 127: Japan, April 2014 and available for subscribers to read online here
The Oxford collection is the one I’d recommend as the go-to anthology for anyone interested in Japanese literature, and ‘In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom’ is my favourite piece. It begins with a bandit ambushing a traveller and his wife in the mountains, with the villain killing the man on seeing how beautiful the wife is. Alas, her beauty hides unspeakable cruelty, and her arrival will change the man’s life immeasurably, setting in motion a train of events leading him to the capital and beyond. Musing on natural beauty and juxtaposing it with a penchant for decapitation, Sakaguchi’s supernatural story of a man getting far more than he bargained for is one you won’t forget in a hurry (and you’ll certainly never look at cherry blossoms in the same way again!).
First published 1947. Included in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, Oxford University Press, 2010
In a dizzying, fragmented narrative consisting of extracts from a travel journal, stories and childhood memories, a woman describes her journey across Siberia, fulfilling a lifelong dream to see Moscow. However, rather than being a simple travel diary, ‘Where Europe Begins’ blends travelogue and myth, with the narrator exploring the concept of boundaries as she approaches a Europe whose borders nobody can agree on. Moscow becomes less a city than a promise of something unattainable, a pipe dream, so it’s little wonder that as the narrator gets closer to the Russian capital, barriers appear to prevent her from ever reaching it. Apart from being a mesmerising story, ‘Where Europe Begins’ is unique among my selections in that it wasn’t actually written in Japanese, with Tawada having composed this piece in German (as some of you may have surmised from the translator’s name…).
Included in The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature (Abridged), Columbia University Press, 2011
My final choice comes from the second of the Donald Keene collections, long a staple of Japanese Studies courses. When a troupe of penniless actors are abandoned by their manager at an inn, the remaining eight men and four women have no choice but to flee on a rainy night, choosing to take a dangerous coastal road in the hope of throwing off pursuit. What ensues is an entertaining tale in which the narrator’s philosophical recount of the arduous journey, describing the effects of cold, hunger and exhaustion, is interrupted by fights stemming from the jealousy the men feel towards the women (each of whom has had liaisons with several of the men). Cleverly, by the end of the piece, these petty affairs are forgotten, and it’s life itself and the cruel nature of time that are the main focus, as the narrator swings between the longing for a peaceful death and a desperate desire to keep on living.
Included in Modern Japanese Literature: From 1868 to the Present Day, Grove Press, 1956