Much of the best fiction being published since WWII is about Japan, either in translation from the Japanese or written in English. Elegant, subtle, quirky and mysterious are a few of the adjectives I would apply to many of my favorite novels listed below. In another blog, I will cover excellent Japanese non-fiction titles, as I have a huge list of “favorites” in that genre, too. I have not included the supremely talented contemporary author Haruki Murakami in this blog, as I have not read enough of him yet, and believe he belongs “in a class by himself”.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell
There is barely a sentence Mitchell writes that is not filled to the brim–with dialect, inflection, unique metaphor, brilliant humor, historical detail and description that is exquisitely detailed. I have to say reading Mitchell is like attending a lavish buffet and having to taste every single dish! This story, set in Japan in the late 1700’s in Nagasaki, is where the Dutch East Indies Company trades from a small island in the harbor. The Dutch were largely confined while executing their own schemes and pilfering from the government and each other. Jacob, a young aspiring Dutch clerk, has been hired to help “clean up the books” of the previous chief, but soon finds himself mired in the intrigue of the place, trying to make decisions and do the right thing in a deeply corrupt situation. He is engaged to a young woman at home, but falls in love with a Japanese midwife who is strictly off limits to foreigners. Mitchell drew me into this complex and unusual world (this narrative is more straightforward than in some of his books) and held me with his wildly imaginative writing. It takes a patient reader, but the rewards are so worth it.
Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden
Is there a person who has not read this 1997 award-winning historical novel, the imagined life of a former geisha? Chiyo, a fisherman’s daughter whose mother dies, is “sold” into the life of a geisha by her father, who feels he cannot raise her. The young woman grows up and is trained to become a beautiful, talented, disciplined but emotionally damaged woman. She endures the very competitive environment with other geishas, barely survives the harassment of her trainers, becomes emotionally attached to the lives of others in her new home, falls in love with one of her “clients”, and has her virginity is “sold” to the highest bidder. Her story is sensually and richly imagined here, and makes for a rewarding and suspenseful read, but many scholars and Japanese have criticized it for the surface treatment of “real” geisha culture, which they say is much more complex than this story depicts. With that being said, it is a memorable novel, unique in subject matter and very well-written. The film version was also beautiful with an award-winning musical score.
Spring Snow, by Yukio Mishima
Mishima is not much read (or even acknowledged) anymore in spite of his amazing and robust body of work. Out of four bookstores and three public libraries, I was unable to find even one of his 20 plus novels on the shelves. Born in 1923, he was considered one of the most important post-war authors of Japan. His rather extreme politics, however, may have affected his career–he was a strident nationalist who believed Japan needed to return to the Samauri culture to return to its dominant place in the world, and he committed ritual suicide at the age of 45. Published in 1969, this was the first in his Sea of Fertility series, and probably his best. It is a novel of star-crossed lovers–set in Tokyo in 1912 in the imperial court. The beautiful hero Kiyoaki, his friend and classmate Honda, and Kiyoaki’s obsession with Satoko, also from the imperial court, form the narrative substance. There is a strong Shakespearean quality to this story of the lovers and their attendant jealousies, blackmail, political intrigue and betrayals. It was not an easy read, but the beautifully detailed writing, particularly about nature, made it unique and memorable.
The recent royal birth in England reminded me of this book, which provides a convincing look at life in the royal court of Japan. This thinly veiled historical novel parallels the life of the commoner Michiko Shoda who married Crown Prince Akihito, unheard of in Japan until the mid 20th century. A young woman, Haruko, marries the Crown Prince of Japan in 1959, and as the first non-royal to come into court, faces tremendous cruelty and rejection by the Empress and other court attendants. After their first child (fortunately, a son) is born (her only “job”) Haruko suffers a nervous breakdown, and a long slow recovery, followed by the birth of a second child. As the children reach adulthood, each one faces the challenge of deciding to marry outside the royal family themselves–and Haruko must painfully deal with the consequences of those choices. As a novelist, Schwartz succeeds in lifting a curtain on the intensely guarded secrets of the Japanese royal family. And as a novelist, he ends the story with a satisfying, positive twist. In real life, the ending was not so simple.
I Am a Cat, by Soseki Natsume
Unusual, I think, for a famous Japanese novel to surprise as a satire about humans, told from an unnamed cat’s perspective. But cats are prevalent in Japanese art and culture, so it makes sense that someone would use a feline to comment on the many limitations of humans. Written between 1905-06 as a serialization in a Japanese literary magazine (hence its length of almost 500 pages), the book was first published in English in 2002. It was written as a social commentary on the Japanese tendency to ape “all things Western” at the turn of the century, but covers a broader swath with its jabs at academics, authority figures, corporations and government. It begins with the way the cat’s provider ignores it, refusing to even give the cat a name. However painful that is, the cat develops a thick skin, and becomes involved with other neighborhood friends, such as the unfortunate Tortoiseshell, who has recently died. This story is charming, sarcastic, imperial and astute, just like most of the cats we know.
Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka
Another unique vision of the Japanese, brilliantly written in the collective voice of Japanese “picture brides”, who braved tremendous odds in the early 1900’s to immigrate to San Francisco and marry men they did not know. Otsuka won a well-deserved Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction for this small, amazing book. Expectations about “the American Dream” are shattered when the “picture brides” find out the men awaiting them are not wealthy or even caring, and look nothing like the pictures the women were sent. Basically forced into slave-like conditions when they arrive in America, the collective voice of the women is at once haunting, intimate and powerful. With time, the children they bear join them in the indentured life of mostly agricultural labor. Otsuka used extensive resources to explore the lives of these women, yet her telling of their stories seems as if she lived through it herself. And on some level, she has. A brilliant, brilliant book deserving of even more awards.
The Samurai’s Garden, by Gail Tsukiyama
On the surface, this story could be labeled as “coming of age”, set in a seacoast village of Japan at the beginning of WWII. But that is only one layer among many in this elegant and sensitive story. A young Chinese painter named Stephen comes to spend time recovering from tuberculosis at his family’s summer home. Under the care of the housekeeper and gardener Matsu, Stephen not only starts recover, but learns many life lessons. Matsu is a man devoted to doing good in the world, finding beauty and adding to the beauty that is already there, in spite of life’s cruelties and disappointments. Stephen’s healing also includes becoming acquainted with Sachi, a local woman who suffers from leprosy. The tone and pace of the book is serene and peaceful, but not in a way that could bore the reader. It made me want to stay in the garden Tsukiyama so beautifully describes, and listen to the three characters talk to each other. And what deep, rich characters this author has created!