Literature in Translation-Japan

[Inspired by a post over at Doug’s blog Mujina: a Japanese scary story]

Have always enjoyed the literature and folklore and interpretations of the many cultures of the world in fictional works. Early childhood brought such things as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Greek and Roman mythology and especially the Arabian Nights. I only read these things at my maternal grandmother’s house as my aunt was a teacher and had the most interesting taste in literature and that’s where she stored her books.  I wasn’t allowed to borrow them I think, though I had never asked.  They were leather bound very expensive editions. And such works were not available in the local book-mobile the public library sent around to our area every Wednesday.

Also at my grandmother’s was an old pump organ of the type one had to push the pedals on to get the air to go through before any sound would come out. Many an afternoon was spent trying to make “scary” music come out of that thing. The type of music one heard in old Boris Karloff movies.  And during the “Arabian Nights” phase it was trying to get some approximation of  “harem” music whatever that was. This was also the time when old movies came on TV like those with the special effects of Ray Harryhousen such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

While all of this stuff was a North American translation or interpretation of other cultures it did spark some kind of interest that has stayed with me for my entire life. Later it led to an interest in world literature.

At one point I took a course in modern Japanese literature in translation. It was a little outside of my fields of study (Anthropology, Religious Studies and Psychology) but something about it just took my fancy and I delved in. I had heard of a few of the authors previously such as Yukio Mishima who some say was a Zen inspired nihilist who later committed seppuku and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa who wrote In a Grove from which Rashomon was taken. Rashomon was made into a brilliant movie by the well known director Akira Kurosawa.

Having read Doug’s post about a scary story mentioned above I thought I’d share some the names and works of some of the writers I have and still do enjoy over the years. Many of the Japanese writers don’t do what could be called “light” fiction. The themes are universal and often psychological. Such things as:

  • the nature of the self
  • existential alienation
  • conflict between the individual and society
  • the purpose of existence
  • the role of absurdity in life
  • conformity vs rebellion
  • the validity of social roles
  • the value of family and social bonds
  • the nature of politics both nationally and individually
  • the effects of trauma and the unexpected
  • culture clashes
  • existential horror (not unlike Polish writer Joseph Conrad–>Apocalypse Now was based on his book Heart of Darkness)
  • the relentlessness of nature (ala Woman in the Dunes) as symbolic of human relentlessness

I like this heavy sticky awful stuff. It’s the most fun you can have without climbing into a boiling tar pit. (Am considering making this the sub-title of this blog). Which also might be fun if one had asbestos skin and lived on a planet with half the gravity of earth. (OK have been dipping into some science fiction lately too-Iain M. Banks Culture” novels are fabulous as are the writings  of China Mieville)

Some excellent Japanese authors:

Yasunari Kawabata. In 1968 Kawabata became the first Japanese to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature

Kobo AbeWoman in the Dunes is probably his most well known work as it was made into a film directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara-a real existentialist turmoil in this situation

Kenzaburō Ōe-often deals with physical and psychological trauma and alienation. Intense.

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki-is well known for his female characters. In the novel Quicksand he deals with a lesbian relationship and in Naomi the fascination with the West that Japan has had as the lead female character is being groomed to become more Western. Tanizaki deals with political and cultural issues in a subtextual sort of way that is always interesting. I particularly enjoyed The Makioka Sisters

Haruki Murakami-sometimes writes with a kind of psychological creepiness I call magic-realism with shadows.

Fumiko Enchi– one of the few women writers

Links to some of these authors works on-line:

Ryunosuke Akutagawa In a Grove which includes Rashomon-free downloadable  PDF or read it on-line here.  The interlinked stories tell of those who encounter a murder victim and their varying accounts of the situation. Each sees the occasion in a completely different manner clouded by their own judgments and imaginings.

Natsume Soseki was a great influence on the works of Akutagawa, Kawabata and many others. His novel Botchan (Master Darling) is available as a text file from Project Gutenberg. It is a novel of disillusionment, culture clash (Western and Japanese as well as urban and rural), revenge and trying to find some peace in life.

Links to books:

Am currently reading Tales of Moonlight and Rain by Ueda Akinari (translation by Anthony H. Chambers) written in the 1700s. The Chrysanthemum Vow is one of the more well known stories from that collection. The book jacket describes his work as “gothic” but it is more than that. There is a further undercurrent that challenges deeper levels. It has been described as “weird” fiction which I think is more appropriate. (Am very surprised not to find an e-text of an old translation of this on-line-if you know of one please leave a note in comments-thanks)

Yukio Mishima The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is about the destruction of the Kinkaku-ji Zen Buddhist Temple in Kyoto.  It is about both the attraction and repulsion of extreme  desire and misguided efforts to deal with that. The Amazon blub summarizes the plot:

Because of the boyhood trauma of seeing his mother make love to another man in the presence of his dying father, Mizoguchi becomes a hopeless stutterer. Taunted by his schoolmates, he feels utterly alone until he becomes an acolyte at a famous temple in Kyoto. He quickly becomes obsessed with the beauty of the temple. Even when tempted by a friend into exploring the geisha district, he cannot escape its image. In the novel’s soaring climax, he tries desperately to free himself from his fixation.

I once wrote a long and convoluted essay comparing Mishima with Dostoyevski . Maybe I’ll post it on my sort-of-literary blog some time. There are similarities in many ways. Not surprising considering Russia is not all that far from Japan. Maybe I’ll have to do a post about Russian literature in translation too. A lot of the characters in both writer’s works are embittered and going through major psychological and emotional battles with themselves as well as with their political, social, family and life situations.

Haruku Murakami’s modern style is influenced both by Japanese tradition and foreign writers such as Marquez. The first book I read of his was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A Novel. The unsettling story of the unsettling life of Toru Okada. Reviews are quite mixed but no one was bored by it!


2 comments on “Literature in Translation-Japan

  1. Hi,

    Yes, I adore Haruku Murakami, especially The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

    But another author to go on your list must be, even if for just The Buddha Tree, is Fumio Niwa. (link to my thoughts on the novel here:

    And thanks for a great list. I’ve not read very much Japanese literature, so this is a post I could well find myself coming back to. Thank you.


  2. Thanks Marcus. There are about 20 more I could have put on the list as well but just wanted to give a taste for people who’ve not read such. I will check the book you mentioned also.

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