Those of you of a certain age and, probably, British, may remember a song by the Vapors called Turning Japanese, with the chorus I’m turning Japanese I think I’m turning Japanese I really think so. After having read twenty Japanese novels in a row, eaten several meals of sushi, drunk loads of miso soup and watched one Japanese film, I don’t think that I am quite turning Japanese, but I certainly feel more attuned to Japan and its way of thinking. So what have I learned from my reading?
- The Japanese like sex but have an ambiguous attitude to it. Nothing new there, as the same could be said about Western literature. If you thought that the Japanese were prudish about sex, you are probably right. So are or (can be) the British, the Americans and everyone else. However, they are, like the British, the Americans and everyone else, not afraid to portray it. We have, of course, seen that with Tanizaki, for example, but we can also see it in some women writers, writing over fifty years ago, such as Hayashi, Uno and Enchi, which we might not have expected. Only one of the novels I read – きらきらひかる (Twinkle Twinkle) – dealt with homosexuality and then in a sort of mocking way.
- They like their food. Again, food is an omnipresent in most literatures. In most literatures it can also be used as a ritual, as with big family meals or the like. The Japanese are, of course, noted for their tea ceremony and other food-related rituals, but in the twenty novels I have just read, I was surprised that snacking seemed fairly common, from the sushi served at funerals in Furui’s 白髪の唄 (White-Haired Melody) to the continual snacking of the two protagonists in Fujino’s ルート225 [Route 225]. In some cases – 先生の鞄 (US: The Briefcase; UK: Strange Weather in Tokyo) is a good example – eating seems to be almost obsessive.
- Again, not surprisingly, they have a Buddhist approach to death. In Western literature, death is often considered a tragedy. The Japanese take it much more in their stride, as part of the normal course of events, which, of course, it is.
- They are very much influenced by Western literature. We see the detective novel in Murakami and Yumeno and surrealism in Yumeno. The I-novel is clearly influenced by the Western autobiographical novel. There are lots of references to Western novels in Japanese novels but not, as far as I am aware, many references to Japanese novels in Western novels.
- Christianity is only practised by one percent of Japanese, yet it does seem to have influenced some Japanese writers, particularly Endo and Ayako Miura, whom I nearly read this time but who did not quite make the cut, though writers such as Shimazaki and Shiga were influenced by it. 菩提樹 (The Buddha Tree) was the only one dealing extensively with Buddhism.
- It is obvious that past and tradition remain important in Japanese literature (as well as Japanese society), even in modern novels. There is still a far greater veneration for the elderly, for the ancestors and for old customs. Obviously, we see this in Western literature, though nowadays far less than in Japan (yes, I am excluding Downton Abbey). For a Western reader, it is this sense of custom and tradition that makes the Japanese novel both exotic and fascinating, not least because it is sometimes not entirely clear why they do follow the rituals they do (but then they might think the same if they watch Downton Abbey).
- Again, like Western writers, they have an ambiguous relationship with cities. Tokyo fascinates, as do London, New York, Paris and other cities in the West. But like Westerners, they like to get away from the city and enjoy the countryside. Two of the books – Hino’s 夢の島 (Isle of Dreams) and Furui’s 白髪の唄 (White-Haired Melody) show the fragility of Tokyo – air raids in the war, floods, fire, earthquakes and tornadoes, which we do not see so much outside science fiction books in the West (for which the Japanese have Godzilla, the Tokyo-munching monster). Three of the novels – Furui’s 白髪の唄 (White-Haired Melody), Hino’s 夢の島 (Isle of Dreams) and Maruya‘s 笹まくら (Grass for My Pillow) – specifically deal with how much Tokyo has changed.
- They like quirky but then so do Westerners.
- I did not read any mobile/cell phone novels – maybe I should – but nevertheless was mildly surprised to find that technology did not play any significant role in any of the novels I read.
In conclusion, I found this a fascinating experience and am glad to have read such a variety of novels, the first published in 1935 and the most recent in 2010 (both, incidentally, by women). I have added a Best Japanese novels lists, based entirely on my idiosyncratic taste. If I did again tomorrow, it may well have been different. And now back to the rest of the world, where books have been published, prize longlists released and writers have carried on writing.