Trends in Present-day Japanese Literature
Diversity in Today's Modern Japanese Literature
Is there anyone who can give a general survey of modern Japanese literature?
I thought of literary critics, scholars of Japanese literature and comparative
literature, and journalists, but it seems to me that neither one of them will
succeed entirely. Take for example the annual catalogue published by the Japan
Writer's Association. It has an overview of the year's "literature";
but it is only a collection of articles on the different genres: entertainment,
historical fiction, mystery, science fiction, children's literature, non-fiction,
poetry, tanka, haiku (Japanese traditional short poetry), literary criticism,
drama, etc. Each article is written by a different author.
If we look into one genre, "mystery," we may see that it is divided
into sub-genres: detective novels, suspense thrillers, adventure/spy novels,
hardboiled novels, court/police novels, the supernatural, parody, horror, fantasy,
etc. It is similar to biology having different branches like molecular biology,
cell biology, and marine biology. That is to say, one mystery critic cannot
keep track of all the trends in the genre "mystery."
Thus, we will learn that "literature of modern Japan" is a field
teeming with diversity. It may not be a large field, but within it, novelists
remain silent on poetry or haiku; on the other hand, poets do not think of reading
modern novels. Authors persist in their own style of literary expression and
do not interact with authors in other genres. It is a peculiarity of Japanese
culture, called by foreign authors "A Land Where the Spirit of Language
Flourishes." It is true even in my case, who have long worked in the field
of literature. For many foreigners, Japanese literature is mostly an unknown
area. Even after Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe winning Nobel Prizes for
Literature, the readers' awareness has not changed very much.
Although this situation has changed noticeably in the '80s, the view of Japanese
literature abroad 40 or 50 years ago was quite poor. According to Jin-ichi Konishi,
visiting professor at Stanford University, the most popular dissertations topics
in US and European universities at this time were: "renga" (style
of poetry popular from 13th to 19th century), "The Tale of Genji",
"noh", then "haiku". No one discussed modern novels. It
is impossible to learn about present-day Japan and Japanese through "renga"
and "The Tale of Genji".
Impression through Translation
Gunzo, a literary magazine, had a special feature on "Japanese Literature
through Translation" in its September 1990 issue. I remember in particular
an article by Margaret Marutani, "From Mishima to Haruki - the Current
Situation of Japanese Literature in Translation". She points out that Japanese
novels are understood to pursue the "delicate" and "ethereal"
world of beauty, as represented by the 3 authors Yasunari Kawabata, Jun-ichiro
Tanizaki, and Yukio Mishima, and give the impression that this style describes
the whole of Japanese literature. She states that, after a "period of introduction"
it is now necessary to refute the fixed image of their aesthetic world which
has been built up over the last 30 years. She further mentions the necessity
to break the stereotype of the Japanese woman as "a victim of male society
persevering against all hardships" an image solidified through such '70s
novels like "Onnazaka" (Slopes of Women) by Fumiko Enchi and "Hanaoka
Seishu no Tsuma" (Hanaoka Seishu's Wife) by Sawako Ariyoshi. Foreign readers
have had the same exotic impression of Japanese literature, just like that of
the Japanese people.
Start of Modern Society and Present-day Literature
I will now attempt to step back from the overwhelming field of Japanese literature
and look at it from a distance. This will illustrate the present framework of
Japanese literature. In general, the two main divisions of "pure literature"
and "popular entertainment" cannot be seen. The distinction between
"pure literature" as elite, ideological and "popular literature
(entertainment)" as low, immoral, and without ideology is avoided in the
modern standpoint. The breakdown of contrast between pure literature and popular
literature comes from structural changes in society, but it has also influenced
other areas. Asia vs. West, intellectual vs. populace, modern and indigenous
from the political perspective, central vs. periphery, and village vs. city
from social structural perspective, industry vs. agriculture - these dichotomies
have gradually diminished and finally disintegrated.
This signifies that Japan has completed the process of industrialization in
the Western model, and has arrived at the stage of the modern state. Ken-ichi
Matsumoto and Saburo Kawamoto both take 1964 as this point, which I see is valid.
1964 was the year that the Olympic Games were held in Tokyo, the year that the
bullet train and interstate highways were opened, that the Beatles became popular
in Japan - "the start of modern society" according to Kawamoto. "After
this point in time, our country is on par with other western countries, having
arrived at modernity. Modern society is one where city dwellers have become
'solitary masses', each distinct 'like grains of sand'" from "New
Music Hassei-shi Ron, Sono Doujidai teki Kousatsu" (Development of New
Music, Contemporary View) by Ken-ichi Matsumoto.
When the traditional distinctions between urban vs. rural areas or pure vs.
popular literature were valid, traditional society structures like "village"
society and "Cold War" also existed. That is to say, the traditional
modern concepts could still be used to describe Japanese society. Typically
Japanese themes of poverty, unhappiness or parental repression could be used
in literature, forming a basis for readers' sympathies. If we call such literature
"Post-War Literature," authors like Yutaka Haniya, Hiroshi Noma, Haruo
Umezaki, Takehiko Fukunaga, Rinzo Shiina, Taijun Takeda, Shin-ichiro Nakamura
would be included here.
If we take into account worldwide events after 1964 like the Fall of the Berlin
Wall, Collapse of the Soviet Union, End of the Cold War, development of Japan
into an industrialized mass consumption society, and name literature of this
period as "Present-day Literature," we may be able to see a rough
outline of literary history. The difficulties in understanding "present-day
literature" come from the fact that the world depicted is so chaotic, that
there is no real life model anywhere in the world. The author has to face the
unknown through his/her own creations. A representative of this school is Kenji
Four Representative Writers of Today
Nakagami won the Akutagawa Prize for his novel "Misaki" in 1975, a
story of family and local relationships in his native land Kumano, in Kishu.
Through novels like "Karekinada", a tale of stifling family relationships
situated within a mythical time frame, Nakagami has sought to expand the world
of fiction. For him, Kumano is "a holy land swaying between life and death."
He calls Kishu "a land sunk into darkness since the rise of Jinmu (said
to be first emperor in ancient times). The term "Hidden Country" embraces
this land which has fallen into darkness." He defines his own literature
as one based on coexistence with spirits of the land, following the tradition
of classical literature such as "Kojiki" (Record of Ancient Matters)
and "Nihon Shoki" (Chronicle of Japan): "Going from town to town
in this dark land, writing down tales as to wake the spirits, is the way of
the classics." Nevertheless, his core concept "roji" (side street)
could not withstand the wave of modernization and is overwhelmed. In speaking
of the disappearance of roji, Nakagami would have confronted modernization face-to-face;
but his work remains unfinished due to his untimely death in 1992.
Ryu Murakami (b. 1952) made his debut with "Kagirinaku Tomei ni Chikai
Blue" (Almost Transparent Blue) which won both the Gunzou Prize for New
Writers and the Akutagawa Prize in 1976. In 1980, he published "Coin Locker
Babies", in 1987, "Ai to Genso no Facism" (Fascism in Love and
Fantasy). "Coin Locker Babies" was a work which he claimed "Through
writing it, I was able to gain real confidence in myself." Twin babies
found abandoned in a coin locker, Kiku and Hashi grow up to be autistic as children.
A psychiatrist makes them listen to sounds from a mother's womb to curb their
every impulse. Later, the two are taken to an isolated island in western Kyushu,
where they are told, "You are qualified to destroy the world." The
two grow up; Kiku accidentally kills their mother to protect Hashi, who has
become a singer. Escaping from the juvenile reformatory, Kiku obtains a nerve
weapon (gas) "Datula," and scatters it throughout Tokyo. He walks
among the desolation in Tokyo, looking for primitive sounds, and his voice sounds
Koichiro Koizumi points out that an important facet of Ryu Murakami's work is
the experimental destruction and denial of society, with hate and discrimination
as its core energy. It is a literature of evil, rarely seen in Japanese literary
tradition; a literature to deny the current situation with evil.
Haruki Murakami (b. 1949) won the Gunzou Prize for New Writers with "Kaze
no Uta o Kike" (Hear the Wind Sing) in 1979, and the Noma Literary Prize
for New Writers with "Hitsuji o Meguru Boken" (A Wild Sheep Chase).
He won the Tanizaki Jun-ichiro Prize with "Sekai no Owari to Hardboiled
Wonderland" (Hard-Boiled World and the End of the World) in 1985. According
to Yuko Kondo, H. Murakami depicts the 'nothingness' of humans trapped in this
highly systemized world, or the emptiness of society itself, with a dry writing
style founded on translating works of American novelists F. Scott Fitzgerald,
Raymond Carver, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Irving.
"Hitsuji o Meguru Boken" was translated and published in USA in October
1989; the New York Times Book Review had a substantial article on it with Murakami's
photograph. Other major newspapers, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, San
Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, and numerous magazines and literary
journals featured articles, totalling over 20. The publisher, Kodansha International,
claimed it was the first time that a modern Japanese novel was widely discussed
in American literary and publishing circles. This work has been translated and
published in UK, France, Germany, Italy, Republic of Korea, Netherlands, and
Banana Yoshimoto (b. 1964) won the 6th Kaien Prize for New Writers for her short
story Kitchen in 1987. With her short story collection of the same title, she
won the 16th Izumi Kyoka Prize. Her other major works are "Utakata/Sanctuary",
"Tsugumi" and "Amrita". Among all her translated works,
the Italian version of "Kitchen" became a best seller, winning the
Scanno Literary Prize in 1993. All of her works have the feeling of solitude
and transparency, with the themes of loss and regeneration. Her novels have
moved the hearts of the younger generation, creating an on-going "Banana
For the Future
Literature does not change just because of the start of a new century. The economic
depression is becoming more serious. The Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, fraud within
the bureaucratic system, and underage crimes reveal society's maladies. When
"words" seem so powerless - this is precisely the time that "words"
are necessary. From among the confusion, some literary journalists have named
works of a group of authors "J-Literature" (J for Japan): Ko Machida,
Kazushige Abe, Seigo Suzuki, Mari Akasaka, Shu Fujisawa, Masaya Nakahara, and
Toshihiko Miura. How their "J-language", a new style of Japanese language,
creates a new world model - the experiment has just begun.
(translated by Kaori Ueki)
Shinji Saito, Editor-in-Chief of Shinyasosho-sha, Born in 1939 in Seoul. Haiku
poet and editor. His books include collections of haiku such as "Natsueno
Tobira" (Door to Summer) and "Fuyu no Chie" (Winter Wisdom),
collection of criticisms. As editor, his main works include "Shiba Ryotaro
no Seiki" (The Century of Ryotaro Shiba) and "Dazai Osamu, Sakaguchi
Ango no Sekai" (The World of Osamu Dazai and Ango Sakaguchi).