Experiencing Japan Through Literature
By Lisa Hong
After finishing a translated work, I always wonder what impact I could be missing out on because I didn’t read the book in its original language. I am struck with even more awe if the translated novel has left me thinking about it for days afterwards.
Below are a few Japanese books (translated into English) that have left a great impression on me, whether by breaking stereotypes, craftily incorporating mysticism, or by just the mere fact that that I could understand the setting and conflicts more because I live in Japan.
Kafka On the Shore
Haruki Murakami has become a staple in Japanese literature read by foreigners, his most popular books being Dance Dance Dance and Norwegian Wood. Both stories discuss protagonists trying to find themselves and meeting other unforgettable characters amidst their soul-searching. However, both novels are written with quite different styles, with Dance Dance Dance having more “beyond this world” features embedded within.
This is where Kafka On the Shore comes in. I read Dance Dance Dance, and then Norwegian Wood. While Norwegian Wood was a great story, it was missing Murakami’s mysticism. However, the phenomenon comes back full force in Kafka. Kafka is about multiple protagonists on a soul-searching quest, and events that occur are often times unexplainable.
Most of the time I had no idea what was going on, but it was a fun ride!
The twists and turns kept me engaged, and when I got to the ending, I stopped trying to rationalize everything and just let the story soak in. Yes, there are unexplained talking cats, raining fish, and parallel dimensions, but there are also incredible characters, real emotions, and page-turning conflicts.
Kitchen is a brilliant story about an unconventional family in Japan. The “mother” is a stunning transgender bar hostess, the son (Yuichi) is a melancholic college student who needs inspiration in his life, and the both of them take in Mikage, Yuichi’s classmate, who just lost her grandmother, the only biological family she had left.
The kitchen, which is Mikage’s comfort zone, becomes the place that she uses to become closer to her new family and show them appreciation. Of course, the rest of their society has trouble accepting or understanding this family’s living situation, but they do the best they can to help each other get past scrutiny and tragedy.
To continue the motif of the unconventional family, you can also read Yoshimoto’s Amrita, although, I feel that the author does this theme better with, and more concisely in, Kitchen. However, both novels are touching and have a lot of heart.
Here is a hilarious tale of a young man, Botchan, from Tokyo, who moves to the countryside to become a math teacher. Soseki wrote this book in the early 1900s in response to the changing Japanese culture. Botchan represents the (cynical) “new” who clashes with a school staff who is stuck in their old ways of indirect demands, favors that come with an unspoken price, and rumors that shun unsuspecting people.
Botchan’s frustrations with this mind set parallel a new generation, and this reminds us that even though we encounter “old ways of thinking” in Japan today, it has become a lot better than from Botchan’s time.
Botchan’s conflicts with his students and staff are often told humorously. I still giggle when I eat Tempura (when you read, you will understand). This is not meant to be a serious novel, so read with a light heart, and pass it onto a person who is having trouble understanding Japan’s unspoken culture.
(By the way, Botchan is part of most Japanese schools’ reading curriculum, so many students have read it by the time they enter high school. Conversation starter idea!)
Please list your favorite translated Japanese works in the comments to share with others!