Culture

The Pure Land: 8 Japanese Novels Set Outside Tokyo

In Japan, the city of Tokyo seems to get all the attention as a setting in novels, but there are rich veins of fiction to mine if you're interested in stories set outside the megalopolis.

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Reading a lot of Japanese literature — and media coverage — can lead you to conclude that the country beyond the metropolitan Tokyo area is empty and worthless. Tokyo is the capital and so, apparently, by definition, if it doesn’t take place in Tokyo, it doesn’t matter. I once had a conversation with a foreigner living in Tokyo who thought “Kansai” was the Japanese word for “outside Tokyo.” However, if you dig a little deeper, rich veins of fiction can be found. Here are some of my favorite books that explore the remaining 99.4 percent of the country.

1. In The Woods of Memory

Shun Medoruma (Stone Bridge Press)

A powerful — often uncomfortable — multi-layered novel centered around the rape of a 17-year-old girl by four U.S. soldiers in Okinawa in 1945. Told from the point of view of ten different characters and divided between 1945 and 2005, Shun Medoruma’s story is a study in chaos theory, an exploration of how a single act can have unforeseen and wide-ranging repercussions. 

 

2. The Three-Cornered World /Grass Pillow

Natsume Soseki  (Tuttle/Penguin)

The out-of-place narrator is an old but effective trope in fiction, and many Japanese stories — particularly from the Meiji era — involve the burnt-out urbanite, usually an artist of some kind, seeking peace in the countryside. This book (translated twice under different titles) is perhaps the best example. The narrator stays at a mountain inn and becomes fascinated with the hostess. Packed with musings on art, philosophy and moments from Soseki’s own life, it’s a masterpiece of quietude and a masterclass in dialogue for developing writers.

3. The River Ki

Sawako Ariyoshi (Kodansha)

Set in Wakayama, Sawako Ariyoshi’s 1959 novel The River Ki follows the life of Hana from teenage betrothal to elderly senility. Raised to value the customs of old Japan, rapid modernization soon leaves her behind. Her daughter rejects Hana’s folk wisdom and superstition and instead embraces feminism and Japan’s new internationalism. Written in bright and humorous prose, this novel is sharp and subtle, using the female line of the family to encapsulate the transfiguration of Japan. 

4. The Sound of Waves

Yukio Mishima (Vintage)

On Uta-jima, a small island in Ise Bay, Shinji lives hand to mouth as part of the fishing fleet. He falls in love with Hatsue, a newly trained pearl diver. However, he has a rival in the rich and powerful Yasuo. The couple struggles to maintain an illicit courtship in the face of malicious rumors and parental disapproval. When Yasuo and Shinji are chosen to join the crew of a merchant cargo ship, a near disaster in storm allow both men to show their true colors. “The Sound of Waves” is one of Mishima’s more accessible stories, free from the heavy theorizing of his later novels, leading to no less than five screen adaptations. 

I once had a conversation with a foreigner living in Tokyo who thought ‘Kansai’ was the Japanese word for ‘outside Tokyo.’

5. Shipwrecks

Akira Yoshimura (Canongate)

Set in a remote coastal village, in Shipwrecks we are taken into a world of extreme poverty and a life that is nasty, brutish and short. Isaku’s father has sold himself into slavery and, even though he’s only 9 years old, Isaku must grow up and face the world. A short, powerful novel, written in a sparse, evocative style saturated with the harshness of medieval existence.

 

6. Silence

Shusaku Endo (Kodansha)

Recently filmed by Martin Scorsese, Silence concerns itself with the persecution of Japanese Christians in Kyushu in the Edo period. Fearful of the influence of missionaries, and the threat the power of the pope represented, the Shogunate banned the religion, forcing adherents to apostatize and recant. The novel follows two missionaries who sneak into Japan and proselytize before being captured. It’s a bleak, moving book about the highs and lows humanity can reach.

7. A Wild Sheep Chase /Dance, Dance, Dance

Haruki Murakami (Vintage)

A Wild Sheep Chase and its sequel, Dance, Dance, Dance mark the point when Murakami became the writer we all know today. Full of his quirks—odd but alluring women, disappearing friends, music (in this case Talking Heads) and a stage strewn with bizarre characters—psychic teenagers, a man in a sheep outfit, a one-armed poet, a right wing ideologue. Something of a “mission” story, the unnamed narrator leaves Tokyo for Hokkaido on a literal and figurative wild sheep chase.

8. The Silent Cry

Kenzaburo Oe (Serpent’s Tail)

Set in rural Shikoku, Matsu, his wife Natsu, and his brother Takashi, return to the village of their birth to negotiate the sale of some family property. In their absence, a Korean — who was enslaved during the war — has come to dominate the village as “the Emperor of Supermarkets.” Takashi leads the local youth in an uprising against “the Emperor” while Matsu picks apart the secrets of his family’s past. But as always with Oe, the story is only the beginning. 

In literature, as in life, there is more to Japan than just Tokyo. As always, please post your own additions in the comments below.

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  • Ashley Tieman says:

    Great list! Don’t forget Botchan, Natsume Soseki’s semi-autobiographical novel set in Matsuyama, Ehime prefecture.

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