A round-up of reviews of works in translation from Japanese, including fiction, story collections, poetry and non-fiction. Click on the title for the review.
The Boy and the Dog by Seishu Hase, translated by Alison Watts
Seishu Hase’s The Boy and the Dog opens with Kazumasa Nakagasi. He finds an emaciated dog outside a convenience store. The dog is wearing a tag engraved with his name, Tamon, short for Tamonten. Tamonten is one of four guardian deities of Buddha’s realm. The dog Tamon becomes a guardian for the people he encounters on his five-year journey to find a person he dearly loves.
Weasels in the Attic by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by David Boyd
The narrator of Hiroko Oyamada’s Weasels in the Attic wants to start a family with his wife. They’ve been together for three years, but they haven’t had any luck. Meanwhile, it has been getting more and more difficult to see other people their age with kids of their own. One night his wife asks him, “On a scale of one to ten, how badly do you want kids?”
Tokyo Express by Seicho Matsumoto, translated by Jesse Kirkwood
The prolific career of acclaimed mystery and detective fiction author Seicho Matsumoto spanned the latter half of the 20th century. His 1958 novel, Tokyo Express, provides a glimpse into daily life during the postwar period in Japan. Previously published in English a generation ago under the title Points and Lines, the novel has been freshly translated by Jesse Kirkwood. As Kiichi Mihara of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police connects the dots of the case, he relies on the country’s reliable and punctual train system. His investigation is supported by veteran Jutaro Torigai of the Fukuoka Police.
Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi, translated by David Boyd and Lucy North
Thirty-four year old Shibata works at a company that makes empty paper cores, the kinds of cardboard tubes used in packaging for plastic wrap of tea canisters… One day, Shibata has simply had enough. Instead of washing coffee mugs left over from a meeting she didn’t attend, she informs her section head she can’t. She’s pregnant. The smell of coffee triggers her morning sickness. Shibata isn’t pregnant. But for the next nine months she will pretend to be.
Trinity, Trinity, Trinity by Erika Kobayashi, translated by Brian Bergstrom
Erika Kobayashi’s recently-translated Trinity, Trinity, Trinity is the latest in a long, rich, and complicated history of atomic literature from Japan. As early as August 1945, fiction writers in Japan began to explore the aftermath of the deadly and destructive atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. American Occupation forces quickly censored this kind of work. But over time, what is now called genbaku bungaku (“atomic bomb literature”) became one of the most moving genres of 20th-century Japanese writing.
Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo, translated by Louise Heal Kawai
It was in the late 1930s that private detective Kosuke Kindaichi solved The Honjin Murders, the brutal killing of a newlywed couple in Okayama. Military service has prevented him from investigating another case since. Death on Gokumon Island, the second book in the Detective Kindaichi Mystery series by Seishi Yokomizo, begins just after the Second World War, and soldiers are returning home.
Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda, translated by Alison Watts
There is a word in Japanese—komorebi—that refers to the way sun shines through the trees, casting a sea of soft, dark shadows scattered with gleams of light, a phenomenon reflected in the title of Riku Onda’s most recently-translated psychological thriller Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight… Onda’s novel centers on uncovering deeper aspects of the past, and readers won’t be able to stop reading until the solution comes to light.
Solo Dance, Li Kotomi, translated by Arthur Reiji Morris
Solo Dance is a novel about identity. Yingmei Zhao is in the fourth grade when she develops a crush on a girl in her class. In the years that follow, she realizes her life in Taiwan isn’t going to look like everyone else’s. She won’t marry. She won’t start a family. When sexual assault shatters her sense of security and self, she decides to start over in Japan. Even though Japan is “a queer desert,” she has fallen in love with the country through the literature of Osamu Dazai and Haruki Murakami.
Silent Parade by Keigo Higashino, translated by Giles Murray
Rolled omelet, fried mackerel, chicken skewers, vegetable takiawase are just a few of the signature menu items at Namiki-ya, the place for the best appetizers and latest local gossip in Kikuno. Despite the convivial atmosphere they maintain in their restaurant, the eponymous Namiki family are coming off a tragic loss of a few years earlier—their eldest daughter Saori, who was preparing for a career as a professional singer, disappeared from their quiet Tokyo neighborhood.
All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd
In 1985, a character in a now-iconic cartoon by Alison Bechdel proposed three standards for a worthwhile story. It needs at least two women. They must have at least one conversation with each other. And that conversation must be about something other than men. One of the many issues raised by what is now known as “the Bechdel Test” is the failure of representation of female friendship in so many of the stories people consume… Superficially, Mieko Kawakami’s latest novel in English, All the Lovers in the Night, isn’t about female friendship either. In fact, it is a stinging critique of the ways some women sabotage other women they think of as competition. Or of the ways they ostracize women who don’t make conventional life choices—such as career women or single mothers.
At the Edge of the Woods by Masatsugu Ono, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
In an unnamed country, an immigrant family has taken refuge for reasons never quite explained. The narrator’s wife has returned home to give birth to the couple’s second child. The narrator and his son are left to their own devices, poised at the edge of a sinister forest full of whispers and imps that may or may not exist. Time stretches on. The narrator’s wife doesn’t return. Slowly, his son loses his ability to speak. Even so, he transmits memories from the time he was in his mother’s womb and brings home a mysterious, naked crone.
Woman Running in the Mountains by Yūko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt
Recently reissued in English translation, Woman Running in the Mountains is a collaboration between two remarkable women. Author Yūko Tsushima is one of the most important Japanese writers of the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1970s, Tsushima published stories that challenged the limited roles contemporary women were asked to play in society and the family. Her writing is both modern and deeply imbued with pre-modern Japanese literature and culture.
Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada, translated by Margaret Mitsutani
On the southwestern Japanese island of Shikoku, there is a village populated almost entirely by dolls. More than 300 doll likenesses stand-in for the people who have died or moved away from Nagoro. Like many of Japan’s rural villages and even smaller cities, Nagoro has all but disappeared. In Yoko Tawada’s novel, Scattered All Over the Earth, the rest of Japan has disappeared as well.
The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa, translated by Louise Heal Kawai
What could be little more than a saccharine “cat novel” is also a witty satire on the state of the publishing industry, academia, and the capitalist market of ideas. At the center of the first labyrinth, for example, the heroes find “the imprisoner of books”—a pompous reader of one hundred books a month and a collection of more than 57,000 volumes. For the “imprisoner of books”, books are just another incarnation of conspicuous consumption.
Rip It Up by Kou Machida, translated by Daniel Joseph
The narrator of Kou Machida’s Rip It Up is repulsive. In his introduction, translator Daniel Joseph describes him as a “toxic shit heel”. He is sexist; one woman characterizes him as “defilement incarnate”. He constantly insults other people, calling them “morons”, “idiots” and “dumbasses”… Rip It Up is an artistic achievement, both as a novel and as a work of translation, but it doesn’t yield a satisfying conclusion. There is no “moral” of the story. The narrator never gets any kind of comeuppance. There are no lessons for him to learn—and none for the reader. But that sense of pointlessness is itself the point. As the narrator concludes, “It’s always like this. There’s never anything at the end of the road.”
The Color of the Sky Is the Shape of the Heart by Chesil, translated by Takami Nieda
Young adult novels often highlight teenagers’ angst with identity issues. While this phenomenon may seem American with its focus on ethnic identity, there are other diasporas in other places. Chesil’s debut novel, The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart, in an English translation by Takami Nieda, tells such a story set among the Korean community in Japan.
Eight Dogs, or “Hakkenden”: Part One—An Ill-Considered Jest by Kyokutei Bakin, translated by Glynne Walley [podcast]
English literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries saw a profusion of lengthy, serialized novels by people such as Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray and Elizabeth Gaskell. On the continent Marcel Proust wrote his seven-volume A la recherche du temps perdu, which took him fourteen years to write (1913-27), and of course there’s Tolstoy with War and Peace and Dostoevsky with The Brothers Karamazov. These authors were rank amateurs compared with one Kyokutei Bakin (1767-1848), the Japanese writer who managed to churn out what must be the most mind-bogglingly monumental novel in the history of literature, the Hakkenden, the first part of which, presented here (the translator promises a complete version), came out in 1814. It was finally finished in 1842 and filled 106 volumes; poor old Bakin went blind before he’d finished
Three Streets by Yoko Tawada, translated by Margaret Mitsutani
Yoko Tawada is a compelling, prolific, and award-winning writer working in Japanese, German, and English. Three Streets is her most recent collection published in English, here not so much short stories as they are strolls through three streets in Berlin. Throughout her works, her narrators are often strangers in a strange land, living in between moments in history, cultures, and languages. Alternative worlds emerge from answers to any number of “what ifs”.
Early Light by Osamu Dazai, translated by Donald Keene and Ralph McCarthy
Dazai is a writer of great genius, as remembered for his colorful life story as he is for his fiction. He had a complex, decade-long relationship with an apprentice geisha. He developed addictions to alcohol and opioids. He attempted suicide with multiple lovers, and eventually succeeded in 1949. Their bodies were discovered on what would have been his thirty-ninth birthday… Readers who frequent Dazai will find themselves on familiar ground in the latest collection of his work in translation, Early Light.
Dead-End Memories by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Asa Yoneda
Unlike many Japanese writers active in the last decade, Yoshimoto’s translations into English tend to lag five to ten years behind their original publication date. For example, Michael Emmerich’s compelling translation of her 1989 story collection Asleep wasn’t released until 2002. Dead-End Memories was originally published in 2003, almost two decades before its English-language debut… Translator Asa Yoneda adds to Dead-End Memories’ excellence… Yoneda’s Yoshimoto is never overwrought. She preserves the simple charm and colloquial language that make Yoshimoto such an approachable writer.
Life Ceremony: Stories by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
What all of Murata’s stories have in common is a discomfiting sense that the rules that govern how people behave don’t make as much sense as people would like to think they do. Murata is at her best when she calls the reader’s attention to those rules. She poses ambiguous moral problems—and then refuses to answer them… The collection contains story upon story forcing the reader to evaluate the cultural norms she can never really escape.
Longing and Other Stories by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, translated by Anthony H Chambers and Paul McCarthy
Jun’ichirō Tanizaki is one of the most highly-regarded authors of modern Japanese literature. Longing and Other Stories collects three works from the first decade of his career, all originally published from 1916 to 1921. Tanizaki’s career spanned Japan’s era of modernization through the decade after World War II. In these early stories, he takes what the translators identify as “the challenges that a rapidly changing society presents for traditional Confucian concepts of the family.”
Basho: The Complete Haiku of Matsuo Basho, translated by Andrew Fitzsimons
Active in the 13th century, poet Matsuo Basho has been a cornerstone of literature globally since the late 19th century when the word haiku was used to cover traditional “haikai” and “hokku” (more about which further down). Largely due to 19th-century Realism, Western onlookers and practitioners have made much of direct personal experience in haiku; DT Suzuki, Alan Watts and the Beat poets in turn exaggerated the influence of Zen on haiku, lauding their depth of truth and presence. Haiku has since become the world’s most prevalent poetic form, with Basho the standard bearer.
With the demand for books describing the rise of China and regional dynamics in Asia, more and more translations of works from Asian thinkers have been making it into English. Back in 2015, Shiraishi Takashi, professor and prominent foreign policy commentator in the daily newspapers of Japan, gave a series of influential lectures that were collected and edited into a book. Maritime Asia vs Continental Asia: National Strategies in a Region of Change presents a framework for examining the changing political environment in Asia.