Short story anthologies for a given country or genre tend toward the predictable in their choice of stories, gathering the one or two most well-known from the most well-known authors. This is not the case with The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories. Edited by translator and scholar Jay Rubin (Disclosure: I edited Jay Rubin’s novel, The Sun Gods) and introduced by the best-selling writer Haruki Murakami, both heavyweights in Japanese literature, this collection does include stories from the famous—Natsume, Tanizaki, Mishima, Kawabata, Yoshimoto, and of course, Murakami. However, their stories are not necessarily those found in more traditional anthologies, and many of the stories are from lesser-known writers. In short, the collection has a unique, often edgy, surprising quality.
That Convenience Store Woman is a delight to read probably goes without saying: it reached bestseller status in Japan and now is selling very well in English translation. The short novel by Sayaka Murata (an author and part time convenience store worker) is about thirty-six-year-old Keiko Furukura, who has worked half of her life in a branch of Smile Mart, a Tokyo convenience store. Working there she has found a kind of peace in the orderly store procedures and customer interaction dictates.
Fans of modern Japanese literature will not want to skip Patient X. These fans will recognize Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) as one of the most well-known Japanese authors and as having a top literary award—the Akutagawa Prize—named after him. Readers not familiar with Akutagawa will still likely be familiar with his short story “In a Grove”, which is about the widely differing accounts of a murder as related by witnesses and those involved. The famous director Akira Kurosawa used the story as the plot for his film Rashōmon.
Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (1886-1965) was a major Japanese author and a finalist for the 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature. A prestigious award, the Tanizaki Prize, was established to honor his contributions to Japanese literature. Many of his works have been adapted for film. So, it came as a surprise that one of his novels discovered in a collection of his works had never been translated.
That there are over 800,000 ethnic Koreans living permanently in Japan, including fourth and fifth generation Korean-Japanese, is not well known outside of Asia. The historical details of how the Koreans came to live in Japan is both fascinating and tragic, mainly because of the conscript labor forced on Koreans during Japanese occupation of the peninsula beginning over 100 years ago and ending with World War II. Even less well known is the discrimination the Korean-Japanese face in their adopted, officially or not, country. Known in Japan as Zainichi (“resident of Japan”), the ethnic Koreans have been largely relegated to marginal occupations as were other minority groups in Japan. That is changing, but discrimination and hate still exist.
Self-described “old retired gardener who was now pushing eighty-six”, Mas Arai makes his final appearance as an amateur detective in Naomi Hirahara’s novel Hiroshima Boy. I would add cantankerous to his self-description, in all the best literary nuances of that word. This seventh and final novel in the mystery series finds Arai-san in Hiroshima, where he lived through World War II, surviving the atomic bomb blast. He is there to return the cremated ashes of his friend, Haruo, to his friend’s sister who lives on a small island named Ino, a short ferry ride from Hiroshima.
Yasutaka Tsutsui, born in 1934, is less well-known outside of Japan than other contemporary Japanese writers.