The Sea of Japan, Keita Nagano (SparkPress, September 2019)
The Sea of Japan, Keita Nagano (SparkPress, September 2019)

After fleeing a disastrous teaching job (and a bad gambling habit) in Boston, Lindsey starts teaching English in Hime, a small fishing town in Japan. One morning, while trying to snap the perfect ocean sunrise photo for her mother, she slips off a rock at the edge of Toyama Bay, hits her head, and plunges into the sea—and in doing so, sets off an unexpected chain of events.

Anyone who has ever studied literature has probably come across the now rather hackneyed line by the American poet Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), “A poem should not mean, but be.” Steven Carter, the Yamato Ichihashi Emeritus Professor of Japanese History and Civilization at Stanford University, notes that the Japanese poet Shōtetsu (1381-1459) expressed similar sentiments long before MacLeish. “A truly excellent poem is beyond logic,” he wrote, “One cannot explain it in words; it can only be experienced of itself.”

First published in Japanese in 1995 and now in English translation, The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami takes the form of ten short stories linked by a central character, the titular Mr Nishino. Each encapsulates one of ten affairs Nishino conducts through his life ranging from schoolboy romance to extramarital liaisons. Sadly, despite his notable talents as a lothario, Nishino cannot make any of these trysts last.

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.

It is a truism that war is—by its very nature—tragic. For soldiers, it is about killing and being killed. World War II resulted in the deaths of more than 70 million people, a number which tends to overwhelm and obscure the individual lives lost. Sometimes the tragedy of war is easier to comprehend in small doses. That is what Mark Obmascik, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former writer for the Denver Post, has accomplished in this fast-paced tale of the lives of two soldiers—a Japanese surgeon and an American infantryman—whose paths crossed on a desolate island in the northern Pacific.