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.
Hardcore fans of Haruki Murakami will want to read his insightful and entertaining introduction, even if nothing else in the book. He likens reading this collection to the Japanese custom of fukubukuro, the lucky grab bags of mystery items department stores sell on New Year’s Day. People stand in lines to buy them, without knowing what they will get, but hoping for a satisfying reward of value and surprise. More literally, Murakami describes the anthology as
an unconventional selection of works by an unusual assortment of writers. Seeing this line-up, the average Japanese reader might find him- or herself puzzled. “Why is this story in here? And why is that one missing?”
In his author’s editorial note, Rubin explains that a potential drawback of creating a historical anthology is the obligation to include the “important” writers and stories “without regard to the [editor’s] personal response to the work.” Rubin assures the reader that
all the works here have been chosen because the editor has been unable to forget them, in some cases for decades, or has found them forming a knot in the solar plexus or inspiring a laugh or a pang of sorrow each time they have come spontaneously to mind over the years.
Not only is the story selection atypical, but the order of them is also unusual. Instead of chronological, Rubin has grouped them thematically. These themes include: Japan and the West, Nature and Memory, Dread, and Disasters: Natural and Man-Made. He suggests that readers “hoping to be amused may turn to something under the heading ‘Modern Life and Other Nonsense” rather than ‘Dread’…”
Taking a cue from Rubin’s characterization of the stories as ones that have stuck in his memory, I will describe a few that will stick with me (authors’ names in Japanese order of surname first). In the category of “Nature and Memory” is “Unforgettable People” by Kunikida Doppo (1871-1908), who Murakami characterizes as a “minor poet” compared to the literary giants of his time, Natsume Soseki and Mori Ōgai. In this story, two strangers, a writer and an artist find themselves staying in a quiet little inn during a cold spring evening. The thin conversation between the two eventually arrives at the writer’s latest project—creating a book about the unforgettable people he has encountered.
We can’t simply call parents and children or friends or the teachers and others to whom we are obligated “unforgettable people.” These are the people “whom we dare not forget.” But then there are others—complete strangers—to whom we are bound by neither love nor duty. Forgetting them would imply neither neglect of duty nor want of compassion. Yet these are the very ones we cannot forget.
The writer describes to the artist a few brief and unexpected encounters with people going about their lives. Each spurred something deeper in meaning about their mere actions that the writer continues to ponder over many years. For example: a silhouette of a young man leading a horse on a path while singing, a man walking on a deserted beach stooping every so often to pick up something. As the writer says, the vignettes are but a tiny moment in time but point to a bigger meaning. The philosophical ruminations about the meanings lead to a surprising and affecting end to the story.
About one hundred years after “Unforgettable People”, Yoshimoto Banana’s story “Bee Honey” was published. It is included in the generically titled section “Men and Women”. The story is similar to Kunikida’s “Unforgettable People” in that the life of the protagonist intersects randomly with an unforgettable person. A young Japanese woman travels to Argentina, where in a plaza she sees a protest over missing children. Mothers are silently expressing their pain of having their son or daughter vanish without a word. Those who have managed to return spoke of horrific torture. In the plaza she meets one of the mothers who is also an immigrant from Japan. The mother tells of her story and the woman realizes the eternal nature of sorrow, even as she finds a strange truth in the end of the story.
Sorrow never heals. We simply take comfort in the fact that our pain seems to fade. How flimsy my own sorrow with what these parents feel. It has no real basis, none of this outrageous injustice to support it. It just keeps drifting on in its indistinct way. And yet that doesn’t mean one is more valuable than the other, or deeper. We are all in this plaza together.
Tanizaki Jun’ichirō published “The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga” in 1926, when the Japanese historical era changed from Taishō to the Shōwa era of Emperor Hirohito. Japan was firmly in the change toward Western technologies, sciences, and some of its ideals, so it is fitting this story is in the section “Japan and the West.” It is also fitting that the story is about a man who might have two identities, one traditional Japanese, and one Western. Or is that the case? That’s the question that drives the protagonist nearly mad in this compelling and perplexing novella. The wife of the man contacts the protagonist with her suspicions of her husband’s life away from home, after she found a postcard in her husband’s things from the protagonist to a man named Tomoda.
I thought of Tomoda again now as I sipped my drink. My doubts about him were growing all the time. I was too close to have noticed it before, I suppose, but now I was forced to admit that this friend of mine—this man I had always assumed to be living such an uncomplicated life—was shrouded in mystery like no one else I knew… He spoke such good English and French, was so comfortable with Western manners, and was such a connoisseur of European food and drink, that I had always assumed he had spent time in the West. But now I came to think of it, I realized I had never heard Tomoda say so himself.
The Kafka-esque “Factory Town” by Betsuyaku Minoru, in the section “Modern Life and other Nonsense”, is set in an idyllic town that changes when a factory is built. But what is the factory producing? No one seems to know. The author may be describing an allegory for modernization or Westernization. Whatever the intent, the story reminds me of the effect the technology boom on areas like San Francisco, with its astronomical real estate and rental prices, and the vaporous nature of some of the tech products being developed (as a developer I feel I can say that). The story also hints at the psychological marketing principal of creating a need in order to sell a product.
All the people in this town much preferred relaxing to working. And why not? The crops in the fields grew by themselves, the sea yielded more fish than they could eat, and you could work hard and save all the money you liked, but there was still nothing to spend it on.
Once the factory turned up, though, people’s ideas began to change. That black smoke billowing up so bravely from the little factory, stirred everyone deeply. From the hilltop you could see the whole town, sleepily nestled in green. The factory alone looked sturdy, like a steam locomotive chugging through the fields.
“Insects” by Seirai Yūichi, in “Disasters: Natural and Man-Made”, is one of the most powerful stories I’ve read based on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of course, there is the horrors of the bomb itself and its immediate bewildering pain. In the excerpt below, the girl is asked the question so many were asked, although, she comes to believe it might have been asked by a grasshopper:
“Are you still alive?” Sixty years have passed since I was asked that question. At the time, I had no idea who was talking. I couldn’t even tell if it was a man or a woman. I can hear the voice even now—“Are you still alive?”—calling to me like a grasshopper, a fly or one of the creatures that crawl upon the earth. There’s no sense of desperation or panic in the question. It isn’t saying, “Are you hurt? Don’t die!” The tone is more like someone asking, “Are you still awake?” There’s something dopey and amiable about it.
In this wonderfully imaginative story, the need to create a vivid picture of what we can inflict on ourselves, even if fictional, seems necessary and important. It’s not only the immediate suffering, or the struggle for identity, or overwhelming progress, it’s the underlying ache that fails to dissolve completely. But beneath that, or sometimes riding above it, is the joy that our mere existence can bring. And that is what the best of these stories do.