Japanese literature isn’t always neatly accommodated by the buckets often set out to categorize novels. Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, about an island where entire classes of things, and the memories that go with them, just disappear, a state of affairs enforced by a malevolent and menacing special police force, could be placed in several different buckets, or none at all.

We first meet Kazu Mori, the protagonist of award-winning Japanese author Yu Miri’s newly translated novel Tokyo Ueno Station, after his death. Unable to move fully into the afterlife, Mori seems condemned to merely observe his former abode, its visitors and its inhabitants. Through his eyes we learn about the park’s history as, variously, a battleground, a disembarkation point for immigrant workers from its train station and, in modern times, a hub for museums and galleries.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, two Jewish cartoonists brought the term “graphic novel” to the mainstream. Will Eisner’s A Contract With God tells the story of poor Jewish immigrants in New York tenements while Art Spiegelman’s Maus depicts two storylines that center around the Holocaust. These books address heavy subjects and differ from the lighter fare in comic books, which are usually thinner, magazine-like publications. The term graphic novel has come to refer to non-fiction, not just fiction.

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.