Japanese art was a breath of fresh air to the citizens of 19th-century France, whose country was being overwhelmed with rapid modernization and industrialism. The focus on individual craftsmanship and quality stood in stark contrast with mass production, and the simple utilitarian designs were the antithesis of perceived contrivances in European schools of art. Japanese aesthetics quickly permeated all aspects of popular culture, from fashion to theatre to home decor, and assembling collections of Japanese imports became a common pastime for the wealthy elite. This enthusiastic reception and emulation of Japanese art was called japonisme.

The Hōjōki, written in 1212 by the Buddhist monk Kamo no Chōmei, is one of the most beloved works of medieval literature in Japan. The opening lines of his chronicle are familiar to most people:

 

The flow of the river never ceases
And the water never stays the same.
Bubbles float on the surface of pools,
Bursting, reforming, never lingering.
They’re like the people in the world and their dwellings.

 

Setsuko's Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration, Shirley Ann Higuchi (University of Wisconsin Press, October 2020)
Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration, Shirley Ann Higuchi (University of Wisconsin Press, October 2020)

As children, Shirley Ann Higuchi and her brothers knew Heart Mountain only as the place their parents met, imagining it as a great Stardust Ballroom in rural Wyoming. As they grew older, they would come to recognize the name as a source of great sadness and shame for their older family members, part of the generation of Japanese Americans forced into the hastily built concentration camp in the aftermath of Executive Order 9066.

Endō Shūsaku has the rare distinction of having one of his novels, Silence, adapted for the silver screen by none other than Martin Scorsese. Those who aren’t familiar with his opus may be surprised to find that Endō wrote from the perspective of a Roman Catholic. Sachiko, originally published in 1982 and only just now appearing in English translation, fits squarely into this tradition.

The unnamed narrator in Tsumura Kikuko’s There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job quits a job she loves after developing “burnout syndrome”. Her first career (the reader won’t find out what it was until the novel’s final pages) has sucked up “every scrap of energy” she had. She asks a recruiter to find her an easy job—something along the lines of “sitting all day in a chair overseeing the extraction of collagen for use in skin care products”, she suggests.

In  2007, Londoners found a new magazine on the stands called Monocle. Thirteen years later, as we are informed on the back cover, it grew from a fairly modest debut as “a briefing on the world, from diplomacy to design, business to travel, culture to hospitality” into “a fully-fledged media company with a 24-hour radio station, a website, films, shops and cafés—and books.” This book is just what one would expect from such a source—its emphasis is on modern and contemporary Japan rather than on historical aspects (although these are not entirely neglected), and is perhaps an ideal book for younger people who want to know what Japan in the 21st century has to offer.