A round-up of reviews of works in translation from Japanese, including fiction, story collections, poetry and non-fiction.
Yoko Tawada is a compelling, prolific, and award-winning writer working in Japanese, German, and English. Three Streets is her most recent collection published in English, here not so much short stories as they are strolls through three streets in Berlin. Throughout her works, her narrators are often strangers in a strange land, living in between moments in history, cultures, and languages. Alternative worlds emerge from answers to any number of “what ifs”. The woman who narrates the first story in this collection, “Kollwitzstrasse”, sets the tone when she describes the child that accompanies her as she walks. Who the child is or where she came from is unknown.
Seishu Hase’s The Boy and the Dog opens with Kazumasa Nakagasi. He finds an emaciated dog outside a convenience store. The dog is wearing a tag engraved with his name, Tamon, short for Tamonten. Tamonten is one of four guardian deities of Buddha’s realm. The dog Tamon becomes a guardian for the people he encounters on his five-year journey to find a person he dearly loves.
Active in the 13th century, poet Matsuo Basho has been a cornerstone of literature globally since the late 19th century when the word haiku was used to cover traditional “haikai” and “hokku” (more about which further down). Largely due to 19th-century Realism, Western onlookers and practitioners have made much of direct personal experience in haiku; DT Suzuki, Alan Watts and the Beat poets in turn exaggerated the influence of Zen on haiku, lauding their depth of truth and presence. Haiku has since become the world’s most prevalent poetic form, with Basho the standard bearer.
Osamu Dazai is one of Japan’s most celebrated modern writers. He was born in 1909, at the end of Japan’s era of rapid modernization known as the Meiji Period. He began writing as a high school student, moved by the suicide of the great Japanese short story writer, Ryonosuke Akutagawa in 1927.
The narrator of Hiroko Oyamada’s Weasels in the Attic wants to start a family with his wife. They’ve been together for three years, but they haven’t had any luck. Meanwhile, it has been getting more and more difficult to see other people their age with kids of their own.
The prolific career of acclaimed mystery and detective fiction author Seicho Matsumoto spanned the latter half of the 20th century. His 1958 novel, Tokyo Express, provides a glimpse into daily life during the postwar period in Japan. Previously published in English a generation ago under the title Points and Lines, the novel has been freshly translated by Jesse Kirkwood. As Kiichi Mihara of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police connects the dots of the case, he relies on the country’s reliable and punctual train system. His investigation is supported by veteran Jutaro Torigai of the Fukuoka Police.