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The best books on Modern Japanese Literature

recommended by Linda Flores

To the western eye, Japan often appears as a surprising combination of very advanced development, and extreme cultural peculiarity. Linda Flores, Associate Professor of modern Japanese literature at the University of Oxford, guides us through this discovery with five great works of modern Japanese literature.

  • 1

    Convenience Store Woman
    by Sayaka Murata

  • 2

    Kokoro
    by Natsume Sōseki

  • 3

    Masks
    by Fumiko Enchi

  • 4

    Woman Critiqued: Translated Essays on Japanese Women's Writing
    by Rebecca L. Copeland

  • 5

    March Was Made of Yarn
    by David Karashima & Elmer Luke

To the western eye, Japan often appears as a surprising combination of very advanced development, and extreme cultural peculiarity. Linda Flores, Associate Professor of modern Japanese literature at the University of Oxford, guides us through this discovery with five great works of modern Japanese literature.

Linda Flores

Linda Flores is an Associate Professor of modern Japanese literature in the faculty of Oriental Studies and a Fellow in Japanese Studies (Pembroke College) at the University of Oxford. She received her PhD in East Asian Languages and Cultures from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her publications include topics such as inter-textuality in Japanese fiction after the Triple Disaster of March 11, 2011; transnationalism and war brides in post war Japanese literature; and perverse motherhood in the fiction of Takahashi Takako. Her research interests include women’s writing, post 3.11 literature, and contemporary fiction.

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When and how did your interest in Japanese literature begin?

East Asian Studies was regarded as something of a niche subject when I was a student, with only about a dozen students graduating with that major at my university. At the same time, interest in Japan was on the rise, so it was an exciting time to be a student. I have some Japanese heritage, so learning about the language, history, and culture of the country meant tapping into an undiscovered part of myself. I grew up in Guam listening to stories my grandparents told about the Japanese occupation of the island during the Second World War, so this also piqued my curiosity. There were stories of wartime atrocities and cruelty, but also stories of unexpected kindness. Driven by a desire to learn more about Japan, I embarked on what seemed like a perfectly natural trajectory from one academic degree to the next. And of course with contemporary literature, the field is impossible to explore exhaustively, since by nature it is always expanding.

Let’s talk about your first choice, Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. This is the most modern book in your selection. It was just translated and published in English. It’s the story of a woman who works for 18 years at a convenience store, and the puzzled reactions of her colleagues, family and friends to her life choices. Why did you choose it?

I wanted to choose a novel that was both timely and accessible, something that speaks to contemporary readers, especially those who have grown up in a world in which we are increasingly alienated from one other. Convenience Store Woman says something about how we articulate subjectivity when social norms impose limitations on our individual identity. The novel also addresses how people relate to one another in a world that can be isolating and dehumanising, a world of automation and mass consumption. The novel can be read on two very different levels: critics have praised its humorous aspect, but it is also a deeply disturbing piece of dystopian fiction. ‘Darkly humorous’ is perhaps the best way to describe it.

You use the word ‘dystopian’, but everything in the book is really set in the current era; nothing sounds really futuristic or far-fetched.

Sayaka Murata has written other works of fiction that have not yet been translated into English, and some of these are more overtly dystopian and are set in a futuristic or parallel world. For example, there are works that portray a world in which procreation is carried out exclusively through artificial means. Convenience Store Woman is a grim novel on many levels, but it also reveals a certain liberating aspect. The protagonist forges her identity in defiance of dominant social norms for women in Japan, by resisting marriage and child bearing. She effectively refuses to become a full-fledged member of society. Not only does she remain single and childless, she spends eighteen years working as a part-time clerk in a convenience store.

Can you explain to our readers what a Japanese convenience store (konbini) is, as a store but also as a sort of cultural institution?

Convenience stores in Japan are an institution unto themselves, really. They are arguably part of the fabric of everyday life in Japan, designed to fulfil the needs and demands of busy people in the modern world. It is difficult to explain to someone who has not experienced a konbini first-hand the meanings associated with these stores, as they offer a greater range of products and services than their western counterparts. In my lectures I usually try to convey this by providing an example of one of my experiences with a konbini, where in a single visit I was able to pay all of my utility bills, send a fax, and purchase opera tickets, milk, and a seasonal bentō (Japanese lunch box).

There is something pleasantly predictable about Japanese convenience stores, which is not to say that they are static entities; in fact, they change according to the season, and even the time of day, with different offerings, products, and promotions. If you walk into a convenience store anywhere in Japan, you will find a certain array of goods and services available, in most cases 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is in many ways a safe space where you can momentarily take respite from the frantic pace of everyday life. Inside, everything is clean, tidy, and perfectly arranged, and the clerks are unfailingly polite and helpful. Many people who have visited Japan cite convenience stores as one of the best things about the country.

But the book tries to show you the other side of the coin, the fact that in order to provide these goods and services, convenience stores need obedient employees, ready to welcome you 24/7.

Yes, in the novel the consumer-facing konbini also harbours a dystopian side, as a dehumanising capitalist institution where employees are expendable and replaceable. Convenience store workers are frequently students, ‘freeters’, or people in between jobs. Clerking at a convenience store is not usually considered a form of long-term employment, so when the protagonist of Convenience Store Woman occupies this job on a part-time basis for eighteen years, this is considered most peculiar. Her behaviour is very much contrary to the norm in Japanese society, and the novel functions as a commentary on the sense of precarity Japanese youth today are experiencing in the current economic climate and employment market.

“The consumer-facing konbini also harbours a dystopian side, as a dehumanising capitalist institution where employees are expendable and replaceable”

Murata’s novel also provides insight into how people relate not just to each other, but also to physical spaces like convenience stores. In Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, French anthropologist Marc Augé coined the term ‘non-places’ to describe certain spaces in what he refers to as ‘supermodernity’. He argues that these ‘non-places’ are spaces you are meant to traffic through without leaving imprints of yourself behind; they are anonymous, transitory, and temporary. He offers airports and hotel rooms as key examples, and to this I would add the Japanese konbini. In fact, one of the most intriguing aspects of Convenience Store Woman is that the protagonist occupies this ‘non-place’ for far too long. In doing so, she becomes the very embodiment of the uncanny.

Let’s talk about your second choice, Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki. It tells the intertwined stories of two men, young and old, who meet and become friends, with one of them slowly revealing his past. You described it to me as the ‘obvious choice’ in your list. Why is that?

It is one of the best-known works of fiction by one of Japan’s best-known authors, so I was reluctant to select it for that very reason. But I have a soft spot for Kokoro, probably because it was the first novel I read entirely in Japanese. Natsume Sōseki was a wonderful writer and his prose is incredibly beautiful.

I find the novel fascinating because it is about a nation on the verge of dramatic change. Sōseki’s life (1867–1916) overlapped almost entirely with the Meiji period (1868–1912), and the novel articulates the sensibilities of the late Meiji era and the tensions of a modernising nation. There is a scene in the beginning of the novel where the student is watching people bobbing about in the sea, suggesting that we are all somehow adrift in a sea of modernity. At the end of the Meiji era, people were struggling to make sense of the implications of living in the modern world. In the novel, the student leaves behind his family and his hometown to pursue the life of a modern intellectual in Tokyo, but he comes to realise that there is always a price to be paid for one’s choices in life.

When you read Kokoro, there is a palpable tension that is sustained throughout – from the first pages to the last. It is a riveting read, a novel that grips you on an almost visceral level; it draws you in and refuses to let you go, even at the end of the narrative.

It ends in a very uncommon way; in a more traditional novel you would almost think that the last part was missing.

This one of the key motifs of the novel, the question of legacy – of things being handed down from one generation to the next. Sensei passes on his secrets to the student, and we, as readers of the novel, also become purveyors of that knowledge. As the novel demonstrates, knowledge is never without its costs. I would describe Kokoro as a sublime piece of literature, but it is also a very sombre novel.

“At the end of the Meiji era, people were struggling to make sense of the implications of living in the modern world”

It is! And this is the case with most of your choices actually. Do you think this was just by chance, or is this dark storytelling a defining feature of Japanese literature, that says something about Japanese society more largely?

A student once asked me the very question: ‘Is there any Japanese literature that’s not depressing?’ And I thought: ‘No, not really.’ But of course, that is not entirely true. There is light-hearted fiction to be found in modern Japanese literature, but I must confess that such writing holds less appeal for me. And this selection of five books is a relatively positive offering! My research interests also include proletarian writing and atomic bomb literature, neither of which is terribly cheerful.

Your third choice is Masks, a novel by Fumiko Enchi. It’s quite a dark story as well, and it takes a while to understand what it’s about. You live the story through the eyes of two male protagonists, but most of the action happens on the side of the women in the novel.

Masks is a powerful and profound work of literature. Published in 1958, it demonstrates the ways in which women continued to struggle under the patriarchal system despite legal changes to women’s rights with the post-war Japanese constitution. Whilst the post-war constitution granted women certain rights, they remained subject to many of the same social practices and norms that had been in place under the ie, the traditional family system.

There is so much to love about this novel. To begin with, there is a wonderful connection to literary history provided by an essay embedded within the narrative. The character Mieko authors an essay that effectively offers an apologetics of the Lady Rokujō, a figure from Shikibu Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji.

Can you explain what The Tale of Genji is?

It is probably the most famous work of pre-modern Japanese literature and the world’s first novel, written by a court lady in the 11th century. The Tale of Genji focuses on the life of Hikaru Genji, the son of an Emperor, and his various political and romantic escapades. The Lady Rokujō is an older woman with whom he has a brief relationship, and who has been represented, not just in the story but also in subsequent literary criticism, as the archetypal woman scorned. Insulted by Genji’s ill treatment of her, the Lady Rokujō’s malevolent spirit manifests itself to several of Genji’s love interests, killing one and frightening others. To put it simply, the Lady Rokujō gets a very bad rap and becomes infamous for her jealous and vindictive nature. Mieko offers an alternative perspective on the Lady Rokujō, and suggests that she is part of a historical lineage of women who have been wronged and silenced.

Masks is striking for its conspicuous absence of patriarchal figures and its lack of strong male characters. The character Mieko effectively thwarts the patriarchal system by installing a covertly corrupted matriarchal line, and the way in which she accomplishes this in the plot is just brilliant.

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Would you consider it a feminist book?

That depends on how you define ‘feminism’, but I think that, as an author, Enchi activates what many contemporary readers would consider to be a feminist perspective. At the same time, however, Mieko and other female protagonists in Enchi’s broader oeuvre are women who have dutifully fulfilled their roles as wives and mothers in society. Their resistance against the patriarchy and female oppression is expressed in more subtle ways. In Masks, that resistance is orchestrated by Mieko and executed in clandestine fashion by the female characters in the narrative.

It’s indeed a very manipulative story, in which the reader feels almost as manipulated as some of the protagonists.

But what a delightfully skilful manipulation it is! As a reader, there is a certain pleasure in allowing the narrative to take you where it will. At the same time, the act of reading Masks is a dynamic endeavour as you discover something new – something you perhaps had not noticed before – every time you read it. It never ceases to surprise me.

You’ve then chosen Woman Critiqued: Translated Essays on Japanese Women’s Writing, a collection of essays edited by Rebecca L. Copeland.

My fourth choice is more of an academic text. When I first began studying modern Japanese literature, the canon was defined in a particular way, with luminaries like Natsume Sōseki, Yasunari Kawabata, and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki dominating the field. And for the most part, nearly all the literary greats on university syllabi were male writers. One of the reasons I came into this area of research is that I began to wonder where all the women were, and what they had to say. So for me, this book is an ideological choice, a political statement. Women Critiqued consists of a series of translated essays by Japanese writers, scholars, and literary critics discussing what it means to be a woman writer, and the ways in which women’s writing—which was itself constructed as a separate category in Japan—has been created, appropriated, and indeed is still in the process of being formed. The anthology contains, for example, essays by contemporary writers such as Rieko Matsuura, pre-war criticism by Hideo Kobayashi, and recent scholarship by Noriko Mizuta, who is a real pioneer in the field of women’s studies in Japan. The collection itself was published in 2006, but some essays were originally written in the early twentieth century. The scope of the book is far-reaching and ambitious, but it is an essential text for grappling with the question of women’s literature in Japan.

“One of the reasons I came into this area of research is that I began to wonder where all the women were, and what they had to say”

You mentioned the paucity of research on Japanese women writers. Do you think this has evolved positively in recent years?

Absolutely. The movement began with scholars like Rebecca Copeland (editor of Women Critiqued) in the 1980s and 90s opening up the field with research on Meiji women writers. Importantly, there is more research being done on gender and sexuality in Japanese literature in general, so we are living in an exciting age in that respect as well.

Finally, you chose March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown. It’s a collection of short stories written in the months after the March 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, generally known as ‘3.11’ in Japan.

March Was Made of Yarn is an important book which brings together translations of short stories about the Triple Disaster (earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown at Fukushima), or ‘3.11’ in Japan. The anthology represents an attempt to consider how Japan and the world have changed – and will continue to change – as a result of these dramatic events.

One of my favourite stories in the anthology is Hiromi Kawakami’s ‘God Bless You, 2011’. It is a reworking of a short story completely unrelated to 3.11 that Kawakami published nearly twenty years earlier titled ‘God Bless You’. The original version of the story addresses how norms of behaviour and tradition have changed in modern Japanese society. After 3.11, Kawakami, like many other writers at the time, was faced with the challenge of how to respond appropriately to the disaster. She decided to rewrite one of her best-known short stories to suit a post-3.11 reality. The modifications she makes to the narrative are subtle but significant; not much changes in the narrative structure or the plot itself, yet everything is different. The narrative has very few markers that place the action in Japan, which extends its relevance to everyone living in a post-nuclear world.

Reading those stories makes one realise how much the disaster has affected Japanese society at the time, but also how much it’s still affecting it today. Japan is rarely mentioned in the news in western countries, and because very few people speak Japanese outside of the country, we probably fail to realise how it has durably changed society, culture, and politics. Whereas, if you visit the United States and speak English, for example, you’ll inevitably notice the daily, if only subtle, references to 9/11 and its consequences. Do you think that daily Japanese life has been forever affected by the 2011 events, just like the US has been forever affected by what happened in 2001?

The name ‘3.11’ has been adopted in part because of its syntactic similarity with 9/11, but importantly, Hideo Furukawa, who has written extensively about the disaster, has suggested that the term is problematic. He argues that the disaster is ongoing, and as such, it should not be historicised with labels such as ‘3.11’.

For many people in Japan, life has returned to normal after March 11, 2011, but others have been permanently displaced, their daily lives fundamentally altered as a result of the disaster. In the Tōhoku region the reconstruction effort continues, and some towns will never be fully rebuilt or repopulated. I fear that there is an impetus to forget about the disaster, particularly as we approach the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as Japan as a nation is keen to reassert its relevance in an ever-changing global climate. I worry that a form of ‘Olympic amnesia’ will set in as Japan looks to its future rather than dwelling on tragic events in its recent past. There are those, such as anti-nuclear activist Ruiko Mutō, who are working to keep Fukushima and 3.11 at the centre of discourse. March Was Made of Yarn reminds us of the necessity of remembering.

Interview by Edouard Mathieu

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Linda Flores

Linda Flores is an Associate Professor of modern Japanese literature in the faculty of Oriental Studies and a Fellow in Japanese Studies (Pembroke College) at the University of Oxford. She received her PhD in East Asian Languages and Cultures from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her publications include topics such as inter-textuality in Japanese fiction after the Triple Disaster of March 11, 2011; transnationalism and war brides in post war Japanese literature; and perverse motherhood in the fiction of Takahashi Takako. Her research interests include women’s writing, post 3.11 literature, and contemporary fiction.