Sunday Salon: a Japanese literature treasure trove edition

I have been waiting for the mailman most impatiently this week. Finally, yesterday, he delivered all that I’ve been anticipating (except Samantha, the tabby).

First, there is The Forest of Wool and Steel by Natsu Miyashita. With over one million copies sold, it is the winner of the Japan Booksellers’ Award, “selected by bookshop staff as the book they most wanted to hand-sell.”

Set in small-town Japan, this warm and mystical story is for the lucky few who have found their calling – and for the rest of us who are still looking. It shows that the search for the purpose in life is a winding path – one filled with treacherous doubts and, for those who persevere, astonishing revelations. (Inside cover)

Then, there is The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue sent to me by Pushkin Press for review. It is called “A tragedy in three letters: the masterpiece of one of Japan’s greatest writers.”

Born in 1907, Yasushi Inoue worked as a journalist and literary editor for many years, only beginning his prolific career as an author in 1949 with Bullfight. He went on to publish 50 novels and 150 short stories, both historical and contemporary, his work making him one of Japan’s major literary figures. In 1976 Inoue was presented with the Order of Culture, the highest honour granted for artistic merit in Japan. He died in 1991.

Finally, I received the Red Circle Minis from Red Circle Press. I first read about them in an article from The Japan Times as books to look for in 2020, and indeed, they are most special.

Red Circle Minis is a series of short captivating books by Japan’s finest contemporary writers that brings the narratives and voices of Japan together as never before. Each book is a first edition written specifically for the series and is being published in English first. (Red Circle)

Look for reviews of each of these books during the next few weeks, and of course, a give-away or two, as we progress through the Japanese Literature Challenge 13.

Malice by Keigo Higashino

I’d had my eye on him ever since his books started hitting the shelves. Half of me was proud that my childhood friend had made it, while the other half was envious of his success. We’d often talked about becoming writers when we were kids. We both loved books and were constantly recommending our favorites to each other, reading and swapping them when we were finished. Hidaka turned me on to Sherlock Holmes and Arsene Lupin. In return, I gave him Jules Verne. (p. 146)

Several fellow bloggers on Twitter have mentioned that Malice is one of their favorite books by Keigo Higashino. While my personal favorite of his, so far, is Naoko, I have thoroughly enjoyed the puzzle within Malice.

The story revolves around a famous author, Kunihiko Hidaka, who is found brutally murdered in his apartment the night before he is to move to Vancouver. His best friend, Osamu Nonoguchi, is interviewed with surprising revelations.

Keigo Higashino takes us back to elementary school, in fact, to the very prejudices we are brought up with as children. Through a series of interviews and analysis from police detective Kyochiro Kaga, a former classmate of Osama Nonuguchi’s, we come to the startling truth. It is a revelation of the power of malice, long coddled in a child’s heart.

About the author: Keigo Higashino is the bestselling and most widely read novelist in Japan, as well as several other Asian countries, with hundred of millions of his books sold worldwide. His work has been adapted for dozens of television series and films in several countries and languages. He won the Naoki Prize for The Devotion of Suspect X, the first novel featuring his character Detective Galileo, and the English translation was a finalist for the Edgar Award for the Best Novel and the Barry Award. He lives in Tokyo, Japan.

An Artist of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

There was a pause, then my father said: ‘Tell me, Masuji, have you any idea what kind of a world artists inhabit?’

I remained silent, looking at the floor before me,.

’Artists’, my father’s voice continued, ‘live in squalor and poverty. They inhabit a world which gives them every temptation to become weak-willed and depraved.” (p. 46)

Well, that is not a very auspicious beginning for Masuji Ono, the artist of the floating world. From the very beginning he is advised not to become an artist by his father, who is fearful that there is no honor in it.

Honor is one of the many themes that Kazuo Ishiguro explores in An Artist of The Floating World. Masuji’s daughter, Setsuko, advises her father to be careful with his youngest daughter’s marriage negotiations. (Her first prospect was withdrawn on the pretext that their family was somehow inferior to Ono’s.)

‘You must forgive me, Father…I merely wished to see that it is perhaps wise if Father would take certain precautionary steps. To ensure misunderstandings do not arise. After all, Noriko is almost twenty-six now. We cannot afford many more disappointments such as last year’s. (p. 50)

And so, he visits old acquaintances and friends, trying to bridge misunderstandings. Resentments. Bitterness from the past. It is the kind of writing which makes me, at this time of my life, also look back and consider what I have done. What I haven’t done.

I must say I find it hard to understand how any man who values his self-respect would wish for long to avoid responsibility for his past deeds; it may not always be an easy thing, but there is certainly a satisfaction and dignity to be gained in coming to terms with the mistakes one has made in the course of one’s life. In any case, there is surely no great shame in mistakes made in the best of faith. It is surely a thing far more shameful to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge them. (p. 124-5)

Mori-san, who is the the teacher of Masuji and others, devoted his time and wealth to his students, with the goal of changing the “identity of painting as practiced in our city.” They explored the “floating world” – the night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink which formed the backdrop for all our paintings.”

Surely the world is made up of more than dancing, singing, drinking, and story-telling, especially in the late forties after World War II. Mori-san confronts Ono one evening, about the paintings his pupil has produced which portray a far more serious theme, such as the one with three prominent politicians, and three poverty-stricken boys who had become soldiers, holding bayoneted rifles.

What is an artist’s responsibility? Is it to portray a world of beauty and light, or one of violent darkness? Ono says,

‘I have learnt many things over these past years. I have learnt much in contemplating the world of pleasure, and recognizing its fragile beauty. But now I feel it is time for me to progress to other things. Sensei, it is my belief that in such troubled times as these, artists must learn to value something more tangible than those pleasurable things that disappear with the morning light. It is not necessary that artists always occupy a decadent and enclosed world. My conscience, Sensei, tells me I cannot remain forever an artist of the floating world. (p. 179-80)

Within the exploration of art, and an artist’s role, we see Masuji Ono with his charming grandson, Ichiro, and his rather bossy, dismissive daughters. We see his colleagues, and his teachers, and the woman who opened a tea-house long before their city became consumed by restaurants. For me, the novel is as much a portrait of Japanese culture as it is a portrayal of art.

I loved it.

About the Author: Kazuo Ishiguro was born in NAgasaki, Japan, in 1954 and moved to Britain in 1960. His first novel, A Pale View of Hills, won the Winifred Holtby Prize of the Royal Society of Literature and has been translated into thirteen languages. An Artist of the Floating World was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the 19816 Whitbread Book of the Year Award; it has been translated into fourteen languages.

The Dancing Girl of Izu by Yasunari Kawabata (Japanese Literature Challenge 13)

On the road, a traveling companion; and in the world, kindness.

~an old Japanese saying

I first heard of this short story from Masa, our travel guide, when I was visiting the Izu Peninsula in Japan two years ago. He asked if I had ever read it, as it was one of his favorites, but I told him I had not.

Just now I have finished this lovely, gentle story by Yasunari Kawabata. It tells of a twenty year old student from Tokyo as he briefly follows itinerant entertainers who perform for people in tea houses. He has noticed the beauty of the dancing girl and cannot bring himself to leave her, or her family, until he runs out of money to travel and must return to Tokyo.

There is no consummation of their relationship; there is not even an embrace, let alone a kiss. But, her hair brushes his shoulder as they play a game with stones called “Five-in-a-row.” She asks him to read her “The Story of The Lord of Mito.“

I picked up the book, with a certain expectation in my heart. Just as I hoped, the dancing girl scooted over beside me. Once I began reading, she brought her face close enough to touch my shoulder, her expression serious. Her eyes sparkled as she gazed at my forehead without blinking. It seemed to be her habit when she was being read to.

She asks him to take her to a silent movie when they come to town, but when he does, her mother forbids her to go.

They have nothing between them but a strong connection, a great affection particularly on his part. He finds something within the traveling group, within the dancing girl herself, which provides some comfort to his spirit. It isn’t until the end of the story that we find out why.

Twenty years old, I had embarked on this trip to Izu heavy with resentment that my personality had been permanently warped by my orphan’s complex and that I would never be able to overcome a stifling melancholy. So I was inexpressibly grateful to find that I looked like a nice person as the world defines the word.

I read this beautiful, melancholic short story (first published in 1926) for free by downloading it from Internet Archive, which proves to be a wonderful resource for borrowing literature. It is perfect for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13, and the first short story I’ve read for the Deal Me In Challenge.

On The Bus in The Rain, a novella by Haruka Kimura

Across the aisle and diagonally to my right, my exact double is sitting in a one-seater. No… technically, he’s me as a high schooler. Reflexively and vigorously, I rub at my eyes, and it sure isn’t hay-fever season.

While on the bus in the pouring rain, our narrator notices his seventeen year old self sitting to his right. Should he get up and tell his younger self that everything will be all right, at least until he reaches the age of twenty-seven? And, wouldn’t he like to know his future self at the age of thirty-seven?

This novella is an introspective look at who we were, who we are, whom we might become.

I know that I constantly examine who I was, and often wish that I could have told my younger self information that I only know now that I am older. But, would I really tell myself what would happen? What I should do? I have learned from making the choices I did, they have formed who I am today.

What would be gained by talking to my future self? Do I want to know the joys, or sorrows, of what will happen in the next ten years? Perhaps it is best to get off the bus without saying a word, to face each year with fresh innocence. Perhaps it is best that we don’t know all that we will choose, or all the events that will make us who we are, in advance.

“On the Bus in the Rain (雨の日のバスで)” won a Kobe Shinbun (newspaper) literary contest in July, 2019. You can read this novella yourself by clicking here.

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda (a most excellent beginning to the Japanese Literature Challenge 13)

I can’t help feeling there’s something inexplicable about this crime. I don’t know how to express it precisely, but there’s something incoherent or indefinable about it, something the human mind isn’t equipped to engage with. (p. 63)

How I love an intriguing mystery, a well written, well developed story that has not been manipulated for “twists and turns” but naturally unfolds it’s layers as a flower unfurls its petals. You can trust a Japanese author to do just that, and Riku Onda does it magnificently in her novel, The Aosawa Murders, which won the 59th Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel.

The story is told from multiple perspectives, beginning with a police interview conducted with Hisako Aoswara which only gives the barest glimpse into her account. Gradually we become aware of a certain crepe myrtle tree, a blue room, and a strange letter left under a vase for a single flower at the scene of the crime. The fact that Hisako is blind only serves to obfuscate her side of the story.

What becomes clear Is that seventeen people have died by drinking poisoned soft drinks or sake at a birthday party for Dr. Aosawa and his family. The drinks were brought and left by a messenger wearing a black hat and a yellow raincoat. Only one person in the family has survived: the beautiful young daughter who is blind, Hisako.

One by one we read the perspectives of the people who can give their account of what has happened. First, is a conversation with Makiko Saiga, the author of the book Forgotten Festival, which gives her side of the story as she was a neighbor Hisako’s age when the murder occurred. Then, we have the point of view of her assistant who points out a few discrepancies in Makiko’s book.There is an excerpt from Forgotten Festival, an interview with the housekeeper’s daughter, and the detective’s thoughts himself. From these testimonies, and several others, the truth is gradually revealed.

But, what is truth? How can any of us know what another’s experience has been? Consider this quote from the author’s assistant:

I hope you understand that truth is nothing more than one view of a subject seen from a particular perspective. (p. 59)

It was fascinating to read each account, to gain an understanding of what really happened as each piece was laid in place. It was a puzzle which was solved by seemingly unrelated pieces which fit together perfectly once they were laid down. I was surprised when all was known, but then again, I have never been a child in the blue room with a white crepe myrtle flower in full bloom.

About the author: Ricky Onda, born in. 1964, is the professional name of Nanao Kumagai. She has been writing fiction since 1991 and has published prolifically since. She has won the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for New Writers, the Japan Booksellers’ Award, the Yamamoto Shugoro Prize and the Naoki Prize. Her work has been adapted for film and television. The Aosawa Murders won the prestigious Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel. It is Riku Onda’s first crime novel and her first work translated into English.

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda will be published in the U.S. by Bitter Lemon Press on February 15, 2020. But, I will send my copy to a participant of the Japanese Literature Challenge, U.S. only please. Simply leave a comment below, and I will draw a winner a week from today.

The winner of The Aosawa Murders is Nadia of A Bookish Way of Life. Thank you to all who commented here.

Welcome to the Japanese Literature Challenge 13!

Now it is January; now we officially begin the Japanese Literature Challenge 13.

If you are participating this year, here are the few guidelines:

  • The Challenge runs from January 1, 2020 through March 31, 2020
  • In March, there will be a read along of The Makioka Sisters for those who are interested.
  • Read and review one or more books which have originally been written in Japanese.
  • Use #JapaneseLitChallenge13 on Twitter or Instagram (#JLC13 is used for something else).
  • Find an additional resource here.

Because the Linky widget will not work on WordPress, I have created a separate review site for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13. Please go here to leave the links to your reviews.

It’s time to begin thinking about the Japanese Literature Challenge 13

One of the greatest joys of blogging, for me, is the opportunity to share Japanese literature with one another. Judging by the inquiries I begin receiving in November and December, it appears that many bloggers who remember it, as well as some who have heard of it, are also eager to begin again.

The idea began in 2006, when ‘challenges’ were quite common in the blogging world. They gave an opportunity to meet like-minded readers and to participate in reading endeavors that thrilled us all. To make this event less of a challenge, and more of a pleasure, I decided that all we needed to do was read at least one work of literature, originally written in Japanese, and review it on our blogs. Now there is the broader impact of social media with Twitter and Instagram, and so those platforms are welcome, too. The idea is, take January through March to read as much Japanese literature as you would like, and tell us about what you read.

When I put up an official welcome post, I will specify the hashtags we should use (how about #JapaneseLitChallenge13?) on social media, and a place where you can leave a link to your reviews.

Some of the books that I plan on reading are:

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (Vintage International). This novel was sent to my by dear Silvia a few months ago, and it is one of the few by Ishiguro I have not yet read.

Another novel I plan to read was just sent to me yesterday: The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda (Bitter Lemon Press). It won the 59th Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel, and it will be published on January 16, 2020 in the UK (February 15, 2020 in the US).

I also have hopes to read The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue.

If you are looking for titles, here is a list of books read from years past: suggested titles for Japanese literature. It is, of course, only a jumping off place and by no means complete. And, as this is simply a “begin thinking about it” post, I welcome any ideas you have to incorporate this time around. A read-along title? A favorite work of yours? A dedicated place for reviews such as I used to use in 2013? Please feel free to let me know what you’re thinking in the comments below, and know that I welcome your participation in January.

I have never read a “locked-room mystery” before; Murder in The Crooked House by Soji Shimada

20190701_065958.jpgApparently, a locked-room mystery involves a murder which occurs in a room that has been locked from within. The room seems to have no way for someone to enter, so how did the murder occur if it wasn’t a suicide?

Soji Shimoda takes us to the northern tip of Japan, to Hokkaido, where Kozaburo Hamamoto has built an eccentric house. The floors slant; the tower next to it leans like the Tower of Pisa. Guests gather in late December for a Christmas holiday, as the snow falls, and the mood is created for three bizarre murders to follow.

Each murder finds the victim fallen, with a knife wound, and one limb tied to a piece of furniture. Clues are meticulously laid out, but they are for a reader far more astute than I.

In some ways, this novel reminds me of Sherlock Holmes because it is all so logically presented (and solved). It also, strangely enough, reminded me of Agatha Christie; the guests become suspicious of one another and gather in the salon with their suppositions.

I liked it. But, I didn’t love it. I kept reading to the end because I wanted the solution, not because the story gripped me relentlessly. What I really wanted was to visit Hokkaido…

If Cats Disappeared From The World by Genki Kawamura

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Soon after a young postman learns that his migraines are due to a cancerous brain tumour, he is visited by the devil and offered a deal.

“In order to gain something, you have to lose something…It’s just a matter of a simple exchange.”

“Exchange of what?”

“All you have to do is remove one thing from the world and in return, you’ll get one more day of life.”

Now I love getting rid of things. I’m not diagnosed with cancer, and I don’t make deals with the devil, but purging the house? Emptying shelves, closets, and drawers? I feel very liberated after doing that. So, the deal doesn’t sound all that negative to me. Especially when the first thing to disappear from the world is his phone. And not only his; cell phones are gone from the world. What commisseration I felt in reading this:

Mobile phones have been around for only about twenty years, but in just that short amount of time they’ve managed to take complete control over us. In the span of two decades something that we don’t really need has come to dominate our lives and make us believe we can’t live without it. When human beings invented the phone, they also invented the anxiety that comes with not having one on you. (p. 35)

The next things to go are movies, clocks, and then the issue of cats. Does the postman have it in him to rid the world of cats just so that he can live?

The book is a bit “lumpy”, whether that’s due to translation or the youth of the author I can’t quite tell. There are things that don’t quite connect; for example, what has happened to all the things the devil made disappear from the world when he made a deal with previous people? The theology is a bit wonky, too, in the idea that the devil represents all the regrets one has in one’s life. (If only he was that innocuous!)

But, when I step back and look at it as a whole, I find some very pertinent issues are addressed, such as the relationships in our lives which may need to be healed. Or, the recognition of how fragile we all are. It is the journey which the author takes us on, the discovery through the postman’s eyes, which is what makes this book special.

Yeah, but just being alive doesn’t mean that much all on its own. How you live is more important. (p. 152)

Yes, to that.