Posts Tagged ‘Japanese poetry’

Title: The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, Abridged Edition
Editors: J. Thomas Rimer and Van C. Gessel
Poetry Editors: Amy Vladeck Heinrich, Leith Morton, and Hiroaki Sato
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 960

The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese is the most comprehensive anthology of Japanese literature since the mid-nineteenth century; but, with two enormous (and expensive) volumes, it’s a bit daunting for all but the most stalwart of readers. I was therefore excited to learn that an abridged softcover version of the text has been released. At almost a thousand pages, the anthology still isn’t for the casually interested. As it provides a much wider selection of writers and genres than every other anthology of modern and contemporary Japanese literature on the market, however, The Columbia Anthology is an invaluable resource not only for students of Japanese literature but also for anyone interested in Japan in any capacity.

The anthology is divided into six sections spanning from the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868 to the end of the twentieth century. The two sections devoted to the Meiji era include work by naturalists and playwrights such as Mori Ōgai, Shimazaki Tōson, Kunikada Doppo, and Nagai Kafū, as well as essays by Natsume Sōseki, including “The Civilization of Modern-Day Japan.” The anthology then proceeds into the interwar period, which includes the work of authors such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Edogawa Rampo, Kawabata Yasunari, and Tanizaki Junichirō. The section titled “The War Years” is mercifully short but includes stories by Dazai Osamu, Ishikawa Tatsuzō, and Ōoka Shōhei.

The “Early Postwar Years: 1945-1970″ section is the longest in the anthology and reads like a hit parade of famous postwar writers such as Abe Kōbō, Enchi Fumiko, and Mishima Yukio. Many well-known postwar joryū bungaku (“women’s literature”) writers, such as Hayashi Fumiko and Kōno Taeko, are represented as well. The last section collects contemporary literature from the seventies, eighties, and nineties by both internationally famous authors such as Murakami Haruki and Ogawa Yōko and writers who are prolific and well known in Japan, such as Hoshi Shinichi and Furui Yoshikichi.

What is wonderful about this anthology is that, unlike other anthologies of modern and contemporary Japanese literature, it includes lengthy selections of Japanese poetry, both in “traditional” forms (such tanka and haiku) and in more modern forms (such as free verse). Although I am not a connoisseur of poetry in translation and thus can’t vouch for the quality of The Columbia Anthology‘s selections, I am thankful that so many works of modern and contemporary Japanese poetry have been brought together in a single volume. The majority of the original publications in which these translations appeared have long since gone out of print, so The Columbia Anthology is perhaps the best way to familiarize oneself with a rich yet underappreciated body of literature. The anthology also includes dramatic scripts by playwrights and screenwriters such as Inoue Hasashi and Kara Jūrō, texts which are also difficult to find elsewhere.

My enthusiasm for The Columbia Anthology is genuine, but some of the editors’ comments in the Preface shed light on some of the more conservative politics of literary anthologization. For example, to justify the entry of their project into a field in which many anthologies already exist, Rimer and Gessel state:

One difference between this volume and some of the earlier collections is related to the evolving view of both Japanese and foreign scholars as to what constitutes “literature.” Many of the earlier collections sought, consciously or unconsciously, to privilege the long and elegant aesthetic traditions of Japan as they were transformed and manifested anew in modern works. [...] But many other kinds of writing, ranging from detective stories to personal accounts – always valued by Japanese readers but neglected by translators in the early postwar decades – can now be sampled here.

Expanding the scope of what is considered literature through diversity in anthologization is always good, of course, but two paragraphs earlier, the editors also made this strange comment:

Whatever the level of young people’s interest in manga (comics) and video games may be, literature, as opposed to simple entertainment, often remains the best way to grapple with the problems, and ironies, of the present generation of Japan.

On reading this sentence, I somehow managed to raise an eyebrow and roll my eyes at the same time. The context of this statement was a defense of the strength of contemporary literature in the face of a weighty literary tradition, but I wonder why the editors needed to make the distinction between “literature” and “entertainment” at all. Some types of print culture (such as dramatic scripts) are literature, but others (such as the text portions of visual novels) are not? Edogawa Rampo’s grotesque short stories are literature, but Otsuichi’s horror fiction is not? Haiku are literature, but tweets are not? And – most importantly – manga is not literature? Seriously?

Despite the editors’ stated desire to expand the scope of what is considered literature, their literary politics are, as I stated earlier, quite conservative. Popular fiction by writers like Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana is included in the anthology, but the work of such writers has been so resolutely canonized by scholarly articles and inclusion in course syllabi that its anthologization comes as no surprise. It’s good to have “outsider” writers like Tawada Yōko and Shima Tsuyoshi included in the anthology, but all of the volume’s stories more or less fit neatly into the category of “literary fiction.” You will not find the cerebral science fiction of Kurahashi Yumiko, or the historical revisionings of Miyabe Miyuki, or the fantastical explorations of Asian-esque mythology of Uehashi Nahoko, or the socially conscious mystery stories of Kirino Natsuo in The Columbia Anthology. You also won’t find any prewar popular fiction, such as the short stories of Yoshiya Nobuko.

This leads me to another criticism I have concerning the anthology, which is that it is remarkably dude-centric. Until the last two sections of the text (“Early Postwar Literature” and “Toward a Contemporary Literature”), there are no female writers represented (save for Yosano Akiko, who has a few poems about flowers and vaginas); not even one of Higuchi Ichiyō’s short stories is included. In the anthology’s defense, many of the women writing before and during the Pacific War, such as Enchi Fumiko and Hirabayashi Taiko, are included in the “Early Postwar” section. Unfortunately, this means that their more overtly political work has been passed over for stories that focus more on “traditional” women’s issues like female sexuality and the family. Furthermore, even though I applaud the editors for including literary essays in their anthology, it frustrates me that not a single one these essays was written by a woman, despite the fact that many female authors – including those represented in this anthology – are extraordinarily well known for their essays. What the editors has done is the equivalent of collecting the most influential essays on literature in North America and leaving out something as important and groundbreaking as Margaret Atwood’s On Being A Woman Writer.

In the end, though, I stand by my assessment of the abridged edition of The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature as an essential resource to students of Japan. The volume contains many excellent stories, poems, essays, and dramatic scripts that are difficult to find elsewhere, and the editors keep their introductions of writers and literary epochs brief and to the point. As long as this text is supplemented to bridge over its gaps and omissions, I can imagine it becoming the backbone of a respectable introductory course on modern and contemporary Japanese literature, as well as a source of out-of-print translations of the work of less widely taught authors.

Review copy provided by Columbia University Press.

Title: Speculative Japan: Outstanding Tales of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy
Editors: Gene van Troyer and Grania Davis
Publication Year: 2007
Publisher: Kurodahan Press
Pages: 290

As a short story collection, Speculative Japan is a strange book. 200 of its 290 pages are comprised of short stories, and the other 90 pages are mainly short non-fiction essays about the book itself. These essays involve topics such as how the stories appearing in Speculative Japan came to be selected, edited, and translated. 20 of these 90 pages are author and translator biographies, and another 20 pages are filled by a translated essay by Shibano Takumi, the editor of the Japanese sci-fi magazine Uchūjin. For a reader who starts the book at the front cover and progresses in a linear fashion, Speculative Japan gets off to a somewhat rocky start with pages and pages of metatextual material.

Gene Von Troyer’s introduction jumps from topic to topic before finally summarizing Yamano Kōichi’s “three phases of Japanese science fiction” and settling into speculation concerning what makes Japanese science fiction “Japanese”:

We can’t say definitively, but can only point to trends and tendencies. Viewed through one facet of the jewel, we can say, as Tatsumi [Takayuki] does, that “what with the imperative of American democratization and the effect of indigenous adaptability, the postwar Japanese had simultaneously to transform and naturalize themselves as a new tribe of cyborgs” as reflected in the images from manga and anime. Japanese SF leans (or has leaned) more on robots and cyborgs than on stars and planets.

This generalization is certainly interesting, but I wonder if it’s really true. For example, the advertisements in the back of the book for Mayumura Taku’s Administrator (a collection of four short novels about “Terran colonies far from Earth”) and Night Voices, Night Journeys (the first of a series of collections of “Tales in the Cthulu Mythos from Japan”) seem oriented more towards “stars and planets” stories, and I can’t help but think of the “spaceships and galaxies” imagery of popular 1970s series such as Takemiya Keiko’s To Terra and Matsumoto Leiji’s Space Battleship Yamato, but perhaps it might simply be better to read Troyer’s introduction as an initial attempt to sketch a map of a huge and understudied body of literature.

In any case, the stories contained in Speculative Japan have less to do with either cyborgs or space than they do with hypothetical concepts. Toyota Artisune’s “Another Prince of Wales” concerns the question, “What if, in the future, war were a popular sport played on an international stage?” Yamano Kōichi’s “Where do the Birds Fly Now?” is an expansion of the question, “What if birds could fly between dimensions and take people with them?” Very few of these stories have serious, in-depth plots; but, then again, very few of these stories are more than twenty pages long. A reader familiar with the type of tightly plotted sci-fi stories published in Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine is in for a surprise with Speculative Japan, which – as its title suggests – is more about “speculative fiction” than “science fiction.”

Five of the stories in the collection are recycled from the out-of-print The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories. Of these five, Tsutsui Yasutaka’s Orwellian fable “Standing Woman” and Yano Tetsu’s “The Legend of the Paper Spaceship,” a lyric tale of a woman deep in the Japanese mountains who may or may not be an alien, are excellent and definitely worthy of republication. Making an appearance from the out-of-print Monkey Brain Sushi anthology is Ōhara Mariko’s “Girl,” a sex-saturated story of love and body modification in a decaying city on the eve of an apocalypse.

Three stories that have appeared for the first time in book form in Speculative Japan that really jumped out at me were Kajio Shinji’s “Reiko’s Universe Box,” Kawakami Hiromi’s “Mogera Wogura,” and Yoshimasu Gōzō’s “Adrenalin.” In “Reiko’s Universe Box,” a young woman copes with her negligent husband and failing marriage by becoming absorbed in a box containing an entire galaxy in miniature form. Like many of the stories in this collection, “Reiko’s Universe Box” is driven by strong elements of allegory, but its concept is delivered with cleverness, darkness, vivid description, and humor. When compared to the other stories in the collection, Kawakami’s “Mogera Wogura,” a description of a day in the life of a mole-like creature who lives among humans in contemporary Japan, is in a class of its own in terms of its gentle magical realism, its playfulness, and its removal from the themes and narrative style of more traditional science fiction and fantasy. “Adrenalin” is not a story but rather an abstract poem filled with evocative imagery conveyed through variations of a handful of short and catchy refrains, such as “To you, children of spirits, I send an immediate telegram / To drink milk / To memorize the names of flowers / Some day, I will return / That day, I will start fire.” I’m usually not a fan of Japanese poetry in translation, but I found myself captured and moved by Marilyn Mei-Ling Chin’s translation of Yoshimasu Gōzō’s verse. Each of these three selections stands on its own not simply as an illustration of a speculative concept but as a piece of writing that is fun to read, thought-provoking, and capable of multiple interpretations.

Of the collection’s fifteen stories, four were written in the sixties, eight were written in the seventies, and another was written in 1981. These thirteen stories, written during the period between 1962 and 1981, are all by men. The two more recent stories (published in 1985 and 2002) were written by female authors, but one can still say that this collection is mostly representative of science fiction written by men in the sixties and seventies. In the author biography section at the end of the book, the editors attempt to canonize many of the male authors (“without a doubt a Grand Master of Japanese science fiction and fantasy,” “one of the three pillars of Japanese SF,” “often referred to as ‘The King of Japanese SF,'” and so on), but I wonder if perhaps there wasn’t a hint of personal politics at play in the selection of authors. This suspicion seems to be corroborated by the collection’s metatextual essays, which detail the personal relationships between the authors and their translators.

Speculative Japan sometimes reads like a sci-fi literary fanzine in which the editors and regular contributors are just as concerned about themselves and their relationships with each other as they are with the fiction itself, and the essays in Speculative Japan demonstrate a certain geeky fixation on metatextual marginalia. If you happen to be outside of the small circle of authors, translators, and editors who all know each other and worked together on this collection, you might find these essays confusing and off-putting. If you’re already used to the style of the front (and back) material included in SF-themed literary magazines and fanzines, though, you’ll more than likely be able to see past (or even appreciate) the many pages of essays included in Speculative Japan.

The actual stories in the collection are interesting and well worth reading, and a few of them are truly excellent. Still, I want more work that doesn’t belong to a set clique of authors, more contemporary work, and more work by women. To be honest, I found Speculative Japan somewhat disappointing as a compilation. That being said, I am intrigued enough by the stories themselves to consider giving Speculative Japan 2 a shot in the near future.

Title: Snow Country
Japanese Title: 雪国 (Yukiguni)
Author: Kawabata Yasunari (川端 康成)
Translator: Edward G. Seidensticker
Publication Year: 1956 (America); 1947 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage International
Pages: 175

Snow Country won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, a year which serves as a convenient temporal marker for the changing perception of Japan in the collective consciousness of the Western world. The postwar American occupation of Japan had ended fifteen years prior, and many of the American G.I. officers returned home from the country with the knowledge and motivation to create Japanese Studies departments in American universities like Columbia and Harvard. With their classes and translations came a new respect for the Japan of the twentieth century among academic circles. Meanwhile, Japan itself had risen from the ashes of wartime devastation and had begun to enter an era of double-digit GNP growth. The city of Tokyo had hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964; and, with the ultra-modern Tokyo Dome stadium and high speed bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan was able to prove itself the technological and economic equal of any country in the world. The Nobel Committee thus awarded its literary prize to Kawabata for reasons that were partially political, as they would to many candidates over the following four decades. As with these other laureates, however, Kawabata did not win the world’s foremost award for literary distinction for political reasons alone.

According to academic lore, Kawabata’s candidacy was largely a result of Edward Seidensticker’s translation of Snow Country. Snow Country is an aesthetically magnificent book, and Seidensticker was able to do justice to Kawabata’s subtle and poetically resonant prose with his English translation. We are of course lucky that Seidensticker’s translation is so masterful; but, even if it had been merely adequate, the relatively early introduction of a translation into English would still have gained Kawabata a prominent position in the field of international literature. American and European prose writers and poets had cultivated a love affair with haiku and the Japanese aesthetic principals often associated with Zen Buddhism, and Snow Country delivered such “Japanese” sensibilities by the bucket load. In many contemporary reviews of the novel, Kawabata’s prose is repeatedly praised as being delicate and “haiku-like.”

As a prominent member of a literary group called the “New Sensationalist School” (新感覚派), Kawabata was interested in representing the various sensory stimuli of modern life in his writing. Earlier in his career, this interest lead to novels such as The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, a loosely-structured work that pulls together various bits of urban ephemera, such as newspaper articles, playbills, advertising posters, and overheard conversations. In Snow Country, however, Kawabata turns his keen gaze on a small mountain village in the “snow country” of Niigata prefecture, a region on the west side of the Japan Alps that is referred to as such due to its heavy winter precipitation. Along with luxuriant snowfall, the words “snow country” conjure up images of ski vacations, deliciously warm hot springs, high-quality saké brewed with snowmelt runoff waters, and small, traditional inns catering to all of the fall and winter tourists. To men of a certain generation, the snow country is also associated with the geisha who service these tourists. Unlike the artistically skilled geisha of urban areas such as Kyoto, these “hot springs geisha” are known for using their minimal training in music and dance as a cover for more intimate performances.

Snow Country is about a man named Shimamura who travels to the snow country to meet a hot springs geisha named Komako. The novel begins during Shimamura’s second trip to Niigata as his train emerges from a mountain tunnel into the open air:

The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky.

This is one of the most famous opening passages in Japanese literature. In the original language, when Shimamura’s train emerges from the long tunnel, he crosses a kokkyō (国境), or a border between countries, and, as he does so, “the bottom of the night becomes white” (yoru no soko ga shiroku natta). It is such terse and powerful descriptions that American critics have described as “haiku-like,” thus connecting Kawabata with premodern poets such as Bashō and Issa.

As I mentioned earlier, however, Kawabata’s New Sensationalist School was interested in describing the sensations of the modern era – thus the emphasis on “New.” Premodern poetry was no longer enough to describe the modern landscape, even in a place like the snow country. The New Sensationalists thus incorporated the methods of photography and cinematography into their writing. For example, while Shimamura is still on the train going deeper into the snow country, he watches the image of a woman reflected on the surface of his window.

In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other. The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world. Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl’s face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it.

Not only is Kawabata referencing movies directly both in his description of the scene and in his play on light and mirrors and unreal images, but he’s also obliquely referencing the modern state of being overwhelmed with sensory input. On another level, by having Shimamura watch himself watching the reflection of a woman instead of directly addressing her, Kawabata hints at the fractured nature of the modern self, which, despite having finally developed a modern ego, is now mediated through various technologies. It would take some time to fully unpack this passage, but what I am trying to get at is that, instead of thinking of Kawabata as the successor to some mystical Zen poetic tradition, it’s useful to understand the author as looking through the modern lens of a camera, both in his still frames and in his tracking shots.

If a haiku is supposed to capture the “thusness” of a single moment, for instance, Kawabata instead uses his descriptive passages in the way that a movie director might use an establishing shot, namely, to suggest things about his characters that can’t otherwise be established in the absence of devices like narratorial exposition. In showing the reader an image of the house where the geisha Komako lives, Kawabata is essentially showing us Komako herself:

To the right was a small field, and to the left persimmon trees stood along the wall that marked off the neighboring plot. There seemed to be a flower garden in front of the house, and red carp were swimming in the little lotus pond. The ice had been broken away and lay piled along the bank. The house was old and decayed, like the pitted trunk of a persimmon. There were patches of snow on the roof, the rafters of which sagged to draw a wavy line at the eaves.

What the reader is supposed to understand from this description, especially as it is combined with Komako’s behavior and dialog, is that, although Komako tries to be bright and cheerful, there is something about her that is wasted and neglected as a hot springs geisha out in the rural snow country. Such a passage might indeed be “haiku-like” – but, then again, it is also intensely cinematic.

In Snow Country, Kawabata is writing about “traditional” Japan using “traditional” nature imagery, but he is also fully aware of the modern world and its literary devices, which include notions of dramatic structure, character psychology, and withholding information from the reader in order to force her to draw her own connections. It goes without saying that Kawabata was familiar with the canon of premodern Buddhist poetry, but he was equally familiar with the great novels of English, French, and Russian literature, as well as the cinematic auteurs of the early twentieth century.

It is also interesting to note that the majority of Snow Country was serialized between 1937 and 1941, a period of time in which writers, artists, and other intellectuals were indiscriminately jailed if they expressed even a hint of dissatisfaction with the fascist regime. By writing about geisha in the snow country, Kawabata could escape the attention of government censors. Yet, by not writing about the war – not a single mention of the Japanese state and its military action appears in the novel – Kawabata is, in a sense, resisting it by turning his back on it. Furthermore, when Japan does appear by association in the novel, it is not a healthy country. Shimamura, the modern dilettante who writes essays about Western ballet (which he has never actually seen), possess both wealth and power but refuses to do anything useful with it. Komako, an intelligent and essentially kind-hearted young woman with a glimmer of undeveloped talent, is pushed from male patron to male patron while rotting away in the heart of “traditional” Japan. Although Snow Country is unarguably an extraordinarily beautiful novel, its themes of waste and the contrast between hardship and indolence can be seen as a veiled commentary on the state of the nation during the opening years of the Pacific War, which director Toyoda Shirō subtly yet unmistakably drew out in his 1957 film version of the novel.

I think Snow Country is a fascinating novel. To dismiss it as a vaguely misogynistic, somehow Zen-like pastiche of auto-Orientalizing imagery is to do it a disservice. After all, Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for a reason. Snow Country is a pleasure to read, and it’s a pleasure to think about and discuss, which is probably the reason it’s assigned so often in “world literature” classes. As with all modern and contemporary Japanese literature, however, I have to insist that Snow Country be read as “literature” before it is read as “Japanese.”