The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, Abridged Edition

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.

Snow Country

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.”

Translucent Tree

Title: Translucent Tree
Japanese Title: 投光の樹 (Tōkō no ki)
Author: Takagi Nobuko (高樹 のぶ子)
Translator: Deborah Iwabuchi
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 1999 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 188

My past experiences with romance novels have been few and far between. My grandmother used to keep a few around her house back in the early nineties, and they were mostly period pieces with titles like “Master and Maid” and “Forbidden Tryst” (my favorite was “The Pirate Slave;” the cover art was epic). I’ve never actually read a romance novel all the way through, but I’ve always been curious about them (especially after finishing Loving with a Vengeance a few days ago). I’ve heard that Takagi Nobuko is a famous and prolific romance novelist in Japan, so I figured that a translation of her award-winning novel Translucent Tree would be as good of a place as any to begin a foray into the magical world of bodice rippers. If nothing else, I was drawn by the cover, which displays a super-phallic pinecone superimposed over a triangular spray of pine needles, which are suggestively cleft down the middle under the dust jacket. Classy, right?

Translucent Tree is a story of star-crossed lovers. Following the conventions of a tale as old as time (or at least as old as 1949, when Harlequin established its basic formula for romance), the man is wealthy and a bit of a jerk, and the woman is struggling financially and a bit immature. The man, Go, lives in Tokyo, and the woman, Chigiri, lives in a town close to the Japan Sea called Tsurugi (which actually exists). Go, who makes his living as a documentary filmmaker, had once worked on a piece featuring Chigiri’s father, a metalworker knowledgeable about traditional sword-smithing techniques. During the filming, Go met Chigiri. Chigiri was a child at the time, but the two left strong impressions on each other.

Years later, Chigiri has divorced her husband and moved back to Tsurugi with her daughter to take care of her bedridden father. Go returns to Tsurugi on a whim in order to revisit a famous cedar tree and ends up running into Chigiri. The sparks fly, and the two enter into a strained long-distance relationship in which neither can be completely honest with the other. Go offers money to Chigiri in an attempt to help her father, to whom he still feels a debt of gratitude, and Chigiri tries to compensate Go by sleeping with him. Since they love each other but can’t bring themselves to admit it, their brief encounters are fraught with sexual and emotional tension.

Takagi’s portrayal of Go and Chigiri’s relationship is heartbreakingly honest at times. Their inane phone conversations are painfully awkward, and their inability to communicate is endearing, as is the emotional blackmail to which they subject themselves. Neither Go nor Chigiri is portrayed as being particularly attractive, and both of them have legitimate personality flaws. Go can be an asshole, and Chigiri can be annoyingly dense. Despite this, they’re attracted to each other in what strikes me as a very human and realistic way.

What I didn’t appreciate, however, were Takagi’s attempts to add an element of timelessness to the narrative by characterizing Go as some sort of Eternal Man and Chigiri as an Eternal Woman. Translucent Tree is filled with overgeneralizing sexist statements, like:

What she hadn’t counted on was the inability of men to understand the depth of a woman’s resolution. Women are determined and tenacious when men are of precious little use merely because women lack adaptability; it’s impossible for them to take a step or speak a work unless they have thought things over thoroughly and adopted a plan of action.

Really? No one taught me that when I was going to woman school. I had no idea I was supposed to lack adaptability. There are similar statements on subjects such as how men and women lie differently (apparently, women reveal information selectively while men just make things up) and why men travel but women don’t (women are roots and men are branches, you see). The utterly non-ironic way in which these pronouncements are made grated on my nerves every time I encountered one.

Another aspect of Takagi’s writing that hit slightly off the mark was her pillow talk. Being a romance novel, Translucent Tree has its fair share of eight-page sex scenes. Fun sexytimes are always a welcome addition to any narrative; but, unfortunately, each of Translucent Tree’s bedroom shots is more awkward and stilted than the last. It’s possible that this awkwardness is largely the fault of the translator, who apparently never got the memo on how not to write sex, but I am still going to have to point my finger at Takagi herself for her descriptions that read like something out of bad fanfiction:

They were both thinking about the same thing, but from different positions. Chigiri was at the top of the mountain peering down at the deep valley between her legs and, beyond that, at her slippered feet, which felt oddly detached from the rest of her body. Go was standing at the foot of the mountain gazing deep inside the valley, waiting for the right moment to start the trek in.

I use this particular passage as an example because it’s a paragraph of self-contained awkwardness instead of two pages of gradually building awkwardness, but I think it’s also useful to illustrate not only what is merely amusing about Translucent Tree but also what is genuinely interesting. The numerous nature and geography metaphors throughout the text posit Go and Chigiri not just as the Eternal Man and the Eternal Woman but also as New Japan and Old Japan. Romantic conceits relating to nostalgia for an imagined Japanese tradition have been embodied in female characters before, but I think Takagi handles this device remarkably well. Chigiri’s hometown of Tsurugi is an appealing mix of old-style sushi shops and historic trees in the middle of rice fields. Chigiri herself is less of an idealization of well-bred Japanese femininity and more of a portrait of an earthier type of woman who has weathered the blows of misfortune yet still maintains the passionate core of her being. Go’s Tokyo is not a steampunk wonderland of trains and tall buildings but rather a shabby place where the human relationships are shallow, the food is all takeout, and the old pinup calendar on the wall is slowly turning yellow.

Go’s attempts to capture and preserve Old Japan through the lens of a camera are ultimately meaningless, while Chigiri’s charm is wasted as she slowly goes to seed out in the boondocks. It’s only through their relationship with each other that the two really come alive, and their first tryst is perhaps the most memorable scene in the book, if only because of its setting in a beautiful, “traditionally” Japanese estate in the countryside. In this scene, cultural imagery and sexual imagery are reflected back on one another repeatedly. Through its interaction with New Japan, then, Old Japan is both refreshed and refreshing. In the impact of its use of geography as metaphor, Translucent Tree is just as brilliant as As I Lay Dying or Deliverance. I can see why the book has won awards, even though the “romance” aspects of the novel are somewhat lacking. Although its gender politics tended to rub me the wrong way, I enjoyed Translucent Tree, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys Japan fantasies of the sort written by Kawabata Yasunari or Muriel Barbery.

Speaking of geography, I’m sure that by now everyone has heard about how Japan survived its most recent encounter with subterranean catfish tremors and walls of liquid death marching toward the coast. Not to lessen or belittle the tragedy, but I think the country handled the situation remarkably well, and I hope that the governments of other countries (*cough* such as my own *cough*) were paying attention. That being said, there are still many people who are evacuated and homeless. If you’re interested in making a donation but skeptical of the Red Cross, Global Giving is the site that everyone seems to be vetting, for what it’s worth.

Palm-of-the-Hand Stories

Palm-of-the-Hand Stories

Title: Palm-of-the-Hand Stories
Japanese Title: 掌の小説
Author: Yasunari Kawabata (川端康成; Kawabata Yasunari)
Translators: Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman
Publication Year: 1988 (America)
Pages: 259

This book gathers Nobel Prize winning author Kawabata’s famous short shorts, or “palm of the hand (tenohira) stories.” These stories average about two and a half pages each, although some are a little longer, and some are much shorter. Most of these stories deal with the intricacies of male-female relationships, dreams, and fragmented memories of childhood. Even though some of the stories have a bittersweet sentimentality, Kawabata’s style is mainly realistic, especially in his portrayal of relationships crippled by words left unsaid and small, but meaningful, actions.

Some of Kawabata’s short stories are lyrical in their depictions of time, place, and nature, but many strike the reader as small mysteries to be pondered and unlocked. Who said what to whom? What significance did that have? Why would this person do that? What exactly is the relationship between these characters? The extreme brevity of these stories boils down life stories into a few irreversible moments and leaves the reader to read between the lines. This aspects of the works is rewarding but can be occasionally frustrating.

These stories were written over a period spanning between 1923 and 1972. Read individually, they can be unsatisfying; but, if the reader reads one story after another in a smooth, unbroken stream, the major themes and concerns of Kawabata’s career begin to gain a greater clarity, and the stories meld seamlessly into a greater whole.

I have read several of these stories in Japanese, as they are quite famous, and I have found that the translations are not only accurate but successfully convey the tone of the originals. The stories translated by Lane Dunlop (Shiga Naoya’s The Paper Door and Other Stories) tend to be a bit dry, but they are balanced nicely by Holman’s more experimental style.