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.

Fires on the Plain

Title: Fires on the Plain
Japanese Title: 野火 (Nobi)
Author: Ōoka Shōhei (大岡 昇平)
Translator: Ivan Morris
Publication Year: 1957 (America); 1951 (Japan)
Publisher: Tuttle
Pages: 246

The Pacific War is an uncomfortable subject for me. I don’t like war, and I don’t like watching movies about war, and I don’t like reading about war – especially the Pacific War. I’m also not entirely comfortable recommending a book written about the Pacific War. However, a friend of mine recently confided in me that he’s working on a novel about a Japanese soldier on a small island in the Pacific. The novel would have swords, he told me, and survival, and brilliant military strategies, and cherry blossoms. At the end of his novel, everyone would die a glorious and noble death.

I told my friend to go read Fires on the Plain.

Fires on the Plain is about a soldier named Tamura who is stationed on Leyte, an island in the Philippines. Ōoka himself was drafted and sent to Leyte in 1944, so one can plausibly assume that the novel is somewhat based on the author’s experiences. What distinguishes Fires on the Plain from many other Japanese fictional accounts of the war, however, is that it is not written in the style of proletarian literature or the semi-autobiographical shishōsetsu (“I-novels). Before he was drafted, Ōoka worked at a Franco-Japanese translation agency while working on his own translations of French literature. Far from being preachy or moralistic, Fires on the Plain is a tightly structured psychological novel written in the style of nineteenth-century French novelists such as Stendhal, Ōoka’s favorite author.

Fires on the Plain focuses on the psychological and emotional struggles of Tamura as the soldier is kicked out of his unit, sets off on his own, later rejoins the scattered remnants of the Japanese army still on the island, and then struggles for survival in the company of two men who have turned to cannibalism in order to stay alive. During his time on Leyte, Tamura ponders the nature of humanity, the relationship between God and man, and the workings of free will in the face of an almost certain fate. His primary concern, and the primary concern of every character that appears in the novel, however, is hunger. How long can you live on a handful of potatoes? How can you procure food from the native islanders without getting killed? Where can you find salt? What do you do after all the food is gone? Aside from the ranting of one half-dead and half-crazed man who appears towards the end of the novel, the glory of the Emperor and the nation of Japan have no place in the consciousness of Tamura and his fellow soldiers.

Because the story is recounted by a starving, traumatized, and unreliable narrator, there is little thematic closure in the novel. That being said, there are some lovely descriptive passages reflecting the beautiful tropic setting of the island:

The sun gleamed on the river’s surface, and clouds scudded across the dazzling sky to disappear over the mountain peaks. On the sloping banks of the river bamboos grew luxuriantly, their green leaves wafted by the breeze. Driftwood, which remains from the floods of the rainy season, lay drying on the sand and pebbles of the river’s edge. Now and then the water would strike the banks capriciously, or form deep pools, or spread out into frothy rapids. In the evenings by the shadows of the pools I could hear the river deer cry as they came down to drink, and at dawn the turtledoves cooed high on the river bank.

There are also harrowing passages describing the horrors of war:

How could I have failed to notice the objects lying at the foot of those steps – objects that must have been in my field of vision for some time? My sense of perception must have already changed during the weeks since I had left my company. Clearly the link between my consciousness and the outer world was greatly attenuated. A solitary alien in an enemy land, I had by this time come to notice only objects that warned me of immediate danger, or, as in this case, objects on which I literally stumbled.

I thought of them as “objects” though some might call them “people.” In one sense, to be sure, they were people, but their bodies had already become dehumanized objects. What lay below those steps were corpses.

Having been corpses for some time, they had lost all the individual conformations of their past lives. Only their army trousers revealed some slight trace of the time when their owners had belonged to humankind; yet even these were so discolored by mud and carrion slime that they no longer seemed like human clothing and were, indeed, barely distinguishable from the surrounding earth.

In the end, though, having been abandoned on Leyte and left to fend for himself during the closing days of the Pacific War, and having witnessed death and killed people himself, and having starved and eaten the flesh of his fellow soldiers, Tamura is no closer to solving the great mysteries of life than he was when at the beginning of the novel. The confusion of the narrator becomes the confusion of the reader; and, despite its brilliant imagery and powerful symbolism, it is difficult to draw any clear philosophical message from the novel – besides the painfully obvious.

Anyone interested in the Pacific War in any capacity should read Fires on the Plain. Ōoka demonstrates that the reality of the war was anything but honorable and glorious, but he does so through the vehicle of a disturbing yet highly readable novel that feels no need to shove its “war is evil” message into the reader’s face.