Book Reviews: Japanese Modern Literature

After being introduced to contemporary Japanese literature back when I was serving my national service, I’ve never tired of it, having read extensively into the different works of contemporary Japanese authors. From someone who likes to write, there is a lot to gain from reading these texts. I learnt that a simple style of writing need not occlude complex trains of thought, but complement the latter by granting clarity. I’ve also learnt that desire and emotion can be effectively shown in not only what characters do, but also in what they don’t do. The use of silence, for example, to show longing, or the constant evocation of hunger to show the effects of loss. There’s something special about holding back and keeping yourself restrained, especially in a world which encourages the active pursuit of your desires. In any case, here are four reviews of contemporary Japanese texts that I has shaped the way I think about writing.


Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto


A home can mean family, but what happens after the death of a family member? A home becomes a reminder of what remains, but at the same time, what has been lost, a place of reunion but also intense loneliness. Set in late 20th Century suburban Japan, we find Mikage in her kitchen, her favourite place in the world, a place where she is able to stay hidden from the outside world. It is a time of grief and solitude for her, having lost her grandmother, the only family she had. And then almost graciously, Yuichi, a young man who was a friend of her Grandmother, invites her over to stay with his transgender mother.

It appears that salvation lies in such strange and seemingly random interactions. Theirs is a space tainted with loneliness, but is where Yuichi and Mikage mingle, cook, laugh, grieve and eventually, begin to love. We don’t quite know how their feelings emerge but Yoshimoto’s steady hand guides and moves us from one room of her creation to the next: through each carefully prepared meal, swig of sake and honest conversation late into the night. The ending captivates, a cup filled to the brim but neither boiling nor spilling over. It is full.



Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami


This novel is a portrait of Tsukiko, a woman in her thirties who one night chances upon her high school teacher, whom she refers to as Sensei, at a Sake bar. From there an unlikely relationship blossoms, unravelling at a stroll that is as slow as it is enchanting. Unlike in most romance novels, sexual desire does not drive much of the plot. Tsukiko and Sensei move through the text, virtual strangers with a tinge of shared history. They never quite mean to meet each other but do so anyway, through a series of forced coincidences that culminates with unplanned desire. We feel for them even before we are aware, the plot reeling us in as stealthily as the characters are drawn to each other. And no wonder, for the story plays with the scales of fate and agency, where two characters mingle with their past; Sensei his dead wife and Tsukiko an ex lover, but in reminiscing about the past they never quite finding the same comfort as they do in the here and now, in the company of each other. The threat of the past is tame compared to that of the future; the mortality of Sensei is often called into question by the younger Tsukiko and we are left wondering if a relationship like theirs is even meant to exist. And yet, with the relationship’s very existence we are challenged to reevaluate what it really means to love. If you want a novel that holds your heart gently before giving it a tight squeeze at the last paragraph, then you have this to look forward to.


Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro


The novel follows the life of Kathy, through a series of flashbacks that has led to the woman she is today. Set in a dystopian universe where people are raised to be organ donors, the mechanics of such a world is not just elaborately explained, but sometimes over-explained, laborious to read and heavy-handed. The style of writing is conversational, one feels like they are having tea with Kathy where she speaks at length about her experiences, some which are vastly interesting, others less so. The novel falls flat due to its step-by-step method in storytelling, where significance is always mentioned, where intentions are elaborated upon time and again as if Kathy never did trust our better judgment in the first place. It lacks the light, minimalist springiness of the other novels in this review, its sombre heaviness instantly scorching itchy fingers, rather than setting in slowly like a heater in a large room. All in all an the novel has an interesting plot with devastating implications, rueful losses and heartbreaking finalities. But that’s life as observed, not expressed. Good expression (and good literature), seems harder to find.


Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami


A man who can talk to cats, another named Johnnie Walker who kills them, fish that rain down from the sky, a Japanese Colonel Sanders and a man who attempts to make a magical flute; these are just some of the things you’d struggle to accept and perhaps never come to terms with by the end of the novel.

But that’s just where the absurdities begin. We follow the life of fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura who runs away from home in fear of his father, or rather, in fear of the prophecy of him killing his own father. But fate is never too shy to act, and the further he runs the closer he is to the action. He seeks refuge in a neighbourhood library and meets a librarian whom he suspects is be his estranged mother. He is helped by a stranger along the way that could very well be sister, whom he has not seen since he was a child. Try as he might, there is a growing sense that Kafka is unable, to escape from the very thing he tries to run away from; that the experiences he hopes can help him start anew somehow lead back to him. His desires (sexual or otherwise) grow stronger as he navigates not just through the rural landscape or the intricacies of his fate, but also his own adolescence and emerging adulthood.

As the story unwinds we are left wondering if Kafka would make it out of the storm, and if so, whether he would ever be the same again. Woven together by Murakami’s entrancing prose, this story brings together a slew of elements that don’t quite make sense and don’t quite add up but form an imperfect basket that is not so much functional as it is beautiful. Unlike in Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, Kafka on the Shore does not hold you gently, but grabs you roughly by the hand and pulls you along a twisted narrative. It tells you straight out that running away from yourself is a race that you cannot win, but urges you to try anyway. And what a run it turns out to be.


2 thoughts on “Book Reviews: Japanese Modern Literature

  1. Ishiguro doesn’t really count as ‘Japanese’ but I know what you mean of course… I only watched the movie of “Never Let Me Go”, but I read “When We Were Orphans”. My feeling is that both had a similar theme: that this thing we call ‘achievement’ is pretty much false, that our successes in life are being underwritten by unseen souls we could not care less about. When we think we have reached some milestone we are actually fooling ourselves into believing that it truly matters. Sometimes, others agree with us. That does not make it any more real.


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