Readalong One: ‘Manazuru’ by Hiromi Kawakami

Two years ago, during the first edition of January in Japan, my group read choice was Hiromi Kawakami’s understated novel The Briefcase, a book relating a May-to-December relationship between a thirty-something woman and a former high-school teacher (the book later came out in a British edition under the title Strange Weather in Tokyo).  It was a fairly successful choice, so I was happy to go back to Kawakami for Manazuru, the first of this year’s group reads.  I wonder if this one was as successful…

As far as I’m aware, the two books mentioned above are the only ones to appear in English so far – which is not to say that there’s nothing else out there.  You’d be surprised what you can find if you look hard enough…

During my travels through the net, I managed to stumble across a few short stories available for free:

‘Record of a Night Too Brief, translated by Lucy North (Words Without Borders)

‘Mogera Wogura’, translated by Michael Emmerich (Paris Review)

‘In the Palace of the Dragon King’, translated by Michael Emmerich (World Literature Today)

‘God Bless You’, translated by Ted Goossen and Motoyuki Shibata (Granta)

In addition, I found an interview where Kawakami talks about a text (‘Blue Moon’) which appears in the Granta 127: Japan edition (the piece, sadly, does not appear online).

That should keep you busy for a while 😉

So, onto the main event 🙂  What did you all think of Manazuru?  Here are a few questions you might like to ponder:

1) How much can we trust Kei as a narrator?  In what way is she perhaps less than reliable?
2) Would you agree that there are a lot of pent-up emotions felt by all the main characters in the book?
3) How effective do you feel the ‘otherwordly’ sections are?
4) What did you think of the character of the female ‘spirit’?
5) For those who had read The Briefcase first: how did you feel about the difference between the two books?

Feel free to leave comments below, or on any of the reviews of the book – and speaking of reviews…  Please use the linky below to post links to your review of the book!  As we know what the book is, just put your blog name in the first space and the link in the second.

I can’t wait to see what you all thought…

Posted in Readalong | Leave a comment

J-Lit Giants: 14 – Yoriko Shōno

Today sees the first of our guest posts for the 2015 J-Lit Giants series, introducing a writer whose work (unfortunately) hasn’t made it into English yet.  Morgan Giles, translator and occasional blogger, makes the case for publishing a writer with an impressive track record on the Japanese literary prize scene and some intriguing-sounding books under her belt 🙂

Yoriko Shōno is a giant of Japanese literature, the only author ever to win all three major prizes for new writers, and yet you’ve probably never heard of her. Her ‘avant-pop’ masterpieces remain untranslated. Thirty four years after her debut, Shōno is, in the words of her publishers, ‘the guardian deity of Japanese literature, and the eternal newcomer.’
Maybe it’s because her career hasn’t had the usual trajectory. Born in 1956, Shōno began writing while studying law at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. After her 1981 debut Paradise (‘Gokuraku’) won the Gunzo New Writers Prize, she did not publish much and what she did publish attracted curiously little attention. But after a decade in the wilderness, Shōno returned to the forefront of the literary scene in a big way. Between 1991 and 1994, she won the Noma Literary Prize for New Writers, the Yukio Mishima Prize, and the Akutagawa Prize. Those ‘triple crown’ winning works, Not Doing Anything(‘Nani mo shitenai’), The Two-Hundredth Death Anniversary (‘Ni-hyaku-kai-ki’), and The Time Warp Industrial Complex (‘Taimu surippu konbinaato’) cemented Shōno’s reputation as an elegantly inventive postmodernist and occasional autofictionalist.
Shōno writes lucidly and poetically in a way that makes the strange seem perfectly reasonable, slipping her characters into languid dream worlds before taking them on a detour into slapstick humor and rampant paranoia. Her narrators frequently bear a resemblance to her (unattractive, single, middle-aged female writers without money or fame), calling to mind the Japanese tradition of the “I-novel”, which Shōno subverts in order to explore her main themes: gender and feminism. Her background as a law student, she says, is the main influence on her writing, making her question the supposedly “logical” and giving her subjective reality higher importance. She also uses mystical elements, from the Izanagi-Izanami origin story to Shinto and Buddhist traditions, to interrogate the role of women in Japanese society.
In The Time Warp Industrial Complex, a writer is awakened from a dream about being in love with a tuna fish by a phone call from a man she does not know and is sent off to Umishibaura, a railway station at the end of a line near Tokyo Bay. To one side of the station is a Toshiba factory; to the other side is the sea. As she makes her way there, the past and present merge and the writer finds herself both in “the scene of what’s left after everything is over” and the industrial town she grew up in. A personal meditation on Japan’s Bubble Era, Shōno depicts “the conflict between illusion and brutal reality” both in love and economics.
Shōno has continued to invent and define her own world through writing; her 2004 novel Konpira (‘Kompira’), winner of the Ito Sei Prize, is about a female writer much like Shōno who comes to the realization that she is the Hindu crocodile god Kumbhira, adopted in Japan as Konpira, the Buddhist guardian of those at sea. In a review, her fellow postmodernist, Gen’ichiro Takahashi, echoed Shōno’s feelings about her own writing when he wrote that, “To be Konpira is to believe. It is to offer ultrapersonal prayers. Prayer is not an illusion. It needs no interpretation or metaphor.”
Her most recent work, Record of a Non-Illness: Collagen Disorder, “Mixed Connective Tissue Disease” (‘Mi-tōbyō-ki ―― kōgenbyō, “kongō seiketsu gōsoshikibyō” no’), won the 2014 Noma Prize for Shōno’s depiction of the realities of life with a chronic autoimmune disease. In her comments after winning the prize, she said, “I’ve been referred to as having become critical of neoliberalism or said to have written about the nuclear state before the 2011 disaster, but I have only one simple rule: I write about what I see, and when I can’t write I write about why I can’t…. Ten years ago I was diagnosed with an incurable disease with little hope…. And now twenty three years later [after her 1991 Noma Prize for New Writers win], I have received the prize I always hoped for! Is this the irony of fate? No, this is divine will!”
If there is such a thing as divine will, someday we’ll see Yoriko Shōno’s writing in English. Until then, an excerpt from the beginning of The Time Warp Complex is all we have. Konpira, save us.


Some Interesting Links: 
An Excerpt from Time Warp Complex
An Interview with Yoriko Shōno: (Review of Contemporary Fiction, June 2002)
J-Lit profile: (Books from Japan)


Many thanks to Morgan for her excellent introduction to a Japanese writer overlooked by the English-speaking publishing world (alas, one of far too many).  If any publishers out there have had their interest piqued by this short biography, you know who to call 😉
Posted in J-Lit Giants | Leave a comment

Golden Kin-Yōbi: 2 – Kurodahan Press

Welcome to Golden Kin-Yōbi, our regular Friday giveaway where you can win some great J-Lit.  Why the name?  Well, as some of you may know, the first character used in Japanese when writing Friday means ‘gold’, and hopefully many of you will strike gold over the next few weeks 🙂

This week’s contest has two books as prizes, including worldwide postage to the winners, and this time they are kindly provided by Kurodahan Press, a small publisher based in Japan which breathes new life into gems which may otherwise have passed us by.

The first offering is Teru Miyamoto’s Rivers, a loose trilogy of stories set between 1955 and 1969.  The three stories (two of which took out the prestigious Osamu Dazai and Akutagawa Prizes) look at boys of different ages growing up in the post-war era.  I read this recently, and as you can see from my review, it’s a book I can definitely recommend 🙂
The second prize on offer is something a little different.  Edogawa Rampo was a pen name playing both on the American writer Edgar Allan Poe and the Tokyo setting of the Japanese author’s noir mysteries.  The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō is a collection of stories introducing the detective who would later feature in some of Rampo’s more famous pieces, and it’s perhaps a welcome change of pace from the usual tea ceremony and cherry blossom viewing of classical J-Lit 😉


So, if you’d like to win one of these books, simply comment below, leaving your name, an e-mail address and the name of the book you’d like to win.  There’s no need to follow me, either here, on Facebook or on Twitter (unless you want to, of course!) – anyone can enter, and everyone has an equal chance of winning 🙂

Entries will close at 8 p.m. (AEST) on Thursday, January the 15th (that’s 9 a.m. on Thursday, London time), and the winners will be announced in the next Golden Kin-Yōbi post (the winners, naturally, will be chosen entirely randomly, one way or another).  So, what are you waiting for?  Get commenting, and good luck!

And, of course, we need to announce the winners of last week’s prizes!

The Sound of the Mountain goes to Parrish Lantern
Beauty and Sadness goes to David H.
Thousand Cranes goes to Chelsea McGill
Snow Country goes to Kamo

I will be in contact with the winners shortly – thanks again to Penguin Modern Classics (UK) for providing some great prizes 🙂

Posted in Golden Kin-Yōbi | 17 Comments

J-Lit Giants: 13 – Ryū Murakami

Welcome to another year of J-Lit Giants, where we sing the praises of great Japanese writers.  We’re starting off the third set of inductees with a man who, despite his success, can sometimes be a little unfairly overlooked overseas.  However, this is hardly surprising – it’s difficult to get all the fame you deserve when you share your family name with perhaps the most famous Japanese writer in history…

Ryū Murakami, once the enfant terrible of Japanese literature, has gradually grown into its grumpy old man, a writer always willing to take out his rage against society in his books, destroying Tokyo several times in the process.  Born in Nagasaki in 1952, he was a bit of a rebel during his school days, and quite apart from his short-lived time as a drummer, he did his part during the student protests of the late sixties, including a roof-top protest at his school (an event later fictionalised in his novel Sixty-Nine).

Like many Japanese writers, he eventually headed off to Tokyo; unlike many Japanese writers, he studied sculpture rather than literature.  This didn’t stop him from moving into writing, and his first work, Almost Transparent Blue, was written while he was still a student.  A rather disturbing look at street life and drug use, it won both the Gunzo Prize for new writers and the prestigious Akutagawa Prize (one which a certain other writer never managed to win…).

Ryū continued to focus on the dark underbelly of Japanese society, and most of his novels focus on the down-and-out, those left behind by the conveyor belt taking young Japanese through the school system, into a nice university and then onto an exhausting job for life in a major company, or a few years of making tea before finding a husband (depending on gender).  While some of his books vibrate with anger and frustration (e.g. Coin Locker Babies), others can take a more humorous, surreal approach (such as Popular Hits of the
Shōwa Era
).  Whatever the approach, the body count can be quite high – it’s always best for people to be out of Tokyo when Ryū’s characters come to town 😉

Of course, the elephant in the room when discussing Ryū is the other Murakami, Haruki, a man with a very different style, but whose path mirrors Ryū’s to a certain extent.  They were born a few years apart, and Ryū published his first book a couple of years before Haruki.  In a way, particularly for overseas readers, they will forever be linked, even if stylistically they’re the Yin and Yang of their era of J-Lit.  This is perhaps best displayed in the novels Norwegian Wood and Sixty-Nine – while Haruki’s university student Toru Watanabe avoids the protests going on around him, retreating into literature and long walks through Tokyo, down in Sasebo, Kensuke Yazaki is trashing his school and organising a rock concert.

Who would you rather hang out with? 😉

I’ve still to get to a lot of Ryū’s work, mainly because I’m a sensitive soul, but what I have read I’ve enjoyed for the most part (with the exception of a few scenes…).  Here are a few to check out:

1) Coin Locker Babies – Two unwanted babies, abandoned in coin lockers at Tokyo Station by their mothers, are miraculously rescued and sent to an orphanage.  This is a searing look at Tokyo’s underworld, and it’s a gripping read.  Two friends, two very different futures: sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and a city that’s going to wish the boys had never been born…

2) Popular Hits of the Shōwa Era – Lunacy, pure lunacy.  A gang of karaoke-loving losers fight a battle to the death against a group of thirty-something women whose only previous concern was losing the excess weight they’d managed to amass over the years.  This is a book which deserves to be a graphic novel – it’s pure cartoon madness, and I loved it 🙂

3) Sixty-Nine – I’ve already mentioned this one above several times, and there’s a reason for that.  It’s probably the most accessible of the ones I’ve read, a fun look back to the writer’s narrator’s high-school days.  ‘If you put it on, they will come’ is his approach to the concert he dreams of holding – if only he can cope with teachers, aggressive gang members and the wiles of the opposite sex…

Bonus Suggestions – While I haven’t yet read it, Almost Transparent Blue is a book which I’ve heard great things about (UPDATE – review out now!), and another to recommend is Audition.  I watched the movie adaptation a while back, and… well, let’s just say that it’s fairly dark 😉

So, we’re off and running, with another excellent writer inducted into our Hall of Fame 🙂  Who’s next up for the J-Lit Giants pantheon?  You’ll just have to wait until next Wednesday to find out 😉

Posted in J-Lit Giants | 20 Comments

Golden Kin-Yōbi: 1 – Penguin Modern Classics

Welcome to Golden Kin-Yōbi, our regular Friday giveaway where you can win some great J-Lit.  Why the name?  Well, as some of you may know, the first character used in Japanese when writing Friday means ‘gold’, and hopefully many of you will strike gold over the next few weeks 🙂

Today’s first giveaway, one to kick off this year’s January in Japan, comes to us courtesy of Penguin Modern Classics (UK), and they have kindly offered four books as prizes, including worldwide postage to the winners – and great books they are too.  All four are by the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (and J-Lit Giant), Yasunari Kawabata, and they’re all great reads.

The four up for grabs are Snow Country (an elegant novella set in the mountains of northern Honshu), Thousand Cranes (another short piece which looks at traditional manners and customs), Beauty and Sadness (an excellent story of an affair gone sour) and The Sound of the Mountain (my favourite Kawabata, a tale of an old man coming to grips with mortality).  This last book is the choice for the second of our readalongs – with luck, the winner may even get their copy in time to join in!


So, if you’d like to win one of these books, simply comment below, leaving your name, an e-mail address and the name of the book you’d like to win.  There’s no need to follow me, either here, on Facebook or on Twitter (unless you want to, of course!) – anyone can enter, and everyone has an equal chance of winning 🙂

Entries will close at 8 p.m. (AEST) on Thursday, January the 8th (that’s 9 a.m. on Thursday, London time), and the winners will be announced in the next Golden Kin-Yōbi post (the winners, naturally, will be chosen entirely randomly, one way or another).  So, what are you waiting for?  Get commenting, and good luck!

Posted in Golden Kin-Yōbi | 21 Comments

January in Japan 2015 – Group Reads Announcement!

January in Japan 2015 is less than a month away now, so the announcement of the group read books is well overdue.  Still, I got there in the end, and these are the two books I’m suggesting this time around 🙂

A couple of years ago, our group read choice was Hiromi Kawakami’s The Briefcase (later released in the UK as Strange Weather in Tokyo), and I’ve gone back to Kawakami for one of my choices for 2015.  This time it’s her novel Manazuru – even if the weather’s cold, it should make for a nice trip to the Japanese coast 🙂

The second choice is a classic of modern Japanese literature.  Yasunari Kawabata needs no introduction (but if he does, try this one!), and we’ll be reading his novel The Sound of the Mountain, a wonderful story of a man coming to terms with the frailty that arrives with age.

The idea is that we’ll read the books and post reviews around the same time – I’ll be creating a page on this blog as a home for links to those reviews.  The schedule is:

January 15th – Manazuru
January 29th – The Sound of the Mountain

I hope that many of you will decide to join in – the more people who read the books and take part in the discussions, the better it will be.  See you in January 🙂

Posted in Readalong | 10 Comments

January in Japan 2015: Sign Up Now!

We’re back!  Once again, I’ll be starting the year with a whole month dedicated to J-Lit 🙂  January in Japan returns in 2015, and today I’d just like to give you a taste of what lies in store at the start of the new year.

*J-Lit Giants*
Series three of J-Lit Giants will build on our collection of great writers.  So far, we’ve inducted twelve into our hall of fame – whose turn is it this year?  I’m a busy boy, so I’ll need your help with this: if anyone is interested in penning a guest post for posterity, please leave a comment, or e-mail me at tonysreadinglist at y7mail dot com 🙂

I’m planning to have two group reads for the month, on the 15th and 29th of January, but I haven’t confirmed the titles yet (and I’m very open to suggestions!).  If anyone has any ideas, please leave a comment below 🙂 

Update (6/12):  The decision has been made!
15/1 – Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru
29/1 – Yasunari Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain

Yes, once again we’ll be running some Golden Kin-Yōbi giveaways.  Publishers to jump on board so far include Pushkin Press, Penguin Modern Classics, Columbia University Press and Kurodahan Press: make sure you’re subscribed to this blog so as not to miss out on the great books offered!

*News and Reviews*
In addition to all that, every Sunday in January will see a new edition of Nichi-Yōbi News, where Momotarō and I will round up all the latest Japanese literary gossip.  Contributions are welcome – and for the review section they’re absolutely vital 😉

So, over to you!  To sign up, just leave a comment below, and don’t forget to follow the blog today to keep up with all the news and giveaways next January 🙂

Posted in Random | 34 Comments