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Friday, September 01, 2006

World Guide to Japanese Literature

Maybe I'm asking too much of Salon.com, but I hoped for something more in their literary guide to Japan. I shouldn't have been surprised, really, to find the entire article consisting of cliches:

"From 17th century haikus [sic] to the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, writing from this Far East nation reveals an obsession with beauty and discipline."

"In Japan, tranquility comes from rigorous discipline. The gardens of Kyoto struck me as beautiful, but sad."

"The tense but polite conversation between father and daughter captures the essential irony of Japanese life: It's better to face the truth oneself, if only to conceal it from everyone else."

"...what every visitor to Japan should know about Japanese conversations: No one will speak the truth directly if there's any chance of offending the listener."

Okay, now that we've gotten the freshman-level stereotypes out of the way, let's take a look at the actual list:

"The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon" by Sei Shonagon

"The Narrow Road to the Deep North" by Matsuo Basho

"An Artist of the Floating World" by Kazuo Ishiguro

"The Shooting Gallery" by Yuko Tsushima

"Middle Earth" by Henri Cole


Yuko Tsushima? What about Shuji Tsushima, her father, also known as DAZAI OSAMU (they at least mention his name, but...), whose novel 'The Setting Sun' showed humans in desperate circumstances, and whose portrayal of a Japanese female protagonist didn't conform to stereotypes at all? Or what about his 'No Longer Human' (Ningen Shikakku), an existential classic?

How about everyone else? How can you even mention a guide to Japanese literature without Mishima? Or Kawabata? Or Akutagawa? Confining yourself to Basho and Sei Shonagon after all those geniuses accomplished in the 20th century is like referring to English literature and stopping with Chaucer. Not cool. God help me, I'd even be happier to see the amusing but nigh-unreadable Ryu Murakami or Eimi Yamada on that list rather than the played-out, predictable choices they made. Hell, why not Banana? Why not ANYTHING modern, except (bleh) Kazuo Ishiguro, who'd be happier writing about English butlers? Why not Tanizaki? Why not Natsume Soseki? The list of omissions goes on; the choices made seem more and more bizarre and inappropriate. "The American poet Henri Cole" ? Whaaaat? What is this doing in a literary guide to Japan? If they wanted the token white man perspective, why not just use Lafcadio Hearn? (hell, he's at least taken seriously there too - think Kwaidan) Hell, why don't we just bust out James Clavell and get this over with?

The real reason for their absence, I think, is because all these writers, while obviously setting their work in Japan, were individual, idiosyncratic, and occasionally strange or upsetting: they never reassured anyone, and they always confronted reality and their dreams alike with true originality. Do we really need another Sei Shonagon writeup now?

I run into this problem a lot, to be honest. Say 'Japanese Literature' and everyone assumes you're talking about Genji Monogatari. Again, not surprisingly, this doesn't happen when you say 'English Literature' or 'French Literature'. Non-Western countries can be modern too, okay? STOP HURTING ASIA.

And if you want classicism, how could you get more Japanese than someone like Kawabata, who writes constantly about the kinds of traditional aesthetic themes encountered in the classics, and who has incredible descriptions of the nation, who even declared after World War II that he would write only elegies with 'the mountains and rivers of Japan as my soul.' ? Hell, the younger generation of writers even disdained him for being too ethereal. Or what about Soseki, who initiated modern Japanese literature in the first place? Aargh....

So, in conclusion, Japanese literature once again goes unnoticed, stereotypes get reinforced, and no one has to think. Thanks, Salon!

Just to rectify this nonsense, I will make my own list here. All of the books on it have been chosen as a precise antidote for romantic or antiquated notions about what 'Japanese literature' is or is supposed to be. Keep in mind most of the writers on this list are considered the pillars of modern writing; they're hardly marginal. Anyway, read everything here and prepare to lose your shit.

1) Mishima Yukio - The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
- Mishima's stuttering terrorist monk plays with prostitutes and longs for American planes to atom bomb Kyoto. The perfect antidote for people who think Japan is all about geisha and cherry trees.

2) Kawabata Yasunari - One Arm
-A woman severs her own arm and gives it to a man as a token of her love. How long do you think it takes before he decides to replace his own arm with hers? This is pretty out there, even for Kawabata. He won a Nobel Prize!

3) Natsume Soseki - Kokoro
-sensei committed suicide because Modernism sucked. See also: Mishima.

4) Murakami Ryu - Almost Transparent Blue
Incredibly stupid in various ways, but still a great antidote for anyone who read anything on the Salon list. Tons of junkie sex and other 'hardcore' bullshit.

5) Kurahashi Yumiko - The Woman with the Flying Head
Incestuous lovers who use space aliens as sex toys, masks which eat people's faces, and stories told from the cat's perspective. I already blogged about this one. Get it.

6) Hoshii Shin'ichi - The Capricious Robot and Other Stories
-All the stories are about robots. Like using robots to make pacts with Satan and conquer other planets. I don't know what the target audience is even supposed to be. It's godly.

7) Tanizaki Jun'ichiro - Diary of a Mad Old Man
-Tanizaki was obsessed with violent women. In this one, he's old and gets his ass kicked by his daughter-in-law. See also: The Key. See also: Naomi. See also: The Tattooer. See also: oh, hell...

8) Akutagawa Ryunosuke - Hell Screen
An artist watches his own daughter burn to death so he can paint Hell accurately, then hangs himself. Yeah, how's that for 'discipline and beauty', Salon?

9) Oe Kenzaburo - J
-He molests women on trains. This is like a hundred times more realistic about Japan than anything on the Salon list. He had another story where a seventeen year old boy masturbated constantly while dreaming of the emperor. He took a lot of shit for that one.

10) Ihara Saikaku - The Life of an Amorous Man
-I had to include at least one 'traditional' work of literature. The title says it all, really.

BONUS ROUND: Ian Fleming - You Only Live Twice
-Kissy Suzuki, bitches. This is like a hundred times better than Memoirs of a Geisha, or Hagakure. HONEY FLASH!
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