Primer: Japanese Literature, Modern (#1)

Just started reading Shusaku Endo’s “Silence” this week, so I’ve been thinking a lot (when I do have free time) about the Japanese writers of the 20th century. Obviously, it was a complicated century for the Japanese, and while I can’t claim to be able to speak to the Japanese experience, I can talk a little about their really great writers of the past hundred years or so, which run an incredible gamut.

This primer is intended to let you know the basics to be able to carry a halfway decent conversation about 20th-century Japanese literature. You’d make a fool of yourself if you tried to use it to talk to Jay Rubin (Harvard professor who translates Murakami and Akutagawa) but it should serve you well in a conversation at a party with someone who’s seen “The Seven Samurai” and likes Miyazaki films.

Like 20th century British literature, most important Japanese writers wrote about two things after 1900: the decline in importance of the monarchy, and the devastation of war. But unlike the Brits, the Japanese didn’t come out of WWII with the pride of being able to say they weathered a ferocious attack, but rather a deep shame in having associated with the Nazis and a big “LOSER” stamped on their forehead in radioactive ink. While the British handled the transition from Monarchical, imperialist power to plucky underdog nation with a great sense of humor and awesome music, the Japanese had to come to terms with the fact that no, their emperor was not a god, and that their traditions, very similar to those that carried the British through the war (read: tea and apologizing), had not helped them. Also, Japanese pop music was awful.

So the subjects may be similar to the British, but in sentiment, the Japanese writers of the 20th century more closely align with, and I’m sorry but it really is the most appropriate comparison, the Germans. Hesse and Grass, the two great German writers of the 20th century, were most obviously inspired by the Easterners. Just as important but not as well-known, sadly, is the German children’s fantasy writer Michael Ende, author of “The Neverending Story” and “Momo,” two of the best books ever written.

The Germans turned East for their inspiration; the Japanese turned west. Even the first and most important Japanese writer of the 20th century, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, drew from American influences. Today, Haruki Murakami writes noirs about jazz music and hippies. Speaking of Murakami:

Important piece of information #1: Haruki Murakami is probably the only non-manga Japanese writer most Americans know.

"Hi, I'm Haruki Murakami, and I'm standing in front of exactly what you'd expect me to be standing in front of."

“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles” and “Kafka on the Shore” and “After Dark” are a little like if Paul Auster and Philip Roth tripped acid and wrote novels to the Flaming Lips, directed by Michel Gondry, but, you know, Japanese. Which means you get a lot of rumination on technology and humanity, the most pesky recurring theme in Japanese lit since 1945, or at least since “Gojira” came out.

Isn't this a great cover?


The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is probably his best-known book, and it’s a ridiculous, disjointed but undeniably entertaining epic following a hapless suburbanite as he loses his cat, his wife, his job, and ends up trapped in the bottom of a well – and that’s just the first half. Some people call Murakami a post-modernist, which is a completely ridiculous term to label a fiction writer and is basically a way of saying he’s a pop writer with a strong command of the extended literary non-sequitur, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle could be called one huge non-sequitur – an extended joke with no punchline, or a really silly punchline, leading you on and on on a wild goose chase (no relation to Murakami’s book A Wild Sheep Chase). More about Murakami in the next post, and then I’ll move on to Murakami’s bane and one of his biggest critics/rivals, the Nobel-prize winning Kenzaburo Oe.

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