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.