Guest Post — Tokyo I go-go: Observing culture in Japanese literature
Guest Post by Sian Campbell
So, it turns out that even when you’re a recently graduated creative writing student (i.e. only one unthinkably low hospitality wage away from homeless) you are not immune to the siren call of Jetstar sales, and when $400 return flights to Tokyo called earlier in the year, I answered the phone.
Obviously, people with different interests are going to prepare for a trip overseas and immerse themselves in a new culture in different ways. For example, a tech geek may google ‘how to use an iPhone in another country without having to sell organs on the black market to afford the phone bill upon return.’ (Actually, that’s something I’d be interested in knowing myself.) Alternately, a history buff will probably be more interested in locating the best museums and graveyards in their destination. On the far end of the spectrum, I have an erotic fiction writer friend who spends a good deal of time researching the sex museums of the world. (I hear the one in New York is not worth your time, if you were thinking about a visit.)
Of course, as an unashamed lit nerd, an approaching trip to Tokyo for me meant an excuse to read all the Japanese literature I could get my hands on. Up until now, I have been a relative stranger to Japanese fiction, apart from a teenage love affair with the brilliant Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. (I believe I read somewhere that it is Cassie from Skins’ favourite novel, if you needed any extra incentive to pick it up.) Then, towards the end of last year, I was asked by Random House to review Haruki Murakami’s recently released 1Q84. The supernaturalism, romance and strong sense of culture in Murakami’s novel had me hooked, and as I worked my way through my reading pile I realised these elements are common to Japanese literature as a whole.
Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto
Having read Yoshimoto’s Kitchen over and over, it’s surprising that I had never thought to explore her other works – and now that I have, I think I have a new favourite. Asleep is actually a compilation of three short stories: ‘Night and Night’s Travelers’, ‘Love Songs’, and ‘Asleep.’ All are separate stories that complement one another, each concerning a girl stuck at a point in her life while dealing with grief, and containing themes recurrent in all of Yoshimo’s stories: matter-of-fact paranormal activity and supernaturalism, simplistic and plainly-stated romantic love, and a focus more on secondary characters than the narrator (always female) herself. The first story in Asleep, ‘Night and Night’s Travelers’, deals with a girl recovering from the death of her brother, and her subsequent realisation that his ex-girlfriend – who may have given birth to her brother’s child – is back in town. ‘Love Songs’ revolves around a girl battling a burgeoning alcohol addiction who realises that she is being visited each night by an old romantic rival. ‘Asleep’ is about a young woman who finds herself falling deeper and deeper into sleep, while her boyfriend – a married man – comes to terms with his wife’s coma.
A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
There’s a belief that an author’s first novel is always somewhat autobiographical. Though I wouldn’t say that I always accept this to be true, Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills revolves around a family immigrating from Nagasaki, Japan to Britain (closely mirroring Ishiguro’s own life) and I did find myself wondering how many of his own experiences Ishiguro was drawing from. Ishiguro himself says that his work bears little resemblance to Japanese fiction; while this may be true of other works (he was, after all, raised and educated in Britain, and his stories are usually set in England) after this foray into Japanese literature I’d have to humbly disagree in respect to A Pale View of Hills. Containing stark understated spiritualism and supernaturalism as well as themes and traditions often prevalent in Japanese literature, A Pale View of Hills is a noticeable separation from Ishiguro’s other works. The antiquated gender roles combined with the self-conscious rants of the character of Sachiko made the book slightly alienating but overall I found it engaging, and the ending is one that makes you want to force all your friends to read the novel immediately so you can throw a book club and deconstruct The Meaning Of It All.
The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
Something I couldn’t help notice while reading The Sound of Waves – which was published in 1954 – is, well, that it was published in 1954; less than a decade after women in Japan voted for the first time, choose who they married, own property and retain custody of children. This book isn’t exactly easy reading for a feminist: the plot, when pulled apart, basically revolves around a man who put his daughter up for adoption (because he had wanted a son and had no use for yet another daughter) who gets lonely and decides to bring her back to the small island she was born on so that he can marry her off – hopefully to her rapist – and adopt her husband as the son he never had. (Don’t worry – Love Intervenes, etc) Like all things that are such products of their time, though, one has to just grit their teeth and try and shut down that indignant part of their brain, and enjoy it for what it is – and that’s a beautifully written, culturally rich and marvellously visual portrayal of small island life in Japan after the Second World War.
By all accounts, I should be packing my bags, going shopping for Japanese power adapters, hovering over maps and finding my old Japanese language textbooks from grade three. Still, by throwing myself into Japanese literature I feel much closer to a culture that I previously had no understanding of, in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to experience through tripadvisor.com or Wikipedia. It’s the little things; Aomame’s experiences with Tokyo’s public transport in 1Q84, the differences in the way food is experienced as outlined in Kitchen. An understanding of school systems and etiquette, and the taste of a new country as I flip each page. I’m more than excited than ever to get over there now – but if you come across me on the streets of Tokyo or Kyoto with my nose in Kafka on the Shore, please confiscate it immediately. After all, nothing beats the real thing. That being said: does anyone know of any good bookstores in Tokyo?
Sian Campbell is a freelance writer based in Brisbane. Her work has appeared in Voiceworks as well as online in Kill Your Darlings and Lip Magazine. You can read more of her work at siancampbell.wordpress.com.