Summer-Winter Reading List 2019 (Japanese Literature)

Facing a few weeks away from teaching and therefore more free time than I knew what to do with, I decided to take the opportunity to start reading again.

I got a Kindle for my birthday two years ago as a way of being able to read as many books as I wanted, without sacrificing space in my suitcase or in my tiny Japanese apartment. For the most part it’s been very useful, allowing me to experience great novelists like Osamu Dazai, Akutagawa Ryuunosuke, and Murasaki Shikibu, but I have to admit, I’d been slipping recently.

My time all too consumed with writing and studying, I’d barely read at all between May and July. I needed to change that, because while I have written way over 50,000 words since May and my blog has now overflowed onto a secondary sequel site, I should take time to enjoy the other side of things.

I’m also very interested in reading as much Japanese literature as I can, from a variety of authors so here’s what I chose for my reading list this time around…

 

A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees (A Selection from Essays in Idleness) by Yoshida Kenko

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One of the Penguin Classics series.

Now this has been in my collection for a while – from even before I got my Kindle – so this is the only paperback in this post. An abridged form of Kenko’s magnum opus, Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa in Japanese), this short, pocket-sized compendium contains the musings of its author, who lived during both the Muromachi and Kamakura periods. Not only an essayist; Kenko was also a court official, a poet and a Buddhist monk in his lifetime. I figure that such a life could have formed some interesting perspectives and I’m also interested to see just how things have changed in the last 700 years. After all, humans will always be humans, won’t they?

I’m hoping that I finally get chance to read this book because it’s been sitting on my shelf for way too long.

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It’s really not long at all.

I finally finished reading this on the 2nd of December 2019. This was about 2.5 years after I initially got it and it’s barely over 30 small pages long, so I’m not entirely sure why it took me that much time. I guess it’s due to the diary-esque format, because it’s so easy to dip in and out of (and subsequently forget to pick back up for months). It’s certainly not a bad book; I just think that because each entry is self-contained, there’s less motivation to move onto the next. 

Despite the original being written circa 1330, it honestly didn’t feel dated at all. In fact, some opinions I found myself agreeing with, which goes to show that some things haven’t changed over the past seven centuries. Obviously, there were some things I didn’t agree with, like the implication that all men and women were homogenous within their own gender (as if women can’t act masculine and men can’t be feminine) but I accepted it as a product of its time, even though some people still hold those views today. It’s still very interesting reading a perspective from so long ago, and at £1, I would definitely recommend giving it a shot.

 

The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki Junichiro

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Tanizaki (image source)

Tanizaki is one of the great modern novelists in Japan, to the extent that they named an award after him. I have been meaning to buy this book for a while so I could check out his work and as a result, it’s been waiting on my wish list for over a year. I saw my chance when it was reduced to 60% off the original price and I bought it for £3 (which I thought was a bargain). It’s also set in Osaka during the 1930s, and seeing as I had already booked a trip down to Kansai; it seemed like the perfect thing to read while I was there.

The Makioka Sisters tells the story of one family in upper-class Osaka, where the fourth and youngest sister is ready to be married. Due to protocol, she is unable to do so until the third sister is wed, so the family starts to look for an eligible suitor. However, their reputation is in decline and to make matters worse, the threat of war looms on the horizon.

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Osaka

While I started this on my trip to Osaka, I didn’t actually finish this until three months later. It wasn’t uninteresting, but the pacing was a bit slow in places and it’s age meant it was a little harder to digest than a more contemporary novel. I suppose that’s a side effect of being a serialised work, because unless you finish everything first and then release slowly, it’s not always possible to keep the same tempo and tension throughout.

Regardless, I did get invested in the characters and I found myself becoming more attached to the youngest sister (Taeko) instead of the third sister (Yukiko) like I’d anticipated.

The war wasn’t mentioned quite as much as I thought it’d be but if I think about it it’s understandable why that is. The Makioka Sisters was published during the time period that it’s set in, so the intended audience will have already known what was happening and I doubt they’d have wanted to hear too much about reality while escaping into a story.

 

Convenience Store Woman by Murata Sayaka

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Konbini Ningen

Wanting a range of time periods on my reading list, this one is the most contemporary of the three.

Our protagonist in this story is Keiko Furukura, a 36 year old convenience store worker whose life isn’t what others expect for her. Single and in a low-paying job, her family and colleagues urge her to start thinking about a husband and a career. But Keiko doesn’t fit in and doesn’t particularly want to.

This book seems to promise a critical look at how women are ‘supposed’ to behave, as well as Japanese culture today. Here, it’s no secret that there’s an underlying assumption that you should try to conform to what everyone else is doing. As a foreigner, I do get a free pass a lot of the time so it would be interesting to see the viewpoint of someone born in this country. Also, as someone who took a slight detour on the whole traditional life path (but is so happy she did), I felt drawn to this story as soon as I read the summary, even though my family and friends have never pressured me to do anything different.

It also won the Akutagawa Prize in 2016, so it must be good.

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Japan does convenience stores miles better than home.

In the end, I didn’t end up relating to the main character as much as I thought I might. While I love routine, I wouldn’t be able to have the exact same one for 18 years, and even though I love my job, it doesn’t make up 100% of my priorities. My opinions on marriage and children also differ, even if I agree that there’s too much pressure in society to conform to that ideal. All things considered, I feel like it’s good to expose myself to stories with different viewpoints but one viewpoint that I can’t stand is Shiraha. A serial misogynist who blames a social hierarchy for his failures, there were many times when he made my skin crawl. I have seen this kind of mindset online before but it’s not something I’m in a hurry to understand, especially when they’re insinuating that women have no independent thought of their own.

I did appreciate how much of the narrative was framed against the backdrop of the convenience store, particularly considering it’s a Japanese story. Conbini are such a familiar part of my life here and as I write this, I was in one less than two hours ago. With that comfortable kind of stability and reliability, I suppose it makes sense how Furukura-san could stay working in one for so long, but I definitely couldn’t do it. 

 


Which of these books seems the best to you? Are you reading anything at the moment? I’m interested in hearing from you! I’m also currently compiling my reading list for 2020, so watch this space for that…