Turning Japanese

I am now on page 850 of my current book, which means I have just over 600 pages to go – so no surprise that I haven’t been quite as regular in my reviews as I usually am. Rest assured, I should be back on reviewing duties by the end of next week at the latest (provided that my wretched back doesn’t take another turn for the worse).

Instead, of the aforementioned non-existent review, I thought I’d start a little series in which I look at what I’m reading and why. All of us have our own preferences and reading niches (both literal and metaphorical), so today I’ll talk a little about one of mine. Are you sitting comfortably? No? Well, what do you expect me to do about it? Some people…

The observant among you (if there are any) will have already noticed the picture above, which gives away the theme of today’s post – if the title hadn’t given you enough of a hint. Yes, I’d like to talk about Japanese Literature and how I came to like it, even if I haven’t really read enough so far to really be able to talk about the whole ‘genre’ in any depth. Those of you who have great eyesight (or know how to click on a photo) will have spotted that my Japanese shelf, soon to overflow and start a territorial war with the Chinese and Russian shelf just over the border (which is, historically, both apt and very unfortunate), consists of Yoko Ogawa’s ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’, a few Banana Yoshimoto books, three works by Yukio Mishima and every novel by Haruki Murakami which has so far appeared in English (even if one of them is a print-off of a bootleg PDF floating in cyberspace). But why?

Let’s go back in time (cue Scooby Doo-type sound effects). My first experience with Japanese was back in sixth form when it was offered as an elective. For six weeks, twenty seventeen-year-old boys went through the first few chapters of the seminal (and highly boring) ‘Japanese for Busy People’, struggling to copy out hiragana and laughing ourselves silly at the American man on the tape (especially the way he said ‘vocabulary’ – it just cracked us up for some reason). After six weeks, the teacher got fed up and changed to something else which was so tedious that I no longer remember it. However, that short time was the seed for later experiences…

The next brush with Japanese occurred when I was at university. I was in my final year, an Arts student with no idea what to do after graduation, when I heard about the JET programme and applied to go and teach in Japan. In order to do well at the interview, I bought a few books and even looked up some stuff on something called ‘the internet’, a new invention which some computers could access (simpler times). After the interview, I was put on the waiting list, but, by the time I was offered a position, I had already accepted a job in Germany…

I stayed in Germany for two years, and it was great: I played football every weekend, got drunk with my team-mates, taught English (first in a grammar school and then in a private language school) and generally lazed around. Unfortunately, lazing around paid little (my job not much more), and I had a sizeable overdraft which my bank, somewhat unreasonably, seemed to want paid back. Then, one day, I got a letter from my mum with an advert for teaching in Japan inserted (either she knew I was interested in Japan, or she really wanted to get rid of me). Anyway, a couple of trips to London later, and it was Tschüss to Deutschland and Konnichi-Wa to Nihon!

I stayed in Japan for three years, mainly because I met my wife there and thought it would be a good idea to hang around. We both worked for a well-known company which first shafted me royally and then went bankrupt (I’m claiming a connection), but I worked for another language school in the final two of my three years there. So this is where I learned to love Japanese literature, right? Uh, no. In fact, if you’re an English speaker and interested in reading Japanese books, Japan is the last place you would go as they’re pretty expensive and ALL IN JAPANESE! In fact, the author I got into most during my time in Japan was Anthony Trollope as the English second-hand bookshop in Kobe had most of the Barchester Chronicles in stock. How bizarre…

In 2002, my wife and I moved to Australia (mainly because that’s where she lived), and, one day, my wife went to the library and came back with a book of short stories by a Japanese writer (Haruki Murakami’s ‘After the Quake’) because she was feeling ‘natsukashii’ for Japan. She hated it, I loved it, and you can imagine the rest. Since then, I’ve read all the fiction he’s had translated into English and started branching out into the works of other authors (in part, thanks to Bellezza’s ‘Japanese Literature Challenge’).

And that’s it: me and Japanese books. The floor is now open for questions.

11 thoughts on “Turning Japanese

  1. The left-hand side of the shelf reminds me of my white shelf! Where are The Elephant Vanishes and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman or were they also library copies?I think my first foray into Japanese Literature was Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto and Black Rain by Ibuse (nonfiction) before I read Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.Are you joining in Tanabata's Japanese read-alongs and Hello Japan projects? I have I am a Cat and Battle Royale lined up for both.


  2. Ah, if you look back, you'll notice that I said every NOVEL 😉 I have read the short-story collections, but I don't own them (yet…).I don't think I'll do the read-alongs, mainly because I can't read slowly! If I do read them, it'll be at my own pace. Also, I'm not sure what kind of book 'Battle Royale' would be; if it's anything like the film, I'm not sure it's my kind of book :)Whatever I do read though, it definitely won't be 'Howard's End is on the Landing'!


  3. My bad, I read it as book. I plan on owning them all at some point too.This will be more or less my first read-along so I am curious how I will find it and if reading the book slowly over a three month period will detract from it any. I am also intrigued how Battle Royale the book will compare to the movie, which I've seen.Yes, whatever you do, do NOT read Howards End is on the Landing.


  4. No chance of that! I am currently waiting for three books from the Book Depository (alas, unlike you, I actually have to buy my books; Vintage aren't knocking on my door begging me to review some newly-released classics – more's the pity!). I should shortly receive 'The Temple of Dawn', the third part of Mishima's 'Sea of Fertility' tetralogy, 'Der Weg Zurück', Erich Maria Remarque's sequel (of sorts) to 'Im Westen Nichts Neues', and… Katherine Mansfield's short stories ;)Of course, that's if the postal strike at your end doesn't hold things up…


  5. You have to love the Book Depository (although not when they have the new Persephones out-of-stock). I hope you enjoy the Mansfield short stories.Ah, the strikes. May become the current -and transitory- bane of my life; it's going to make Christmas shopping interesting.


  6. That's a nice little shelf. And your story is really interesting (plus it's sweet that you met your wife there!) Have you returned to Japan since moving to Australia? I haven't read any Mishima yet, although I have Confessions of a Mask.


  7. We went back just for a few days during our honeymoon a few years back (just to revisit a few places we used to go to!).Mishima is becoming my second major Japanese 'project' after Murakami – see current (79) post 🙂


  8. Thanks 🙂 However, the photo's already outdated; since it was taken, Mishima's 'The Temple of Dawn' and Kobo Abe's 'The Woman in the Dunes' have joined the shelf!


  9. I found you through Claire's blog (in the comments) 😀 and love your blog (love the books you read). My brother's on his way to Japan with his wife at the moment, for a long vacation, and I was just about to message him to get me a couple of books, but thanks for the warning!If I remember right, my first Japanese book was also Banana Yoshimoto (Lizard, when it came out). I've only read a handful of Japanese authors but I loved them all. Kenzaburo Oe is my favourite, and Yasunari Kawabata is next. I also like Tanizaki. REcently I've read my very first Mishima and super loved it (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion). I also plan to read the trilogy you're reading. Is TEmple of Dawn the first?


  10. Thanks a lot Claire (for the reading and the comment!). The best way to get Japanese books for those with less-than-proficient Kanji abilities is definitely the good old Book Depository ;)I am yet to get into Oe, Tanizaki and Kawabata, but I'm on my way… Abe's 'The Woman in the Dunes' is next!Re: Mishima. It's actually a tetralogy, and the first of the four is 'Spring Snow', followed by 'Runaway Horses' and 'The Temple of Dawn'. I have read (and reviewed) these three over the past few months, and I'm planning to finish off the series with 'The Decay of the Angel' by the end of the year!


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