Review Post 48 – A Selection of Japanese Treats

After the whirlwind madness that was BBAW 2010, where I spent my time preaching of the virtues of reading translated (mostly Japanese) literature, it’s actually quite relaxing to settle back into my usual blogging routine with a review post about… Japanese literature. Plus ça change

After having passed myself off as an expert in the field, it was a little disconcerting to realise that the thirty-something Japanese books gathering dust on the allotted shelves in my study were written by a mere seven different writers – seven!  While I realise that this may be one or two (or seven) more than a lot of bloggers, it does undermine my authority a little and needs to be addressed as soon as possible.  Which is where today’s book came in very handy…

The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories is a wonderful collection which I first spotted in the campus bookshop a while back.  Being reluctant to spend over $30 on it, however, I trotted off back to my desk and my trusty PC, where I quickly found it for about $14 on the Book Depository.  A click of my fingers mouse, and it was winging its way over to my doorstep.  Brilliant 🙂

The book contains thirty-five short stories by thirty-five of the best Japanese writers of the past century, increasing my source of potential classics by 500% in a matter of 440 pages.  There were stories from some of my old favourites (Yukio Mishima, Haruki Murakami, Natsume Soseki, Kobo Abe), from famous writers I’d heard of but never encountered in print before (Yasunari Kawabata, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Kenzaburo Oe, Shusaku Endo), and from writers I never knew existed (Naoya Shiga, Ango Sakaguchi, Masahiko Shimada).  The book is edited, and introduced by, Theodore ‘Ted’ Goossen (a famous scholar and translator of Japanese literature), and his excellent introduction, giving an overview of ‘five generations’ of modern Japanese writers and ‘five legacies’ (or areas) of Japanese short-story writing, is just as valuable for the reader as the stories themselves.

It would be impossible to review all of the stories in one, easily-digestible post, so I have decided to choose my top five stories, deliberately excluding any by writers whose works I have already read.  This list is, of course, highly subjective, and by excluding all of the female writers featured, I may be letting myself in for a little criticism; nevertheless, these were my favourites 🙂

5 – The Bears of Nametoko by Kenji Miyazawa
A story of a hunter living in the mountains and making a living by shooting bears and selling their pelts in the village below.  Far from being a merciless slaughterer, he and his dog appear to live in near harmony with the bears, as shown by the melancholy ending.

4 – In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom by Ango Sakaguchi
One of the most chilling and supernatural stories in the book, this story about a bandit who kills a man and takes his wife to be his own is both tense and grotesque.  One thing’s for sure – you’ll never think the same way about cherry-blossom viewing again…

3 – Prize Stock by Kenzaburo Oe
By far the longest story of the collection, this forty-page tale, seen through the eyes of a child, recounts the events which unfold when a small Japanese village captures an American airman.  A well-crafted tale of humanity, and a lack of it.

2 – The Izu Dancer by Yasunari Kawabata
The first of Japan’s two Nobel laureates in literature (Oe was the second), Kawabata evokes everything that foreigners love about this country’s writing in a sumptuous, twenty-page walk through mountainous terrain and small villages in the company of a student from Tokyo and a family group of wandering entertainers.

1 – In a Grove – Ryunosuke Akutagawa
An absolute classic of Japanese writing.  A murder, seven accounts, seven conflicting stories – one amazing piece of writing.  This story was adapted by Akira Kurosawa for the big-screen (Rashomon).

Have you guessed yet that I love this book?  This is a must-have item for anyone interested in Japanese literature: for novices, it provides a useful starting point, from which you can follow your interests and tastes; for readers (like me) who have already tried a variety of writers, it helps you to widen your view a little and decide which author to look at next.  And yes, that’s exactly what happened –  I am currently waiting for a book by Kenzaburo Oe to arrive, and I have two new Kawabata editions on advance purchase (which will be late Christmas presents by the time they land on my doorstep!).

Unfortunately, that’s where I’ll have to leave you for the moment – while you go off and get your credit card details ready, I need to go and look at getting some new, double-reinforced bookshelves.  There’s always a downside…

16 thoughts on “Review Post 48 – A Selection of Japanese Treats

  1. Hi, Tony. New follower here. I have the same book, only with a different cover. Now you give me an idea on how to increase Japanese author count. The Rashomon movie was actually based on two Akutagawa stories – “In a Grove” and “Rashomon.”


  2. I am so pleased to see that this book contains two authors that I have already read, and liked, as well as one author I have already planned on reading this Fall.

    This book sounds fantastic, and one that should reside in my home not only for me, but also for my 15 year old daughter who likes to read books that are not mainstream thus she has already read one Murakami book and liked it.

    Cool deal, just made my way to Amazon and there it was, and now it is in my cart ready for the purchase button to be pressed. 🙂


  3. Reading your blog is a credit card spending hazard! Just when I am thinking of swiping my credit card for this again, out came your predictive advice of getting my credit card details ready.

    I doubt this will ever be made available in used stores. 😦


  4. I am not an expert on Japanese literature, at all. I definitely need to read anything and more in the field. And this has me intrigued. I want to read it. I wish I could find it somewhere..


  5. Oooh, I want this!!! I hope my saliva didn't drool all the way over on your keyboard. 😉 I'm going to take my fingersmouse on over to and see if I can't find myself a copy. Thanks for sharing!


  6. Tony, my copy just arrived. I've only just opened it before I sat down to write this comment and thank you for this recommendation. I love it! My edition doesn't appear to have a story by Murakami (how can that be? It's The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories by Theodore Goossen), but that's okay. I'm going to dive right in tonight. I'm so glad you reviewed it for us. (Me!)


  7. Belezza – V.strange! My copy has Murakami's 'The Elephant Vanishes'…

    Paperback Reader – It's well worth it 🙂

    All – Some health-related blogging issues recently – hopefully I'll be back on the horse soon 🙂


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