‘Modern Japanese Stories – An Anthology’ by Ivan Morris (Ed.) (Review)

It’s time for another January in Japan post, and today we’re looking at short stories.  I’ve already tried two J-Lit collections (The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories and Donald Keene’s Modern Japanese Literature), and I had my eye on another collection for quite a while.  Eventually, I managed to get an old first edition cheap on Abe Books – and I’m very glad I did 🙂

*****
Modern Japanese Stories – An Anthology does exactly what it says on the cover – well, almost.  Ivan Morris brought together twenty-five great stories by some of the best modern Japanese writers, translated by himself along with Edward Seidensticker, George Saitō and Geoffrey Sargent.  There is one thing which you need to know before we begin; while the book says modern, it was first released in 1962.  At the time Yasunari Kawabata was the president of Japanese PEN (with his Nobel Prize in the distant future), and Yukio Mishima was merely a promising new talent.  If you’re looking for something by the likes of Murakami, Ogawa or Yoshimoto, you’ll be sorely disappointed 😉

Several of the stories are by very familiar names.  Kawabata contributes a typically elegant tale called ‘The Moon on the Water’, a story where a woman looks back to her time with her first husband, regretting the choice she made to remarry after his death.  Kafu Nagai’s ‘Hydrangea’ is also instantly recognisable in its telling of an incident in old Tokyo’s pleasure quarters, and as for Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s ‘Tattoo’… well, anyone who has read any of his novels will be at home with this short, erotically-charged piece…

As always though, the real strength of the collection is in the great stories it showcases from less famous writers.  Even though the anthology barely reaches the post-war years, there are some great stories from a wide variety of styles and eras; anyone with a fair knowledge of J-Lit wanting to expand their horizons could do a lot worse than trying this collection to get some ideas for their next book.

Some of my favourite stories were among the longer pieces, and most were by writers I’d never encountered before.  One of these was Fumio Niwa’s ‘The Hateful Age’, a superb story about a very contemporary issue, the burden of caring for elderly relatives in an ageing society.  There’s no false respect for the aged here – it’s a very bitter, selfish tale:

“As Ruriko trudged toward the station, she soon realized that though Granny weighed no more than a child, her body with its long legs and relatively short trunk was very much harder to carry.  The thin lanky legs were clamped like a painful brace around Ruriko’s waist, and by the time they approached the station, walking had become an agony.  The ordeal was not only physical.  In carrying someone eighty-six years old, one is supporting not just a body, but all the weight of a personal history that has accumulated ponderously over the decades.”
‘The Hateful Age’, p.326 (Tuttle, 1987)

There’s little Confucian respect for the elderly here, but when you see how the old lady of the piece behaves, you may just sympathise with the long-suffering relatives.

A slightly more historical perspective is provided by Kan Kikuchi’s story ‘On the Conduct of Lord Tadano’, set in the early seventeenth century.  Taking place at the end of the Warring States era, the story begins with the fall of Osaka castle, where Lord Tadano distinguishes himself in the battle.  Praised by Tokugawa Ieyasu himself, the young nobleman is at the height of his powers – until he discovers that his belief in his supremacy in all areas of life is based on a huge lie, sending him into a dangerous downward spiral…

‘Nightingale’, by Einosuke Ito, provides a comforting change of pace.  The story begins with an old woman hobbling into a police station… and that’s where we stay for the next forty-something pages.  The longest story in the collection, ‘Nightingale’ shows us how the police station of a small town is the true focal point of the community, a bustling centre of government with people dropping in at all hours.  In the twenty-four hours we spend in the company of the law, we meet midwives, peddlers, thieves and philanderers, yet they are all treated fairly and kindly by the hard-worked public officials 🙂

The last of my selections is Ango Sakaguchi’s contribution, ‘The Idiot’.  Set during the Second World War air raids on Tokyo, it’s the story of a journalist who takes up with a simple-minded woman when he finds her hiding in his room.  It’s a bitter, spiteful tale, one which lashes out at the stupidity of war and the people who expect everyone to take part in it.  I haven’t read a lot from this period of Japanese history, so this is a fascinating look at what was happening in Japan towards the end of the war.  Be warned though – it is a little gruesome at times:

“Among the ruins of the great air raid of March tenth, Izawa had also wandered aimlessly through the still rising smoke.  On all sides people lay dead like so many roast fowl.  They lay dead in great clusters.  Yes, they were exactly like roast fowl.  They were neither gruesome nor dirty.  Some of the corpses lay next to the bodies of dogs and were burned in exactly the same manner, as if to emphasize how utterly useless their deaths had been.”
‘The Idiot’, p.403

As Sakaguchi’s ‘In the Forest, under Cherries in Full Bloom’ was also one of my selections from the Oxford collection, perhaps it’s time I looked for more of his work 🙂

Apart from the stories themselves, there’s a lot to like about this collection.  Morris’ thirty-page introduction discusses the origins of modern Japanese literature, explaining why there was such a break in tradition after the Meiji restoration, and it gives a great overview of the major names, styles and schools.  Each story also has a brief biography of the writer before the main feature begins and a full-page woodcut painting of a scene from the story (all by artist Masakazu Kuwata) – now that’s what I call added extras 🙂

Of course, it’s not perfect.  There a couple of omissions (Natsume Soseki for one), and with only two female writers in the whole collection, it is definitely the choice of a very different time.  However, I enjoyed this book greatly and would recommend it to anyone interested in expanding their J-Lit horizons.  Of course, you’ve got to get hold of a copy first – the best of luck to you with that…

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2 thoughts on “‘Modern Japanese Stories – An Anthology’ by Ivan Morris (Ed.) (Review)

  1. This was required reading for our Japanese literature class back at university, although you do point out the shortcomings of the volume. It is certainly a 'timepiece' and I wish that someone would do a similar collection to include more recent authors or just a wider selection of authors from the 20th and 21st century.

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  2. Marina Sofia – I thought this one was better than the other main old collection (the Donald Keene one), and I loved most of the stories. I agree though that it's time for another major modern anthology 🙂

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