It’s the end of August, and that means (sadly) that the 2018 edition of Women in Translation Month is drawing to a close. However, before the curtain falls on this year’s event, I wanted to return to my chosen theme of female Japanese writers one more time. You see, over the course of the past decade I’ve reviewed a lot of literature from Japan, and while much of my time was spent with the much-lauded male authors, I have read, and enjoyed, many works by their female counterparts. Here, then, are links to my reviews. Hopefully, when, added to the posts I’ve already contributed this month, they’ll be of assistance to anyone looking to start their adventures in J-Lit outside the usual suspects 🙂
The classical era is a good place to start, as several of Japan’s canonical literary works were written by women, with Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book and Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji classics of world, let alone Japanese, literature. There are many examples of diaries that have survived the centuries, too, such as Lady Murasaki’s own and a book entitled As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams by Lady Sarashina. All of these works provide a fascinating insight into life in Japan almost a millennium ago.
Moving on to the early modern period, I must admit that there’s a bit of a gap in my reading, one that my look at Ichiyō Higuchi was an attempt to rectify (I’d really like to try Fumiko Hayashi’s Floating Clouds, too). As the twentieth century moves on, though, more female writers do appear in my reviews. Fumiko Enchi’s Masks is a wonderful novel of relationship intrigue (with echoes back to The Tale of Genji), and Kuniko Mukoda’s The Name of the Flower is an interesting collection of short stories. I’ve even dabbled (very briefly…) in poetry, in the form of Kaneko Misuzu’s children’s verse (Are You an Echo?) and Machi Tawara’s Salad Anniversary. I must admit that the latter book wasn’t for me, but I’ll leave it to those more at home with poetry to make their own minds up.
Of course, there’s plenty more to try from more recent times. Whatever your view of her work, Banana Yoshimoto is undoubtedly one of the biggest successes among female Japanese writers and has arguably helped pave the way for more of her compatriots to be translated into English. Other big names include Yoko Ogawa, with her dark fiction, Yoko Tawada, who creates slightly surreal texts in both Japanese and German, and Hiromi Kawakami, best known in English for her light, quirky novels, although she also has a lot of darker works waiting to be translated. Then there’s Minae Mizumura, whose wonderful A True Novel was well received in the US a few years back. Unfortunately, Yu Miri is a writer who hasn’t had much brought across into English, but if you can find a copy of her novel Gold Rush, you’re in for a good read.
However, this group of writers is far from the most recent wave, even in translation, and there are a number of younger female writers whose work is available in translation. Hitomi Kanehara caused a sensation when she burst onto the scene with Snakes and Earrings, and Autofiction is another fascinating read. Both Tomoka Shibasaki and Mieko Kawakami have recently had works translated (Spring Garden and Ms Ice Sandwich, respectively) in Pushkin Press’ excellent little series of short Japanese works, but a book that seems to have got a lot of attention is Sayaka Murata’s recent release from Portobello Books, Convenience Store Woman. Here’s hoping more makes its way into English soon 🙂
Of course, quite apart from individual novels, over the years I’ve also covered several collections containing work by female Japanese writers, even if many of them are actually dominated by male authors. One collection where that wasn’t the case was the recent Keshiki series of short chapbooks by contemporary writers, where five of the eight contributions came from women. The writers featured include Yoko Tawada, Nao-Cola Yamazaki, Kyoko Yoshida, Aoko Matsuda and Misumi Kubo, and I highly recommend these short tastes of the writers’ work.
There are also several longer collections on my shelves, and they’re great for discovering new names,even if the gender balance is rarely what it might be. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature is certainly informative, but also formidable – I’ve barely scraped the surface so far… One of the best places to start with broadening your J-Lit horizons has to be The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, with stories by the likes of Higuchi, Enchi, Hayashi and Taeko Kono. The older Ivan Morris anthology, Modern Japanese Stories, has a few contributions from female writers, but is mainly male-dominated.
Two staples of Japanese literature in translation are the books edited by Donald Keene. Anthology of Japanese Literature features excerpts of the classics (including looks at The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji), while Modern Japanese Literature (no longer so modern…) covers the period from 1868 to 1956, with Hayashi and Higuchi again the main female inclusions. You’d think that The Mother of Dreams: Portrayals of Women in Modern Japanese Fiction might provide more fiction by women, but even in this collection, the majority of stories featured are by men. However, there are more writers included here than the usual suspects, with pieces from Yoko Mori, Yasuko Harada, Sawako Ariyoshi and Yumie Hiraiwa among others.
If you’re looking for something a little more contemporary, then there are a few collections which have come out in recent years. I haven’t managed to get a copy of The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories yet (a *very* recent addition to the field), but one I’d recommend is the Comma Press collection, The Book of Tokyo, with contributions from Banana Yoshimoto, Hiromi Kawakami, Hitomi Kanehara and Kaori Ekuni. A few years back, Granta 127 focused on Japan, and there are some excellent pieces here from Hiromi Kawakami (again!), Sayaka Murata, Hiroko Oyamada and Kyoko Nakajima. However, if you’re searching for something a little different, why not take a look at For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution: An Anthology of Japanese Proletarian Literature? This collection of a rather different type of Japanese writing includes the work of a number of women such as Ineko Sata, Kazuko Murayama and Takako Nakamoto, so if you’re looking for stories of real-life women, this is a fascinating resource 🙂
And there you have it – something for everyone! I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s suggestions of female writing from Japan, and the reviews I posted earlier in the month. And remember – Women in Translation is not just for August, but for the whole year. Here’s to more great books by female writers over the rest of 2018, and beyond 🙂