As a student I worked in a Japanese bookshop in London for many years and was surrounded by so many Japanese authors, but was rather slow in reading any of their books. So I jumped at joining Dolce Bellezza‘s Japanese Literary Challenge 3 which was a metaphorical kick up the backside and made me read a few books that had been hanging around my TBR shelf. And it was a revelation because I enjoyed everything I read and it was a welcome break from the usual mysteries I can’t seem to keep my hands off. The JLC3 was also the first challenge I joined since I started blogging and it was a wonderful way of meeting so many interesting and charming bloggers and learning about books that I might not have normally gone for. So thank you Bellezza for the challenge and for warmly welcoming me into the blogging world!

For the Japanese Literary Challenge 3 I read the following:

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino
After Dark by Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

Out of this lot, I think my favourites were Kafka on the Shore for Murakami’s lyrical style and fantastic story and The Makioka Sisters for Tanizaki’s insight into the lives of the four sisters in early 20th century Japan. His modern prose style was a pleasant surprise and I enjoyed it more than I expected.

So, I’ve already started hoarding books for the next JLC4 and can’t wait for it to arrive!

I was expecting Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters to be a challenging read. Tanizaki, after all, is one of Japan’s most famous writers and the book is a good 530 pages of small print. After reading Naomi which impressed me considerably, I finally took The Makioka Sisters off my TRB shelf after it lay there languishing for too many years. And it was a revelation.

Naomi took as its main character a young woman in Tokyo who falls into a degenerate and modern lifestyle as opposed to the traditional Japanese lifestyle that was slowly vanishing. The Makioka Sisters, on the other hand, tells the story of four sisters belonging to an old and venerable merchant family in Osaka who are clinging to the traditional way of life amidst the onset of war and financial hardship.

Tsuruko and Sachiko are the two elder sisters who have been married for over ten years to Tatsuo and Teinosuke who have both taken the Makioka name, Tsuruko’s husband Tatsuo becoming the head of the Makioka family after their father’s death. The story follows their attempts at getting the third sister Yukiko married. Until she does, the youngest sister Taeko (or Koi-san as she is known) is unable to get married herself. The search for a suitable husband proves to be full of obstacles not least of which is an old scandal involving Taeko and the youngest son of a rich Osaka family. Compared to Yukiko who is passive and non-commital, Taeko is full of life, wanting to try new things and making a living for herself (which is frowned upon as unsuitable for her social station by her brother-in-laws). As the years go by, with Japan’s military intrusion into world affairs and the rise of war in the West, the Makiokas themselves begin to feel that what is acceptable behaviour in society is slowly beginning to change.

Tanizaki portrays each sister with different characteristics, but because it is Sachiko, the second sister, who narrates most of the novel, it is a little difficult to discern the thoughts of Yukiko and Taeko about whom she worries so much. In fact, I found Yukiko’s passivity and Taeko’s rebelliousness baffling at times because we are unable to understand their motives. In a society where marriage is equal to social status, being unmarried was a stigma not only for that person but for the whole extended family. Even though this was so, Yukiko who is in her early thirties seemed unbothered by her single status. Taeko on the other hand is eager to get away and start a life of her own. Although the Makioka family is far more lenient than would be expected during this period (both Yukiko and Taeko are allowed to stay with Sachiko instead of Tsuruko and still keep their allowance) and although their family fortune has dwindled since their father’s death, their life is still one of luxury and leisure.

Tanizaki does not focus on eroticism and degeneracy as in some of his other work, but there is still a hint of it with Taeko’s involvement with the unsuitable men in her life. It would seem that by the time Tanizaki came to write The Makioka Sisters (or Sasameyuki, it’s Japanese title), he had fallen out of love with everything modern and Western and had moved away from Tokyo towards Osaka and Kobe where most of this novel is set. Even so, Tanizaki cannot help including snippets of detail such as the cafe Juccheim’s in Kobe (which still exists) and the Leica with which the Makioka sisters take photographs of the weeping cherry trees in Kyoto. They are always eating out at European restaurants and seem to have a fondness of everything German including German beer and medicine. In a sense I found that Tanizaki was caught between his love for the modern and Western and the traditional and Japanese. He also highlights the difference between the people of Osaka and Tokyo in their manner and their use of language which still exist today.

Tanizaki’s treatment of the Makioka sisters portrays the confusion in the changing social milieu and mirrors the theme of modern vs. traditional which runs through the novel. But it is not a simple delineation between the two as all four sisters portray both aspects from switching between kimonos and dresses to drinking sake and wine, smoking and even preferring European food. Ultimately the sisters are brought back into the traditional fold through marriage and it is only Taeko who becomes more modern, and therefore degenerate, who pays the price for her choice. I don’t know whether this was intended but it seemed a little harsh that Taeko who strived to do things her way and make her own life was ultimately punished for refusing to think of the consequences of her actions for the people around her.

The Makioka Sisters felt as though it was a very modern novel, albeit one set in the late 1930s. Considering Tanizaki’s main characters were mostly women in this novel, I thought he was fair in their portrayal, although veering slightly towards the extreme in the case of Yukiko and Taeko. But his portrayal of Sachiko and her marriage was beautiful and sympathetic and you can see his fascination with women and their struggles. As much as it is a novel of the four sisters, it is also a novel of the men in their lives, the husbands, the brother-in-laws and the suitors. Together you can build a picture of a society struggling towards modernity but constantly being held back by convention.

I didn’t expect to enjoy The Makioka Sisters so much. And I appreciated it more as I read along. It’s a book to savour and enjoy and this may be due to its origins as a serial novel. I only wish it was a little longer because I wanted to know how the sisters fared. Did they find their own happiness in the end? How was the family affected by war? I was surprised at how much I cared about the gentle Makiokas and how much they made me think about life as a woman and the choices we are given.

Following on from Naomi, The Makioka Sisters has whetted my appetite for Tanizaki’s writing and I will definitely seek out more books by Tanizaki to read.

I am counting this book for both the Japanese Literature Challenge 3 and the Women Unbound Challenge.

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

23 October, 2009

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

Groteque by Natsuo Kirino is my 8th (wow, I didn’t realise how many I’ve read!) and final book for Carl’s RIP IV Challenge and the 4th for Bellezza’s Japanese Literary Challenge 3. You can probably tell that my main bookish interest is mysteries. RIV IV Challenge ends on Halloween so this will be my final review for it. The Japanese Literary Challenge 3 continues until January 30th 2010 so I’m hoping to read heaps more including The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki which has been sitting in my TBR pile for donkey’s years.

*I have belatedly decided to join the Hello Japan October challenge hosted by Tanabata at In Spring it is the Dawn as I realised this book would be perfect for it and that I can’t really stay away from anything Japanese. Tanabata has an incredible list of Japanese books she’s read, reading and reviewing, so go and check it out!

Where to begin? I was really looking forward to reading Grotesque after enjoying Kirino’s Out several years ago. To me, Out was a fresh take on the murder mystery genre in which the lead character is a middle-aged housewife. The novel tackled issues of alienation, poverty, immigration and the breakdown of social arrangements in contemporary Japan without any preaching. I was impressed with Kirino’s clean and clear style. And there was an undercurrent of uneasiness, reminiscent of Susan Hill’s crime novels, which added that extra edge. It was shocking, disturbing and very good. I’m not such a huge fan of horror (ok, I’m a wimp and I don’t read any horror) and love my cozies, but I do appreciate a good, dark thriller.

Grotesque begins with the discovery of a dead Kazue Sato, an employee of a prestigious architectural and engineering firm in Tokyo who was moonlighting as a part-time prostitute. A Chinese illegal immigrant named Zhang has been arrested for her death, and also for the murder of another prostitute Yuriko Hirata found under very similar circumstances a few months previously. The first part of the book is narrated by Yuriko’s sister who was also Kazue’s high school classmate. The novel is split into sections narrated first by Yuriko’s sister who sets the background to this tale, from their mixed heritage, of Yuriko’s ‘monstrous’ beauty and the prestigious Q high school in which they enroll and meet Kazue where no matter how hard you try you can never quite join the elite cliques and wash off the stench of poverty. We are then given Zhang’s trial notes and Yuriko and Kazue’s journals as we slowly realise that things are never quite as straightforward as they seem, and narrators are not always reliable.

Compared to Out, Grotesque was something else altogether. Definitely darker, more disturbing and left me very, very uneasy. Because you know that there are areas of Japanese modern life in which reality is exactly how Kirino describes it. Although I couldn’t stop reading the novel, it wasn’t exactly comfortable reading. Kirino’s outlook is bleak, and her characters flawed and ugly. I admire her for articulating the darkest monstrous aspects of humanity in normal people, but after finishing the book I really felt I needed something light and happy to read, and a cleansing shower. Don’t get me wrong, the issues brought up in the book, especially prostitution, is heavy, but Kirino’s writing (and the superb translation) flows easily. It’s just that I didn’t like any of the characters. But then, I don’t think Kirino intends you to like them. She gives you a sharp slice of unhappiness and reminds you that there are many people out there who are not as fortunate as some of us.

I did like the book and was really impressed with her style and the way she totally inhabits her characters, who are layered and have depth. It’s not an easy read, but I recommend it. Just don’t read it when you are feeling down.

A Japanese Thing: Yoshoku

28 September, 2009

Here’s an interesting article I found about Japanese Western food from a post on Frugal Traveller.

What has this to do with books? I hear you say. Well, food is a joyous thing in my life and I’m always happy when it makes an appearance in the books I read.

Yoshoku, translated as Western food, became popular once Japan opened up to the West, especially in the Meiji, Taisho and post-war eras. Essentially it’s a bastardised version of Western food revamped to suit Japanese tastes. Most famous are hamburgers (hambagoo), Japanese curry (kare raisu) and katsu (like a Wiener Schnitzel but thicker and eaten with a Worcestershire-like sauce called ‘sauce’ or ‘sōsu’). I always have problems romanising Japanese loan words as I automatically translate them into English, and feel a bit shy about saying it in a Japanese way when I am perfectly capable of saying it in English. Anyone else feel this way?

Recently I finished reading Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki for Bellezza’s Japanese Literary Challenge 3 in which the main characters, Naomi and Jōji, considered themselves ‘modern’ and set themselves apart from their peers by learning Western dance, living in a Western style house and eating yoshoku. A lot of the literature from that period that were trying to emulate the West focussed on the idea of modernity and what it was to be modern. A change in dress style, food and language were the main things they incorporated into their previously traditional Japanese existence. Young mogas and mobos (modern girls and modern boys) were considered fast, often seen out drinking, smoking and dancing.

Now yoshoku is often considered traditional Japanese Western food as there are a plethora of incredibly good, authentic Western restaurants that can be found all over Japan. My friends and I all grew up with hamburgers, Japanese curry and katsu and it often brings back nostalgic memories of when we were young.

Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

10 September, 2009

Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki was published as Chijin no Ai or A Fool’s Love in 1924 in serial form. Because of the content of the novel, it caused an uproar amongst its Japanese readers and Tanizaki was forced to give up publication. It was later taken up by another magazine and completed.

Reading the novel almost 85 years later, it is indeed shockingly modern. Of course it was a contemporary novel then so that the descriptions of everyday life are sweetly nostalgic now, taking you back to a Japan that was on the cusp of change and which no longer exists. But like today, the Japanese are alternately suspicious of and still in love with everything western. What is still surprising is the daring content of the novel. It is essentially a story of a man in his thirties who falls in love and grooms a young girl of fifteen to become a suitable wife. This in itself is not that shocking in the context of Japanese literature as there are many stories of this ilk, except for its treatment of sex. There is no explicit language or scenes, but the novel is about the sexual relationship between Jōji Kawai and Naomi. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it love. Or maybe it is, a complex, twisted kind of love.

Jōji is a successful company employee who sets up house with Naomi. He marries her and tries to educate her, transforming her from a hostess into a cultured, westernised young woman. Her family background is such that she would probably have ended up becoming a prostitute. Jōji is a respectable and practical man, putting aside money each month and living soberly. This changes with the arrival of Naomi. He whisks her away from her sad, pathetic life and sets her up in a modern artist’s studio in which they indulge in playing house. Jōji is not interested in having a traditional wife, and they spend their days playing, dancing and eating out. Naomi doesn’t cook or clean and spends her time shopping for clothes. Jōji is happy with this and is proud to show her off. As Naomi gets older she makes friends of her own. She doesn’t surround herself with girlfriends, but boys from the nearby university. Jōji slowly succumbs to jealousy as his tenuous hold on Naomi beomes strained. Naomi is someone with her own mind and knows what she wants, cleverly manipulating the men around her. Their relationship and life together slowly breaks down, and when they finally go away on holiday to a nearby town, the situation explodes when Jōji discovers Naomi’s betrayal.

I have to confess that I was actually impressed by the way Tanizaki ended his novel. It didn’t leave me happy, but it was realistic and I could imagine the ending scenes playing out in countless relationships all over the world and throughout time. I felt sorry for almost all the characters that populated Tanizaki’s novel. And even though this novel disturbed me, I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Tanizaki leaves you pondering about the nature of love. Not romantic love, but love that grasps you and won’t let you go, no matter how much hurt and betrayal it leaves in its wake. People are essentially selfish, and you make choices according to your needs, regardless of whether it is good for you or not. Ultimately, Jōji and Naomi deserve each other.

The copy I read and which belongs to my sister is the one on the left, but I couldn’t resist posting all three images because they encapsulate the essence of Naomi so beautifully.

Naomi is not a long novel, but the themes Tanizaki touches upon are profound. Overall, I thought this novel was magnificent, even though you cannot fall in love with any of the characters. It is deceptively simple, and the writing/translation subtly draws you in. There’s not a lot of plot twists, but Jōji and Naomi are vibrant characters and you won’t forget them easily. You cannot but applaud Naomi for her resilience, her joie de vivre and her survival instincts.

I, for one, am eager to read more of Tanizaki’s novels. The next one on my TBR list is The Makioka Sisters, Tanizaki’s most famous novel.

Kafka on the Shore

I always fret long and hard when writing Japanese names: do I do it the Japanese way with the surname first or the English way (i.e. Murakami Haruki or Haruki Murakami)? In my first post about Japanese authors I did it the Japanese way but as I blogged on I’ve switched back to the English. What to do? I guess my western education has come through and won. So, I think I’ll just go with the flow. If in my mind I’m thinking in Japanese, then the Japanese way it is. If not, tough. So if you do get annoyed, I apologise in advance.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s get down to the serious stuff. I finished Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore last night. It took me about a week or so which is quite a long time for me to finish a book, but then I wasn’t reading every hour of the day. I got snatches in on my commute and before going to bed.

Kafka on the Shore. What can I say? It was pure Murakami. It had mystery, whimsy, darkness and a lot of soul searching. There were some choice of words in the translation that jarred, but overall it was easy to get into and kept me hooked. And a significant part of the book was about books and set in a library. What’s not to like?

The novel begins with an inexplicable happening during WWII in the mountains of Shikoko, one of the southern islands of Japan. A group of children collapse on an outing leaving one boy in a coma. They do not remember anything and the doctor and teacher are forbidden by the military to speak of the incident.

We then come to the present day where fifteen year old Kafka Tamura and his mysterious friend Crow have run away from his father in Tokyo. He has been cursed since birth, his father claiming that Kafka will kill him and sleep with his mother and sister. So naturally, Kafka wants to defy him and break free from his Sophoclean fate. But Kafka’s mother and sister disappeared when he was four. This complicates things because Kafka seeks them in every female he meets, but due to his youth and hormones cannot escape from sexually fantasising about them. Kafka ends up in Takamatsu in Shikoku and is befriended by first Sakura, a hairdresser, and then Oshima, a long-haired boy who works in the Komura Memorial Library, a private library which becomes a refuge for Kafka. Here he meets beautiful Ms. Saeki who still carries a torch for her long-dead lover.

Elsewhere in the novel, we follow Nakata, who is unable to remember anything since the incident during the war and cannot read or write. But he can talk to cats. While looking for a missing cat, Nakata is led to a sinister being, one Johnnie Walker who collects the souls of cats, who persuades him to commit murder. Nakata goes on the run and is helped by Chunichi Dragons fan Hoshino, a once-delinquent truck driver.

Murakami cleverly entwines the two strands of the novel, keeping the reader guessing until the end. The characters in his novel are charming, troubled, naive yet strong. They are trying to figure out their destiny, and although they do not go through life in the easiest way, we are glad to follow in their footsteps.

Kafka on the Shore is very different to a lot of novels currently out there. Although Murakami doesn’t provide a definitive answer he does provide some sort of closure in Kafka’s story. As in After Dark, Murakami’s novel is peopled by the displaced. Alienation is a theme that runs through this novel, yet we also encounter people who are willing to stretch out a hand and help. Murakami leaves you pondering about the nature of life and people and that’s always a good thing.


I started reading Kafka on the Shore last week for the Japanese Literary Challenge 3 and I’m enjoying it very much. I’m taking it slowly as I want to savour and think about it as I go along. Also, there is a character in the novel with the same name as mine! Yay, bonus! While I was at my sister’s this weekend, I caught sight of After Dark on her bookshelf, and as it was quite a slim volume, I took it down and couldn’t resist taking a peek. I normally go to sleep with a couple of books by my pillow (kind of like a security blanket – I always feel safe when I’m surrounded by books) and before I knew it, I had started reading it. And I finished it the following morning. I did say it was a slim volume.

After Dark isn’t as whimsical as some of Murakami’s other novels. If I had to compare it, it is more in the vein of Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun rather than A Wild Sheep Chase or Dance, Dance, Dance. The novel follows one night in the life of Mari Asai, a nineteen year old university student studying Chinese and running away from her cracked home life. She has a beautiful older sister Eri who is deep in a coma-like sleep watched over by a mysterious man. Mari has missed her last train home and is killing time reading a book in a family restaurant. There, she encounters Takahashi, a one-time classmate of her sister’s. He is on his way to an all night band practice. From there, events take a strange turn as Takahashi’s friend Kaoru, a former pro-wrestler and now manager of a love hotel asks for her help. She has a beaten up Chinese prostitute crying in the love hotel and needs Mari’s interpreting skills. Mari is drawn into the shadowy underbelly of Japanese nightlife as she meets characters who do not normally exist in her conventional suburban life.

Nothing much happens as this novel only covers about seven hours or so in Mari’s life. But we get a snapshot of the lonely hours between the last and first trains that leave Tokyo into the suburbs. The 24 hour family restaurants, convenience stores and love hotels as well as the night shift of IT workers all make an appearance when most ordinary folk are fast asleep in their beds. In contrast, Mari’s sister Eri who is fast asleep at home is stuck in an uneasy place between life and death. We hear stories about the various displaced characters who are all running away from something in their lives. Like in all of his novels, there is a thread of alienation running through After Dark. And although Murakami doesn’t try and explain or give an answer to life’s problems, the novel left me not with a sad, depressed sense of futility, but a snapshot of modern life in Japan. It’s not a happy novel, but he leaves us with a small nugget of hope in the myriad problems faced by ordinary people.

A lot of focus has been given in the past few years to the dark, visceral nature of Japan and the East, not mainly due to the violence and sex prevalent in films, novels and manga that is increasingly available in the West. Like in any country, there is a light and dark side to Japan. I feel it mistaken to think that you can define a country just by a selection of artistic work. Having lived in Japan, I feel that the traditional and modern, culture and vice all complement each other and build a fuller picture of such a complex nation.

After Dark isn’t my favourite Murakami novel, but I liked it. There isn’t a definitive conclusion to the story, but you come away from reading it with a little more understanding of Japanese society.

Japanese Literary Challenge 3

I was going through my blog list during a particularly dry patch at work a few days ago and happened upon the Japanese Literary Challenge hosted by Dolce Bellezza. Two words to instantly grab my attention: Japanese and literary, and although I’m not an aggressive go-getter who’s always out to win, I occasionally like a challenge, and I’m definitely up for some midnight oil burning-type reading. This is Bellezza’s third year hosting this challenge and she has a nice long list of book suggestions. I am familiar with most of the titles from my stint working at a Japanese bookshop during my student days, but I thought I’d try a couple of books that weren’t on the list.

So, the challenge calls for one work of Japanese origin to be read between July 30, 2009 and January 30, 2010. No problemo! I’m going to finally start reading Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore which has been languishing in my TBR bookcase behind a number of other books and also give Tanizaki Junichiro’s Naomi another go. I tried to read the latter several years back but wasn’t in the right frame of mind so only got past the first few pages. Sartre and Beauvoir were great fans of Tanizaki’s whose books provoked outrage due to their morally ambiguious content.


I am also currently reading and watching Bleach by Kubo Tite but it’s a long-running manga and anime series and who knows when the end will be in sight. The manga, about Japanese soul reapers, is so good I don’t actually want it to ever end. But I will write about Bleach another day as it deserves its very own post.