Having read through a lot of Japanese literature since 2014, we were pretty chuffed to see Penguin publish a great big old collection of some of the finest short stories around from the land of Nippon.
Released in 2018, it’s a mammoth 576 pages of short story excellence. It’s a fine art, is writing them things, but there are some highly skilled writers out in Japan who have totally mastered it.
The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories
As this is such a massive book, it’s one you can really dip in and out of as you see fit. There are some big hitters amongst the selection, such as Jun’ichirō Tanizaki whose In Praise of Shadows essay is an excellent separate read.
The compendium starts with an introduction from the legendary Haruki Murakami. He writes:
"I once heard the story that when jazz drummer Buddy Rich was being admitted to a hospital, the nurse at the front desk asked him if he had any allergies. 'Only to country and western music,' he replied. In my case, my only allergy is to Japan’s so-called 'I novel'—the form of autobiographical writing that has been at the forefront of Japan’s modern fiction since the turn of the 20th century. To tell the truth, from my teens to my early twenties, I read hardly any Japanese fiction. And for a long while I was convinced that, with a few exceptions, early modern and contemporary Japanese literature was simply boring ... Speaking personally, then, I learned practically nothing about novelistic technique from my Japanese predecessors."
Murakami also makes the following wonderful observation:
"Reading is, of course, a supremely personal—even selfish—activity. Each person consumes reading matter in accordance with his or her own likes and dislikes, which no one else can pronounce simply to be right or wrong, proper or warped. People have an innate right to read the books they want to read and avoid the books they don’t want to read. It is one of the few precious liberties granted to us in this largely unfree world (though, to be sure, many situations arise that complicate the matter). At the same time, however, viewed in purely dietary terms, a balanced intake of information and knowledge plays an important role in the formation of a person’s intellect and character, and though no one has the right to criticize me for having spent a lifetime consuming books in my own lopsided way, I can’t help feeling that it’s nothing to be proud of. Having become a Japanese novelist (once and for all), I may have something of a problem on my hands in saying that I know hardly anything about Japanese fiction—which is a little different from Buddy Rich saying he doesn’t listen to country and western music."
He goes on to qualify the “fukubukuro” (福袋) of content this work provides – a mixed bag of delights that is a Japanese New Year custom. We’ve covered his short stories before in after the quake (1995), although here his included work is UFO in Kushiro.
But there’s a liberal spread between male and female writers. For the human females, we have the likes of Yūko Tsushima, Banana Yoshimoto, Minako Ohba, Fumiko Enchi, and Taeko Kōno. In 1963, the latter made her name with the short story Kani (Crabs – 蟹), which won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize.
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is considered something of the godfather of short story writing – we’ve covered Roshomon and his other works before, most recently with the hugely bizarre and engaging The Nose.
And as you’d expect, there’s a myriad of incredible topics here ranging from themes such as Buddhism, life, death, disasters, memory, existentialism, absurdity, love, and the nature of life in Japan.
You can read deeply affecting tales such as Hiroshima, City of Doom by Yōko Ōta, then move onto Bee Honey by Banana Yoshimoto.
For an enormously varied and almost always brilliant smorgasbord of Japanese short fiction, Penguin has worked wonders here.
You’ll read inspired tales and then head off to find out more from each author’s canon. So, this is well worth your time.