A Review of Modern Japanese Short Stories

Modern Japanese Short Stories edited by Ivan Morris, Tuttle Publishing,
August 1st, 2019 (first published in 1962)

Modern Japanese Short Stories is a collection by twenty five Japanese authors with stories published from early to middle of the twentieth century. It was originally published in 1962 and the edition I have was published in 2019. The first thing to observe is that these aren’t modern in the literal sense but represent the Japanese modern literary movement in its various forms. If you are familiar with literary jargon, we are (last I checked), in the post-modern or maybe even post-post-modern period now. Although there may be some little read academic publication that claims otherwise. I don’t know and I frankly have little patience with modern (in the literal sense), literary criticism or at least what I’ve read of it.

Of all the authors in this collection, I had only read (and recognised) one author: Yukio Mishima. At the time this collection was originally published he was (as noted), much younger than the other writers but had already made a name for himself and he certainly deserves a place here — especially with hindsight. I have only read his semi-autobiographical Confessions of a Mask and it has been some time since I did. This is supposed to be an introduction for Western audiences and helpfully includes a brief introductory biography for each author. It is edited by the late Ivan Morris whose name comes up a lot as a translator and writer on Japanese literature.

The first criticism I have is in an area I seldom discuss when reviewing books and that is the quality of the printing. There are a number of obvious errors in the introductions to the authors. For example, we are told that Mimei Ogawa’s The Handstand “was first published in 1920 when the author was twenty-eight” but we are told on the previous page that the author was born in 1882. Ango Sakaguchi apparently died in poverty in 1933 but published The Idiot in 1946 when he was thirty-seven. Helpfully, the works included are listed again at the back and one can establish where the error was made. Ango Sakaguchi actually died in 1954. I am not sure how these errors came to be but I am guessing it may be due to electronic scanning of the original publication because the errors don’t seem like the kind a human would make. There are a few more errors like those above and a number of smaller errors in some of the text that suggest this. None of these are ruinous but it certainly needed more careful editing before publication.

As this is a collection by various authors, a lot of what I will discuss will be in generalities. The authors are all now dead with the last, Fumio Niwa dying in 2005 when he was 100 years old. Many didn’t make old bones and as may be assumed from Japanese stereotypes, a few committed suicide including Yukio Mishima’s theatrically gruesome end by seppuku. It should be noted that the Japanese then (and now) have less of a stigma attached to suicide than do traditionally Christian societies. Though in my lifetime, the stigma has observably lessened significantly in the West too.  It might be relevant to some that only two of the authors are female.

I haven’t read a great deal of Japanese literature and am most familiar with Shusaku Endo and beginning with Silence, I have read three of his novels and own one more I have yet to read. I have also read three novels by Ayako Sono who only has three published in English. That I sought out all of them should give you some indication of how much I enjoyed her work and I intend to write something on her in the future. I have also read three of Haruki Murakami’s works including Kafka by the Shore, A Wild Sheep Chase and the non-fiction Underground. I have the lengthy IQ84 waiting to be read too. I have also written about and often mentioned the medieval classic The Tale of Genji. These works are all of different periods to the ones in this volume but there are some similarities to be found.

Surprisingly, the preoccupation with sex I found in so many of the previously mentioned works is mostly absent in these stories. The Idiot by Ango Sakaguchi is the only exception which immediately comes to mind. This story is about a man who begins an intimate relationship with an intellectually disabled woman (the idiot) he finds hidden in his closet one day but there is more to the story than this. Mishima’s The Priest and His Love is about a Buddhist priest who falls for a beautiful imperial concubine though this never manifests beyond an unspoken desire.

What almost all these stories have in common is a fatalism about the world. Many are depressing or display the worst aspects of humanity. It is not irrelevant that most were written during the interwar years or after the Second World War. In the early twentieth century Japan was an increasingly militant society undergoing rapid social change and this certainly comes out in the writing. Some like The Idiot mentioned above are set during the war when the urban Japanese population was starving and in constant terror of aerial bombardment.

Although most are set during the modern period, there are a few set in other times. The aforementioned The Priest and His Love is one set in medieval Japan.  There is also Autumn Mountain a simple but engaging story about a man seeking out a famous painting from an earlier Mongol dynasty in China. There is also Tiger-Poet by Ton Nakajima which doubles as a fable about a aspirational poet who is transformed into a tiger as punishment for his pride — also set in China. There is also On the Conduct of Lord Tadanao by Kan Kikuchi about a real historical figure and certainly one of the best stories in the collection.

One of the most disturbing and still relevant today was The Hateful Age by Fumio Niwa about an old woman who is passed between relatives who grow sick of caring for her and wish her dead. Though it becomes more difficult to feel sorry for the woman who seems to be quite deliberately making a nuisance of herself with the constant complaints, theft and destruction she commits in the household.

The only story I didn’t enjoy was the one that graces the cover which is Tattoo by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki about a woman given a diabolical spider tattoo on her back. Unlike suicide, there is still a strong stigma attached to tattoos in Japan due to their association with organised crime and uncleanliness in general. Perhaps this story was more impactful to earlier readers since even that stigma is slowly waning in Japan today. Even so, the story was engaging — I just disliked the evil undertones.

To finish, I don’t know if it was a good idea to simply read this through. I think I would have had increased enjoyment by reading these more slowly over a longer period. As some of the stories have blurred together and I can’t identify all by their title though I did read them all. I intend to go back to a number of them in the future.

Apart from the issues with the printing, I do recommend this to anyone interested in Japanese literature. They do give you a window into the psychology of the Japanese and their culture though the Japan of today is very different to the one in which these were written.

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