Here I am checking into Tony’s January in Japan just in the nick of time!

Japanese Literature has a huge following in blogland, but I had never read anything from those shores – nor had I had any conscious inclination to do so. So don’t ask me how The Folio Society’s Japanese Short story anthology had found its way to my shelves, but there it was patiently awaiting my attention.


I was a little overwhelmed when looked at the table of contents: 28 stories, covering 8 centuries of Japanese literature, from an anonymous 12th century story to a late 20th century one by Banana Yoshimoto. Where to start? From the beginning wasn’t an option – not with a simultaneous read of Les Miserables. I decided to take my cue from fellow January in Japan participants. If an author was mentioned and there was a story in this anthology, then I would read it.

What can I say? It’s been a really interesting experiment.

Checking out the January in Japan book review site, the month kicked off with Banana Yoshimoto. So there we are, starting at the end of my book (which appeals – I was a breach birth.) In Honeymoon, a recently married man finds himself debating whether he should go home. Marriage isn’t what he expected and while he’s not unhappy, neither is he ecstatic. A shape-shifting stranger sits next to him in he empty carriage, and much against his will engages him in a motive-examining conversation. Slightly surreal but not overly so. In my mind the stranger is an outward manifestation of the protagonist’s conscience and that leads to some thought-provoking insights.

Next up J-lit giant Junichiro Tanizaki and a story of a tatooist which will appeal to those who enjoyed Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists. Appeal may actually be the wrong word here, because there are subtle shades of sadism in this story.

When he had to deal with a faint-hearted customer whose teeth would grind or who gave out shrieks of pan, Seikichi would say: Really, I thought you were a native of Kyoto where people are supposed to be courageous. Please try to be patient. my needles are unusually painful.’ And glancing from the corner of his eyes eyes at the victim’s face, now moist with tears, he would continue his work with utter unconcern. if, on the contrary, his patient bore the agony without flinching, he would say: ‘Ah you are much braver than you look. But wait awhile. soon you will be unable to endure it in silence, try as you may.’ And he would laugh, showing his white teeth.

On second thoughts, the sadism’s not so subtle. His great ambition is to tatoo his very soul onto the skin of a beautiful young girl and so when he finds the ideal candidate, he kidnaps, drugs her and does exactly that. Judge for yourself the beauty (or otherwise) of the resulting tatoo. It’s certainly one of the most striking illustrations in the book.

Tattoo by Yukki Yaura 2000

Of the 6 J-Lit Giants featured on the January in Japan thus far, 5 are represented in this anthology. The 6th is a poet so it’s no surprise that he is not represented. Natsume, Mishima, Tanizaki, Dazai and Abe are all there with my favourite story amongst them Abe’s An Irrelevant Death.

A young man arrives home to find a corpse in his flat. He decides that he must dispose of the body somehow. He takes so long thinking about how to do this, that the window of opportunity for informing the police has passed. Noone will believe his innocence now. He spends the whole of the night attempting to dispose of the body but – spoiler alert – he never gets past the front door. The disposal of the body and even the death are, as the title suggests, irrelevant. This playful take on a murder story is actually an examination of courage. Whether he turned himself in or went on grappling with the corpse, he would need courage. And whichever choice required the most courage was bound to be the right one.

Let me just even up these highlights gender-wise by mentioning Higuchi Ichiyo‘s wonderful Troubled Waters , a 19th-century tale which takes us right into the heart of the pleasure zone and the despondent life of girl, forced by poverty into the life of a courtesan. Oriki, the prettiest, the most charming and witty, is the envy of the other girls and yet she pines for her favourite customer. Having squandered his money on her, he can no longer afford her services. Not that we feel sorry for him- with a wife and a child, he should have a better sense of responsibility. Higuchi takes us from the pleasure house into his hovel of a home where his nagging exasperated wife lives a similarly miserable existence. I’m not sure what shocked me most, the nastiness of the man or the subservient grovelling of his wife when she had overstepped the mark. There was no way this was going to end well ….

Troubled Waters by Yukki Yaura 2000

Neither did it but while it was a tragedy for the characters, it was a high note reading-wise and a good place to end my first foray into Japanese literature. So thanks to Tony for the encouragement,  to the Folio Society for such a diverse selection of stories,  and to Yukki Yaura for the beautifully intricate illustrations. With a TBR of over 1000 volumes, I really didn’t need a whole new world opening to me. But now that my toe is in the water, I suspect I shall soon be swimming ….