Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘Japanese Literature’

December was a markedly different reading month compared to the rest of 2016, and in a very good way. I read some wonderful books in 2016, but not enough, and much of my reading time was spent on manuscripts – my own and those of friends, and reading for work. That is often wonderful, interesting reading in its own right, but I did miss the larger range of books I usually choose to read over a year. As I mentioned in my last post, I filled December with a wonderful list of essays and short stories and this brought me reading wildly again. Such a pleasure.

More than this, however, I spent the last week and a half of December at home without any work projects. Aside from a few larger family responsibilities for the holidays, it was a very quiet break. Can you guess how I spent it? Curled up in my favorite spot, with a large pot of tea at hand and a stack of books, some of which I’d read before and were in need of a re-read. For some reason Japanese modernism fit my mood (there’s probably a political analogy in there somewhere) and I began with Enchi Fumiko’s 1958 Masks, translated into English by Juliet Winters Carpenter in 1983. Masks (referring to Noh masks and to overlaid representations of the self) is a dark little novel about desire and revenge and, in some sense, too, about scripted drama. I remember loving it the first time I read it, and I found it no less interesting this second time around.

I was still in the mood for something I’d read before, so I picked up Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (1935-1937). I’d forgotten how interesting Kawabata is, and so I followed this with Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain (1949-1954), which I hadn’t read before. I loved it more than Snow Country. And then, not willing to stop until I’d finished all the Kawabata sitting on my shelves, I then read his Thousand Cranes (1949 – 1951), finishing it up in the early morning of December 31st in a quiet house with a stunning winter dawn breaking over the mountains and the lake outside the window of my favorite reading spot.

These are all beautiful little books (all of them translated by Edward Seidensticker in the 1970s and 80s). Kawabata has a gentle lyrical style and a very perceptive eye for distinguishing character traits. I love his lens, because the “eyes” of all three novels are male, but their gaze is tightly focused—either in a curious or an obsessive way—upon a series of eccentric women characters.

That word “eccentric” is a hesitant choice. I don’t mean to say that these women characters are outlandish or bizarre. I mean it in the sense of “unconventional” and this seems to me to lie at the heart of Kawabata’s queries in these novels, which are all looking at fundamental social shifts and generational changes in Japan. The relationships tethering his male narrators to their female family members and lovers and friends open up a window onto either a hint or a fully realized portrait of some unconventional trait in each of the women. He tends to play with ideals and traditional stereotypes and explodes them over and over again—but it’s all done in a soft and quiet way.

I want to write about Sound of the Mountain in more detail, mostly because I absolutely adored Shingo Ogata’s character and perspective, but also because I braved reading the English and Japanese side by side, and found myself curious about many of Seidensticker’s translation choices. Not arguing with them necessarily, although sometimes that, too, but just looking at the way his translation shapes a reader’s perception of the story. Always fascinating for me.

In any case, I’ll stop here and just say Happy New Year, leaving off with a line from Thousand Cranes that fits what is outside my window right this second:

For the rest, the night was so dark that he had trouble following the line between trees and sky.

Wishing you all a chance to read everything and anything in 2017.


A modern coating goes no farther than the large cities that are a country’s arteries, and there are not many such cities anywhere. In an old country with a long tradition, China and Europe as well as Japan—any country, in fact, except a very new one like the United States—the smaller cities, left aside by the flow of civilization, retain the flavour of an earlier day until they are overtaken by catastrophe.

This is Kaname, the young man in Junichiro Tanizaki’s short novel Some Prefer Nettles (1929), and he has this thought as he’s surveying the harbor town of the small island of Awaji, which sits in Osaka Bay. The entire book involves comparisons of this sort—between new cities and old cities, between Tokyo and Osaka, between traditional Japan and the more modern values that have filtered into the country since its opening in the 1850s.

Some Prefer Nettles is a straightforward novel, meaning that the story is quite simple; at the same time, the story is purely symbolic. Kaname and his wife Misako have been married for about ten years but they are both tired of their marriage, Misako has even fallen in love with another man with Kaname’s help and blessing. But divorce is a difficult thing to manage properly and they are waffling about it, very much paralyzed and unsure of how to move forward. A situation which works as a perfect symbol of Japanese society between the two world wars. Here is a country that was absolutely closed to the outside world until 1850, and when it opened up it was quickly inundated with images and media and fashion from other parts of the world. European and Middle Eastern culture especially–two “exotic” cultures with long and rich histories–became extremely interesting, as did American culture with its apparent ease and openness. Obviously, with any great cultural change, there are those who embrace the changes and those who run from them. Much of the book is about whether to look backward and honor traditions, even those that feel stale, or whether it’s best to look forward and embrace a new identity.

What’s most interesting to me about this book is how Tanizaki handles it all so directly – and yet it’s still a good story. Most of Kaname’s conversations are about the old Japan vs. the new Japan, his thoughts are constantly comparing tradition versus modernity, whether in puppetry or another art form, or even with respect to the roles of women, and even some of the narrative exposition directly addresses these ideas. Tanizaki is known for his constant East-West comparisons and his literary soul-searching to define the pure heart of Japan, and this book is an unsubtle expression of those questions. I don’t actually mean that word “unsubtle” as a kind of negative criticism, only that the idea being explored isn’t ever hidden. Everything Kaname thinks about, every person he encounters, every love relationship, every friendship, even every town or puppet play—all of these things stand in to represent one side or the other in this great debate. There’s a terrible risk of the book coming off as pedestrian – and yet Tanizaki has just enough poetry fitted in around the edges of everything that the novel is smooth and engaging.

At one point, Kaname goes on a three-day trip with his father-in-law and that man’s mistress, the very young but traditional O-hisa. She is practically a geisha, although she does not work for a tea-house, she is under the protection of Kaname’s father-in-law and he is “training” her so that when he dies, she will make a suitable match. It’s interesting that O-hisa, the very young woman, is a symbol of traditional Japan, while Misako, who is in her late thirties and already a mother, is the “modern” woman turning away from those traditions. And Kaname is stuck between the two and the stereotypes they represent, trying to decide which kind of woman he would like.

But I was talking about poetry, wasn’t I? On this three-day trip, the purpose of which is to watch some traditional puppet theatre, Tanizaki provides a series of truly stunning images of his traveling companions, the countryside, the theatres, the music, the puppets and the audiences.

From a walk through one of the towns:

The main road through the town stretched on under the blue sky before them, so clear and serene that they could count the people passing back and forth far into the distance. Even the bicycles tinkling their bells as they moved by seemed calm and unhurried.

From the last theatre they visit:

In the pit, where rush mats and rows of cushions were laid out on the bare ground, the children of the village had taken over. Noisy games, oranges, candy—it was lively as the playground of a kindergarten, untroubled as a country shrine festival. No one seemed to notice that a play was going on.

There are too many of these little moments to do them any justice by pulling out only two, but I wanted to show a little sampling of his style. Which, all in all, is very neat and simple, but he uses that simplicity to great effect. I’ve read Tanizaki before – his collection of stories Seven Japanese Tales is wonderful, so is his essay on aesthetics In Praise of Shadows. I read In Praise of Shadows probably once a year, and it’s both complicated and extremely beautiful—it’s also a primer on Japanese nationalism, but we will forgive him this when he writes so eloquently about the beauty of a cracked porcelain teacup. However, this was my first time reading one of his novels, and I’m obviously now really looking forward to reading his best-known work, The Makioka Sisters, as well as hoping to get a copy of another novel, Quicksand, which was written in serial form between 1928 and 1930, but only translated into English in 1994 – it sounds incredibly dark and psychological.

Since graduating from college I have moved house five times, hopping from where I grew up on the west coast to Japan, then to the midwest, the east coast and finally setting up what seems to be a semi-permanent life (or at least for a few more years) in Switzerland. All that moving means I’ve carted my possessions across nearly 16,000 miles. As most of you bibliophiles can imagine, those book boxes start to get pretty heavy. So I learned to be very careful about which books I hold on to and which books I don’t mind leaving behind.


One of the books I have lugged with me, literally from continent to continent is Enchi Fumiko’s Masks. I first read this book for a Japanese literature class in college and count it as one of my all-time favorites. It’s a dark, gritty book dealing with issues of sexuality, manipulation and the oppression inherent in Japan’s patriarchal culture. The best word I have to describe this novel is intense. Everything about it is intense – structure, theme, intertextuality, social criticism. In short, it can withstand a lot of re-reading.


So knowing how I feel about that book, I was not at all surprised to find myself absorbed in another dark, intensely feminist novel by the same author – Enchi’s The Waiting Years. Enchi took over eight years to write The Waiting Years and for it she won Japan‘s highest literary award – no small feat for a novel with such a glaring social critique.


The Waiting Years is also a ripping good read. The novel details the life of Tomo, a paragon of wifely submission, and her husband Yukitomo, a paragon of selfish arrogance. Not only does Yukitomo bring a concubine into their household, he has Tomo go to Tokyo to pick the girl out. Later, he seduces (although rape is more likely what happened) one of their servants and makes that woman his second concubine. Eventually, he begins an affair with his daughter-in-law. Tomo must bear each of these insults in silence as well as stamp out any desire for self-assertion or self-fulfillment. Literally, her entire life is lived only to validate her husband’s life. She has nothing, and is nothing, on her own.


In exchange for her willing subservience she has what none of the other women in the novel are allowed to have – legitimacy. Enchi dives freely into the minds of the other women, portraying their own stifled unhappiness. As his mistresses, they are assured Yukitomo’s love and consideration but no necessary legal benefits, neither for themselves nor for their children. As his wife, Tomo is guaranteed the outward strappings of happiness (a home, money, the power to do business in her husband’s name, the respect offered to her by strangers in recognition of his status) but Enchi makes it very clear that Tomo remains celibate, and horribly lonely, for almost forty years once Yukitomo has tired of her physically. And she has no right to want anything for herself. None. That the women are offered this choice between two equally miserable fates is, I believe, Enchi’s point. The entire system is inherently flawed.


To add to her worries, Tomo has the thankless job of working frantically behind the scenes to ensure the family name (which is only hers through marriage, yet the only name that will ever be associated with her and therefore vitally important) is never blemished by Yukitomo’s indecent behavior.


The Waiting Years ends dramatically with Tomo asserting herself for the first and last time. But I won’t say more. Think bittersweet revenge. Think soul-crumbling revelation. Very satisfying.


I mentioned in my first post about The Waiting Years that the Japanese title of this novel is 女坂 (Onna zaka) which literally means the woman’s slope. Traditionally, Japanese temples had a men’s path and a women’s path, the second a supposedly gentler, easier walk. Enchi seems to be using this title ironically, because Tomo’s “path” is anything but easy. This title (and the beautiful scene symbolizing it when Tomo struggles up a hill in the snow one evening to get back home) turns the whole concept of (ie – home, household) upside down by suggesting that a woman’s work inside the home is just as dangerous and difficult as a man’s.


One of the book’s other ironies is that we rarely see Yukitomo outside the home, unless he’s taken one of his mistresses on some cultural expedition. Tomo on the other hand is often running left and right, arranging financial matters and keeping busy with tradesman to insure the house has all that it needs. Yukitomo’s “life” is focused almost exclusively on his sexual needs and Tomo’s on a denial of that same sexuality. That this might be a hidden meaning behind the concept of and one which destroys its other more positive associations, is a fascinating notion.



Enchi wrote seven novels in total, all of which have been translated I believe.