I’ve loved Japanese literature since I was a high school student in Hiroshima. I’ve continued to read in between my stays in Japan, both as a source of enjoyment and a way of staying connected; no matter where I am, Japanese literature offers insight into some of the places and points in history that I’m interested in. I have far more recommendations than will fit in this post, so instead I’ll just share three of the books that have particularly enriched my time in Japan.
1. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami is one of Japan’s most internationally recognized authors. My Japanese homestay brother introduced me to him when he gave me a copy of his Norwegian Wood in high school. I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll just say that it’s a sort of coming of age novel following introverted protagonist Toru Watanabe’s personal and interpersonal (especially romantic) struggles throughout his college years. It’s set in 1960s’ Tokyo, and, although fictional, alludes to a number of events that really took place in Japan; Watanabe paints a vivid picture of what it was like to be a student in Tokyo at the time. One of my professors last semester happened to graduate from the University of Tokyo around the end of the 1960s. During lecture he shared a few stories describing what it was like to be a student at the time, and I was amazed by how similar they were to Watanabe’s descriptions. On top of being a brilliant, albeit melancholic, story, Norwegian Wood has enriched my time at the University of Tokyo by offering insight into some of the historical events that have shaped the university. On a more personal level, I empathize with a lot of Watanabe’s thoughts and feelings as a young and sometimes confused student.
Trần Anh Hùng’s 2007 film adaptation compliments the novel nicely.
2. Kokoro by Natsume Soseki
Natsume Soseki wrote most of his works during the Meiji era (1868-1912), a time in which Japan was at a cultural crossroad; after being relatively closed to trade for about 250 years, Japan opened its trade ports, and allowed for an influx of Euro-American influence. Today, Tokyo’s skyline is a lasting symbol of this era and Japan’s rapid Westernization therein. Kokoro’s protagonist Sensei reflects on the era as someone who witnessed Japan’s radical change. Again, I don’t want to spoil too much, so I’ll just say that Sensei tells a fascinating story involving the impact that foreign influence had on him and his individual values. Now, I’m always reminded of Sensei’s story when I travel between Japan’s countryside, which bears fewer traces of Euro-American influences, and Tokyo’s metropolitan urban districts. In this way reading Kokoro has given me a new way of contextualizing Tokyo during my year on exchange.
3. Hitching Rides with Buddha by Will Ferguson
The categorical boundaries of “Japanese literature” are a little blurry. For instance, does a work need to be written in Japan and in the Japanese language in order to be “Japanese literature?” Or does it just need to be set in Japan? These questions perhaps point to the problem of defining art in terms of the nation. At any rate, in its broadest sense, I see Canadian writer Will Ferguson’s Japanese travel memoir, Hitching Rides with Buddha, as belonging loosely to this category. Ferguson tells a story of his attempt to hitchhike his way through Japan, from south to north. I read the story at a time when I encountered culture shock on a daily basis. Ferguson’s memoir was relatable, and helped ease my concern that I was alone in experiencing these forms of culture shock. He provides hilarious accounts of his mishaps and miscommunications, which reminds me to not take my own cultural faux pas too seriously – just to learn from them, laugh at them, and move on.
Anyway, these are just some of the books that have made my exchanges more enjoyable and rewarding. I hope they can do the same for yours!