Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Introduction to Japanese Fiction

With the world's worried eyes currently focused on Japan, this is the first in a series of blog posts introducing Japanese fiction to English speaking readers in the hopes that we become more aware of Japan's place on the international literature stage.

My name is Chelsea, and I'm currently interning here at Boulder Book Store. I’m interested in introducing you to the small yet fascinating world of modern Japanese literature. I was first formally introduced to Japanese literature during my 9-month study abroad program in Japan. What I found fascinating was that despite being of Japanese ethnicity, a Japanese major, and an avid reader, I didn't know any Japanese authors aside from Murakami Haruki’s Norwegian Wood, which seemed to me the only one who has successfully gained popularity in the West.

Once I was introduced to more novels by modern Japanese authors and found a few more to read that hadn't been translated, I found myself hooked on the strange and unique style and plots of literary works coming from Japan, especially those that lie on the verge of literature and popular fiction.

I am writing these blogs to help increase awareness of and to promote this section of world literature that, in my opinion, is highly overlooked.

If I were to describe modern Japanese literature from what I've read so far, I’d use two words: “weird” and “connected.”

When I say that modern Japanese literature is connected, I mean that many bonds can be found between all of the subjects who have come in contact with these works. Sometimes, connections are formed between readers and a work. Other times, authors put a bit of themselves into their book in the form of a shishosetsu, or I-novel, which is a work of fiction that incorporates some aspect of its author's life into it, but is not as personal or realistic as a memoir.

Sometimes, bonds are created directly between the author and reader (as is the case with Yoshimoto Banana's readers, who often ask her for personal advice) or authors and the subject that their books are about, as in Murakami Haruki's Underground, one of his few non-fiction works about an actual attack on a train line in Tokyo by a cult, for which he interviewed surviving victims to relate accounts of what happened that day to his readers.

Through translations, foreign readers can see the connection between a work and the culture of its country of origin. By culture, I don't mean the obvious, physical cultural practices such as eating with chopsticks or taking your shoes off when entering houses. Rather, I mean that one can experience the sociological and psychological aspects of culture that show how people think and feel about the world around them.

This type of culture that isn't expressed physically is hard to teach and explain, and I believe that novels do a decent job of showing it, rather than telling. 'Showing,' to me, appears to be a natural and comfortable way to introduce and expand awareness of people from different parts of the world.

Thus, the charm of Japanese literature comes from readers' ability to 'connect' with it, and for foreign readers, from readers' ability to see these connections.

In my next post, I will explain why I find Japanese literature 'weird', and why this is a good thing.

In light of the current situation in Japan, I encourage people who wish to lend a hand but don't know what to do to visit the following websites, all of which are contributing to help those suffering from the earthquakes and tsunami here and here.

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