Why I Love Japanese Literature


Literature, just as porn, is a reflection of a nation’s identity. Whilst porn reflects a certain truthful stereotype – the harsh, blonde German woman, the sultry French girl, the busty, flashy American, big-assed Brazilian, etc – literature reflects a more profound way a nation sees the world.

In France, the literature is philosophical, erotic and rebellious. In England it is obsessed with class. Spanish literature is very political and regional. American literature – in one form or another – delves into the American Dream. And Japanese literature is about cherry blossoms.

Of course I’m being overly simplistic here. Spanish literature isn’t all political. And Japanese literature isn’t all about cherry blossoms.

Except, in a way it is.

Not literally. You’d be hard-pressed to find cherry blossoms in a Haruki Murakami novel, for example. But cherry blossoms represent the fragility of beauty, the wabi-sabi concept, so un-Western, that a thing is beautiful because it is transient, impermanent, broken.

Japanese literature is harmonised with its other art forms and together they create the impression of a nation fascinated by the simple, untouchable beauty of things. From the seasons-obsessed haikus to the minimalist illustrations and poignant films, Japanese art is antithetical to the Western concept of the Baroque and melodramatic.

It is fair to say that Japanese literature is my favourite of any other countries. The literature of my own country, Malta, never turned me on, in the past it was too priestly and religious, and today too political and weak. American literature attracted me in small yet powerful doses; Hemingway, Bellow, Roth, Fitzgerald, etc. And of course Russian literature, from Nabokov to Dostoevsky and everything in between is hugely enjoyable.

But no other literature has gone so far as to change the way I write more than Japanese literature. I was introduced to it via Yasunari Kawabata and his minimalist masterpiece Snow Country.

It was a revelation to see how such a powerful story could be told so minimally, so poetically, so poignantly. Snow Country made me feel more intensely than a chunky Martin Amis or Ian McEwan novel could.

After I read Snow Country I devoured every single thing Kawabata wrote in a few weeks. You should too.

And whilst Kawabata is an extremist – his writing really is all about cherry blossoms, and I love it – I soon began to learn that his nonchalant, poetic, curious sort of writing was reflected in other Japanese writers.

From Kawabata I made the short migration to Yukio Mishima. A more politicised writer but one who nonetheless subjected political themes to a destructive interest in humanity. The perfect example of this is The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Based on a true story, it tells the narrative of a monk obsessed with the temple of the golden pavilion’s beauty, so much so that he feels compelled to burn it. A wonderful interweaving of drama, art, beauty and terrorism.

The Sound of the Waves is another minimalist, sensuous work of his, telling the story of a remote fishing island in Japan, and the coming-of-age of a macho, yet girl-obsessed boy.

What really sealed my devout faith in all things Japanese was the act of reading Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. Here is where I saw a new facet of Japanese literature, perhaps a more contemporary one.

Making a sojourn into Japanese literature you are inevitably drawn to the giant North Star that is Haruki Murakami. And yet his reputation as a surrealist writer kept me away from him for a long time. I don’t do surrealism – why, when reality is already so magical?

But I finally sunk my teeth into his canon, starting with one of his few realist, non-fantastical works, Norwegian Wood. And it was truly one of the most beautiful and most evocative novels I have ever read. A true work of art. Not only is its writing just as poetic and numinous as Murakami’s predecessors, but here was something I hadn’t yet gleamed in Japanese literature: modern Japan.

I enjoyed walking around Tokyo with Toru Watanabe, surrounded by the student protests of the seventies, eating around, or going for hikes in the mountains, listening to jazz records, watching young people fall in love, always surrounded by the ethereal presence of suicide. It was modern, it was Japanese and it was perfect.

Just as Kawabata instilled his work with cherry blossoms and kimonos; Murakami instilled this novel and others with jazz, walking, swimming and the modern world.

Thanks to Murakami I transitioned into reading more contemporary Japanese works. I wasn’t disappointed. What fascinates me about the current crop of Japanese authors is the way they marry the poetic with the quirky.

You won’t find many sweeping, biblical tomes in Japanese literatures. No War and Peace here. You won’t find much that is overtly political, stuffy and revolutionary either. What you will find are poems written in prose, delving into the extraordinariness of mundane human lives.

Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo and Hitomi Kanehara’s Snakes and Earrings among others are all wonderful additions to an already proud literature.

One of the reasons why I even decided to explore Japanese literature was Ernest Hemingway. A strange statement which, admittedly, needs clarification.

The most enthralling and legendary feature of Hemingway’s writing is his minimalism, his iceberg writing, his stoic, manly, up-to-your-imagination prose. I was hooked and I think it does what poetry does so well, slow time down and leave in the reader a sense of mystery and awe.

Hemingway’s writing style is not typical in America or the West. I know, I’ve looked. Maybe you could make a case for Raymond Carver or Colm Toibin, but no, not really. So after having read that Hemingway was inspired to write in this way (one of the several reasons, at least) was after studying Impressionist art – Manet especially – and the debt it owed to Japanese minimalism.

Hemingway would have made an excellent Japanese writer. Except he wrote about booze rather than cherry blossoms. And now, it seems, the whole thing is coming full-circle: there is a lot about food and drink in contemporary Japanese novels.

Both Hemingway and this current wave of Japanese authors wordlessly acknowledge the silent, intimate power of literature. It is very un-American, un-French, un-Spanish to say that literature changes society from the bottom up. There are no 1984’s, no Beloved’s, no Catcher in the Rye’s here.

The heroes of Japanese novels today are people who work in convenience stores, in kitchens, awkward lovers and tattoo aficionados. Every day, strange, quirky people made to look like characters in a poem. Japanese literature is a filter that magnifies the beauty of our ordinary lives, which is what all art should do. Speaking of Manet, he once drew a beautiful, rich still-life of asparagus – asparagus! He made such an ordinary vegetable as iconic as a Greek god. That is the power of art. And no other literature better captures that today than that coming out of Japan.

And long may it last.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. A useful and thought-provoking intro to a literature I’ve never dared dip into. If it’s as elegant as your critique, it should be worth exploring …


    1. justinfenech says:

      Thank you for the comment, You won’t regret exploring it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. PS the Hemingway link clinches it – I’ll dive in! Any recommendations for the shallow end?


    1. justinfenech says:

      Kawabata, definitely. Snow Country.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cheers, will definitely look out for it!


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