Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    Japanese authors in the 1800s turned tuberculosis into a romantic condition[UPDATED: 9-18-2020]

    In Japan’s Meiji era (1868-1912) when the nation was rapidly modernising after more than 250 years of isolation, Western influences were extremely strong. These spanned almost everything – even literary perceptions of tuberculosis, which was originally stigmatised in Japan.

    The disease became a romantic condition with titles such as Hototogisu, referred to in English as The Cuckoo or Nami-Ko: A Realistic Novel, penned in 1899, by Roka Tokutomi (1868-1927).

    Hototogisuone of the first of this genre depicting tuberculosis, was published long before Thomas Mann’s (1875-1955) famous novel, The Magic Mountain, which was published in German in 1924, and is considered a classic of this genre.

    The Magic Mountain, a favourite of contemporary Japanese authors, such as Haruki Murakami, uses the experiences of a young man at a Swiss sanatorium to depict the microcosm of Europe and the ideologies of the time.

    Hototogisu, on-the-other-hand is the tragic tale, of a young woman called Namiko who contracts tuberculosis, that blends grief, and love with tragic realism in its narrative. 

    A digital edition of an English translation published in 1904 under the title Nami-Ko, translated by Sakae Shioya (1873-1961) and E. F. Edgett (1867-1946), is available online.

    The author writes in its introduction: “it was not to reveal our life and customs to the foreigner that Nami-Ko was written however, for at the time of its writing, four years ago, I did not dream that it would ever be translated, or, indeed that it would ever reach the popularity it has gained in my country”.

    According to Nobue Urushihara Urvil, an academic at the University of Texas, in modern Japanese literature, tuberculosis was a special subject. In addition to the romanticised images of the illness, what is characteristic of the construction of tuberculosis in Japanese literature is its association with the concept of the individual or self

    “Tuberculosis in literature of the time was celebrated as a tool to conceive the inferiority of [the] modern person. Tuberculosis was an important theme in an enormous number of works of literature including novels, short stories, haiku poems, free-style poetry, and essays”, according to Urvil.

    Many Japanese writers were themselves suffering from tuberculosis and most of them who had it died from the disease. A good by tragic example of this is Masaoka Shiki (1867-1907) considered one of the four great haiku masters who a close and influential friend of Soseki Natsume (1867-1916) who himself is often referred to as Japan’s greatest modern novelist.

    Shiki, who was only 34 when he died, studied alongside Soseki in high school and also at Tokyo Imperial University. His penname Shiki can also be read as hotogisu, cuckoo, and according to legend in Japan this bird coughs up blood when it sings.

    Nonetheless, not all diseases were treated the same way by Japan’s Meiji era authors. In contrast, syphilis, which some famous Japanese authors are known to have had, as well as leprosy (Hansen’s Disease), were generally not depicted in works of fiction, and when they were, they were not usually seen as romantic or philosophical diseases that portrayed the human condition, and the peripheral and margins of society. 

    That said, the world’s first cell phone novel, or keitai shosetsu, Deep Love, released in 2003 treated AIDS as a romantic and tragic condition with echoes of Hototogisu in its narrative. Written by a 30-year-old Japanese man, it’s a gritty young-adult novel about a girl who turns to prostitution to pay for her boyfriend’s heart surgery, and tragically dies after she contracts AIDS. 

    The 2020 pandemic, caused by the coronavirus (Covid-19), immediately spawned reading lists on social media as well as book recommendations from independent bookshops and newspapers including lists such as: Pandemics: An Essential Reading List ; Your Quarantine Reader, and Your coronavirus reading list: reader suggestions to bring joy in difficult times.

    These lists include famous titles such as: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) published in 1722, The Plague by Albert Camus (1913-1960) , Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and even occasionally books by Japanese authors, Ascendance of a Bookworm by Miya Kazuki for instance. 

    Unsurprisingly, the lists have generated new interested in and demand for these titles. Camus’ novel started flying off the shelves in Japan in March 2020 at the height of news about the virus, for example, leading to Shinchosha, Camus’ Japanese publisher, to order a reprint. 

    New ‘Lockdown Literature’ is bound to start appearing in Japan and elsewhere in different forms and formats, but whether the canon of ‘Corona-Literature’ to come will be defined by a narrative or author that treats the virus as a romantic condition, like tuberculosis, or focuses on the self, relationships at a distance or social distancing in our social media age is something that future generations of readers will determine.
    Japanese authors in the 1800s turned tuberculosis into a romantic condition Posted by Richard Nathan
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    More than 50 Japanese authors have killed themselves since 1900[UPDATED: 9-11-2020]

    Research shows that at least 54 Japanese authors have committed suicide since 1900. This includes some of Japan’s most famous and highly regarded authors and one of its two Nobel prize winners, Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), as well as Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) after whom one of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes is named. 

    Another very well known example is Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) who famously and publicly committed suicide. His spectacular death, age 45, in November two month before his birthday, made international news and confirmed his position as Japan’s most internationally famous individual and notorious author.

    Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) author of the novel No Longer Human, which alongside Dazai himself, is often cited by contemporary male Japanese writers as their favorite, also killed himself. Dazai, who attempted suicide several times from an early age, idolized Ryunosuke Akutagawa, whose death in 1927 had a very profound and terrible impact on him. 

    Sadly, Dazai’s own death in turn had a terrible impact on Hidemitsu Tanaka (1913-1949), the Olympic rower and novelist he mentored, who also killed himself. Tanaka wrote two Olympic related novels Orinposu no Kajitsu, The Fruit of Olympus, (1940) and Tantei Soshu, The Boat Rower, (1944). Tanaka killed himself at Dazai’s grave the year after Dazai’s death. 

    There is no doubt over how these four famous authors died, but Kawabata’s suicide is considered by some, including his wife, as accidental. Nevertheless, his death and the circumstances were reported widely and internationally as suicide in publications such as The New York Times, for instance. 

    Kawabata helped Mishima at several important points in his life and the two were close. Kawabata officiated at Mishima’s funeral, which was attended by thousands. However, unlike Mishima, Kawabata was at the end for his career and in poor heath when he died on the 16 April 1972, 17 months after Mishima. 

    Other well known Japanese authors included in the list of more than 50 authors who reportedly killed themselves are Takeo Arishima (1878-1923), Tamaki Hara (1905-1951) Ashihei Hino (1907-1960), Izumi Suzuki (1949-1986) and Hisashi Nozawa (1960-2004). And no doubt other lesser known and aspiring authors make have also taken their own lives.

    Japan is often associated with suicide partly due to its Kamikaze pilots in the war and stories about famous Samurai warriors. However, it does, in fact have a higher suicide rate than many nations.

    According to OECD data, Japan’s suicide rate is 18.7 per 100,000 one of the world’s highest rates amongst the nations surveyed by the OECD, and about 60 percent higher than the world average, but behind South Korea, which has an even higher rate at 28.7.

    People often cite Japan’s long tradition of an ‘honourable suicide’ as one reason for the high rate and also the lack of the Christian concept of sin and suicide being one such sin.
    More than 50 Japanese authors have killed themselves since 1900 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Many of Japan’s most interesting creative writers cite ‘No Longer Human’ by Osamu Dazai as their favourite book or one that had a huge influence on them[UPDATED: 5-29-2020]

    According to Fuminori Nakamura, one of the most exciting new generation of Japanese authors, his only escape when he was young was reading, and the one book that really resonated for him, was No Longer Human (Ningen shikkaku), by Osamu Dazai (1909-1948). 

    Many other leading Japanese authors say something similar when asked about influential books or authors. The multi award-winning author Shusuke Michio, for instance admits that No Longer Human was the first novel he read after his “bookworm girlfriend” in high school gave him a copy changing the course of his life. Up until that point he had been more interested in music and being in a band than books. 

    Dazai is an author who seems to fascinate many of Japan’s commercially successful and brilliantly creative male contemporary writers. They seem to find echoes of themselves in him and this novel in particular about a reclusive young man who feels “disqualified from being human” but finds solace in literature. 

    Ryu Murakami, author of Tokyo Decadence and Coin Locker Babies, who is from an older generation than Michio and Nakamura, is another example of a high profile award-winning author who has been influenced by Dazai.

    Reviewers have described him as: “Dazai’s true spiritual heir: a worldly, unshockable writer whose natural milieu lurks in the degeneracy of the world around him”, a moniker that he would no doubt be delighted by.  
    Many of Japan’s most interesting creative writers cite ‘No Longer Human’ by Osamu Dazai as their favourite book or one that had a huge influence on them Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s first generation of postmodern authors grew up listening to Bob Dylan and the Beatles[UPDATED: 2-26-2020]

    The generation of Japanese authors that grew up in the 1960s, including some internationally renowned names like Kiyoshi Kasai, Haruki Murakami, Kenji Nakagami, Masahiko Shimada, Soji Shimada and Genichiro Takahashi, are sometimes referred to by academics as Japan’s first postmodern authors.

    They were all born after the Second World War, experienced the student movements of the 1960s, and grew up during a period when Japan was rebuilding and growing in confidence.

    Their worldview and experiences were very distinct from the generation of authors that preceded them, who witnessed devastation and national defeat. Authors like Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) and Yukio Mishima (1925-1970).

    Japan’s so-called first postmodern authors grew up in an optimistic period heavily influenced by the United States and a growing mass market that included new American pulp-fiction arriving in Japan in translation. The influence of Western music, literature, film and television would have been significant.

    As is often the case in Japan after an initial period of digestion that involved imitation and experimentation local creative communities, including the nation’s writers and storytellers, started to develop their own approaches and styles. 

    These postmodern authors were the first generation to grow up listening to the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, which many of them became ardent fans of.

    The guitar-playing Beatles-loving so-called master of post-modern Japanese whodunnits, Soji Shimada, who is credited with inventing a new sub-genre of murder mysteries, is for example, on record saying that one of his dreams has been to sing If I Fell (A Hard Day’s Night) in chorus, as a duet, with Paul McCartney.

    Shimada also cites many Western films, such as Slueth directed by Joesph L. Mankiewicza and staring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, as influences.

    Their writing styles and narratives, which authors such as Murakami for instance have woven musical influences into sometimes for simple effect and at other times as a literary device, evolved and developed to mirror and document Japan’s social and economic changes.

    Works by these post-modern Japanese authors now span different genre and periods including, for example, the inflation and subsequent collapse of Japan’s economic bubble in the 1990s that led to Japan’s so-called Lost Decade (1991-2000).

    These rhythms of change combined with different Western, often American, motifs have fascinated many outside Japan, including documentary makers at the BBC. As well as academics and filmmakers from other countries including Denmark, who have looked to these authors and their works, especially Murakami’s, in order to explain and explore contemporary Japan and its Heisei Period (1989-2019) in particular.

    In 2019, the Asahi Shimbun surveyed 120 experts, who had contributed book reviews to this important national Japanese newspaper about their choice for the best book from the Heisei period. 1Q84 by Murakami topped the list, which will no doubt encourage even more journalists, academics and historians to use his works in particular to depict and understand both postmodern Japan and postmodern Japanese literature.

    Japan’s first generation of postmodern authors grew up listening to Bob Dylan and the Beatles Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Kobo Abe is said to be the Kafka of Japan[UPDATED: 11-22-2019]

    Kobo Abe (1924-1992) is said to be ‘The Kafka of Japan’. He is best known for: The Road Sign at the End of the Street (1948), The Woman in the Dunes (1962), as well as being avant-garde, being expelled from the Japanese Communist Party, and collecting insects.

    His novella, The Wall, won the Akutagawa Prize and established his reputation. His best friend was Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) and he was also a friend of Harold Pinter (1930-2008).

    He didn’t give many interviews, but an interesting conversation with him is reported in the New York Times under the headline: Japan’s Kafka Goes on the Road, where his experimental theatre group is discussed. 

    He and his book The Woman in the Dunes in particular are still popular today amongst some of Japan’s most talented and creative individuals such as the up-and-coming film director Yuka Eda, director and screenwriter of the 2018 crowd-funded film Shojo Kaiko, Girls’ Encounter, and the 2019 drama 21st Century Girl

    Eda cites Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes as one of the books that has had the most influence on her and one she returns to when she is looking for inspiration. She says she admires the novel’s kafkaesque tone and narrative style.
    Kobo Abe is said to be the Kafka of Japan Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Kafka a popular author and name amongst Japan’s creatives[UPDATED: 8-28-2019]

    Kafka is a popular author and name amongst creatives in Japan. In 2007, an animated version of Franz Kafka’s (1883-1924) 1917 short story A Country Doctor was produced by Koji Yamamura and the author’s name also famously appeared in Haruki Murakami’s bestselling 2002 book titled: Kafka on the Shore, a novel in which the protagonist renames himself Kafka after his favourite author.

    Two high profile Japanese people use the name in their pen names Kafka Shishido, a female drummer and singer; and Kafka Asasiri, the author of the manga series Bungo Stray Dogs, a series about the members of a very specialist detective agency; in which the main characters are named after famous authors: such as Agatha Christie (1890-1976), Osamu Dazai(1909-1948), Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), and Akiko Yosano (1878-1942).

    Another example is a character called Kafuka Fu’ura in the award winning manga series and subsequent spin-off anime Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei (Goodbye, Mr. Despair), where the characters have nicknames coined after social issues. The name Kafuka Fu’ura is apparently a conscious reference to Franz Kafka while the character’s actual real name is said to be An Akagi a pun on the Japanese translation of the title of the book Ann of Green Gables by L.M Montgomery (1874-1942).

    Interestingly, a port and the main hub on a small Japanese island called Rebun, with a population of three thousand, north of Hokkaido is called Kafuka. Despite the name; it is not related to Shikoku, the Island, which features in Murakami’s book, Kafka on the Shore.
    Kafka a popular author and name amongst Japan’s creatives Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s only convicted cannibal, who lives at large and now describes himself as a food critic, has written more than 20 books[UPDATED: 6-7-2019]

    Issei Sagawa killed and cannibalised a Dutch woman when he was living, and studying for a PhD in French literature, in Paris in 1981. The 25 year-old Dutch woman he murdered was his classmate at the Sorbonne. 

    Sagawa was found legally insane and unfit to stand trial in Paris. He was subsequently deported to Japan where he was initially housed in a mental hospital in Tokyo. 

    However, as the French authorities reportedly sealed all the court papers, dropped the charges, and did not hand over documents to the Japanese authorities, he could not legally be detained in Japan. 

    He was therefore in the unusual position of being able to check himself out of the Tokyo hospital in Japan in 1986, one year after he returned to Japan, and live at large. 

    Despite much criticism, there was apparently nothing that the Japanese authorities could do instantly making Sagawa even more famous. Sagawa’s notoriety helped him became a minor celebrity. 

    Today he is described on book and social media sites that promote the 20 or more books he has written since his return from France, as an essayist, author and food critic. 

    In addition to the many books he has written, he has penned restaurant reviews for the Japanese magazine Spa, starred in pornographic films, been a panellist on television talk shows and has even been featured in a lyric in a song by the Rolling Stones:  Too Much Blood (‘And when he ate her he took her bones/To the Bois de Boulogne’). 

    Sagawa, now wheelchair bound, lives with his brother outside Tokyo and still responds to media requests for interviews.
    Japan’s only convicted cannibal, who lives at large and now describes himself as a food critic, has written more than 20 books Posted by Richard Nathan
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    In the 1960s a member of the Japanese Imperial Family started moonlighting as a science fiction author[UPDATED: 3-4-2019]

    Princess Fukuko Asaka (1941-2009) started publishing science fiction and fantasy stories in Japanese magazines in the late 1950s under the pen name Bien Fu, and had stories regularly published throughout the 1960s. 

    One of the Princess’s stories was published in the first issue of Uchujin (1957-2009), an important pioneering science fiction magazine of the period. 

    The Princess was the Emperor’s second cousin and the great granddaughter of the Meiji Emperor (1852-1912), who ushered in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), opening up Japan to the West after more than 250 years of self-imposed isolation. This was a period in which Japan and the Imperial family changed beyond all recognition. In fact, all aspects of Japanese society from the way people dressed and wore their hair, to the types of books that were read and written, as well as the food eaten, were to change dramatically. 

    In 1969, while in her late 20s, the Princess invited a group of schoolchildren to a former imperial palace to discuss writing and science fiction. One of those students, Takayuki Tatsumi, went on to become a professor of American Literature at Keio University, a prestigious private university in Tokyo. She was the first science fiction writer Tatsumi had met and by all accounts made a lasting impression. 

    Princess Fukuko Asaka, who lost her official title in 1947 during the post-war occupation of Japan by Allied Forces, published numerous fantasy and science fiction stories throughout the late 1960s and also produced comic strips. 

    Her work features cyborgs and immortal imperial consorts, and she reportedly empathised with Native Americans, whose position in their country, like her own in Japan, had changed after the arrival of people from afar. She was a vocal champion of their rights and the rights of  others threatened with extinction. 

    According to literary critics and academics, this disinherited noblewoman was a pioneer of both Postmodernism and Science Fiction in Japan, and managed to reinvented herself as an author while also helping to lay the ground for others, especially women writers, and writers of new genres like Japanese Cyberpunk that has subsequently flourished in Japan.

    In the 1960s a member of the Japanese Imperial Family started moonlighting as a science fiction author Posted by Richard Nathan