A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    • Olympics

    Japan’s ‘first’ Olympic Book, ‘The Fruits of Olympus’, was published in 1940[UPDATED: 3-1-2023]

    In 1932 Japan sent a large team of 115 men and 16 women to the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. They performed extremely well, winning 7 gold, 7 silver, and 4 bronze medals. Japan’s success at this Olympics did not just generate nationalistic pride at home; it also produced one of Japan’s first Olympic literary works, a bestselling novella by Hidemitsu Tanaka (1913-1949), Orinposu no Kajitsu, The Fruits of Olympus (1940).

    Tanaka was an Olympic rower who at the age of 19 competed in the Men’s Coxed Eights. He and his Olympic crew didn’t bring back any medals from the games. But the Olympic experience led to Tanaka’s novella, which unlike his Olympic feats was a major success, creating its own narrative milestone.

    The Fruits of Olympus, a rites of passage novel about unrequited love, is the tale of a young moody athlete, also a rower, leaving his country and representing it on the Los Angeles Olympic stage. It is not a tale of the fruits of success.

    The Fruits of Olympus is not your typical Japanese sports book with an individual becoming a national hero by overcoming every challenge faced through extreme hard work and diligence. Much of the short novel takes place on the boat journey from Japan to the games in the United States.

    The novella, a semi-autobiographical I-novel style work of autofiction, follows Sakamoto, a university rower who doesn’t enjoy all aspects of being part of his Olympic team. The rowers life takes on new meaning, however, during the boat journey to America on which a female athlete (an 18 year-old high jumper) catches his eye and he falls for her. 

    The Fruits of Olympus articulates the anxiety of youth struggling with young love, authority, peer-pressure and expectations. Rowing success is elusive, Sakamoto’s efforts are fruitless and he returns to Japan without fulfilling his dreams; and is unable to rise to the challenge of even telling the high jumper how he feels.

    The Fruits of Olympus was initially published in a literary magazine, Bungakukai, but became more popular in book format, according to academics, after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War – especially among schoolboys.

    Perhaps, as some academics have argued, Sakamoto’s international failure, his skepticism about the strategy and approach adopted, and his inability to articulate his feelings, including those of defeat, reflected how many felt in post-war Japan.

    Since its publication in 1940: popular Japanese sports have diversified to include diving and football as well as rowing; and Japan’s Olympic literature has also evolved in a way that would undoubtedly have surprised but perhaps also delighted Tanaka.

    Japan’s ‘first’ Olympic Book, ‘The Fruits of Olympus’, was published in 1940 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    • Olympics

    In 1964, the year of the first Tokyo Olympics, three important Japanese novels were published, one of which helped lead to a Nobel Prize, and a very exciting new author was born[UPDATED: 8-9-2021]

    In 1964, Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), Japan’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (he won in 1968), published Beauty and Sadness and four years later went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

    Beauty and Sadness is an elegiac and provocative novel that cleverly blends tradition and modernity, as well as age and youth, in its subtle narrative.

    The same year, Japan’s first Olympic year, Kenzaburo Oe published A Personal Matter, which was cited by the Nobel prize committee in 1994 when he became the second Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

    In 1964, four Japanese authors were amongst the 76 candidates nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature; Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), Kawabata, Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) and Junzaburo Nishiwaki (1894-1982).

    None of them won. But in the media frenzy leading up to the official announcement by the Nobel Committee the French news agency L’Agence-France-Presse (AFP) announced in error that Junichiro Tanizaki had won.

    Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was the actual winner and sadly Tanizaki died the following year in July, a few months before the 1965 prize-winner was announced.

    Other notable publishing highlights in 1964, a year with many, included the publication of a third important Japanese novel, The Face of Another, by Kobo Abe (1924-1993), which quickly became a classic.

    The Face of Another describes modern Japan and the danger of unregulated technology, but is mostly a narrative about identity and relationships.

    The novel is about a plastics scientist who loses his face in an accident and makes a new one for himself. This act besides changing his own perspective, also affects his relationships with others – including his wife, who he manages to seduce. 

    Banana Yoshimoto, who is probably now Japan’s best-known female writer internationally was born in 1964, making Japan’s first Olympic year a rather special milestone year for Japanese creative writing, literature and publishing; not to mention sport.

    Yoshimoto’s first book, Kitchen, also considered a modern classic, was published 24 years after the Tokyo Olympics in 1988. It is a mesmerizing and elegantly written novel about an orphan who is taken in by her friend and her transgender mother. 

    Kitchen is now sometimes cited as a pioneering example of LGBT related publishing in Japan.

    In 1964, the year of the first Tokyo Olympics, three important Japanese novels were published, one of which helped lead to a Nobel Prize, and a very exciting new author was born Posted by Richard Nathan