People, it seems, cannot live without stories: Indeed, our need to construct narratives about our lives and the world around us is one of the things that make us human. Through stories we try to reach an understanding of who we are, individually and collectively, and of the various events that befall us. Where do we come from, and where do we end up? How can we control our passions, or endure the cares and woes of daily existence? Just as important, perhaps, how can we savor the comic, often ridiculous side of life? Through stories, people are able to share laughter and tears and confront an uncertain world.
Nevertheless, although all people live by narratives, not everyone tells, writes, or films them in exactly the same way. The shape of a narrative, for instance, and the way it is understood vary according to where and when it was fashioned. Japanese short fictions, as shall be seen, do not always fit neatly into the patterns that modern English-speaking readers expect. The first reaction may be that Japanese narratives do not end properly; yet on closer examination the reader finds that they do in fact resolve themselves through another kind of narrative logic, based more on the association of ideas and images than on a linear architectronic plan. Instead of a rising sea swell that propels the reader toward a final resolution—what might be called the Aristotelian pattern—one tends to find a series of smaller waves that carry the reader up and down, from one insight to the next. Though there are differences, however, Japanese short fictions are nevertheless fun and offer the reader a window into the imaginative sphere of one of the world’s great literary cultures. To develop a fuller appreciation, this study will look at how this tradition evolved over the last eleven hundred years or so, focusing on the stories of a few selected authors, all available in translation. All the stories mentioned are available in English translation.