Japanese Short Fiction Analysis

Early Short Fiction (900-1600 c.e.)

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In ancient times, legends and folktales were assumed to be true, no matter how miraculous or weird they may seem to the modern reader. The local narratives that the Japanese wrote down in the seventh and eighth centuries, when they first adapted the Chinese writing system to fit their own very different language, generally belong in this category. Although they often make fascinating reading, they cannot really be called “fictions” since they were taken quite literally by their audience. By the late ninth and early tenth centuries, however, sophisticated and highly entertaining tales of the supernatural were making their way to Japan from Tang China, suggesting newer, more fictional forms of storytelling.

One of the best loved of the few Japanese stories that survive from this early period is “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” It tells of a tiny girl discovered by an old woodsman in the hollow stem of a bamboo, who quickly grows into a lovely young woman wooed by all the great lovers of the land. Although she shows not the slightest interest in any of them, five will not take no for an answer. She sets each of them an impossible task, demanding they bring her a jeweled branch from Paradise, for example, or the Buddha’s own stone begging bowl. Then, when all have failed, revealing their weakness or dishonesty in the process, she returns to the moon from whence she came, despite the entreaties of the lovelorn emperor and the girl’s aged parents. It is a wonderful tale, alternately amusing and touching, with the kind of highly structured plot that is rare in the short fictions that followed. In fact, it is likely that “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” although based on an existing story, creatively altered Chinese models to fit the Japanese context.

The Riverside Counselor’s Stories

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

One of those creative alterations was the addition of fifteen thirty-one-syllable waka or tanka poems. These added beauty to “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” as well as a presumable touch of class, for “fiction” received very little respect from serious-minded individuals, who followed the Confucian line against such pursuits. Despite their lowly status, however, stories of various lengths thrived during the tenth and eleventh centuries, all mixing prose and poetry and often illustrations too. These reached their apex in Murasaki Shikibu’s monumental Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, 1925- 1933), which evoked the life and loves of the mythical Prince Genji and his descendants with extraordinary delicacy and insight. The Tale of Genji influenced all literature that followed, even short fiction, since despite the work’s length (over a thousand pages in English translation), its episodic structure meant it could be read as a sequence of shorter narratives, each organized around waka poems.

Prominent among the few surviving works from that period is the Tsutsumi chnagon monogatari (c. eleventh and twelfth century; The Riverside Counselor’s Stories, 1985) a ten-story collection liberally sprinkled with waka. Its nameless authors were largely women of the upper classes who, like Murasaki, lived a sequestered life. Since their focus was the world around them, the material they had to work with was limited. Yet within that narrow range they moved adroitly and often to great effect. “The Lieutenant Plucks a Sprig of Flowering Cherry,” for example, skewers the Genji-like “perfect lover” by having him accidentally abduct his beloved’s grandmother for a romantic tryst (he follows through nonetheless), while “The Shell-Matching Contest” paints a portrait of innocent children at play with an unerring feel for setting and detail. Finally, “The Lady Who Admired Vermin” (or “The Lady Who Loved Insects”), most likely written by a man, introduces the thoroughly unforgettable character of a grown-up tomboy who scorns the primped and proper realm of femininity for the grubbier but more honest world of caterpillars and bugs.

Tale Literature

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

If aristocratic women writing for themselves and their immediate circle in a cloistered, hothouse environment shaped the type of short fictions found in The Riverside Counselor’s Stories, then the public and male arena of Buddhist sermonizing gave birth to a very different kind of narrative, which spoke of and to common men and women. Beginning in the early ninth century, stories with religious themes were compiled and copied so that monks could use them to heighten their audience’s awareness of Buddhism’s long history, reminding them of the power of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and the efficacy of chanting the sutras. Yet, as time passed and Buddhism laid down roots in the local landscape, collections of such narratives came to include other types of folktales, some of which were secular in nature. By the mid-fourteenth century, at least forty-five anthologies of this sort of story—what the Japanese call setsuwa bungaku (“explained stories” or tale literature)— had been compiled for the pleasure of reading and listening as much as for religious instruction.

The most entertaining collection of tale literature in English, Japanese Tales (1987), selected, edited, and translated by Royall Tyler, draws heavily from two sources: the Konjaku monogatari (c. 1120; Tales of Times Now Past, 1979, partial translation), the most famous example of the genre, and the Uji shi monogatari (A Collection of Tales from Uji, 1970), whose early thirteenth century compiler tells of collaring passersby both “high and low” to get them to add new examples to his collection. Thus it was that fearsome goblins, lustful snakes, and enchanted foxes came to take their place beside the assembled saints and sinners of Buddhist lore. Can one call these stories “short fictions”? Not really, perhaps, since the accounts are too brief to be fully developed (less than two pages on average), and the events they describe, however strange they may appear, were seen as factual at the time. Nevertheless, tale literature is crucially important since it was the inspiration for so many dramatic and short story masterpieces of later eras.

Medieval Short Stories

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were marked by civil warfare, which caused widespread suffering. Fortune was fickle in those violent years: Noble families might suddenly find themselves on the streets, while those of low birth, through luck or prowess, could rise to the very pinnacle of society. One diversion everyone could enjoy, however, was the otogi-zshi (literally, companion stories), a form of popular story printed in hand- illustrated booklets or inscribed on scrolls. Traveling priests and storytellers drew from these medieval short stories, as they shall be called, in their work, which meant they were closely linked to the “vulgar” world of public performance. Thus, unlike the Noh theater and linked verse, elite pastimes whose texts were carefully preserved by later generations, medieval short stories were usually discarded.

Luckily, a few hundred examples managed to survive, which cover a remarkably wide range of subject matter. Some are confessional or revelatory tales (see the collection Rethinking Sorrow: Revelatory Tales of Late Medieval Japan, by Margaret Helen Childs, 1991) describing, often in heart-rending terms, events that provoked individuals to renounce the world for a life of Buddhist prayer and contemplation. Others, however, lean more toward the humorous and the romantic (see Tales of Tears and Laughter: Short Fiction of Medieval Japan, translated by Virginia Skord, 1991). Although the romantic kind are filled with waka poetry like their aristocratic predecessors The Tale of Genji and The Riverside Counselor’s Stories, their style was more accessible to common people. Perhaps most entertaining are the humorous stories of lusty wives, lazy husbands, and an individual called the “King of Farts,” whose famed ability to break wind tempts another, less talented man to imitate him, with disastrous results. While such stories can hardly be called great literature, they are fun and offer a glimpse into the lives of the peddlers and peasants, priests and samurai, who populated medieval Japan.

Short Fiction of the Edo Era (1600-1868)

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

If the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were bloody and unstable, the period that followed was one of unprecedented peace. It was called either the Tokugawa, after the family name of the shoguns who ruled, or the Edo after their capital city, modern-day Tokyo. By world standards, Japan became an affluent, urban, and literate country during this time, with a public eager to buy books or, more likely, borrow them for a small fee. To meet this growing demand, publishers improved their printing techniques so that they could press hundreds of attractively illustrated volumes from a single set of carved wooden blocks. Readers were especially curious to know about the lives of the high-class courtesans, the kabuki actors, and the wealthy customers who populated the “floating world” of the pleasure district, as well as the samurai who populated the provincial castle towns and Edo estates of the great feudal lords, the daimy.

It was under these conditions that Japan’s first great short-story master, Ihara Saikaku, made his name. Like commercially successful authors everywhere, Saikaku was keenly aware of what his audience wanted to read and was able to write quickly, a skill he picked up as a rapid-fire composer of comic haiku verses (his record was 23,500 in twenty-four hours). One might think him a hack, but in fact Saikaku was a gifted storyteller who combined a scholar’s knowledge of literature, a journalist’s eye for concrete detail, and a...

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Ueda Akinari

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Enlightenment of a different sort was on the mind of Ueda Akinariwhen he wrote his great eighteenth century classic, Ugetsu monogatari (1776; Tales of Moonlight and Rain, 1974). Unlike Saikaku, who praised heterosexual love in one collection, homosexual in the next, Ueda sought less to please and more to “heal” his readers emotionally and spiritually, a fitting goal for a man who spent part of his life as a medical doctor. The sufferings of each of the nine heroes in the Tales of Moonlight and Rain, for example, represent the painful struggle to move from youthful passion and innocence (the “rain” in the title) to a higher state of wisdom and experience (the “moon”). In every story, moreover, this hard-won maturity is achieved through contact with what might be called the supernatural, which means that Tales of Moonlight and Rain is often enjoyed simply as a collection of spooky stories. Yet there is a lot more there than meets the eye. For not only did Ueda believe in his gods, ghosts, and spirits; he also used them to evoke a literary tradition that stretched back as far as The Tale of Genji and across the seas to China.

“The Lust of the White Serpent”—one of the two Ueda stories from which director Kenji Mizoguchi drew in his classic film Ugetsu (1953)—for example, is based on a Chinese story about a white snake who turns herself into a gorgeous young woman in order to bewitch...

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Higuchi Ichiy

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Remarkably, the first great “modern” writer of the Meiji period, Higuchi Ichiy was no upper-class intellectual but an impoverished young woman ignorant of Western languages, whose main literary influences were classics like The Tale of Genji and the stories of Saikaku. Her enduring masterpiece “Growing Up” (also rendered as “Child’s Play”) in fact owes much to Saikaku in its command of detail and scene, yet Higuchi’s delicate portrait of life in the pleasure quarters as seen through the eyes of its children is more poignant and affecting than anything the old master ever wrote. Indeed, her sensitive handling of her material makes one realize how much Japanese and, more generally, East Asian literature suffered from the Confucian dictum that women’s activities should be confined to the household. Although Higuchi died young, worn out by poverty and overwork, she left behind a legacy for the many Japanese women writers who followed.

Mori gai

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Among Higuchi’s many admirers in Japanese literary circles was Mori gai. After four years of medical study in Germany, gai returned to Japan armed with an arsenal of artistic and critical theories, which he quickly put to work in his own fiction. At first, this led to a highly romanticized, somewhat derivative type of writing, a famous example being “The Dancing Girl,” gai’s semiautobiographical story of a love affair between a Japanese student and a young German woman. Gradually, however, gai changed. He developed a more terse and vernacular style and shifted his attention to historical topics and the legends of the past. “Sansh the Steward”—also rendered as Sansho the Bailiff in Kenji Mizoguchi’s classic film (1954)—for instance, is an elaborated version of one of Japan’s most beloved fairytales about a brother and sister torn from their mother and sold as slaves to an evil overseer. While gai took pains to respect history “as it really was,” “Sansh” speaks to the spiritual crisis of his times, offering a vision of courage and self-sacrifice to a society reeling from the impact of wholesale modernization.

gai’s later works are quite unlike anything written before in either the West or Japan. Generally, they take the form of biographical sketches of relatively obscure historical figures, but their aesthetic structure and characterization clearly qualify them as short stories. Given gai’s mastery of Western literature, this move away from conventional forms was hardly a failing on the author’s part. Rather, like the novelist Sseki Natsume, the other great architect of Japan’s modern literature, gai had reached the point where a narrow adherence to Western models hindered rather than helped.

Rynosuke Akutagawa

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The writers who followed gai and Sseki had it much easier. For one thing, although most could read a Western language, they did not have to be the linguists their elders had been, since so much of the best literature the West had to offer—including the short stories of authors like Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov, Edgar Allan Poe, and Hans Christian Anderson—had been well translated by the time their generation reached its maturity in the Taisho Period (1912-1926). For another, thanks to the efforts of Higuchi Ichiy, Mori gai, and many others, the Japanese short story was firmly established as a genre linked to but not synonymous with its Western cousins.

No single pattern characterized the fiction of this second generation of writers, probably the most gifted in Japan’s modern literary history. Rather, their achievement is best appreciated by a consideration of their differences. Rynosuke Akutagawa, for example, wrote tightly constructed stories which often drew from old collections like Tales of Times Now Past, discussed above. Two such stories, “Rashmon” and “In a Grove,” were adapted by the director Akira Kurosawa in his famous 1950 film, Rashomon while another, the gripping “Hell Screen,” paints a disturbing portrait of an artist who pays a terrible price to create “the perfect picture.” All three stories examine philosophical issues such as the clash between morality and survival, the relativity of “truth,” and the link between creativity and the darker side of the unconscious. Instead of helping Akutagawa, however, these inquiries only seem to have plunged him deeper into despair. When he finally put an end to his life on the eve of Japan’s descent into militarism, his suicide was interpreted as a sad testimony to the limitations of rationality in a world increasingly ruled by nationalistic passions.

Shiga Naoya

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Despite the gemlike brilliance of his elegantly crafted stories, Akutagawa was never satisfied with them. He preferred the “plotless stories” and robust approach to art and life of the other preeminent short-story writer of his time, Shiga Naoya a master of the shi-shsetsu (“I- novel”) mode of autobiographical fiction. Shiga believed that art should follow the powerful, decidedly nonrational rhythms of the universe as embodied in the works of Saikaku or Auguste Rodin. Anything artificial or ornamental could only interfere with this rhythmic principle and had to be eliminated. As a result, Shiga’s prose has a stripped-down, elemental quality, highly praised by Japanese critics but devilishly difficult to translate. His stories lack the kind of dramatic, architecturally structured plots found in most Western literary works and in those of writers like Akutagawa. Nevertheless, an outwardly simple story like “At Kinosaki,” in which a man (presumably Shiga) recovering from a near-fatal accident meditates on the deaths of several small creatures, turns out to be surprisingly complex when examined closely. For if, as Shiga suggests, the key to life is learning to harmonize ourselves with the rhythms of nature, and the goal of art is to communicate that struggle, then the “structure” of serious fiction must follow the pattern of that healing process and of nature itself.

Jun’ichir Tanizaki

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Not everyone applauded Shiga Naoya’s approach to art and life as Akutagawa did. Jun’ichir Tanizaki, for example, bristled at the idea that “plot” was somehow a dirty word, nor did he think the pleasure of literature should take a back seat to its ostensible healing powers. Tanizaki was a great storyteller who enjoyed tantalizing and titillating his readers as he challenged their moral assumptions. A student of classical literature (he translated the lengthy Tale of Genji into modern Japanese several times), he often incorporated historical events and characters into his works. Whether set in the past or present, their subject matter consistently involved the clash between traditional and Western culture and the...

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Yasunari Kawabata

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

If Jun’ichir Tanizaki is Japan’s most entertaining twentieth century author, then Yasunari Kawabata, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, is the most poetic. Kawabata juxtaposed images in fresh and compelling ways, which gave his prose a traditional “haiku-like” aspect, yet he was a most modern and experimental writer. This is immediately evident in his Palm-of-the-Hand Stories (1988), a series of very short works, some barely a page in length, which he published intermittently over the course of his career. At first glance, these appear to be little more than dreams hastily jotted down or perhaps a writer’s sketchbook for future reference. As one reads on, though, they begin to take on a character and...

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Yukio Mishima

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Kawabata committed suicide in 1972, less than two years after the dramatic public seppuku of his illustrious protégé, Yukio Mishima. Although critics often link the two together by virtue of their aesthetic approach to art, Mishima, with his preternaturally structured mind, could never have composed in Kawabata’s imagistic, open-ended way. Mishima, it seems, always knew exactly where he was going and never left anything to chance—even the circumstances of his death were plotted and rehearsed years in advance. The short story “Patriotism,” for example, is a highly stylized depiction of the double suicide of a young army officer and his wife following an abortive army uprising in the 1930’s. Mishima later made a...

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Kno Taeko

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Like Mishima, Kno Taekowas a young adult in August, 1945, when Japan’s leaders surrendered their devastated country to the victorious Americans to end World War II. Unlike him, however, she felt no nostalgia for the patriotic samurai spirit of the militaristic old days. Forced to fend for herself and her family in the aftermath of the war, Kno developed into a tough, resourceful woman able to eke out a living in a competitive, male-dominated world. As Japan regained its feet, opportunities increased for women of literary talent, and by the 1960’s Kno was recognized as a major author in the tradition of Jun’ichir Tanizaki. Like many of Tanizaki’s protagonists, for example, the childless heroine of her short story...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Backus, Robert L. The Riverside Counselor’s Stories. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1985. A definitive translation, with notes and a helpful introduction.

Birnbaum, Alfred. Monkey Brain Sushi. New York: Kodansha International, 1991. An entertaining collection of popular fiction of the 1980’s, including “TV People” by Haruki Murakami.

Danly, Robert Lyons. In the Shade of Spring Leaves. Yale University Press, 1981. A beautiful evocation of Ichiy Higuchi and her world, with translations that include “Child’s Play.”

Goossen, Theodore W. The Oxford...

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Haruki Murakami

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Kno’s ability to deftly establish a believable and engaging narrator in the space of just a few lines is shared by Japan’s premier storyteller of the 1980’s and 1990’s, Haruki Murakami. Yet there is a clear difference between the stories of Kno, the doughty wartime survivor, and Murakami, the postwar baby boomer. Whereas Kno’s kinky characters are firmly rooted in reality, Murakami’s outwardly normal heroes and heroines live in uneasy proximity to the realm of the absurd. The mundane protagonist of “TV People,” for example, is beset by miniature television repairmen whom only he can see, who infiltrate his home and workplace for purposes that he can only guess at; while the equally uncharismatic hero of “The...

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Banana Yoshimoto

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Like Murakami, Banana Yoshimotois widely read in Asia and the West, but her readers are mostly young women in their teens and early twenties. Correspondingly, her stories focus on their concerns about things like growing up, parents, love affairs of various kinds, and, interestingly, death. Some have dismissed her as “a teen writer,” but there is more to Yoshimoto—whose pen name plays on the “yellow on the surface, white underneath” taunt leveled at “Westernized” East Asians—than meets the eye. First and foremost she is an innovator, who has transposed some of the themes and conventions of Japanese manga (comics), in particular the shojo manga (romance comics) genre so popular in Japan, in a highly...

(The entire section is 222 words.)