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Sunday, Oct. 30, 2005

Speaking volumes

With many excellent books on Japan available in English, readers can look into any corner of the culture here. Local book lovers tell The Japan Times about a few of their favorite titles.

Kaori Shoji

Kaori Shoji was born in Tokyo, raised in New York and writes for a number of international and domestic publications. She is a regular contributor to The Japan Times' Film and Bilingual pages.

"Kitchen," by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Megan Backus (Washington Square Press, 1994)

When "Kitchen" first came out in 1988, Japan was happily cocooned inside an enormous economic bubble, but on the back streets of Shibuya, much of the talk was about how stupid and tiring money was. "Kitchen" took us by surprise; it voiced our innermost desire for spiritual comfort, real companionship and the sheer healing process that is cooking. The main character, Mikage Sakurai, is probably the first fictional Japanese girl to take ordinary living and menial tasks to such romantic levels; now, of course, her model is no longer emulated.

"Norwegian Wood," by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin (Vintage International, 2000)

The love story to beat all love stories, this work shows Murakami the Emotional Trickster at the absolute peak of his powers. Rumor has it that when he showed the galleys to his wife she predicted a bestseller of staggering proportions and made arrangements for both of them to leave the country until the hue and cry died down. Those of us in our late teens to early 20s at the time the book came out took one read, read it again and remained affected for years to come.

"Out," by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Stephen Snyder (Vintage, 2004)

This wicked novel of crime and despair put Natsuo Kirino on the international map of formidable Japanese writers. The story of four women who work the night shift in a bento (boxed lunch) factory, "Out" exposed the inherent violence, greed and lust of suburban housewives, drifting in a wasteland of household duties and karaoke bars as they search desperately for . . . love? Ideal husbands? Guess again, says "Out."

Donald Richie

Donald Richie is best known as the foremost Western authority on Japanese cinema, but also writes on many other aspects of the country. His Asian Bookshelf column appears every week on The Japan Times book review page.

"The Honorable Picnic," by Thomas Raucat (Charles Tuttle, Co., 1928)

Though written under a pseudonym (the writer's real name was Roger Poidatz), this perceptive and very funny novel resulted in the author being posted back to France. Nonetheless, it remains one of the most observant and honest novels ever written about this country, and only a person deeply and affectionately involved could have penned it.

"Kafu the Scribbler: The Life and Writings of Nagai Kafu, 1879-1959" by Edward Seidensticker (University of Hawaii Press, 1965)

Rarely have author and subject so marvelously meshed. One of Japan's finest writers is most sympathetically presented by one of the best translators from Japanese. A number of Kafu's splendid stories are translated as well as a masterful recreation of his times -- the Taisho Era Tokyo about which he was so ambivalent.

"Mirror, Sword and Jewel," by Kurt Singer, edited by Richard Storry (Kodansha International, 1973)

Though compiled from observations the author made during his stay in Japan in the 1930s, Singer's insights are so deep that they remain true to this day. For example: "The most dramatic proof of the existence of a specific Japanese civilization is perhaps the impossibility for the foreigner to live in this medium without feeling slightly oppressed even when charmed, subtly excluded even if allowed to participate."

David Elliott

David Elliott is director of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. He was previously director of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, England (1976-96), and Moderna Museet (the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art), Stockholm, Sweden (1996-2001), and has also worked as a lecturer, broadcaster, editor and writer on art and culture.

"The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa," by Kawabata Yasunari, translated by Alisa Freedman (University of California Press, 2005)

In this early novel, Kawabata shows the chaotic modernity of Tokyo in the 1920s, when the moga (modern girl) and mobo (modern boy) typified the new order Jazz Age of ero, guro, nansensu (eroticism, grotesque and nonsense). The characters are at the edge of society and the fragmentary way the story is told reflects both Expressionist cinema, which was then becoming the rage, and the conventions of kabuki.

"A Hundred Years of Japanese Film," by Donald Richie (Kodansha, 2001)

Donald Richie's masterly analysis of the history of Japanese film is particularly helpful in providing a chronology and framework for silent cinema, much of which has been lost. From film stills and the memoirs of those who had seen or made the films, he constructs a narrative that balances the influence of Japanese visual and theatrical traditions with the impact of new ways of seeing and telling stories that came from the West. We can begin to appreciate the influences that nurtured the great postwar directors.

"The Nightless City or the History of the Yoshiwara Yukwaku," by J.E. de Becker (RoutledgeCurzon, 2000)

Neither moralizing nor prurient in tone, this early work of sociology, first published in 1905, analyses the way in which the Tokyo Yoshiwara (officially approved red-light district) worked at the end of the 19th century. It is a mine of information, giving the history, geography and names of all the establishments at the time of writing. Copiously illustrated, it shows the different kinds of costumes and hairstyles worn by different ranks and explains how the district was regulated.

Mark Schreiber

Mastermind of the weekly Tokyo Confidential section of The Japan Times, Mark Schreiber is the author of "Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan," "The Dark Side: Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals" and the editor/author of "Tokyo Confidential: Titillating Tales from Japan's Wild Weeklies.''

"Samurai Boogie," by Peter Tasker (Orion, 2001)

This hilarious tale about the adventures of a klutzy, impoverished private detective and the memorable characters he encounters is one of the liveliest pieces of fiction set in Japan I've seen in the past two decades, and it manages to be funny without being condescending or resorting to lowbrow, racist humor.

"The Chrysanthemum and the Bat" (Dodd, Mead, 1977), or anything else by Robert Whiting

I immediately grab Whiting's latest books without any hesitation, because I know they'll be provocative and entertaining. He's at his best when writing about sports, but in "Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan," he audaciously took the spotlight off U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur and introduced the postwar Occupation era through the eyes of a tough New Yorker who opened Tokyo's first pizzeria. He shows a real flair for presenting people and situations that provide entertaining explanations of why Japan is the way it is.

"Ninja Justice: Six Tales of Murder and Revenge," by Ikenami Shotaro, translated by Gavin Frew (Kodansha International, 2000)

Originally published as "Master Assassin," Ikenami's stories, about a killer for hire named Fujieda Baian who tracks his prey and slays them using a special acupuncture needle, paint a dark and foreboding picture of the Edo Period. With this readable translation, you can see why Ikenami enjoyed such a popular following.

Sonya Park

Sonya Park is a fashion editor and owner of the Art and Science boutiques (www.arts-science.com) Her book "Sonya's Shopping Manual 101" was recently published by Magazine House.

Memories of a Dog (Nazraeli Press, 2004)

Daido Moriyama is probably the most celebrated art photographer in Japan today, and his pictures focus mainly on the back streets of Tokyo and the people who live there. This volume is a very good compilation of his most well-known work, and includes English translation. A must if you like modern photography.

Shigeo Gocho 1946-1983 (Kyodo Tsushinsha, 2004)

Born in Niigata, Gocho suffered from thoracic vertebral caries when he was 3, which left him physically handicapped and sadly resulted in his early death in 1983. This volume is probably the most complete collection of his work. Gocho preferred to express his vision through compiling a series of photographs on a subject, rather than shooting single images. His work is so personal that this book is almost like peeking into someone's family photo album.

Kojima Ichiro Hysteric Eleven (Hysteric Glamour, 2004)

Ichiro Kojima devoted much of his career to photographing the landscape and people of his native Aomori. This book is a beautiful and powerful visual record of the prefecture and its people in the postwar period.

Guy Perryman

Guy Perryman was born in the U.K., grew up in Singapore and Australia and came to Japan in 1990 as resident DJ at the first Virgin Megastore in Tokyo. He hosts a program on 76.1 Inter FM Monday through Friday, 1-4 p.m.

"The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima," by Henry Scott Stokes (Cooper Square Press, 2000)

This was the second book I read after arrival in Japan (the first was your standard Japan travel guide). It opened a window into the personality of a man who was fascinating, contradictory and unfathomable, traits of this country as a whole that still hold my attention.

"Bushido: The Soul of Japan," by Inazo Nitobe (Kodansha International, 2002)

I've always been fascinated with the comparisons between Japanese samurai and English knights -- and the odd fact that in a highly intellectual age we have lost some seemingly beneficial noble characteristics. Just what was the spirit behind the samurai? I read this book to try to answer this question, and gained some somewhat dark yet enlightening knowledge.

"A Little Book For People With Rich Imaginations," by Kin Shiotani

This book reflects what I love about contemporary Japan: it's creative, cool, funny, and quirky with a sense of irony. Its humorous observations of life are thoughtful, occasionally detached or even apathetic -- very much Japan today.

Eric Prideaux

Before joining The Japan Times as staff writer, Eric Prideaux worked as a reporter for Bloomberg and the Associated Press. He is also a photographer and aspiring documentary film maker.

"The Inland Sea," by Donald Richie (Stone Bridge Press, 2002)

This travel book exemplifies what I imagine the original mission of journalism to have been: to go somewhere far away, surrender yourself to the strange new environs, and send back reports so vivid and personal that they could have been taken straight from the pages of, yes, a journal. Taking us along on his voyages across the Inland Sea in Japan's southwest, Richie hypnotizes us with prose as gentle as the tide, then suddenly unleashes powerful insights.

"Tokyo Underworld," by Robert Whiting (Vintage, 2000)

In this painstakingly researched account, Whiting presents the fantastically colorful and true story of Nick Zappetti, an ex-U.S. Marine sergeant who arrives in Japan in late August 1945 and becomes involved in Japanese organized crime. Other players in the book include the GHQ, the CIA, a stateless White Russian with "a taste for booze and expensive cars," and, naturally, countless Japanese gangsters. As fascinating as the story itself is the "Notes and Sources" section at the end, which I annotated almost to the point of illegibility.

"Monkey Brain Sushi," edited by Alfred Birnbaum (Kodansha International, 2002)

Granted, some material in this collection of Japanese short fiction, first published in 1991, will have you scratching your head -- for example, the strangely titled "Japan's Junglest Day." But Yoshinori Shimizu's "Japanese Entrance Exams for Earnest Young Men," the tale of a teenage boy's desperate efforts to pass his college-entrance exams, is one of the funniest critiques of Japanese society I've read. Another story, "Kneel Down and Lick My Feet," may have been my first exposure to popular novelist Amy Yamada.

Caroline Pover

Caroline Pover is the self-published author of "Being A Broad in Japan: Everything a Western Woman Needs to Survive and Thrive." She has been living in Japan since 1996, and publishes books and magazines.

"The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima," by Henry Scott Stokes (Cooper Square Press, 2000)

When I first came to Japan I didn't have any money, and the school I worked at allowed teachers to take out library books for personal use. I must have read all of Mishima's books and found the English translations to be the most beautiful writing I had ever come across. I was fascinated when I found out a bit about Mishima's life and death, and Henry's book answered so many questions. An incredibly moving volume.

"The Only Woman in the Room: A Memoir," by Beate Sirota Gordon (Kodansha International, 1998)

Obviously about Beate's life, especially her time in Japan and her role in contributing to the welfare and women's sections in the postwar Constitution. I heard her speak at the Foreign Correspondents' Club several years ago and got a signed copy of her book. I felt she was quite out of touch with modern Japan, yet still commands great respect and admiration from Japanese women of many ages. A very interesting woman.

"Charisma Man, 1998-2002: The Complete Collection," by Larry Rodney and Neil Garscadden (AKNG Press, 2002)

Love it! I have always admired Neil for coming up with a great idea, and also for self-publishing this book. The illustrations are excellent , and the story lines are, at times, painfully accurate. A quick and easy read, with a lot of laughs for foreign men and women who don't take the stereotypes too seriously.

Roger Pulvers

Roger Pulvers is an author, playwright and theater director, and a professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology. He has written 18 books in both Japanese and English, and a collection of his fiction and nonfiction writings, "Half and More," will be published by Shinchosha in 2005.

"Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan," by Herbert P. Bix (HarperCollins, 2000)

To my mind this is the best single work about modern Japan in English. Bix has done what writers of historical fiction aspire to: create a living portrait of a person, in this case an emperor, whose personality and character affected the lives of generations of people. The life, politics and strategic plans of Hirohito are laid out against the backdrop of his long reign. Bix manages to be faithful to historical fact and make it all relevant to events in Japan and elsewhere in Asia today.

"The Kobe Hotel," by Sanki Saito, translated by Masaya Saito (Weatherhill, 1993)

Saito set these semi-autobiographical stories in a hotel in Kobe during World War II and after. They feature Japanese, Chinese, Egyptian, German and American characters. Saito is that rare bird in Japan: brilliant storyteller, genuine cosmopolitan and Kansai decadent. He was also a dentist, sometime expatriate, a dance instructor and a haiku poet of genius (many of his haiku are in this volume as well). A neglected master of modern Japanese literature.

"Rashomon and 17 Other Stories," by Jay Rubin (Penguin, forthcoming)

Sneak preview: Jay Rubin's stunning translations of stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa will appear as a Penguin Classic in the U.S. and U.K. in spring 2006. Under the title "Rashomon and 17 Other Stories," Rubin brings out all of the black humor and tongue-in-cheek wit of the original. I have read some of these translations and I believe that they will resurrect Akutagawa's reputation in the West. If Akutagawa, the Japanese Gogol, had been writing in English, he would have chosen Rubin's sharp and elegant prose style. A sublime treat for next year.

Dave Spector

Dave Spector first came to Japan in the 1980s as a producer for ABC and is now one of the busiest foreigners on Japanese TV. Besides working as a commentator on numerous TV news and variety shows he is a columnist for Tokyo Sports Shimbun, has written several books, worked on the Japanese translation for "Seinfeld" and was targeted for assassination by the Aum Shinrikyo cult.

"Patriotism," by Yukio Mishima, translated by Geoffrey W. Sargent (New Directions Publishing Corp., 1995)

First published in 1961, this book was one of many written by the brilliant novelist. Mishima was definitely one sick puppy but he certainly knew how to exit a room. I remember struggling with a bunko (paperback) version in Japanese and was so influenced that a buddy in high school and myself actually attempted to make an 8-mm film version of the novel. After inspecting the first roll in the pawnshop-bought camera, I discovered that the film was not loaded properly and we dropped the project that day (seriously).

"The Tale of Genji," by Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Royall Tyler (Penguin Classics, 2002)

I read this because, well, you were supposed too. Luckily I chose to read the English version of this mammoth work, otherwise I'm sure I would have spent the time fiddling with the string they kindly attach to Japanese books before giving up entirely. It's safe to say that nearly all Japan aficionados start out with a fascination for the samurai world . . . I took kendo lessons in frigid Chicago for six years and have the faded bruises to prove it. As for Murasaki Shikibu and her cohorts, suffice it to say that "Desperate Housewives" has nothing on the Heian Period.

"The Counterfeiter and Other Stories," by Yasushi Inoue, translated by Leon Picon (Tuttle Publishing, 2000)

While earnestly trying to master Japanese, a knowledgeable Waseda graduate in the States urged me to simply read all the books by Inoue Yasushi that I could get my hands on, new or used. Except -- he added -- the historic works, which I would never comprehend. It was a good recommendation because Inoue's modern (at the time) novels were heavy on romantic dialogue and offered a glimpse into sophisticated pockets of nightlife in Ginza and Akasaka, the likes of which I had only seen in Yujiro Ishihara movies. I must have gone through at least a dozen Inoue novels in Japanese, and I thank him today for the confidence it gave me to plod onward.



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