‘The Best Japanese Short Stories’: Hauntingly Splendid

New collection captures the tensions of a society in flux

Sometimes you just need to let a story be what it is, savor the elegance of its prose and the vividness of its descriptions, and refrain from hitting others over the head with analyses. At other times, a story channels the loves, longings, and frustrations of people living under a social and political order so eloquently that it cries out for explication. The beauty of Tuttle’s new edition of The Best Japanese Short Stories, translated by Lane Dunlop, is that readers can take what they like from it. Here are tales with the simplicity of Hemingway and the intellectual heft of David Foster Wallace, set in places and historical moments too many of us have never explored.

Those who come to this collection longing to know what it is like to wander on remote mountain paths, through lonely fields, and along eerily beautiful riverbeds will find here an array of authors who render the topography of their land in broad and in fine strokes. The descriptions are so lovely and meticulously realized you feel you are gazing at a Nihonga canvas.

Tuttle, the publisher, bills this collection as a showcase of a broad cross-section of Japanese storytelling, from the canonical to the obscure, and the description is apt. If your sense of the country’s literature derives from Haruki Murakami, Yukio Mishima, and Nobel laureates Kenzaburo Oe and Yasunari Kawabata, and maybe just a few others, here is an opportunity to take a deep dive and get a sense of just how diverse, in the best sense of that corrupted term, is the literature of modern Japan.


Though they dwell in a lush and haunting natural world, many of the authors here are deeply aware of the currents of their time and the tendency of Japan to shift ever more radically from the idealized version that haunts them to a stratified, competitive, cruel society all too willing to shunt tradition aside and adopt foreign ways.

In Gishu Nakayama’s “Autumn Wind,” the guests at a thermal spa nestled in the mountains show all the trappings of westernization and a sense of class privilege as they look askance at a wreck of a young woman staying among them. Ailing, lonely, depressed, and antisocial, she languishes in her room and does not partake of the spa treatments. The girl is a prostitute and an emblem of a walk of life the rich guests feel has no place at their resort. Calls rise for the management to throw her out.

But not quite everyone shares this reflexive hostility. A crew of woodcutters grow so solicitous toward the girl, and find the attitudes of the wealthy so repellent, that they decide to preempt those who would kick her out. They carry the girl out on their shoulders and mount a procession through the desolate, lovely outdoors as many of the guests stand and watch in awe and stupefaction amid the mounting autumn wind. They are as protective toward her as the above-mentioned Mishima feels toward towns and farms bombed during the Second World War.

As working people, the woodcutters in “Autumn Wind” feel a deep aversion to the exclusive, clubbish mindset that took possession of many members of Japan’s educated classes in the latter part of the last century, breeding insularity and a tendency to want to help only those deemed socially acceptable.

It is the same mentality that journalist R. Taggart Murphy explored in an essay in the January/February 2020 edition of the New Left Review, “Privilege Preserved: Crisis and Recovery in Japan.” Examining the growth and consolidation of power among economic elites in postwar Japan, Murphy details the tendency of those elites to lend capital to firms, institutions, and individuals deemed to be yoshingendo shoryaku saki, a phrase Murphy translates as indicating a certain blue-chip status.

Such people are beyond the calculus that banks apply when making decisions about loans, Murphy explains. In the postwar era, lenders knew they did not have to worry about the credit histories or liquidity of those in this category, he tells us, and their ready support fostered insularity and the consignment of large numbers of people to one or another stratum. Never the twain shall meet.

The woodcutters of “Autumn Wind” will have none of this. If a young woman is kind and decent, and if they can relate to her, then in their minds she represents an idealized Japan too important to give up on in the face of no matter how much scorn and abuse from the urban moneyed elites. In this sense they are like the young lieutenant in Mishima’s story “Patriotism,” who does not want to take action against the rebel officers of the February 26 Incident, and ends up committing seppuku.

This pining for an ideal comes across also in Riichi Yokumitsu’s evocative “Mount Hiei,” in which a father, Sadao, brings his family to the mountain of the title for a bit of skiing. Sadao also plans to visit sites in Kyoto that have fascinated people for ages. Moving up in a lift, and exploring the beauty of the austere white landscape, the protagonist and others grow so enveloped in the majesty of the surroundings that when the time comes for their trip to end, they want to stay put. The author subtly contrasts the timelessness of the setting with the automated motions of the lift that moves up and moves down at precisely fixed junctures throughout the day, as if you could confine the mystery and splendor of a nation’s soul to blocks of time neatly regimented for the consumption of visitors, who will then go back to their lives in the cities.

“For a while, Sadao lay basking in the sun. Soon though, when it came time for the cable car to leave, even this moment of peace would instantly become a dream of the past,” Yokomitsu relates.

An even more damning indictment of the attitudes that want to make timeless things finite and fungible comes across in Fumiko Hayashi’s “Borneo Diamond.” This is the story of Tamae, a Tokyo woman so poor and disenfranchised that she has no recourse when a scoundrel takes her newborn and sells it to strangers. Later on in the story, another of the men of Tamae’s acquaintance, Manabe, sends a large cobalt diamond, mined in Borneo under the oversight of occupying Japanese troops, to his wife back home, and the wife promptly donates it to the government, wishing to help the war effort in any way possible.

“Manabe was chagrined and angry at his wife’s obtuseness,” we learn. “Japanese women did not understand the true beauty of jewels, nor their worldly value.”

That is Manabe’s view. But in a world where not even a woman’s baby is irreplaceable, you do have to wonder how someone could get so bent out of shape about a wife’s callousness toward a diamond. Japan has lost its most fundamental values and no one has much of a moral, ethical, or spiritual basis on which to protest the fungible and dispensable character of inanimate things, even objects as pleasing to the eye as a Borneo diamond.

Not all the authors in this book favor pat divisions of characters and scenarios into pre- and post-modernity. One of the most resonant stories here is Morio Kita’s “Along the Mountain Ridge,” which chronicles a Nabokovian split and merging of distinct personalities as two strangers on the eponymous mountain observe each other and engage in strange, at times surreal, conversation.

The protagonist cannot believe the reckless climbing of the other character up the ridge, but then it is the latter who claims to have observed the former doing something just as risky. Who really has been observing whom? A dead body lying on a desolate strip of the mountain, and an (explicitly acknowledged) ambiguity as to who the speaker is during a given portion of the conversation, raises questions about perspective and chronology and narrative logic. Maybe the story is the hallucination of one of the men as death overtakes him. Maybe it is the other’s vision. Or perhaps, in Nabokovian fashion, the two characters are complementary parts of one person, either the body observed on the slope or someone else who cannot begin to fathom what could have brought the corpse to such a pass and needs a metafictional conceit to tease things out.

Moving once again from the circumstances of the story to the milieu in which the author set these words down, one gains a sense of Kita as a chronicler of a society in transition. Those who, like Mishima, sympathize with nationalist causes and aims and resist the westernization of a proud country with an unfathomably long and complex history have little in common with writers such as Haruki Murakami, who contemplates love and loss in the contemporary scene and writes tales appealing to a young, hip, progressive, largely Western readership.

Yet, like Sebastian Knight searching for his long-lost brother, they know quite well that the nation that inspires their creative passions is inconceivable in aggregate without such eternally dueling elements.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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