Japanese Short Stories from Akutagawa, Enchi, Endō, Inoue & Kawabata

Meredith at Dolce Bellezza is hosting The Japanese Literature Challenge 14, which takes place from January to March 2021, and this post on five Japanese short stories is my contribution to the challenge (see all the other exciting entries here and for my entries to the previous Japanese Literature Challenge 13 see my reviews here and here).

I. Murder in the Age of Enlightenment [1918] by Ryunosuke Akutagawa ★★★★

This memorable story with confident prose by the “father” of Japanese short stories Akutagawa (Hell Screen [1918]) is told through a letter and diary entries written by one young man to Viscount and Viscountess Honda. The story’s unreliable narration that deludes the truth and makes motives questionable introduces us to one hidden obsession as we plunge deep into the psyche of one disturbed man. If Akutagawa’s short story The Spider’s Thread [1918] relied on Dostoyevsky’s story of a woman and an onion from The Brothers Karamazov [1879], here we also see certain close similarities with other works. The story starts close to The Sorrows of Young Werther [1774] by Goethe (unrequited, forbidden and passionate love/drastic action), but finishes very similarly to Doctor Glas [1905] by Hjalmar Söderberg (doctor/mental torment/similar action taken to secure the future of a beloved woman). I read this story in Murder in The Age of Enlightenment (Essential Stories) by Ryunosuke Akutagawa [translated by Bryan Karetnyk, Pushkin Press 2020].

II. Boxcar of Chrysanthemums [1967] by Fumiko Enchi – ★★★★

Female author Fumiko Enchi became one of my favourite Japanese authors after I read her masterpiece The Waiting Years [1957]. Boxcar of chrysanthemums is her short story in which she narrates a woman’s journey on a freight train late at night. During this journey, the woman hears the unusual story of Masutoshi and Rie, a husband and wife pair. Rie married mentally-handicapped Masutoshi and had always remained faithful to him (despite being offered a much more appealing and lucrative marriage later on). The family of Masutoshi grew and sold chrysanthemums. Throughout the story, the narrator tries to understand Rie’s actions, her motives and her true personality. In this short story, Enchi managed to say a lot about the traditional Japanese familial system, about the plight of women in a marriage and the ultimate sacrifice they often make (made) within their families. Her story also touches upon the concept of shame and discrimination. Rie is associated with a white chrysanthemum in the story, a flower which is a symbol standing for loyalty, unconditional love and devotion. Boxcar of chrysanthemums could even be said to be a short and understated tribute to all Japanese women who performed their familial duties blindly, struggling internally within their families after the WWII, while also often going against their most ardent personal wishes, hopes and life aspirations. Reading the story, I was also reminded of this quote from Blaise Pascal – “the heart has its reasons [of] which reason knows nothing“. I read this short story in This Kind of Woman: Ten Stories by Japanese Women Writers [edited and translated by Yukiko Tanaka and Elisabeth Hanson, The Putnam Publishing Group 1982].

III. The Day Before [1963] by Shusaku Endo – ★★★1/2

This collection of short stories comes from the author of Silence [1966]. In The Day Before, there are two concurrent narratives: one, in which there are Christian persecutions ongoing in Japan, and in another, a man is preparing for an operation that is likely to end his life. The man reflects on the episodes from the Bible, especially on the relationship between Jesus Christ and Judas. As in Silence, we are shown the plight of nine prisoners who refuse to apostatise and are systematically subjected to both psychological and physical torture. However, in their midst, there was also one traitor who later “regretted” his apostasy. Now, nearing the dangerous operation, the narrator is forced to reflect on the man’s inherent duality and on the contradictory forces of good and strength, on the one hand, and evil and weakness, on the other, in humanity. Though the narrator strives to see one famous fumie before his operation, he is also bemused and “won over” by a seller who tries to sell him indecent pictures just prior to what are probably his final hours. I read this short story in Stained Glass Elegies: Stories by Shusaku Endo [translated by Van C. Gessel, New Directions 1986].

IV. Under the Shadow of Mt. Bandai [1961] by Yasushi Inoue – ★★★1/2

Yasushi Inoue (The Hunting Gun [1949]) wrote this short, “slow-burn” story about a tax collector who is sent with his entourage on a journey to a foreign-to-him region of Japan to make “a tax survey”. As he nears the region and the village of his destination, he starts to hear strange rumours of mysterious cataclysmic happenings in the area. People’s reactions are also strange and contradictory: some are struck by some unnamed horror to come, while others try to laugh off this “supposedly-coming” large earthquake. The story, translated by Stephen W. Kohl, may be slow-moving and simplistic, but it is also vividly introspective and convincing. It taps into Shinto’s holy-yama veneration, bad omens and island claustrophobia. Inoue was a very talented writer and I will definitely read more of his work in future. I read this story in Japan: A Traveller’s Literary Companion [edited by Jeffrey Angles and J. Thomas Rimer, Whereabouts Press 2006].

V. Yumiura [1958] by Yasunari Kawabata – ★★★1/2

This short story, translated by Michael Emmerich, comes from Nobel Prize Laureate Yasunari Kawabata (The Old Capital [1962]), and tells of one woman who comes from afar to see famous novelist Kozumi Shozuke. She tells the novelist that she met him one night thirty years ago in the town of Yumiura. Shozuke tries hard to recollect the memory that ties him to the woman, but the woman’s recollections also throw him off course and he feels slowly engulfed in the woman’s elaborate “fantasy,” despite having no memory of her. This short story is about human memory (“a blessing bestowed…by the gods” [185]) and its fragility. The story is eerie as it becomes hard to distinguish truth from fiction, and portrays the sheer dread of a situation whereby someone can recall more about us and our past than we can do so ourselves. I read this story in Japan: A Traveller’s Literary Companion [edited by Jeffrey Angles and J. Thomas Rimer, Whereabouts Press 2006].

11 thoughts on “Japanese Short Stories from Akutagawa, Enchi, Endō, Inoue & Kawabata

  1. Thanks so much, great ideas for next year challenge! I have The Old Capital on my TBR, and I have read short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, but not this one. I didn’t know Fumiko Enchi at all, so thanks for this priceless post!
    I have read 5 books so far for this challenge (https://wordsandpeace.com/2020/12/21/japanese-literature-challenge-14/) and am currently reading Devils in Daylight by Tanizaki, in a French translation!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am glad you found the post useful! Works by Fumiko Enchi are something special and I highly recommend. Tanizaki’s Devils in Daylight is on my TBR and I wonder how are you finding it? I imagine French translation is capable of making justice to Japanese works because both languages have the tendency to retain certain subtleties and nuances? I saw your post on Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows too (on goodreads) and I am glad you loved it! I also see you earmarked to read Miner by Natsume Sōseki? That’s another book I want to read very much and I have high expectations.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Diana. The Fumiko Enchi sounds very powerful. This has reminded me that I too signed up to this challenge and so far am only one-third of the way through reading my first book The Phone Box at the Edge of the World which strangely was written by an Italian lady.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also had quite a list coming to this challenge, but only read Japanese short stories. The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World sounds wonderful! I am actually very interested in fiction that explores grief and dealing with grief from curious angles, so I may check it out, too, thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is an amazing list thank you! I am consciously reading more of translated fiction this year and also actually preparing for a workshop on ‘Introduction to Japanese Literature’ so this was a very timely post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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