Despite living in the age of globalisation, Japanese literature seems to appear on the shelves of other continents’ libraries and bookshops as niche literature, an exclusive genre for the intellectual and not for the average reader. Why is it so? The Western canon, as it is usually called, tends to include British or American authors but barely or rarely considers foreign literatures as standard examples to define the leading trends in Western culture. Japanese literature seems then to be something we do not know much about and surely deserves to be looked at more closely. What do we know about contemporary Japanese literature? Here are a few examples of authors and books defining post-war Japan and its literary legacy.
Among Japan’s most popular authors is Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, who conveys a message of decadence in his novels, but is mostly remembered and studied for the juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary elements in his writings. The themes of past and present and how these two aspects clash or merge is a primary source of inspiration for Tanizaki. For instance, “Sasameyuki” (in English “Light Snow“, published in English as “The Makioka Sisters” depicts life in a traditional Japanese family throughout the worshipping and attachment to a past that seems to be portrayed as gone but not forgotten. Other familiar themes for Tanizaki are sex and its effects on people, how they desire to respond to these impulses and how it affects one’s mind. He was popular even before the breakout of World War II, but it is in the post-war period that he gains national and international recognition. In the same years, another prominent author is on the rise: Yukio Mishima debuts with his first novel in 1949; it is called “Kamen no Kokuhaku” (in English “Confessions of a Mask“), in which the author describes Kochan’s attempts to fit in society despite his homosexual desires. Decadence, the themes of death and nationalism are recurring in his works and are a reflection of this author’s personality. However, the most famous Japanese author of our times seems to be Yasunari Kawabata: he was the first Japanese writer to be given a Nobel Prize in 1968. Despite the popularity of the novels published in the 1930s and 1940s it is in his earliest works that Kawabata displays his natural talent and obtains his first recognitions. 1926′s “Izu no odoriko” (in English, “The Dancing Girl of Izu” tells the story of a boy who travels with his family and falls in love with a young female dancer. Less naive and more decadent, the novel which followed his debut, “Asakusa Kurenaidan” (in English, “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa“) portrays the lives of prostitutes and bohemian authors and appears to be the most Western influenced work among his earliest ones.
These few examples are already giving us hints as to which themes appeared as the leading ones in post-war Japanese literature. The mixture of the old and the new is impossible to avoid. It marks the contrast between what was, what is and what could be. The ancient, traditional Japan being challenged by Western influences, among good and bad perspectives on the subject. Any outside influence appears to be encoded as an element that needs to be absorbed. In some instances, in fact, tradition does not appear in stark contrast to modern innovation, but instead accepts, embraces and readjusts to it. One can therefore say that Japanese literature, while maintaining its own characteristics, is able to approach the Western world, to dialogue with it and knows how to give its own interpretation of contemporary events never appearing indecipherable or far from our understanding.