When I polled some Northwest booksellers to ask about their favorite Japanese writers, one name came up almost every time: Kazuo Ishiguro. Now, I loves me my Ishiguro as much as the next guy, and I eagerly await his forthcoming novel, but I don’t think he fits the bill. He was born in Japan, but moved to the United Kingdom when he was five and has always written in English, so I think he’ll have to stay in a category all his own. Maybe he can share space with Japanese-American-Canadian Ruth Ozeki if he gets lonely.
Kenny Coble of Elliott Bay Book Company was the first (but not the last) to mention Haruki Murakami. He’s one of those writers I tend to think needs no introduction, but as I learn over and over again, not everyone who walks into a bookshop knows all the authors I think are world-famous. His most recent fictional blend of dream and reality is Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, but if you want a briefer introduction to his work, you might want to wait until early December, when The Strange Library, a slim, illustrated novella, will appear.
University Bookstore‘s Brad Craft cited some classic authors, including Shusaku Endo, Junichiro Tanizaki, and Yukio Mishima. His colleague Caitlin Luce Baker threw Kenzaburo Oe into the mix, and since we’re talking about writers who dominated the literary scene in 20th century Japan, I’ll add Kobo Abe‘s name to the list.
David Mitchell isn’t technically a bookseller, but as a multiple-Booker nominee, he sure moves his share of units. He’s a former resident of Japan, married to a native, and he’s shared his favorite Japanese novels online. An excellent piece of non-fiction that he’s too humble to mention is The Reason I Jump, a book he translated himself (with his wife). It was written by a teenaged boy with autism, Naoki Higashida, who looks at the world from a fascinating and unique perspective. Delving further into history, you can’t ignore The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a 10th-century account of private life in the imperial court that’s astonishingly modern in sensibility, or the medieval Tale of Genji, considered by many to be the great-grandfather of the modern novel.
More contemporary books to look out for include Out, a thriller by Natsuo Kirino that’s a favorite of Phinney Books‘s Liz Goodwin, and Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, picked by Tegan Tigani from Queen Anne Book Company. Tegan also mentioned Yoko Ogawa, whose The Housekeeper and the Professor was a book club discussion darling in my neck of the woods for months.
My own suggestions for would-be Japanophiles? The other Murakami, Ryu, notable for his Popular Hits of the Showa Era, and Yoko Tawada, author of Where Europe Begins and a few other marvelous books from New Directions.
When I think of Japanese food, I can’t help but think of First Book of Sushi, which may sound like a cookbook but isn’t. It’s a brightly colored board book for babies, and almost a decade past the period when my son and I read the covers off our copy, I can still recite the whole rhyme in my head. I don’t know if it has much to do with the book, but he still loves edamame, maguro, and unagi.
Some people don’t like their fish raw, and if you’re one of them you may prefer gindara saikyo-yaki, miso-marinated grilled black cod, or if you want to avoid the surf entirely and stick to the turf, there’s the famous wagyu from the Kobe region. Beef, that is. You’ll sometimes hear of wagyu being produced on American farms, but that’s a misnomer, like calling sparkling California wine “champagne.” Technically, if it’s not from Japan, it’s not the real thing.
Something I’ve never dared try but always wanted to is fugu, the puffer fish that’s deadly poisonous unless properly prepared by a certified expert. If I ever have to choose a menu for my last meal, it’ll be on there. In the meanwhile, I’ll stick with the less exotic but no less tasty fare in Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. Shizuo Tsuji’s seminal work comes endorsed by Ruth Reichl, which is a significant stamp of approval as far as I’m concerned. Most any Japanese meal, even the ones I might amateurishly prepare from Tsuji’s instructions, wraps up well with warabi mochi, a sweet treat made from the starch of bracken ferns. Mmm, ferns.
Musically, Japan is a strange and interesting place. It’s one of the largest consumer economies on the globe and home to some of the largest recording and instrument manufacturing companies, but it’s produced only one artist who’s reached the top spot on a US or European chart. That would be Kyu Sakamoto, with “Sukiyaki” in 1963, for you trivia buffs. And though the nation has a deserved reputation for industrial advancement, it’s one of the last places in the developed world to embrace CDs. So while Japanese pop fans are enjoying songs that seem to come from fifteen minutes into the future, they’re listening with last century’s technology.
Hikaru Utada recorded the top-selling album in Japanese history. She’s a singer who more or less fits into the aidoru (idol) tradition of professionally packaged ingenue singers. Another top act is Glay, a more raucous J-rock quartet. They explain their name as follows: “Not black, not white but something in between … We know it’s not how you spell the color in English, but it’s our way of being different.” Given their way with words, maybe it’s not surprising that they have a song called, simply, “Verb.”
And sometimes words are not enough. I cap off our tour of Japan by giving you BABYMETAL. You can thank me later.