Browsed by
Publisher: Kodansha

[Review] Breaking Into Japanese Literature

[Review] Breaking Into Japanese Literature

[Review] Breaking Into Japanese LiteratureBreaking Into Japanese Literature: Seven Modern Classics in Parallel Text by Giles Murray, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Natsume Sōseki
Published by Kodansha on June 1st 2012
Genres: Japanese literature, Horror, Classic
Pages: 239
ISBN: 9781568364155
Goodreads
three-stars

Reading great books in the original should be the culmination of language study, but reading Japanese literature unassisted is a daunting task that can defeat even the most able of students. Breaking into Japanese Literature is designed to help you bypass all the frustration and actually enjoy classics of Japanese literature.
Breaking into Japanese Literature features seven graded stories by Natsume Soseki and Akutagawa Ryunosuke, covering a variety of genres.

This book was… not that great. But let me start off on a positive note: I enjoyed the stories. The book contains seven short stories in total, by Natsume Sōseki and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. The selection of stories, content wise, is good. The stories are quite dark, which I love, and I especially like Akutagawa, so reading these stories wasn’t boring.

Now for the negative…

The aim of this book is to read Japanese literature in the original language. The book is set up to accommodate this: each page contains the original Japanese story on the left page, an English translation on the right page, and vocabulary on the bottom half of both pages. Sounds convenient, but it doesn’t quite get it right. There are no grammar explanations, and the English translations are not 100% literal translations either. The same vocab is repeated every page when necessary, which is convenient but also makes you lazy. On the plus side, there are free audio downloads available for each of the stories, if you like to listen to them while reading (I haven’t downloaded them, so I don’t know if the quality is any good).

The stories themselves are, honestly, too difficult for a book like this. They are separated into three different levels: the first stories are the easiest (and of a pretty good level), and then they gradually become more difficult. They are classic stories, and many use words and kanji that are no longer in use. The same goes for some of the grammar. And the grammar and vocabulary was simply too difficult on the whole. It doesn’t help that there are no grammar explanations in sight and the translations don’t always help with that either (you will get the meaning of the sentence, but you still won’t understand the actual grammar). For me the stories were readable, but I’d judge them as high N2 going up to N1 level.

This book simply doesn’t help anyone ‘break into’ Japanese literature. If you don’t have any prior experience reading Japanese literature in Japanese, this is way too hard. And if you are advanced enough to read stories of this level, there are better choices out there. All of the stories in this book have already been published in English (parts of Soseki’s Ten Nights Dreaming, Akutagawa’s Rashomon, In the Grove, The Nose..), so if you want to read something new and previously untranslated, this is not a great selection of stories.

All in all, a nice book for reading practice at N2+ level. But before buying this book I’d recommend Read Real Japanese Fiction, which is set up better, more accessible level-wise, and has a wider selection of stories (and all of them previously untranslated). If you are looking for more difficult reading material, you might want to check Aozora Bunko instead.

Two Japanese classics

Two Japanese classics

Two Japanese classicsThe Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi
Published by Kodansha on 1980 (first published 1957)
Genres: Japanese literature, Classic
Pages: 208
ISBN: 9780870114243
Goodreads
four-stars

The beautiful, immature girl whom she took home to her husband was a maid only in name. Tomo's real mission had been to find him a mistress. Nor did her secret humiliation end there. The web that his insatiable lust spun about him soon trapped another young woman, and another ... and the relationships between the women thus caught were to form, over the years, a subtle, shifting pattern in which they all played a part.

So recently I read these two Japanese classics one after another, which frankly was a great decision! Both Fumiko Enchi (1905-1986) and Kanoko Okamoto (1889-1939) – the former more famous than the latter – were feminists and modern women in their time. Reading these two authors back to back was an interesting experience.

First, there was The Waiting Years. Last year I read Masks by Fumiko Enchi and wrote about her for January in Japan. My ultrashort review of Masks can be found here. Unfortunately that didn’t leave a very deep impression on me, so I didn’t expect to read anything else by Enchi. But The Waiting Years was the book club pick for the the Japanese Literature group on Goodreads so I decided to join in, and I’m so glad I did!

The Waiting Years was a very interesting and rather beautiful read. It describes life in the upper-class Shirakawa family in the late Meiji era. More specifically, it describes the lives and feelings of the women in the Shirakawa household. The women are central in this book. And while the Shirakawa household and everything about it is very traditional, and the women are forced into a position of submission, I think the way Enchi writes about them is surprisingly refreshing. The women have to endure a lot but the tone is never overly negative. The women are well rounded characters, developing throughout the novel, and they all deal with their situation in their own way.

Every aspect of this book focuses on the traditional, but Enchi gives it a (in my opinion) modern and feminist twist by not being afraid to point out unfairness through the voice of the characters. On the whole, the book was very nuanced. I don’t think it could have been written by anyone but a woman (at least, at the time it was written).

I also recommend checking out our book club discussion about the book here!

* * *

Two Japanese classicsA Riot of Goldfish by Kanoko Okamoto
Published by Hesperus Press on 2010
Genres: Japanese literature, Classic
Pages: 113
ISBN: 9781843918523
Goodreads
three-half-stars

In early 20th-century Japan, the son of lower-class goldfish sellers falls in love with the beautiful daughter of his rich patron. After he is sent away to study the science of goldfish breeding, with strict orders to return and make his patron's fortune, he vows to devote his life to producing one ideal, perfect goldfish specimen to reflect his loved-one's beauty. This poignant and deft tale is presented along with the story of a pauper from Kyoto who teaches himself to be an accomplished chef.


Okamoto’s work is entirely different from Enchi’s. A Riot of Goldfish contains two novella’s where men are the main characters. Both A Riot of Goldfish and it’s companion The Food Demon are ‘small’ stories, they don’t have a real plot and they focus on just one specific theme.

In the first story, the adopted son of a goldfish breeder is completely enamoured by his classmate, the daughter of his rich patron. But she is out of his league, so instead he aims to create the perfect new breed of goldfish. And that despite the fact that he is really not all that interested in goldfish breeding.

In the second story we learn about Besshiro, his relationship with cooking food, and how he got to this point in his life.

Personally, I am a huge fan of these types of stories (is there a name for them?), that I only ever seem to encounter in Japanese literature. In this case, the first story was a bit too feverish for me, but I really enjoyed the second one. All in all, this thin book is a quick read and there’s no reason not to give it a try 😉

Women's Classic Literature Event

[Review] Read Real Japanese Fiction

[Review] Read Real Japanese Fiction

[Review] Read Real Japanese FictionRead Real Japanese Fiction: Short Stories by Contemporary Writers by Michael Emmerich, Hiromi Kawakami, Otsuichi, Shinji Ishii, Banana Yoshimoto, Kaoru Kitamura, Yoko Tawada
Published by Kodansha on July 15th 2013 (first published 2008)
Genres: Horror, Japanese literature, Magical realism
Pages: 256
ISBN: 9781568365299
Goodreads
four-half-stars

Read Real Japanese Fiction presents short works by six of todays most daring and provocative Japanese writers. The spellbinding world of Hiromi Kawakami; the hair-raising horror of Otsuichi; the haunting, poignant prose of Banana Yoshimoto; even the poetic word-play of Yoko Tawada.

Earlier this year I already reviewed Read Real Japanese Essays. The Fiction version has the same set-up as that book, so I won’t get into that again (check the Essays review for that). The structure of the book just works, and it’s awesome for students of Japanese, the end.

Anyway! Let’s get into content. While I enjoyed Essays, Fiction was infinitely more interesting to me. It’s so enjoyable reading Japanese literature in Japanese (makes you feel like you actually accomplished something in your studies, haha), and Michael Emmerich’s (the editor) selection of short stories is spot on.

I am sure many J-lit enthusiasts are familiar with Banana Yoshimoto and Hiromi Kawakami, and possibly Otsuichi and Yoko Tawada. If you aren’t, check them out! And then this collection also has Shinji Ishii and Kaoru Kitamura, who are a great addition and authors I definitely want to check out in the future.

As for the level of Japanese, the stories in Fiction were more readable than the essays, in my honest opinion. I (N2) breezed through most of them without any problem.

Hiromi Kawakami – God
Typical Kawakami. After my disappointment with Manazuru, this was nice. Not my favourite, but I enjoyed it all right. It’s not the easiest story in the book, but Kawakami’s style is quite straightforward and if you feel you’re ready to read real literature, this shouldn’t be a big challenge.

Otsuichi – Long Ago, in the Park at Twilight
This story was a bit of a disappointment. I like Otsuichi, his style is properly creepy, but I do not think this was a masterpiece. Short and easy to read though.

Shinji Ishii – The Parrot Meat Market
Ohhh this one was weird. I have no idea what to think about it, but I think I enjoyed it?? I guess? It’s interesting enough. This was one of the more difficult stories in the book.

Banana Yoshimoto – Mummy
This story was really weird. Well done, Yoshimoto, well done. I can’t quite pinpoint if it’s what I expect of Yoshimoto or not. Anyway, I enjoyed it (more than most of Yoshimoto’s things I’ve read lately).

Kaoru Kitamura – One Hundred Stories
I realllly liked this story. The language is simply and straightforward, and a very easy read. The plot was fun! A better horror story than Otsuichi’s, tbh (sorry, Otsuichi). This story definitely made me want to check out more by Kitamura.

Yoko Tawada – To Pun
This story is literally everything that is wrong with the Japanese language (so I say, with love). It’s really short, not even two full pages, and it’s surprising. I really enjoyed it and it made for a perfect final story to end the book with. I’m also quite curious about Tawada’s other works now. I had only vaguely heard of her and had no idea she writes in both Japanese and German, which is just all the more reason for me to check her out.

[Review] Making Sense of Japanese, by Jay Rubin

[Review] Making Sense of Japanese, by Jay Rubin

[Review] Making Sense of Japanese, by Jay RubinMaking Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don't Tell You by Jay Rubin
Published by Kodansha on 2013 (first published 1992)
Genres: Non-fiction
Pages: 136
Goodreads
four-half-stars

Making Sense of Japanese is the fruit of one foolhardy American's thirty-year struggle to learn and teach the Language of the Infinite. Previously known as Gone Fishin', this book has brought Jay Rubin more feedback than any of his literary translations or scholarly tomes, "even if," he says, "you discount the hate mail from spin-casters and the stray gill-netter."
To convey his conviction that "the Japanese language is not vague," Rubin has dared to explain how some of the most challenging Japanese grammatical forms work in terms of everyday English. Reached recently at a recuperative center in the hills north of Kyoto, Rubin declared, "I'm still pretty sure that Japanese is not vague. Or at least, it's not as vague as it used to be. Probably."

Oh, this book. OH, THIS BOOK.

You see, when I read the reviews where everyone was praising this book, saying how useful and funny it was, I was slightly sceptical. Sure, I like Rubin’s translations. Sure, he knows his Japanese. But I don’t trust non-fiction/selfhelp/reference works to keep me interested. I always get bored reading them, I just don’t have the patience. And this book is funny? Yeah, right.

Good job, Rubin, proving me wrong. I really enjoyed this book for so many reasons. For one, it really is quite funny. I couldn’t help smirk at some of his comments and comparisons, thinking “Yes, yes, that’s exactly what it’s like“. Fair enough, not having grown up in the US, I didn’t get all the references (who’s Johnny Carson?) but I wasn’t bothered by it.

Anyway. ‘Funny’ is all well and good, but the most important thing about this book is: damn, it’s useful. If you study Japanese, and especially if you’re at the point where you are starting to become confident and as Rubin himself says “progress from cognitive absorption to intuitive mastery”, you have to read this book. I’d personally recommend this book for anyone level N3 and up. I think that’s when you will benefit the most from it.

Rubin covers all kinds of topics related to the Japanese language, in small and slightly larger chapters. For me, they can be divided in three: 1) topics that I had no problem with, 2) topics that I never quite got but that are now clear, and 3) topics that I thought I understood but apparently got all wrong (ouch).

Rubin not only explains how certain aspects of Japanese grammar work, but also how to practically deal with them. And that precisely is what makes this book so useful.

The only complaint I have about this book (which is why it’s a 4.5 instead of 5 star book for me) is that I would have liked all Japanese examples to have kanji&kana next to the romaji.

And that’s it. That’s my only issue. Besides that, this book was perfect. I hope Rubin will continue to work on it (it has been revised once already) and will add new topics.

[Review] Read Real Japanese Essays

[Review] Read Real Japanese Essays

[Review] Read Real Japanese EssaysRead Real Japanese Essays: Contemporary Writings by Popular Authors by Banana Yoshimoto, Haruki Murakami, Hideo Levy, Janet Ashby, Junko Sakai, Keiichiro Hirano, Kou Machida, Mitsuyo Kakuta, Yōko Ogawa
Published by Kodansha on 2008
Genres: Japanese literature, Non-fiction
Pages: 240
Goodreads
four-stars

There is a dramatic difference between reading Japanese that is tailored to students, and reading real Japanese that has been written for native speakers. The concocted variety tends to be insipid, flat, stiff, standardized, completely lacking in exciting and imaginative use of language. Read Real Japanese Essays allows readers to experience the work of several of today's foremost writers as if they were lifelong Japanese speakers.

Among Japanese learning material aimed at foreigners, this book is definitely one of the better ones. The book contains eight essays by (relatively) popular authors, such as Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto and Yoko Ogawa.

The set-up of this book works perfectly. Each essay contains a short introduction in English with some background information on the author. Then after that, on the right page we get the essay, with furigana the first time you encounter the more difficult kanji. The left side has, not exactly translations but rather, interpretations of the more difficult sentences. Finally in the back of the book we get a dictionary of the words found in the essays, followed by grammatical and contextual notes on each essay.

Clearly someone has thought long and hard on the structure of the book and it works (unlike a lot of bilingual parallel texts). The dictionary in the back may sound inconvenient – I for one do not like going back and forth in a book to look up things. However, I found I rarely needed the dictionary thanks to the translations on the left page. This can also be a bit of a disadvantage. The book is set up in such a way that you can choose to focus only on the essays on the right side pages, but the reader might have to restrain themselves from glancing at the translations on the left page.

Read Real Japanese

The Japanese level of the essays is quite high. Being at N2, some of the essays were relatively easy to read, while others (mostly due to the vocabulary) really challenged me. In that sense the level was perfect for me. I like texts that are readable, but I also want to challenge myself to level-up! It’s refreshing to read texts that were not written with foreign learners in mind, but are, well, real Japanese.

Honestly, I am quite enthusiastic about this book. And best of all, there is a companion to this book: Read Real Japanese Fiction (which in retrospect I wish I had started with).

Now, as for the content of the essays, I did not enjoy them all equally. This is the only reason I gave the book 4 instead of 5 stars. Click through for my (quick) opinion on each of the essays.

Read More Read More