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Love in a time of decline for homegrown literature

by Janet Ashby

Is there a future for Japanese literature? That is the question posed by an article in the February issue of Bungakukai. Writer Akira Nagae visited various bookstores and publishers in search of an answer.

The manager of a bookstore near an arts university in Tokyo feels authors and publishers are deceiving themselves into believing that literary books still enjoy a high prestige in Japan. He dates their becoming just another consumer product from the late 1970s, when Jiro Akagawa started turning out a new mystery every month.

In 1995 “bungeisho” (literature and belles-lettres) made up 14.3 percent of sales at his bookstore, but that declined to only about 8 percent last year. In earlier times, the latest winners of literary prizes would sell 100 to 200 copies a week, but now they sell no more than 20 a week.

The deputy manager of the largest bookstore in Japan, Junkudo in Ikebukuro, agrees that the days when everyone would go out and buy the latest book of a hot novelist like Haruki Murakami are over. Reading literature no longer has a fashionable cachet. Men in their 50s comprise the customer base of her store.

However, she has also noticed that many books will sell if they are stocked on the shelves. She deplores the shorter and shorter life of books today as the book world concentrates on pushing new books and publishers let older books go out of print.

The chief editor of the Kodansha Bungei Bunko line reports that sales are still strong for mysteries and historical novels, but weak for literary paperbacks. He says the problem is not so much that people have stopped reading pure literature (“junbungaku”) as that they are unwilling to pay a premium price for it. His bosses are not asking him to make a profit, but have told him to keep the red ink at roughly the same level, a difficult thing to do when personnel costs, paper costs and other publishing costs are all rising.

After other interviews Nagae concludes that the situation for literary publishing is grim, but that readers still exist. The problem is getting the books to the readers. Publishers need better marketing skills, and perhaps the whole concept of a literary text needs rethinking to better fit a new generation.

For the long-term future of fiction, Japanese publishers will have to attract young readers. As a shorter-term strategy they may increasingly target Japan’s aging population. This seems to have been a conscious aim of “revival comics,” which resurrect and write new stories for hits of the past, and an inadvertent achievement of one of the better-received novels of last year, “Sensei no kaban” (“Teacher’s Briefcase”; Heibonsha) by Hiromi Kawakami.

Kawakami, born in 1958, made her writing debut in 1994 and won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1996. According to Shukan Bunshun (Feb. 7), her readers have primarily been women in their 20s, 30s and 40s, but at recent signings for “Sensei no kaban,” which won the Tanizaki Prize and has gone back to press 10 times since its publication last June, half the fans are men in their 50s to 70s.

“Sensei no kaban” portrays the short-lived love of Tsukiko, a 37-year-old office worker, and her former high school Japanese teacher, now in his late 60s, until they are separated by his death. Over the course of 17 linked short stories, they happen to meet and become occasional drinking partners at a neighborhood “nomiya,” then gradually grow closer through visits to flea markets, mushroom hunting, flower viewing and the like.

After two years, and in the next-to-last story in the book, they visit a museum, and in the park afterward the teacher asks Tsukiko to date him “on the premise of a love relationship.” In the last story they finally consummate their relationship physically, and on the next page three years have passed and Tsukiko is now left with only his empty briefcase.

Commentators at yearend praised the novel’s portrayal of the richness, beauty and loneliness of life through this brief love and its skillful depiction of male-female communication. In fact the Winter 2001 issue of Japanese Book News (a quarterly publication of the Japan Foundation) cites Kawakami as an author whose work should be translated more widely and introduced abroad.

However, on a technical level, her prose, with its frequent use of “giseigo” (onomatopoeia), would be difficult to translate, and indeed on the first page of “Sensei no kaban” Tsukiko says she calls him “sensei” not in kanji or hiragana, but in katakana, which imparts a teasing though still respectful nuance.

On a deeper level, I personally found rather irritating the very points that seem to have been particularly appealing to Japanese readers, namely, the obliqueness and virtual nonexistence of an adult love between the childlike Tsukiko and Sensei (although there is a delicate eroticism in the many food scenes and in the sensitivity to nature in the novel) and the overall distance and fantasylike atmosphere of the work, which, while overtly naturalistic, ignores the larger societal world of work, family and friends of the two characters.

As an example of the Ozu-like indirectness of the portrayal of their love, Tsukiko becomes upset and picks a fight with Sensei when she feels he has changed the terms of their friendship by pouring her drink rather than letting her do it herself. Or after going to a pachinko parlor together, Sensei hints at his attraction to her by commenting on how gambling is more tempting as a forbidden pleasure.

One contrarian review in Shukan Asahi (Feb. 1) makes fun of older men crying over “Sensei no kaban,” and terms it a zombie love story because Tsukiko is a child and children can’t have love affairs, and Sensei is a dead man and can only be appreciated like a fine antique.

For those interested in reading Kawakami, her prize-winning short story collection, “Kamisama” (“God”), is now available in Chuko Bunko and she has also published essay collections, including “Nantonaku na hibi” (“Ordinary Days”; Iwanami Shoten).