On the streets of our town

by Donald Richie

TOKYO STORIES: A Literary Stroll, translated and edited by Lawrence Rogers. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2002, 315 pp., $19.95 (paper).

This interesting collection of short stories about Tokyo does indeed suggest much of the ambience of the place — enormous, ugly, random, seemingly uniform but packed with pockets of individuality, all of it creating what Edward Seidensticker has called the world’s most consistently interesting city.

And one of the most singular, despite all the superficial similarities. Lawrence Rogers, who has translated and edited this collection, remarks that in prewar Tokyo, keen observers “claimed the ability not only to identify a stroller’s calling by apparel, but also the part of town he or she hailed from.”

While this is perhaps no longer possible, sections of the city retain a distinction that is in other cities rare. Walk through Ueno, then walk through Harajuku and compare the differences. It is the people, the Tokyoites, who create this singularity.

Their concerns form the fiction in this collection, and their differences concern the editor, who has grouped the stories by geographical area. Though the collection does not pretend to be comprehensive (that would take a whole library), it does cover a span of 80 years. It also reflects the changes that have occurred during that time. While one-third of the works are concerned with Japan’s traditional downtown, what Seidensticker has called “the low city,” nearly all of these were first published before 1955. As the editor moves to the “high city” (Shibuya, Shinjuku, etc.), the time frame shifts to the present. With two exceptions, all of this material is here being translated for the first time, and several of the authors have never been translated before.

In the “Central Tokyo” section, for example, only Yukio Mishima’s “Fountains in the Rain” has been previously translated (by John Bestor). New are stories by Motojiro Kajii, Kyusaku Yumeno and Kuniko Mukoda; other work by these authors has already been translated, but Rintaro Takeda is appearing for the first time (two stories in this collection) and Keizo Hino has had only a single story translated elsewhere.

The “South End” offers one story by Mayumi Inaba, an author also new to English, and the section “West of the Place” contains stories by Kazuko Saegusa and Takehiro Irokawa, as well as the first translation of sections from Soseki Natsume’s “From Behind the Study Door.”

The section devoted to shitamachi, “the low city,” includes what seems to be the first translation of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “The Death Register,” and the second translation of Fumiko Hayashi’s “Downtown,” here rendered as “The Old Part of Town.”

Of major interest is Kafu Nagai’s “Azuma Bridge,” a short work never before translated, and a chapter from Yasunari Kawabata’s modernist novel “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa.” There is also a translation of “Banka” by Ineko Sata, best known in its film version, and a powerful story, “An Unclaimed Body,” by Michiko Ikeda, a writer whose work has never before been translated into a foreign language.

One of the interesting aspects of this collection is that, unlike almost every other translator, Rogers does not restrict himself to junbungaku (literature) but includes examples of what some Japanese critics have called “mass literature,” or “middle-brow fiction.” He has chosen well and offers much that would not otherwise be available to the English reader.

The translations are (like the long introduction) sturdy and useful. Almost all of the material is otherwise unavailable — though since this book went to print there have been translations of two of the works excerpted here. Soseki’s has just appeared complete from Tuttle, and Kawabata’s — in Alisa Freedman’s translation — is awaiting publication at the University of California Press.

In his introduction, Rogers is both jocose (“the Big Persimmon”) and devoted. He points out the absence of the bombed Asakusa Kannon in the Hayashi story, the slightly suspicious splendors of the Shinjuku City Hall, refracted in Hino’s “Jacob’s Ladder Tokyo,” and visits what is left of the red-light districts of Koiwa that are mentioned by Kafu.

His affection includes even the plague of crows that so distinguish early-morning Tokyo and have raised the ire of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishikawa. Rogers tells us that those making Ginza hideous with their mess and their noise do not come from Ginza. Rather, they roost in Meiji Shrine, and fly in for shopping, as it were, just like everyone else. Shopping done, they — like all of us — go back to their own discrete, unique, singular section of Tokyo.