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The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature: From 1945 to the Present, edited by J. Thomas Rimer and Van C. Gessel, with additional selections by poetry editors Amy Vladeck Heinrich and Hiroaki Sato. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, 864 pp., $59.50 (cloth).

Anthologists must consider not only who to put in (and who to leave out) but also why. Excellence, certainly, but whose excellence? That of the anthologist or those of the common reader, or both?

Here, spanning almost six decades, is the second volume of Columbia University’s monumental collection of representative modern Japanese literature, the first volume of which was reviewed in this column on Aug. 14, 2005.

Now complete, the anthology is revealed as certainly the largest, and perhaps the one that best bridges the gulf between the literary expert and the common reader.

Excellent though earlier anthologies of Japanese literature (those of Keene, Morris, Hibbett, Goosens, Rogers and others) have been, they have been circumscribed by their length. They could not contain everything that the compilers might have desired.

This enormous new anthology suffers from limitations not nearly so severe. It totals 1,728 pages and contains some entire works: one of Yasushi Inoue’s longer stories, a novella by Kenzaburo Oe. It also has space to indicate authors’ diversities: not only Oe’s novella but also his Nobel Prize address; not only Yukio Mishima’s long story, “Patriotism,” but also his modern noh play “Yuya.”

The structure is kept purposely loose so that writing is not confined by the presentation. This is a necessity to which the editors are alive since each has had wide experience with anthologies. Van C. Gessel is the co-editor of “The Showa Anthology,” and Thomas Rimer is the author of the invaluable “Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature.”

Likewise, the anthology has space to fully encompass an editorial narrative that divides its six-decade time scheme into a number of categories: stories, poems, plays and essays. Junji Kinoshita’s popular drama, “Twilight Crane,” is included complete, as is Hisashi Inoue’s “Makeup,” and one of the pop extravaganzas of Juro Kara.

Here the taste of the editors becomes evident: Juro Kara but no Shuji Terayama, a poet, essayist and dramatist equally excellent, equally popularly beloved. Yet there are bound to be exclusions in even the fullest of anthologies, so rather than lament what is left out, one might as well consider who is put in.

Kenji Nakagami belongs in anthologies (though he is left out of many) and here he is. So is Junnosuke Yoshiyuki, one of Japan’s least translated stylists. Jun Ishikawa, not so often encountered, is present, as is Taeko Kono and Yoshinari Shimizu. The late Jun Eto is represented by his defining essay on Natsume Soseki, in its first hard-cover appearance.

Mystery-story-writer Seicho Matsumoto is also included, perhaps on grounds of his popularity. Other popular choices are Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto. They are here despite the doubts of the editors.

Gessel writes that “it seems unlikely that either of these writers will be able to sustain an enduring readership or reputation.” Their “postmodern lenses” have a limited attraction and their prose styles “lack the aesthetic beauty and flavor. . . found in the works of earlier writers.”

They are here because they are representative, as is Matsumoto, not of literature but of reading tastes. Anthologies can indicate the stylistic finest or can turn sociological (or anthropological) and indicate the taste of the public that buys this literature. Or anthologies can do both and this is accomplished in the Columbia anthology, particularly this second volume.

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