As the holiday season rolls around, it’s time to dash about in a mad panic in search of gifts that say “I’ve given this one some thought, honest.” Or you can just let us do the thinking for you, with gift suggestions from our regular book reviewers — tailor-made for the Japanophile reader.
The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories
To know a country you must know the stories it tells. This fine anthology offers 35 of Japan’s, the earliest dating to 1896, the latest to 1992. If, as editor Theodore W. Goossen says in his introduction, a literary “generation” nowadays is five years, that’s 20 generations represented here. Some of the authors — Akutagawa, Kawabata, Dazai, Mishima — are household names; others — Higuchi Ichiyo, Motojiro Kajii — no longer are but maybe should be. Famous or obscure, there are some gems here.
Oxford University Press
Who do we meet? A scrappy orphan boy toiling in an umbrella shop (1896), an itinerant peddler’s small daughter watching her father being mercilessly beaten by a laughing policeman (1931), a jaded old geisha bewildered by the new world of electricity (1939), Murakami’s vanishing elephant (1987) — why, all of modern Japan is between these covers! A good part of it, anyway. And let the reader decide whether the latest generation is up to the standards of the old masters! (Michael Hoffman)
Hello Kitty: Hello 40
Forty years ago Hello Kitty was just a wee babe, but in reality she hasn’t aged a bit. In “Hello Kitty: Hello 40,” an eclectic selection of creators take their guess at her secret and imagine her adventures with pals through a personal vision of their own. These illustrators, authors and cartoonists reveal they are just as crazed fans as I am.
Since birth, Hello Kitty’s cartoon form has been a few dots and lines, some circles and curves here and there, but each story individualizes her as the timeless icon of cuteness and the admirable figment of imagination that she is for all of us. Best friends are the perfect gifts on anniversaries, and this year Hello Kitty has more than enough companions to continue celebrating for years to come. A holiday gift that visualizes the dreams, journeys and birthday of Hello Kitty — how much sweeter can you get? (Madeline Barbush)
The Samurai Inheritance
An Australian mining magnate desperately desires a shrunken head that was last seen in the 19th century. How does that tie in with the death of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, who, when shot down in April 1943 over Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, took with him a secret that might have changed the course of history?
The protagonist in this entertaining potboiler, Jamie Saintclair, is a specialist in tracking down missing works of art, many of which were looted as spoils of war. Teamed up with a stunning femme fatale, he searches for the missing head, while narrowly avoiding the loss of his own. With his tenacity and pluck, you just know he’ll somehow prevail in the end. (And he does.) The historical references to Adm. Yamamoto’s demise notwithstanding, Saintclair’s perilous sojourn in Japan, where he tangles with the yakuza, is the least plausible part of the story. (Mark Schreiber)
“Jiro Gastronomy” showcases the carefully crafted dishes of famous sushi master Jiro Ono. The pages of this book are filled with colorful images of his beautiful sushi creations, which are renowned for comprising fresh seasonal ingredients and which have earned Ono worldwide recognition.
Each piece of sushi is perfectly placed, and Ono’s vision and heart is captured within each photo. The book also covers sushi-eating etiquette, dress code and directions to his two restaurants.
A meal at the acclaimed chef’s counter would set you back ¥30,000, which is a little much for a holiday gift; this small but vibrant book makes a great alternative offering for the sushi lover in your life. (Catherina DePaz)
Tokyo: A Certain Style
Anyone who’s lived in Tokyo for any length of time knows how cramped the living spaces in the capital can be. That said, residents are still able to find a way to accommodate all of their belongings, whether they stuff them into a stack of plastic boxes, slot them into wall-to-wall bookshelves or fold them up and leave them in the corner.
If you’d like to get a snapshot of how urban folk in the city really live, you can’t go wrong with Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s “Tokyo: A Certain Style.” The author traveled around the city on his scooter and took hundreds of photographs of apartments in Tokyo. He adds a short introduction about the residents who live in each place, which gives the book a nice personal touch. The format of the book also helps give it a decent dose of character — its squat, pocket-sized shape makes it an ideal gift for people living in tiny apartments. (Elliott Samuels)
The Art of Setting Stones
By paying attention to certain practices, such as the cultivation of plants, a knowledge of the symbolism of flowers and ancient beliefs concerning the placement of stones and trees, it is possible to learn from the wisdom of Japanese gardens. And the person to consult on the most profound and esoteric of design principals is unquestionably Marc Peter Keane, a leader in the field of Japanese garden scholarship.
Stone Bridge Press
In “The Art of Setting Stones,” landscape methodology dissolves as he requisitions the garden as a vehicle to reflect on beauty, loss, personal relations and the vexing question of how to live with dignity and meaning.
If gardens speak to us, their message is often contorted by a conspiracy of academic explication and distraction. Keane, our best interpreter of that voice, writes with a lyrical range and erudition that is rare in this field. Fine illustrations created on black clayboard by the author accompany his admirably readable philosophical text. (Stephen Mansfield)
Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art
First published in 1980, “Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art” was influential in bringing washoku a much wider audience and is rightly considered to be the bible of Japanese cooking. Encyclopedic in its range, it’s an indispensable reference book, crisply illustrated throughout.
What I admire most about “A Simple Art” is the style in which it is written: simple, direct and authoritative, indicative of author Shizuo Tsuji’s journalism background.
The 25th-anniversary edition, published a few years back, was updated with color photos, which in the age of food blogs and smartphones is nothing special, but likewise in our food-obsessed age, “A Simple Art” is important for its authority and the clarity of its message: Japanese cooking is simple, once you understand it and practice it. One of the best places to start is with “A Simple Art,” making it an ideal gift. But be warned: It’s a heavy tome unlikely to fit in a stocking. (J.J. O’Donoghue)
The Sound of Waves
Within the simple beauty of an island love story, Yukio Mishima adds ancient mythology, greed, modern issues of “progress” — all without losing focus on fisherman Shinji Kubo’s awakening love for island beauty Hatsue.
Mishima’s descriptive style is beautifully wrought and captivatingly layered with insights into the human heart. He juxtaposes materialism and modernity, intellect and strength, shadowy emotions and the pure blossoming of love — those forces that steer human action — with his trademark wry observations: “There in the city almost all nature had been put into uniform, and the little power of nature that remained was an enemy.”
The novel can be enjoyed as a moving allegory on first love, as a commentary on big-city and small-town politics, as a retelling of the Greek myth of Daphnis and Chloe, or as Mishima’s tongue-in-cheek musings on human nature. It provokes yet ultimately uplifts, a fitting morsel of food for thought in this holiday season. (Kris Kosaka)
Resident Evil: The Marhawa Desire
If you’re dreaming of a red Christmas, how about this manga spin-off from the “Resident Evil” video-game series? Set in the run-up to “Resident Evil 6” and overseen by the game’s developer, Capcom, the first book in the “Marhawa Desire” series follows an outbreak of the t-Virus at a haughty elite boarding school where the headmistress seems more concerned with saving her academy’s reputation than saving the students, who are being transformed by the virus into flesh-eating zombies. We’ve all had teachers like that, right?
She calls in a bioterrorism-expert old flame and his nephew to investigate quietly, and they are quickly overwhelmed. But how can they call in reinforcements when the isolated academy is cut off from the outside world and is run by a loonie?
“The Marhawa Desire” is drawn in beautiful detail by celebrated manga artist Naoki Serizawa, and is just trashy enough to appeal to fans of the sort of pulp horror that inspired the original “Resi” games. As for that red Christmas — well, the pages are mostly in black and white, but the blood sure does flow. (Daniel Robson)