Newly released, “The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories” serves up a feast of literature, a smorgasbord of over 30 widely varied modern Japanese writers.

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, Edited by Jay Rubin.
576 pages

Unlike a typical anthology, the stories forgo a chronological timeline of publication and are instead framed within categories to best showcase their unique tastes. In the mood for something light and provocative? Dip into “Modern Life and Other Nonsense.” Fancy a chilling read to take the edge off summer? The sections “Dread” or “Disasters, Natural and Man-Made” will cool your heart and head. Interested in samurai Japan? “Loyal Warriors” can satisfy your Bushido urge. It’s a recipe for success, thanks to editor Jay Rubin, acclaimed translator and academic.

When asked about the common ingredient for this divergent menu of literature, Rubin replies: “Resonance. Stories that leave an indelible mark, remembered long after leaving the page. Each story has stayed with me, somehow — stories I was unable to forget, an image or idea that remained in my mind.”

And remain they do. Yuten Sawanishi’s “Filling Up With Sugar,” is a tragic, whimsical tale of a daughter nursing her mother with a terminal disease that changes her body to sugar; Junichiro Tanizaki’s novella “The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga,” part of the section “Japan and the West,” is a magical-realistic exploration of Japan’s love-hate relationship with Western culture; and Mieko Kawakami’s “Dreams of Love, Etc.,” detailing the intimate musical kinship that develops between two women in Tokyo during the uncertain aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, is an allegory for fragile humanity and our search for connections. Each lodges itself in memory.

Across the anthology’s multifarious selection, theme, style and genre vary greatly, and the characters present diverse voices, from those of burakumin (descendents of feudal outcasts) and Nagasaki survivors to coldly murderous mothers and nationalistic soldiers searching for meaning in a futuristic Japan. The best writers of the age are represented — Natsume Soseki, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Fumiko Enchi, Haruki Murakami — and a few relative unknowns who nevertheless deliver delicious short fiction.

Thirty-five stories made the final cut, 16 translated by Rubin. Six stories are available in English for the first time, and every translation was carefully edited. As Rubin explains, “With this anthology, I took an active editorial role in all the translations, refining each translation to produce the best, most authentic version of the original.” Choosing the stories themselves, however, proved to be the biggest challenge.

Rubin began the long process of decision-making in 2013, and he soon recognized the memorable power of a great short story in contrast to a typical anthology. “Chronological order or including every famous writer only becomes important in classroom study, but these stories all meant something to me, and I wanted them to mean something to readers beyond a required textbook,” says Rubin. “And there’s such a wealth of great literature to choose from, as the short story is a thriving genre in Japan due to the publishing industry. Serialization is still popular, and there are lots of literary magazines that encourage modern authors to continue writing short stories.”

Rubin enlisted the suggestions of trusted translators and friends within Japanese literary circles, giving them his main criterion: it should be a story they can’t forget. From his original, 2013 list of 28 stories, only 13 made it to publication, as Rubin tirelessly explored recommendations from others.

As Rubin is one of the main translators for Haruki Murakami into English, it was natural for Penguin to ask Murakami to provide an introduction. “I thought Murakami-san might hesitate to take on such a project, but he embraced it,” says Rubin. “He even offered to write a brief introduction for each of the sections, introducing the authors and themes.” Two of Murakami’s short stories are included in the anthology, both translated by Rubin. One of them, “The 1963/1982 Girl from Ipanema,” will be new to most readers.

Fans of Murakami will also enjoy the wry and thorough introduction, which includes his own perspective on Japanese literature, an engaging view from one of the most celebrated authors of Japan’s modern era. Murakami admits to reading “most of the stories” for the first time, enabling him to “encounter the works with a fresh attitude.”

There is a decided freshness to the entire collection, even for those stories already well-known, as Rubin admits: “Even stories I don’t particularly enjoy rereading, like Yukio Mishima’s ‘Patriotism,’ I kept for its raw, undeniable resonance. With its starkly romanticized, graphic images of seppuku, it can hardly be a favorite, but it’s a story that’s difficult to forget, and was actually on my original list.”

Penguin’s new anthology is a literature lover’s dream, page after page of memorable writing, stories that leave a lasting impression yet can be fully absorbed in one sitting. It’s one anthology that will surely find a life outside the classroom, offering up the living, vital world of Japanese literature in all its diversity and with a true taste for excellence.

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