Books / Reviews | RECENTLY PUBLISHED BOOKS ABOUT JAPAN

'Three Japanese Short Stories' review: A literary amuse-bouche

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

This mini book is just the job if you are heading off on a weekend break this summer and fancy a little literary diversion, without making a commitment to a hefty read.

Three Japanese Short Stories, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Others.
64 pages
PENGUIN MODERN, Fiction.

The three stories are drawn from the early decades of the 20th century and are representative of Japan’s initial attempts to grapple with a wider world.

We open with an epistolary piece, “Behind the Prison,” heavily drawing on Kafu Nagai’s own experiences of readapting to life in Japan in the latter years of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) after some years away in America and France. The sights and sounds on the street are distinctively Japanese, but the poetry running through the mind of the narrator, experiencing something of an existential crisis, belongs to Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine.

That theme of discomfort within one’s own skin continues in the amusingly satirical piece, “Closet LLB,” by Koji Uno, which depicts an aspiring and predictably penniless writer — possessor of a useless law degree — musing from inside a closet on the shortcomings of every modern artist, yet incapable of analyzing his own lack of success.

We round off this literary amuse-bouche in the hands of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, relating in “General Kim” the means by which the mythology of a Korean 16th-century warrior has been spun to create a hero with supernatural powers. Akutagawa seemingly debunks this fantastical narrative, before acutely suggesting that when it comes to mythologizing history, the Japan of Akutagawa’s age had little to learn from the Korean Peninsula or anywhere else.