Books

Hot new Japan book releases for the sweltering summer

by Iain Maloney

Contributing Writer

Summer is here, which means the air conditioner is now permanently on, we’re all taking four showers a day and wondering why we don’t all just move to Hokkaido. It also means we’re halfway through the year and ready to take a look at what treats J-Lit has in store for us in the scorching months ahead.

Reiwa brings with it not one but two new translations of writer-of-the-moment Hiromi Kawakami, both by Allison Markin Powell. “The Ten Loves of Nishino” (Europa Editions, out now) is a humorous short novel told through the voices of 10 women who have loved the titular Nishino. Following that, remember, remember the fifth of November, as that’s when “Parade: A Folktale” (Soft Skull Press) hits the shops. Kawakami has inherited the cursed label “quirky,” a mantle that gets passed from one Japanese woman novelist to another by lazy reviewers, but here she goes full pelt into fantasy, leaving quirky some ways behind with a tale in which folklore and modernity collide.

Modernity is the stuff of Hiroko Oyamada’s fiction, and her first book translated into English, “The Factory” (translated by David Boyd, New Directions Publishing), comes out in October. Names like Kafka are being dropped in press releases, and this story of three workers losing their grasp on reality in the unreality of late-stage capitalism certainly promises to be one of the literary highlights of 2019.

Speaking of unreality, September brings us “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (Picador), set in a Tokyo cafe that offers patrons, alongside their latte and cakes, the chance to travel back in time. Personally I’d use the ability to travel forward beyond the summer heat, but it seems most people use the cafe to right past wrongs and have a second chance.

You don’t always need to travel in time to reach the past; sometimes it makes the leap forward to you. This summer, the already creaking Mishima shelf welcomes “Life for Sale,” translated by Stephen Dodd (Penguin Classics, Aug. 1). It sounds like Mishima at his inventive best with the publisher describing “a world of murderous mobsters, hidden cameras, a vampire woman, poisoned carrots, code-breaking, a hopeless junkie heiress and makeshift explosives.” Sign me up.

The murders continue in December when what Pushkin Press is describing as “Japan’s greatest classic murder mystery” is unleashed on the streets. “The Honjin Murders” by Seishi Yokomizu and translated by Louise Heal Kawai. A rich family dynasty, an impending wedding, rumors of a sinister masked man, all in the dead of winter: What more could you ask for?

Rumors and secrets are at the heart of Richard J. Samuels’ “Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community” (Cornell University Press, October). Focusing on intelligence gathering by the modern Japanese state from 1895, the author’s insights into pre-war “hubris and debilitating bureaucratic competition” and postwar reliance on the U.S. will attract fans of both geopolitical and military history.

The martial is also well represented in Michael Wert’s “Samurai: A Concise History” (Oxford University Press), which does exactly what it says on the tin, charting the rise of the samurai to the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 in just 128 pages.

Anna Sherman’s “The Bells of Old Tokyo” (Picador, out now) is another journey through the rich tapestry of Japanese history, using a search for the bells used to mark the passage of time in the shogun’s Edo as its crux. Utilizing interviews with an ensemble of Tokyoites, this promises to be as much a portrait of the capital today as it does an exploration of its history.

Capital portraits is the trade of acclaimed photographer Daido Moriyama, whose street photography is collected in “Daido Moriyama: How I Take Photographs” by Moriyama and Takeshi Nakamoto (Laurence King Publishing, translated by Lucy North, out now), alongside insights into his artistic vision and methods.

From still pictures to moving ones, The Japan Times’ resident film buff, Mark Schilling, is at hand to guide you through “Art, Cult and Commerce: Japanese Cinema since 2000” (Awai Books, October), with help from Tomoki Watanabe’s illustrations. Going in-depth on both blockbusters and under-the-radar favorites, this is a one-stop shop for novices and long-term fans who want to dig deeper.

If it’s depth you want, Ryan Shaldjian Morrison’s translation of Susumu Nakanishi’s “The Japanese Linguistic Landscape: Reflections on Quintessential Words” (JPIC) is one for all you linguists, translators and writers out there. Nakanishi is an expert in Japanese literature and the man behind the era name “Reiwa,” so expect deep dives into Japanese both modern and ancient and hopefully a few words we can sprinkle into our daily Japanese to make us sound better read than we really are.

Plenty to be getting on with there, and, as always, this is not a complete list. Whatever your interest in Japan, there’s bound to be something in the pipeline for you and, if not, take a look at our Essentials series for more inspiration.

In the meantime, if you need me, I’ll be curled up under the AC with one of these good books.

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