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The case for Yes

As writers compete with a torrent of storytelling mediums — from streaming services to video games to podcasts — immortality and greatness in literature may mean different things than before.

In the digital age, attention spans keep getting shorter and fewer readers are choosing fiction, citing its lack of utility. Any author now shooting for the stars, aiming to outstrip Shakespeare or to match Mishima’s “Sea of Fertility” — a row of novels whose frequent self-indulgence is the flipside of fantastical ambition — may find their audience reduced to their mother and closest friends.

But crisis can mean opportunity and new challenges often birth new solutions. Perhaps even a change of the guard.

At a recent visit to a bookstore in San Francisco, staff recommendations included Hiromi Kawakami’s “The Ten Loves of Nishino” and Yoko Ogawa’s “The Memory Police.” Rave reviews were placed prominently next to Sayaka Murata’s smash hit “Convenience Store Woman” and Hiroko Oyamada’s new release “The Factory.”

Before we trumpet a new Japanese golden era, it bears remembering that what is published in English may not reflect current landscapes in Japan (in fact, most of the titles mentioned were first published in Japanese years ago). But there are trends, new reader interest and markets — both in Japan and in what is translated into English — that raise hopes for another new wave, an era of greatness in Japanese literature.

“It is a great time for Japanese fiction, with plenty of interesting authors around,” says Ginny Tapley Takemori, a prominent fiction translator who collaborates with Sayaka Murata. “One trend is that women writers are being given greater visibility, and they are producing innovative and vibrant works. In Japan, they have been taking many of the prestigious literary awards.

“It’s not that women haven’t been writing all along. It’s just that only a handful made it into translation,” adds Tapley Takemori, pointing to talented male authors as well.

As fiction readers are now mostly women (excepting sci-fi), their interests and tastes also shape the market for which writers get translated into English. Translators exert their own influence, and have been forming associations worldwide to promote literature in translation.

“What gets published in English (from Japanese and other languages) is increasingly translator-driven,” says Tapley Takemori. “International translators have organized and campaigned for more women writers to be published in English, and editors have eagerly responded.”

Industry trends aside, any new wave begs comparisons to the past: Can these new authors write novels as rich and accomplished as Tanizaki’s “The Makioka Sister?”

The answer may be found in another question: Accomplishing what and to whose satisfaction?

Outsider voices and alienation have long been staples of world literature. Japanese fiction is no exception and it now highlights a certain brand: women navigating an oppressive society, struggling for selfhood between isolation and independence. Some hold that feminist themes are limiting to a novel and its need for universal resonance, but that seems akin to saying that those themes are irrelevant to men.

There is nothing unaccomplished about the surrealist gender showdowns in Yukiko Motoya’s collection “The Lonesome Bodybuilder” or Minae Mizumura’s unflinchingly realist novel “Inheritance from Mother,” which shows the burdens of elderly care in Japan, an issue that couldn’t be more contemporary — and disproportionately affects women.

As Mizumura pays homage to Japanese newspaper novels, Hiromi Kawakami’s “The Ten Loves of Nishino” draws inspiration from “The Tales of Genji.” But reflecting and building on past works doesn’t make these books any less ambitious.

In last week’s edition of The New Yorker magazine, the writer Bryan Washington praised Kawakami for her fully drawn characters and for “writing stories that don’t make you feel worse,” which means they don’t center on trauma. In part, Kawakami compels — and is read — because she has less to prove than a monomaniacal ego. At a cultural moment when seriousness is equated with volume and outrage, the quiet depth of her prose allows it to cut through the noise.

Most hopes for Japanese fiction, of course, are pinned on the aforementioned Murata, whose novel “Earthlings” will come out in English this summer. This follows the acclaimed translation of her novel “Convenience Store Woman,” which, in distinctive prose and voice tells the story of Keiko, a woman removed from all notions of social success.

Stuck in a dead-end job and seemingly marked for spinsterhood, she responds in ways that leave readers puzzled as to whether she is happy or not, whether her choices are good or bad. Keiko’s disillusionment with work and ambiguity about lifestyle are thoroughly of our time; Murata’s writings are anything but a simple reaction against an old guard.

As our lives become structured around data and social media keeps lessening our capacity for nuance, Japanese literature may remind us that ambiguity is a part of life. Some may not like the new themes and styles, but as we enter a new era and a new decade, the best may be yet to come. (Nicolas Gattig)

The case for No

When Natsume Soseki sat down to write a short story “The Tower of London” in December 1904, it was the first emission of a volcanic outpouring that would change the Japanese literary landscape forever.

Are there writings today that herald a similar literary revolution? If so, it’s unclear what exactly they are. Few writers in Japan today excite a deep interest. I don’t dismiss the achievements and stylistic innovations of Haruki Murakami and others who have followed in his wake, but I can’t in truth place many in the highest literary class.

The period from 1905 to 1970 represented a kind of “High Renaissance” of Japanese literary art. In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), age-old Japanese literary sensibilities suddenly came into contact with the literature of the rest of the world and acquired the idea that literature was the hallmark of a great civilized nation. Literature became a matter of extreme national importance, an all-consuming, life-and-death business.

There had been signs already in the 1890s with the emergence of a wave of brilliant literary talents — Ozaki Koyo, Ichiyo Higuchi, Masaoka Shiki — that something special was happening in Japan. But it was only when the nation’s greatest expert in English literature, Soseki — an elite scholar at Tokyo University with an astonishing knowledge of world literature — started penning fiction, that Japan began producing literature of truly unsurpassed quality. Soseki wanted to outstrip Shakespeare himself.

Soseki in turn inspired his great contemporary, Ogai Mori, into prolific literary output and mentored Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who would write some of Japan’s most iconic short stories. Soseki also taught Junichiro Tanizaki, who went on to translate “The Tale of Genji” into modern Japanese, and afterward created his own monumental masterpiece of supreme literary style, “The Makioka Sisters.”

Like the Quattrocento in Italy tumbling out an embarrassment of artistic riches, Japan saw all at once the gem-like invention of Yasunari Kawabata; the wistful nostalgia of Kafu Nagai; the sardonic, vitriolic wordplay of Osamu Dazai; the riotous, fecund imagination of Edogawa Ranpo; the spiritual meditations of Shusaku Endo; and the dream-like fantasies of Kenji Miyazawa. And that’s before we start talking about revolutionary poets like Takuboku Ishikawa, Akiko Yosano and Sakutaro Hagiwara.

It tells you much about the level of literary achievement in the High Renaissance era of 1905-70, that you could put together a reserve team of literary talents — Toson Shimazaki, Naoya Shiga, Takeo Arishima, Fumiko Enchi, Taeko Kono, Kyusaku Yumeno, Takiji Kobayashi, Ryotaro Shiba, Sawako Ariyoshi, Motojiro Kajii, Seicho Matsumoto — that in any other era would be an unbeatable first team.

Yukio Mishima, an extraordinary prolific talent who rounded out that golden age, spent five years tirelessly composing what he described as his “life work,” the four-volume “The Sea of Fertility,” an overarching vision of Japan over a 60-year period. On the day he handed over the last installment, he left a note on his desk saying, “Human life is limited, but I would like to live forever.”

What writer in Japan today aspires to writing literary works that outstrip Shakespeare, match “The Tale of Genji” and “live forever”?

Literature in Japan today is a far gentler, more head-on-its-shoulders, biodegradable business, no longer the preserve of a monomaniacal, fantastically ambitious elite who all went to the Tokyo University. These days literature embraces more women, minority and less-privileged voices. It generates works of social worth, entertainment and insightful reimaginings of modern life. Yet it is no more exceptional than dozens of other literatures across the world.

Many modern works of fiction exist in a kind of reflective dialogue with their great literary forebears. Hiromi Kawakami’s “Record of a Night Too Brief,” for example, is an obvious channeling of Soseki’s “Ten Nights’ Dreams” while Haruki Murakami’s 2002 novel, “Kafka on the Shore,” is a subtly disguised contemplation on the extraordinary literary journey Japan took during the 20th century.

We live in a mostly reactive period in Japanese literature, tentatively trying to make sense of all the tumult that has gone before. By all means, let’s celebrate the diversity of literary voices in modern Japan, but those infuriatingly male, elitist, tortured voices of the last century and their monumental achievements will, I suspect, dominate Japan’s literary imagination for quite some time to come. (Damian Flanagan)

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