As 2021 approaches, six Japan Times book reviewers look back on their top reads released in English this year.
Breasts and Eggs, Fiction, Mieko Kawakami (trans. Sam Bett and David Boyd), Picador, 432 pages
If you missed “Breasts and Eggs,” Mieko Kawakami’s expansive and lively omnibus, put it at the top of your 2021 reading list.
The book is made up of two connected novellas that were combined and translated into English this year, and together the story explores the human condition by examining what it means to be born. No one delves into humanity quite like Kawakami, who adroitly balances social issues with humor and juxtaposes philosophical questions with streetwise answers. Kawakami’s sprawling, soaring, sometimes stumbling prose always rights itself into a sly meditation on human flaws and fallacies, taking on single motherhood, social isolation, gender norms and sexual abuse.
The two sections unfold from the perspective of Natsuko, an introverted writer from Osaka who is living in Tokyo. In Book One, Natsuko is a supportive host to her older sister, Makiko, and 12-year-old niece. The two, who are on rocky terms, have traveled to the capital for Makiko’s breast augmentation operation. Natsuko muses on her sister’s quest for physical perfection as an aging club hostess, and quietly guides her young niece toward reconciliation with her mother. Book Two takes place 10 years later, and Natsuko is now a successful writer who is struggling to define what makes a family. In her quest to become a single mother, she navigates artificial insemination within the confines of Japan’s patriarchal society, all while balancing her literary career.
The book is piercingly funny, sad and compassionate, and in a year where many great English translations of Japanese literature were released, Kawakami’s stands out. (Kris Kosaka)
Earthlings, Fiction, Sayaka Murata (trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori), Grove Atlantic, 256 pages
Sayaka Murata’s characters have always longed for escape and self-actualization. Readers saw that on full-display in her hit 2017 novel, “Convenience Store Woman.” But Murata’s newly translated novel, “Earthlings,” takes this quest into far darker territory.
Terribly traumatized and in search of freedom from their families and the pressures of Japanese society, the three protagonists of “Earthlings” ascend beyond humanity into the alien, and descend beneath it to the depths of hell. This novel slowly builds as the protagonists first flirt with, then flee toward, and finally arrive at a magical, scientific and violent world of their own invention, a world in which they are no longer human beings. This novel is not for the faint of heart, but it is thought-provoking from the first page and gripping to the last.
The detached and ironic style of writing, adeptly translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, embellishes humor so dark that it may not be humor at all. Takemori’s translation also fully realizes one of the best qualities of Murata’s writing: her creative use of science fiction and magical realism as literary devices.
The unexpected combination of Murata’s adventurous style with the depiction of abuse and its consequences probes the heart of humanity like few other novels in recent memory. Murata proves that it is possible to create a gut-wrenching work of postmodern fiction in 2020. (Eric Margolis)
The Memory Police, Fiction, Yoko Ogawa (trans. Stephen Snyder), Harvill Secker, 411 pages
This year has been suffused with loss: of loved ones, jobs, mobility and personal freedoms — that is to say nothing of the rapid and ongoing disappearance of species, entire languages and even words in our daily lexicon.
In this light, I found myself revisiting the unnamed island in Yoko Ogawa’s “The Memory Police,” where physical objects silently disappear, along with any memories of them. The Memory Police “enforce the disappearance(s),” and those who retain memories are detained, interrogated and spirited away. There is no grand resistance or revolution in Ogawa’s dystopian reality. Ribbons, perfume, birds — nothing is spared as the characters slowly lose their connection to everything that makes them human.
Elegantly translated by Stephen Snyder, Ogawa’s novel is a disquieting meditation on loss, remembrance and death. Everything feels too close to our current reality: how much and how quickly the characters forget and move on, how resistance to authority can seem futile or overwhelming, how the characters shrug and throw up their collective hands on encountering their “new normal” — a phrase we’re all too familiar with in 2020. Nonetheless, it’s a novel well-worth keeping on your bookshelf. (Florentyna Leow)
Healing Labor: Japanese Sex Work in the Gendered Economy, Nonfiction, Gabriele Koch, Stanford University Press, 248 pages
While much of translated fiction from Japan this year centered around women’s voices and gender inequality, my personal favorite was a nonfiction release by Gabriele Koch titled “Healing Labor: Japanese Sex Work in the Gendered Economy,” which explores similar themes in the real world.
An intrepid anthropologist and gifted storyteller, Koch spent two years researching the sex industry in Japan and interviewing law enforcement officers and various women working in the field. The result is a stunning kaleidoscope not only of services rendered and their respective legality, but also of the backgrounds and motivations of the workers. While Koch makes it clear that not all sex workers see themselves as victims, she points also to a dearth of job opportunities — and resulting downward trajectories — that can leave working women with few choices to make ends meet.
Throughout the book, Koch deftly balances her erudition with an appealingly nonjudgmental approach. She doesn’t condemn the sex industry and lets interview subjects speak for themselves, even when delving into the Japanese notion of sex work as necessary “healing labor” that can replenish a stressed-out male workforce. From soaplands to escort services and “delivery health” call girls in hotels, Koch’s interest is always with people, and the book shines in the way it does justice to a nuanced variety of circumstances. (Nicolas Gattig)
Japanese Design Since 1945: A Complete Sourcebook, Nonfiction, Naomi Pollock (trans. Rei Kitakawa), Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 448 pages
Like many people self-isolating due to the COVID-19 pandemic this year, I’ve become overly familiar with the walls of my apartment. Putting extra care into ensuring my environment is comfortable has never felt more necessary, making the publication of “Japanese Design Since 1945” by Naomi Pollock particularly timely.
Throughout the coffee table-sized volume, Pollock profiles 70-plus notable Japanese designers, delving into the motives (and motifs) behind the products for which they are best known. “Japanese Design” is broken into seven chapters based on product category (such as “Tables & Chairs” or “Lifestyle & Leisure”), and designers — except for the so-called “Design Titans,” whose impact defies such easy classification — are slotted into the chapter where they have had the largest impact. Pollock’s prose is a pleasure to read, and the straightforward organization makes the volume perfect for casual browsing.
But it’s the hundreds of crisp images that keep drawing me back to the book. Every time I flip through its pages, there’s some new detail that strikes my fancy, and I find myself wishing to hold this cup or that plate, or feel the grain on a particular table or chair. Pollock’s keen eye has a way of bringing the impact design can have on daily life to the fore, and this book will surely become a “titan” in its own right in the years to come. (Claire Williamson)
Traditional Cuisine of the Ryukyu Islands: A History of Health and Healing, Nonfiction, Rin Takagi (trans. Deborah Iwabuchi and Enda Kazuko), Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture, 144 pages
My sampling of Okinawan dishes, from an elegant and sumptuous 13-course kyūtei ryōri (court cuisine) dinner, to the odoriferous and vaguely renal-flavored yagi-sashi (raw goat), could best be described as random, if not uninformed.
For a long time, the Okinawan diet was considered to be one of the healthiest in the world, and good models for a healthy diet persist in the lifestyles and dietary habits of its elders, as well as and in the ancient culinary practices found in traditional cookbooks. It is this field, the tried and tested wisdom of preparing ingredients for what Okinawans call yakuzen (medicinal cuisine), that author Rin Takagi explores.
If you have ever wondered how eating both the leaves and flowers of the orange daylily improves water metabolism, or why the salty, nontoxic properties of pig’s blood are good for you, this small book goes some way to answering such questions by serving up generous portions of the cultural background to this distinctive southern cuisine.
Inspired by a 19th century book known as “Gozen Honzo” (“Edible Plants of Ryukyu”), a study of diet therapy, nutrition and pharmacology written by chief court physician Tokashiki Pechin Tsukan, Takagi opens with a history of the people and culture of the Ryukyu Kingdom, before its forced absorption into the Japanese state. Takagi concludes with a richly descriptive and illustrated list of recipes taken from the original text, resulting in a timeless primer for a healthy life. (Stephen Mansfield)
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