Surely many of you, including overseas readers of The Japan Times online, live within 100 km of a Japanese-language bookstore or a university with a collection of Japanese books. Japanese literature is available, but confronting the sheer volume of offerings can be overwhelming.
For me, it was helpful to isolate just three major Japanese authors as a starting point. The inspiration for this strategy came when an enthusiastic student at the Japanese university where I teach English asked me for a few suggestions of excellent American authors. He hoped to gain a deeper understanding of my home culture and society by reading a major American novel.
I was thrilled and challenged by his request and directed him toward John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe and Mark Twain. My favorite work by the great Californian, Steinbeck, is “East of Eden.” Wolfe, my own homeboy, (we both hail from Asheville, N.C.) wrote the best novel I have ever devoured, “Look Homeward, Angel.” And through Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” I was confident my student could begin to understand the Mississippi River, slavery, American dialects — and even the American personality.
I, too, possessed a dream similar to my student’s — a dream of acquiring an intimate view of the culture of Japan by experiencing its literature in the language in which it was written. I had already learned the shapes and meanings of Japan’s 1,945 general-use kanji (but not their pronunciations) and my student inspired me to stop procrastinating with Japanese literature.
I decided to ask my Japanese teacher to introduce me to three — and only three — first-rate Japanese authors. I told her that my aim was to read a Japanese novel from start to finish. After the first 25 pages, I hoped to discuss with her what I had read.
My teacher, long accustomed to foreign students with low kanji-learning goals, was pleasantly surprised. After careful consideration, sensei suggested that I read something by the great Meiji novelist, Soseki Natsume. She recommended “Botchan,” the story of a young Tokyoite orphan who moves to Shikoku to teach at a middle school. The tale of Botchan, a straight-shooting rebel who often finds himself in humorous pickles, is very popular among the Japanese. Virtually every high-school graduate in Japan can recount some of the young hero’s adventures, and it is no accident that Natsume’s face is on the 1,000 yen note.
Her second selection was Junichiro Tanizaki’s masterpiece, “Sasame yuki (The Makioka Sisters),” which chronicles the fortunes of four women in a once-prominent family in pre-World War II Osaka. The dialogue — authentically rendered in the local dialect — is the brilliant centerpiece of this lengthy work, but may prove difficult for foreign readers like me who live outside the Kansai area.
Her third choice was Nobel prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata’s “Yukiguni (Snow Country).” Straightaway, this elegant novel transported me to a bleak and secluded mountain region northwest of Tokyo. It tells the compelling story of three characters — a male dilettante from the capital and the two women he meets — and their pathetic inability to experience love. Twenty-five pages grew to 50 and the pages kept on turning — not quickly, but turning nonetheless.
Discussions of this novel with sensei over coffee were for me — and, she says, for her — unforgettable Japanese “lessons.”
Thus began my love affair with Japanese literature. There is something indescribably satisfying about absorbing a great work such as “Yukiguni” in the original language. Purchasing a translation in your native language — to enjoy in increments after having made an honest stab at the original Japanese — will only give you an appreciation of what you are gaining by reading the original. Despite the high quality of the translations, much of the wordplay, humor and imagery of the original classics simply does not survive the process.
If you are like me, as you grasp the meaning on the pages you will feel as though you have made your way into a secret room not necessarily intended for foreigners (Soseki, when asked which of his novels he would most like to see translated for American consumption, reportedly replied that there were none he wanted Americans to read). The insights to be gained into the culture and language of Japan by reading these works in the original are many.
After badgering your Japanese teacher (or any other mentor) for three favorite authors, and hopefully getting him or her to agree to discuss your book with you, my next suggestion is to photocopy and blow up the print so that the complex kanji are easier to read. Do not suffer with the tiny kanji in paperbacks.
Extensive reading of everyday written material such as newspapers and Web sites, with an emphasis on speed and general understanding, is critical to attaining literacy in Japanese. But intensive reading of Japanese masterpieces — savoring, reading over and over for deeper understanding — is one of the special thrills of being a devoted kanji learner.