A note from the Books editors: This year, we’re starting a series of editors’ choices of books they enjoy. Twice a month, members of the editorial board will recommend some of their favourite reads. Spanning novels, short stories, poetry, and non-fiction, we hope this series inspires you to pick up something new. This time, travel editor Gracie Linthwaite has taken inspiration from her section and curated a list of books to transport us to Japan. Happy reading!
When I first visited Japan as a child, it struck me that it is a nation fascinated by the simple, untouchable beauty of everyday things: whether that be the way you arrange your home, the way you pour your tea, or even the way raindrops vibrate and bounce off the surface of a puddle – here, the details matter. Thus it is no surprise that unlike Western literature, which can often be overtly political and pompous, Japanese authors delve into the extraordinariness of mundane human lives. What fascinates me most about it is that its protagonists aren’t stock figures or members of the gentry, but people who work in convenience stores, bars, and kitchens; awkward lovers and students, yet each with their own quirkiness. Japanese literature is a filter that magnifies the beauty of our ordinary lives, which for me, is art’s greatest power.
Here are my recommendations for anyone wanting to delve into literature from the land of the rising sun:
Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami
Even if you don’t know much about Japanese literature, you have probably heard of the giant North Star that is Haruki Murakami. For a long time I was put off reading his novels by his reputation as a surrealist writer; I had never understood the point of surrealism, because it seemed to me that the real world is already so magical.
When I finally decided to delve into his works, I started with one of his few realist novels, Norwegian Wood. I found it to be one of the most poignant and evocative novels I have ever read. Murakami perfectly captures the searching young adult: his astute presentation of inner life portrays the struggle of trying to find out who you are and how to present yourself to the world. Following Toru Watanabe around Tokyo, surrounded by the student protests of the seventies, I enjoyed the mundanity of walking in the mountains, listening to jazz records, watching people fall in love, yet all with the lingering presence of suicide in the background. The world Murakami has created in this novel is different and yet so ordinary, so universally relatable, and yet so Japanese.
The novel deals with death and grief with wisdom and sensitivity, and guides the reader through some of life’s darkest experiences. Yet the novel is also about a love triangle, and the relationships are so beautifully portrayed that as a reader you begin as conflicted as Toru himself: you want him to be with both Naoko and Midori. Murakami manages to talk about love without being conventionally sappy, for it is not a story of epic passion, but it is subtle and real and ultimately ends without resolution.
Not much ‘happens’ in this novel, but Murakami’s ability to articulate even the most fleeting impressions will make you keep turning the pages. If you find yourself feeling a little lost in these uncertain times, trying to figure out what life is all about, feeling the loss of a loved one, or nostalgic for normality, I recommend Norwegian Wood as a guidebook.
Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto
In a similar way to Murakami, Yoshimoto’s Kitchen articulates what it is like to feel lonely, and the importance of place and the home in offering comfort. This short novella follows the story of Mikage Sakurai after the death of her elderly grandmother, her only living relative, as she attempts to find a place for herself in a world from which she feels detached and isolated.
It was incredibly fitting that I found Kitchen at a time in my life when I needed it most. Struggling with isolation having moved cities during my gap year, I felt myself completely disconnected from and grieving for the life I had left behind. Kitchen grapples with these emotions in all their rawness, but like Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, it also reassures us that something positive can emerge from the space created by loss. Perhaps it may allow you to find out who you truly are, shown through the transgender character Eriko, or it may spark a connection with someone who has gone through a similar trial. The novel reminds us that no experience, however devastating, truly strips you of everything. Even if all that is left is simply memories, they can be the force that spurs you on to making new ones.
In true Japanese style, Yoshimoto encourages us to find joy in even the most mundane things. Mikage’s way of grounding herself throughout the story is through an appreciation for kitchens: in a particularly moving passage, the sound of people in a kitchen that brings her back from the brink of despair and allows her to see the potential for happiness in the world
In translating a language such as Japanese into English, some meaning will inevitably be lost, but the simplicity and understated sensuousness of Yoshimoto’s writing engages us in a universal experience. If the language had been oversaturated with imagery or metaphor, I most likely would have found it difficult to relate to the work. Nevertheless, Yoshimoto’s writing is at times idiosyncratic and reminiscent of a haiku. It is the quality of poignant resilience which peppers the language that makes this little novel worth reading: ‘We live like the lowliest worms. Always defeated – defeated we make dinner, we eat, we sleep. Everyone we love is dying. Still, to cease living is unacceptable.’
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo
Marie Kondo’s ‘KonMari’ tidying method has turned into an international phenomenon, becoming the basis of a Netflix show in which Kondo herself helps families organise their belongings. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up details her method in five chapters, each dedicated to a particular category: clothes, books, papers, miscellany, and mementoes. We are invited to evaluate whether our belongings ‘spark joy’, discarding what doesn’t and organising what is left.
I was most struck by the immense respect that Kondo shows to everyday objects throughout the book. She encourages us to recognise that all our possessions come into our lives for a reason, so we should consider them, thank them, and let them go onto the next stage of their existence. This attitude of kindness made me not feel guilty for the amount of clutter I owned, or fear the process of clearing it out and tidying. As a result of this, by the end of the book I realised my relationship with my possessions had changed, for it had encouraged me to actually think critically about what I was keeping around and how it was affecting my well-being.
Throughout the work, Kondo makes us understand that we keep things that don’t enhance our current lives because we cannot let go of the past; hence we need to evaluate our priorities in the present and make room for the next stage in our lives by getting rid of those objects that don’t spark joy. Rife with Shinto undertones, the book offers not only a critique of consumerism in our society, but also provides an extremely Japanese take about how to transform both your living space and your outlook on life in general.
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