‘The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories’ Is a Perfect Balance of Classic and Modern

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories is not merely another college lit anthology, but a fascinating collection of short stories from all periods and from several authors who all too rarely make it into English translation.

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories
: Various (edited by Jay Rubin)
Penguin Classics
Sep 2018

I once attended a fascinating lecture on the history of money. The presenter noted that one can tell a lot about the general economic and political situation of a country based on who is featured on the country’s currency. When a country and its dollar are strong, they tend to feature prominent political figures – political heroes and mythic warriors and the like. When a country is in trouble, with its currency spiralling out of control and requiring reprints every few months, that’s when they tend to eschew the political leaders and emblazon the brief-lived bills with artists, poets, writers, and other persons of culture.

Be that as it may, the bill I most frequently used while living in Japan – the ¥1000, equivalent to slightly less than $10 US — was proudly emblazoned with one of Japan’s earliest writers of modern fiction, Natsume Soseki (he was later replaced with a prominent medical researcher). The country’s ¥5000 bill, commonly used in a country which still relies heavily on cash, also features an author: the wonderfully talented, yet tragically short-lived, Higuchi Ichiyo. Her poignant story is that of a young woman who struggled against her family’s poverty to express her brilliant writing talent, and managed through a few years of miraculous and heart-wrenching struggle to pen an array of stunning short stories before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 24. In the year 2000, a ¥2000-bill was issued bearing the portrait of Murasaki Shikibu, the tenth-century Japanese noblewoman and writer who is sometimes considered the world’s first novelist.

In reality, writers on bills are perhaps not that uncommon, but there’s something about the numismatic prominence of Japan’s authors in recent decades that seems to aptly reflect the value the country places on its literary culture.

Higuchi Ichiyo – that woman whose enigmatic portrait graces the ¥5000 bill – was an irrepressible producer of short stories, and it’s a form through which many English-speakers continue to form their first impressions of Japanese literature. Popular Japanese writers-in-translation like Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana are known for their many novels which have been translated into English, but I would argue it’s their short story works which offer the best demonstration of their talent (Murakami’s 2000 collection After the Quake, written after and around the tragic 1995 earthquake in Kobe, is the book which first turned me on to him after I’d given up in exasperation on novel after novel by the iconic writer; Yoshimoto’s short story collection Lizard (1995) remains to this day one of the books on my bedside bookshelf, and the book which most dearly touched me of all her works).

For many years, English-language anthologies of Japanese short stories contained a limited and repetitive repertoire of award-winning, internationally recognized (and mostly male) writers. Then in 1995 a remarkable anthology appeared on the scene. Monkey Brain Sushi: New Tastes in Japanese Fiction featured an array of bizarre, sci-fi, and other fantastical tales – even a lesbian romance — that revealed a very different dimension of Japanese writing; all but one of the authors had never before been published in North America. One review described the collection as “brash, uneven in quality, and fiercely critical of contemporary Japan…t hey resemble Westerners in their directness, use of pop-culture and idiom, these young men and women look to the American ‘city novel’ as their model rather than to traditional Japanese writers.”

There’s an odd attribution of agency in that review: the authors are depicted as “looking to” American literature for influence. I’d argue that the stories reveal a Japanese literary generation that grew up familiar with American (and other) literature and produced an oeuvre of its own that was capable of meeting, challenging, perhaps even besting, literature on a more broadly post-modern and global scale. No longer was Japanese literature (in translation) simply a space for contesting cultural conflict between East and West, or denoting the poignant personal tragedies of its authors; this new generation of writers neatly sidestepped their predecessors’ dilemmas and took Japanese literature to a whole new level. Insofar as Japanese literature in translation today successfully spans such a broad range – from sci-fi, to mystery, horror, magical realism, impressionistic fiction, and more – it’s in no small part because these innovative short story collections paved the way. (Japanese literature has always been incredibly diverse, it should be noted, but what we’re talking about here is the much smaller quantity of Japanese literature that’s available in English translation.)

A new short story collection from Penguin is equally impressive. The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, selected, edited and sparingly annotated by Jay Rubin, collects 34 short stories from across the literary spectrum and spanning nearly 150 years of modern Japanese literature. This superb collection differs from others of its ilk in that it’s organized not according to chronological period, but rather according to a set of broad themes: Japan and the West; Loyal Warriors; Men and Women; Nature and Memory; Modern Life and Other Nonsense; Dread; and Disasters, Natural and Man-Made. The use of thematic divisions for a short story collection isn’t new, of course. The ambitious short story collection Mother of Dreams: Portrayals of Women in Modern Japanese Fiction used a similar device when it was published in 1989, grouping its stories under identities: maiden, wife, mother, mistress, working woman. That ambitious anthology was edited by Makoto Ueda, a male scholar of Japanese literature who earned praise for his work on women writers in decades when most of his male colleagues were ignoring them. Unfortunately, he succumbed to the pressure to include celebrated male literary stars in his collection, and fully half of the stories in the book wind up being written by men. The contributions from women writers are superb, but as a collection Mother of Dreams is marred by its concentration of male contributors.

Not so the new Penguin collection, which makes efforts to include a diverse array of acclaimed as well as emerging voices. In his far too brief editorial note, writer and translator Jay Rubin notes that in arranging the stories by theme or tone, rather than chronologically, he successfully evaded the pressure to include many of the traditional literary superstars, presenting instead the stories that left a deep impression on him regardless of the international stature of their author. In fact, a considerable number of those traditional superstars do appear here nonetheless, but it’s those lesser known writers who really make the collection. The result is not merely another college lit anthology, but a fascinating collection of short stories from all periods and from several authors who all too rarely make it into English translation.

An introduction is offered by Haruki Murakami, Japan’s iconic author who, to be honest, doesn’t offer much more than his well known name to the collection. Murakami is pleasantly honest about the fact that he had little interest in Japanese literature before he became a best-selling author, and since then has been forced to do a bit of catch-up for occasions such as this. He offers a brief precis of the various stories in this collection, which includes two works by himself: the short, abstract piece “The 1963/1982 Girl from Ipanema”, originally published in Japanese in 1983; and the more intriguing “UFO in Kushiro”, which originally appeared in his masterful short story collection After the Quake, written in the wake of the tragic Kobe earthquake and which in my opinion is among the most rewarding of Murakami’s fiction.


A pervasive theme of Japanese literature – ever since regular contact with the western world resumed in the mid-19th century – has been the country’s relationship with the west. The collection is book-ended by two powerful pieces that grapple with this theme, one from the late 19th century and one from the 20th. In “The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga”, written by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro and originally published in 1926, what starts out as an ostensible mystery story turns into a powerful reflection on the extreme feelings generated in some Japanese by contact with western culture. In the case of the story’s central character, those feelings swing wildly from joyful embrace to revulsion, and the tension generated by these wild swings of feeling toward the west wind up manifesting in the form of actual physical ailments. The story is a deeply thought-provoking, unexpectedly moving tale.

Likewise, in Nosaka Akiyuki’s “American Hijiki”, originally published in 1967 and set in the ’60s, a new post-war generation has grown up, free of the trauma experienced by those who lived through the war, and able to embrace American culture on their own terms. Yet the story’s protagonist grew up during the war, and remains intimidated by the Americans he was raised to fear and hate during the war and then almost overnight he’s instructed to embrace them as allies and friends after the war. This has left a deep sense of confusion and inferiority within him, which emerges when his wife’s American friends come to visit. He wrestles with his feelings toward them, and his inability to act normally around them grows as he winds up falling back into behaviour patterns from 20years earlier, when he was a teenager struggling to survive through the largesse of occupying American troops. The visiting Americans, too, seem to slip easily into their role of conquering guest.

The story, told through alternating flashbacks from the ’40s and the present day, is a masterful psychological portrait of the conflicting and traumatic feelings experienced by the generation of Japanese who rebuilt their country through the years of the American Occupation. The same year this story was published, Akiyuki also published the story “Grave of the Fireflies”, on which the remarkable Studio Ghibli film of the same name was based.

The to-be-expected selections from Japan’s early modern literary stars (Nagai Kafu, Natsume Soseki, Mishima Yukio, Mori Ogai, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Enchi Fumiko, and more) are complemented nicely by inclusions from several of Japan’s younger stars in international translation from the past two or three decades (e.g., Yoshimoto Banana, Ogawa Yoko, Murakami Haruki). In between are several lesser-known writers, and it’s the inclusion of these lesser known writers and works that makes the collection as interesting as it is.

The clinically detached “Men and Women” section is more interesting than it sounds. All but one of these stories are by women, and most of them offer interesting examples of feminist writing, both early and more recent. Ohba Minako‘s “The Smile of a Mountain Witch” is a genius tale which presents creepy Japanese folk-lore in such a way as to suggest its misogynistic roots; Enchi Fumiko’s “A Bond for Two Lifetimes – Gleanings” offers a casual, seemingly ambivalent portrayal of sexual harassment whose almost sympathetic telling helps underscore the pitiful nature of men’s animalistic behaviour.

The section “Modern Life and Other Nonsense” tackles a range of themes. Uno Koji’s “Closet LLB” portrays a young man whose failure at life stems from the fact he was forced into a profession in which he never had any interest; Genji Keita‘s “Mr. English” offers a masterful psychological portrait of a grumpy old man whose work as a non-permanent corporate English translator belies the complex and difficult life he’s led, through the war and the complex changes of the succeeding decades. Kawakami Mieko‘s “Dreams of Love, Etc.” offers the collection’s sole queer-themed story, a poignant if casual lesbian love story which, all too predictably, ends on an ambivalent and bittersweet note.

Many of the stories in The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories work on a psychological level, making an effort either to convey some aspect of Japanese culture, or to evoke a particular feeling in the reader. Abe Akira’s “Peaches”, for example, is emblematic of the latter style, and is a brilliant psychological elaboration on a single memory, which is told and re-told in different ages and contexts as the narrator struggles to remember the actual circumstances under which it took place, and debates whether indeed it’s a real memory at all. Some of the pieces – Sawanishi Yuten’s “Filling Up With Sugar”, Uchida Hyakken‘s “Kudan”, Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s “Hell Screen”, Hoshino Tomoyuki’s “Pink” – contain elements of fantasy, sci-fi or horror.

Perhaps the most powerful and interesting stories are those subsumed under the deceptively prosaic sub-heading “Disasters, Natural and Man-Made”. These stories include such classical disaster tales as Ota Yuko’s recounting of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, “Hiroshima, City of Doom”. There are several accounts of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in circulation in English translation, but this collection also includes a less common depiction of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. This tale — Seirai Yuichi‘s “Insects”— is another of the collection’s masterpieces. It combines a story set in the aftermath of the Nagasaki bombing with a powerful dilemma of spiritual faith. Nagasaki has long been a centre for Christianity in Japan, and the bombing’s survivors struggle with their wavering spiritual faith in the wake of the horrific tragedy.

Importantly, the section expands to include more recent disasters and tragedies as well, including three moving tales about the 2011 earthquake and tsunami (“Weather-Watching Hill” by Saeki Kazumi; “Planting” by Matsuda Aoko; and the slightly creepy, delightfully feminist “Same as Always” by Sato Yuya, which turns typical post-nuclear-meltdown tales on their head by depicting a mother eagerly anticipating her baby’s radiation poisoning as a change from the oppressively misogynistic status quo life of a housewife).

Matsuda Aoko‘s strange tale “Planting” demonstrates how many of the stories in the collection work to counter traditional stereotypes of Japanese culture. It opens, in fact, with an astonishingly accurate and universal indictment of the modern condition:

“The jobs were updated every week… But the fact was Marguerite never felt like applying for any of the jobs. ‘A friendly workplace’ – that was no good. She didn’t think she could work with friendly people. ‘We’ll help your dream come true!’ declared a restaurant manager beside a photograph of cheerful young staff, bandanas around their heads. That was no good. She didn’t think that she could work with people who had dreams. And she couldn’t work in a place where the staff would have to clap and sing if they found out it was a customer’s birthday. ‘Supportive colleagues’ were no good either. Marguerite was tired. She was tired of involvement with people, tired of working with people. But she didn’t think she was yet tired of work itself. She wanted a job working alone, without having to speak to anyone. There had never been any job like that. But one week she found one…”

Collections of Japanese short stories are common enough in this day and age, but Penguin’s massive collection is well worth checking out. It offers a perfect balance of the classic, along with the unsettling and innovatively modern. All the traditional literary superstars are here, but there are also stories which resonate with contemporary experience. The result is a superb collection of diverse voices whose stories are both intellectually and emotionally rewarding.

RATING 9 / 10