Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to go to Japan. I practised Aikido and Karate for many a year and even spent a year learning Japanese, the highlight of which was winning the class bingo. A bottle of sake was the prize, if you’re asking! I don’t think I’ve read any more books by Japanese authors because of this but I thought it was, nevertheless, a nice idea to do a blog on some of the great books I’ve read over the years, either by Japanese authors or non-Japanese authors but about Japan.
First up is Robert Twigger’s Angry White Pyjamas, subtitled, An Oxford poet trains with the Tokyo riot police. This book traces the author’s experience of Japan having enlisted in a year-long intensive (five days a week) aikido course. The book captures Twigger’s gruelling experiences in training as well as his observations on Japanese culture. The book obviously appeals to aikido students (aikidoka) everywhere but it’s an enjoyable read whether or not you’ve decided the best thing to do of an evening is to get thrown about in your pyjamas!
Next up is Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, Never let me go. This is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve ever read and everyone I’ve recommended it to agrees. It’s beautifully written and has a very dark, harrowing streak running through it. To explain the plot wouldn’t be that helpful. Just go out and get a copy; you won’t regret it. A film followed in 2010, starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. It’s worth watching but read the book first.
Ishiguro was born in Japan in 1954 but has been in the UK since 1960, though you’d think he was English through and through, and from a bygone era, if you’ve ever read The Remains of the Day (1989). The book is written from the point of view of Stevens, who reflects on his life as a butler as he traverses the English countryside. It sounds pretty dull. It’s not. Again, it’s beautifully written and Ishiguro nicely paces and builds the tension in the novel as Stevens dips in and out of the past. The book was made into a 1993 Merchant-Ivory film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. It’s a great film which does the book justice. Both are highly recommended.
I’ve read a couple of other Ishiguro novels: An Artist of the Floating World (1986) – well written but not a patch on the two I’ve just mentioned; and The Buried Giant (2015) – Ishiguro’s most recent work, set in Arthurian times and, unlike his other books, featuring a dragon. An enjoyable novel which has a lot more to it than meets the eye.
Haruki Murakami is another Japanese author who readers may be familiar with. His fiction is often surreal or incorporates surreal elements, such as The Wind-up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore, both of which I’ve enjoyed. If I were to recommend one of his novels it’d have to be Norwegian Wood (2000), a quiet, powerful novel about a young college-aged couple’s relationship, which is rocked by the death of a mutual fried. An intense but worthwhile read.
I’ve read a couple of Murakami’s non-fiction: What I talk about when I talk about running – an enjoyable read (even for non-runners!) on Murakami’s reflections of what running means to him; and Underground (2000), a far more serious work, in which Murakami interviews the survivors and perpetrators of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground. It’s a serious but rewarding read.
My last recommendation is Hokkaido Highway Blues (2003), a travel book by Will Ferguson. The book follows Ferguson as he hitchhikes northwards across Japan, following the cherry trees (sakura) as they blossom; a big event in the Japanese calendar. As you’d expect, the book includes many observations of Japanese culture and the individuals kind or crazyenough to pick-up Ferguson on his journey northwards. A light-hearted read which is well worth a read regardless of whether you plan on going to Japan anytime soon.