I FIRST read a Japanese short story in grade school. It was about a man who had a rice granary on top of a hill. One day, he saw a great tsunami in the faraway sea, moving swiftly toward land.

He quickly set fire to his rice granary and people rushed uphill, to see what happened. The last person was already on top of the hill when the tsunami swept from the sea. Thus, the man's brave move saved the people from certain death.

It was a typical story found in my grade-school textbook, and the teacher wrung every bit of "moral lesson" she could get from it. But this Japanese story also surprised me. There is a twist in the tale — the burning of the rice granary — that led to a swift resolution.

I would notice this surprising element in Japanese fiction as I grew up and read more stories. It is an element that is similar to the aesthetics of the Japanese haiku: the concern with life's brevity, the many shapes of sadness. Additional themes include the shallowness of prosperity and the hypocrisy of modern society.

This varied and exciting collection celebrates the great Japanese short story, from its modern origins in the 19th century to the remarkable works being written today. PHOTO FROM PENGUIN RANDOM
This varied and exciting collection celebrates the great Japanese short story, from its modern origins in the 19th century to the remarkable works being written today. PHOTO FROM PENGUIN RANDOM

Banana Yoshimoto was the star in Japan's literary firmament when I was starting to write in the 1980s. I read her novel Kitchen, the first of her many novels to be translated into English. Unlike the Western texts we were required to read in college and graduate school, this one is literary yet written in an accessible manner. It was as if the novelist was just in front of you, telling you her story.

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In an interview, Yoshimoto says that her two main themes are "the exhaustion of young Japanese in contemporary Japan" and "the way in which terrible experiences shape a person's life." Her works describe the problems faced by the youth, the existentialism found in urban lives, and teenagers trapped between imagination and reality.

Why did the Japanese in the 20th century deal with these themes?

You can trace it to their very swift industrialization. Japan lost the war in 1945. But 23 years later, in 1968, it hosted the World Expo and introduced the Toyota Corolla, then and now the world's biggest-selling car. Shrewdly, the Japanese used the world exposition to show that they had arrived.

Japanese towns quickly became cities. Farmers became factory workers. People in closely knit villages moved to the cities and into condominiums. The fabric of society was torn asunder. Employees would travel for hours to go to work, and return home. I still remember the black-and-white postcards of Tokyo urbanites coming home dead tired from work, asleep in the trains, their ties loose around their necks.

The young people aspired to be Western. They dyed their hair, put on eyeliner to make their eyes wider, some even underwent surgery to do so. The psychic shift from agricultural to an industrial society took many forms, from popular culture to literature. The novels of Yukio Mishima show the cracks and fissures that underlay this swift change: the novels are beautifully written, but undergirded with cruelty and fragmented characters.

This is also encapsulated in The Penguin Book of the Japanese Short Story, edited by Jay Rubin and introduced by Haruki Murakami. The latter's excellent introduction is called "From Seppuku to Meltdown."

One of the themes in the book is Japan and the West. This section features three of the most famous modern Japanese writers. All three of their works depict wealthy intellectuals bewildered by the great differences between the cultures of Japan and the West. Two of the three, Nagai Kafū (1879-1959) and Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916), had the experience of studying abroad.

Murakami also reflects on Japan's geography and its history of calamities.

"I'm not sure you can say that Japan has an especially large number of natural disasters, but there have certainly been many destructive earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and typhoons wreaking havoc on the islands since ancient times, and we have always lived with a sense that such natural disasters are close at hand and are something for which we have to brace ourselves. This sense of fear and awe towards nature seems to be part of our genetically inbred mentality. By contrast, we have little experience in our history of the kind of man-made disaster that comes with invasion from abroad — until of course, that is, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a plane bearing General Douglas MacArthur landed at Atsugi Naval Airbase in the summer of 1945."

The Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 that killed over 140,000 people is the subject matter of a story by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. Little more than a fragmentary personal memoir that might have come from a diary entry, The Great Earthquake (1927) gives us the kind of stunning graphic detail that could only have been written by someone who was actually there. Ōta Yōko (1903–1963) was a Hiroshima native who wrote about the horrendous details that happened on the day the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on her city.

Murakami was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts when the Kobe earthquake happened in 1995. "The sight of black smoke rising from the city that I saw on CBS 'This Morning' filled me with a frustrating sense of my inability to do anything to help from far away. The house of my parents — the house I grew up in — was left leaning at a strange angle. If there was one thing I could do, it was to write stories about the earthquake once the situation had settled down. Five years later, I published a book of interrelated short stories called after the quake in which I decided the stories would 1) not describe the earthquake directly, and 2) not set the action in Kobe, but would 3) describe a number of changes that people had undergone because of the quake."

Clearly, then, the introduction to this excellent volume is not just a historical guide but also a self-reflexive exercise in the art of fiction.


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