Introducing Modern Japanese Classics to the (English Speaking) World

  • onOctober 17, 2016
  • Vol.33 Autumn 2016
  • byJay Rubin

One of the worst ideas I ever had was to compile a book of Haruki Murakami short stories in English translation interspersed with my commentaries on each piece. This was supposedly going to “help introduce” Murakami to an Englishreading audience. Not only did it become instantly clear that neither Murakami nor his publishers had any interest in letting me fill a book of mine with his stories, but just as obvious was the fact that Murakami’s works didn’t need any “help” being introduced to a wider audience beyond being translated into English; they could stand very well on their own. My book, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words (Harvill Press, 2002; updated in 2012) never did outgrow its false start; it hovers somewhere between a literary biography and a book of commentaries on the works, but at least it offers a chronological account of the publication of the novels and stories, which appeared haphazardly at first with little indication of their thematic relatedness.

Aside from the book, most of my work on Murakami has consisted of translation. After 2005, however, one area with particularly rich intercultural implications has been working with Murakami to introduce modern Japanese classics to a wider English readership.

This was not supposed to happen. Like other Murakami commentators, I pretty much took him at his word when he said that all his literary influences were Western, mostly American, and that he had little or no interest in other Japanese writers. So when a Penguin editor approached me in 1999 about producing a new book of stories by the writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) with an introduction by Murakami, I assumed it would never happen. I would ask Murakami if he was interested, and when he said no, I would convey his rejection to the editor, who would then rescind his offer because what he really wanted was that Murakami name on the book. At the time, I was writing Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words and translating Murakami’s after the quake, so I had plenty to keep me busy without taking on this extra project.

Murakami shocked me, however, by agreeing immediately to write an introduction. There was a good deal of irony involved in this. The most prestigious literary prize that Murakami has not received in Japan was the Akutagawa Prize, which is the usual pathway for a young writer to a successful career. Needless to say, it was established to memorialize Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. And precisely because it is deemed so important to upcoming writers, Murakami’s success has always seemed to make his “failure” to receive the Akutagawa Prize a contrarian badge of honor.

Whatever his stance with regard to the prize might have been, this did not prevent Murakami from recognizing Akutagawa’s importance and taking on the role of spokesman to the English-speaking world on behalf of the writer and of modern Japanese literature in general. He agreed to write 3,000 words but produced closer to 7,000 words, and the Penguin editors kept every one of them. Sōseki Natsume (1867-1916) and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (1886-1965), Murakami says, are his favorites among Japan’s writers of national stature, and Akutagawa ranks third. “Has Akutagawa left behind a lesson for Japan’s contemporary writers (including me)? Of course he has, both as a great pioneer and, in part, as a negative example.” From Akutagawa, Japanese writers can learn that “It is possible to borrow the containers for our first stories, but sooner or later we have to transform the borrowed container into our own . . . With great pain and suffering, the selfconsciously ‘modern’ Akutagawa groped for his identity as a writer and as an individual in the clash of the two cultures of Japan and the West. And just at the point where he had begun to find what was, for him, a hint of a way to fuse the two, he unexpectedly ended his life.”

Murakami’s introduction, then, tells us a great deal about Akutagawa, about the emergence of Japan’s most important writers, and about the challenges that Murakami himself and all contemporary Japanese (and Korean?) writers face in coming to terms with what he calls “global” and “domestic” culture. His essay can be found in my Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories, which appeared as a Penguin Classic in 2006.

Murakami’s next foray into the realm of introducing modern Japanese classics to Western readers came in 2009 with Penguin’s publication of the updated version of my 1977 translation of Sōseki’s novel Sanshirō. “The (Generally) Sweet Smell of Youth,” as the Murakami introduction is called, is a particularly lovely piece. Writing as an author, as an individual nostalgically recalling his own youth, as a Japanese reader with an almost instinctive sense of Sōseki’s greatness, and as a reader broadly familiar with world literature, Murakami emotively expresses the significance of the novel. He recounts how, as a cash-strapped newlywed at the age of twenty-two, he first read Sōseki seriously when he had little choice but to borrow his wife’s copy of the Complete Works. Thus, he associates Sanshirō with that time of his life:

Sanshirō is the only novel that Sōseki wrote that focuses on the coming of age of a young man. One such novel may have been enough for him to write in his lifetime, but he had to write at least one . . . Virtually all novelists have such a work. In my own case, it is Norwegian Wood (1987) . . . I feel . . . that the existence of that work provides a solid backing for what I produced later.

Undoubtedly Murakami’s strangest choice of a work to promote abroad has been Sōseki’s The Miner, published in English in 2015 by Aardvark Bureau (London). From the time of its initial publication in 1908, The Miner has been Sōseki’s least popular novel, which remained true in the English-speaking world after I first translated it in 1988. Only after the 2005 translation of Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore appeared with its praise for The Miner was there enough foreign interest in the book to prompt an updated translation with yet another Murakami introduction. In his essay, “A Nonchalant Journey Through Hell,” Murakami recognizes the book’s unpopularity but declares that “It is one of my favorites,” more so than Sōseki’s presumably more representative late works. Turning the last page, “You get that same kind of parched sensation that a good postmodern novel can give you. Perhaps we can call it a sense of meaning in the very lack of meaning.” If that makes Sōseki sound somewhat Murakamiesque, that perhaps tells us about the recent appeal of Japanese literature in the West. 


by Jay Rubin
Professor of Japanese Literature, Emeritus
Harvard University
Translator of Haruki Murakami, Sōseki
Natsume, and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa