Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

September 26, 2012

Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature (Book Review)

If you drop the Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature on your foot, you will end up in a plaster bandage. Physically, it is not a pleasure to read such a brick - I have the paperback edition that already starts cracking at the spine in the middle.

But the main question is: is this a good anthology? This is a tricky question because there could be as many anthologies as readers - everyone has his or her own preferences. I am not going to talk about authors who have been unjustly excluded or included, because that is too personal. But there are some objective markers as well.

One of these: Does the anthology offer a new view of modern Japanese literature?

My answer is: not really, this Columbia Anthology does not offer a new perspective. It is again an all-too-familiar anthology of mainly prose fiction. That ties in with the Western 19th-20th century view of literature as mostly prose fictional narrative. Some poetry and drama has been included, but in number of pages really very little. One of the poetic giants of Meiji literature, Masaoka Shiki, gets only two pages…

Therefore the book does not do justice to the Japanese tradition, also not of the late 19th c. and first half of the 20th c. treated in this anthology.

In Japan and China, lyrical poetry and short prose forms other than fiction (in Japan called zuihitsu and nikki) have always been of great importance as literature. (Besides that, they have of course also greatly influenced narrative fiction in Japan). What I almost completely miss are these short prose forms.

Where is the Romaji Diary of Takuboku? Why has not one of the uta-nikki, poetry diaries of Shiki been included, for example “One drop of Ink”? What about the diaries and zuihitsu of Kafu, for example Hiyori-geta or "Tidings from Okubo"? What about the essays and literary criticism of Tanizaki, for example a new translation of "In Praise of Shadows"? What about the diaries of Santoka? Why is the Tono Monogatari not included as this is certainly also great literature?
A really excellent anthology, doing justice to all in Japan important genres of literature would have to consist of five parts, in separate volumes:

1. Narrative Prose (prose fictional narrative)
2. Essays, diaries and letters (zuihitsu, nikki and other non-fictional literary prose)
3. Lyrical poetry (also including complete collections as Midaregami)
4. Drama and film scripts (Ozu, Kurosawa!)
5. Literary theory and criticism

Let's start thinking and puzzling about what to include!