Travel Writing: Preparing for Japan

As I prepare for my upcoming trip to Japan, I thought it’d be fun to stop and take a brief look at literature as it exists there. My area of study focused mainly on British and American literature, so I don’t have much experience with Eastern literature. Plus, in the world of academia, they don’t encourage you to study literature from other countries unless you can read it in the original language. Other people’s translations aren’t true enough to the source, so you must go to the source material itself. This is why to get a Ph.D. in literature, most programs will require you to pass foreign language tests in three separate languages.

If I would have gone on to do a Ph.D., my languages would have been Spanish, Latin and I’d likely have picked up Ancient Greek since I have a minor in Classical literature and I love mythology. But that would have been a completely brand new addition to my repertoire. Anyway, back to Japan!

So probably the most famous literary art form from Japan that is familiar to us in the west would be the haiku. This short poem contains seventeen syllables and is written in a 5-7-5 metric. These poems are often written about the weather or seasons, at least that’s how I remember them.

The great thing about Japanese literature is that Japanese history goes back so far. The history of the Japanese is massive. Clearly their literary history begins with an oral storytelling tradition. I found this really cool overview of Japanese literary history.

I also went searching for some contemporary Japanese writers and came to the conclusion that I don’t think I’ve read more than one or two works by Japanese people. Sadly, that’s just how it worked out. So, I decided to make a list of books written by Japanese writers that I thought might be interesting reads.

  1. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima
    This book caught my eye simply because of the title and the description at first brings to mind Lord of the Flies. Here’s the description on GoodReads:

    The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea
    tells the tale of a band of savage thirteen-year-old boys who reject the adult world as illusory, hypocritical and sentimental, and train themselves in a brutal callousness they call “objectivity.” When the mother of one of them begins an affair with a ship’s officer, he and his friends idealize the man at first; but it is not long before they conclude that he is in fact soft and romantic. They regard their disappointment in him as an act of betrayal on his part, and react violently.

  2. Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata
    Description from Goodreads:Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes is a luminous story of desire, regret, and the almost sensual nostalgia that binds the living to the dead.

    While attending a traditional tea ceremony in the aftermath of his parents’ deaths, Kikuji encounters his father’s former mistress, Mrs. Ota. At first Kikuji is appalled by her indelicate nature, but it is not long before he succumbs to passion—a passion with tragic and unforeseen consequences, not just for the two lovers, but also for Mrs. Ota’s daughter, to whom Kikuji’s attachments soon extend. Death, jealousy, and attraction convene around the delicate art of the tea ceremony, where every gesture is imbued with profound meaning.

  3. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguru
    This one was written by a Japanese person, but the story is decidedly western. I read this book in a film and literature class in high school. We read the book and then watched the movie. To this day, I still think of this book and how frustrating (in a good way) the story and characters were. The film features Sir Anthony Hopkins as the butler and you can never go wrong with him in a movie. Here’s the Goodreads description:In 1956, Stevens, a long-serving butler at Darlington Hall, decides to take a motoring trip through the West Country. The six-day excursion becomes a journey into the past of Stevens and England, a past that takes in fascism, two world wars, and an unrealised love between the butler and his housekeeper. Ishiguro’s dazzling novel is a sad and humorous love story, a meditation on the condition of modern man, and an elegy for England at a time of acute change.

I am lucky enough to have a friend who grew up there and am tagging along with her and her boyfriend and a few other people. I think while I’m gone, I will play my writer game like I did in Puerto Rico last year where I try to take note of sights, sounds and experiences through my senses and write them down along the way so I have these sensual descriptions of my trip to share when  I get back. Click here to see how this exercise turned out last time!

My upcoming trip has nothing to do with literature, but I always try to find a way to bring my experiences in life back to writing and books, my two favorite past times. Soon I will be engrossed in food (hopefully lots and lots of sushi), new friends and long lost ones too, cherry blossom season, culture, shrines, and other sites along the way. I just know that it’s going to be a trip of a lifetime.

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