Psychology and zoology graduate Fiona Campbell began writing after moving to Tokyo. On her return she wrote Death of a Salaryman as part of a creative writing MA at Manchester Metropolitan University.
“I fell in love with Japanese fiction after reading Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto,” she explains. “I was 21 at the time and immediately went on to read many more of her books. For me they were about the chance encounters between strangers that can touch lives, and the miraculous events scattered throughout daily existence. Next I discovered Haruki Murakami, where characters disappeared, questions went unanswered, the bizarre was commonplace. I was very much influenced by these two authors and tried to capture something of what they do in Death of a Salaryman.
“There is much more to Japanese fiction than these two authors. With so many to choose from I’ve almost certainly missed many out. Below are my top 10 books set in Japan.”
1. The Tale of Genji by Shikibu Murasaki
Genji is the son of a Japanese emperor. Although beautiful and extraordinarily gifted, he is destined to be kept from the throne by virtue of his birth to a low-ranking woman. The Tale of Genji is the story of his life and loves (of which there are plenty). There are at least two reasons why this book deserves to be number one on this list. It is thought to be the first novel ever written – it was produced just after 1000 AD. And the author was a woman – an aristocrat who, unusually for the time, was raised and educated by her father.
2. I am a Cat by Natsume Soseki
“I am a cat but as yet I have no name.” So opens one of the most unusual works in Japanese literature. The narrator is a cat who finds a home in the house of Mr Sneeze – a schoolteacher. In between bouts of sleep, the narrator observes his master and his friends as they struggle with daily life in the middle class society of 1920s Japan. Soseki originally submitted the first chapter to the literary journal Hototogisu as a short story but was persuaded to write further instalments. There are 11 in total. Each one stands alone, although the characters and themes carry throughout.
3. Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki
In the early 1900s, many Japanese authors wrote about the tension between western ideas and Japanese traditions. This followed the re-opening of Japan to the west in the 1850s and a period of rapid industrialisation. In Some Prefer Nettles, Tanizaki addressed this theme through the main character, Kaname. Kaname is a thoroughly westernised man – he visits prostitutes and encourages his wife to have an affair. Yet despite being trapped in a loveless marriage, he is unable to ask for a divorce. Then, under the influence of his father-in-law, Kaname finds himself increasingly drawn to the older traditions of Japan threatened by progress. Even though it is set in the 1920s, this novel is likely to resonate with contemporary Japanese society.
4. Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe
Japanese literature 1945 was heavily influenced by the country’s defeat in the second world war, with many authors addressing social and political issues in their work. Oe grew up in wartime Japan. For his first novel, produced when he was just 23, he wrote about a group of boys evacuated to a remote village in the closing days of the war. This novel – frequently compared with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – began a literary career that earned Oe the Nobel prize in 1994.
5. Singular Rebellion by Saiichi Maruya
Japan’s economic recovery after the second world war was miraculous. Singular Rebellion, which is set in the 1960s, provides a comic insight into that period. When Eisuke Mabuchi, a recent widower and employee of a small Tokyo electrics firm, falls in love with Yukari, a model 20 years his junior, he looks forward to a casual affair. But at the insistence of her father the pair marry and Yukari moves in with Mabuchi. This sparks a comic chain of events. Mabuchi’s maid quits and his home descends into chaos. Meanwhile, the bride’s grandmother (just out of jail for murder) moves in and granddaughter’s behaviour grows increasingly erratic.
6. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Contemporary Japanese novelists have sparked fierce debate in Japan over whether they constitute true literature or are merely pop fiction. Irrespective, authors such as Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami have enjoyed considerable success, both in their own country and abroad. Kitchen tells the story of Sakurai Mikage, a young woman whose grandmother has passed away. Consumed by grief, Sakurai spends her nights sleeping on the kitchen floor of her apartment until Yuichi Tanabe knocks on her door. Yuichi – a fellow student – invites her to live with him and his transsexual mother. She agrees and although adrift in every other sense, Sakurai finds herself anchored to the Tanabes’ couch and their kitchen where she cooks for the family to reciprocate their kindness.
7. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
Murakami is one of my favourite authors and I could have filled this list with his entire back catalogue, but restricting myself to just one of his fictional works I chose The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. This novel established Murakami as a leading figure in world literature. It also won the Yomiuri Prize, which was awarded to him by Kenzaburo Oe, formerly his harshest critic. Toru Okada, the book’s narrator, is a dreamy introvert luxuriating in unemployment, supported by his wife Kumiko. When the couple’s cat goes missing, Kumiko suggests that her husband’s time would be best spent looking for it. Then she herself disappears. As Toru searches for her, he meets a succession of strange characters – two psychic sisters, a disaffected teenage girl, a soldier who fought in the second world war. Like many of his previous novels, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle mixes American pop culture with a healthy dash of science fiction, philosophy, social commentary and detective fiction. Murakami also deals with some heavyweight subjects too, particularly the atrocities committed by the Japanese army in China during the second world war.
8. Dreaming Pachinko by Isaac Adamson
As an example of foreign fiction set in Japan I’ve chosen Dreaming Pachinko by Isaac Adamson. It’s a fun book that by the author’s own admission shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It’s also the third novel to feature Youth In Asia (a magazine based in Cleveland) journalist and amateur detective Billy Chaka. When Chaka gets sent to Tokyo to interview a former rock star turned pachinko addict he thinks it’s going to be an easy assignment. That’s until he witnesses a woman suffer a violent seizure and finds himself embroiled in a blackmail plot. Fans of Raymond Chandler will find much to enjoy in this book.
9. Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami
Japan has a well-earned reputation for being one of the safest countries in the world. That makes what happened on March 20, 1995 so difficult to understand. When followers of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo released lethal sarin gas into the cars of the Tokyo subway, 12 people were killed and 5,000 injured. Murakami carried out 60 interviews with survivors, families of the victims, eye witnesses and the attackers. The result is Underground, in which the accounts of that day pile up one on top of another. You get a sense of ordinary people just trying to get to work when the gas was released. Indeed, many struggled on to work after the attack, only seeking medical help at the insistence of their superiors. Murakami’s voice is absent from the account. He doesn’t offer any analysis of what happened. Instead he leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions based on the words of those affected. What is perhaps most surprising for western readers is that that while the Japanese emergency services were grossly unprepared to deal with an event such as this, none of the victims contemplated sueing. Some of the survivors were angry, but most just wanted to forget about what had happened and move on with their lives.