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Read Your Way Through Tokyo

Credit…Raphaelle Macaron

When I travel, I always find myself wondering about the people who live in the cities that I visit. So I make sure to take along in my suitcase a few novels written by authors from wherever it is I’m going. I start reading as soon as I know my departure date, and keep reading throughout my stay, remaining immersed in those novels even after I’ve returned home.

The people I actually met and the people from the novels, the scenery I actually saw and the scenery from the books: Most of the time, these things do not overlap while on my trip. I can keep a sense of them as being distinct. But once I’m back home, when I revisit the books after my trip, curiously, little by little, aspects from fiction that were distinct while I was traveling begin to converge with what I actually saw and heard on my journey. It is as if the strata of the land’s history and the people who lived there have emerged through the pages of the novels.

The novels and poetry included here serve as an introduction to various inhabitants depicted in Tokyo’s literature over the course of 400 years — from the 17th century, when Tokyo was still called Edo, to the present day. I hope these Tokyoites will reveal to you the many layers of the city and its past.

What might set the tone for my journey? Are there Japanese travelogues?

Matsuo Basho was born in the mid-17th century and spent his life as a wandering poet. Many of his journeys are collected in various travelogues, but “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” (also translated as “The Narrow Road to the Interior”), written toward the end of his life, remains beloved in Japan and has been translated into many languages.

The book is the record of a five-month, 1,500-mile journey on foot, which started in Edo and wound its way throughout the vast northern territories of the Tohoku and Hokuriku regions. Setting out from Senju, on the banks of the Sumida River, in present-day Sumida-ku, Basho composed this haiku: Departing spring, birds cry out, tears in the eyes of fishes.

In that era, travel could be hazardous. The poem connotes a scene in which even the birds and the fishes mourn the passing of spring, which is compounded by Basho’s lament that he doesn’t know whether he will die on this journey. Whenever I myself leave on a trip, I cannot help but think of this verse.

Detective stories and historical fiction often offer a keyhole glimpse into a city’s culture. What are your recommendations?

In 1868, Japan emerged from a long period of isolation and Edo was renamed Tokyo. “The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi,” by Kido Okamoto, is a series of detective stories told by a retired okappiki — a kind of non-samurai investigator — as he reflects on cases he solved. These Edo mysteries, from an era when there was no surveillance footage or forensics, move at a languorous pace and illustrate 19th-century customs and manners that were already obsolete in Okamoto’s Tokyo of the early 20th century.

From a modern perspective, the narrative structure, in which the historical character of Inspector Hanshichi looks back even further into the past, creates the impression of a set of nesting boxes. We may see ourselves as forming the outermost box in this arrangement, but soon enough we too will become part of the past and another box will form around us.

The House of Nire,” by Morio Kita, follows three generations of a family, modeled after the author’s own; Kita’s father, Mokichi Saito (Morio Kita was a pen name), was a psychiatrist as well as a renowned tanka poet, and the author of the collection “Red Lights.” Spanning the start of the 20th century through the end of World War II, this period novel elucidates the mentality of Tokyo’s inhabitants. And what makes the book all the more intriguing — for me, at least — is knowing that the author Yukio Mishima (also born and raised in Tokyo) was himself enchanted by Momoko, one of the characters who appears in this humorous and eventful family drama, whom he found to be “a truly endearing young girl” and for whom he couldn’t help but hope for a happy ending.

Which classic authors should I read?

With the influx of Western thought and ideas in the newly open Tokyo in the late 19th century, intellectuals wrestled with the conflicts that arose between traditional Confucian ideologies and contemporary European spirituality. Natsume Soseki taught literature at the University of Tokyo after studying abroad in London, and, when he later became an author, he brilliantly sublimated those very conflicts in his novels. Such ideological tensions are not, however, outwardly apparent in his fantastical short stories, “Ten Nights’ Dreams.” Although these 10 absurd tales may seem immeasurably delirious, as if drawn from the depths of the unconscious, they possess timeless and universal qualities. And what vivid depictions of life in 19th-century Tokyo!

The author Kafu Nagai traveled to the United States and France, where he was profoundly immersed in Western thoughts and ideas. He began publishing fiction at the turn of the 20th century. In “A Strange Tale from East of the River” (also translated as “Something Strange Across the River”), the stage is Tokyo as it undergoes tremendous changes in the days leading up to World War II. The appeal of this work is its metafictional structure, which features a poignant relationship between a writer and a prostitute. Just when you think the story has ended, the author himself makes an appearance in order to relay various episodes from the ever-changing city as part of the plot. Here, too, a nesting-box narrative enables the reader to contemplate the passage of time.

Now, at last, we are nearing the layers that make up present-day Tokyo. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the country again underwent drastic changes. The narrator of Kenzaburo Oe’s novel “Seventeen” is a young man who has assassinated a politician. The novel is a detailed portrayal of a young man who is adrift, descending into depression and being driven to terrorism. The story alludes to an event that occurred not long before it was published, in which the chairman of the Japan Socialist Party was stabbed to death by an ultranationalist at Tokyo’s Hibiya Public Hall. There were many protests and threats made against Oe himself after “Seventeen” was published, in a literary journal. Despite having been translated into various languages and published in numerous countries, the novel was only made available in Japan in book form four years ago — 57 years after it was written — when it was included in a collected edition of Oe’s complete works.

Any short fiction to read while on my trip, especially if I have jet lag and can’t sleep?

The short story “Final Moments,” from the 1961 collection “Toddler Hunting and Other Stories,” by Taeko Kono, is about a woman who suddenly learns that she will die the following day, and describes how she spends the hours after that realization. In spite of its terrible premise, the story is surprisingly tranquil and matter of fact. I have often heard people say that it is difficult to tell what a Japanese person is thinking, and this woman is no exception: She does not let her feelings show. Whenever I reread this story, I always marvel at how Kono chose to illustrate the workings of this woman’s mind with such audacious and sophisticated creativity.

The women who appear in the stories included in Kuniko Mukoda’s collection, “The Woman Next Door,” epitomize the values of the generation who came of age during World War II. Although Mukoda’s stories were written 20 years after Kono’s, somehow Mukoda’s women feel more remote. Nevertheless, Mukoda skillfully captures these Tokyo women who, nearing the end of the 20th century and at a time of economic prosperity in Japan, continue to struggle to improve their standing. They offer a testament to their quest for even the simplest of freedoms despite the societal oppression they faced.

Written at the turn of the last century, Haruki Murakami’s story “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” takes place in Kabukicho, a red light district in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood, and is about how a frog saves the city from a massive earthquake. In January 1995, the Great Hanshin Earthquake occurred in western Japan, and, in March of the same year, the Tokyo subway sarin attack was perpetrated by members of the cult movement Aum Shinrikyo. Murakami’s story was inspired by these events and is included in “After the Quake,” a collection published five years later that addresses the sources of various problems facing Japan. These stories include connections to his subsequent best-selling novel, “1Q84” but, seen on their own, they demonstrate Murakami’s brilliance as a short story writer, and “After the Quake” is one of my favorite collections.

If I just want one volume, what is the best way to get a sense of Tokyo as a whole?

I’d recommend the anthology “The Book of Tokyo,” which brings together stories by 10 contemporary Japanese writers. Tokyo is a vast city. Even those born and raised here, like me, do not know the breadth of it. It contains uninhabited forests and densely built-up zones and areas with vestiges of the early 20th-century city. Reading these 10 stories set in modern-day Tokyo makes me feel as though I’ve returned home after a long journey. This is us, in Tokyo now. Yet, we’re still traveling. And as long as we keep traveling, the world’s writers will continue writing stories.

Hiromi Kawakami’s Tokyo Reading List

  • “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” Matsuo Basho

  • “The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi,” Kido Okamoto

  • “The House of Nire,” Morio Kita

  • “Ten Nights’ Dreams,” Natsume Soseki

  • “A Strange Tale from East of the River,” Kafu Nagai

  • “Seventeen,” Kenzaburo Oe

  • “Toddler Hunting and Other Stories,” Taeko Kono

  • “The Woman Next Door,” Kuniko Mukoda

  • “After the Quake,” Haruki Murakami

  • “The Book of Tokyo,” edited by Jim Hinks, Masashi Matsuie and Michael Emmerich

Hiromi Kawakami is one of Japan’s most popular contemporary novelists. She has won numerous literary prizes in Japan and the United States, including the Akutagawa Prize for “A Snake Stepped On” and the Tanizaki Prize for “Strange Weather in Tokyo.”

Allison Markin Powell is a literary translator based in New York City who has translated Osamu Dazai and Kaoru Takamura, and whose translation of Kawakami’s “The Ten Loves of Nishino” won the 2020 PEN America Translation Prize.

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