Choosing a work of Japanese literature to read can be difficult. While Haruki Murakami has many captivating novels that may capture your interest, it may be difficult to pinpoint themes, customs and cultural aspects that make these works distinctly Japanese in tone (even through translation).
On the surface, it’s easy to read a work for what it is. But as a reader, many of us pick up on important themes as we read through novels. Without background context, it may be a little difficult to understand why these themes are important. Alternatively, knowing about a writer’s culture may provide a new perspective on a specific theme. For example, in many of Haruki Murakami’s works, name brand clothing and objects come up quite often by name – Ray-Ban sunglasses and designer clothing by Junko Shimada. Mentioned specifically as points of reference, these objects also serve as a form of commentary on materialism and consumer culture in Japan. Before World War II, Japan was relatively closed off from the rest of the world. Following the war, Westernization occurred under American occupation that drastically altered Japanese consumer culture. In addition to the introduction of world-renowned name brands, Western media and culture flooded into Japan, changing everything from dress to speech in an attempt to keep up with the “modern” world.
While these Japanese novels are not meant to be a history lesson (in most cases), they will give you an idea about important themes and topics in Japanese culture, from the mention of myths and folklore to important traditional authors and styles of writing. Through fantastic myths, incredible short stories, historical documents, and well-known novels, these works of traditional Japanese literature may make references in other well-known Japanese novels (and other forms of entertainment from video games and anime, to major films) make a little more sense.
1. The Kojiki & The Nihon Shoki
Synopsis: The Kojiki (711) and the Nihon Shoki (720) are two separate chronicles of Japanese history that are often spoken of interchangeably, as they have many things in common. Essentially, the Nihon Shoki is a more detailed version of the Kojiki that includes more information as well as slightly altered versions of the stories and myths found in the original classic. From the Japanese creation myth, to stories about popular Japanese deities, including the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, and even historical timelines that explain the line of succession of the Japanese emperor, these classical Japanese texts range from detailed historical documents to short stories that remain an important aspect of Japanese culture to this day where religion (particularly Shintoism) is concerned.
Why it matters: Believed to be the two oldest books about classical Japanese history, the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki are works of history and myth that are essential reading for those truly interested in Japanese culture. Full of delightful yet strange myths, these collections are packed full of information. The gods really are everywhere in Japanese culture, and these collections have some of my favorite folktales in them, including The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, which is better known in the Western world as the Tale of Princess Kaguya (which was turned into a beautifully animated movie by the Japanese Studio Ghibli)
It is important to note, however, that translation is very important here. While there are many versions of the Kojiki available on Amazon and in many bookstores, I would recommend the more expensive, yet incredibly detailed Traditional Japanese Literature An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, edited by Haruo Shirane, as well as, Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume One: From Earliest Times to 1600, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary. These two anthologies are packed full of information and include some of the best translations out there.