new Japanese writing

the dawn of new literature or all apologies?

Modern Japanese literature, much like Weimar classicism, seems to be built around areal perception, showing a need to substantiate the empty spaces of interaction within the individual (for instance between body and mind or feeling and thought). Akin to Weimar classicism, it too is regarded with suspicion through the same critical mindset. The Weimar classicism fell short because of “[a perceived] inability of this common-sense outlook [to] convincingly bridge “feeling” and “thought”, “body” and “mind”.”[1] This could mean that it fell short not of defining the bridge but of conveying this definition to the critical audience.

Perhaps it is the same with Japanese writing today.

A proponent of areal literature, aiming to “build bridges within and from within”, is not a mere promoter of introspection but in fact an advocate of solipsism. And solipsism in itself is wildly opaque, prone to produce as many views as readers.

An attempted definition of solipsistic view draws onto the structural shift of perspective; for instance, if one writes about matter, one writes about what is there and uses what isn’t there to frame what is. Accordingly, if one writes about anti-matter, one writes about what isn’t there and uses what is there to frame the absence. Therefore, when one writes of “in-betweens” (what isn’t there), one focuses on negative space, solitary imagery and (sometimes) an overall sensorial numbness in order to emphasize the elevation of only one pure, ideal and/or archetypal experience.

Solipsistic writing is not the only way to write and considering its limitations, it isn’t always popular with European writers.

There are authors that use areal views differently and that ravel in interstitial emptiness using it to build tension, expose emotion or incubate magical realism (see the relationship between title and plot in Alice Munro’s “The bear came over the mountain”, the subject-object relationship in Proulx’s “The half-skinned steer”, or the mystic built-up prior to and culminating with the tyrant’s sale of the sea in “The autumn of the patriarch”). However areal literature is highly praised nowadays, either making a comeback or reinventing German classicism by keeping the same penchant for aesthetics and introspection.

As far as new writing goes, there seem to be two distinctive trends: the first trend, rooted in new American writing, draws on Hemingway’s simplicity of expression while steering clear from formulaic storytelling (steering clear from Chekhov’s gun, that is); the second trend, coming mainly from Japan (but not exclusively), toys with ideas previously considered by the late representatives of the sturm und drang movement, notably Goethe and Schiller, the very same authors whom (not coincidentally) are considered founders of the Weimar classicism.

In the case of authors like Murakami, experience is perceived as intimate and unique and it exacerbates the sufficiency of one (“So the fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets. Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent”). Similarly, in Faust, possession is an internalized experience, a process through which the object of possession is obliterated in favor of the individual act of possessing it (“What I possess seems far away to me, and what is gone becomes reality”). Both interpretations weigh heavily on the audience’s ability to empathize. This manner of producing literature is thus quite difficult considering that in order to obey its core values (in respect to aesthetics and solipsism) it relies on a technique borrowed from dramaturgy (catharsis). But between Weimar classicism and Japanese new writing, centuries of experimental literature came to pass.

Audiences today are far more opened to texts that create and control settings and have a broader understanding of decorum. Playwrights such as Sorescu (with Iona) or Brecht (with Baal) achieved the task of emphasizing what isn’t there by constantly showing the limitations of what is there (in Iona, the belly of the whale is a metaphor for solipsism: escapism is used as proof of a need to escape and the ultimate sacrifice is viewed as proof of the impossibility of transgressing one’s condition).

Japanese new writing today benefits from the experimental span across artistic means of expression; writers who are painters and playwrights, singers who are poets, film directors who write novels, all contributed to our better understanding of areal literature, a literature that focuses on subtle changes within an opaque framework, or between opaque frameworks.

What of translations?

There are two ways of accessing a text: reading the original or reading a translation. The original is not only revealing of the message the text is trying to convey, but also an open window into the culture it’s originating from. The reader can use this experience to gain access to the message, but also to trace cultural parallels between their own culture and that of the text.

Elements such as idioms and use of tense are telling when critically reading originals.

When reading a translation, the situation changes depending on an array of factors, such as the literary movement the original belongs to or the expectations of the literary environment it is translated into. Most critics agree on the fact that a translation is an independent work that can only achieve so much and only inspire to be similar, never identical to the original it translates.

In the case of areal literature it seems the devil is in the details. All cultures perceive identity differently and the markers for cleavages or dualism are not always the same. For instance one translator, working on translating a Japanese new writing piece for Granta magazine, says:

“I think of translating as involving both empathizing with and identifying with the voice of a piece. Most of the time, these two things are not so different. But if it’s challenging to empathize with the voice of a character who’s this self-absorbed and isolated, then, working to identify with it – and perpetuate its solipsism – is downright hazardous to the translator’s sense of self.

The whole point of translating is to make a piece more accessible, but what do I do if the voice I’m translating seems to alienate the reader without even trying? The more I identified with it, the less I found myself caring about the reader my words were supposed to reach.”[2]

Additionally, the framework of a literary piece is determined not only by the translator’s choices, but also by the language of choice and its pre-existent literature. Juxtaposing a translated original to the works of the literary movement it translated into and exposing it to the critical apparatus of the adopting language can lead to transformation. Promoting the translations of new writing, no matter the language, is not tantamount to promoting the originals. If our quest is to simply become aware of the existence of Japanese new writing, then a translation can serve the purpose.

But if our quest is truly to promote a new literary movement, the translations can only do so much. And while the audience understands and perceives the novelty of style, it does not always subscribe to the apologetic packaging, perhaps also due to the limitations of translation.

Boy Viewing Mount Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai (1839)

milena ©2014.


[1] Quoting Wikipedia, from

[2] From Granta online, translator’s note by Asa Yoneda, on The Dogs, original by Yukiko Motoya


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s