Dear fellow travelers,
The knowledge I had about Japan was partly coming from manga, cartoons and movies. But literature is what gave me a deeper understanding of the Japanese culture and spirit. Here is a very concise list of books I suggest you to read to know more about the country and to prepare your trip.
Douglas Coupland, God Hates Japan. This is the story of Hiro, a Japanese young man born in 1975, that lives his youth when Japan goes through an economic crisis that is going to deeply change society (between the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s). Hiro lives and witnesses the westernization of his generation. He is very critical towards his own compatriots; from his reflections we can see the stereotypes about Japan and the desire of Japanese younger generation to adopt some of the European and American culture and habits, mixing them with the Japanese style. The Amerikamura district in Osaka (literally the «American neighborhood») is just one of the examples of this trend.
Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I’ve read many novels by Murakami and this is the one I’ve read just before leaving for Japan. It’s one of his typical buildungsroman, and deals with the quest for elegance and sophistication of spirit, concepts that are so dear to the Japanese. The novel is about Tsukuru, a typical character from the Murakami universe, lonely, emotional and troubled, who dedicates his life to train stations, becoming one of the most famous engineers for train stations planning and design. Like all his fellow countrymen, he has a genuine veneration for trains, and in particular for the shinkansen, the futuristic high-speed train. What fascinated me most were the descriptions of Japanese train stations: a sort of microcosms of perfect cleanliness, labyrinths with infinite hallways, floors and exits, where floods of people come and go endlessly. I had the occasion of passing through some of them during my visit, in particular Umeda and Namba in Osaka, Shinjuku in Tokyo and the beautiful one in Kyoto, a huge modern cathedral. These stations are impressive: it happened to me to think about Tsukuru while being there.
Amélie Nothomb, Fear and Trembling. This is the most shocking book about the Japanese business culture I’ve ever read. The Belgian author, who lived in Japan for years, tells about a newly hired European girl, that has to deal with the crazy Japanese business hierarchy, where the relationships between colleagues have to be extremely formal and every task has to be accomplished respecting several strict rules. She’s unlucky enough to be “punished” for her behavior and, even if she does not always understand why, her managers get her to change her job and push her lower and lower in the hierarchical ladder. It is a very striking portrait of the real working life of Japanese, who are accustomed to extremely long working hours, who all wear the same office “uniform” and fall asleep on the train during their long commuting hours at the end of the day.
Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask. A classic from the Japanese literature, this novel is about Kochan, a young Japanese guy living in the 20s, that has to hide his homosexuality wearing a mask to face society. Japanese society is still known for its rigid principles and the cult of auto-discipline. There is no surprise that Kochan ends up seeing himself as an outsider, and will live up with this feeling for his whole life. In Japan, everyone is supposed to conceal his true feelings and only disclose them to a restricted circle made of family members and very close friends. Kochan has the obligation to restrict this circle even more, through his years in the high school and – straight after – in the army and in his efforts of dating a girl. Confessions of a mask is an interesting (but sad) story that will let you discover one of the greatest Japanese novelists.
If you are a movie person rather than a book person, here are our suggestions:
- Dolls, Takeshi Kitano, 2003
- Howl’s Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki, 2004
- Like Father, Like son, Hirokazu Kore’eda, 2013
Enjoy… and go Eat the Road!