book review: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories



THE PENGUIN BOOK OF JAPANESE SHORT STORIES edited by Jay Rubin and introduced by Haruki Murakami
Penguin Classics, 2018


I spent a while with this collection and I think on the whole it’s stronger than the sum of its parts. Apparently my average rating for these 34 stories was 3.35 stars, but it still feels like a 4-star collection to me, because it absolutely got its job done: introducing me to a number of authors whose work I’m interested in exploring further.

Curated by Jay Rubin and introduced by Murakami, this collection is arranged thematically rather than chronologically: there’s a section on natural and man-made disasters, a section whose stories are unified by the theme of dread, and a section on the values of Japanese soldiers, among others. Jay Rubin writes in his forward that he wanted this collection to reflect his personal taste rather than serving as a more generic primer to Japanese lit, and for better or worse I think that shows: I didn’t understand why every single one of these stories was chosen, but I did feel like I got a clear sense of Rubin as a reader, and why shouldn’t an anthology say something about its editor?

There were three main standouts for me:

(1) Dreams of Love, Etc by Kawakami Mieko: A woman is invited into her neighbor’s house, and her neighbor confesses that although she loves playing the piano, she’s unable to play a certain piece straight through when someone is watching, and she entreats the protagonist to sit with her until she’s able to play the piece perfectly. Compelling, sensual, and subtle, but still rewarding.

(2) Hell Screen by Akutagawa Ryunosuke: The talented but contemptible painter Yoshihide is commissioned to create a folding screen that depicts Buddhist hell. As he’s unable to paint an image that he hasn’t seen firsthand, he inflicts torture on his apprentices. The climax, though it’s easy to see it coming from a mile away, still somehow manages to shock, with horrifying imagery that isn’t easily forgotten.

(3) Insects by Seirai Yuichi: Set against the backdrop of the bombing of Nagasaki, Insects follows an elderly woman whose lifelong love had died fifteen years ago, after having been married to another woman. Brutal and tender all at once.

There are a handful of other noteworthy stories worth mentioning. The story that opens the collection, Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga reads like a film noir mystery but ultimately takes a philosophical turn, ruminating on the conflicting values of the East and the West. Factory Town by Betsayaku Minoru is wry and clever and achieves a lot with its brevity. American Hijiki by Nasaka Akiyuki provides a frighteningly honest look at Japanese post-war psychology. And of course, Mishima Yukio’s Patriotism and its graphic, visceral depiction of seppuku will probably haunt me to my dying day.

But I have two main criticisms of this collection: one about its composition and one about its selection. While I enjoyed the thematic arrangement, why oh why weren’t the stories’ publication dates readily accessible?! All the dates were listed somewhere in Murakami’s introduction, but it took a lot of flipping back and forth and I would have liked the date listed alongside the title, author, and translator. The second and larger criticism is that only 9 of these 34 stories are by women, so needless to say we can do better than a mere 26%.

Still, I found this to be a really solid introductory collection for anyone looking to expand their horizons and discover some new favorite Japanese writers, some seminal and some more obscure.

Thanks so much to Penguin for the copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

13 thoughts on “book review: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories

  1. I’ve been enjoying Japanese lit recently and I’d like to get more into it, so this sounds like it could be well worth checking out! I like the unique idea of thematic grouping, but that’s a real shame about the lack of female contributors 😒

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hell Screen sounds fascinating.

    You know, there was a time when I was obsessed with all things Japanese, so I don’t know why I don’t read more Japanese lit…I think I’m just so wary of literature in translation?? I think we’ve talked about this briefly before, but I tend to feel like translated lit is invariably stiff, but maybe I just haven’t read the right translations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel like that stiffness is characteristic of Japanese lit more than other translated lit I’ve read? I’ve noticed that Japanese lit tends to be rather detached… but that’s kind of a generalization I guess, I’m sure there are emotionally charged Japanese works. Anyway you should defo check out Yoko Ogawa’s short story collection Revenge, it was superb.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, that’s excellent news – I send this to a lot of people. Also, agree with the above: I’ve invariably found Japanese lit in translation to have a certain formality and stiltedness to it. In some texts (Convenience Store Woman is a perfect example, and The Makioka Sisters, probably because it’s about very old-fashioned mindsets anyway) that works really well, but I had to stop reading Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear because I couldn’t past the feeling of artificiality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooh I’ve got The Makioka Sisters on my shelf, I’ve been looking forward to that one. But bummer about Memoirs of a Polar Bear, I’d heard great things about that. Completely agreed about that stilted style working for Convenience Store Woman, and it also works wonderfully for Kanae Minato’s books. Interesting how this distinctive style is so characteristic of an entire country’s literature, at least in translation, I wish I could speak/read Japanese so I could compare.


    • It’s definitely worth checking out! I really enjoyed the range of stories selected. The cover is so nice! And it’s HEAVY too, it’s such a well-made book.


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