As the merest beginner and very much a latecomer, I started recently to look into Japanese fiction. What I can report is fragmentary, a record of uncertainties, confusions, and probable mistakes such as many Western readers are likely to share upon encountering Japanese fiction.
My first response was a shock of pleasure. Even through the dim channel of translation one can quickly see that contemporary Japanese fiction contains a large body of distinguished work. Much of it is marked by psychological finesse, and still more by a formalism of manner occasionally broken by thrusts into the sensual and perverse. My second response was a sense of anxiety, since nothing seemed to fall into place or settle into clarity. The forms, subjects, and even voices of gifted writers like Tanizaki, Dazai, Mishima, and Endo seemed reasonably familiar, so much so that I would ask myself: is it possible that Tanizaki, before writing the “Firefly Hunt” chapter in The Makioka Sisters, had read Virginia Woolf? Did Dazai know Dostoevsky? Or Endo, Silone? But soon such questions came to seem pointless, as I found myself sinking into a chasm of strangeness or, to put it differently, suffered a break in the premises of understanding that bind reader to writer.
Part of the strangeness may be due to no more than differences in literary method. There is, to start with a small matter, a greater tolerance for repetition of incident and remark in Japanese fiction than in Western. Japanese novelists appear to be less concerned than those in the West with devices that make for tension and foreshortening; they favor a more even pace of narrative; they do not seem to try nearly so hard for radical variations of stress from one part of a novel to another. The verbal surfaces of the Japanese novels I have read struck me as more pacific, perhaps more laconic than our fiction has trained us to expect. And in Japanese fiction there are often stretches of material, apparently flat detail and routine transcription of event, that a Western reader is likely to find puzzling. Even as sophisticated a novelist as Tanizaki includes such “nonfunctional” segments, causing one to wonder what thematic or dramatic purpose they may have.
These difficulties are still fairly simple and can be negotiated with a little impatience (skip a page or two). A greater obstacle in reading Japanese fiction, even as one may be steadily engrossed by it, is that the norms of expectation regarding conduct and judgment are often subtly and therefore radically at variance with our own. Least available are those cues to systems of manners through which Western fiction helps us release quick intuitions.
In Japanese novels the characters are often finely portrayed, in part because the autobiographical narrative has been popular and in part because the entrance of a culture into modernity creates the grounds for psychological nuance. But the concept of individuality seems elusive, as if it only gradually entered Japanese fiction and continues to meet resistance from …