Four Japanese Novels

by JDP

    Four Japanese Novels

Yukio Mishima / The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea / 1963

Shusaku Endo / The Sea and Poison / 1958
Kobo Abé / The Woman in the Dunes / 1962
Haruki Murakami / The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle / 1994

A handful of months back, I decided that it was time to get serious about Japanese literature. I had very little experience with novels from Japan and, as someone who has trumpeted the importance of spreading one’s reading list geographically, I feared that I was bordering on hypocrisy by virtually ignoring the Asian world. I spent the second half of August and the first part of September reading novels from four major Japanese post-WWII authors and I present them here together for your consideration. I don’t intend to belittle the works by lumping them into one post; rather, I wanted the post to reflect the truly singular nature of this reading mini-project. All of the books were at least decent and some of them were really quite wonderful.


The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is a sparse, lean book that explores post-WWII life in a city on the Japanese coast. A woman who manages a clothing store that imports its inventory from European clothiers inadvertently falls in love with a sailor who ends up renouncing the navy in favor of her company. Her young son, who at first admired the sailor’s unrestrained freedom and masculinity, becomes disgusted when the sailor declares his love for the boy’s mother and moves into the family’s home. The boy is a member of a gang of wayward youth who are philosophically opposed to the adult world, kill small animals by way of killing time, and rampage unchecked up and down the Japanese coastline. Having ingratiated himself to the leader of the gang by sharing humiliating stories about the sailor, the boy eventually offers the sailor up to the gang’s aggression as a sacrificial object. The book quickly spins along toward a horrible ending.

Despite the novel’s inherent terseness, Mishima is still able to conjure beautifully atmospheric imagery. The warmth of the sun, the stunning appearance of the boy’s mother, the rollicking of the sea — all of these come alive under the author’s deft pen. Many of the subtler cultural juxtapositions are also expertly rendered, especially the sailor’s internal debate about whether to turn his back on the sea for the sake of love or to stay true to his life’s calling. When Mishima pivots away from the sailor and the mother, however, the narrative tends to suffer. The depiction of the gang of boys falls well short of plausibility and their crack philosophies, violent behavior, and professional-spy-like ability to avoid detection by their parents or law enforcement officers borders on the bizarre. Especially when stacked up against the other novels, Sailor suffers for want of real human emotion. Endo, for example, is able to operate in a similarly sparse framework, but more adeptly draws out his characters’ dynamism and internal tensions. Murakami’s violence is more explosive and far more arresting and Abé wields a pretty huge psychological stick with which he beats his protagonist (and reader) again and again.


I first read The Sea and Poison for an undergraduate philosophy class. I distinctly remember the day the professor looked at all of the students — who must have been exhibiting signs of scholastic negligence — and beseeched us to pay close attention to Endo. “I have students from many years ago who still tell me that they are haunted by this novel.” Being the sort of person I was at the age of 20, I read the book quickly and enjoyed it more or less. Having picked it up for a second read five years later, my impression is significantly more positive: Endo has created a masterpiece with this novel.

The novel tracks a group of Japanese doctors toward the end of WWII who have been tasked by a military official to conduct medical experiments on American prisoners of war. The main character — Suguro — is a young resident who, for the sake of his career, must shout down his moral objections and assist in the procedures. Endo employs some subtle tricks with chronology and we first encounter Suguro many years after the war when he has sequestered himself in a small, rural community. He appears broken, bereaved and, come to find out, party to a lawsuit filed by the Japanese government against the team of doctors who conducted the experiments. The remainder of the novel cuts back to the past, where the hospital is plagued with tuberculosis patients, midnight bombing campaigns, and food shortages. Endo renders in precise detail the tension underscoring several salient dichotomies: man versus woman; doctor versus patient; countryman versus foreigner.

One of the great facets of the novel (indeed, with all of these novels) is the imagery. Whereas with Mishima the adjectives are beautiful and whereas with Abé they are claustrophobic, with Endo we are peppered with truly horrifying scenes of TB patients fighting over scraps of bread, surgical procedures conducted with ether as the major anesthetic, the auditory experience of cutting through a patient’s ribcage, and so on. The effect is bleak and, by the end of the narrative, there will be no redemption. Bland color schemes, dusty roads, sterile operating rooms, and starched sheets define the landscape both physically and metaphysically. You will grimace and cringe, but not mainly (or, at least, not solely) due to the terribleness of what transpires; rather, more troubling than all of this is to witness firsthand the total desiccation of a man’s well of morality. Endo saps Suguro of everything that he has and casts him brutally aside in what might be one of my favorite closing lines to a novel: “Suguro could go no further. He could go no further.” One must read the novel to fully recognize the gravity of the repetition.


If Endo gives us the story of a good man gone wrong, then Abé gives us the story of simple man who, through trials and tribulations, becomes a more complicated version of his previous self. The protagonist in question is an entomologist who takes a long weekend at the beach with the intent of collecting some rare species of sand beetles. He unexpectedly runs across a small village and gets distracted by the beautiful landscapes and amiable townsfolk. As night falls, the villagers graciously offer to lodge him for the night in a ramshackle hut at the bottom of a great sand dune. They tell him not to worry; they’ll come back to help him out of the dune in the morning and send him on his way.

That’s not what ends up happening. Instead, the man is partnered with a woman and driven into a type of indentured servitude where he must spend his waking hours shoveling away at the sand dune to prevent it from blowing into the rest of the village. He cannot believe his misfortune and he cannot understand the duplicity of the townsfolk. He is angry with the woman with whom he must labor; then he falls in love with her; then he resents her; then spends weeks trying to figure out how to escape; then, finally, falls into a comfortable pattern of work and grows accustomed to his misfortune.

There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles here and the plot trajectory is predictable. Abé succeeds, however, in tracing out these minute and subtle shifts in the man’s psychological disposition. It doesn’t help that this man is really the everyman and it isn’t long before the reader realizes that the predictability of these shifts constitutes, in itself, the point: this man’s anger would be our anger, his frustrations would be our frustrations and, eventually, his resignation would be our resignation. It is not a terribly comforting thought.


Wind-Up Bird is far and away the longest of the novels reviewed here (at 600+ pages, it’s longer than the three previous novels put together) and also the most substantively expansive. Murakami is a very important contemporary writer in Japan and a few of his earlier works — most notably Norwegian Wood and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World — have also garnered widespread recognition in  English-speaking countries as well. He is famous for exploring the cultural crisis that accompanied the country’s demilitarization, democratization, and modernization in the immediate aftermath of WWII, and many critics have argued that Murakami attempted to roll all of Japan into Wind-Up Bird. I’m not particularly well-situated to evaluate this claim, but I can tell you the following: Murakami’s masterwork is sufficiently diffuse, variegated, and spastic that it may well include bits and pieces of everything Japanese. I’m not sure, however, that adding up all the components will actually get you anything that resembles a cohesive whole.

The book is written in three parts and was originally published in three volumes. The first two volumes explore a number of minor calamities that befall Toru Okada: he loses his job and his cat, his wife leaves him for another man, he gets stuck in the bottom of a well, and his ex-brother-in-law (whom he hates) is elected to national political office by a rather wide margin. But that’s not all. Okada also receives strange and lurid phone calls from an unidentified woman; two soothsayers pop up at random and act as if they were intimately acquainted with the finer details of Okada’s future; and a rather forward young girl recruits him to help her conduct research on balding men in a nearby shopping mall. Throughout it all, Okada narrates in a detached, deadpan first-person narrative that — at least for the first 300 pages — is both compelling and entertaining. Toward the end of the second volume, however, the wheels start to come off. Not only is Okada’s character trumped by some of the more interesting ones, but Murakami has thrown together so many disjointed tidbits that the reader is left reeling.

I really like this type of novel, at least in theory. At first, everyone seems to know much more than Okada about what’s going on. This is a situation rather similar to The Magus, where an unsuspecting British teacher is led to a Greek island and made the subject of a bizarre and elaborate psychological experiment. There, someone is behind the curtain pulling the strings and all the actors conspire against the unwitting subject. But with Wind-Up Bird, there’s no ringmaster. In some sense, Murakami could be said to lay out his plots like Bolaño insofar as they progress in seemingly random ways that are nonetheless connected by less tangible overarching principles. Bolaño’s work is short on masterminds, but chuck full of undirected cosmic powers. At the end of the day, though, I’m not so keen on even granting Murakami this much. Some critics have likened him to Pynchon; alas, I don’t think that’s quite right, either.

Suspicions are confirmed with the opening of the third volume where Okada’s first-person narration is brushed aside every third or fourth chapter in favor of newspaper clippings, epistolary writings, old war story flashbacks, and highly allegorical children’s tales. Indeed, there’s such a bewildering array of styles and techniques here that it would require a superhuman novelist to keep them all focused on the same substantive points. Murakami, however, is only occasionally superhuman. In many passages, Wind-Up Bird is a rather serious (and, I suspect, coldly unrelenting) indictment of Japanese military aggression and lingering old-world norms. In others, we get well-developed asides on designing clothes, programming computers, drawing maps, cooking spaghetti, and so on. At still other points, Murakami explores in equally compelling capacities both the macabre and the mendacious, the hallucinatory and the hellish. Wind-Up Bird is an incomplete quilt with many fascinating patterns, but no unifying theme.

Mishima: 5 / 10 
Endo: 9 / 10 
Abe: 7 / 10 
Murakami: 8 / 10