Here’s to all the memories of the very few Japanese fiction books I have had my nose stuck in so far and my upcoming autoethnographic journey into Japanese short stories.
From my love of reading
I first picked up a copy of Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto eight years ago, when I was bored out of my wits at a sleepover at my cousins’. I barely remember the details of that story now—other than that it is a short window into the life of a make-shift family of a young orphan, her friend and his transgender mother—but the afterward melancholic feeling and indescribable thoughts, so alien to a thirteen-year-old back then, still surface so vividly at any sight of the book cover.
Such emotional discomfort stimulated by that first encounter with Japanese literature had me steering clear from the genre during my entire early teenage years, and I had not touched another novel by a Japanese author until the cover of a copy of Socrates in Love caught my eyes among the dusty aisles of an attic bookshop in Hanoi, four years later. The mention of a Western philosopher on such a Japan-ish cover—the white-red palette alluding to the flag, the couple drawn in that typical manga style—grasped my attention, and I cycled home with my stuffed backpack bouncing off my back, the copy tucked between dog-eared textbooks.
As it turned out, Socrates in Love had evoked all the thoughts and feelings that Kitchen had planted years ago. My teenage self was resonating so deeply with the pure, selfless love of the two main characters who, like me, were in high school. However, this time, I tried to embrace those emotions instead of sweeping them under the rugs like I’d done the last time. Still that melancholy. Still that inexplicable sadness that lingered days after I turned the last page.
Those feelings were magnified—strikingly—when I finished Norwegian Wood straight up in one read. Previously, although I had heard of this monumental work, the hype surrounding it had made me hesitant—I’d had plenty of disappointment from books failing to live up to their sparkling reviews. But as I looked up from the last line to see the sun already setting, I felt suffocated, as if I had just been vacuumed out of another world back into reality. It took two weeks for my world to feel normal again.
I was drawn to facets of life so distinctive of Japan and its people. The melancholy lurking in every corner, the spirituality, the blurred line between the real and the surreal, altruism, resilience, sexuality, the camaraderie with mortality, acceptance, inner peace. And above all, the perpetual loneliness that is intrinsic to every single character.
“My loneliness was an important part of my own little universe, not some pathological disease that needs to be gotten rid of.”
― Banana Yoshimoto, Amrita
To a Digital Artefact
It’s been a few years since I’ve last had such an experience, and my knowledge of this topic is too minimal (two novels cannot say much about an entire country’s literary history). Now, I am returning to Japanese literature—particularly short stories—for my autoethnographic Digital Artefact*, which will take the form of a multimedia blog page/post, with illustrations, pictures of handwritten quotes that are noteworthy, and (maybe) a book review video in which I will brief my entire experience. Essentially, the project is “writing about writing” (Wall 2008, p. 40), as I reflect on my written journal entries and analyse them to generalise patterns of thoughts.
Since reading, especially reading fiction, is such an immersive and emotionally stimulated activity, I have chosen to do this autoethnographic research in the form of a “layered account”, which focuses on my (the author’s) personal, concrete experiences alongside more abstract data and literature, and also as a “reflexive autoethnography” to “document ways [I change] as a result of doing fieldwork” (Ellis et al. 2012)—there might be drastic changes in my ideologies, my worldview, and the way I consume literary products by the end of the project. In the latter form, my reading journal will be most useful, as this approach to autoethnography values the researcher’s subjective experience as an “intrinsic part of research” (Anderson 2006, p. 385).
My chosen field site is a gorgeous hardback copy of The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, an anthology of vignettes into the culture, with forewords by Haruki Murakami. I am going analogue, annotating directly on the pages and keeping a handwritten reading journal, to truly immerse myself in the experience. By the end of this semester, I hope to finish at least ten stories—not merely skimming the pages but actively engaging with the content.
I aim to investigate the spiritual vibes in Japanese literature, the history of development, the significance of this medium in reflecting the values and the history of Japan, and how these texts are received and circulated worldwide (based on theories about the global flows of information and culture). This will hopefully be drawn from collected data: a series of (likely weekly) blog posts detailing my reading notes and comments from the journal, some Tweets, potentially some replies in a few Reddit threads (r/books have some good discussion threads on Japanese literature), and some illustrations I will make based on my interpretation of the stories.
I once read somewhere, that short stories are slices of life. These slices are like tree rings, showing the changes of a nation and its people throughout history, regarding culture, societal trends, and the dark sides. And as I delve into this literary realm, I hope the journey will be worthwhile.
*Note: A Digital Artefact (DA) is a research project communicated via a digital platform (online videos, podcasts, online blogs etc.), often with a creative edge. This DA is part of my fulfilment of the subject requirements in BCM320—Digital Asia. The subject focuses on making sense of how individuals experience cultural products from a culture different than their own, in this case, “Asian” cultures.
- Ellis, C, Adams, TE & Bochner, AP 2011, ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol. 12, no. 1, <http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095>.
- Anderson, L 2006, ‘Analytic Autoethnography’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, vol. 35, no. 4, pp. 373-393.
- Wall, S 2008, ‘Easier Said than Done: Writing an Autoethnography’, International Journal of Qualitative Methods 2008, vol. 7, no. 1.
- Kitchen book cover n.d., rukolla, viewed 11 September 2018, <https://rukkola.hu/konyvek/110927-kitchen_angol>.
- Socrates in Love book cover n.d., Oriental Lolita, viewed 11 September 2018, <https://lucychubby.wordpress.com/2012/05/12/socrates-in-love/>.
- Norwegian Wood book cover n.d., Amazon, viewed 11 September 2018, <https://www.amazon.in/Norwegian-Wood-Haruki-Murakami/dp/0099448823>.