Warning: Some spoilers ahead (Kitchen—Banana Yoshimoto, Norwegian Wood—Haruki Murakami, Socrates in Love—Kyoichi Katayama)
In my most recent post, I went down a nostalgic memory lane of experiences with Japanese literature, setting up a background for my upcoming Digital Artefact* on Japanese short stories and the culture’s reflection between the lines—the stories are like age rings of a tree, looking at which one can observe the subtle changes in history and culture, especially among the commoners. Now that I have had some time to distance myself from my writing, it is only apt that I practise looking at that narrative with some objectivity, dissecting the emotional with more logic to bring out an autoethnographic aspect.
The essence of autoethnography lies in the analyticity with which the researcher (in this case, myself) frames their story, using “theoretical and methodological tools”, based on conscious knowledge and awareness of their personal, social, cultural frameworks that potentially impact their perceptions (Allen n.d., cited in Ellis et al. 2011). This is achieved precisely via examining the thoughts and feelings, the epiphanies, that are recorded as one experiences the cultural product/service of choice. With this “witnessing” (Denzin 2004, cited in Ellis et al. 2011), the author can later study their own story as, to some extent, an outsider or bystander, granting the story generalisability and validity.
My first epiphany was the first time I had experienced intense uneasiness after I’d finished Kitchen (Banana Yoshimoto). I vividly remember my thirteen-year-old self shocked and unsettled by the way Yoshimoto recounted the story of Eriko, the transgender mother of the male protagonist, who opted for a sex change after his wife died, knowing he would not love another. What’s more, she is the owner of a gay bar. The image of a lady, with plenty of hints of her old gender in her physique, dressing up in revealing outfits and striding in heels, flirting with male patrons, was simply incomprehensible for a young teenager brought up in a then very conservative Asian country, especially sexually. This discomfort likely stemmed from my long-term exposure to the homophobic attitude of most people around me back then, as homosexuality had been ranked as a “social evil”, along with drugs abuse, in Vietnam. Things have changed now in my home country, but back then, the contrast between Vietnamese people’s attitude towards the LGBT+ community and the thriving “Queer Culture” in Japan (McLelland 2011) was stark.
“A life lived alone simply feels long and boring. But a life shared with someone you love reaches the place of parting in no time at all.”
― Kyōichi Katayama, Socrates In Love
That novella had enlightened me on the mortality of human beings, a concept rather foreign to a then-high schooler, with seemingly endless days ahead. Death is present, constantly, naggingly, the marks of his scythe dark on every page. Yet the characters, young and old, stare him right in the eye. Some even matter-of-factly prepare for his arrival. This acceptance of death either as a peaceful closure to a life well lived or a painful farewell to things undone, seemed alien to me, as even though I did (and still do) practice aspects of Buddhism—which views death simply as a transition of an impersonal stream of consciousness from one life to another—I was not devout enough a believer to not think of death as the Unmentionable. In contrast, the attitude to death in modern Japan is that of existentialism, which considers death a union of a person with the “cosmic life”—where all living beings come from—after being segregated from other beings at birth (Sharma 2015, p. 38).
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.
That lingering sense of dread, melancholy, and heavy-heartedness is now expected whenever I pick up a Japanese novel. Young characters in Norwegian Wood and Kitchen always seem veiled by depression, feelings of loss and disorientedness, a perpetual search for something they themselves aren’t even sure of. It turns out, in modern Japanese literature, this is a major theme—Banana Yoshimoto calls it “the exhaustion of young Japanese in contemporary Japan”. Traumatising and devastating experiences shape people’s life in narratives by authors like herself. This reflects a much darker side of stoicism in Japanese society, one characterised by hidden mental illnesses and startling teen suicide rates. The sadness I felt must have been a result of the realisation that the idealised Japanese fortitude—which I had seen praised throughout my education—is not as desirable as it appears.
As mentioned in my previous post, I would tailor my research as analytical and reflexive: it is the third type of reflexive autoethnography, one that does not erase all boundaries between the researcher and the researched (confessional reflexivity) nor detach the former from the latter so far that the outcome is cold hard facts (theoretical reflexivity) (Foley 2002, cited in Denzin 2003, p. 269). This approach is a fine balance between valuing the autoethnographer’s individuality and personal perceptions/experiences as central to the study (Anderson 2006, p. 378) and emphasising rigorous research that is solidly grounded in theory and, ideally, generalisable (Willis 2000, cited in Denzin 2003, p. 269).
With that in mind, I examined Haruki Murakami’s foreword in The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, in which he elaborated on this assortment of 34 stories under seven categories. I finally settled with three sets of stories for this project:
- Japan and the West (3 stories);
- Men and Women (3 stories), and;
- Disasters: Natural and Man-made (4 stories).
- Modern Life and Other Nonsense (2 stories) (if time allows)
At best, this clear reading plan would satisfy both the spontaneity of my responses and the organisation of content for the sake of generalisability later on. Even if I fail to finish all of these titles in time, and despite nuances being lost in translation, it will still have been a valuable, although brief, gaze into the depth of a culture.
And isn’t that what reading should be about?
*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.
- Anderson, L 2006, ‘Analytic Autoethnography’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, vol. 35, no. 4, pp. 373-393.
- Denzin, N 2003, ‘Performing [Auto] Ethnography Politically’, Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 257-278.
- 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>.
- McLelland, M 2011, ‘Japan’s Queer Cultures’, in T & V Bestor (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Japanese Culture and Society, Routledge, New York, pp. 140-149, <https://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com.au/&httpsredir=1&article=1277&context=artspapers>.
- Sharma, N 2015, ‘Perception of life and death in Japan’, IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science, vol. 20, no. 8, pp. 30-42, <http://www.iosrjournals.org/iosr-jhss/papers/Vol20-issue8/Version-4/E020843042.pdf>.
- EmmaGraveling 2015, My take on Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, DeviantArt, viewed 18 September 2018, <https://www.deviantart.com/emmagraveling/art/My-take-on-Norwegian-Wood-by-Haruki-Murakami-561066097>.
- Life & Death n.d., Tattoos with Meanings, viewed 18 September 2018, <http://www.tattooswithmeaning.com/japanese-tattoo-meaning/>.
- Pep Boatella n.d., Living between genders, Spectrum, viewed 18 September 2018, <https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/living-between-genders/>.
- Potter, M 2015, Reflexivity, The Daily, 17 November, viewed 18 September 2018, <http://www.dailyuw.com/wellness/article_bd16c6d0-8dac-11e5-a585-ebd4f8ae1d50.html>.