One of my favorite things to do here in Japan is read Japanese literature and Western literature about Japan. I wish I could say I was reading the Japanese books in their original language; while I speak passable basic Japanese, I remain illiterate.
It's one thing to experience these books in America. There, they tend to have this aura of exoticism. Reading them in their country of origin, I find they take on a level of immediacy that enhances the reading experience.
Currently, I'm reading Ibuse Masuji's Black Rain, the Kodansha Japan's Modern Writers edition translated by John Bester. I'm only about 3 pages into it, though, so I can't say too much about it. It's about a man who's trying desperately to get his niece married off. The tragic difficulty is she was close enough to Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, that she's considered hibakusha... an atom bomb victim. Hibakusha have- and especially during the time setting of Black Rain- faced discrimination and ostracism due to misunderstandings involving radiation exposure.
I can't imagine this book has a happy ending.
I'm also reading Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. And no, this isn't Japanese literature. It's an American novel masquerading as the personal reminiscences of Sayuri, a first rank geisha of Gion (Kyoto). I've read this before- it's more an enchanted vision of Japan, more like a fairy story than reality. This isn't a criticism, though, because the world Golden creates is engaging and vivid. Whenever I discuss it with students, I describe it as the Gone With the Wind version of Japan; a few of my students have seen Gone With the Wind and when they found out I'm from Georgia, they asked me about Tara. Sayuri is like a kinder, gentler Scarlett O'Hara, but with no less spirit and inner strength.
If you want to read about the realities of being a geiko (the correct term for what we Westerners usually call geisha... get it right, because a Nova student once harshly corrected my misconceptions on this and I'm enternally grateful to her), then I recommend Iwasaki Mineko's Geisha of Gion. Arthur Golden interviewed her as he researched Memoirs, and evidently violated her trust. So much so that she wrote her own life story as a response (and after receiving death threats for revealing the secrets of the geiko world).
Iwasaki's voice is more authentic than Sayuri's and no less involving. She was the top geiko in Japan during the 1960s and 1970s before retiring at age 29 due to the limitations of such a life. In her day, she entertained the rich and powerful of Japan, famous Hollywood directors and even had a hilarious run-in with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. This book makes the perfect companion (or counter) to Memoirs, and if you've read the novel you owe it to yourself to get the true story.
I find I really enjoy the works of the delightfully-named Banana Yoshimoto. The first I read was Kitchen (a good introductory book), but the one I love the most is Hardboiled Hard Luck, translated by Michael Emmerich. This book is made up of two novellas, both told in Yoshimoto's lovely, spare prose. Hardboiled is the story of a young woman's mystery journey in the mountains of Japan, interrupted by free-flowing reveries about her lost lover. Eventually, it turns into a surreal ghost story. Haunting and relentless.
While Banana Yoshimoto tells deceptively simple short stories with endless emotional depths, Murakami Haruki tells a long-winded but equally fascinating tale in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Okada Toru is a low-key kind of guy who loses his job, his cat and then his wife in the course of a single week. His search for his wife involves psychic phenomena, time spent at the bottom of an abandoned well, political shenanigans, WWII and a charming but twisted young girl named May Kasahara. This book is pretty heavy-duty stuff, reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon but much more accessible. As with Banana Yoshimoto, you can hardly go wrong reading Murakami Haruki.
Another Murakami, this time Murakami Ryu, wrote one of my favorite Japanese novels, 69. This is a comedic tale of about a Japanese high school boy during the eventful year of 1969. He pretends to political consciousness as a means to score with beautiful girls, listens to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, vandalizes his school and puts on a rock festival. During the course of all these misadventures, he grows maybe a little wiser... but not too much. It's not that kind of book, just a joyful blast of nostalgia and youthful energy and elation that probably- as usual- never quite leads to the great things we expect it to.
For a double shot of something equally fun, I recommend the massive, colorful The Tokyo Look Book and the much smaller and pithier Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno. The Tokyo Look Book, by anthropologist Philomeena Keet and with photos by Manabe Yuri, is a thorough guide to the current style groups preeminent in today's Japan. You learn a lot about the gyaru, the ganguro, the hime-kei, gosirori and decora girls, with lots of erudite insights but with an overall cheeky tone. Schoolgirl Inferno, by Izumi Evers, Patrick Macias and Kazumi Nonaka, is a shorter guidebook-style bit of fun, fully illustrated with hilarious fully-painted artwork. Less scholarly but no less informative, this book gives a historical overview of the evolution of Japanese style, from the wicked and violent sukeban girls of the 1970s to today's high maintenance gyaru. As a companion to The Tokyo Look Book, Schoolgirl Inferno helps give today's looks a historical perspective.
Another fascinating tome is Full Metal Apache: Transactions Between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America, by Tatsumi Takayuki. It's a scholarly critique of a number of Japanese and Western novels, comics and films that deal with Japanese settings, characters or themes. There's a lot of cross-cultural pollination going on between pop America and pop Japan and I think my own life fits somewhere in this reciprocal stream. At least I hope it does.
Which brings us to this, last but by no means least: Idoru by William Gibson. This is a sci-fi novel about a futuristic Tokyo, rebuilt using nanotechnology after a devastating earthquake. Idoru... well... she's a virtual reality pop idol. I think- I'm not that far along in it and the plot hasn't coalesced yet. It's a fascinating extrapolation of high-tech and cultural trends, rendered more interesting due to the number of years that have passed since its first publication. Has modern Japan matched Gibson's vision for it, or surpassed it? I guess I'll find out when I finish the book.
Generally, I eschew guidebooks when I'm travelling here in Japan. I do check for things online, but then I find them in reality, without burying my face in a book along the way. I keep my eyes and ears- and most especially my mind- open. I go where I'm moved to go and try to avoid gaijin as much as possible so I can feel I'm truly in Japan and not traveling in a bubble or having my impressions corrupted by those of others. Japan itself is my classroom, my textbook and my instructor. However, these books are just some of my cultural guidebooks, aids in exploring all the ingredients that go into the big delicious pot of nabe we call Japan.
Way to end on a mixed metaphor!