Worldliness, Mystery, and Magic in Japanese Literature

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Literary workshop at Argo Bookstore offers insight into Japanese culture

Argo Bookshop guides neophytes into the world of Japanese writers Courtesy AE Prevost

Floating cherry blossom petals. Snowy mountains. Sumptuous and futuristic cities. Samurai.

These are some of the images often invoked by people who talk about Japan, this distant land that exists somewhere between mystery and myth in the Western imagination. Avid Japanophiles might attribute the popularity of some of these depictions to manga, the Japanese graphic novel, and one of the country’s greatest cultural exports. In other literary circles, Murasaki Shikibu, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Haruki Murakami may be some of the names that resonate with more familiarity. Yet, even though Japanese aesthetics are clearly fashionable in Hollywood, much of the country’s literature remains locked up, unknown, and inaccessible to Western amateurs and scholars.

Cultural initiatives such as Argo Bookstore’s annual Japanese literature event can help demystify some of this experience. Held on October 20, the workshop program spanned from the dawn of imperial court poetry, haiku, prose and theatrical trends through the centuries, to beloved traditional Japanese authors. , offering a promising glimpse into a literary tradition that is historically rich but often overlooked by Western audiences for its linguistic and thematic complexities.

Moti Lieberman, the event host and avid expert on Japanese literature, pointed to the distinct narrative structure of Japanese stories as a possible reason for this division.

“We have a book club in Japan, and people are often unhappy with the endings because they don’t wrap up the way they expect,” he said. A returning expat who is fluent in the language, he thinks many readers are used to a Western-Christian tradition of storytelling, which generally favors strong-willed conclusions. “Western books will make someone have an epiphany, and then maybe the good guys will be saved. Japanese storytelling doesn’t have that. Stories can end abruptly and are more open.

The unusual structure and emphasis on aesthetics, minute detail and piece-by-piece pacing in some novels frustrate new readers, Lieberman said. “It’s something you have to develop a taste for.”

The lack of available translators also means Western audiences only receive a small selection of texts published in a language they can read, he explained. And those are usually just the ones that have won literary awards or sold well. According to him, this distorts the perception of Japanese literature for many people, who will conceive of it as being exclusively noble and focused on the abstract.

Although abstract ideals are indeed present in classic books, “there is also a lot of science fiction, mystery and romance. All of that exists in Japanese literature as well,” he said. Manga and light novels are prevalent in all genres and can be a first gateway to learning about Japanese customs.

Lieberman added that the simple kanji characters and annotations in these works are a valuable resource for language learners. “The media is just different [from literary pieces]. Giving people the opportunity to engage is important if they are curious. And hopefully that curiosity, once piqued, will lead them down the book aisle.

Aidan Olley, a recent Asian studies and history graduate from the University of British Columbia, considers himself one such person. Attending the workshop in Argo was an opportunity to learn something new about a country he hopes to work in, he said.

“Literature has been a blind spot in my studies of Japan,” Olley said. “I read a few authors for the class – we did The Tale of Genji and some Matsuo basho poems, but I want to see this [else]I disappeared.

Olley credits discovering manga as a teenager in part to his growing curiosity about Japan. One of his favorite works, Mushishi, is a supernatural medieval adventure set in various locations across the country, he said. The vivid locations, intricate imagery and artistic style of the critically acclaimed work left a deep impression on him.

Speakers from the Japan Exchange and Teaching program in Canada took part in the workshop, encouraging bold participants to embark on an adventure of working abroad. The JET initiative, funded by the Japanese government to promote cultural ties between the country and other nations, offers university graduates the opportunity to teach English in Japan while immersing themselves in the language and culture.

Steve Busby, JET alumnus and ambassador, says his experience living in Japan has enriched his view of the world. “It’s fascinating in every way, and yet there’s so much that I can’t relate to, as a man and coming from Canada,” he said.

He added that the country and its cultural heritage offers a lot to those who want to scratch the surface. “This [feels]cliche, but I think Japan is like an iceberg. From our limited vantage point here, we can only experience the tip of something so deep, vast and beautiful.

For those looking for a taste of something sublime, the Argo recommends Makioka Sisters, snow country Where Honey Sputnik as excellent introductions to the world of Japanese words.

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