Literature Inspired by Japan
There’s a quote that ‘every story has already been told, except that each writer brings to the table something that no one else in the history of time has ever had’. In this article, we’re looking at stories where Japanese culture or themes have been used to tell romances, tragedies and comedies. If you are looking to expand your horizons a little this year, then we have the perfect novels for you.
Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
This book is a modern classic, but it also divides a lot of opinions. For the average reader, there is a lot to love about this thick tome; the language is frankly superb and the characters are vibrant – no perfect apostles or irredeemable villains, each character is their own unique image of regret, love and grief.
These pages tell the story of Chiyo Sakamoto, a young girl from a poor family, who is reborn as Sayuri, a stunning geisha who attracts the attention of wealthy men throughout Kyoto. The transition is far from simple; the road to her fame is paved with pain and loss, and some of the scenes detailed in the book have caused an outcry from practising Japanese Geisha.
Memoirs of a Geisha was inspired by interviews held between Arthur Golden and the geisha Mineko Iwasaki in 1992, after Mrs Iwasaki had moved from Japan to America. The greatest argument surrounding this novel is in its portrayal of geisha as luxury prostitutes and the insinuation that the life of Sayuri and Mineko’s are aligned in anything more than simply having inspired Golden.
As a result, it is important that when reading this novel, the reader remembers that Memoirs of a Geisha was written by an American who was inspired by Japan – it does not tell a true historical account of Mrs Mineko, nor does it entirely represent the geisha culture. Despite all of this, it is a truly beautiful piece of fiction which will entirely occupy any blank afternoon.
If you enjoyed Memoirs of a Geisha, then you might also enjoy the film adaptation, or Geisha of Gion, Mineko Iwasaki’s memoir about her experiences as Gion’s number one geisha in 1950s Japan.
Quote – “Sometimes,” he sighed, “I think the things I remember are more real than the things I see. ”
Across the Nightingale Floor – Liam Hearn
This is the title of the first book in The Tales of the Otori trilogy. Across the Nightingale Floor is a rather traditional tale about a son trying to avenge his father. It’s a twisted take on Hamlet in a Japanese setting, with the same political intrigue, but more in the way of action and less in the way of dithering about philosophising.
Much like Memoirs of a Geisha and the Young Samurai series, these books do not aspire to be true representations of Japanese history, but they are heavily inspired by it. Across the Nightingale Floor shines the most during romantic and tragic turmoil, but it also features elements of Japanese magic and supernatural beliefs.
Quote – “I learned embroidery,” Kaede said, “But you can’t kill anyone with a needle.”
“You can,” Shizuka said offhandedly. “I’ll show you one day.”
Young Samurai – Chris Bradford
This is the perfect series for the young Japanophile. This series is aimed towards a typical teenage audience and features the young British protagonist, Jack Fletcher, and his struggle through a 17th century Japan, during the time when Japan refused entry to any foreigners.
Upon arriving in Japan, jack is soon training under a benevolent master at samurai school where he learns the art of the sword alongside Japanese ettiquette and language. The story is quite fantastical and by no means an honest representation of Japan, but it does include some lovely elements of Japanese culture, thinking and language.
If there’s one lesson to be learned from these books, it is that results are not bestowed, they are earned, but they are earned a lot quicker when you have friends to hold you up. It’s a fantastic series for young minds and a great introduction to Japan.
There is a total of eight books in this series. The main story takes place in the initial explosive trilogy, but Chris Bradford expanded the series into a further five novels as a result of their initial success.
Quote – “Revenge is self-defeating. It will eat away you until there is nothing left.”
An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro
While Ishiguro is perhaps best known for his highly acclaimed novel, Remains of the Day, which was also adapted into an award-winning film, An Artist of the Floating World is one of his earlier works and contains several biographical elements, nodding to his Japanese heritage.
Set in post-war Japan, the narrative is told in first-person from the point of view of an aged painter, Masuji Ono, whose lifetime of work is received with both scorn and applause. This leads Masuji to question himself and the life he has lived.
There are various conflicts throughout the novel, including the marriage negotiations of the youngest daughter, but the reader’s main intrigue is likely to be focused on whether Masuji can succeed in overcoming his preoccupations with his own reputation.
Kazuo Ishiguro is Japanese by birth but has lived in Britain and Japan interchangeably throughout his life. Some readers may find it interesting to research which parts of this novel were written with an autobiographical twist, once they have finished the novel.
Quote – “There is certainly a satisfaction and dignity to be gained in coming to terms with the mistakes one has made in the course of one’s life”
The 1000 autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell
Like Ishiguro, David Mitchell is also greatly inspired by his ties to Japan. Mitchell’s knowledge of Japan stems from his personal experience living as a foreigner in Japan and from his wife who was born there.
Mitchell attributes much of his artistic influence and inspiration to the years he spent in Japan. In one essay, he reflected: ‘would I have become the same writer if I’d spent the last six years in London, or Cape Town, or Moose Jaw, on an oil rig or in the circus?’
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a story set in 18th century Japan. Like Young Samurai, this book is about a foreigner’s experience in the insular Japan of old, but it is intended for a mature audience, with themes of lust and treachery.
Quote – “The truth of a myth…is not in its words but its patterns.”
To read or write literature that has been inspired by Japan is to take pleasure in the difference between the Western and Eastern worlds; each of the novels mentioned above contain some element of romance, but perhaps that is inevitable when the authors are just as in love with Japan as we are. If you too, take joy in learning about Japanese culture, we recommend visiting our Japanese restaurant in Manchester or our Japanese Restaurant in Liverpool for a lesson in culture that you can taste.