Whether you go mad for Murakami’s magical realism, Sayaka Murata’s unique characters, Natuso Kirino’s spine-tingling thrillers or Kiego Higashino’s mysteries… translated Japanese literature fascinates book-lovers across the globe for many different reasons.
Interestingly, a universal theme appears in Japanese books with real power: loneliness.
Its protagonists are often loners. Bored. Aimless. Living out withdrawn and lukewarm existences. Isolated from friends, family, and/or society. We see them wrapped up in solace, cooking in empty apartments, unsure what to do and where to go. Outcasts.
Take Tomoka Shibasaki’s Spring Garden (Winner of the 2014 Akutagawa), it’s focused on Taro: a divorced man, severed from his family, who lives alone in an apartment block due to be torn down; and he has almost never struck up a conversation at work. Similarly, in Toshiki Okada’s The End of the Moment We Had, we read about a woman despairing at the state of her damp and dark solo apartment, ruminating on her solitude. In countless Haruki Murakami books, we see our protagonist searching for things to do – wandering around aimlessly like Toru Okada in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, whose solitude is highlighted further by his cat's disappearance.
Does loneliness in literature reflect a lonely Japan?
Why is loneliness so prominent in Japanese books?Perhaps it reflects the solitary nature of Japanese living. Low fertility rates in a shrinking and ageing population (a quarter of which are over 65) mean that over a third of people live alone. In fact, research estimates that close to half the population will be single in 2040.
Top this off with an increase in modern day hermits (hikikomori, pictured above), and people dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time (known as kodokushi) – and it’s clear that Japan is lonely.
But this is not just a 21st century phenomenon.
Noble Prize winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) felt the weight of isolation in the 20th century. He stressed urbanisation as a reason, believing that:
‘People have separated from each other with walls of concrete that blocked roads to connection and love’.
Likewise, Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) singles out the nature of modern society in his novel Kokoro (1914):
‘Loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egoistical selves’.
On the cusp of the 21st century, in Sputnik Sweetheart (1999), Haruki Murakami puts it powerfully:
‘Why do people have to be this lonely? What's the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?’
The literary aim of loneliness
Is Japanese literature placing a comforting hand on the shoulder of its Japanese readers, especially its urban singles?
But what about its universal appeal in translation? Does this reassuring hand extend worldwide?
Yes. I believe the loneliness motif holds universal power. It grabs hold of readers because feelings of loneliness, aimlessness and uncertainty are familiar to all of us in varying degrees. Even the most sociable and confident of people know what it’s like to feel alone.
Great consolation and enjoyment come from being sucked into the world of a lonely protagonist. Perhaps we can understand their actions. Suddenly, we feel a sense of companionship as we enter their world. We keep reading.
Loneliness: a good or bad thing?
It’s easy to throw a negative light on solitary characters. At school, we see emphatic eyes directed at those sitting alone at lunch. Your work and love life (or lack of) present pressing questions from family and friends: ‘Why have haven’t you done this?’ ‘Why don’t you think about that?’, ‘Let me set you up!?’.
But loners are often the heroes of Japanese works.
In Hiroyuki Itsuki’s ‘Advice for the Lonely’, (yet to be translated), he proclaims: ‘The reason I feel fulfilled… is because I am not afraid of loneliness.’ He embraces its existence and moulds it into something positive, challenging its negative reputation.
Moreover, in Sayaka Murata’s award-winning Convenience Store Woman, readers cannot help but admire protagonist Keiko Furukawa: a 36-year-old woman who is single, asexual, and lives alone. She is happy in her life and solitude (she loves her job at a convenience store, which she worked for 18 years). This only changes when increasing societal and familial expectations try to 'cure' her loneliness – by suggesting she find a boyfriend.
But her life does not need to change. She is the novel’s hero – and we cannot help but route for her independence.
A purple-patch in translated Japanese literature
Translated Japanese literature (especially written by women) is enjoying a purple-patch right now. All 4 books in TIME Magazine’s Top 100 books of 2020 are written by female authors – Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs, Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings, Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, and Aoko Matsuda’s Where The Wild Ladies Are.
All touch on isolation to some degree: from society, from family, from friends, or from their sense of self.
The way writers craft loneliness into their works mesmerises us. This is a theme that crosses continents and touches us all because it speaks to an aspect of what it’s like to be human. I believe it only adds to their literary success, and long may their success continue.
Keep an eye out for more blogs on Japanese literary themes. Want to explore more? Check out our range of book packages. We send stunning translated Japanese literature straight to your doorstep!