'Wrapped up in our hectic lives, there’s something healing about reading a narrative that has nowhere to be.'
A tough day of work ends. Time to get the stress out of your system. ‘I need to relax’, you tell yourself. But how? For some: it’s meeting with friends, it’s exercise, it’s a glass of wine, maybe it’s a long soak in a warm bath that does the trick.
For others: it’s opening up a Japanese book and welcoming the warm, comforting escape of the world within.
Reading just a few pages lets us exit our real lives, set our anxieties aside, and welcome a soothing, mesmerising atmosphere that gets us purring with pleasure throughout the night.
Known as healing novels (or 'iyashi-kei shōsetsu') – certain Japanese books stand out for their soothing qualities. Authors like Haruki Murakami, Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Kurita Yuki, Kinae Minoto, Hiromi Kawakami and Banana Yoshimoto, in particular, will half your heart rate.
Words of healing for a wounded Japan?
Where do these healing novels come from?
The collapse of Japan’s bubble economy sparked a catastrophic recession from February 1991 that, to this day, means Japan’s Lost Generation struggle to get their foot in the door of the job market. On the other hand, those in work have to deal with a brutal working culture that carries the risk of karoshi (overwork death), and the pressures of pulling your weight in a small workforce caused by Japan’s ageing population.
Saying that, Kanae Minato’s Confessions seems to speak to a wounded Japan. Its narrator tells the reader:
‘If the place in which you find yourself is too painful, I say you should be free to seek another, less painful place of refuge. There is no shame in seeking a safe place. I want you to believe that somewhere in this wide world there is a place for you, a safe haven.’
Wise to the situation, perhaps Japanese writers wanted to place a comforting hand on the shoulders of its people by handing them this anti-anxiety, low stress style of fiction.
But what makes them so calming?
There’s meaning in the mundane
Many Japanese authors give us reflective, calming and meaningful narratives (rather than frantic ones) by grounding them in the mundane of everyday life.
See the unemployed Toru in Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle:
‘I let the phone ring three times and cut the sandwich in half. Then I transferred it to a plate, wiped the knife, and put that in the cutlery drawer, before pouring myself a cup of coffee I had warmed up. Still the phone went on ringing’.
There’s something therapeutic here. Toru’s food ritual is sacred to him, and takes priority.
In contrast to fast-moving action-packed plots, it’s these slow-paced page-turners that reel us in. (Also see Killing Commendatore, a 704-page story of an artist who spends most of his time thinking, cooking and painting.)
Wrapped up in our hectic lives, there’s something healing about reading a narrative that has nowhere to be.
Similarly, Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake shows an aspiring graphic artist who spends most of her time staring out of window. She says: ‘I love feeling the rhythm of other people's lives. It's like traveling.’ This is patient and tranquil writing.
A soothing, dream-like reality
Japanese literature is packed full of ordinary people: waitresses, artists, office workers, writers, the unemployed. Not only do we relate to them, but we become wrapped up in the weightless, dream-like feel of their lives.
Many are struck by loneliness: but a beautiful solace comes from getting to know them because all of us, deep down, know what it’s like to feel alone.
‘That’s why I left the flat. Out on the street, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t the only one here, that I wasn’t the only one feeling lonely.’(Tsukiko in Strange Weather in Tokyo, by Hiromi Kawakami)
A hint of hope
Yet there’s a subtle mystery and hint of hope that soothes us. In Yoshimoto’s The Lake, our protagonist Chihiro reflects:
‘But I have my life, I’m living it. It’s twisted, exhausting, uncertain, and full of guilt, but nonetheless, there’s something there.’
Similarly, in Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, our narrator Mikage says:
‘In the uncertain ebb and flow of time and emotions, much of one’s life history is etched in the senses. And things of no particular importance, or irreplaceable things, can suddenly resurface in a café one winter night’.
Like Mikage, perhaps we wish to stumble across our own unique, irreplaceable things – and find great consolation in the possibility.
The healing literature
It's no surprise, then, to hear of Tokyo psychiatrist, Machizawa Shizuo, who reports that his depressed patients find ‘an optimism and brightness absent in their own lives’ by reading Banana Yoshimoto.
But more than this, the booming popularity of translated Japanese authors across the globe hints at special kind of quality that drives readers across the globe to immerse in the soothing bubble of their stories.
This is the healing power of Japanese literature. And we recommend you embrace it.