Discover Magical Realism in Japanese Literature


By Miriam Hemstock

Magical realism is defined as ‘an amalgamation of realism and fantasy.’ It originated in literature from Latin America, yet numerous novels from and about Japan have drawn on elements of this genre. Japan often appears fantastical and duplicitous, especially to outsiders. Western media often exacerbates this notion, and though it is frequently true, it can sideline the presence of everyday life. Magical realism both represents and overcomes this problem by presenting multiple realities and using tangled narratives. Authors introduce reality as paradoxical, often with an underlying darkness at play. Magical realism allows characters plagued by trauma to comprehend events that have affected them, their ancestors and even society as a whole. Elements of science fiction and fantasy, dreams intertwined within narratives and prose that verges on poetic are all characteristics of magical realism.  Below is a succinct, and by no means definitive, introduction to magical realist Japanese and Western authors’ who write about Japan.

Yasunari Kawabata

Yasunari Kawabata was Japan’s first Nobel Prize for Literature winner and highly influential writer. His short novella ‘The House of the Sleeping Beauties’ is a disturbing tale which would later inspire the acclaimed Colombian magical realist and Nobel prize winner Gabriel Garcia-Marquez to write ‘Memories of My Melancholy Whores’. In Kawabata’s story, an elderly gentleman named Eguchi pays to sleep with women drugged into unconsciousness. Although no intercourse or inappropriate touch of any sort are permitted in the establishment, the concept of such control and fetishisation is perturbing. Kawabata uses this as a vehicle to question notions of morality, sexuality, aging and memory. Through the dreams Eguchi has whilst lying next to the women and the memories of past lovers they unearth, an exploration of existentialism is undertaken via Kawabata’s haiku inspired prose.

Kenzaburo Oe

In ‘The Game of Contemporaneity’, Kenzaburo Oe creates an entirely alternate universe set  in a rural Shikoku village. He tells his revisioned history through the story of a dissident samurai turned into a demon. It is a novel of great complexity and importance, having inspired a wave of political authors such as Hisashi Inoue. Oe’s exploration of ‘natsukashisa’ (nostalgia) is perhaps the aspect of the novel that stands out the most. Oe extols the allure and danger of this in equal measure. Oe stated that his novel was inspired by the intricacy of  a work by mural painter Diego Rivera, and the author has received comparisons to the works of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, making him one of the front runners of Japanese magical realism.

Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is perhaps the most famous and certainly the most popular contemporary Japanese author in both Japan and the West. His novels blur the lines between the everyday and a pseudo-magical world, peppered with contemporary figures and culture. A cameo by Colonel Sanders in ‘Kafka on the Shore’ turns the eponymous Capitalist figure into a dark, malicious force. Popular music profoundly affects characters, often transporting them to different emotional states and time frames. It acts as the driving force of the narratives at play. ‘Norwegian Wood’, whose title comes from The Beatles song of the same name, was  his breakthrough novel. Norwegian Wood is a song about loss and loneliness, as is Murakami’s novel. Murakami’s style marked a stark departure from his contemporaries. It even lead to criticism of his work by other writers, including Kenzaburo Oe. But the popularity of his work, both in Japan and abroad, speaks for itself. Murakami tackles issues of personal identity and modern life via a complex web of illusory worlds, bohemian characters and mystical happenings.

David Mitchell

David Mitchell is an author from the UK who spent many years living in Japan. He has spoken extensively in articles and interviews of the impact that Japan has had on his writing. In his novel,  ‘Number9dream’ the reader is taken on a rip-roaring ride through Tokyo where multiple realities exist at any one time. The narrative flits between dreams, daydreams, video game storylines and mundane accounts of main protagonist Eiji’s life in such a way to blur the boundary between what is real and what isn’t. The novel also transcends time by including diary entries from a World War Two ‘kaiten’ pilot, who steers an underwater missile into an American carrier ship, resulting in his untimely death that he hopes will bring glory to his family name. Like so much magical realism, the inclusion of real, harrowing historical anecdotes allows for a cathartic vehicle for understanding collective and individual trauma. The novel was heavily inspired by ‘Norwegian Wood’, and although Mitchell’s imaginative power means his merit as an author is not diminished, it can at times feel like a strong  imitation of Murakami’s work.

Hideo Furukawa

Hideo Furukawa has been touted as the next Murakami due to his magical realist style. However, Furukawa’s style is arguably more energetic, with nuances not found in Murakami’s work. Only a handful of his many writings have been translated to English, but those that have crackle with the spark of his talent. His novella ‘Slow Boat’ is in fact a reworking of Murakami’s short story ‘A Slow Boat to China’. In another of his novels, ‘The Book of 300 Treacherous Women’, he reworks ‘The Tale of Genji’, written in the 11th Century. He twists classic tales with a mastery and sensitivity that renders them completely transformed. He writes with the intention to provide ‘a way for people to re-experience other worlds’. His often mythical or science fiction inspired style opens a gate to re-imagined histories.

Banana Yoshimoto

Banana Yoshimoto’s writing questions what it means to be a woman. Her choice of pen name is both ‘cute’ and ‘purposefully androgynous’. Yoshimoto is keen to explore themes of sexuality and gender in her writing. Her novella ‘Kitchen’ includes a transsexual character, and many of her characters are androgynous or outside conventional views of outward gender expression. Her novels are also nonchalant exposés into trauma and grief. In ‘Kitchen’ the main protagonist is trying to overcome the death of her  grandmother. In ‘The Lake’ the main character is grieving for her mother when she meets a man with a dark past and links to the cult of Aum Shinrikyo. All of Yoshimoto’s characters exist in a kind of waking dream. The reader is often left unsure as to what is real and what is fantasy, yet these dreamlike occurrences are the driving force behind Yoshimoto’s narratives. Novels such as ‘Amrita’ feature sci-fi and fantasy tropes, including spirits, UFO’s and psychics. Like Murakami and other contemporaries, Yoshimoto explores ideas of identity crisis within Japanese youth, which has earned her a cult following.

Hiromi Kawakami

Hiromi Kawakami is a prize winning author and important literary essayist. ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’  won her the Tanizaki Prize and is a humorous tale of romance between a young woman and an elderly man. Her characters float through the novel in a dreamlike state. A friend of Tsukiko, the main character, states, ‘Being in love makes people uncertain’. Kawakami’s protagonists are defined by their struggle to maintain relationships and to  find meaning and certainty within their lives. The novel’s accounts of food are perhaps its most distinctive feature. Kawakami, like Yoshimoto, is conscious of the importance of food to both collective and individual memory and lovingly describes the fine points of every meal featured. It is this attention to detail along with her lyrical style that make her writing an ethereal yet submersive experience.

As a genre, magical realism allows readers flights of fancy that challenge the status quo. The above authors offer an insight into multiple perspectives coming out of Japan.  Each retains an acknowledgement of the complexities of living within Japanese society whilst melding this with the fantastical and absurd. For anyone that has lived in Japan, aspects of these novels will certainly ring true. They are also a fascinating read for those that haven’t, an insight into a complex and rich culture. They offer an enlightened understanding into the human psyche in general. Their observations of dreams often define the novels and the characters within them. The dream narratives allow the writing a freedom not afforded in reality.  Besides, as John Lennon once said, ‘Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?’

Miriam Hemstock

Miriam is a second year ALT from the UK living in Hojo. Once succinctly and correctly described as, ‘A cheerful idiot. Miriam can ride a bike and whistles well.’ Miriam writes about travel and literature, her two great loves. Oh, and crisps, the greatest love of all.

Notes and References

Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community’, Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris

Currently, the only English translation of Hideo Furakawa’s ‘The Book of 300 Treacherous Women’ is an excerpt printed in ‘Monkey Business: Vol. 5’, a highly recommended creative, artistic literary journal

‘An Interview with Banana Yoshimoto’, Rowan Riley

‘Novelist Hideo Furukawa views the Fukushima disaster through nonhuman eyes’, Kris Kosaka for The Japan Times

‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’,  Hiromi Kawakami

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