Read Your Way Through Tokyo


With the influx of Western thought and ideas in the newly open Tokyo in the late 19th century, intellectuals wrestled with the conflicts that arose between traditional Confucian ideologies and contemporary European spirituality. Natsume Soseki taught literature at the University of Tokyo after studying abroad in London, and, when he later became an author, he brilliantly sublimated those very conflicts in his novels. Such ideological tensions are not, however, outwardly apparent in his fantastical short stories, “Ten Nights’ Dreams.” Although these 10 absurd tales may seem immeasurably delirious, as if drawn from the depths of the unconscious, they possess timeless and universal qualities. And what vivid depictions of life in 19th-century Tokyo!

The author Kafu Nagai traveled to the United States and France, where he was profoundly immersed in Western thoughts and ideas. He began publishing fiction at the turn of the 20th century. In “A Strange Tale from East of the River” (also translated as “Something Strange Across the River”), the stage is Tokyo as it undergoes tremendous changes in the days leading up to World War II. The appeal of this work is its metafictional structure, which features a poignant relationship between a writer and a prostitute. Just when you think the story has ended, the author himself makes an appearance in order to relay various episodes from the ever-changing city as part of the plot. Here, too, a nesting-box narrative enables the reader to contemplate the passage of time.

Now, at last, we are nearing the layers that make up present-day Tokyo. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the country again underwent drastic changes. The narrator of Kenzaburo Oe’s novel “Seventeen” is a young man who has assassinated a politician. The novel is a detailed portrayal of a young man who is adrift, descending into depression and being driven to terrorism. The story alludes to an event that occurred not long before it was published, in which the chairman of the Japan Socialist Party was stabbed to death by an ultranationalist at Tokyo’s Hibiya Public Hall. There were many protests and threats made against Oe himself after “Seventeen” was published, in a literary journal. Despite having been translated into various languages and published in numerous countries, the novel was only made available in Japan in book form four years ago — 57 years after it was written — when it was included in a collected edition of Oe’s complete works.

The short story “Final Moments,” from the 1961 collection “Toddler Hunting and Other Stories,” by Taeko Kono, is about a woman who suddenly learns that she will die the following day, and describes how she spends the hours after that realization. In spite of its terrible premise, the story is surprisingly tranquil and matter of fact. I have often heard people say that it is difficult to tell what a Japanese person is thinking, and this woman is no exception: She does not let her feelings show. Whenever I reread this story, I always marvel at how Kono chose to illustrate the workings of this woman’s mind with such audacious and sophisticated creativity.

The women who appear in the stories included in Kuniko Mukoda’s collection, “The Woman Next Door,” epitomize the values of the generation who came of age during World War II. Although Mukoda’s stories were written 20 years after Kono’s, somehow Mukoda’s women feel more remote. Nevertheless, Mukoda skillfully captures these Tokyo women who, nearing the end of the 20th century and at a time of economic prosperity in Japan, continue to struggle to improve their standing. They offer a testament to their quest for even the simplest of freedoms despite the societal oppression they faced.

Written at the turn of the last century, Haruki Murakami’s story “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” takes place in Kabukicho, a red light district in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood, and is about how a frog saves the city from a massive earthquake. In January 1995, the Great Hanshin Earthquake occurred in western Japan, and, in March of the same year, the Tokyo subway sarin attack was perpetrated by members of the cult movement Aum Shinrikyo. Murakami’s story was inspired by these events and is included in “After the Quake,” a collection published five years later that addresses the sources of various problems facing Japan. These stories include connections to his subsequent best-selling novel, “1Q84” but, seen on their own, they demonstrate Murakami’s brilliance as a short story writer, and “After the Quake” is one of my favorite collections.

I’d recommend the anthology “The Book of Tokyo,” which brings together stories by 10 contemporary Japanese writers. Tokyo is a vast city. Even those born and raised here, like me, do not know the breadth of it. It contains uninhabited forests and densely built-up zones and areas with vestiges of the early 20th-century city. Reading these 10 stories set in modern-day Tokyo makes me feel as though I’ve returned home after a long journey. This is us, in Tokyo now. Yet, we’re still traveling. And as long as we keep traveling, the world’s writers will continue writing stories.

Hiromi Kawakami is one of Japan’s most popular contemporary novelists. She has won numerous literary prizes in Japan and the United States, including the Akutagawa Prize for “A Snake Stepped On” and the Tanizaki Prize for “Strange Weather in Tokyo.”

Allison Markin Powell is a literary translator based in New York City who has translated Osamu Dazai and Kaoru Takamura, and whose translation of Kawakami’s “The Ten Loves of Nishino” won the 2020 PEN America Translation Prize.