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If there is something to be aware of when it comes to Japanese literature, it is the importance of short stories and novellas in the literary industry. Often, if not always, authors start their literary careers by submitting shorter writing pieces to online journals and magazines; some even try their luck by sending their stories to literary competitions. Whether that be Kawabata Yasunari, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Ōe Kenzaburō, Tsushima Yūko, etc. or even contemporary authors, they go through the phase of writing smaller pieces rather than novel-length ones.

Following this line, publishing houses like Pushkin Press were keen to get those stories out to a wider audience, curious to know more about the sometimes niche stories famous Japanese authors wrote. The independent publishing house has worked with talented translators since 2017 to publish a Japanese set of six novellas, which offer very different glimpses into Japan. Let’s have a look at them!

1. Mrs Ice Sandwich by Kawakami Mieko (trans. Louise Jeal Kawai, 2020)

Japanese novellas

I first discovered Mrs Ice Sandwich by the well-known Kawakami Mieko, author of Breasts and Eggs (trans. David Boyd and Sam Bett, 2020), Heaven (trans David Boyd and Sam Bett, 2021), or more recently All The Lovers in the Night (trans. David Boyd and Sam Bett, 2022). In this novella originally published in 2013, Kawakami recounts the story of a young boy who becomes enraptured with a female employee selling sandwiches in a supermarket. He tries to understand both his attraction toward Mrs Ice Sandwich, whose traits are often criticized by his classmates and the ideals of friendship with Tutti, a young girl who develops an odd interest in gunfights in foreign movies. This beautiful story focuses on nurturing precious relationships, be it love, friendship, or family. For cinema lovers, Chihara Tetsuya brought the story to life with a movie adaptation, Ice Cream Fever (2023).

2. Slow Boat by Furukawa Hideo (trans. David Boyd, 2017)

Japanese Short Stories

Kawakami’s novella contrasted with Furukawa Hideo’s Slow Boat. First published in Japan in 2003, Furukawa retraces the life struggles of a man who wishes to escape Tokyo from his younger days at school to adulthood. His experiences sexuality and the difficulty of surviving Japan’s economy and climate. The novella’s title echoes the different sections of the story, divided into “boats,” something which I read as a navigation through life, full of endeavours and ambushes; Furukawa unveils what happens in the 1995 Sarin gas incident, in one of Tokyo’s metro stations, for instance. Although this story reads quickly, be prepared for an unpalatable protagonist whose comments sometimes read as full of sarcasm and on the borderline of sexism.

3. The Bear and The Paving Stone by Horie Toshiyuki (trans. Geraint Howells, 2018)

Japanese Short Stories

In the 2000 Akutagawa Prize winner The Bear and the Paving Stone, Horie Toshiyuki’s protagonist is a translator who travels to France in pursuit of French lexicographer Émile Littré. Littré’s autobiography is the focus of the unnamed protagonist’s translation work. During a meeting with an old friend, Yann, in Avranches, Normandy, the Japanese narrator provides readers with a different perception of the Second World War. This perspective is shaped by Yann’s Jewish heritage as a descendant of Holocaust survivors living in France.

The story is built upon many layers, not only on the complex friendship between Horie’s narrator and Yann but also on the bear figure, closely linked to a blind child Yann knows. “The Bear and The Paving Stone” sets the ground for (re)considering how the past irrevocably impacts our lives and the necessity of being aware of it—to even face it. The two other short stories accompanying this novella follow this theme: “The Sandman is coming” and “In the Old Castle.” Although these two stories felt less compelling, their translation by Geraint Howells read beautifully.

4. Record of A Night Too Brief by Kawakami Hiromi (trans. Lucy North, 2017)

Japanese Short Stories

Also a winner of the Akutagawa Prize in 1996, Record of A Night Too Brief is a deep-dive into magical realism. Three short stories constitute this book: “Record of a Night Too Brief,” “Missing,” and “A Snake Stepped On.” While the first story recounts the nocturnal travels of a young woman with a porcelain girlfriend. The second story explores the vanishing of two brothers’s bodies and the reflections of their remaining sister, who is the only one to see them still. The last story unfolds after the narrator steps on a snake and becomes forced to live with a woman who can shapeshift into a snake.

Having read other translations by Lucy North, I can affirm that she delivers another high-quality work and that these stories read really well. However, I do think that readers must be familiar with magical realism, and not be afraid of the obscure, or the “weird,” to fully appreciate that of Kawakami Hiromi here. Somehow the first story read like a retelling of The Little Prince, so fans of Saint-Exupéry’s beloved tale will enjoy this one.

5. Spring Garden by Shibasaki Tomoka (trans. Polly Barton, 2017)

Japanese Short Stories

Another winner of the Akutagawa Prize (2014), Spring Garden explores the blossoming relationship between loner and divorcee, Taro, and his neighbour, Nishi. The two tenants of the soon-to-be-demolished building develop an interest in the “sky-blue house” next door after Nishi discovers it in a photo-book entitled “Spring Garden.” This story centres around the theme of letting go of the past and welcoming the present and future. If you’re intrigued by Japanese novellas, this one is definitely worth exploring!

6. The End of the Moment We Had by Toshiki Okada (trans. Samuel Malissa, 2018)

Japanese Short Stories

The End of the Moment We Had is a winner of the Ōe Kenzaburō Prize, translated by Samuel Malissa. In this final novella, a man and a woman experience an affair and become one not only in body but also in thoughts. The stream of consciousness oscillates between their perspectives and that of the author, who renders their lives in full omniscience. The second short story, “My Place in Plural,” develops around a woman’s obsession with the mediocrity of her life. It thrusts the readers into that woman’s memories. For more information on Pushkin Press’s Japanese novellas set, visit their website. The novellas can be bought as a set as well as individually.

If you enjoyed exploring these Japanese novellas, we invite you to delve deeper into the world of Japanese literature by checking out other recommendations from Pushkin Press. Their diverse collection offers a wealth of captivating stories that continue to enrich the literary landscape. Don’t miss out on these hidden gems!

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About Elisa Taillefesse-Barbosa

Elisa Taillefesse-Barbosa is an avid reader of East-Asian translated literature. She dedicates her time to writing both fiction and nonfiction stories, reading creative works of prose and poetry, and completing her Master’s degree in Comparative literature at SOAS, University of London. She can be found online, reviewing books on her bookstagram, ravkaspellbooks.