Upcoming Japanese fiction in English translation #TheHighlights

Back in June, I wrote a post picking out some of the biggest upcoming books from / about Japan. The reason? Now, more than ever, it seems like Japan-related fiction and ‘lifestyle’ books are dominating in bookstores – with Foyles even creating a temporary Japan section in its main foyer, as well as recent months seeing their Top 10 bestsellers section full of as many as three or four Japanese authors at any one time.

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This time, I want to keep my focus a little tighter and stick just to fiction – primarily as it seems like – for the time being at least – the lifestyle books have quietened down a little (following the release of a rather disappointing Wabi Sabi book, and the well-presented but perhaps a little too luxe ‘How To Live Japanese’). Plus, with the behemoth-sized swell created when a new Murakami novel hits now out of the way, it’s interesting to note that a wide spread of Japanese novels – both old and new – are ready and waiting in the wings.

But first, a quick look at how some of the books from my last post seemed to end up faring once they hit shelves…

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories – This beautiful compendium was a mainstay in Foyles and Waterstones over the summer, but despite that – and the incredibly cheap Kindle price – seemed to struggle to shift copies. Perhaps the selection of material was too eclectic – or perhaps the way it was sorted (thematically, instead of chronologically) even more so. A paperback edition is coming, so it may achieve a new lease of life – but my suspicions is that this will become more of a resource for students of Japanese literature than anything else. The material was of excellent quality – but seemed to suffer a little from the curse of ‘curator’s favourites’.

Alex Kerr’s Another Kyoto seems to be another that struggled – although this time more through lack of placement. It was only in the very biggest branches of Waterstones that I saw this displayed – and even then, not prominently. While it remained enjoyable through Kerr’s classic style, it holds no candle to his classic Lost Japan, and again – feels like its destined more as an academic resource.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata proved to be a masterclass in marketing – its lurid yellow & pink cover still occupying the Foyles Top 10 to date. The overt ‘women’s literature’ spin the publisher seems to have taken with it (including equally eye-catching adverts on the London tube) has worked wonders, and the novel has become one of the most populist, bestselling works by a Japanese author since Hiromi Kawakami (not including Murakami of course).

Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared From The World was another interesting release – highly populist in tone, yet also feeling like a far more literary work than last year’s incredibly successful The Travelling Cat Chronicles. The fad for translations of Japanese cat novels seems to show no sign of dying down, so it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if we see another this time next year…

And now for the up-coming releases…

Dandelions – Yasunari Kawabata (4th April 2019)

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It’s been a while since we got an edition of Kawabata from Penguin, but at 128 pages, this slim tome (his final novel) will fit in nicely with their previous Modern Classics releases of his work. For many, Snow Country remains *the* entry point into classic Japanese literature, so this will be a welcome addition to the line-up.

The Frolic of the Beasts – Yukio Mishima (4th April 2019)

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Walk into most decent bookshops and right above Murakami, you’ll see a hefty wedge of bright-red spines: the Vintage Classics editions of Mishima. But recently, Penguin Modern Classics have been getting in on the Mishima game too, following up last year’s reprint of Confessions of a Mask with this first-time English translation of his 1961 work.

Prefecture D – Hideo Yokoyama (21st March 2019)

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The general sense is that Seventeen (aka Climber’s High) was a disappointing follow-up to the remarkable success of Six Four. From the mystifying name-change of the novel (presumably to make its title more similar to Six Four) to the different translator, Seventeen is currently languishing with 25 Amazon reviews to Six Four’s 154. Even a recent paperback release seems to have limited impact. So in that sense, Prefecture D marks new territory – being a collection of short stories, and having a non-number title. Hopefully this English translation will return Yokoyama to the levels of mainstream crossover appeal that made Six Four such an exciting new entry to the world of Japanese crime/thriller literature.

The Little House – Kyoko Nakajima (31st January 2019)

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A winner of Japan’s prestigious Naoki Prize, this is the latest effort from translator Ginny Tapley Takemori – currently riding high on the success of her translation of Convenience Store Woman. It’s quite a change in setting here – early Showa era instead of contemporary Japan, but considering Takemori’s recent translation of Akiyuki Nosaka’s The Cake Tree in the Ruins for Pushkin Press was also impressive, I have high hopes for this one.

Newcomer – Keigo Higashino (20th November 2018)

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Little Brown are clearly counting on a real return to the big time for Keigo Higashino with this one – the second of a series which began with Malice (their translation was published all the way back in 2014). Journey Under a Midnight Sun and Midsummer’s Equation met with mixed success, despite the former arguably being the writer’s masterwork, so it will be interesting to see how Newcomer – complete with a new style of cover-art design for the author – will fare.

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa (8th August 2019)

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You’ll have to wait all the way until next August for this one – quite some time, especially considering it’s been over 8 years now since Vintage’s last release of Ogawa’s work (Revenge). They’re sticking with the same cover design though, despite – at 352 pages – this being by far the longest of the author’s works they’ve brought over here to date.

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Erin Niimi Longhurst – Japonisme [Book Review]

I’ve been reading a lot of the current Japan-related hardback lifestyle books on offer recently, and I think I may have just found my new favourite – and best of the bunch – in Erin Niimi Longhurst’s Japonisme.

While so many of these lifestyle books fill their pages with lengthy anecdotal or pseudo-science ‘evidence’ supposedly backing up why what they’re preaching is so convincing, Japonisme relies far more on relatable, personal stories. If an author is telling us about how great a certain lifestyle is, I kind of want to know that they can ‘walk the walk’ so to speak – and thankfully, as a half British, half Japanese lifestyle blogger and social media consultant, Longhurst is in a better position than most to write with the eloquence, first-hand ‘lived’ experience and cultural sensitivity needed for a book like this.

With many of the ‘hot topic’ Japan-trends like Ikigai, wabi-sabi and forest bathing recently being treated to books in their own right, at nearly 300 pages and only £9.99, Japonisme feels like a wonderfully affordable way to get to grips with everything in one bite-sized dose. While all the sections are enjoyable – with the parts on calligraphy and flower arranging feeling particularly enlightening – I think what stuck with me most were the author’s reflections on how themes like Ikigai and habit-forming came into play in relation to her own life. As touched on above, while step-by-step how-to-guides have a place in this sector of publishing, I’ve always found it far more convincing when a writer can simply ‘show’ instead of ‘tell’ how that attitude and set of life values breathes its essence into how they conduct themselves in their day to day lives.

If there were any criticisms that I had, it’s that at times, it almost feels like the book is trying to do *too* much. Particularly in the section on food and cooking (tabemono) – full as it is with delicious sounding recipes and ingredient lists – I almost felt like this, and many of the other sections, could be broken out into an entire book in their own right. That said, the food section does contain one of the clearest, most refreshingly un-judgemental summaries I’ve found on correct sushi-eating etiquette I’ve seen, so points gained on that front.

Japonisme feels in many ways like the kind of book every blogger should have the ambition to produce at some points in their life and career – a kind of modus operandi and mission statement of who they are and what they care about. Reading as it does like an extended series of blog posts, and accompanied by some immaculate photography, illustration and design work (as well as a wonderfully tactile hardback cover), Japonisme has shot right to the top of my list in terms of accessible, enlightening books I’d recommend to the lay reader looking to dip their toes into the fascinating world of Japanese culture for the first time.

Dr Qing Li – Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing [Book Review]

Reading this lovingly designed hard-back tome from Penguin’s lifestyle imprint, I was reminded of something many people commented on when referring to the Marie Kondo decluttering phenomenon. Namely, that it wasn’t just enacting the principles laid out in her books that brought them mental satisfaction, but that the act of reading her books themselves – carefully, logically explaining how to follow her method – that gave them the strongest sense of gentle, blissful mindfulness.

Content wise, I remain relatively half-hearted on what this book has to say about Shinrin-Yoku. I am in no doubt of the benefits of spending time amidst nature, drinking in the natural beauty of our surroundings – but the book’s method of slinging what feels like a hundred skin-deep scientific studies at us to convince us feels a bit like preaching to the converted. Surprise surprise – all the evidence presented here supports the conclusion that, yes, forest bathing is a very good thing indeed!

While the modus-operandi feels a lot more genuine and well-meaning than many of the ‘smart-thinking’ style lifestyle books out there right now, the results can still feel a little repetitive at times. That said, whereas books like the little blue-covered Ikigai one that *everyone* seems to be reading right now felt like a prime example of ‘A few zippy case studies and vaguely related anecdotes to get CEOs fired up about this hip new trend’, at least this one seems to be coming from a place of good-intentions and care for people’s well-being.

For me, consuming this book was less about the actual information contained within it, and more about the *experience* itself. I’ve been watching a lot of ASMR videos on YouTube recently – a phenomenon where whispered voices, crinkling, rippling noises and so on set off a kind of almost sensuous tingle down your nervous system – and reading this book offered a similar kind of feel in many ways. Making your way through the pages and the lavish photography, you’re forced to slow down and contemplate, wallow in a sensory, meditative experience.

My favourite part comes roughly halfway through, where the book spends ample time describing the particular scents of various Japanese trees. To someone who enjoys wine and whiskey, this section resonated deeply with me – touching my taste for sensory experiences conveyed in literary form, and I enjoyed the opportunity to drink in the descriptions of aromatherapy, essential oils and their links to forest bathing. For the record, this book smells absolutely amazing too.

So, ultimately – I ended up coming away from this book seeing it very much as a coffee table piece. Something to be dipped into and returned to, for the photographic content more than anything. It is very much ‘reading-as-experience’ as opposed to reading for meaning. It’s a strong effort on many fronts – and certainly better than some of the similar ‘lifestyle’ tomes on the market right now. Perhaps most of all though, in the hectic world of city living, even the one day of relaxed, contemplative study it gave me felt like something to be pretty thankful for.

Kenzaburo Oe – Death by Water [Book Review]

Death By Water is a strange book at times. Really strange. Half of it is written as a kind of quasi-autobiographical look at the author’s own life by way of his authorial stand-character Kogito Choko. These sections are dense, packed with references to works like The Golden Bough and – of course – TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. The rest takes the form of a series of lengthy letters from the author’s sister, who waxes lyrical about a contemporary theatre troupe that become involved with our author’s life and work. These sections are by far the superior – lively, and injected with a chatty conversational freshness quite at odds with the slow plod of the book’s other parts.

It’s this disjointed nature of stories within stories, always at a remove from one-another, that ends up becoming the novel’s defining feature – but also its greatest weakness. You’ll be breezing through the fantastic description of the innovative theatre production based around Soseki’s Kokoro (involving the ‘tossing’ of soft-animal ‘dead dogs’ as a form of wacky audience participation) and then suddenly it’s back to tales of the author’s past. Maybe this is the sense of ‘drowning’ the novel seems so obsessed with?

Let’s talk about the theatre troupe again. They’re summed up in the central character of Unaiko – an attractive young woman filled with the zest of life (accordingly ending every other sentence with an exclamation mark!). She pretty much carries the improv-style theatre productions single-handed, and we’re told she has a legion of high-school fans. Indeed, everyone from the author to his sister seems to be absolutely obsessed with her and just how ‘amazing’ she apparently is. Everything about her, we’re told, is perfect – from her perfect posture and perfect slim figure, right down to her perfect breasts and perfect pubic hair. If you thought Murakami’s love for zany manic-pixie-dream-girl types was full-on, then try this one on for size.

In many ways, Death By Water feels like a failed effort – so obsessed with its own status as a ‘late work’ that you can’t help but look at it with a slightly sneering eye. Merely ‘longlisted’ for the Man Booker prize – not progressing to the shortlist or winning. Going by Amazon and Goodreads rating/review counts, barely anyone read it either (and half of those that did hated it – dropping it halfway through due to lack of empathy with the plot and characters, or through sheer boredom). Not to say that a great literary work is any less valuable if it doesn’t win prizes, but you get the sense this novel – in all its grand literary style – really felt destined for so much more.

You have to wonder what plans the publisher had for the novel. Did they hope for a real prize-winner and mega sales? Or did they always expect a quiet, muted response from a select group of existing Japanese-literature devotees? Either way, the novel seems to have slipped away, destined to while away the rest of its days on library bookshelves, waiting for the right kind of unsuspecting reader to stumble across it and – much like myself – wonder just what they let themselves in for…

Zadie Smith – Swing Time [Book Review]

I like how deliberately vague the back-cover blurb is for Swing Time. It’s somehow fitting for a novel in which we never learn the name of its first-person narrator. Fitting too for a novel that, while very much having a strong central voice, also revolves abound two highly dominating personalities that come to characterise the idea of female friendship and its various trajectories for said narrator. Maybe it’s a blessing the blurb is so minimal in its details – because to spoil the vast scope this exceptional novel takes in would be to spoil so much of its power.

At its heart, the book is the story of two childhood friends whose stories revolve around a mutual love of dance. One – Tracey – is the eternal ‘it’ girl, talented and popular, yet doomed – in the long run – to a crippling life of poverty, single motherhood and mental health problems. The other – our nameless narrator – has the smarts, transitioning from university to a job at Camden’s MTV studios and from there, working as personal assistant to the pop superstar Aimee (an amusing amalgam of Kylie Minogue, Madonna and Angelina Jolie). The novel – told out of chronological order – pulls us from a detailed description of London childhood to a globetrotting life of glamour and power in the entertainment industry in a flash, carrying us along for the ride at a pace that is remarkable in its intensity. Suffice to say, I polished the book off in a couple of days – so tightly does Swing Time hold you in the midst of its breathless rhythms – you increasingly hoping for the narrator’s happiness, whilst – as the years pass – her life seems increasingly hollow.

As someone who both grew up in London and worked in the music industry, Swing Time held an immense degree of nostalgic relate-ability to me. Tales of rough-and-tumble childhoods in the borderland of London suburbia, brightened by fast-food and cheap movies. By telling the story of a child’s eye view of the world through the worldly-wise view of adulthood, the novel’s early passages drip with a nostalgia that encapsulate a Britain already fading from view – the last days of a more ‘analogue’ world, a final age of innocence before its eventual eclipse in the neverending flurry of emails and social networks.

With that in mind, as the book moves into its latter half and spends more time in its African setting, it does perhaps lose some of the youthful, electric charm of its early passages, albeit never a drop of readability. A great wash of pathos and melancholia begins to sweep over the novel, and by the time the ending roles round – with a profound sense of definitive ending – it is almost heartbreaking in its intensity. Smith captures the truths of life, both humorous and horrific in all their authentic clarity – social ills yes, but also the wonder of life’s small joys.

In many ways, with its strong female voice, zippy pacing and blend of ruminations on places and races, Swing Time reminds me a lot of Min Jin Lee’s recent Pachinko – although Smith tells her story with infinitely more skill and deftness as a writer. Swing Time is every bit a literary work, dealing with ‘big’ themes on every single one of its 400+ pages, and yet it is also every bit the consumate page-turner. A populist novel, telling a story of populist culture and media. It caters to all crowds, all audiences – subtly taking their hand and pulling them through a window in which difficult truths are presented with a plain, obvious ease that is heartening in its honesty.

In so many ways, a quintessentially British novel – and one I’ll be recommending for a long time to come.

Yuko Tsushima – Territory of Light [Book Review]

I’ve been listening to a lot of ambient Japanese music recently. If you read the likes of FACT magazine and a host of other vinyl-adoring alt-music sites, then you’d know the genre is enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, driven simultaneously by crate-digging fans and their record label partners in crime, as well as a sign-of-our-times debt to YouTube algorithms, serving the audio up to willing audiences on YouTube. If you like that, you’ll love this… Our new favourite album waits just around the corner.

Think babbling streams of water. The sound of rain in the early hours of twilight. The gentle hum of insects. Ageing synths that speak of soundscapes born halfway between Brian Eno and Steve Reich. This is music as bottled atmosphere – and it finds its partner in last year’s phenomenal Barbican exhibition on the architecture of the post-war Japanese House. You know the one – all wabi sabi, expanses of minimalist white walls and mountains of media ‘content’, collected together and consumed in the way only a true otaku can. We’re all one of them too, at heart. I bought the catalogue for the Barbican exhibition and swiftly inhaled its pages. Even they felt minimalist – as if breathing them in would suddenly bring order and rationale to my life. Dreams of idyllic Muji-furniatured apartments flashed before my eyes.

Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light is in many ways the literary equivalent of all this. The daughter of famed writer Osamu Dazai is getting something of a love-in from Penguin Books at the moment, with this volume in particular being treated to a beautifully bound special edition. It’s a sort of olive green – and for someone whose name, bedroom walls and curtains all encapsulate said colour, it resonated in a peaceful, kindred spirit sort of way, much like Midori Takada’s Through the Looking Glass reissue did for me last year.

Territory of Light tells the story of a single mother coming to terms with the difficulties of raising her daughter alone. Neither is an overly likeable character – the daughter is bratty and the mother lazy – but there’s an inherent charm in this. Real life is messy, full to bursting point with friction, so why should fiction be any different? But all around their fractured lives, beauty bursts from the seams – a very particular beauty of the every day. The play of light over water. The ceaseless sea of a urban Japanese skyline. A nostalgia for a late 70s idyll I never even knew. The front cover – distorted with an almost blinding dose of lens flare – captures it all so well.

Amazon informs me the book has over 30 reviews on there now – impressive, considering the Grandaddy of Japanese modern literature – Kawabata’s Snow Country – only has around 50. Maybe it’s the fact it’s a fresh translation, livening up the late 70s prose into something that feels remarkably current. Maybe it’s just that Tsushima is that good of a writer. Perhaps even the slim nature of the volume – never outstaying its welcome. Generally, as is so often the case with these things, it’s probably a combination of factors.

I loved this book – devouring it in a single sitting. I go in for the whole ‘aesthetic’ idea often when I describe to people what appeals to me so intensely about Japanese art (of all shapes and forms) – a cliched answer, I know, but Territory of Light just about nails it when it comes to my personal preferences. If a particular time, a particular shade of light, a certain smell of a sun-dappled Thursday afternoon could be put into words (and yet feel so much like a piece of artwork), then Tsushima’s novel manages it better than most.

Ken Mogi – The Little Book of Ikigai [Book Review]

After seeing the well-promoted ‘Ikigai: The Japanese secret to a long and happy life
Ikigai: The Japanese secret to a long and happy life’ book last year (the one with the lovely pastel blue colour, looking very similar to the highly successful Hygge book) I knew I had to read it and see what it had to offer. Sadly, I was disappointed, finding the analysis woefully skin-deep and often weirdly unfocussed and not even about ‘Ikigai’ at all.

It was almost as if the author (originally writing in Spanish) had created the project on an unrelated topic and then retroactively fit it into the publisher’s order of one Ikigai-shaped bestseller. No surprises really, when their previous work is the perpetually popular ‘A Geek In Japan’.

What I saw as a lack of quality though has certainly not dimmed the book’s popularity though – I have heard many claim it to be the highest selling non-fiction book about Japan in years, and a year on, it is still to be seen everywhere in London’s biggest bookshops.

But I remained convinced there had to be a better option out there for those interested in the Ikigai publishing phenomenon, and thankfully it comes in this volume (currently 99p on UK Kindle) from Ken Mogi. Maybe it’s the simple fact that this Ikigai book is actually written by a Japanese, but it feels like it speaks from a far more authentic place. While it is still very much an anecdotal-driven book, it seems far more centered on the actual point of Ikigai – life’s simple pleasures, purpose and meaning. Some of the examples are a little strange (the author seems to have a bizarre love of British comedy, from Father Ted to Little Britain), but most are illuminating for both newcomers and longtime aficionados of Japanese culture. The section on sumo hierarchy is particularly well detailed.

There is a relaxed, easy breeziness to the writing that speaks to the inner calm and self-love Ikigai touts as its greatest attributes. After my bad experience with the ‘other’ Ikigai book, I was all ready to write the whole craze off, so I’m glad to know that at least one of the many volumes now on the market is worth recommending to others.

Yoko Tawada – Memoirs of a Polar Bear [Book Review]

Having just finished Toko Tawada’s The Last Children of Tokyo (just released by Portobello Books) and having mixed feelings about its narrative style, I felt compelled to also check out Tawada’s other novel in English translation – Memoirs of a Polar Bear. The difference? This one, she wrote in German, as opposed to Japanese.

Fittingly then, the events very much centre around Germany in terms of setting, as we follow three generations of ‘captive’ polar bears. The first a writer, forced to flee from Soviet Russia as she pursues a writing career. The second a member in a circus show. The third – and for my money, the most interesting of the three tales – part of a zoo.

In each tale, the lines between bear and human deliberately blur – is it really a bear telling these stories, or a human in bear form? Or is it all some great big metaphor? Those that don’t appreciate areas of ambiguity will find this narrative conceit immensely perplexing, especially in the first two parts where the prose is almost always dense with meaning, politically charged and very much in service of making depth-laden observations on the human condition.

I have to confess, the third tale – with its cute, child’s-eye (and bear’s eye) view of the world that really charmed me the most. The most ‘bear-like’ of the three tales, its narrator’s slowly dawning consciousness of the environment of the zoo around him (and the keepers that tend to him) is so beautifully, elegantly drawn that I found myself powering through this section in a single sitting; such was the charm with which it is written. It even transitions from the third to first person halfway through – one of many games of ‘viewing’ the novel places with. It takes being placed in the mind of an animal to view ourselves for what we truly are – simply another kind of animal. Are we the ones looking through the cage and into the zoo? Or is the bear looking out at us and our equally perplexing behaviour?

Part of me wonders whether the book isn’t perhaps a case of slightly illusive marketing – dressing the novel up as accessible, cutesy ‘animal-story’ fiction, ready to slide in next to all those Japanese cat books. Or maybe there’s something to be said about its inherent human/animal narrative hybrid, a new twist on the kind of sheep-related stuff Murakami has been peddling as oh so quirky for years. The book was pushed heavily by the likes of Foyles around Christmas, and it’s easy to see why with its big flash of snowy white on the cover and the cutesy, rounded font they used. But maybe the message didn’t connect in the way they wanted, as so far it seems commercial success here in the UK has been so-so: the book has only seven reviews on UK Amazon at time of writing.

The more literary end of contemporary Japanese fiction is a fascinating beast. Everyone dreams of the next Murakami – a mega-seller to sweep all others aside and cross over into true bestseller status. Memoirs of a Polar Bear is far too subtle for that, too complex in its tones and shades. But given time, it reveals its delights all the same – Tawada’s skill as a writer is undoubtable, and at its best, this is a tale not easily forgotten. The outer casing might be all bear, but inside, the beating heart is 100% human, and that’s why it resonates so very deeply.

Nagisa Tatsumi – The Art of Discarding [Book Review]

Noticing the kindle version of The Art of Discarding was available for only 99p last weekend, I hastily grabbed a copy – having loved Marie Kondo’s decluttering books as well as Fumio Sasaki’s Goodbye Things. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve become a wholescale decluttering addict in recent years, and think the advice these books offers not only translates to a cleaner, clearer living space, but also a cleaner, clearer mind state.

So I was disappointed to find that The Art of Discarding feels – in-comparison to these other, better works – largely outdated and weak-willed. It’s easy to see why Marie Kondo’s books have become international bestsellers, while The Art of Discarding has only experienced limited success abroad (only 34 reviews on UK Amazon). Originally released in Japan in the early 00s, much of the advice and examples provided within now feel almost hilariously outdated – rooted in a paper-based society where documents and entertainment could not be so easily backed up online.

Many of the examples the author gives feel especially relevant to Japan and its concept of mottainai, and will feel alien to international readers. Likewise, the author is often quite wishy-washy in the approach given to adopting the principles outlined in the book; in short, it’s all very ‘Just try the things you like, if you don’t agree with it, it’s all OK’. One of the things the Marie Kondo book is keen to stress in contrast, is that decluttering needs to be a complete, wholesale transformation as ‘lifestyle’, not simply something that can be tried out for a few months and then abandoned. No surprises then that the author of The Art of Discarding admits readily that no matter how much she seems to discard, she keeps buying new products and has to repeat the process again.

Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering has become a phenomenon because a) it speaks with a universality that can be adopted by anyone, no matter what country they live in, and b) because it is firm and methodical in its approach. Genuine, practical rules that can be followed to the letter, with results that are immediately evident in their beneficially. The Art of Discarding – in contrast – feels prey to the symptom of so many sub-standard ‘lifestyle’ / self-help books in simply expressing lists of ‘what worked for the author’.

To those that have already exhausted all the other decluttering books on the market, The Art of Discarding might offer some entertainment value and reinforcement for those lapsing in their efforts – but it is far from the best book of the subject. Pick it up only if it’s going cheap.

Yoko Tawada – The Last Children of Tokyo [Book Review]

When I saw this gorgeously illustrated volume occupying a special display stand in Foyles last week, I knew I had to grab a copy. I was already familiar with Tawada’s name following Foyles’ similar push for Portobello’s earlier release ‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’, and it seems they’re capitalising on her rising star in the UK with this swift follow-up.

The Last Children of Tokyo is a slim work – only around 130 pages – but its a dense one, demanding to be read slowly to give ample room to soak into its complex, meaningfully loaded use of language. Indeed, if one to attribute a core theme to the work, language is right up there with ageing and societal issues.

Telling the story of a near-future Japan populated by the super elderly – it paints a harrowing picture where ironically, it is the elderly that are in better health than the stunted, deformed weak young. People work well into their hundreds, and the old have come to be sub-divided into ‘young elderly’, ‘old elderly’ and so on. Japan has reverted to its isolationism of Edo period, and what remains is an increasingly unnerving portrait of officialdom run riot in a ‘what if’ scenario that is faintly ludicrous and implausible, yet somehow just believable enough to remain chilling.

This leads me to two of the books attributes that act as both strengths and inherent weaknesses – chiefly that the novel really requires a fairly significant knowledge of contemporary Japanese culture to ‘get’ many of the references and in-jokes it makes. Without a working knowledge of Japanese society, these will just sail right over the reader’s head – leaving them perplexed. Likewise, there are a number of overt examples of wordplay which – while well translated – were clearly designed to function primarily in the original language (Japanese). Stuff like this always feels a little clunky in translation, and serves to break the immersion a little.

There’s arguably little distinct clean-cut narrative to the novel. Rather, it seems to function more as a kind of compendium of sketch-like scenarios. Little comedic skits that centre around a core, memorable concept designed to play itself out as a kind of almost academic-like thought experiment. Literature has been doing this kind of thing since Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Kafka’s Metamorphosis – and The Last Children of Tokyo definitely feels like it deserves its spot in this long tradition – but it means that as a novel, it remains frustratingly inaccessible at times, with characters that are hard to relate to, and a backdrop that remains like a swirling ocean of paragraphs.

Unlike other Japanese authors recently translated into English – Hiromi Kawakami springs to mind – its clear Tawada isn’t so overtly aimed at the kind of ‘thinky chic-lit’ demographic – this is far more an art piece than vaguely hipster populist reading. But regardless, Portobello books are to be celebrated for playing their part in flying the flag for high quality translations of contemporary Japanese literature.