Japanese Literary “monkey business”

On a recent trip to Hiroshima to see my wife’s cousins, we went to a department store so my wife could purchase the latest advancements in Tamagotchi technology.  To buy time while she and our nieces compared gadgets, I sauntered up a couple floors to the Maruzen bookstore housed in the same department store to see what titles they might have in English.  As a result, I stumbled upon an English journal on Japanese literature with which I was unfamilar – monkey business.

monkey business – they keep everything lowercase – appears to primarily be a Japanese journal of new Japanese writing from which English editions will occasionally be compiled.   The  subhead of Volume II of the English version is ‘new writing from japan’.  This subhead requires clarification.  It’s not always ‘new’ as in ‘recently written’.  Partly contained within are indeed recently written pieces by Japanese writers.  There are also recent works by non-Japanese writers who initally wrote in Japanese or had their work in another language recently translated to Japanese for the Japanese version of monkey business, but compiled here in the English version.  Yet beside the ‘recently’ new, there are also much older pieces of Japanese literature that monkey business has recently translated.  There are even new Japanese translations of old non-Japanese stories.  The volume I picked up contains a new graphically-realized version of Franz Kafka’s German short story “The Fasting Artist”.  (And the graphic novella requires the Western reader to shift one’s reading scan from right to left in order to maintain the authenticity of the artwork, like Viz Media and Vertical, Inc. do with the Japanese manga they publish in English.)

Volume 2 of monkey business begins with an intriguing call to various (mostly) Japanese individuals about what they wish Japan had today.  Professor of Religion, Tessu Shaku wants philosopher John Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ so our actions won’t be biased by our various social standings, whereas translator (and co-editor of monkey business along with Motoyuki Shibata) Ted Goosen wants a day without electricity because of the public culture that arises from such days.  Murakami fans (Haruki, not Ryu) will appreciate English access to a piece Murakami wrote, ‘The Great Cycle of Storytelling’, for a German book on photography.  Kanji geeks will love Fumiko Takano’s graphic realization of ‘The Futon of Tottori’, a folktale originally compiled by Lafcadio Hearn where Takano works off the meanings of various kanji to re-enact the words on the page, making characters out of the kanji.

As for me, the two pieces I most appreciated were the Keita Genji short story (translated by Jay Rubin) “Mr. English” and Naoyuki Ii’s brief overview of Genji’s salaryman oeuvre in the essay that follows the short story, “What’s Eating Soichiro Mogi?”.  (Soichiro Mogi is the Mr. English in the short story and Ii’s piece is translated by David Boyd.)  Ii’s enthusiasm for Genji’s work, which he argues has gone unappreciated, is infectious.  Genji’s salaryman fiction has resulted in over eighty film and tv adaptations such as 5 Million Yen for 5 Daughters (2007, TBS).  As Ii notes, “In the history of Japanese film, even in arguably its most productive period, the proportion of Genji’s novels and short stories that made it to the screen is nothing short of amazing” (p. 168).  As a result of the short story representing Genji’s work and Ii’s essay, I will now be on the lookout for more stories by Genji and essays by Ii.

Such is the serious impact monkey business can have on a reader.