Home > 20th Century, Japanese Literature, Short Stories, Yoshimura Akira > Two short stories by Akira Yoshimura

Two short stories by Akira Yoshimura

September 3, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Shojo Kakei (1959) and Ishi no Bisho (1962). French titles: La jeune fille suppliciée sur une étagère / Le sourire des pierres.

I just read two short stories by Akira Yoshimura; they are published together as both have death as a theme but I’ll review them separately.

Shojo Kakei is a stunning story. The French title means The Young Girl Tortured on a Shelf. Mieko is 16 and she just died. Her soul hovers over her corpse and relates her impressions. She’s going to be our narrator.

A partir du moment où ma respiration s’est arrêtée, j’ai soudain été enveloppée d’air pur, comme si la brume épaisse qui flottait alentour venait de se dissiper pour un temps.Je me sentais aussi fraîche que si l’on venait de me baigner dans une eau limpide et pure. From the moment I stopped breathing, I felt suddenly enveloped in pure air, as if the thick fog surrounding me had just vanished.I felt as fresh as if I had just bathed in clear and pure water.(My translation)

She sees two men coming to her parents’ poor lodgings and giving her mother an envelope full of money. Her mother has sold her corpse to the local hospital where it will be used by students or for scientific experiment. Mieko describes what happens to her corpse, the journey to the hospital and how they dispose of her body. Meanwhile Mieko unfolds her life and lets us know who she was and how she was led to that untimely death.

Honestly, it was painful to read. I needed to block out the gory images Yoshimura conjured up in my mind when Mieko relates how hospital employees cut her body or treat it with chemical products. It would have been unbearable otherwise. That meant opening my mind to harmless descriptions of the streets and the settings and shutting it in a moment when it became too gory. I wonder if a Western writer could have written such a story. It’s so chilling and it shows a totally different approach to death than in Western countries (which I knew, but still)

Yoshimura writes beautifully. In the first pages, Mieko describes death as an access to extra sensitivity. She hears, feels, smells, sees better, grasping details in her surroundings that were imperceptible to her when she was alive. It’s an interesting way of imagining death.

In the second story, Ishi no Bisho, death is also a major theme. The French title means The smile of stones. Eichi lives in Tôkyô near a cemetery. When he was a child, he befriended with Sone and they used to play among the tombstones. Then Sone vanished and they never met again until Eichi stumbles upon him at the university. Sone asks Eichi to travel with him to the Island of Sado where he has a job for the two of them. Sone steals statues in historical cemeteries and sells them to antique dealers.

Death is everywhere in this story. It’s a link between Eichi and Sone as they were together when they discovered the corpse of a woman who had hung herself in the cemetery when they were children. Sone makes a living out of death, selling these statues. Sone is also fascinated by death in an unhealthy manner: he tends to persuade his girl-friends to commit suicide with him. Death is also present in Eichi’s unnamed sister. She was married but her in-laws sent her back home after they discovered she was infertile. Eichi’s sister sews clothes for an orphanage, spending her time and energy to help children whose parents are dead. On a more symbolical level, her womb is dead too, she’ll never bear a child. It’s the death of her dreams as a mother and it kills any chance to remarry.

After reading these two short stories, I have to admit that I struggle with Japanese literature mostly because I don’t know much about the customs of this country. I should read a non-fiction book, but that’s not my forte. I’m a bit angry at the publisher, actually. I enjoy books published by Actes Sud, they always select excellent writers. I just wish they added more to the book than just the text and scarce notes from the translator. I longed to read a foreword or footnotes with explanation about the vision of death in the Japanese society. It would have helped. I’m now thinking about trying Japanese literature in English provided that the English editions are more educational. Otherwise, I have the feeling I’ll never improve my level of reading in Japanese literature.

  1. September 3, 2012 at 12:43 am

    Japanese literature is a struggle for me, too. But I wouldn’t let that hinder me from reading more. In truth, it’s actually fascinating. On another note, do you enjoy reading short stories? You might be interested to participate in The Short Story Initiative. Just in case it’s a yes, here is the link for more details: http://www.nancycudis.com/2012/09/the-short-story-initiative-launch.html


    • September 3, 2012 at 10:14 pm

      Hello Nancy,
      Thanks for visiting and commenting.
      I’m not giving up Japanese literature either. I have other books at home.
      It’s just that reading Yoshimura here shows clearly how “westernised” Haruki Murakami is. Or perhaps it’s a question of generation.

      I’m interested in short stories but I’m not good at scheduling my reading. Participating to my book club is probably the best I can do.


  2. September 3, 2012 at 11:26 am

    I have a copy of ‘Shipwrecks’ that needs to be read soon, so I’m glad you liked these stories 🙂

    I agree that there should be more background information for foreign-language books. Of my J-Lit collection, the only ones with decent information are my Penguin editions of some of Natsume Soseki’s novels (and a collection by Akutagawa) and the short story anthologies. A decent introduction (or, preferably, afterword) goes a long way…


    • September 3, 2012 at 10:24 pm

      I have On Parole on the shelf as well. I browsed through it, it looks very good. There’s a review of Shipwrecks on Max’s blog, in case you haven’t seen it. On Sarah’s blog (A Rat in the Book Pile), you’ll find a review of One Man’s Justice and Shipwrecks.

      I think publishers should addbackground information for non-Western books. We can manage with Western ones but when the culture is too far from our own, explanations are a plus.


  3. September 3, 2012 at 11:33 am

    I have almost all of my Japanese books in French translations and it’s true, they hardly ever come with introductions unless they are classics. I suppose that’s just like with any other modern novel which rarely have introductions.
    Both stories sound very interesting and I will keep the author in mind. I’m not in the mood for gory right now (not that I ever am but I just had my share with the Winterson book).


    • September 3, 2012 at 10:26 pm

      French editions rarely come with real forewords or footnotes unless they are classics.

      According to your review, this is a lot less gory than the Winterson. But still, that was enough for me.


  4. leroyhunter
    September 3, 2012 at 11:54 am

    I don’t think I’ve read anything from Japan – along with China, it’s probably my biggest reading gap. Oh well, we can’t get to everything. Max has reviewed a few so I’ll add this name to the list – at least I’ll have some guidance about where to potentially start.

    My brother lives in Australia and told me the other day he’s booked a trip to Tokyo for later in the year. I’m very envious, it’s a city I’d love to visit.


    • September 3, 2012 at 10:34 pm

      I really started reading Japanese literature after reading posts on Max’s blog and on Tony’s. (lots of references there too. — Tony’s Reading List, the liink is in my blogroll) Before that I’d only read Murakami & Kawabata, I think.


      • September 4, 2012 at 11:35 am

        Thanks Emma 🙂

        One name not mentioned here much (apart from in my comment!) is Natsume Soseki, the most famous/popular modern Japanese writer – where modern equals post-1868 😉


        • September 4, 2012 at 10:42 pm

          Thanks for mentionning Soseki, I’ll look for him.


  5. September 4, 2012 at 11:30 am

    One Man’s Justice is at mine as well as Shipwrecks. Both are fabulous. Yoshimura is an incredibly talented writer.

    To be honest, these sound great but I think I was luckier with my first Yoshimura’s. Shipwrecks and One Man’s Justice are far more universal than these sound, less rooted in cultural specificity. One Man’s Justice in particular I found really impressive, an examination of the concept of victor’s justice and challenging too in having a protagonist who is quite clearly a war criminal.

    Shipwrecks, by way of warning, is depressing in the way only a book by a truly gifted writer can be. He paints a picture of despair and desolation, and has the talent to make you feel it.

    A decent introduction would certainly have helped with these, given a little context. Shipwrecks and One Man’s Justice don’t have intros either, but they just don’t need them in the same way.

    Leroy, Yoshimura is tremendous. If you’re adding any Japanese writers to the list he should be high up there, also Junichiro Tanizaki.


    • September 4, 2012 at 10:36 pm

      Thanks Max. I think On Parole is more universal too.

      Here I found the society rather violent, selling your daughter’s corpse for money and sending back home a daughter-in-law because she can’t have children is violent in my book.

      I’ll look up Tanizaki too.


  6. leroyhunter
    September 4, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Thanks for the tips, all.
    Tony, I have visited yours but I’ll have a proper rootle in due course.


  7. September 7, 2012 at 1:36 am

    Weid I left a comment here the other day but I don’t see it. Anyway…. this isn’t for me. The girl hovering over her body nailed it, and as for gory, well, once you know the details of how a body is treated after death you don’t need to hera those details again.

    Point well taken about the publisher including info about death rituals. If you get a chance, I reommend watching Doris Dorrie’s film Cherry Blossoms.


    • September 7, 2012 at 8:33 am

      Weird, indeed. There is nothing in my spam box.
      I have a question: how do I know when I have to use “corpse” or “body” for a dead person?


      • September 7, 2012 at 10:56 am

        They’re fairly similar in meaning, but ‘corpse’ is more detached and clinical, whereas ‘body’ still has a touch of humanity to it.


        • September 9, 2012 at 6:03 pm

          Thanks, it’s clearer now.


      • September 7, 2012 at 8:58 pm

        I agree w/ Tony. You can use both but body is the more sensitive word whereas corpse is more detached and technical. In crime, you’d use corpse. If you were talking to a family member, I hope whoever was speaking would use the word body. Otherwise you’d have to get out the smelling salts.

        Of course then there’s ‘stiff.’ The really-not-sensitive word.
        “where’s the stiff, Lady?”


        • September 9, 2012 at 6:08 pm

          OK, I think I got the right French words on it now: body/corpse/stiff (corps, corps/cadavre, macchabée) In this case, it’s hard to tell which one was used in the English translation, if there is one somewhere. In French, she uses “corps” but I don’t remember reading cadavre. Sometimes she’s very clinical and sometimes not.
          I should update my entry but I’ll leave it with the mistake, it sounds like cheating on my English skills if I do. That’s bound to happen when you don’t write in your native language.


          • September 11, 2012 at 7:42 pm

            then if you want to get really delicate, you’d ude the word the deceased. At least that’s what funeral staff say.


            • September 11, 2012 at 8:02 pm

              Yeah, we have the same one in French (défunt)


        • leroyhunter
          September 11, 2012 at 11:13 am

          I have a book on the shelf, by an American journalist named Mary Roach, about “what happens to bodies after death”. It covers (apparently) natural decay, funeral practices, donations to science etc etc…all the permutations of physical oblivion. The title is “Stiff”.


          • September 11, 2012 at 4:33 pm

            Dare I say you have weird books? 🙂 Is it interesting?


            • leroyhunter
              September 12, 2012 at 4:18 pm

              You do dare!
              It looks interesting…I haven’t read it yet.


  8. September 11, 2012 at 3:19 am

    I agree that the publisher should have added a foreword. Where the customs of a particular country differ from those of the country where the book’s being published, and when it matters for the interpretation of the story, that should be explained. I think it’s fair to leave some things up to the reader, but you shouldn’t have to read a non-fiction book just to feel that you got the most out of the work. With translated work from other countries, sometimes we need a little help from the publisher.


    • September 11, 2012 at 8:38 am

      It would have been useful, yes. A foreword from the translator would have been enough, I think.

      I guess it’s a money problem: Actes Sud is an excellent publisher but they’re not a big company.
      I’m glad they got to publish Stieg Larson, that series probably brought in a lot of cash.


      • September 11, 2012 at 11:09 am

        I think it’s an area where small presses can improve. Getting someone to write a small afterword explaining some of the cultural context would do wonders for a book’s appeal. I’ve seen a couple where the translator has added a few pages, and that would seem to be an excellent solution (and probably fairly low-cost too!)


        • September 11, 2012 at 4:35 pm

          You’re right. French editions are poor regarding explanations, except for books aimed at students.


  1. March 9, 2014 at 7:54 pm

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