Contemporary Japanese Writers

Yoriko Shono*

Yoriko Shono* 笙野頼子

Yoriko Shōno (1956–)  , Japan’s leading “avant-pop” novelist, began writing fiction in college, and in 1981 her work Gokuraku (Paradise) received the Gunzō Prize for New Writers. For the next decade or so her writing remained misunderstood and unpopular until from 1991 to 1994 she won the three most coveted awards for new writers, one after another, and vaulted to fame. Each of these three prizewinning works is completely different, showcasing the author’s lithe, rich imagination. The protagonist in Shōno’s works is often a writer similar to herself, usually an unattractive single woman struggling financially and plainly distressed at being forced to live as a disadvantaged social outcast. Still, such works are very different from the traditional autobiographical Japanese “I-novel.” Drawing on what she calls “an instinct to hold fast to language,” Shōno uses her virtuoso linguistic skills to construct solid fantasies, frequently veering off into deliberate paranoia.

The slapstick fantasy short story Nihyakkaiki (The 200th Death Anniversary) is a fine work displaying Shōno’s impressive leaps of imagination. It opens with the sentence, “In my paternal family, on someone’s 200th death anniversary it is the custom for all that person’s deceased relatives and acquaintances to come back to life and attend the ceremony.” For this time-honored gala ceremony, held only for the sort of illustrious family head who appears perhaps once in three generations, the main family invests all its resources, occasionally falling to rack and ruin as a result. Senbon Sawano, the 37-year-old woman narrator, cut her ties with her parents and family two years ago, but even so, she sets out to attend the event.

Fittingly for an occurrence so grand that it summons the dead to life, the banquet is sumptuous. When the participants ceremoniously wrap themselves in red mourning clothes and drink a hot broth made with chili peppers, time and space begin to warp. Custom dictates that people entertain each other with nonsense; anyone who says something unlucky is transformed into a bird and sent flying. The narrator delivers a swift kick to a man who keeps mistaking her for his bride, and receives the blessing of the family head as a “feminist.”

The novella Taimusurippu konbināto (Time Warp Complex) is a peculiar observation diary about Tokyo and Tokyo Bay after Japan’s bubble economy burst. As in many of Shōno’s works, the word “dream” plays a crucial role. One day a female writer named Sawano, who is “upset about a dream of falling in love with a tuna,” receives a phone call from a strange man who pressures her into going to a train station called Umishibaura, used only by Toshiba factory employees going to and from work. Sawano has no money and has never done anything but stay shut up at home, writing. When the man tells her that the station is “the vestige of economic expansion,” “a real Blade Runner type of place,” and the “scene of what’s left after everything is over,” she reluctantly leaves home and boards the train. As she slowly heads that way, despite transferring to the wrong train again and again, the scenery gradually comes to resemble the petrochemical complex of the industrial town she knew when she was a little girl. Then she remembers that her own mother once worked at the Umishibaura factory for six months as an engineer. Whether this is a dream or reality, from the invitation in the opening lines she has slipped easily over the border into the world of the past.

The novel Konpira, which received the Itō Sei Prize, ends with a writer becoming a god named Konpira. Kumbhira, a Hindu crocodile god of the Ganges, was incorporated into Japanese Buddhism as Konpira and has long been worshipped as the guardian of seamen and fishermen. The novel begins on March 16, 1956, as the narrator claims to have inhabited the body of an infant who was born and died that night. Over five decades ensue before the “I” of the story, a kind of genderless soul or consciousness, realizes its true identity as Konpira, the amalgamation of indigenous faith and Buddhism. “Life to me is nothing but struggle,” writes the narrator. While struggling against sexual discrimination and hostile book reviews, the narrator travels from shrine to shrine in search of roots. In a review in the Asahi Shimbun, November 7, 2004, writer Gen’ichirō Takahashi commented that in this book, Shōno “gives contemporary literature the boot . . . To be Konpira is to believe. It is to offer ultrapersonal prayers. Prayer is not an illusion. It needs no interpretation or metaphor.”

* Nihyakkaiki (Shinchosha, 1994, 161 pages, Mishima Yukio Prize)
* Taimusurippu konbināto (Bungeishunju, 1994, 157 pages, Akutagawa Prize)
* Konpira (Shueisha, 2004, 300 pages, Ito Sei Prize)