Commentary (解説): One of the Joys of Japanese Literature

By | July 15, 2019

Reading Japanese literature in its original language has a few perks. First, you have access to a huge number of works that have not been translated yet, many of which may never be translated. Also, reading untranslated text allows you to pick up nuances which would difficult––if not impossible––to translate, although skiled translators can use a variety of techniques (and a lot of creativity) to get you as close to the original text as possible.

It took me years of reading books in Japanese to realize another joy of Japanese litertaure: the commentary section. This is often labelled 解説 (kaisetsu) and is generally present near the end of the book, after the main content has ended. Not all books have these sections; I think it depends primarily on the publisher. I have also noticed that commentary is more frequent in books from a decade or two ago.

As you might expect, this section is compromised of comments about the work in question, and about the author. One key part is that the 解説 is always written by someone besides the author (at least in nearly every book I’ve read). This caught me off guard when I first starting reading Japanese books since I was surprised to see it was not the author who wrote this section.

The commentary is sometimes written by a famous author who has some connection to the author of the book in question, or at least the genre. It can also be written by an editor or literary commentator, or someone who has some other connection with the book or author.

Unsurprisingly, the commentary is often positive towards the author and the book itself. But rather than thinking in terms of bias, I like to think that the publisher only chooses a commentator who genuinely enjoys the book and respects the author.

The tone and overall writing style in the commentary section is often extremely different to those of book itself; this is only natural considering both the author and the type of content is different. In most cases I have found the Japanese level of the commentary to be quite high, with advanced vocabulary and complex sentence structure. At first I was a little frustrated by this, but over time I learned to enjoy this section more and more, and to enjoy the writing style of the commentator. I’ve discovered a pattern where the commentator will begin discussing the book at hand, and then veer off onto a different, but related subject. Eventually he or she will bring the discussion back to the book and/or author. Following these twists and turns can be challenging but also satisfying.

If you are just getting into Japanese novels, I suggest you spend the extra effort and time to read through the commentary sections you come across. That way you can actually say you read the “whole” book, and you’ll learn a lot in the process. Usually the commentary section is not very long, around 5-10 pages.

If you read through the commentary, there’s a chance you might discover a new book, author, or even genre, allowing you to take another step on your literary journey. Just the other day I learned of an interesting Japanese author in the commentary of a book.

In the English-speaking world I’ve read many books which have a preface by a different author, but I can’t think of any that mimic the commentary section of Japanese books. So this is another thing that makes Japanese literature unique. While I haven’t personally checked, I’d guess that many of the translated versions of these books omit the commentary section altogether.

Vive la commentary!

(Note: featured image picture of a bookshelf is taken from Pexels.com)

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