A hint to help improve comprehension and appreciation of Japanese literature

By | June 7, 2022

These days I’ve been spending a good portion of my time trying to find interesting and noteworthy Japanese fiction to translate and publish, a process I blogged about a few years ago here. But in this article I want to focus on a specific activity I discovered that really has helped me gain a better understanding and appreciation for Japanese literature.

When getting into the literature of another culture, especially if you are looking at classic works before major Westernization took place, you will likely find that the writing style, plotlines, and even characters are quite different from what you are used to. If you don’t put extra effort to try and broaden your knowledge of this other culture’s literature, you may have a hard time appreciating what makes these stories great.

One suggestion I have to help with this is to research reviews by everyday people about the story in question. For Japanese, you can use keywords like レビュー and 感想文 to easily find people’s feedback on the story, assuming it is popular enough. (If nobody has even heard of the author, then you may want to reconsider spending time on it.)

You may come across everything from single-paragraph comments on sites like Amazon to multi-page detailed analysis and commentary on personal blogs. People will often share their thoughts about what they liked about a story, the characters, the style, and other important information like historical context and similar stories. You may also get negative feedback about what people don’t like, which can be equally educational.

One thing that I particularly enjoy is finding when a person says a certain piece of text is beautiful or touched them in some way, since that is something I sometimes have a hard time feeling for myself in Japanese. While there are subjective elements to a person’s standard of beauty and what makes a good story, there is often also logic behind these things, and by reading other people’s commentary about a story you can gradually refine your own sensibility.

Of course, the act of reading and comprehending the commentary itself (assuming it is Japanese or another language you are learning) can be very educational, and eventually you can try to write your own commentary in that language to further refine your sensibility and ability to express how you feel about a story in words.

One thing to keep in mind is that you may come across academic studies (essays, graduate theses, etc.) that analyze a work thoroughly based on historical context. While these can be educational, often such things may not be as relevant to why someone actually enjoys a certain piece of literature. For example, talking about how a certain work was unique for a time period is academically relevant, but that doesn’t mean you will necessarily enjoy it because of that reason (in fact, you may feel it is outdated when read with a modern mindset). While there is nothing wrong with reading academic commentary, I would suggest focusing more on the comments of everyday readers who are native or fluent speakers of the language in question.

Ultimately, developing a rich sensibility towards literature of a certain culture is a time-consuming process that requires years and reading (or listening) through many works. So don’t expect you will become an expert overnight. But I think you’ll eventually discover you can categorize a literary work just from reading a few paragraphs, and learn to identify things that are troupes (commonplace techniques, settings, storylines, etc.). Once you can pick up what is commonplace, then it will be easier to start seeing what is truly unique and special about certain pieces of literature.

One thing that you’ll find is that the writing level of such commentary will often roughly match that of the work itself. For example, for a story that is relatively easy and read by school children you will often find feedback written in simple prose. 

Here is one example of a site that I use often to get native speakers’ feelings about a certain work. This page talks about a book of stories by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki.

https://bookmeter.com/books/444923

To finish, let’s look at one sentence of feedback from someone’s post on the above link:

  • 文章の美しさに鳥肌が立ちそうになりました (bunshou no utsukushisa ni torihada ga tachisou ni narimashita)
  • I nearly got goosebumps from the beauty of the text.

This is a fairly straightforward example of how someone feels about a story, but it gives you a fresh perspective that you might not have had when reading it yourself. Even if you didn’t get goosebumps when reading the story, you can think about what part of the story might have caused such a reaction for someone else. If you are lucky and can find feedback by a bunch of people, you can look for commonalities to help determine if the story is perceived in a similar way by a bunch of people. 

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