DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
When many foreigners think of Japan, they think of the geisha, made popular by the best seller Memoirs of a Geisha, or the overworked corporate executive toiling away in Tokyo. But you won't find those stereotypes in a new collection of Japanese literature that focuses instead on the power of place, whether it's the working class marketplace of Osaka or the lasting impression of a rare snowfall in the rural islands of Japan.
The new collection, Japan: A Traveler's Literary Companion, was edited by J. Thomas Rimer and Jeffrey Angles. Mr. Angles is a professor of Japanese literature at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, and he joins us from member station WMUK. Hello there.
Professor JEFFREY ANGLES (Western Michigan University): Hello.
ELLIOTT: This is part of the series of Traveler's Literary Companions. The books attempt to take readers on a geographic tour, but using a country's literature to get there. The first story that I would like to talk about is one that's called The Swallows' Nest. Where does this story take us?
Prof. ANGLES: The Swallows' Nest takes place in a backstreet arcade located in the city of Osaka, which is Japan's third largest city. The main character of The Swallows' Nest is an elderly woman by the name of Tomi who runs a small tobacco stand, and she's quite a lonely soul. Her son has died in New Guinea during World War II, and so she's been left all alone. And so the swallows that come to perch outside of her house have a special significance for her.
ELLIOTT: I'd like for you to read for us the section about the swallows' nest from this story.
Prof. ANGLES: Less than four days after Tomi had hung out the sign of her tobacco stand, a pair of swallows begin to build a nest under the projecting eaves of her tile roof. Watching the two swallows laboring on their nest with what seemed to her to be both heroism and desperation, Tomi murmured to herself, swallows are building a nest under the roof of my shop.
She began to feel confident that good fortune in some form, however slight, would visit her life from now on. This was not just because of the saying that happiness comes to a house where swallows build their nests. In her loneliness, Tomi felt as though she were being blessed unexpectedly with children.
She knew nothing about swallows, except that they flew in from the south in the spring, laid their eggs, hatched and raise their chicks, and returned to the south in the fall.
She fantasized that her son, drafted by the army and killed in battle on New Guinea, had come back to his mother in the form of a swallow. No good came of being born a human. How much more fortunate to be reborn as a swallow and soar freely in the sky.
ELLIOTT: Lovely images.
Prof. ANGLES: Mm-hmm.
ELLIOTT: And the story opens with the head of the local merchants association coming and telling her she has to take down the swallows' nest.
Prof. ANGLES: Exactly. And she interprets this request as a sign that the other people within the area are trying to chase her out.
ELLIOTT: So this story touches on what is really a universal theme, how this older merchant is being pushed out of her store by a larger store that wants to take over her space. If we were to walk through Osaka today, would we still see these small merchants?
Prof. ANGLES: We would. Actually, in early 20th century Japan, and probably up until the 1960s, there were many, many places where one could see these shopping arcades which were filled with shops that were probably only a couple of feet wide. Nowadays chains such as 7-Eleven are moving in and taking over the business that was formerly done by these smaller shops.
ELLIOTT: Now, this is intended to be a travel book of sorts, as we said, and the selections that you have made take us to all different places in Japan. There are bustling scenes from Tokyo. There are mountainous regions where stories are set. There are rural areas.
Prof. ANGLES: Mm-hmm.
ELLIOTT: What is the role of place in Japanese literature?
Prof. ANGLES: In pre-modern Japanese literature, there was a tremendous amount of poetry, a tremendous amount of fiction written about specific places, and to a certain extent that still exists in modern Japanese literature as well. For instance, the area Nagano, where the Olympics were held several years ago, there's lots of beautiful literature that evokes the Sea of Japan, the sunsets over the Inland Sea that separates the islands of Honshu and Shikoku.
ELLIOTT: There's another selection here that I'd like you to read, and it's from a memoir that's set in Kyushu. Can you tell us about The Snow of Memory?
Prof. ANGLES: The Snow of Memory is the first part of a long memoir which is written by a contemporary poet, a gentleman by the name of Takahashi Mutsuo, which describes his life in an impoverished village in the southern island of Kyushu.
ELLIOTT: Will you read for us?
Prof. ANGLES: The situation here is that a young boy is remembering the disappearance of his mother. There was a day that he and his mother went to a photography shop, and on that day a snow happened to fall. This is quite a rare occurrence in southern Japan and the island of Kyushu, where he grew up. And just within days of that snowfall, his mother disappeared.
When I think back on these memories, it was a day I looked at the snow through the window of the rickshaw that marks the crucial turning point when my mother started to disappear into the distance, leaving me all alone. In a sense, my earliest memories are on the far side of that snow. When I think back upon them, I do so through that snowy veil.
The snow of memory, it is not always white. Just as the snow falling that day looked yellow through the celluloid window of the rickshaw, the snow of memory turns yellow and browns with age. For that reason, the photographs of the deep snows of yesteryear that we retain in our minds are also yellowed and brown.
The snow of memory does not necessarily fall in a straight line. Like the falling snow that seemed to warp in midair as I watched it through the celluloid window of the rickshaw, the snow of memory often falls in a warped path. Indeed, the images of long ago that we retain in our memories are just as warped.
ELLIOTT: It is like poetry.
Prof. ANGLES: Uh-huh.
ELLIOTT: After putting this collection together, did it change the way that you look at Japan, say, when you go to travel in that country?
Prof. ANGLES: In general, literature has profoundly affected the way that I see Japan. Oftentimes when I'm traveling through Japan I'll think, ah, this is the place where such and such happened in such and such a novel. For instance, not so terribly long ago I was traveling in Kumano, a region that's discussed in Nakagami Kenji's story The Immortal, in our book, and I immediately began to remember the ghostly images of spirits that seemed to haunt the forests.
Kumano's a region that's full of these deep, deep woods that seem to kind of stretch on forever, very quiet, seeming like they're stretching right out of the primordial past. And so in a way it did affect the way that I saw certain places, absolutely.
ELLIOTT: Jeffrey Angles is professor of Japanese literature at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, and co-editor of Japan: A Traveler's Literary Companion. Thank you for talking with us.
Prof. ANGLES: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
ELLIOTT: You can travel to npr.org/books to browse more of our literary coverage. This is NPR news.