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Japan Stories

Jayne Joso
Publication Date: 
Monday, May 24, 2021
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“...written in pellucidly clear prose and wrought like pieces of fine porcelain, unfussy in their language and measured in their telling to the point of being, well, serene.” – Nation.Cymru

Japan Stories – a spellbinding collection of short fiction set in Japan. Each centres on a particular character – a sinister museum curator, a son caring for his dementia-struck father,  a young woman who returns to haunt her killer, and a curious homeless man intent on cleaning your home with lemons! This work also includes Joso’s stories, ‘I’m not David Bowie’ and ‘Maru-chan’ an homage to Yayoi Kusama. Together, these compelling narratives become a mosaic of life in contemporary Japan, its people, its society, its thinking, its character. Illustrated by Manga artist Namiko, Japan Stories provides a window into a country we would all love to know more deeply.  


Review by Eleonora Faina, The Japan Society

Monday, January 10, 2022

Japan Stories is a collection of short fictions by Jayne Joso, some of which gracefully illustrated by Japanese Manga artist NAMIKO. All these stories revolve around the main characters’ loneliness taking many shapes and forms, often accompanied by trauma, emotional detachment, shame, and contempt towards “normal” people. Those who manage to function and connect in the society are mostly mocked, but also envied. That is because all main characters are outcasts to some degree, few of them (Oona, Chizuru, Bowie) shaped after Joso’s real acquaintances.

Far from being a light-hearted read, Japan Stories’ succinct format is quite perfect to engage with these stories effectively; the latest section of the book called ‘The Miniatures’ presents even shorter, haiku-like features. It must have been a long time coming for Joso’s latest work to come to life; despite claiming she never intended to write with a theme in mind she still birthed a peculiar cohesive piece of modern literature in one go.

Her influence as a writer and her fascination with Japan is strongly connected to Angela Carter’s work, specifically Fireworks, a selection of short stories Carter wrote whilst she was living in Tokyo. Carter’s poetic activity combined to a deep appreciation for haiku and the work of Lydia Davis highly influenced Joso’s choice of short format for this publication, exercising brevity as a form of control over her imaginary world.

Interestingly, in her past work Joso’s approach to Japanese culture has been somehow reverential by wanting to translate it to the Western public as accurately as possible. My Falling Down House - another Seren-published book taking place in Japan and winner of The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation Award- was written on those bases. This publication though, follows a different approach. This time Joso is allowing herself to be “mischievous” in telling darker and more complex stories, distancing herself from her past naturalistic work. Freer to stretch her imaginary legs and to take more room for exploration she proceeds to tell us tales of solitude within the modern Japanese society by engaging with new sharper formats and Carterian gothic surrealist elements. The emphasis is put on the characters’ internal world rather than their external realities, blurring the line between reality and fantasy and how much the tales we tell ourselves influence and shape the world surrounding us.

Love and the ideas surrounding love are recurring themes throughout the second-half of the book, yet still accompanied by a high degree of loneliness. Shoei’s story it is one of the longest and possibly the first “real” love-story we encounter. It is a misunderstanding tragedy of idealisation between him and Grace, clashing on cultural grounds and expectations towards what is the meaning of their relationship. Shoei would be happier with a ‘shallower, less unsettling’ love and regards his time with Grace as if it was from a movie, as ‘fiction’ before his real life starts. This time solitude embraces two people falling in love.

The stories of Mr Yoneyama and Mr Takahashi explore broken families from different perspectives, cleverly mirroring the solitude of modern men. The first is an unwilling stranger to his wife and children; for some unknown reason he is unable to manifest or communicate his needs despite his yearning for connection with his loved ones. Those conflictual feelings are portrayed as raw and heart-rendering to the reader. On the other hand, Mr Takahashi is highly detached from reality as he perceives himself as a good husband and father mainly because he represents the household breadwinner. Yet, he is oblivious of what his wife and kids are up to these days and not particularly interested in finding out while he engages in extramarital affairs. The turning point in Mr Takahashi introspective journey is the encounter with his new American colleague, who he starts spending more and more time with, showcasing an “oddly” close relationship with his family and unshakable marital values. The comparison highlights to both the readers and to the main character how lonely Mr Takahashi truly is in his life, the shallowness of his character and the weightlessness of his relationships and status.

Joso’s writing style is perfect to describe these themes, her sentences often repeating, mimicking the natural train of thoughts of an obsessive mind. Her ability to shapeshift into a diverse deck of characters with different communication abilities and traumas is remarkable. The language is predominantly descriptive, and some stories are quite cryptic and need several reads to come to life and solve the puzzle Joso puts in front of you. All stories present degrees of realism but from time to time they can take a magical tangent, sprinkling elements of the extraordinary in an ordinary and, at times, alienating Japanese life.

Misaki’s story perfectly encapsulates this by describing a young woman’s sense of self-sufficiency, purposely alienating others her entire life, escaping societal pressure and social conventions. Her nihilist nature despises the ‘act of being human’ and regards socialising as a farse. She embarks on an apparently random quest of building a tower – representing both a mean of isolation and connection – by herself in the neighbourhood she lives in, whilst the pandemic dictates social distancing. Surprised and amused by her neighbours’ acts of kindness alongside morbid curiosity for her strange pursuit, the story suddenly assumes supernatural tones.

Joso’s use and characterisation of physical spaces here transcends its mere structural form. Describing herself as a solitary child who put lots of effort in curating what inhabited her room and her surroundings, [1] her deliberate approach to structural descriptions in Japan Stories instantly assumes a deeper meaning. This tendency manifests in her depictions of Japanese houses, living organisms subject to transformation by taking different shapes using shoji  (sliding doors)- possibly translating as a metaphor of human behaviour. Chizuru’s story is representative of this, her house a reflection of her internal world, regulated by unbreakable rules. The central room does not match the traditional style of the entire house and is completely covered in cellophane, to protect (or to separate) what is most precious to this landlady character.

Arguably, not only the Japanese society but also Western ones are experiencing a collective generational solitude due to a widespread sense of instability (job-related, market-related, and consequentially life-related). In Japan this has been historically present and – to a point – inherited in a low birth rate society where long-working hours, sense of duty and status are the pillars of one’s self-identity. As we also seem to live in a culture nudging us to cast aside negative emotions – or avoiding their exploration and meaning as much as possible – this further pushes individuals to be not only disconnected to others, but mostly to themselves.

This solitude is familiar and transcends cultures, and here that is where the true power of this book lies. Open to interpretation, it could be read as a critique to the Japanese society, an analysis of similes in Western and Eastern social matrixes and its elements of alienation, but also as a love letter to a country where Joso spent several years of her life, honouring with every description its architecture and rituals.

This book could be easily read in one go, but I refrain you to do so. Some stories are quite heart-breaking, a few might require a re-read to be decrypted and others may event haunt your mind, demanding time to be fully digested. Overall, representing a good first approach to Joso’s work, Japan Stories allows the reader to savour her distinctive style in small, deliciously bitter bites.


[1] Interview with the Author’s Club on YouTube.

Review by Jon Gower, Nation Cymru

Monday, January 3, 2022

Last year was the 40th anniversary of Seren Books, whose roster of books has recently included some strong collections of short stories by writers such as Angela Graham and the ever-dependable Chris Meredith. Taking its place on the same section of the shelf is Jayne Joso’s ‘Japan Stories.’ Well, not quite.

This latest volume by the writer of the much-lauded novel ‘My House Falling Down’ contains short fictions rather than short stories and are therefore not so easily pigeon-holed. The author seems to encourage this idea in the words that preface the collection. Here the Russian painter Kandinsky suggests that ‘The artist must be blind to distinctions between ‘recognized’ or ’unrecognized conventions of form, deaf to the transitory teaching and demands of his particular age. He must watch only the trend of inner need, and hearken its words alone.’

The fictions here are chock full of the inner needs of characters, just as much as the artist who has brought them into being and are usually vignettes of a person’s life and its challenges. In one of my favourites, ‘Sachiko and Saeko,’ we meet the two eponymous women. Sachiko is a woman on the verge of becoming homeless, who seems to have struck lucky when she’s offered a dusty room by a kind stranger called Saeko, who lives alone other than for her two dogs. But kindness is soon replaced by inquisitiveness, with lists of questions asked and new house rules creeping in. The rent is to be paid monthly, cash, in advance and there are to be no male callers. That all sounds reasonably hunky dory but soon the new lodger finds that things are a little odd.

The two dogs, Mozart and Clementine are yapping reminders of Saeko’s travelling youth, when ‘she had tasted the sweetest clementines on a visit to Spain and had listened to Mozart in Vienna.’ She had also danced ‘a tango…somewhere; and in London, had tea at the Ritz.’ But then their owner hurls a slipper at one of the dogs, then criticizes the smells coming out of the lodger’s kitchen, before meanly suggesting she should bathe in leftover water, thus saving the expense of heating extra water.

Tensions simmer between them and threaten to come to the boil, not least because of Sachiko’s protectiveness towards the pair of Yorkshire terriers, who occasionally suffer their owner’s anger. Luckily, the tale has a redemptive ending, at least for the dogs.

Another affecting fiction tells of a similar relationship between an illustrator of children’s books who welcomes a homeless man into her home, who then settles in and keeps on doing so, establishing comforting domestic rhythms and cleaning the house with the juice of fresh lemons.


Other fictions are similarly off-kilter, such as ‘Mrs Murata’ who knits life-sized people to help re-populate a part of the main island of Honshu, which has emptied of youngsters who up-sticks to live in Tokyo. In our encounter with ‘Mr Seki’ we visit towns which use bar-codes to help identify people with dementia should they happen to get lost, while ‘Misaki’ chronicles the building of an enormous, rickety tower by a woman who is spied on by her neighbour as she does so. It’s a story that ends in an unexpectedly brutal way, not least because the reader is cajoled into imagining a different ending. While a story such as the one that revolves around ‘Shohei’ is charmingly odd right from the off, detailing, as it does a love affair between a novice monk and a woman called Grace who ‘usually wore baggy jeans and big sweaters in grey and blue. I thought she looked like the sky and the sea and the sun. And I told her so. I would never speak like that to a Japanese girl, but I always felt confident with her. She made it easy. I would say she made it easy to fall in love.’

Some of these prose pieces are just a couple of pages’ long, while some of the “Miniatures” that close the collection are mantric single lines, complemented by manga artist Namiko’s delightful drawings. Taken together, the ‘Japan Stories’ constitute a mosaic of modern Japanese life, populated by people making intricate origami or showing off to colleagues by drinking expensive sake, or believing they are David Bowie or making lovely kokeshi dolls. They are written in pellucidly clear prose and wrought like pieces of fine porcelain, unfussy in their language and measured in their telling to the point of being, well, serene.

Review by Trevor Skingle, Diverse Japan

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

A beautifully written patchwork of stories of contemporary Japan each of which focuses on and mainly revolves around one person with associated minor characters who, though obviously less important than the main character, are still intimately linked to each of the stories.

Written originally in English there is a resultant, subtle, nuance that means the syntax has an immediacy for native English readers that feels sometimes lacking in English translations from stories originally written in Japanese. A few of the stories have surreal feel to them in a similar vein to that of ‘Things Remembered and Things Forgotten’ by Kyōko Nakajima but on the whole they all read very easily, the characters and the stories eminently relatable to the contemporary world, especially so for those readers with experience of contemporary Japan and the lives of modern Japanese. And though it’s said that foreigners will never understand the Japanese these stories bring to life what seems like the universality of the shared human experience in a way that seems to both open a window on the Japanese psyche and how Japanese ‘ordinariness’, rather than the highbrow, transcends national and cultural boundaries.

For some who have a more vested interest in Japan and have the benefit of either having lived there or visited often a few of the stories can trigger associations with places and situations perhaps less well known. One story is very much like a fictional account of the artist Tsukumi Ayano’s project repopulating a tiny de-populated Nagoro village on the island of Shikoku with knitted mannequins, whilst another potentially recalls the strange tiny museum which was dedicated to ‘ukiyoe’ (woodblock prints) and was located at the southern end of Kenninji Temple in Higashiyama, Kyoto (now sadly permanently closed).

There are stories which because of their subject matter raise their prominence such as, ‘I am not David Bowie’, which examines one man’s obsession with the singer, and an homage to Yayoi Kusama, but this collection is so much more than that. With stories ranging in length from a couple to a dozen or so pages this collection is fun, thought provoking, engaging beautifully written, and equally beautifully illustrated; a book to be treasured and savoured and returned to time and time again.

Review by Alex Payne, Buzz Magazine

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

This collection’s unassuming front cover, and my personal lack of passion for the nation of the title, led me to initially regard Jayne Joso’s Japan Stories rather coolly. How wrong I was to do so. In fact, the collection of fictional vignettes, each set in modern Japan, offers a brilliant understanding of both the nation and the lives that populate it.

Joso paints her short stories in broad strokes, and that unadorned prose lets readers insatiably hurtle through them. The collection’s most striking quality, however, is the sheer variety offered. Each story is distinct in both narrator, style and content, and Joso offers a deep insight into a cast of characters that range from a monk-in-training, a shopping addict, an adulterer and an illustrator, with many more in between. Their fictional lives lurch from tragic, to brilliant, to benign, but each offers a fresh and exhilarating opportunity to steal a glimpse into the mind of another.

I’m Not David Bowie is a highlight, and the peremptory antagonist of Sachiko And Saeko possesses a truly haunting quality. Japan Stories far exceeds its purpose of translating Japanese culture, and instead details the breadth of the human condition in a charming, universal and accessible way.

Review by Steve Whitaker, Yorkshire Times

Monday, June 7, 2021

It is fortunate that a knowledge of Japanese culture is not a prerequisite of identification with the cast of Jayne Joso’s latest excursion into the hinterland of a country about which most of us, in any case, know very little beyond cliché and stereotype. To take the telling epigraph to this fine collection of short stories an interpretation further, is, as Wassily Kandinsky suggests of his own art, to approach Joso’s work without preconception and with scant regard for the kinds of literary convention that define the mainstream, whatever that comprises.

With exquisite and transformative simplicity, Joso assembles a polychromatic collage whose collective power adds up to very much more than its individual parts. That none of the individual stories are specifically inter-related does not undermine the sense of a bigger picture at play. Indeed, the pieces form a kind of doll’s house with no frontage where lit vestibules, conversations, and unfolding events are opened to the public gaze, unconnected but juxtaposed, like noises off in adjoining rooms.

And if Joso is not making myth of personal connection – she has lived in and written about Japan at length – her stylistic tics hold up a mirror to the kinds of Japanese domestic experience that find resolution in moral harmony, natural justice, and sometimes in schadenfreude. That her stories are mostly ‘complete’ lends them a fabular quality, as though explorations of local culture were subject to a preordained plan or denouement. Like the novelist David Peace – another long-term Japanese resident – Joso is ‘infected’ with a sense of inherited history and of behaviour disported according to the tenets of an astonishingly deeply-rooted cultural structure.

Joso is familiar with irony: the superb accompanying MANGA illustrations by Namiko, which infantilise and idealise the human form, are serially undermined by the inconsistencies and inadequacies of the apparently ordered human beings upon whom they are based. For the notion of ‘what lurks beneath’, the equipage of topshow everywhere rubs up against a mannered society’s strictures.

Not least the underlife of ‘Mr Takahashi’, the repugnant businessman whose first-person trumpeting of his own ‘successful’ existence becomes his unwitting mea culpa. His imperviousness to his own failings – he controls and philanders beneath an exterior of assumed domestic harmony – renders him blind, also, to the irony of his wife’s gathering strength. The unravelment of Mr Takahashi as she clears him out and buggers off is succinctly and reassuringly anticipated: ‘Now I take my life back. Goodbye.’

Jayne Joso’s stylistic peculiarities are purely tonal: Mr Takahashi’s institutionalised delusion, and ‘Kenji’’s accumulative obsession (the latter sings triumphantly of his pointless acquisitions into a concrete vacuum) might serviceably be revisited in any culture, and it is to her credit that she infers a cross-cultural metonymy of predilection. For the character of Hiromichi, a subscriber to Kandinsky’s negation of ‘the demands of his particular age’, the taking into his home of a vagrant is an unseemly risk in a proscriptive society. And initially, the seemingly rapacious interloper confirms the prejudice…until his sudden departure, which yields a characteristically simple, and affecting, corrective to the reader’s expectation:

‘There was a smell, a scent. Lemons. He had left a note. He was deeply grateful for the care and love I had shown a stranger. And lacking any other means of thanking me, had cleaned my place using fresh lemons’.

Such homiletic conclusions are both persuasive and satisfying. The symbolism of the lemon and the persimmon recur frequently in Japan Stories, as though natural fragrance was the handmaiden of hope and resolution. Elsewhere, the tendering of a plate of wholesome food is restorative in the psychodrama of ‘I’m not David Bowie’, whose protagonist’s obsessive and, again, delusional identification with the androgynous singer is reinforced in the wake of the loss of his girlfriend, then ridiculed by her cruel, insightless replacement. The ministrations of an old lady, and a procession of sympathetic neighbours, restore moral balance to a story which offers salvation, instead, in Bowie’s own promulgation of the glittering transient: ‘And we, we can be heroes! Just for one day…

If an empty museum, presided over by a sociopathic owner/curator, is a short, sharp echo of discontent in a claustrophobic box of his own device (‘Ryo’), elsewhere the surreal fabric of many of Jayne Joso’s landscapes is an extreme manifestation of acculturated suggestion. But the reader’s immersion in this strange, little known and less understood, society does not obscure the clear-sighted, sometimes tragic, moments which jolt the senses into a more general recognition of what it means to be human.

The depressive, near psychotic failure of the central figure in ‘Kaori’ to find contentment in a series of interchangeable houses is endogenous in origin, yet we remain counter-intuitively surprised by the calculated, and beautifully-realised, ending where fragrance is swallowed by the all-consuming sea. Death of a quite other order is a desired consummation in ‘Mr Seki’, whose closing sequence lingers long in the memory. Stripped to the bone by the depredations of dementia, Joso’s prose falls from eloquence to hand-wringing and the bitterness of uncontained grief, to create another kind of desperate lucidity. That most of us will recognise the son’s plight is a fitting tribute to Joso’s profoundly moving recreation of pain and consolation:

Please, just die now and give me back my life. Shunsuke sobbed into his hands. The old man was bewildered. He placed his hand gently on his son’s head, a head he did not recognise and he stroked it in the manner of those who meet with a cat that has strayed inside.

Oh, dear me, don’t cry, don’t cry, the old man said, and he patted the man so kindly, and so gently, your family will be missing you, we must get you home to them, home to bed, young man, and soon.’

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