Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Author: Edogawa Rampo
Translator: James B. Harris
U.S. publisher: Tuttle
ISBN: 9784805311936
Released: May 2012
Original release: 1924-1950

After reading and enjoying Edogawa Rampo’s novella Strange Tale of Panorama Island I decided to seek out more of his work. What better way to start than with Rampo’s debut in English? Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, translated by James B. Harris and first published in 1956, was reissued in 2012 by Tuttle Publishing with an additional and quite useful foreword by Patricia Welch putting the collection and Rampo into historical and literary context. Despite Rampo’s prolificacy, influence, and popularity in Japan, relatively few volumes of his work are available in English although his short stories can often be found in anthologies. In addition to being Rampo’s introduction to English-reading audiences, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination is particularly interesting in that Rampo worked very closely with Harrison on its translation.

Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination collects nine of Rampo’s short stories selected to represent some of his best work. Eight of the nine stories were originally written in the 1920s. The collection opens with what is perhaps Rampo’s most well-known story “The Human Chair.” (At least, it was the story with which I was most familiar before reading the volume.) Next is “The Psychological Test” which features Rampo’s famous detective Kogorō Akechi. “The Caterpillar” is another story I was previously aware of and for a time was even banned in Japan. The collection continues with “The Cliff.” Written in 1950, it is the most recent example of Rampo’s work in the volume. Other tales of mystery include “The Twins,” “The Red Chamber,” and “Two Crippled Men” while other tales of imagination include “The Hell of Mirrors” and “The Traveler with the Pasted Rag Picture.” Though, as Welch points out in the foreword, Rampo frequently blurs the lines of genre and many of the stories have significant crossover.

Rampo is an incredibly clever and imaginative writer. Even when working with similar themes and plot elements, each story in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination exhibits Rampo’s creativity in narrative technique and structure and he throws in enough plot twists that they all feel fresh. Each story is a little peculiar and each story is vaguely disconcerting—the erotic and the grotesque and macabre are no strangers to Rampo’s work—but in the end the tales are all different from one another. The culprits of his crimes stories are often undone by their arrogance, belief in their infallibility, or on occasion their guilty consciences, but the paths to their downfalls vary. Rampo’s more fantastic tales rely on subtle and not so subtle horror, but their thrills and terrors are all distinctive.

Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination is a captivating collection of short stories and would make a fine introduction to Rampo’s work for the uninitiated. If I had to choose, I think that I personally prefer Strange Tale of Panorama Island and its outrageousness slightly more, but the selections in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination show evidence of the elements in the novella that I particularly enjoyed: the tight plotting, the light style of narration with slight touches of humor, the unexpected turns in the story, the inherent strangeness of the characters and their accounts. Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination has stood the test of time well. Nearly fifty years after it was first released, and more than a half-century since the stories were originally written, the volume remains an intriguing and engaging collection.

Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide

Author: Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt
Illustrator: Tatsuya Morino

Publisher: Tuttle
ISBN: 9784805312193
Released: August 2012
Original release: 2008

Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt’s Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide is one of the primary reasons I have become increasingly interested in yokai and Japan’s supernatural heritage. The book was first published by Kodansha International in 2008, going out of print with the unfortunate demise of its publisher. I was thrilled to learn that Tuttle would be publishing a revised edition of Yokai Attack! in 2012, completely in color with more pages, more yokai, and more illustrations by the book’s artist Tatsuya Morino. I was even more delighted when Alt arranged to have a review copy of the new edition of Yokai Attack! sent to me by Tuttle. It makes me incredibly happy that Yokai Attack!, the first book in Yoda and Alt’s Attack! series (all of which I love), is available once again. And the new edition is even better than the first.

Traditionally, books of yokai lore are organized by the types of places that different yokai are generally found (mountains, bodies of water, households, and so on.) Yokai Attack! takes a different approach to classifying yokai, arranging them and their respective chapters by personality: “Ferocious Fiends,” “Gruesome Gourmets,” Annoying Neighbors,” “The Sexy and the Slimy,” and “The Wimps.” (I think this is a great way to introduce yokai to an audience which may be unfamiliar with them.) Each yokai entry includes useful information such as what the yokai look like, their history and habits, and how to survive an attack or avoid an encounter among many other fun facts. Every yokai included in the guide is illustrated by Morino and many entries are also accompanied by artwork from more traditional sources. Yokai Attack! also includes a preface, a glossary of yokai terminology, a list of resources and recommended reading and viewing, and an index listing the yokai covered in the book in alphabetical order.

Probably my favorite thing about the new edition of Yokai Attack! is the fact that every single page is in full color. The volume simply looks great. I’m particularly pleased to be able to see all of Morino’s artwork in color this time around—it leaves much more of an impression in color than it does in greyscale. I didn’t realize it when I was reading Yokai Attack! for the first time, but Morino was actually an assistant to Shiegeru Mizuki, an influential mangaka who was particularly well known for his yokai stories. Mizuki’s influence on Morino’s artwork can bee seen in Yokai Attack!, making Morino an ideal choice for the guide’s artist. The other great thing about the revised edition of Yokai Attack! is that it includes more yokai than the original, adding entries for te-no-me (which I hadn’t read about before), tsuchi-gumo, and yuki-onna (which I was more familiar with.) This brings the total number of yokai addressed in detail in Yokai Attack! to forty-nine.

Yokai Attack! is a fantastic resource and one of the very few books available on the subject of yokai in English. Yoda and Alt’s approach is both entertaining and informative. Yokai Attack! is a collection of conventional wisdom; most Japanese would probably be familiar with the creatures and stories it contains. However, the guide is written in a style that is accessible for readers who have no previous knowledge of yokai. At the same time, the guide is still engaging for those who do. I particularly appreciate the attention that the authors give to the cultural and historical influences that yokai have had on Japan. It is utterly fascinating stuff. Having previously read Yoaki Attack! and subsequently other books about yokai, I can safely say that it is one of the best and most approachable introductions to yokai available in English. This is even more true of the revised edition of Yokai Attack!. I enjoyed reading it even more than I did the original.

Thank you to Tuttle for providing a copy of Yokai Attack! for review.

Yurei Attack!: The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide

Author: Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt
Illustrator: Shinkichi

Publisher: Tuttle
ISBN: 9784805312148
Released: July 2012

Yurei Attack!: The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide is the third installment in wife and husband team Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt’s Attack! series. I read and loved the first two books in the series, Yokai Attack! and Ninja Attack!; there was absolutely no question that I would be picking up Yurei Attack!, too. Joining them this time as the illustrator for the book is Shinkichi, an artist and designer from Tokyo. Yurei Attack! is her international debut as an illustrator. Yurei Attack! was released by Tuttle in 2012. The publisher also rescued Yokai Attack! and Ninja Attack! after the demise of Kodansha International. Tuttle’s new editions of the Attack! books have additional content and have been released in full-color. Even though I already own the original Kodansha versions, after seeing how great Tuttle’s Yurei Attack! looks, I do plan on picking up the new editions, too. I have been impressed by the Attack! series—they are both informative and fun—and so I was very excited for the release of Yurei Attack!.

The first three chapters of Yurei Attack! are about specific ghosts and their stories. “Sexy and Scary” focuses on the most well-known yurei in Japan, most of which are females, while “Furious Phantoms” explores yurei filled with anger and rage and “Sad Spectres” looks at yurei which exist because of intense despair. The fourth and longest chapter, “Haunted Places,” examines real life locations throughout Japan which are associated with yurei and other strange phenomenon. “Dangerous Games” explains some of the ways people attempt to interact with and contact the spiritual world. The last two chapters in Yurei Attack! are the shortest. “Close Encounters” relates the stories of three men famous for their dealings with yurei while “The Afterlife” gives a glimpse of hell and Lord Enma. In addition to the main text, Yurei Attack! also includes a glossary, bibliography, recommended reading (and watching), an index, and plenty of illustrations and photographs to accompany the exploration of Japan’s ghost culture and related topics of interest.

Although yurei are closely related and often associated with yokai, another group of supernatural creatures, they are distinct phenomena. Yoda and Alt do an excellent job in Yurei Attack! of explaining the difference between the two. The short version: yokai are a something while yurei are a someone. When a particular yurei or haunt has some sort of connection to yokai, the authors make a point to mention it. They also make a point to take note of historical connections. One of the things that make yurei stories so fascinating and goosebump-inducing is that they are often based on real life events and people. The cross-referencing in Yurei Attack! is handled particularly well. References to Yokai Attack! and Ninja Attack! are also made when appropriate. It’s not necessary to have read the previous Attack! books, but they do build on one another and make reading Yurei Attack! feel even more comprehensive. The three books tie in very nicely with one another.

The basic format of Yurei Attack! follows closely that of the other Attack! books. Each entry begins with a quick fact sheet before exploring the subject in more detail and is accompanied by a full page illustration. The specifics covered for each yurei, haunted place, game, or person include its claim to fame, its story, its attack, how to survive an encounter with it, and additional trivia. The tone of Yurei Attack! is very casual, making it entertaining reading in addition to being packed full of useful and fascinating information. My only real complaint about Yurei Attack! is that the Japanese terms aren’t always defined very well. There is a glossary, but it doesn’t include every term used. (It’s also placed in an awkward location.) Generally, the terms are explained within the main text, but the reader may encounter them several times before they are actually defined. But even considering this, Yurei Attack! is an excellent volume. I enjoyed it immensely and my love for the series as a whole remains strong and continues to grow.

Okinawa: The History of an Island People

Author: George H. Kerr
Publisher: Tuttle
ISBN: 9780804820875
Released: October 2000

My interest in Okinawa and the other Ryukyu Islands primarily stems from my study of traditional Okinawan martial arts, specifically karate and more recently kobudō. Okinawa: The History of an Island People, written by George H. Kerr in 1958, is the first and one of the only in-depth examinations of Okinawan history available in English. The work was actually based on Kerr’s original study Ryukyu: Kingdom and Province before 1945 which was commissioned by the Pacific Science Board, authorized by the Department of the Army, with the intention of having it translated into Japanese and distributed in Okinawa (which it was, in 1956). One reason for this commission was that much of Okinawa’s historical record and many primary sources were destroyed during World War II. In 2000, Tuttle Publishing released a revised edition of Okinawa with an afterword and additional material written by Okinawan historian Mitsugu Sakihara.

Okinawa: The History of an Island People is divided into four major parts which cover more than six centuries of Okinawan and Ryukyuan history, beginning with Okinawa’s prehistory and legendary beginnings and ending with the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. The first part, “Chuzan: Independent Kingdom in the Eastern Seas,” explores the early history of Okinawa through 1573. This time periods saw a concentration of internal conflict as three rival clans fought for control of the islands before the Sho Dynasty was established. The second part, “Isolation: Lonely Islands in a Distant Sea,” chronicles the beginning of Okinawa’s loss of independence between 1573 and 1797 as Satsuma invades the islands at the same time Okinawa owed tribute to China. Between 1797 and 1878, Okinawa was further overwhelmed as Western nations began to exert their political and military power and Japan established a claim to the islands as is described in part three, “Between Two Worlds.” Finally, in part four, “Okinawa-Ken: Frontier Province,” which covers the years between 1879 and 1945, the independent kingdom comes to an end and Okinawa is assimilated by Japan before the eventual American occupation after World War II.

In addition to Kerr’s main text and the supplemental materials and updates provided by Sakihara, Okinawa also includes an extensive bibliography, an index, maps, and illustrations. Okinawa really is one of the most comprehensive single-volume works on Okinawan and Ryukyuan history. The islands’ past and present is complex. Initially its own kingdom, both China and Japan would lay claim to the islands at various points in its history. Okinawa was extremely poor in natural resources and the people had to rely heavily on trade. This was greatly complicated by the islands political situation. Additionally, Okinawa was plagued by natural disasters. In many ways, Okinawa’ position was very unfortunate and yet its people were known for their peacefulness, friendliness, and hospitality, something that was often taken advantage of by other countries.

Okinawa: The History of and Island People was exactly what I was looking for. Martial arts are only barely mentioned in passing, but what I was really interested in was learning about their historical and cultural context which Okinawa provided. Admittedly, Okinawa is somewhat of a niche title. I found Kerr’s writing style to be very approachable and engaging, but someone who isn’t as interested in the subject as I was would probably find the book to be somewhat tedious even if it is accessible. I was a little frustrated that the revisions for this edition weren’t better incorporated into the work as a whole. Instead, Kerr’s original work was left completely intact and any corrections were simply appended to the end of the volume with minimal cross-referencing. Still, Okinawa is an excellent study of the fascinating and often curious history of the Ryukyu Islands. It is unquestionably one of the best places to start learning about Okinawa.

Everyday Life in Traditional Japan

Author: Charles J. Dunn
Publisher: Tuttle
ISBN: 9784805310052
Released: August 2008

I know very little about Japanese history beyond what I learned about World War II in high school. Well, that’s not entirely true. In regards to the “traditional” Japan of samurai epics, I’ve actually managed to pick up quite a bit from some of my favorite manga and anime (I’m particularly thinking of Blade of the Immortal and Samurai Champloo here). Perhaps not the most academic of sources, but I mange to hold my own pretty well among my history major friends—just don’t ask me for specific dates. However, I knew there was a lot that I was missing and so I turned to the LibraryThing community to ask for book recommendations about day to day life in Japan during the Edo/Tokugawa period. It didn’t take long for someone to suggest Charles J. Dunn’s Everyday Life in Traditional Japan which was pretty much exactly what I was looking for.

During the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868), the Emperor became more of a figurehead while the majority of the power lay with the Shogun who was basically a military dictator. At this point in history, Japanese society was rigidly divided into a hierarchical class system and was mostly isolated from the rest of the world. In his book, Dunn provides an overview of the era, beginning with a brief introduction to the state of the land, people, and government when Tokugawa Ieyasu took power in chapter one, “A Country in Isolation.” Over the next four chapters, Dunn examines each of the four main classes of Japanese society separately: the samurai, the farmers, the craftsmen, and the merchants. Those who lived mostly outside of the class system are dealt with in chapter six, “Courtiers, Priests, Doctors, and Intellectuals” and in chapter seven, “Actors and Outcasts.” The final chapter, “Everyday Life in Edo” explores the typical issues encountered living in the capital city from day to day that aren’t necessarily limited to one particular group.

It’s quite impressive how much information Dunn is able to pack into under 200 pages, though the treatment is somewhat uneven. At times his approach is very generalized, making broad sweeping statements while at other times he is very specific focusing closely on an individual person family or event. He also has a tendency to wander a bit from topic to topic. Some issues, like education and schooling, receive little attention. He does include suggestions for further reading, but doesn’t really include much of anything in the way of citations or bibliography. I can only assume that the information remains accurate since the book continues to be published unchanged since its first printing in 1972.

Everyday Life in Traditional Japan turned out to be a great place to start learning about Edo/Tokugawa era Japan. I can tell by his phrasing that the book was written in the sixties and his style can be a bit dry at times. But, because I was so interested in the topic and because the book was so concise, I didn’t mind that much. The book includes as small index which is unfortunately not as comprehensive as it could be. The numerous illustrations, prints, and photographs are marvelous additions although they are not always conveniently placed. Overall, Dunn provides a great overview and introduction to Edo/Tokugawa Japan with Everyday Life in Traditional Japan—I know that I’ve certainly learned quite a bit about the era that I didn’t know before.