TOKYO — An author named Banana, a sentimental vignette about a bowl of noodles and a slim volume of poems that infuses an ancient form with a dash of Americana have Japanese readers enthralled.
With 99% literacy and a mostly youthful reading public that bought 1.6 billion books last year, popular novels and short story and poetry anthologies can reach sales levels of which American publishers only dream.
And in what could be called Japan's version of the American "literary brat pack," a few youthful writers are dominating this country's best-seller lists.
A Widow's Struggles
" 'One Bowl of Soba' Has Whole Nation Buying, Crying" screamed a recent headline in a Japanese newspaper about a short story that traces the struggles of a young widow to feed her two children. It depicts the three sharing one bowl of soba, or Japanese noodles, as a New Year celebration.
For leaving Japanese readers sobbing in their soba, author Ryohei Kuri's work has prompted scant literary praise but drawn accolades from other quarters for reawakening a sense of compassion for the underdog in this affluent country.
And for exposing spiritual poverty in contemporary Japan, the story has made Kuri a rich and celebrated man.
A magazine containing his story sold out 600,000 copies almost instantly. A book of Kuri's stories, including "Soba," scored third on a June list of national best-sellers, and a movie deal is in the making.
Rising literary star Banana Yoshimoto, 25, wrote three of the top 10 works of fiction on the same list, including the novel "Tsugumi," which had been the No. 1 best-seller for several weeks, and "Kitchen," her first novel.
The self-named daughter of a Marxist literary critic won the prestigious Kaien prize in 1987 for "Kitchen," a 68-page book dashed off in three months while Yoshimoto worked as a waitress.
The young heroine of "Kitchen" finds sanctuary at night when she drags her mattress into her kitchen to be lulled to sleep by the hum of the refrigerator. Later, she wins a man's heart with a dish of fried pork and rice.
Critic Shinichiro Nakamura, who chose Yoshimoto for the Kaien prize, wrote that the author broke new ground by "totally ignoring traditional literary accomplishment and describing feelings and senses freely.
"I felt a new literature came from this defiant attitude of keeping these things on the page whether or not they fit the old rules of literature."
Another young woman who recently shook the literary establishment is Machi Tawara, a 27-year-old doe-eyed poet whose "Salad Anniversary" made publishing history by selling nearly 3 million copies--more than any other book of modern poetry.
She startled practitioners of the 1,300-year-old native art of tanka poetry by using contemporary language, including more than 150 borrowed Western words such as McDonalds and valentine. Tawara is credited with revitalizing the tanka , a five-line poem that follows a strict 5-7-5-7-7 syllable count.
"I am using short poems to write about the small emotional epiphanies we make every day that usually go unnoticed," she said. "Many people write to tell me they saw their own feelings expressed in my poetry."
Tawara's American translator, Juliet Winters Carpenter, says that although "Salad Anniversary" suggests Emily Dickinson with touches of Dorothy Parker's humor, many Japanese critics have faulted her poetry as slight. The book will be published in the United States in January by Kodansha International Ltd.
Perhaps the biggest sensation in Japanese publishing in recent years is Haruki Murakami's novel, "Norwegian Wood," whose title is taken from the Beatles song. The book, published in two volumes by Kodansha, has sold more than 4 million copies since its release in 1987, and spent 21 months on best-seller lists.
"Norwegian Wood" is a meandering tale of love and rootlessness among Japanese youth in the 1960s and '70s, and features a protagonist in his 20s who hangs out in coffee shops and jazz bars, reads "The Great Gatsby" and listens to Bob Dylan.
"It's a kind of love story that Japanese have not been party to in the past in their popular literature," says Kodansha senior editor Elmer Luke. "The characters flit in and out of meaningless relationships, but in the midst of all the wandering there is the will for affection."
An earlier Murakami book, "Wild Sheep Chase," will be published soon in the United States by Kodansha.
Many popular authors pump out 10 or more books a year to feed the appetite of a voracious reading public, and to keep the momentum going in what publisher Minato Asakawa calls the jitenshya sogyo, literally the "bicycle operation."
"Japanese authors believe that when you stop peddling your bicycle will fall down. So to keep your life and career at the same pace you never stop peddling," said Asakawa, editorial director at Kodansha.
But Asakawa noted Japan's literary "brat pack" can afford to pause on the literary treadmill because their works are selling in larger numbers than ever before.