THE LITERARY sensation that swept Japan this summer came from a most unlikely source: a young woman fresh out of college who likes to write poetry. Machi Tawara's Salada Kinembi ("Salad Memorial Day"), a collection of waka (a short poem slightly longer than the haiku with a syllabic device of 5-7-5-7-7) has leap-frogged up the best-seller list to the very top, selling more than 1.3 million copies in hardcover. On a list dominated by books on how to make money or how to prepare for the coming economic crisis, her book is an oddity, as refreshing, perhaps, as the salad she made that her friend so appreciated on that memorable day.

"Wishing to be a touch in love/ an autumn eve/ parsley caressed with yellow/ {on a} veranda," is a typical line. The verse is peppered with katakana, the phonetic symbols used for foreign words (such as veranda, salad, parsley), a departure from the classic waka, which uses combinations of Chinese ideograms that evoke more traditional images.

Poetry collections usually have printings of less than 5,000 copies. "What made this book such a seller was that it became a hit with high-school girls, then with college students and office workers; then the newspapers and magazines made her into such a phenomenon," said Takaaki Fujino, a manager at Sanseido bookstore in Tokyo. There is a postcard inserted in each copy of the book asking readers for their opinions and for contributions of their own poems, some of which, the publisher promises, will be selected and compiled in book form. According to Machi Tawara's editor, nearly 40 percent of the readers have replied and many have included their own waka.

Serious vs. Popular Fiction

THREE YEARS AGO, Umi ("The Sea"), one of the prestigious literary journals that had introduced new works of fiction, folded. Its loss is still felt by writers and publishers aware of the dwindling circulation figures of the surviving literary journals. "Jun-bungaku {"pure literature"} is going through difficult times," said Katsuhiko Sakiyama recently. Sakiyama is an executive editor of Kodansha International, the Tokyo publishing firm which, with Alfred A. Knopf, has been responsible for introducing the bulk of Japanese literary fiction to the United States.

"In contrast, look at the sales figures of the manga {cartoon and illustrated books and magazines} or books on economics and business," he pointed out. The Sanseido bookstore manager agreed. "Even such a big name as Ryotaro Shiba {the author of Clouds Above a Hill and other works} does not sell as much compared to a few years ago," Fujino said.

Among younger writers, Sakiyama was enthusiastic about two award-winning novelists, Kenji Nakagami and Haruki Murakami. Nakagami was the first of the post-war generation of writers (he was born in 1946) to win the prestigious Akutagawa Literary Prize for first novels. Misaki ("Headland"), which won the prize, and Karekinada ("Shore of Dead Trees") are deeply rooted in his native Kishu, where he worked as a common laborer. Both books have been hailed by critics for their energetic prose and vivid depictions of life among the provincial underclass, where family relations are strangely complicated.

Haruki Murakami's world, in contrast to Nakagami's, is altogether cosmopolitan, with some of the vitality of today's Tokyo, where ideas and images from many countries and cultures criss-cross and shift as rapidly as a kaleidoscope. Almost every book Murakami writes becomes a best seller, yet he is, if not firmly, in the camp of literary fiction. An admirer of Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler, he has introduced to Japan many other contemporary English and American writers through his translations. Where the world of Nakagami is foreboding and dark, Murakami's features a landscape filled with flickering images of Hollywood movies and Tokyo city life where jazz and rock music fill the air. Especially since The End of the World and Hard-Boiled Wonderland, a fantasy novel published two years ago which won the Tanizaki Prize, he has had a cult following among those under 30, both male and female.

Meanwhile, the popularity of mystery writers Jiro Akagawa and Kyotaro Nishimura remain unabated. Of the top 20 fiction best sellers in 1986, eight were by Akagawa and another eight by Nishimura.

The Manga Introduction to Japanese Economics, a comic book that attempts to explain the current economic concerns and realities affecting the country, has already sold more than a million copies in hardcover. A review by Shinichi Nakazawa (in Da Capo magazine) partly explains why such a book sells in contrast to literary fiction: "Literature is in demand when people perceive themselves as complex beings. The subtle insight into their motives and feelings satisfies an inner demand to feel empathy towards others and to ease some of their anxieties. Now, when reality floats swiftly by, caught in a rapid current, literature that attempts to show such intricate feelings seems too simplistic and uninteresting."

The Past as Prologue

AS IF to remind its readers that there was a time not too long ago when literature played a more important role in daily life, the influential Bungei Shunju magazine asked more than 120 novelists, critics, poets and professors from a variety of fields to choose 10 books that have "impressed them the most." Their choices were limited to fiction and nonfiction published after World War II.

Masuji Ibuse's Black Rain, a fictionalized account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath, received the most votes. Since its publication in 1966, Ibuse's reputation has grown so much that he is, at age 89, still considered by many Japanese critics to be one of the most promising candidates for the Nobel Prize.

Nobi ("Fires on the Plain"), often described as the finest Japanese novel about the Second World War, was second on this list. Written by Shohei Ohoka (b. 1909), a translator of Stendhal's work and a noted critic, the book describes none of the glories of warfare. Instead, it is concerned with the decline of civilization; starving soldiers retreat from the Pacific front lines and find themselves reduced to choosing between cannibalism or death. Unlike Yasunari Kawabata (Japan's only Nobel laureate for literature) who wrote, "I would write of the beauty of Japan, and no more," Ohoka, who was a prisoner of war in the Philippines, does not flinch at describing the squalid side of Japanese society and using the war as an allegory of post-war Japan.

Also selected were works by authors more familiar to the West: The Temple of the Golden Pavillion by Yukio Mishima (1925-1970); The Sound of the Mountain and A Thousand Cranes by Kawabata (1899-1972); The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965); Silence by Shusaku Endo (b. 1923); A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe (b. 1935); and Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (b. 1924). Other books on the list were: Morio Kita's House of Nire (recently published by Kodansha International in two volumes); Michio Takeyama's Harp of Burma; Junnosuke Yoshiyuki's Dark Room; Yasushi Inoue's The Roof Tiles of Tenpyo (Inoue has a wider following in Europe than in the United States); and Shichiro Fukazawa's Ballad of Narayama (available here in English under the title, The Song of Oak Mountain). Fukazawa died this past August; he was 73.

Commenting on the results of the survey, Hisashi Inoue, a popular novelist and playwright said he thought that none of the above writers could match the heights reached by Soseki Natsume (1867-1916), the author of I Am A Cat, Botchan ("The Young Master"), The Three-Cornered World and other novels. Another commentator added two other prominent names to the list of unsurpassed great writers: Ogai Mori (1866-1922), the author of The Wild Geese, and Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), the author of Rashomon and Other Stories.

It was Kawabata (1899-1972) who said in a speech given in 1969 (a year after he received the Nobel Prize for Literature) that "In Japan, almost a century after the importation of Western literature, nothing has reached the heights of the Japanese type of literary achievement represented by Murasaki Shikibu {author of The Tale of Genji} of the Heian period, or of Basho {the master of haiku} of the Tokugawa period; literature is probably declining and weakening." Perhaps, in typical Japanese fashion, Kawabata was only deprecating his own work. Or perhaps he was indirectly attacking those modernist writers from Soseki Natsume to Kobo Abe who have been influenced by Western literature.

Japanese Fiction Abroad

THE BUNGEI SHUNJU list of notable books highlights the fact that almost half the books chosen are literary works of fiction, while the bulk of books published has been nonfiction. Another revelation is that fewer than a third of these books are available in English.

"The market for literary works from Japan has not improved," said Akiko Kurita, head of the Japan Foreign Rights Center in Tokyo. "We've virtually given up on literary works and are, instead, concentrating on popular fiction." For that purpose, she has approached Shusaku Endo, chairman of the Japan PEN Club, who has attempted to form a short list of popular fiction by contemporary authors.

What resulted is typical of the current Japanese literary scene. Members could not agree on who, among living authors, should be selected. So they agreed on a compromise: they came up with a list of books by authors who have died. Among those who were thus honored: Yasusuke Gomi, Edogawa Rampo (a nom de plume after Edgar Allan Poe), Renzaburo Shibata and Tatsuo Hori. Those who are interested in translating their works should write to: Japan Foreign Rights Center, Akimoto Bldg. 1-38 Kanda Jimbo-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 101, Japan.

Someone who cannot complain on the matter of availability abroad is Shusaku Endo, the Catholic novelist who is often compared to Graham Greene. His new novel, Scandal, will be available in the United States next fall. Unlike Silence and Samurai, which take place in 17th-century Japan, the setting of Scandal is modern Tokyo. A famous Catholic writer is rumored to frequent the sin-drenched habitats of Kabuki-cho, the red light district in Tokyo. Sensing a scandal, a reporter pursues the author and he in turn follows a shadowy figure who seems to assume his identity. Peter Owen, Endo's British publisher and agent, has sold the American rights to Dodd Mead recently, for a reported figure of $85,000.

Where Is Lady Murasaki?

IN AUGUST, the prestigious literary award for first novels, the Akutagawa Prize, went to Kiyoko Murata for In a Kettle, a story of a young girl's love for her grandmother and the family secret revealed through the older woman. In a significant move by a male-dominated literary establishment, two female judges have been included on the Akutagawa Prize selection committee, this after four female writers have been consecutively chosen for the award. In a comment on the prize, the newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun (circulation: 8.9 million) observed that the Japanese literary scene has increasingly become dominated by women writers. As if to prove its point, there was an announcement for another prestigious literary award this past August, the Naoki Prize, which went to Eimi Yamada for her collection of short stories, Soul Music Lovers Only and to Ichiro Shiraishi, a male writer.

In a society where roles for men and women are clearly defined, writing has certainly been an accepted profession or pastime for women since the days of Lady Murasaki. Yet the social pressures upon women, to marry and bear children, to sacrifice their careers for their husbands and children, have taken a heavy toll over the centuries.

But something is astir today. With peace and economic success and an educational level to match or surpass that of men, women have more time to observe the world around them. The enormous success achieved by the author of Salad Days may prove as fleeting as cherry blossoms, but the fact is, there are more women today burning with ambition to write than ever before. Many are still shut out from the mainstream of the business world. Their frustrations and anger, their thwarted ambitions as well as the concerns of contemporary family life, have been common themes in post-war literature.

Taeko Kono, Minako Oba, Tomie Ohara, Seiko Tanabe, Yuko Tsushima, Toyoko Yamasaki and Ayako Sono are some of the prominent contemporary writers whose influence seems to be growing. There are many others, of course, and from this widening circle of writers, with such a variety of genres, styles, and themes, there may emerge, perhaps, a lady who could knock Murasaki Shikibu off her pedestal.

Kunio Francis Tanabe, an assistant editor of Book World, recently returned from a trip to his native city, Tokyo.