Top 5 Japanese Books for Genre Newbies (#OwnVoices)

Welcome back to BiblioNyan, my friends. If this is your first time here, then I welcome you with open arms, a cup o’ hot cocoa, and some kitty cat kisses.

As someone who loves Japanese literature with every fibre of my being, probably more so than any other genre out there, I wanted to share with you a list of books that I think would be perfect for anyone who is interested in testing out the genre but doesn’t necessarily know where to begin with it. These five books will provide you with a general feeling of what their respective subgenres (where applicable) entail, while highlighting the overarching beauty of the Japanese prose style.

If you have read any of the books mentioned and are looking for something similar, please let me know in the comments section and I will try my best to give you more recommendations based on those interests.

5. Revenge by Yōko Ogawa

Revenge by Yōko Ogawa is a small collection of short stories that are all seamlessly interconnected to one another in subtle ways. Ms Ogawa is one of my favourite Japanese authors, and this book is the perfect example of why! Revenge would be classified in the psychological thriller and horror subgenres and would be perfect for fans who enjoy Gothic, macabre narratives. The writing style is terse and fluid, while examining deep, dark motifs surrounding the natures of death, grief, and obsession. The themes within each of the eleven stories are idiosyncratically pensive and the ostensibly disjointed tales come full circle in brilliantly haunting yet ordinary ways.  The collection is also a relatively short one, so it is ideal for those who may want to try out Ms Ogawa’s works without needing to invest much time into it.

4. Bōtchan by Natsume Sōseki

Bōtchan by Natsume Sōseki is a short modern classic, written in 1906, and is an excellent introduction into Mr Sōseki’s prose style. I will admit openly that his writing is not going to be everyone’s cup of chai, but I highly recommend that if you are interested in Japanese literature, to try out this novel. His influence in Japanese fiction is a highly profound one, and not one to be missed. The reason I chose Bōtchan as the introduction to Sōseki is due to how accessible it is. It is a story about a cheeky man from the big city who moves into a small town where he becomes a teacher. It is hilariously engaging, an astute examination on the more pretentious mannerisms of the modernising Japanese social practises, and an overall multi-faceted story about a man who gains a lesson in being humble. The writing can feel stiff, initially, but the more that you become accustomed to the teacher’s persona, the easier it becomes to delve into. It is told via the first-person perspective of the teacher. One key thing to keep in mind while reading is that Sōseki has a reason for everything he does. If some of the names seem obscure or strange, I can guarantee that it was done on purpose to make a point rather than being a sign of poor translation.

3. Naomi by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

Naomi by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki is another modern classic, originally written in 1924, and a splendid launch into the bizarre mind of Mr Tanizaki. I originally read this in college many years ago, and it was my first novel by him. Since then, I have read others, but feel that this one is the easiest to stomach in terms of writing style, overall storyline, and understanding of motifs. It takes place in the 1920s and follows a 28-year-old engineer who becomes infatuated with a much younger girl, who is a waitress. Drawn to her Eurasian features and seeming innocence, he becomes eager to steal her away from post-First World War Tōkyo and mould her into a perfect Japanese wife. Yet, after they come together, he realises that Naomi is not what he originally believed her to be and falls into the void of helpless masochism. The novel is a brilliant work of art because it focuses on these two characters to discuss an entire nation’s helpless masochism in the face of forced Western acculturalisation. It is evocative, provocative, filled with dark mirth, and a fantastic examination of obsession, torment, and a clash of beliefs. Naomi is a good choice for readers who are interested in Japanese post-war social structures, and the changes those structures underwent during the start of severe modernisation.

2. After Dark by Haruki Murakami

After Dark by Haruki Murakami is a contemporary novel, originally published in 2004, and falls under the magical realism subgenre. Haruki Murakami is my favourite modern author. I have read nearly all of his books and adore everything about his writing style. Personal biases aside, Mr Murakami is by far one of the most pivotal authors of the contemporary age of literature, especially his influences in Japanese culture and society. The vast majority of his novels are critiques on the Japanese social structure, diving into the darkest corners of the Japanese psyche to bring forth what is hidden behind proper etiquettes and mannerisms that dictate their outwardly eloquent civilisation. After Dark is a spectacular place to start with Mr Murakami’s work because it is the most accessible of his novels where magical realism is concerned. It is enchanting, mysterious, at-times seductive, and brilliantly introspective. The writing style itself is compellingly flawless and contains an intimate air of surrealism that draws you deeper into the narrative, connecting you tightly to the characters. After Dark represents Mr Murakami’s talent for writing stories that are uncanny, polyphonic, and mesmerising without being overtly complex or motif-heavy, much like his larger works (1Q84, Kafka on the Shore, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). If you are a reader who fancies the magical realism subgenre of fiction, then I recommend this to you.

1. Battle Royale by Kōshun Takami

Battle Royale by Kōshun Takami is a science-fiction novel, originally published in 1999, that falls beneath the horror and dystopian subgenres of the sci-fi. Out of all of the Japanese literature novels that I have read, Battle Royale is my ultimate favourite. A common theme that you will find in most Japanese novels is the exploration of post-Second World War governmental civilisations—some follow an extreme, while others focus on the reversion of modernisation. In this case, it follows a more fascist and totalitarian route to the very epitome of an extreme. The government has crafted a method of controlling the growing population by having the chosen middle-grade classes taken to a private island where they must kill one another by whatever means necessary. The last one alive gets a ticket back to their families and normal lives. Mr Takami’s novel is one of the most multi-dimensional narratives that I have ever read in my life.

On one hand, we get a blatant examination of what a dog-eat-dog world means in dire circumstances. On the other, we see that governments have no qualms about throwing their people to the wolves, so to speak, just to uphold and assert their authorities however they like. It is also an intellectual allegory for what happened to Japan during the Second World War, how powerless the people were when confronted with a corrupt and power-hungry administration. The reason that I feel this novel is perfect for readers who have little to no experience with Japanese literature is because it is sensationally thought-provoking, focuses on themes that span most Japanese fiction in one form or another, is tremendously easy to read (in terms of writing style and execution; the content, on the other hand, is highly graphic and very triggering), and is simply one of the best books ever written. I recommend that you read the edition pictured in my post here, as the newer ones have a weaker translation and have taken strides to tone down the graphic nature of the content, which detracts heavily from its quality and inherent motifs.

battle royale

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21 thoughts on “Top 5 Japanese Books for Genre Newbies (#OwnVoices)

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  4. Of this list I have read only Botchan but all of these sound amazing, I have read Norwegian Wood by Murakami and really enjoy his prose. Where would you rank The Handmade and the Professor? I feel like it’s a quick read and a good introduction to the Japanese style. Also I really need to read battle Royal, but I think you’d make me get my own copy :p

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  6. Have not read any of these books, but Natsume Souseki’s Kokoro is the only book on the reading list for a class I’m taking next term! Looking forward to a detailed study of the book.

  7. So far the only real Japanese literature that I have read is the both Another novels, and the Sword Art Online light novel. But those can’t really be called Japanese literature. I have totally bookmarked this post, because not only is it a great post, it is also a very helpful one😊

  8. I have Botchan. I’ve tried to read it and found it difficult to get into (not my type of chai :p ), but I plan to try again.

  9. I’d like to recommend, “The Great Passage” which also received an anime adaptation (very good, recommend both). The translated version was given away for free awhile back via Amazon’s digital book service and I have to say that’s one to check out. It’s about a man who works on creating a dictionary, which sound really boring, but just take my word for it that it isn’t.

    • I have that novel and I hope to pick it up during my Winter break. And honestly, the premise doesn’t boring to me at all. 🙂

      • I’m glad! A lot of people think it sounds really boring, I don’t think so, but that’s why I qualified it.

  10. I love Botchan, I’m so glad you included it here. In fact this entire post is awesome

  11. Man, the care and consideration that must have gone into making this is astounding. I feel like this post will help a lot of people. As someone who reads a shit ton of Japanese lit, both in English and Japanese, this list is actually quite perfect for noobs. Thanks for creating it! You’re an amazing contributor for raising awareness for and supporting this genre. Be proud.

    • Thank you, I really did put a lot of effort and consideration into this. 🙂 I’m very passionate about Japanese lit. What can I say, haha. Thank you, cous.

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