Japanese literature is one of my favourite genres to read, so much so that I have been engaging with it (including the in-depth study of) for the better part of a decade. It is what I tend to gravitate towards the most, especially since it has taught me an incalculable wealth of information on how to critically analyse various literatures, the stories that they tell about the psychology of people including cultures, histories, and social and economic upheavals, and how to write magnificently crafted narratives in general. There has not been a single subgenre of Japanese literature that has not left me feeling more enlightened and passionate about reading and writing.
Since I receive a lot of questions from people about Japanese literature and how best to begin reading from it, I thought it would be neat to share recommendations that are perfect for an array of readers, whether the preference is for mysteries to contemporaries and even magical realism and fantasy. All of these books are translated fiction that is authored by women, who are some of my favourite writers from the modern age.
If you find a novel that catches your fancy, click on the titles to visit their respective GoodReads pages. Any pertinent reviews shall also be linked after the snippet, where available, just in case if one desires more in-depth information. Please note that all books shared are adult fiction titles, even though a few of them have kids or teenagers as protagonists.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa: This fiction literature book is perfect for readers that are searching for wholesome narratives about families, including single motherhood and discovering a familial bond in kindred spirits rather than blood relatives. It also has excellent representation of a degenerative illness. The novel itself is short and has a straightforward yet evocative prose to it that captivates from the first page.
Revenge by Yōko Ogawa: An anthology of short stories that are loosely interconnected, Revenge is for readers who appreciate Gothic ambiance amid the macabre with a terse yet grimly seductive writing style. The details of each story is what helps to create an all-encompassing and deeply contemplative collection of tales that explore the darker parts of loneliness, grief, jealousy, and desire. For a more in-depth psychological exploration of indulging in grief and loneliness, please check out her other book, Hotel Iris.
Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe: A fairly large and chunky novel that is part-magical realism and part-fantasy about a young boy who has many struggles at home. Feeling overwhelmed, he ends up embarking on a journey into a magical realm with the hopes of being able to resolve the things that plague him. This is an excellently crafted and superbly imaginative examination of a troubled childhood with themes of abandonment, abuse, and mental health illnesses, to name a few. It can be a difficult book to read at times, but it tells such a powerful and awe-inspiring story that I cannot recommend it enough. Miyabe is also known for writing grossly invigorating mystery thrillers that critique the toxicity of dysfunctional relationships, such as Shadow Family and The Devils’ Whisper. Other fantasy works she has written include The Book of Heroes and its companion novel The Gate of Sorrows, both of which can be read by young adult readers.
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami: Kawakami’s brilliant novel is one of the truest creations of feminist fiction that I have read coming out of Japan. The novel explores contemporary womanhood via the intimate journeys of three women as they face their oppressive mores and uncertainties while trying to navigate a future to call their own. Kawakami’s stunning use of multiple prose styles, sardonic humour, and intensely mesmerizing emotional depth makes Breasts and Eggs one of the finest pieces of contemporary literary fiction. For a smaller taste of her work, I recommend Ms Ice Sandwich, which is a novella about the woes of unrequited first loves of adolescence.
Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami: This is one of my favourite Japanese novels of all-time. A fiction contemporary (also known as The Briefcase) that is told with a seemingly simple and quiet prose, it follows a woman in her thirties who reconnects with an old high school teacher happenstance. The bulk of the story is a marvellously intricate and multi-layered examination of what it means to get older. From the eyes of the thirty-year-old woman, there is the fear of growing old and dying alone, whereas the lens of the elder gentleman shows us the fear of leaving nothing behind, no legacy for remembrance. The dualities intertwine in bittersweetly fascinating ways as the story progresses. When coupled with the author’s careful yet unfiltered prose, the psychologically thought-provoking aesthetic can leave one breathless. For a book that uses her embracing writing style to discover the sensuous, comedy of human desire, I recommend The Ten Loves of Nishino. [Review]
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto: One of the most famous translated novels to come out of Japan, Kitchen is a short fiction story about a woman who must learn to process the grief of losing her grandmother so she can move forward and live for herself. While most Japanese literature novels are about the debilitating constricts that grief can have on a person, Yoshimoto’s small tale is the opposite. It beautifully portrays the motivational power that can stem from losing loved ones while building precious bonds with others. The novel also has positive Trans representation, which was a bit uncommon in the 1980s, when the story was first published. This is a superb feel-good story. For a more serious and magical realism take on grief and the uncertainty that follows, the author’s novel Moshi Moshi would be a great title to visit.
Out by Natsuo Kirino: A feminist noir about working women who go to the extremes to help a victim of domestic abuse. Kirino’s sharp and biting prose with critical portrayal of how co-dependent and toxic female relationships can be, particularly where male dominance is concerned, is absolutely jaw-dropping. Unveiling the darker parts of female relationships as well as the unbalanced gender roles of Japanese society and the impact it has on the female psyche is essential reading for anyone interested in diving into Japanese literature. Where Out focuses on older women in their twenties to early forties, Grotesque offers the same sort of provocatively piercing insight into teenage relationships with keen focus on nurture versus nature.
Confessions by Kanae Minato: Psychological thrillers that penetrate so deeply beneath the skin as to send chills through the whole body many hours after reading are my ultimate indulgence and they do not get any better or terrifying as Minato’s Confessions. A tale that shows us the inherent lack of limitations that a loving mother has when it comes to avenging the death of her daughter, while being a fierce scrutiny on Japan’s bullying atmosphere. The story is nonlinear and strips away layer after layer of the elements that influence a child’s chances of being a bully or being bullied. Another of Minato’s works takes the same principles of revenge and applies them to adult relationships in Penance. [Review]
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (Translated by Royall Tyler): Credited with being the first full-length novel to have ever been written, anyone with an interest in Japanese literature should most definitely read this engrossing original, that from which most modern literature as we know it today stems. Royall Tyler’s translation is positively stunning and captures the lyrical style of the classic text while still making it accessible for present-day readers. The epic is about insecurities and validation through interpersonal relationships as much as it is about seduction and politics. An extraordinarily timeless piece of writing that can be overwhelming by its size yet shall prove to be a valuable resource for all other Japanese literature to various degrees.
All the novels stated herein are wonderful places to begin one’s Japanese literature journey. As I mentioned earlier, it is my favourite genre. With a personal library of over 600 English-translated and native Japanese titles, I have plenty of recommendations to go around for various subgenres. If there is a specific category that you are interested in, please let me know in the comments and I shall pass on more specialised reading suggestions.