Have you ever been interested in another country’s literature? For me, world literature has been an intriguing subject ever since I studied European classics in college. The world literature class I took gave just a small taste of what was available by ‘classical’ authors from different countries.
Growing up, I was always drawn to the Japanese culture through my hobbies of watching anime and reading manga. As an adult, my interest matured into wanting to explore the country’s literature, and I began to discover different Japanese authors whose works have been translated into English.
This list is not conclusive, and these are suggestions of modern day authors and their particular works I have enjoyed.
Haruki Murakami is perhaps the most famous modern day Japanese author on this list. Previously a jazz club manager, he began his career at the age of 29 when a baseball game inspired him to write. He rose to fame in Japan and gained international success with Norwegian Wood.
Norwegian Wood is one of my favorite novels by Murakami. This novel, set during the 1960s, explores a story of loss and sexuality in a first-person narrative. The narrator, Toru Watanabe, must decide what will bring him happiness: keeping the relationship with his dead friend’s girlfriend or keeping the relationship with the new girl, Madori. This novel touches on the bittersweet experience of being involved with an individual suffering from extreme mental illness and the deep, lasting impact it has on the survivor(s).
Another novel Murakami wrote I really loved is Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. This novel follows Tsukura Tazaki, a middle-aged man who sets out on a quest to discover from his childhood friends why they began to ostracize him as a college student. The impact of what they did to him has affected Tazaki ’s life and now, encouraged by a female love interest, he is determined to face the scarring incident and make sense of the world around him.
I just recently discovered Mahoko Yoshimoto, pen-name Banana, during a trip to my local library. She has cited Stephen King’s non-horror works as a source of inspiration. She rose to fame with the publication of her first novel, Kitchen, which I admittedly have not read yet.
Out of the two novels I have read, The Lake and Asleep, my favorite one was Asleep. In both novels, Yoshimoto explores themes such as loneliness, love and the darkness that can come with falling in love with a person.
Asleep is actually a collection of three short stories that explore love and loss. A common element between the stories is that each narrator experiences some supernatural element through their ‘sleep’ that helps to bring them to the place of peace that they need. I found each character’s narrative voice to be unique and strong and I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys short stories with a hint of mysticism.
I discovered this author one day while browsing the fiction shelves at Barnes and Noble. Her novel, titled A True Novel, is loosely based off of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.
This novel is about forbidden love and the pressures of a family in post-World War II Japanese society. Taro Azuma is a war orphan, who ends up working for a wealthy family and falls in love with their daughter, Yoko. Despite their affection for each other, Yoko will never marry Taro because of familial and societal expectations to marry well. Spurned by his lover, Taro makes his way to the United States to make his fortune.
Although this novel is nearly 900 pages long, the story held my interest throughout. I found myself waiting impatiently for my lunch breaks at work so I could continue reading. Mizumara’s use of character development, voice and narration does not disappoint!
My first experience with the novelist Natsuo Kirino was after I found her novel The Goddess Chronicle while I was living in Japan. This is by far my favorite of her novels.
Namima is the youngest sister in a family of ancient Japanese oracles. After her sister is chosen to be the next Oracle, and knowing she will live in her sister’s shadow, she rebels and marries a man who eventually strangles her after they flee their island home. Now in the realm of the dead, she serves the goddess Izanami who has been abandoned by her husband, Izanaki, after giving birth to the god of fire. From her grave, Namima contemplates how she will get revenge against her husband.
The reason I love this novel so much is that Kirino explores Japanese mythology stories within a story. The pain of spousal abuse and abandonment is explored in many cultures through the stories of gods and goddesses, and Kirino taps into this to further illustrate Namima’s own pain and anger.
Believe it or not, Kirino is mostly known for her thriller crime novels including Out! and Grotesque. These novels contain realistic murder scenes and may not be for those with weak stomachs. Either way, you can’t go wrong!
This final novelist on my list just had her first novel translated into English. Arikawa is a light novelist, and The Travelling Cat Chronicles was originally published in Japan in 2012. This novel is meant for cat and animal enthusiasts, despite the sad tone of the novel.
Nana is a street cat with a crooked tail. A man takes him in and, despite his initial disgust at becoming a housecat, he adjusts to a happy home life with his new owner. After five years, they start traveling around Japan in a silver van as Nana’s owner searches for a new home for him. However, Nana will thwart any efforts, after all, he just can’t be anybody’s cat!
Told from the charming street cat’s point of view, Arikawa delves into the psyche of the cat and how they view their relationship with the world and humans. Despite the light mood of Nana, he knows their lives are changing. After all, an animal’s loyalty cannot be measured and sometimes a human’s loyalty for a pet is just as immeasurable.
If you are looking to read some Japanese novels you now have my recommendations. Of course, there are other authors such as Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, and Natsume Soseki if you are looking for more classic Japanese novels!