9 Must-Read Contemporary Japanese Novels

  • CULTURE
  • Japan has what some people claim to be a unique culture. The country has a long and great history and traditions that have stood the test of time. Not only that, but many subcultures are quite unique in Japan, too, attracting a lot of attention from other countries. These include movies, music, and even typical types of behavior that may seem strange to people from other countries such as wearing different slippers in the bathroom or loudly slurping noodles. No matter how “weird” people consider Japan to be, however, it’s an extremely popular country that a lot of people find cool and attractive.

    As well as various pop cultures such as anime, manga, and J-Pop, Japan also has its fair share of literature, from ancient fables to contemporary novels. If somebody asked you to name some Japanese novels, what would come to mind first? Perhaps Haruki Murakami, the writer of Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore, or maybe Banana Yoshimoto, who wrote Goodbye Tsugumi and The Lake.

    Besides those two well-known authors, have you ever wondered how many talented authors Japan has? In my opinion, Japanese writers all have the same thing in common. This is their unparalleled ability to transform an extremely ordinary scene from our everyday lives into something magical beyond words, what we can’t describe clearly or even imagine. This is what makes these books special. Here are nine of my favorite contemporary Japanese novels of various genres that are recommended for you to check out, as all the books are available in English. Please note that they are in no particular ranking order.

    1. The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe (2000)

    Kenzaburo Oe from Uchiko, Shikoku was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994 as well as numerous other awards. As well as novels, he is also a writer of short stories and essays. He is now in his eighties and is considered to be one of the major figures of Japanese literature.

    Just like Oe’s other novels, The Changeling is influenced by the American-French literature writing style. The novel tells the story of the relationship between two talented artists, Goro Hanawa and Kogito Choko. While Goro is an outstanding filmmaker, Kogito is a novelist in his sixties (who was possibly based on Oe himself). Although their relationship has become tense in the past few decades, a way of communication named “tagame” was developed by Goro, which is a set of tapes that he had sent to Kogito before committing suicide. Kogito uses the tapes as a way to find out why Goro killed himself.

    Four hundred pages are written with the simple yet elegant language, so this is not a difficult novel, even though Oe has an intellectual style of writing. Oe has put his characters, and also his readers, into a situation that makes them question themselves about the meaning of life and death and how our viewpoints of the past might control the future. The Changeling is a consistent and slow but beautiful read.

    2. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (2013)

    Many people know about the award-winning, internationally bestselling, popular contemporary author Haruki Murakami. You may know Haruki Murakami has been influenced by western culture, especially in music and literature, and he brings all of his hobbies as well as his past experiences into his novels and his characters’ personalities. One bonus fact you may not know about his works, besides the themes, is that most of his novels have titles reminiscent of western classical music. Norwegian Wood, for example, is of course taken from the popular 1965 song by The Beatles.

    This time, Haruki tells us the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man who in his group of high school friends, has the only name without kanji that is related to colors. Meanwhile, the kanji of his friends’ names all have colors like red, blue, white and black. Suddenly, during university, he is left behind when his high school friends suddenly stop contacting him. Tazaki, then haunted by the great loss, starts a journey into the past that is necessary to mend the present.

    Described as “easily accessible, yet profoundly complex”, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage is a story of friendship, love, but also heartbreak for all ages. Some of you may like it, some of you may not. Many did, however, as the book sold more than a million copies the first week it went on sale in Japan, so why not give it a chance?

    3. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (1988)

    A post shared by Innershelf (@innershelf) on

    Banana Yoshimoto is the pen name of Mahoko Yoshimoto, a Japanese contemporary writer. Yoshimoto is a practical and obscure woman who keeps her personal life private and only talks about her writing instead.

    Kitchen was Yoshimoto’s first full-length novel, and its success brought her the Izumi Kyoka Prize for Literature. It was also adapted into a successful motion picture by Hong Kong director Yim Ho. The novel tells the story about young protagonist Mikage who deals with the loss of her grandmother and at the same time, moves in with her friend and his transgender mother. Mikage tries to come through the darkness brought to her life. Main themes include love, maternity, and tragedy.

    Each part of Mikage’s story centers around the death of one or more individuals, and their passing shapes the narrator as well as other characters, helping them to go on their own journeys.

    4. Audition by Ryu Murakami (1997)

    Ryu Murakami is a novelist, filmmaker, and Japan’s master of the psycho-thriller genre. Murakami’s works are claimed to be a new style of literature since his books are not simply classified as horror or psycho-thrillers, but they also deal with disturbing matters such as drugs. His bestseller novels are Almost Transparent Blue, In the Miso Soup, and Audition.

    Audition begins at a relatively slow and sleepy pace. It’s about Aoyama, a documentary filmmaker who hasn’t dated anyone for seven years since his wife’s death. He decides to look for someone new through a fake film audition, and he actually meets his dream girl, Asami. She’s beautiful, has a turbulent past, and loves him undoubtedly. But Aoyama’s indiscrimination and infatuation with her have blinded him from seeing the terrifying truth behind her mask.

    The novel is only disturbing in the ending parts, but I’m sure its details are haunting and are everything you would think of when imagining a horror story. Takashi Miike’s feature film Audition (1999) was based on this novel and it was excellent and is also one of the reasons that this is my favorite novel instead of In the Miso Soup, which most people believe to be Murakami’s best work.

    5. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

    Kazuo Ishiguro is a Japanese-born British novelist. All I can say about Ishiguro is he’s the man of prizes, as his first four novels won at least one prize and they are all bestsellers. He also won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017.

    Never Let Me Go is a dystopian science-fiction novel about an exclusive boarding school located in the English countryside, which is a place of cliques and mysterious rules where teachers constantly remind their students of how special they are. They force them to obey the rules and keep themselves healthy. Years later, Kathy, one of the students, is a young woman. Her old friends from the boarding school, Ruth and Tommy, have reentered her life, and for the first time, she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand what makes them special, and how it will shape the rest of their time together.

    Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize, for the 2006 Arthur C. Clarke Award and for the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award. The novel’s language tone is conversational, but the writing is chilling and subtle, it also raises questions and helps you to explore the futility of human life.

    6. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (2010)

    The novel is truly huge, with more than nine hundred pages. But how can you miss a love story, a mystery, a fantasy, a novel of self-discovery, a dystopia, all in a world of Haruki Murakami’s imagination?

    There’s a parallel existence in the novel, which is called 1Q84: “Q” is for “question mark”. “A world that bears a question.” It was made up by Aomame, a young woman living in Tokyo, who follows a taxi driver’s suggestions and begins to figure out more about what happens around her.

    And we have Tengo, a writer who is working on a suspect ghostwriting project. Somehow, odd events connect characters together: a beautiful girl with a unique vision, a religious cult and a metropolitan police officer, a wealthy dowager who runs a shelter for abused women, and so on.

    To be honest, this is not an easy book to read (not only because of nine-hundred pages), because the way Haruki handles multiple stories, and his perspectives on sexuality, gender, and woman’s body shapes may frustrate some readers. However, if you have read his other works such as Sputnik Sweetheart or A Wild Sheep Chase, then this is a challenge for you!

    7. Byakuyakou Journey under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higashino (1999)

    Keigo Higashino started writing novels while still working as an engineer, but after he won the Edogawa Rampo Prize for writing, he quit his job to start a career as a full-time writer. Keigo Higashino is known for his talent in writing mystery novels.

    Although famous for his bestseller mystery novels, Keigo Higashino’s books never have too many plot twists or details. What he does best is the technique he uses to shape his narratives as well as his characters’ psychological thinking.

    In the novel, 19 years ago, a pawnshop owner was killed in Osaka and several suspects were easily identified. However, the case remained unsolved due to lack of persuasive evidence. Although Ryoji Kirihara, the son of the victim, and Yukiho Karasawa, one of the suspects’ daughters, seem to have no relation to each other, mysterious crimes keep happening around them.

    With his excellent narrative shaping technique, the novel is intriguing and enthralling. It might be better to read it when you are in a good mood and I’m sure once you start reading, there’s no way you can stop until the very last page. The haunting, as well as nostalgic feeling, will follow you for a while. As a bonus, Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X is also a good read!

    8. Woman on the Other Shore by Mitsuyo Kakuta (2004)

    A post shared by Saori Teraoka (@saoriteraoka) on

    Mitsuyo Kakuta received the Kaien Prize for New Writers a year after she graduated from university with her work, A Blissful Pastime. Afterward, she went on to win the Naoki Prize (with Woman on the Other Shore) and the Noma Literary New Face Prize.

    In the novel, Sayoko, a 35-year-old homemaker with a three-year-old child, works for Aoi, an open-minded, single career woman. Sayoko finds herself drawn to Aoi’s lifestyle and easygoing personality. The two then start a friendship, which for Sayoko is also a reaffirmation of the true meaning of living. However, Aoi has not always been the confident person she appears to be, due to her past experiences related to bullying and an unhappy family.

    The novel portrays the everyday lives and concerns of Japanese women, from marriage and childrearing to being single and working. It’s a touching story about the joy of sharing and opening up to others, as it influences wide ranges of readers throughout Japan.

    9. The Windup Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (1995)

    Toru Okada, a young man, searches for his wife’s missing cat. But he finds himself searching for his wife as well in a world that lies beneath the surface of Tokyo. As the search goes on, Okada encounters a strange group of characters, both friends and antagonists. For example, a psychic prostitute, a mediagenic politician, a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl, and an aging war veteran.

    In my opinion, Murakami is one of the contemporary writers who can portray the society of Japan as well as their social values quite well, even though it is sometimes odd or subtle.

    You can grab these books from Book Off, Tsutaya, or Amazon Japan. If you are wondering why there is no number 10 on this list, it’s because I’ll leave this space for you to decide what your next favorite Japanese novel is! So if you are itching for something new to read that will not only be enjoyable but will also make you think, check out these nine fantastic works by talented Japanese writers. Whether you’re looking for a mystery, a horror, or a heartwarming drama, there is something for you on this list. Have you read any of these books before? Are there any more that should be on this list?

    *Featured Image: jp.fotolia.com/