Summer is here and what better way to spend your vacation than to read a good book while you relax at the beach, while you sit and travel on an airplane or shinkansen, or even while you indulge yourself with a tasty ice cream amidst the warm and sunny weather. The list of books to read during the summer are endless and although novels by a variety of renowned Western authors ranging from Ernest Hemingway to J.R.R. Tolkien are very popular among readers, many people actually don’t know that there are many interesting Japanese novels, or shosetsu as we call it in Japan, which are translated in English. Most Japanese novels are relatively different compared to Western novels and are unique in a sense that they are very mysterious and tend to portray the other, darker side of a character or scene. There are plenty of Japanese novels to choose from whether it be suspense or romance but what they all have in common is that they are definitely very well written, intellectually challenging, and difficult to put down. So, without further due, here are the top 7 Japanese novels that will keep you entertained during the summer.
Although 1Q84 is a sequel comprised of three books, the first book became a sensation in Japan and was immediately sold out the day it was released in 2009. This book is full of intriguing characters but mainly talks about the 2 characters, Aomame (an assassin of sexual abusers while working as a gym instructor during the day) and her ‘soul mate’, Tengo (a teacher who aspires to be a novelist). The story begins with Aomame deciding to follow a taxi driver’s somewhat perplexing suggestion by noticing the discrepancies of her surroundings, leading her to discover a parallel existence, which she later names 1Q84-Q is for Question mark as it denotes a ‘world that bears question’. Meanwhile, Tengo becomes absorbed in a suspect ghostwriting project, which gradually unravels his life. Through a series of events, Aomame and Tengo find themselves being bound to one another as they go through a journey of love, suspense, and self-discovery.
(My personal favorite) The Devotion of Suspect X is a very beautifully written crime and suspense novel talking about the lives of Tetsuya Ishigami (a very intelligent mathematics teacher) and Yasuko Hanaoka (a divorced, single mother who works at a local restaurant). Yasuko’s abusive ex-husband, Togashi suddenly shows up one night asking her for money, threatening her. The situation quickly escalates to violence and Togashi is killed by Yasuko and their daughter. Tetsuya, who was living next door, overheard the commotion. Due to his secret love for Yasuko, Tetsuya offers his help to dispose of the body and cleverly plot the cover-up of the murder step-by-step (using a problem-solving technique from mathematics). This novel ranked number 13 on the top 100 Japanese Mystery Novels of All Time won 4 prestigious awards in Japan, and 1 award and 2 nominations in the United States. It was also made into a movie in 2008 in Japan. So, if you want a page-turner with a suspenseful plot and a big twist, then The Devotion of Suspect X surely won’t disappoint.
A novel published in 1949 (English version in 1958), Confessions of a Mask tells the story of a Japanese boy named Kochan who grows up in the World War 2 era and is struggling to fit into society. Some people argue that this novel is an autobiography of the author, Mishima himself because just like Mishima, the protagonist, Kochan was born with a poor physical condition. As a result, Kochan is kept away from boys his age as he grows up, which later leads to his fantasies of death, sadism, and sex. Kochan also struggles to hide his homosexuality due to the context of Imperial Japan at that time. Therefore, the word ‘mask’ in this novel derives from Kochan creating his own false personality, which he uses to present himself to society. Throughout the novel, Kochan believes that everyone around him is also hiding their true feelings and their true ‘self’ hence, engaging in a ‘reluctant masquerade’. Confessions of a Mask has an interesting approach towards masculinity, homosexuality, and beauty.
Another literary masterpiece by Haruki Murakami, the story takes place in Tokyo when a-37 year-old Toru Watanabe (the main character) just came back from Germany and hears the orchestral cover of the song “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles, he is suddenly filled with nostalgia; his thoughts go back to the 1960s, which was the time that affected his life the most. This was the time when Toru was severely damaged by the suicide of his high school friend Kizuki. However, he falls in love with Kizuki’s girlfriend Naoko, who is depressed and ends up going to a mental hospital. Although Toru promises to wait for her, he falls in love with Midori, a carefree and cheerful woman full of life. This novel is a rather sad and nostalgic story of loss, love, and sexuality. The film adaptation of the novel was released in Japan in 2010 and was even presented in the 67th Venice International Film Festival.
For those of you who have been to Kinkaku-ji or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, this novel is a great way for you to know more about the story behind this beautiful and famous tourist spot, which is also a World Heritage. On the other hand, for those of you who haven’t been to the Golden Pavilion, I hope that this novel will inspire you to go and see it for yourself one day. Just like many historical sites, the Golden Pavilion is considered to be very old as its history dates back to 1397. However, in 1950, the pavilion was burned down by a monk, who then attempted to commit suicide behind the building. The Golden Pavilion was rebuilt and restored in 1955. Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion talks about the life of the monk, Hayashi Yoken who had a rather strange childhood, and his obsession with the temple’s beauty and his growing urge to destroy it.
The author, Kenzaburo Oe is a Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1994. In his newest novel The Changeling, he writes about the relationship between two very close friends Goro Hanawa (a filmmaker) and Kogito Choko (a novelist). Although Goro seems to appear as a happy man, Kogito suddenly discovers that Goro committed suicide via audiotape, which was recorded and sent by Goro himself (he had sent 40 tapes to Kogito). In order to find out why Goro had killed himself, Kogito listens to the tapes and discovers a sequence of conversations on everything from the friendship they’ve shared since they were teens to Goro’s ideas about art and life, even a few secrets from the past.
Natsuo Kirino is a well-known author who mostly bases her novels on women’s struggles within the norms and restrictions of Japanese society. In her breakout novel Out, she tells a story about four women: Masako, Kuniko, Yoshie, and Yayoi, who work the graveyard shift in a Japanese bento (lunchbox) factory. Each of the women has their own personal problems in their homes and families, however, one night, Yayoi discovers that her husband has gambled away all their savings, loses control of her temper, and strangles him to death. Having killed her husband, she convinces Masako, Kuniko, and Yoshie to help her dispose of the body. As soon as the police discover the body and start asking questions, the women start blackmailing each other and have new problems come their way. If you like brutal and hard-edged stories, then this is the perfect novel for you.
Related: 3 Universal Modern Japanese Authors