Japan’s literary tradition stretches centuries back to the “Tale of Genji” (Genji Monogatari), the first Japanese novel, published in the early 11th century. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, it also shows women writers have been the pioneers of literature in Japan, elevating the Japanese language in the process. In those times, classical Chinese was used in politics and literature, whereas Japanese language was seen as everyday vernacular.
With three Japanese-born Nobel Prize of Literature winners, and Japanese literature titles widely translated around the world, Japan has amazing writers in its literary ranks. Manga, anime and game lovers have always known about the storytelling power of Japanese writers, as a lot of pop culture is based on written works of fiction. A lot of world-famous films as well are either adapted from novels, or heavily inspired by works of fiction. One well-know example is Akira Kurosawa’s film “Rashomon” based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short stories.
This list covers 10 of the most famous Japanese writers, and although it is no way complete, it is a good place to start.
A household name in Japan, Natsume Soseki is a literary giant often compared to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. He was writing at the beginning of the 20th century, just after the Meiji government finally opened Japan to the world. In fact, Soseki was one of the scholars sent by Meiji to Europe, namely Great Britain. He was an English literature scholar and had worked as an English teacher in Japan. His novels have been widely translated, and some of the most popular titles are “Kokoro”, “I am a Cat”, “Little Master” etc.
Japan’s most famous writer abroad, Haruki Murakami’s books have been translated in more than 50 languages worldwide and their sales have often hit or surpassed a million copies! Many Japanese even consider his style Western, while Westerners love him for the Japanese flavour of his storytelling. Murakami primarily writes novels, but his short stories are also well-known. He expertly threads the line between realism and fantasy, often delightfully leading us into magical realism. Some of his most famous novels are: “1Q84”, “Norwegian Wood”, “Kafka on the Shore”, “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” etc. His latest novel “Killing Commendatore” was published in 2018 in English.
Almost every year he is rumoured to be getting the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he still hasn’t won it. Many have compared him to Leonardo Di Caprio and him (not) winning an Oscar. If the similarities go into the future, Murakami Haruki is bound to eventually receive the long-awaited Nobel Prize.
A controversial radical man writing in post-war Japan, Yukio Mishima is both famous and infamous. His beautifully written short stories and novels are well-known internationally. “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” is one of his most famous works, and it is a novel about the burning of Kyoto’s Kinkaku-ji. Mishima also wrote short stories, theatre plays, librettos and so on.
His notoriety stems from his political activism bleeding into his works of literature as well. Mishima was a far-right activist working to restore Japan to its military glory, resulting in an unsuccessful militia coup d’état. After that Mishima committed seppuku, public ritual suicide. Yasunari Kawabata, Mishima’s friend and Nobel Prize laureate, also committed seppuku soon after.
Often jokingly called “the other Murakami” or “the Murakami Westerners don’t know”, Ryu Murakami is the epitome of cool. Writing about the dark underbelly of city life, mostly Tokyo, his work is dark but powerful. His most notable works are “Almost Transparent Blue”, “Coin Locker Babies”, and “In the Miso Soup”.
A man of many talents, Ryu Murakami is an art university graduate, former rocker, a film scriptwriter, a magazine editor, a talk show host, and he even has his own video-streaming service and an e-book company.
With her surprising penname, urban Tokyo stories, and sleek cover designs, Banana Yoshimoto made an instant splash in the international literature market in the 90s. Her work deals with existentialism, youth problems, death, the decline of human relationships. Dreams and food are recurring leitmotifs in her writing.
Her debut novel “Kitchen” is an all time hit, and featuring a transgender character it can be said it was also somewhat ahead of its time. She is still actively writing, and her last novel translated to English was ”Moshi Moshi” (published in 2010, translated in 2016).
A rather new name for non-Japanese readers, Sayaka Murata’s bestseller “Konbini Ningen” (“Convenience Store Woman”) launched her to stardom in 2019. Reportedly, she was still working in a convenience store herself, and rushing from the kombini after a shift to receive one Japan’s most renowned prizes for literature, the Akutagawa Prize.
Murata’s writing is not afraid to tackle burning topics in Japanese society such as sex and gender roles. She likes to subvert expectations, and even shock at times. She has said in interviews that her parents don’t like her books.
Even after several prizes, Murata keeps working part time in a convenience store, saying that it brings her inspiration for writing.
Debuting in the 90s, Hiromi Kawakami has won prestigious literary awards in Japan, and her works have been translated in over 15 languages. Her stories are a mix between everyday interactions and magical realism, appealing to anyone who enjoys the storytelling seen in anime.
Love drives a lot of the stories in Kawakami’s books, one of the most popular being “Strange Weather in Tokyo”, and the most recent one translated in English is “The Ten Loves of Nishino”.
Writing in the beginning of the 20th century, Akutagawa is one of Japan’s greats, often called ‘the father of the short story’. One of his early short stories, ‘Rashomon’, was what Akira Kurosawa’s popular film of the same name was based on, among other influences. There is even a prestigious literature award carrying his name, awarded to up and coming Japanese writers.
One of the most fascinating characteristics of his writing is that he strives for universal stories that can transcend cultures and unite people. He liked modern settings, multiple sources, using elements of other cultures etc. For instance, after working as a reporter in China, he started writing stories taking place in China.
Japan’s first Nobel Prize for Literature laureate, Kawabata Yasunari won the prize in 1968. He espouses the now well-known Japanese sensibilities like love of the ephemeral and ‘mono no aware’, that he spoke of when receiving the prize. His elegant writing imitates this fleeting calm beauty seen in cherry blossoms or flowing water.
One his most popular works is “Snow Country” in which the main character goes deep in the countryside to visit the geisha he loves.
Japan’s second Nobel laureate, winning the prize in 1994, is both a great novelist and a poet. His writing is deeply concerned with socio-political issues, as he himself stated upon being awarded the Nobel prize – “I am writing about the dignity of human beings.” His works are influenced by Western literature and existentialism, and Oe does not shy away from sex and violence.
For a Nobel laureate and a prolific writer, the number of translations of his work can be considered low, but there are at least a dozen translated novels in English. Some of the most popular are “A Personal Matter”, “A Quiet Life”, and the most recent translation “The Changeling”.
Kazuo Ishiguro is at the same time a British writer, who can also be considered a Japanese writer. Born in Japan, his parents moved to the UK when he was 5. He writes in English, but his first two novels were set in Japan. His writing is versatile and multifaceted, just like his complex identity. Some of his novels are set in the past, while some are science fiction and dystopias. In his work, Ishiguro explores human values, harnesses emotion, and shows a note of ‘mono no aware’ being influenced by writers like Tanizaki, as well as Proust and Dostoyevsky.
“Never Let Me Go” is one of his most famous novels, while “A Pale View of Hills” and “An Artist of the Floating World” are his novels that are set in Japan.
From the great old names, to the most recent Japanese writers rising to international fame, these are just 11 of the most well known authors. Being awarded, translated, and widely read around the world, any of their works are a good place to start reading Japanese literature.
: AC photo/