Top 3 Reads about the Darker Side of Japanese Society

  • Japan is the land of mystery and intrigue, of kawaii culture, a happy place full of rainbows and sunshine. Well, of course there are many such moments, but like any other society, there is also a dark underside of societal issues and even crime.

    If you are interested in learning more, you should check out the following 3 novels!

    1. Ryu Murakami, Coin locker babies (1980)

    This text was republished in English in 2013, and the issues it deals with still hold relevance today. As the title says, the novel begins with two separate babies, abandoned in two separate coin lockers by two different women. By chance, they find each other at the same orphanage, and are adopted as brothers. Whilst one brother becomes a bisexual rockstar, the other showed promise in sports and athletics – a short-lived career, as he ends up murdering the woman who abandoned him…

    This blurb only covers about 60% of the novel itself. Each major character is given a comprehensive background that is interesting, dark, and not too tedious (as some authors tend to get a little carried away!). Running alongside the brothers’ narrative is the story of Anemone, the girl who lives with a crocodile in her living room. Set in the seedy underbelly of Tokyo, this novel deals with many psychological and social issues that could plague anyone, anywhere. The added touch of extravagance from Anemone and other such events add a mild touch of humour and light relief. This novel isn’t particularly light in content, but it does make an absorbing summer read!

    2. Kawabata Yasunari, Snow Country (1956)

    Snow country focusses on “mountain geisha”, or ‘onsen geisha’ – quite different from the geiko and maiko you’d find in Kyoto. This short, fleeting love story is actually set in 1930s Japan. The male protagonist is a Tokyo dilettante, a self-proclaimed expert on Western ballet (whilst having never actually been to a ballet before!) who frequently leaves his wife and children to visit the remote onsen town of Yuzawa. It is here that he meets Komako, a geisha with a cloudy past, and heart on her sleeve. Apparently Kawabata actually based the character of Komako on the geisha Matsuei:

    Amidst the protagonist’s affair, Komako finds herself growing more and more enamoured, making her actions bold and somewhat excitable and unsure. Paralleling this is the protagonist’s interest with an exceedingly beautiful woman found living in Yuwaza…

    Overall, Kawabata’s writing style creates a vivid and enchanting setting. The characters are by no means perfect, and contain depth that begs to be discussed over some matcha and Yastuhashi (when you’ve managed to put the book down!).

    3. Fuminori Nakamura, The Thief (2009)

    Some have attributed this novel to the genre “Tokyo noire”. Whilst this isn’t written in that “sin city” style, it does deal with similar issues of the mafia, mob bosses, prostitutes and their children, corrupt men and women of power, a greater scheme than the one in front of you…

    Similarly to Kawabata’s novel, ‘The Thief’ features a nameless protagonist, who earns his living as a pickpocket. When he spots a young boy forced to steal for his mother, the protagonist takes the boy under his wing. This however, is cut short as he is embroiled in a mafia scheme that almost exceeds his expertise. This novel offers an interesting insight into petty crime, along with larger criminal operations. The paranoia felt by the characters, along with the loneliness of the main characters creates a dark, edgy narrative. This is a real page-turner for those of you who enjoy cerebral crime and action packed texts.

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