Japanese Literature and Historical Fiction Books
After the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912 Japan started to open up for the West and in the first half of the 20th century writers like Natsume Soseki, Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki wrote about the struggle between adhering to one’s identity formed by traditions and opening up to modern influences of the West. In the 1980’s Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami emerged as bestselling authors widely known outside Japan. Today Japanese books ranges from the popular manga, to crime novels, science fiction, creepy horror and modern literature books. Cellphone literature, books written on a mobile via text messaging, comes from Japan and is very popular. In 2017 the English / Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro received the Nobel prize for literature
Murakami: ”It's a dark, cool, quiet place. A basement in your soul. And that place can sometimes be dangerous to the human mind. I can open the door and enter that darkness, but I have to be very careful. I can find my story there. Then I bring that thing to the surface, into the real world”.
Born in 1948 in Kyoto, Haruki Murakami is one of the greatest Japanese best-selling fiction authors to date (see www.harukimurakami.com). His novel Norwegian Wood published in 1987 marked an international break-through and a wide audience started reading his work. Because his immense popularity in Japan he ‘fled’ to New York. The Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo gas attack made him decide to return back to Japan.
In Murakami’s novels transitions between real and surreal dimensions occur, characters slip through portals, take elevators and stairs or climb down wells to find themselves in kafkaesque surrealistic worlds.
In Japan, Murakami’s fans are called “Harukists”
Other Murakami novels include Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World; Norwegian Wood; Dance Dance Dance; South of the Border, West of the Sun; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Sputnik Sweetheart; Kafka on the Shore; After Dark; and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. He has written three short story collections: The Elephant Vanishes; After the Quake; and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman; and an illustrated novella, The Strange Library.
In 2016 ‘Absolutely on Music: Conversations’ was published. In this book Murakami and his friend Seiji Ozawa, the former conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra talk about their shared passion: music.
Born in 1964 in Tokyo as Mahoko Yoshimoto (Banana Yoshimoto's site). Banana’s first novel Kitchen (1987) made her one of the most famous contemporary Japanese writers. Her popularity in- and outside Japan led to a phenomenon called Banana Mania.
Her works describe the problems faced by youth,urban existentialism, and teenagers trapped between imagination and reality. Yoshimoto about her themes:
"I think loneliness is universal and everyone experiences it very strongly. However, I will say that Japan is changing so fast that a lot of people are being left behind without being able to cope with these changes. In these situations when people can’t cope, the loneliness is mixed with some kind of restlessness, so it becomes even harder to escape. This affects all generations in Japan because the changes have been so rapid".
Other books from Banana include : Goodbye Tsugumi (1989), NP (1990),Lizard (1993), Amrita (1994) and Hardboiled and Hard Luck (1999).
In 2016 Moshi Moshi was translated in English, about a young woman and her relation with her mother and how they both try to overcome the grief of the death of her father and husband.
She chose the pen name “Banana” as a proof of her “love for banana’s, in addition to finding the name both cute and purposefully androgynous’. “I have a tattoo of a banana on my right thigh and another one of Obake-no-Q-Taro (Japanese Manga character) on my left shoulder".
Sometimes people put up walls, not to keep others out, but to see who cares enough to break them down.
Obasan describes the story of a Japanese family in Canada during World War II from the perspective of the 5 year old Naomi.
After Pearl Harbor Canadian citizens of Japanese ancestry were relocated and dispersed, their property was confiscated. Although this book is fiction, the author, born in 1935 in Canada, and her Japanese -Canadian family were forced to move to British Columbia during the Second World War.
Naomi is a sheltered and beloved when Pearl Harbor changes her life. Separated from her mother, she watches bewildered as she and her family become persecuted and despised in their own country. Surrounded by hardship and pain, Naomi is protected by the resolute endurance of her aunt, Obasan, and the silence of those around her. Only after Naomi grows up does she return to question the haunting silence.
Obasan, Joy Kogawa, 1981
Genre: historical fiction, history Japanese in the US
Obasan is also available as audiobook
The sequel to Obasan (Itsuka), follows the character Naomi into adulthood and focusses on the government's recognition of the mistreatment of those of Japanese heritage during World War II.
Another book about this theme:
When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka
Sujata wrote more than 10 books about the adventures of the young female amateur sleuth and antiques lover Rei Shimura. A kind of Sue Grafton detectives set in contemporary Japan. The first book in de series 'The Salaryman’s Wife' was published in 1997 and won the Agatha Award, the literary award for best mystery and crime writers. See also Sujata Massey's site
Rei Shimura Series, Sujata Massey
Genre: mystery novel, detective
Sujata also wrote books set in India:
The Sleeping Dictionary. About the struggle for a better life of Pom, an orphaned peasant girl from Bengal during the years 1930 to 1947.
India Gray - four novels of mystery and suspense historical fiction.
The Makioka Sisters is regarded as Japan’s greatest novel of the twentieth century.
This historical fiction book is about the wealthy and proud Makioka family and the decline of an upper/middle class family's lifestyle in Osaka leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
The book follows the different characters of the four sisters and the family’s attempts to find a husband for Yukiko. Yukiko is representative of the past and all the traditions associated with it. Whilst the youngest sister, Taeko, represents the future and the possibilities offered by modern society. It is about trying to adhere to the aristocratic way of life and the traditions of the Edo period while western influences are steadily increasing in Japanese way of life
In 1983 the movie Sasameyuki / The Makioka Sisters was released.
The Makioka Sisters
Set in the 1920’s in Japan the young man Joji meets the teenage waitress Naomi. Naomi seems to be innocent and naive.
Joji is obsessed with all things Western and Naomi is his ideal woman, a modern girl. He arranges English and music lessons for Naomi as to transform her into the perfect wife. But as Joji grows older, he discovers that Naomi is far from the naïve girl of his fantasies and Joji begins to drain his savings just so he can support Naomi’s lavish lifestyle, until there is nothing left…
Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, born in 1886 in Tokyo is regarded as one of the most important writers of Japanese literature in the 20th century. After his house was destroyed in the 1923 earthquake Tanizaki moved to the Kyoto-Osaka region, the scene of the novel 'The Makioka Sisters'. His initial admiration for the Western world and all things modern was later replaced by a renewed interest in Japanese culture and literature. His books are often centred around the theme of cultural identity-the rise of western modernism versus Japanese traditions. He was one of the authors on the final shortlist for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964. He died in 1965.
Other books by Tanizaki: Some Prefer Nettles (1928), Arrowroot (1931), Quicksand (1930), The Key (1956), Diary of a Mad Old Man (1961)
Tokyo 1992, Police Inspector Shunsuke Honma is on sick leave. But then, a woman, Shoko Sekine, disappears. She is the fiancee of his nephew, banker Jun Kurisaka. Shoko left when Jun found out that her credit history was tainted by bankruptcy. Honma is hired to find Shoko Sekine and travelling to different parts of Japan soon discovers that her name belongs to someone else. Did Jun’s fiancee in order to satisfy her needs for a luxurious life murder the real Shoko Sekine? And did she steal her identity as to overcome her financial debts?
From an Interview with Miyuki Miyabe:
Why do scary stories have such a hold on the people of Japan?
“We have a very wealthy and stable society overall, but we still suffer large-scale tragedies. Disasters such as the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake of Kobe or the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami spawned new scary tales in their respective areas. In these we can see how kaidan (ghost/horror stories) stories act a sort of requiem for the souls that were lost, and as a comfort for those left behind.”
All She Was Worth, Miyuki Miyabe, 1999
Miyuki Miyabe is a popular contemporary Japanese author who wrote books in different genres including science fiction, mystery books and historical fiction. Her fantasy novel Brave Story has been adapted into an animation film.
Other books include ICO: Castle in the Mist (fantasy), Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo ( ghost story) and The Devil's Whisper (mystery fiction).
One night middle aged Harada visits the entertainment district in Tokyo. And there he meets a man who looks exactly like his long dead father. Trying to rationalise this as an hallucination brought on by grief and solitude, Harada nevertheless returns to the entertainment district repeatedly, and each time his parents are there, acting as though everything is normal.
Although the apparitions of his parents give him solace they also do a lot of harm: he is looking more and more gaunt, and is ageing rapidly. The mysterious neighbour Can Hei tries to help Harada to come to terms with his past.
Strangers - Taichi Yamada, 1987
For those who love Murakami's books try Taichi Yamada.
Other books by Yamada in the ghost story fiction genre: In Search of a Distant Voice 2006
Yoko Ogawa is a contemporary writer, born and living in Japan. She has published fiction and nonfiction books.
Literature Nobel prize winner Kenzaburō Ōe about Ogawa: "The subtlety lies in the fact that Ogawa's characters often seem not to know why they are doing what they are doing …The reader is presented with an acute description of what the protagonists, mostly but not always female, observe and feel and their somewhat alienated self-observations, some of which is a reflection of Japanese society and especially women's roles within it…”
Also worth reading are: 'The Diving Pool: Three Novellas' (2008) and 'Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales' (2013).
Other Recommended and Bestselling Books
Shinji and Hatsue fall in love. Shinki is a young fisherman and Hatsue is the daughter of a wealthy ship owner and when the gossip from the villagers about their romance threatens to divide them, Shinki must risk his life to prove his worth.
This book was adapted in various movies.
Natsume Soseki 1914
Kokoro (meaning heart) is a story about the friendship between a university student and an older man, Sensei. Sensei lives an isolated life and has a mysterious past, full with secrets, that he initially does not want to share with the student. But later he writers a letter to the student (the narrator) in which he explains tragic events of the past.
The Devotion of of Suspect X
Keigo Higashino 2005
This is the third book in the Detective Galileo series. Yasuko Hanaoka is divorced from her abusive ex-husband Togashi. But one day Togashi shows up threatening Yasuko and her daughter Misato. The situation gets out of hand and Togashi ends up dead. Ishigami, Yasuko’s next-door-neighbor and secretly in love with her offers his help in disposing of the body and covering up the story. Will detective Kusanagi discover the thruth?
Yasunari Kawabata 1956 ( in English)
The wealthy and lonely Shimamura is tired of the bustling city. He takes the train through the snow to a small town in the mountains to meet with geisha Komako. Shimamura believes he loves Komako. But the beautiful and innocent Komako is tightly bound by the rules of a rural geisha, and lives a life of servitude and seclusion that is alien to Shimamura, and their love affair is doomed to fail.
Natsuo Kirino 1997
Four women work at a Japanese bento factory. Masako feels alienated from her husband and teenage son. Kuniko has recently been ditched by her boyfriend. Yoshie is a single mother and caretaker of her mother-in-law and Yayoi is the wife of a drunken and gambling husband.
Returning home one night, Yayoi discovers her husband has gambled away all their savings and she loses control of her temper. She strangles him to death. The four women dispose of the body. The body is dismembered, secured in black garbage bags, and hidden all over Tokyo. It is isn't long before one hidden bag is discovered and the police starts to ask questions.