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

Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami, 2002

Kafka, a boy of 15 years old is fleeing his father, a man whose shadowy malevolence takes the form of a prophecy: Kafka, he insists, will kill his father and sleep with his mother and his older sister, both of whom vanished when Kafka was four. After a series of adventures, he finds shelter in a library in Takamatsu, run by Miss Saeki and Oshima. There he spends his time reading books until the police begins inquiring after him in connection with a brutal murder.

The story of Kafka will at the end be interwoven with the story of the eldery man Nakata who never recovered from a wartime affliction. Nakata has lost all his memories, his ability to read and write, and most of his intelligence, but he acquired the ability to talk  to cats. In his job as a finder of strayed household felines, Nakata is coerced by Kafka's father into stabbing him to death. More info at the publisher

Underground - Haruki Murakami, 1999

It is the 20th of March 20, 1995, a clear spring day, when you follow your daily morning routine and head for the subway. There, a man drops a plastic bag to the floor and punctures it, releasing a deadly nerve gas. At the same time, on other trains four members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult do the same. The Tokyo gas attack left 12 people dead and thousands injured.

In the first part of the book Murakami interviews victims from this terrorist attack, from a subway authority employee with survivor guilt, to a clothes salesman. The different stories from these survivors are not only giving a clear picture of the incident itself, but also of the lives and mentality of the Japanese commuters, the important role of work in Japanese society and the role played by the media.

The second part of the book consists of interviews with members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult and tries to explain why they did not question their master’s orders and resorted to terrorism.

1Q84 - Haruki Murakami, 2012

Set in Tokyo in 1984 these three books follow the story of Aomame and Tengo, who were once classmates but haven’t seen each other for years. Now, both nearly 30 years old, Aomame is a fitness instructor and an assassin of men who have violently abused their wives. Tengo is a math teacher and not so successful writer. One day, Aomame gets out of a taxi to take an emergency staircase leading down from the city expressway. Then she enters a parallel existence, one that is nearly identical to the ordinary world of 1984 except that it has two moons in the sky. This world Aomame calls 1Q84, whereby Q stands for ‘question mark. In the world of 1Q84 Tengo and Aoname have a special mysterious bond.

Tengo is asked to rewrite the story 'Air Chrysalis', once written by Fuka-Eri, who fled a religious cult named Sakigake. At the same time Aomame accepts the assignment to kill the leader of Sakigake. The publication of Tengo’s book and Aomame’s murder assignment brings them in a world of danger that they never could have foreseen.

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Haruki Murakami

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.

Banana Yoshimoto The Best Japanese Literature Books

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".

Banana Yoshimoto

 

Kitchen - Banana Yoshimoto, 1997

Mikage Sakurai, the narrator of Kitchen, is an orphan raised by her grandmother, who has passed away. Distracting her thoughts from grieving, Mikage spends a lot of time in the kitchen; cleaning and preparing food. She befriends one of her grandmother's friends, Yuichi and ends up staying with him and his transgender mother, Eriko. Now living together they all share the loss of beloved ones.

In Moonlight Shadow Satsuki loses her boyfriend Hitoshi in an accident ("The night he died my soul went away to some other place and I couldn't bring it back”) In that same accident the girlfriend of Hiirage (Hitoshi’s brother) was killed. Both in their own way Satsuki and Hiirage try to overcome their loss. Hiiragi by wearing his girlfriend’s schooluniform everywhere he goes and Satsuki by meeting and befriending a mysterious woman, named Urara.

The Lake - Banana Yoshimoto, 2011

Trying to come to terms with her mother's death, Chihiro moves to Tokyo. Looking out of the window of her apartment she sees a mysterious young man standing in the window of his home opposite hers. He is watching her. Gradually Chihiro and her neighbour Nakajima start a romantic relation. But Chihiro soon comes to realise that something unspeakabe happened to Nakajima. And when they visit his friends who live near a ghostly lake, Chihiro begins to piece together his childhood trauma that has something to do with a religious cult. Eventually the two young lovers both try to overcome their troubled past. 

(The religious cult refers to the Aum Shinrikyo, the group that released poison gas in the Tokyo subway system).

Asleep - Banana Yoshimoto, 2001

Asleep consists of three stories set in contemporary Japan, each one narrated by a young Japanese woman who has been frozen into a temporary sleep as a result of trauma. 

Shibami, a 22-year-old woman, finds herself sleepwalking at night. She shared a close relationship with both her brother Yoshiro and cousin Mari. Shibami tells us the story of the love between her brother, Mari and herself.

In story Long Songs the young woman Fumi remembers at night he face of Haru, who died. Haru and Fumi fought for the affections of the same man. But in her dreams Fumi realises that she also loved Haru.

In the third story Asleep Terako begins a relationship with a young man whose wife is in a coma. After her best friend Shiori commits suicide and Terako is grieving, she meets the spirit spirit of her boyfriend's comatose wife.

 

"Yoshimoto hits some of the same notes that a previous generation's literary masters (say, Kawabata or Tanizaki) might sound, and yet the effect seems artless, spontaneous and wonderfully fresh". Los Angeles Times Book Review

The movie 'Shirakawa Yofune (Asleep)' released in 2015 is based on this novel.

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Sometimes people put up walls, not to keep others out, but to see who cares enough to break them down.

Banana Yoshimoto

 
The Best Books about Japan Joy Kogawa Obasan

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

Great Mystery Books Japan Sujata Massey Rei Shimura

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 Best Japanese Writers Tanizaki Makioka Sisters

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
Greatest Japanese Literature Tanizaki
Naomi

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…

Junichiro Tanizaki

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

 

Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden, 1997

Set in 1929 in Japan, Chiyo Sakamoto, born in a fishing village, is nine when she is sold to a geisha boarding house in Kyoto. Her sister Satsu, who is less attractive than Chiyo is forced into prostitution.

Although desperately wanting to return home, she gradually acquiesces in her fate as she learns the rigorous art of the geisha and learns to compete with her rivals for the admiration of men and the money that goes with it. Eventually village girl Chiyo becomes one of the most wanted Geisha’s: Geisha Sayuri. But then the war breaks out and in order to survive Sayuri has to take a calculated risk.

 

In 2005 the book was adapted in the award winning movie 'Memoirs of a Geisha' directed by Rob Marshall. It was nominated for six Oscars.

An Artist of the Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989

Three years after the end of the Second World War the retired Masuji Ono, once a respected artist before and during the war, spends his days with gardening and maintenance of his house. As he wanders through the dusty corridors and unused rooms of the house, Ono looks back on his life. He narrates his memories of the war, in which he lost his wife and son, and the guilt about putting his artwork in the service of the imperialist movement that led Japan into World War II. 

Japan Times: “a sensitive examination of the turmoil in postwar Japan, a time when certainties were overturned.., the hierarchy of the generations seemed to topple. All this is made more poignant when seen through the eyes of a man who is rejected by the future and who chooses to reject his own past”.

A Pale View of the Hills - Kazuo Ishiguro, 1982

During a visit from her daughter Niki, Etsuko reflects on her life. 

Etsuko is born in Nagasaki and after World War II and the trauma of the atomic bomb she struggled to rebuild her family life. In the 1950’s she befriended Sachiko and her troubled child, Mariko. Etsuko left Japan and is now living in a village in England, where she gave up her role of traditional Japanese housewife in exchange of more freedom. 

By recalling memories of her time in Japan, the loss of identity and Sachiko’s sorrows over Mariko, Etsuko tries to come to terms with her own past and her feeling of guilt in the recent suicide of Etsuko’s other daughter, Keiko.

A Pale View of Hills is the first novel written by the well known author Kazuo Ishiguro (‘The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go’). Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki and moved to England when he was only five years old.

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The Best Japanese Literature Yoko Ogawa
Yoko Ogawa

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).

The Housekeeper and the Professor - Yoko Ogawa, 2003

A housekeeper is dispatched by her agency to the house of a professor, a former mathematician who suffered brain damage because of a traffic accident. The professor can remember new memories for only 80 minutes.

The housekeeper is frustrated to find that he loves only mathematics and baseball and shows no interest whatsoever in anything or anyone else. 

The housekeeper has a 10 year old son and she starts bringing him to the professor's house. The professor is able to communicate with her son through their mutual enthusiasm for baseball. Through the bound between the professor and the son, the housekeeper gradually learns how to connect with the professor, if only for 80 minutes, and a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them.

 

In 2005 The Housekeeper and the Professor was made into the movie ‘The Professor's Beloved Equation’ directed by Takashi Koizumi.

Hotel Iris: A Novel - Yoko Ogawa, 1996

Seventeen year old Mari assists her mother taking care of the customers of their seaside hotel in Japan. Then one night they find a male customer with a prostitute in the hotel room. They have to expel the man from the hotel but when Mari hears his voice she gets curious. The man is a translator living on an island off the coast. Although there are rumours that the mysterious man may have killed his wife, Mari starts visiting him at his home. When her mother finds out about their relation, the police gets involved and events move to a dramatic climax…

  

 

Nominated for the Man Asia Literary Prize 1996

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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.

Classic Literature

Natsume Soseki 1914

Classic Literature

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?

Mystery, detective

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.

© 2016 Asia Books by J.Kruithof