Literature is a wonderful source of happiness, as well as knowledge for people living all around the world. The education in Western countries puts an emphasis on European, American and Russian literature most of the time, and thus the jewels of the Far Eastern genius minds get ignored more often than not. That said, it should be mentioned that Japanese literature has been one of the most unique, the most interesting ones throughout the history of humankind. It manages to touch the hearts of people all over the world to this day. So in this post we shall introduce eight of the must-read Japanese novels from the 20th and 21st centuries! Let’s dig in.
1. Natsume Soseki – Kokoro (Heart)
The novel centres on a relationship of a young man and an elderly gentleman, who often meet and have long discussions about different topics. The young man refers to his companion by using the Japanese word sensei which translates to ‘teacher’. Things get interesting, when Sensei sends a letter to the young man where he has written about some of his deepest, darkest secrets.
Kokoro is usually introduced to the Japanese kids during high school. Some of the famous chapters are in the textbooks, and the kids can read the rest of the book if they feel like doing it. The story is told from the perspective of “I”, the above-mentioned young man. “I” meets Sensei in the very first chapter of the book, when on an outing with his friends. After “I” starts frequently visiting Sensei, we get introduced to the latter’s wife, and see that Sensei has a very cold personality, and never opens up to the people around him. One day we learn from Sensei’s wife that what led to this might have been “the death of his best friend”. From here on in we start learning about Sensei’s dark secrets and his past.
The book is considered to be one of the greatest creations of Japanese authors, and it’s well worth the fame it has accumulated.
2. Abe Kobo – Suna no Onna (The Woman in the Dunes)
The novel was first published in 1962, and was an instant hit. It got a prestigious literary award, a film contract and even an English translation deal the same year it was published. The book is in a way a twisted kidnapping story, and has a disturbing undertone to it, which is very specific to other Abe books too. Nevertheless, it is a very enjoyable read. The Woman in the Dunes was very popular with foreign audiences as well, and is a must-read if you want to understand the ins and outs of Japanese literature.
The story tells us of a man who has come to lead an inspection in seaside dunes. With a sudden escalation of the events and a unique twist, he gets trapped in a sandhole house, where a woman is living alone. He is expected to help her around the house and even more, make babies with her! In the beginning the man tries to escape several times, but alas, all of his attempts end in failure. The man spends years living here, and the events lead him to change so much that when a real opportunity of escape shows up, he doesn’t take it. The book is heavily symbolic, and represents human nature from a unique viewpoint.
3. Dazai Osamu – Ningen Shikkaku (No Longer Human)
Dazai is one of the most celebrated Japanese novelists of the 20th century, and has quite a few defining works, but the cake must go to the masterpiece of his life, No Longer Human. The story is considered to be highly autobiographical, and up to this day is the second best selling novel in Japan, right after the above mentioned Kokoro. The book touches such topics as suicide and struggles of an individual who is trying to fit into the society. As some of the critics have remarked, it is a ‘timeless novel’.
The story follows Oba Yozo, who is not familiar with such simple human emotions such as happiness or sorrow, a man who is afraid of other man. Dazai has split the novel into three parts, and each on describes a certain part of Oba’s life, from his early childhood into his late twenties. Throughout the novel we see Oba encounter with different women, whom he ends up leaving for one reason or another. Eventually, falling victim to the influences of his former schoolmate, Oba succumbs to a vicious cycle of consuming drugs and alcohol, which in the long run lead him to a mental institution. Oba has to deal with many feelings, such as guilt, regret and loneliness.
4. Murakami Haruki – After Dark
Murakami is probably the best known Japanese author in the Western world. He has been considered for Nobel Prize for Literature several times, and this made his fame blow up even more. He is mostly famous for his Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84, which is why I decided to include a less better known novel of his in this list.
After Dark is quite different from a regular Murakami novel in its style, but in my opinion it depicts his genius the best. It is a story about one night, and it is a short read, but long enough for you to finish it in one night, and live through the experiences of the characters together with them.
The story starts in a coffee house at midnight, and it lasts until about 7 am in the morning. We follow two sisters, Mari and Eri who are both pure and intelligent girls. However as the story goes on we learn that Eri, the eldest has been paralyzed and is in a coma for some time now. This takes us to another world, which is one of Murakami’s best qualities. We follow Mari and her adventures during the night, as well as sometimes return to Eri’s room and observe her surroundings.
Another key character is Takahashi, a man, who in a sense leads these two sisters to their collapse.
5. Yoshimoto Banana – Kitchen
Yoshimoto is the only female author in my list, and her writing is fascinating. Kitchen is her best known work, though she has some other really interesting novels and short stories. The novel deals with such topics as death of the loved ones, tragedy and how to cope with it. Yoshimoto uses food as a coping mechanism in her novel, hence the name, Kitchen. Even though it has some very dark plot lines, the overall novel will leave you with a sense of warmth and satisfaction as soon as you are finished reading it.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Mikage, a university student, whose parents have passed away years ago in a car accident. She has ever since been living with her grandparents. At the opening point of the novel, the grandfather is no longer alive, and we are told that her grandmother passed away a couple of days ago. Being left alone, without a single family member or a relative in the world, Mikage is taken in by one of her university friends and his mother (who turns out to be a cross-dressing man!). Unfortunately, tragedy keeps following them, and both Mikage and the boy who took her in try to find a new purpose to keep on living. This is where food comes in and helps them cope with their sorrows and hardships.
6. Mishima Yukio – Hojo no Umi (Sea of Fertility)
Mishima Yukio is one of the brightest Japanese authors. He has many other great novels, but the Sea of Fertility tetralogy is the one he is best known for, his masterpiece. It consists of four books, and all four books are written from the viewpoint of the main character, Honda Shigekuni. In the first book he is just a student at a law school, and in the last one he is a famous and accomplished judge. He goes through many trials throughout the four books, and at the end of the day, things from his past come back and haunt him, eventually destroying many aspects of his personal, as well as professional life.
The story tackles such themes as dreams and reincarnation. By writing these series, Mishima was trying to create the ‘ultimate novel’. The novel is written in four parts to represent the Buddhist ideology of ‘one spirit, four souls’. The four parts can also be associated with spring, summer, autumn and winter. Incidentally, the first book is titled Haru no Yuki (Spring Snow).
Mishima Yukio committed suicide, after the failure of his coup d’etat, the very day the fourth and the last novel was submitted to the publisher.
7. Yuasa Masaaki – Yoru wa Mijikashi Aruke yo Otome (Night is Short, Walk on Girl)
Up to this point we have been mostly discussing books which have been written and published in the 20th century. However, this one is from the 21st century, published in 2017, as a matter of fact. The book was a hit, and also got an animation deal not very long after its release. It’s a story about a girl who walks down the streets at night, going into bars and meeting people. As the book progresses, so do the adventures which she goes through during the night.
The black haired girl is followed through the night by her senpai (senior), who has tender feelings towards her. However, she doesn’t notice his feelings, and keeps saying “What a coincidence!” every time she runs into him. The night is full with many affairs and adventures for these two people. It is a cute pop romance, which manages to capture the hearts of its readers. Yoru wa Mijikashi Aruke yo Otome received several prestigious book awards.
8. Yoshikawa Eiji – Musashi
Musashi is a historical novel about one of the greatest samurai to have ever walked over the land of Japan, Miyamoto Musashi. The book is massive, but it’s extremely exciting, full of different adventures, trials and error on the part of the hero, friendship and love, betrayals and death… Well, basically everything you need in a good historical novel. The book was an instant hit back in the 30s when it was first serialized. It has been turned into several movies and dramas over the decades, it has been translated to over 10 languages, and most importantly it helped coin the Japanese image of Miyamoto Musashi.
The book starts with young Takezo (later Musashi), after the deciding battle of Sekigahara in 1600. It tells us the life of Musashi, how he grows from a trouble-maker and in an outlaw into a respected samurai. We travel throughout Japan together with Musashi, get to know some other influential people of the time, encounter Musashi’s first love, his life-long rival Sasaki Kojiro, and see how the Edo Period Japan was being shaped during its first decades.
Musashi walks the path of the samurai, and we follow him while he tries to reach perfection in the Way of Sword (kendo). One of the key themes of the novel is the rivalry of Musashi and Kojiro, and as expected, the book ends with their final and deciding duel at Ganroujima island, a duel, which is known to every single Japanese person even today, mostly thanks to the everlasting popularity of Yoshikawa’s novel.
These are some of the most beloved, most read books in Japan, and outside of Japan. All of the authors who were brought up in this list are accomplished novelists, and have a lot of great works, so if you do like the ones mentioned here, it would definitely be worth to check out the rest of their stuff!