Japanese literature is rarely promoted during book fairs. When one thinks about foreign literature, famous Japanse novelists rarely come to mind.
American or European literature is often the bulk of the Foreign Novels books on the shelves of your bookshop.
Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoyevsky are probably the most read classic authors from their respective countries.
Japan is better known for its unique form of short poems, the haiku or its comic books, the mangas.
Yet Japan is the home of some of the best writers in the world, even though only 2 of them ever received a Nobel Prize.
Japanese book on display in a bookshop, More and more bookstores stock Japanese novels and mangas (by UCCS Kraemer Family Library)
But one of the good things, when you live outside Japan and want to read Japanese books, is that the Japanese language is so complicated and laborious to translate that publishers, in their infinite wisdom, will only translate the best of the best. So rest assured that whatever makes it to the shelves of your bookstore has been very carefully curated.
If you want to learn more about Japan, or if you are planning a trip to the Land of The Rising Sun, or even if you want to learn Japanese, any of the Japanese books you will find in your bookshop will teach you about the uniqueness of the Japanese culture.
It is even truer if you are looking to live in Japan for a while (or forever), that reading some of the Japanese literary classics will probably teach you more about the traditions and lifestyle of the country than any anime or manga will.
Watching or reading Naruto won’t teach you much about actual Japan.
So we’ve selected a few of the best Japanese novels just for you.
Original title: Sevuntiin
Genre: fiction, novel
Published in 1961.
From the same author: Hiroshima Notes.
One of the only two Japanese writers to ever receive a Nobel Prize of Literature, Kenzaburô Ôé won the prize thanks to this amazing novel and is considered to be his masterpiece.
The plot takes place in the 1960’s when Japan was facing a surge of ultra-nationalism (not too dissimilar from today). The country is still healing from the defeat and the horrors it faced during World War II. It is in this context that the main character of the novel, only named as Seventeen throughout the book, will have to navigate.
The 17 years old young man is starting to explore his sexuality, and often struggles with it. Showing some violent feelings towards his family who do not understand him and fails to help him through the complicated intricacies of teenagehood.
Like many teens going through that period, the young man will set aside his reason and logic and will let himself be easily influenced.
Seventeen meets dodgy characters, claiming to be right-wing partisans but ultimately being ultra-nationalists. While growing closer to them, Seventeen drifts away from his family and especially his sister, a nurse, who he thinks leans too much to the left.
The sentiment of finally belonging to a group, to have a purpose, blurs Seventeen’s reality even when he agrees to wear a uniform looking much like the ones German SS soldiers wore.
Seventeen goes through his rebellious years …
A true satire of this period of Japan’s History will find some very current echo 25 years later.
Original title: Umibe no Kafka, 海辺のカフカ
Genre: fiction, novel.
Published in 2002.
From the same author: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Norwegian Wood.
Often criticised for shallow characters and inconsistent plots, Murakami never leaves you indifferent. You either love his books or hate them. What cannot be taken away from this novelist is his story-telling craft. Kafka on the Shore is a 600 pages long novel but it will most likely keep you awake, turning pages all night long.
Some critics have described his word as “travelling in a parallel world” and it is true that the reader will find some aspects of Murakami to be strange. But nonetheless, the themes he approaches resonate well with millions of readers through East Asia.
Murakami (on the right) receives the Jerusalem Literature prize in 2009.
Full of absurdity, irony and angst, Kafka on the Shore, follows two different main characters through two different plot lines. The first one Kafka embarks on a journey to run away from home to escape his father while the second plot follows Nakata’s story, an elderly professional cat finder.
All characters are linked to these complex stories which, little by little, will entangle. An amazing tale, sometimes weird, sometimes funny but filled with unexpected twists that slowly unravel the plot.
Want to read Japanese books in the original language? Look for Japanese classes London on Superprof.
Orginal Title: The afternoon Towing, 午後の曳航
Genre: philosophical tale
Published in 1963.
From the same author: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
Although the author is criticised for his nationalism, he notably defended the gay community in the years preceding his failed coup and dramatic sepukku, or suicide ritual. Nominated three times for a Nobel Prize for Literature, he never won it.
The story of this book is also one of a teenage boy. Noboru, 13 years old, struggles with his mother’s remarriage to a sailor. At first, the young man thought to have found a new paternal figure but quickly realised that his stepfather had nothing of the pirate he pictured him to be but was just a decent guy.
The gang of youngsters Noboru spends his time with, casually go around torturing innocent animals in an attempt to find their masculinity. But quickly animals are not enough and Noboru stepfather becomes the subject of their next plan.
Probably not for sensible souls, this book deals with the serious subjects of glory and honour, alienation and gender roles.
Original title: Saigo no Shogun, 最後の将軍
Genre: historical fiction.
Published in 1967.
From the same author: Clouds above the Hill.
Not well known in Europe, is the Japanese equivalent of England’s Bernard Cornwell. Both write amazing historical fictions.
If you were the type to fall asleep during History lesson, fear not because Shiba Ryotaro has a knack to make his story incredibly entertaining, and this book of his was only translated from Japanese because it is such a page-turner.
This book tells the story of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last Shogun of the Tokugawa family. The story depicts a nostalgic and endearing man who will choose the path of peace of his country. Marking the end of 260 years of feudal Japan, his abdication is the beginning of Modern Japan.
An oil painting of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last Shogun to have reigned over Japan and the main character of Shiba Ryotaro’s book.
Far from being an accurate biography of the last Shogun, the book is very romanced and sources are never quoted and verified facts are few. Nevertheless, Shiba Ryotaro’ style and story-telling talent will immerse you in this pivotal period of Japanese History.
Original title: Manatsu no Hoteishiki.
Genre: mystery thriller
Published in 2014.
From the same author: The Devotion of Suspect X, Journey Under the Midnight Sun.
A Midsummer’s Equation is part of the Galileo series, which in Japan is a very popular set of books following the adventures of the physicist Yukawa and his old friend Yochimu, a police detective, the couple of them trying to solve mysterious cases.
The guest of a seashore resort is found dead at the bottom of the local cliffs. The victim is a former policeman. The cause of death, carbon monoxide poisoning. Yukawa starts investigating.
Full of surprising twists, the novel will charm fans of thrillers, a genre that Japan is often overlooked for.
While we put forward a few names of Japanese literature, many more are to be discovered.
Above are only some relatively modern literature classics, but Japan’s literature art is much older than that.
The Tale of Genji is considered to be the very first book of the Japanese literature. Dating from the Heian period, the text tells the life at the Emperor’s court during the 11th century. It was written to entertain the Imperial court of the time and some scholars consider it to be the first historical novel.
If you prefer samurai stories, you might be interested in Musashi, a book by Japanese author Yoshikawa Eiji, which tells the (romanticised) story of the greatest Japanese swordsman who ever lived, Miyamoto Musashi.
Vagabond is a manga series depicting the adventures of the legendary swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi. The story and the drawing are from Inoue Takehiko (by Swiv).
This book is more than just an epic adventure novel. It will take you from Kyoto to Edo while describing how Japanese people live during the Tokugawa Shogunate. It also approaches the themes of Buddhism, Shinto and describes accurately the discipline of the warrior class of medieval Japan.
Japan’s unique style of poetry, the haiku, are easy to read as they are so short. Famous haikus poets include Akutagawa Ryunosuke or Sōseki Natsume.
Manga is very popular in Japan and categories are done according to age and gender ( by kndynt2099).
And if you’re more of a movie person, Japan won’t disappoint. See our top 10 Japanese Anime films to watch.
Finally, learn more about the Japanese culture with these guides on: