January in Japan is a hashtag going around social media to encourage reading Japanese literature in January. As good a time as any if you ask me. I’ve kicked off the year with japanese literature before; in january 2018 a month after Kazuo Ishiguro won the nobel peace prize I read some of his books. And if I remember anything I remember the mood they set. Cold, pale and hard comes to mind and a palpable distance to the characters, places and times. January being it’s long and frigid self serves as a fitting backdrop for literature like that. And while I may be wrong, most japanese literature that I’ve read has had this disconnect for me, which is why I often don’t enjoy reading it. Only if the story connects with something truly special do I manage to enjoy these tales. There are a few examples of books like this: Never let me go – Kazuo Ishiguro, The memory police by Yoko Ogawa, Before the coffee gets cold by Toshikazy Kawaguchi and Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (this one is korean, but set in japan).
So where to begin if you’ve never read Japanese literature before – my number one tip is to always do your research and choose the books that speak to you or fall within the genre of your liking. But here are a few suggestions:
The very first book – EVER
The tale of Genji by the Kyoto noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century CE- not only the first japanese novel, but is widely considered to be the first novel ever written anywhere in the world.
Undoubtedly the most famous japanese writer whom most will have heard of with his work translated into 50 different languages he is a big seller all over the world. (An oddly enough, still not a Nobel prize winner, why is that?)
Some of his books have also been made into movies. A whole book can be written on how to start reading Murakami and what books to begin with, but some of his most notable and popular works would be “A wild sheep chase”, “Norwegian Wood”, “Kafka on the shore”, “1Q84”, “The wind-up bird chronicle” and his memoir “What I talk about when I talk about running”. Note: Murakami writes with much imagination and surrealism, often called urban fantasy or magical realism.
The Nobel Prize Winners
The first japanese author to win the prestigious Nobel literature award, in 1968. He was a part of a group of writers that started the literary journal “The artistic age” an “art for arts sake” movement. The Nobel committee cited three of his works “snow country” which stands as a modern classic today and is considered is masterpiece, “thousand cranes” and “The old capital”.
When learning that he had been awareded the Nobel prize in literature in 1994 he said ” I am writing about the dignity of human beings”. He has published over 700 works in form of essays, short stories and novels. One of his most notable works is a semi-autobiographical novel about a fathers who has to come to terms with his son being born severely mentally disabled.
awarded the nobel prize in literature in 2017 was born in Japan but moved to England with his parents when he was only 5. His novel “The remains of the day” won the booker prize and was adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma thompson. The movie was nominated for 8 oscar awards. He later wrote “Never let me go” which was also adapted into film starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. His most recent book Klara and the sun came out march 2021. Note: His multicultural background merges his western and japanese background in his literature as well. He writes fiction and drama that sometimes crosses over to science fiction
Notable Female Japanese Writers
Banana Yoshimoto might be a name you’ve heard already as she’s one of Japans most popular female voices. (And a mentioned favorite of BTS’s RM if you’re a K-pop fan.) Her novel “Kitchen” that came out in 1989 is a beloved favorite depicting mothers and the power of the kitchen. “Banana” is a pseudonym she adopted from her love of banana flowers and that she found purposefully androgynous.
One of TIME’s best 10 books of 2020 was Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and eggs. She pushes the Japanese traditionalists buttons with her feminist novel that became a bestseller. For over a decade she has slowly built a loyal following which has led her books to be translated into more than 20 languages. In 2019 she publicly confronted Murakami on his female characters serving only as secondary characters to sexually please the men and left him defensive.
Ogawa has published more than 50 works of fiction and non-fiction and won numerous awards for her work, yet most of her work remains untranslated. In 2020 she won the American book award for her dystopian “The memory police” and a book that was also shortlisted for the booker prize. She often writes about human connections and memory, making the memory police a great book to read to get an insight into her work.
“Convenience store person” is Murata’s biggest hit, her first work translated into english (convenience store woman) and 30 other languages with 1,5 millions sold only in Japan. Murata herself worked as a convenience store woman for 18 years. Her writing often deals with the different consequences of not conforming to society based on gender. For this she won the “Sense of gender” award.
Known for her literary critisism through poetry and and peculiar fiction, she’s been translated to over 15 languages. Some of her most popular translated books being “Strange weather in Tokyo”, “The then loves of mr. Nishino and People from my neighborhood.
Other japanese books I’ve picked up along the way, that you also might want to take a closer look at.