You’re a reader.
I bet you already know Haruki Murakami.
And that Banana Yoshimoto is not some kind of weird Japanese fruit mutation (google “square watermelons”—no kidding).
But if you’ve ever wondered about the mindset behind their books, or any creative product of Japanese culture, well, I think it’s time to have a quick swim in the deeper waters of modern Japanese literature.
Japanese literature is full of classics, but due to the complexity of the language, the Western world is—most of the time—only introduced to translations. A classic translation is still a classic, yes, but we can all agree that there is something missing; a portion of the writer’s soul…something untraceable, but heavily influential.
Wouldn’t you agree?
So, if a devoted reader like yourself isn’t reading Japanese novels in Japanese yet…let me tell you, there’s a whole other world of non-samurai-related history and complex emotions you’re missing out on.
It is time! Leave that TV remote where it is, shelve that video game controller! Let me take you through a list of 10 living Japanese authors you should add to your reading list, all complete with some suggested reading to change up your Japanese mindset.
But prepare yourself, this journey you’re about to embark on can get pretty dark…
A Little Background on Japanese Post-war Fiction
Japan’s post-war literature is one of many faces. After the defeat of the empire in WWII, the land of the rising sun was crushed…instead of a beacon of honor and duty it resembled a driverless train. Yearning for a new sense of identity, the authors of the time wrote about what was in order to justify what is; all in the hopes of eventually seeing what was bound to come—a bright future.
A very proud country still coping with defeat and post-atomic horror, its stories speak of disaffection, mourn a loss of purpose, flirt with darkness, but mostly, they seek to identify the intellectual and moral issues of that time for the purpose of raising awareness—socially, ecologically, and politically. A familiar aim found in every notable work of fiction, ancient or modern.
Japanese writers born in the 20th century wrote about the issues of war, religion, and morality with a unique, more personal intent—diving deep into the human psyche.
In recent years, that fixation on exploring the human condition has become more prominent. Modern Japanese writers are preoccupied with pushing their characters (mostly the narrator) to their limits. In Japanese fiction, plot development and action have often been of secondary interest to emotional issues and the moral boundaries we often cross—or do not cross.
Did I mention this topic could get a little dark?
Get started with a few of these brilliant and controversial minds…
10 Famous and Modern Japanese Authors You Should Include in Your Reading List
1. Kenzaburo Oe
Kenzaburo Oe (大江 健三郎, Ōe Kenzaburō) is a prominent figure of modern Japanese literature. Born in 1935 in a quiet village in the forests of Shikoku, he began writing seriously at the age of 23 and won the Nobel Prize for literature almost 40 years later, in 1994.
According to the Yomiuri Shinbun, Oe created “an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.” Indeed, strongly influenced by French and American literature, Oe writes about the dignity of human beings. He deals with sociopolitical issues, exploring non-conformism and existentialism. It is a pity a large portion of his work remains untranslated, but that won’t stop you now will it?
My recommendation: “The Changling” (2010). It is his newest novel in translation, and it explores the relationship between two friends after one commits suicide.
2. Banana Yoshimoto
Banana Yoshimoto (よしもと ばなな, Yoshimoto Banana) was born in 1964 in Tokyo by the name of Mahoko Yoshimoto ((吉本 真秀子 Yoshimoto Mahoko). Banana, who writes her name in hiragana, chose her pen name in college, after her love of banana flowers, and because the name was “rather cute and androgynous.” She is the daughter of Takaaki Yoshimoto, the well-known poet, critic, and philosopher. She grew up in a liberal family, which could have contributed to her two most common themes: “the exhaustion of young Japanese in contemporary Japan” and “the way in which terrible experiences shape a person’s life.”
Banana is a Japanese woman trapped in the urban jungle that is modern Tokyo. She is preoccupied with problems concerning the youth, urban existentialism, and the boundaries between imagination and reality. Her books are targeted not only towards the young generation, whose problems are most definitely related to her recurring themes, but to the young at heart as well.
My recommendation: “Kitchen“（キッチン). Banana’s debut novel was written in 1988. It includes two stories, “Kitchen” and “Moonlight Shadow,” told from the point of view of two young Japanese women living in modern Japan. It deals with themes such as mother-daughter relationships, love in a loveless world, transsexuality, and tragedy.
3. Haruki Murakami
Murakami and Yoshimoto are probably the best-known Japanese novelists in the Western world. Chances are you’ve seen a book or two of theirs during your last visit to the library.
Haruki Murakami (村上 春樹, Murakami Haruki) was born in 1949, in the baby boom following World War II. He is an internationally celebrated author, with books being translated into more than 50 languages. His latest novel, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” (色彩を持たない多崎つくると、彼の巡礼の年, Shikisai o motanai Tazaki Tsukuru to, kare no junrei no toshi) sold one million copies within one month of its Japanese release. His most popular themes focus on experimentation with the boundaries between reality and imagination. He is a surrealist with melancholic and fatalistic narratives; an explorer of alienation and loneliness.
My recommendation: “1Q84“ (いちきゅうはちよん Ichi-Kyū-Hachi-Yon). “1Q84” is a 1000 pages extravaganza which Murakami spent four years writing after coming up with the opening sequence and title. A clear reference to George Orwell’s 1984, it follows the story of a young woman named Aomame who enters a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84. It is at the same time a love story, a mystery, a fantasy, a novel of self-discovery. With its bizarre imagery, it might seem refreshingly heavier than any YA light reading you might have done in recent years.
4. Ryu Murakami
Chances are, you know this Murakami as the writer of the notorious 1999 film “Audition.” Ryū Murakami (村上 龍, Murakami Ryū) was born in Nagasaki in 1952. A controversial figure in Japanese literature, he wrote his first novel while still in college. From 1976 until today, he’s written countless novels, short stories, and essays, mainly dealing with dark themes in an even darker Japan: drug use, murder, disillusionment, and war.
My recommendation: “In the Miso Soup” (イン ザ・ミソスープ In za Misosūpu). A twenty-year-old boy named Kenji works as a Japanese “nightlife” guide for foreigners. What he does is take tourists around the sex clubs and hostess bars of Tokyo. The novel follows what happens after Kenji receives a call from an American named Frank. Frank requests Kenji’s exclusive services for three nights in a row.
5. Natsuo Kirino
Japan has recently experienced a rise of published detective fiction written by female authors, of which Natsuo Kirino is the leading figure with her breakout novel, “Out” (1997), becoming a best-seller in less than a month. Born in Kanazawa in 1951, Natsuo Kirino (桐野 夏生 Kirino Natsuo), is the pen name of Mariko Hashioka.
She started out as a romantic fiction writer but soon switched to detective fiction; a genre she continues to pursue. Because her heroines (unexpectedly) prove to be capable of some pretty dark things, her fiction has often been labelled “feminist noir,” according to J. Madison Davis of World Literature Today. Her realistic prose has turned her into a fan favorite among the female reading population of Japan.
My recommendation: “Out” (1997). Four women share a close friendship while working for a bento factory; a series of events finds them engaged in a murder for which they must suffer the consequences.
6. Shintaro Ishihara
Shintaro Ishihara is probably the most controversial figure of this list. He is not, in fact, a writer by profession. Shintaro Ishihara (石原 慎太郎 Ishihara Shintarō), born in 1932, is a notable and Japanese politician and the former governor of Tokyo (now retired). He is most notorious for his radical position against foreigners living in Japan, especially those of Chinese and Korean descent. If you can get past the politics, Ishihara wrote some pretty good novels in his youth.
My recommendation: “Season of the Sun” (太陽の季節 , Taiyō no Kisetsu, 1955). It is a sociopolitical novel about a rebellious youth in post-war Japan, which sparked a youth sub-culture called “The Sun Tribe.”
7. Mitsuyo Kakuta
Mitsuyo Kakuta ( 角田光代 , Kakuta Mitsuyo) was born in Yokohama in 1967. A representative of the modern Japanese literary scene, she has written over a dozen novels. Along with other well-known female writers, such as Natsuo Kirino, Kakuta critiques a cold, egomaniacal, Western-influenced Japanese society. A society fixated on money, easy fixes, and lack of kindness.
My recommendation: “Woman on the Other Shore” (2007), is a compelling novel about everyday life. The winner of the Naoki prize, the novel follows Sayoko, a 35-year-old housekeeper. Sayoko, the typical Japanese housewife and mother, starts working for Aoi—a free, independent woman in passionate pursuit of her career. Sayoko finds herself captivated by Aoi’s lifestyle, and through their friendship she reevaluates the meaning behind her choices in life.
8. Tru Miyamotoe
Teru Miyamoto (宮本 輝, Miyamoto Teru), born in 1947, is among Japan’s most widely read fiction writers and essayists. His novel “Maboroshi no Hikari” was made into a film in 1995, and his early works were winners of some prestigious Japanese literary awards: “Doro no kawa” (Muddy River) of the Dazai Osamu Prize, and “Hotarugawa” (River of Fireflies) of the Akutagawa Prize.
My recommendation: “Kinshu: Autumn Brocade” (2007) is his first work to be published in translation. Aki and Yasuaki, a divorced pair of more than 10 years, meet again by chance at a mountain resort. What seems at first to be a precarious move by Aki to reconnect with Yasuaki, quickly turns into a story of understanding and personal healing.
9. Amy Yamada
Amy Yamada (山田 詠美, Yamada Eimi), born in Tokyo in 1959 as Futaba Yamada (山田 双葉, Yamada Futaba), is a popular contemporary writer, known for her controversial topics. She dances through issues not typically discussed in Japanese society: sex, interracial relationships, racism, and xenophobia.
My recommendation: “Bedtime Eyes” (1985), is a novel reminiscent of the works of Douglas Coupland. While representing the Gen X concept, the novel explores the relationship between a Japanese woman and a black American man who tango between love, sex, and the variances between their culturally differing viewpoints.
10. Kenzo Kitakata
Kenzo Kitakata (北方 謙三 Kitakata Kenzō), born in 1947, is a Japanese mystery and historical fiction writer with a serious cult following. He is often compared to James M. Cain, and enjoys fame equivalent to that of the current Jo Nesbo craze. He served as the president of the Mystery Writers of Japan from 1997 to 2001, and is also the writer of two 13-volume series—each epic retellings of the Chinese classics “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” (Sangokushi) and “The Water Margin” (Suikoden).
My recommendation: “The Cage” (檻, Ori), is considered Kitakata’s signature novel. A story about a gangster forsaking his days of crime to be a supermarket manager, The Cage is about a man feeling trapped in an unfulfilling life. He soon realizes he needs to marry his previous outlaw life to the merits of his now easygoing lifestyle: a yakuza with a personal code of honor.
Harold Bloom, in his book “How to Read and Why,” firmly believes that we should keep on reading to discover, until we become ourselves, what benefit we can be to others.
Not far from the truth, the thing to remember from a language perspective is that you should just keep reading.
Read your Japanese textbooks, read as many subtitles as you can on FluentU, read those endless blocks of texts in your Japanese games, read your manga, read the intro and ending credits in your favorite anime, become better and better in this language and any other language that you pursue…even your native tongue.
Read the current news, a great essay, and your nephew’s homework on “What I did this summer.”
You will change your perception of the world, enhance your imagination, improve your memory; you will slowly become a better version of yourself.
Just read everything you can, anywhere you can, in whatever time you can manage.
Just. Keep. Reading.
Thanasis Karavasilis is a writer and lover of stories who was educated to be a teacher of English. He spends his time between worlds and inside pages; written or otherwise. You can get a glimpse of his adventures somewhere inside his hideout.
And One More Thing…
If you love learning colorful, cultural Japanese lessons, then I should also tell you about FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos like music videos, commercials, news, and inspiring talks and turns them into Japanese learning experiences. It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos, as you can see here:
FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
All definitions have multiple examples, and they’re written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you’d like to review to a vocab list.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.
The best part? FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and it suggests content and examples based on your vocabulary. You’ll have a 100% personalized experience.
The FluentU app is now available for iPhone and Android, and it’s also available as a website that you can use with your computer or tablet.
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