japanese-short-stories

Japanese Short Stories: 16 Captivating Collections to Read in 2023

When you study Japanese, do you sometimes find yourself wishing you were somewhere else?

Maybe you even daydream of traveling to Japan yourself!

If that’s the case, you might have a reader’s brain like me, where you relish language, rhythm and storytelling.

So, close your Japanese textbook for a bit, because I’ve got a suggestion that I think you’re going to like. It’s time to swap those textbook passages for some Japanese short stories.

Here are 16 collections of famous Japanese short stories to add some fun to your study routine.

Contents

Japanese Short Stories

1. “Breaking into Japanese Literature: Seven Modern Classics in Parallel Text”

Breaking into Japanese Literature: Seven Modern Classics in Parallel Text

Author: Giles Murray

A fascinating and satisfyingly cohesive read, “Breaking into Japanese Literature: Seven Modern Classics in Parallel Text” offers bilingual versions of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s most iconic pieces, “Rashōmon” and “In a Grove,” as well as four sections of Sōseki Natsume’s “Ten Nights of Dreams.”

The Japanese is accompanied by comprehensive, same-page dictionaries and relies on paragraph numbering for quick referencing. The book is also divided into sections depending on your reading ability, with level one being the easiest and three the most difficult.

2. “Exploring Japanese Literature: Read Mishima, Tanizaki and Kawabata in the Original”

Exploring Japanese Literature: Read Mishima, Tanizaki and Kawabata in the Original

Author: Giles Murray

In the same vein as Giles Murray’s previous book, “Exploring Japanese Literature: Read Mishima, Tanizaki and Kawabata in the Original” offers an easy-to-follow collection of equally classic tales.

While its most notable addition is Yukio Mishima’s “Patriotism,” the book also contains Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s “The Secret” and a clip from Yasunari Kawabata’s novel and masterwork, “Snow Country.” Although not categorized by reading levels, the stories are longer and generally more challenging than those in “Breaking into Japanese Literature.”

3. “Short Stories in Japanese: New Penguin Parallel Text”

Short Stories in Japanese: New Penguin Parallel Text (Japanese Edition)

Author: Michael Emmerich

This 272-page compendium consists of a variety of short stories by both well-known and emerging contemporary writers, with its most famous contributors being Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto.

Perhaps the most challenging on this list, “Short Stories in Japanese: New Penguin Parallel Text” flaunts a simplistic and authentic-feeling layout: the Japanese is printed vertically, and all notes can be found in the back of the book rather than below the text.

4. “Read Real Japanese Fiction: Short Stories by Contemporary Writers”

Read Real Japanese Fiction: Short Stories by Contemporary Writers

Author: Michael Emmerich

Another solid option for those looking to catch up on acclaimed modern short stories is “Read Real Japanese Fiction: Short Stories by Contemporary Writers.”

The collection is structurally similar to “Short Stories in Japanese” and flaunts a fascinatingly versatile array of genres, from horror to drama. Additionally, three of the six writers spotlighted are female (Banana Yoshimoto, Hiromi Kawakami and Yoko Tawada).

5. “A Treasury of Japanese Folktales: Bilingual English and Japanese Edition”

Treasury of Japanese Folktales: Bilingual English and Japanese Edition

Author: Yuri Yasuda

This beautifully illustrated book will allow even beginners to learn about traditional Japanese culture and values through folktales. Stories are presented in both English and Japanese. The basic Japanese kanji are accompanied by furigana.

You can read about the Peach Boy, the Tongue-Cut Sparrow and the Lucky Cauldron, among other characters. The 12 stories in this book are some of the most famous Japanese fairy tales and legends still told today.

6. “Koizumi Yakumo Complete Works”

Koizumi Yakumo sakuhinsyu sanjyunisakuhingaponban: Miminashi Houiti Rokurokubi Yukionna nado (Japanese Edition)

Author: Koizumi Yakumo

The author, born in Greece as Lafcadio Hearn, adopted the Japanese name Koizumi Yakumo after moving all around the world and settling in Japan in 1890.

He became fluent in Japanese and wrote down many famous Japanese stories of ghosts and the paranormal, which are both part of his complete works.

7. “Ichiyo Higuchi Complete Works”

Ichiyo Higuchi Complete works (Japanese Edition)

Author: Ichiyo Higuchi

Though she only lived to the age of 24, Ichiyo Higuchi wrote a number of short stories during her brief life. She is so well respected that she appears on Japan’s 5,000 yen bill.

As her stories were written during the Meiji era, readers should expect to encounter some more archaic Japanese. In this way, the book is a good challenge for more advanced readers, or those who want to progress onto reading longer classical Japanese texts in their original forms.

8. “Ryunosuke Akutagawa Complete Works”

Ryunosuke Akutagawa Complete works (Japanese Edition)

Author: Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Serving posthumously as the inspiration for Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize, Akutagawa Ryunosuke is widely regarded as “the father of the Japanese short story.” You can view a number of Akutagawa’s stories online as well.

Some of his most famous works include 「地 獄変」 (じごくへん – “Hell Screen”) and「藪の中」(やぶの なか – “In a Grove”), which became the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s memorable film,「羅生門」(らしょうもん – “Rashōmon”).

9. 「星新一 ショートショートセレクション」(Shinichi Hoshi Short Short Selection)

星新一ショートショートセレクション〈9〉さもないと

Author: Shinichi Hoshi

Shinichi Hoshi, a very prolific author, is famous for stories that are just a few pages long. He has written over 1,000 short tales in total.

Make sure to check carefully that you’re buying the Japanese edition before purchasing, as the original and the English translation seem to be mixed together.

10. の小説」(Palm-of-the-Hand Stories)

Tenohira no shosetsu

Author: Yasunari Kawabata

Best known as the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, Yasunari Kawabata is a prolific novelist and short story writer with a proclivity for breathtaking and poetic imagery. This collection features many of his novellas and short stories, and can also be purchased in English here.

He also wrote novels, of which some of the most popular are 「雪国」(Snow Country) (English version here) and 「古都」(The Old Capital) (English version here).

11. 「とかげ」(Lizard)

Lizard [Japanese Edition]

Author: Banana Yoshimoto

One of Japan’s most famous contemporary female writers, Banana Yoshimoto (her real name is Mahoko Yoshimoto) has been lauded countless times for her portrayal of eccentric, albeit relatable, characters. This popular short story collection of hers is also available in English.

Yoshimoto has published a mixture of novels, short stories and essays, and is most well known internationally for her debut story, 「キッチン」(Kitchen), also available in English, for which she won the 6th Kaien Newcomer Writers Prize in 1987.

12. 「めくらやなぎと眠る女」(Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman)

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (Japanese Edition)

Author: Haruki Murakami

If you haven’t heard of Haruki Murakami, I’d be surprised. Arguably Japan’s most critically acclaimed novelist (and equally polarizing writer), Murakami offers bizarre style fused with surreal, dreamlike storytelling.

He has published many well-received short stories, including this set, which actually originated as an English-only collection before being “reverse-imported” in Japanese.

13. 「象の消滅」(The Elephant Vanishes)

Zō no shōmetsu: tanpen senshū, 1980-1991

Author: Haruki Murakami

Luckily for us, the bulk of Murakami’s work has been translated into English, making for easy “parallel text” learning.

This book is a collection of 17 short stories, originally published in magazines. They reflect Murakami’s typical themes of loneliness, loss and surrealism. It’s available in English here.

14. 「神の子どもたちはみな踊る」(All God’s Children Are Dancing)

神の子どもたちはみな踊る

Author: Haruki Murakami

Here’s one more set of short stories from Murakami. It’s worth noting that his continued literary accomplishments have fed into rumors about whether or not he will win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

This book about the 1995 Kobe earthquake contains six short stories centered around people who, while not directly affected by the physical devastation of the quake, find their lives changed in its aftermath.

15. 「5分後に意外な結末」(5 Minute Stories: An Unexpected End)

Illustrator: Tatsuki Fujimoto

The “5 Minute Stories” series is great for short reads. They are mostly suitable for readers between JLPT N2 and N3 level.

This one features 13 short stories, all of them intriguing and surprising, even for adult readers.

16. 「100万回生きたねこ(The Cat That Lived a Million Times)

The Cat That Lived a Million Times (100 Man-kai ikita neko)

Author: Yoko Sano

A cat with more than nine lives is reborn over and over, living with owners he dislikes. Until one day, when he gains an understanding of identity through experience.

This tale of reincarnation and attaining enlightenment was written for children but can certainly be read by adults as well.

Bonus Resources: Online Databases

Many online databases and digital libraries offer unlimited access to dozens, sometimes hundreds, of famous short stories in the original Japanese.

These are perfect for…

  • Intermediate and advanced learners.
  • Those trying to save money.
  • Those interested in vast, eclectic collections of stories.

Japanese Text Initiative

A digital library sponsored by the University of Virginia and the University of Pittsburgh, the Japanese Text Initiative is an excellent resource for classical Japanese works of fiction.

The site includes full-text versions (with or without furigana) of dozens of Japanese writers’ works, from poetry to short stories to essays. Some notable writers are Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Sōseki Natsume. Oh, and Bashō Matsuo for those into poetry, too.

Aozora

Aozora is an enormous database with a rich supply of famous Japanese short stories. Everything on the website—including the names, titles and search results—is in 日本語 (にほんご – Japanese), so be prepared to immerse yourself entirely in the language before proceeding.

To search, choose the first hiragana of either the author’s last name or the title of the work you want to read. Once you’ve landed the correct result, you can view the story as an HTML file in your web browser, or download it.

The Japan P.E.N. Club Digital Library

Like Aozora, the Japan P.E.N. Club Digital Library is a sprawling database containing a plethora of literature, including nonfiction and poetry. You can find excerpts of novels (which can be treated as short stories if you’re practicing for novels in the long run) and novellas/short stories by clicking on the 小説 (しょうせつ – novel) link.

Famous writers included on this site are Yukio Mishima, Sōseki Natsume and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. Personally, I recommend a brilliant piece of short fiction called 片腕 (かたうで – “One Arm”) by Yasunari Kawabata.

Are You Ready for Short Stories in Japanese?

Remember that short story prose is nothing like textbook passages or newspaper articles. Fiction is often more flowery, metaphorical and rule-defying than nonfiction.

To read and ultimately comprehend Japanese short stories, you have to reach a certain level of Japanese proficiency, otherwise you may end up discouraged and disappointed.

You’re probably ready to turn that title page if…

  • You can fluently read hiragana and katakana, and have an intermediate or advanced kanji ability.
  • You have a fairly vast vocabulary and a keen understanding of Japanese phrases, like onomatopoeia and slang.
  • You have already practiced reading real Japanese with newspapers and children’s books (materials with simple and clear writing).
  • You are only looking up the occasional new word using your Japanese dictionary or dictionary app, and not the whole page.
  • You have enough time to commit to reading—don’t give up if a story is taking longer than you thought it would!

If you want help getting your vocabulary up to speed or priming your mind for Japanese study time, you can try using FluentU, available on the web or as an app for iOS and Android.

FluentU’s authentic Japanese videos (including things like news reports, music videos and inspiring talks) come with interactive subtitles to help you learn more effectively. You can use the personalized flashcards and quizzes to study vocabulary and slang, which can help prepare you for reading Japanese short stories.

 

Take it from me: nothing beats repetitive kanji drills like curling up with a good short story.

And you never know what you might read—or, rather, what you might learn.

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