Reading List

These are my top five reading recommendations for contemporary Japanese literature in translation, listed in chronological order. I chose them for what I perceive as the beauty and depth of their writing as well as their thematic relevance to broader historical and social currents in postwar Japan.

(1) Masks
(1958, 女面)
by Enchi Fumiko

(2) A Personal Matter
(1964, 個人的な体験)
by Ōe Kenzaburō

(3) Lonely Woman
(1977, ロンリー・ウーマン)
by Takahashi Takako

(4) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
(1985, 世界の終わりとハードボイルドワンダーランド)
by Murakami Haruki

(5) Grotesque
(2003, グロテスク)
by Kirino Natsuo

………..

It’s difficult to limit myself to just five, so I’d like to list a few other books that I particularly enjoyed. I am always open to suggestions for additions and revisions.

The River Ki, Ariyoshi Sawako
The Square Persimmon, Atōda Takashi
Supermarket, Azuchi Satoshi
Twinkle Twinkle, Ekuni Kaori
Chain Mail: Addicted to You, Ishizaki Hiroshi
The Eighth Day, Kakuta Mitsuyo
Snakes and Earrings, Kanehara Hitomi
The House of the Sleeping Beauties, Kawabata Yasunari
The Briefcase, Kawakami Hiromi
The Cat in the Coffin, Koike Mariko
Toddler-Hunting, Kōno Taeko
The Woman with the Flying Head, Kurahashi Yumiko
The Summer of the Ubume, Kyōgoku Natsuhiko
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Mishima Yukio
All She Was Worth, Miyabe Miyuki
The Temple of the Wild Geese, Mizukami Tsutomu
In the Miso Soup, Murakami Ryū
Snakelust, Nakagami Kenji
Now You’re One of Us, Nonami Asa
The Diving Pool, Ogawa Yōko
Lala Pipo, Okuda Hideo
The Stones Cry Out, Okuizumi Hikaru
Fires on the Plain, Ōoka Shōhei
Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse, Otsuichi
Innocent World, Sakurai Ami
Ring, Suzuki Kōji
The Makioka Sisters, Tanizaki Junichirō
The Bridegroom Was a Dog, Tawada Yōko
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, Uehashi Nahoko
The Stories of Ibis, Yamamoto Hiroshi
The Inugami Clan, Yokomizu Seishi
Goodbye Tsugumi, Yoshimoto Banana
The Friends, Yumoto Kazumi

31 thoughts on “Reading List

  1. facultyroom says:

    Great list. Great blog. I see you have Fumiko Enchi’s book MASKS, what do you think of her book THE WAITING YEARS?
    I love this book.
    Thanks for the list.
    Jen

    • Kathryn says:

      Thank you for your comment! I really enjoy The Waiting Years, too, although I like the final revenge in Masks much better. When it comes to payback, the less restrained the better, I think. I also like A Tale of False Fortunes. It has everything! Love, mystery, politics, demonic possession….

  2. Arti says:

    Hi,

    I stumbled upon your blog and it’s exactly what I need. I’ve enjoyed browsing through and will definitely come back for more in-depth exploration. Recently I’ve joined a ‘Japanese Literature Challenge’ and have to select a book to read. I’m also a film lover, just gone through a few of director Yasujiro Ozu’s classics, like ‘Tokyo Story’ and ‘Floating Weeds’. I’m looking for the literary equivalent of Ozu’s films… post WWII, reflective, relational, transcendental. Could you help me with a few recommendations?

    • Kathryn says:

      Thank you for your comments, and I apologize for my delay in replying to you. I’ve been thinking about what to recommend, and I came to the conclusion that the closest equivalent to something like Tokyo Story in literature is probably Kawabata Yasunari’s 1970 novel The Sound of the Mountain. The novel that has come to be known as Kawabata’s definitive work, Snow Country, is also enjoyable, and it was made into a film in 1957 by director Toyoda Shirō. If you’re a fan of Ozu, you may want to consider checking out Toyoda as well.

      A bit less canonical but still running in the contemplative home drama vein as Tokyo Story are Miyamoto Teru’s Kinshu: Autumn Brocade and Furui Yoshikichi’s Ravine and Other Stories.

      I ran a search on the “Japanese Literature Challenge” you mentioned, and it looks pretty cool. Good luck!

  3. Kathryn – You’ve inspired me to start reading literature again (and not just watch movies)! But…where do I start?

    • Kathryn says:

      If only I knew! Seriously, having been away from Japan for so long, I am starting to feel very unhip and unwith it.

      I know this is a bit cliché, but I always enjoy reading Murakami Haruki. He’s well-translated in English and very accessible in Japanese. His writing style and system of imagery both greatly appeal to me, and he’s one of the few Japanese writers that I can really lose myself with in the original language. And he’s got so much stuff that hasn’t been translated yet…..

      If you’re tired of Murakami and looking for something fresh and new, my best recommendation is to go to the Tsutaya above the Starbucks outside of the Hachikō exit at Shibuya station. They always have special displays of books by up-and-coming writers that fit comfortably in the wide margin between literary pretension and mass-market garbage. Various staff from the store write out ridiculously cute display cards explaining why they like such-and-such a writer or such-and-such a book. (And also the t-point rewards system is surprisingly worth the trouble – buying a book for full price at Tsutaya will give you enough points to get the sequel for free at Bookoff.)

      I am totally jealous that you are watching movies in Japan, instead of trying to catch old-news b-grade films like Air Doll during their one-week runs in indie theaters in America. But still… good luck! Let me know if you find anything interesting.

  4. Kevin says:

    I’m happy to see “A Personal Matter” on your list! I love, love, love that book, although, not knowing any Japanese, I’ve only been able to read it in translation, and, not knowing much of anything about recent Japanese history, I didn’t pick up on its “thematic relevance to broader historical and social currents in post-war Japan.” I’m sort of nervous to ask this, because what if part of my affection for the novel depends on filling elements of my own historico-sociological context into perceived “gaps” in the diegesis that are actually very full for a Japanese reader, but if you don’t mind, how would you briefly characterize that relevance?

    BTW, I found this site via the mention of your name in the CEAS Newsletter; good luck introducing “After Life” on Wednesday! I look forward to hearing what you have to say about it.

    • Kathryn says:

      That is a pretty tall order, but I will do my best.

      (1) A Personal Matter was published in 1964. This was the beginning of the era of high economic growth, so most people think of it as a positive time, when productive working adults put all their energy into fighting a brave economic uphill battle. As in America, however, it was also a time of distrust in the government (especially regarding the US-Japan Security Treaty), student protests, and general malaise. I think the book reflects this multi-faceted social climate quite well.

      (2) There is an idea that, after the war, Japanese men were infantilized by various historical and social currents. Regardless of whether or not this is true, I do believe there was a sense of loss of individual power and agency that I think is perfectly crystallized in A Personal Matter. Prewar and wartime ideals of morality and masculinity had proven to be no longer valid, and I think this ideological void is something the protagonist struggles with.

      (3) Along the same lines, I think Ōe is concerned with the amount of responsibility one person has, not just personally, but politically as well. What can one weak and powerless person do? This issue of personal responsibility, especially as it concerns war guilt and postwar political protest, is a major theme in the author’s body of work, and I think the way the issue is addressed in this particular book – as a “personal matter” – is much more trenchant than it is in some of his more overtly political pieces.

      There are other things as well; but, since I am only allowed so many characters in my reply, let me thank you for your comment and tell you that I’m looking forward to speaking with you in person tomorrow evening. Until then!

      • Kevin says:

        Thanks for your response, and it was good meeting you tonight! I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on “The Cleanest Race” should you have time to read it someday soon, and I’ll look forward to the name of that Murakami Takashi book. :)

        • Kathryn says:

          It was wonderful meeting you the other night! Thank you for hanging around a bit to talk to me, and I’m really looking forward to checking out the B.R. Meyers book.

          The exhibition catalog I mentioned is called Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture. Allow me to link you to my review of it, plus two reviews of the exhibition the book was published for, one by New York Magazine and the other by The New York Times.

          This whole mess is a bit dated, but there are still strains of the why won’t Japanese men [ie, Japan itself] just grow up already type of thought floating around. One the newest mushrooming tendrils of this nonsense pertains to the sexualized depiction of “minors” in Japanese pop culture. Although it’s a bit sensational, there’s a recent article that covers the controversy pretty well…

  5. Arti says:

    Hi,

    Just wonder what you think about the works of Banana Yoshimoto. I got hold of The Lake from the library. But with so many TBR books I’m not sure if I should go into that one. But then again, I could use it for the Japanese Lit Challenge. I’ve also bought Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain. I suppose the two really differs in style and content. But just would like to know your opinion of Yoshimoto.

    • Kathryn says:

      Thank you for your comment, and I apologize for taking a few days to respond. That’s actually kind of a loaded question for me.

      Yoshimoto’s short story collection Lizard is one of the first works of Japanese literature that I ever encountered. I was sixteen, I had never read anything like Lizard before, and I couldn’t get enough of Yoshimoto Banana. Her work helped me through some really terrible breakups and fights with my parents, and I think she meant a lot to me when I was younger.

      Now that I’m ten years older and have read all of Yoshimoto’s translated works multiple times (plus a handful of her untranslated novels, short stories, and essay collections), I guess her appeal has grown kind of thin. Her characters and stories feel shallow and juvenile, and the way she writes has started to get on my nerves.

      But of course some of her works are stronger than others. Two of my favorites are Goodbye Tsugumi and Hardboiled and Hard Luck. I also really like Asleep. And Kitchen is still a classic, no matter how chiché it feels to me now. I hate to admit this, but unfortunately I think The Lake is one of Yoshimoto’s weaker works. Or perhaps it just seems that way to me now that my enthusiasm for her has dulled?

      Anyway, if you have never read her before, you are in for a treat. I wouldn’t call the way that she writes “unique,” but she is really, really good at that type of writing. However, if you’ve read her work before and weren’t impressed, I’m not certain that The Lake is going to change your opinion.

      Either way, happy reading!

  6. Arti says:

    Thanks for your detailed reply. I’m afraid The Lake is my first Yoshimoto, and…um… I’m afraid I’ll return to the rest of Kawabata after this, since I still have a few of his I want to read. And then there are still others. Thanks again for your opinion. BTW, sounds like your love for Japanese Lit dates back early in your childhood. That’s amazing!

  7. Sam Ito says:

    Mishima’s Sea of Fertility could be superb or failure. His writing style, no body can imitate. Murakami, I suppose, writes Japanese so that it can be translated into English easier. Very dull, non-Japanese taste writing style. However, context of the novel is original and superb and he is near to the Nobel Prize. Japanese, if at a glance, could be very ambiguous. But how could they be Economical superpower with ambiguity. In the contrary, Japanese are very practical people, sometime ruthless, violent. Toyota’s Kanban system is one of the symbol of practicality. Very noble barbarian, Mishima said of Japanese mentality. Tale of Genji, one thousand years ago, written by lady Shikibu. Who can imagine such love story existed in ancient time.
    Recently Donald Keene got Japanese citizenship. What a great
    deed. I am grateful for Japanese Literature fans. Thank you.

  8. Jasodha says:

    Hello,

    I just happened to see this site and was particularly thrilled to find the content. Although I must admit, more than the content the comments have impressed me. I cannot even call myself a beginner when it comes to Japanese Literature, since my scope has been limited to Japanese movies, manga and dramas (so far). However, I am very much interested in familiarizing myself with the contemporary Japanese literature via this site (if that is possible). I am an ardent reader of western literature and very much enjoy it, I am looking for some recommendation from someone to begin with the Japanese literature. While researching the uniqueness of Japanese literature, I did a little research on literary concepts/terms like ‘Mono no aware’ and it was just brilliant, it was not a new thing, so to say, however coining it as a state/term never occurred I guess. I am an Asian however of Non-Japanese origin (living in India), hence would very much appreciate a little guidance from you, in understanding Japanese work. Looking forward to your response.

    Regards,

    • Kathryn says:

      Hello, and thank you for your comment! I’m so excited that you’ve started to read Japanese literature – it’s so much fun! I don’t think there’s anything special or unique about Japanese literature (or at least not more so than the literature of any other country), so you should feel free to read whatever you like. If you like science fiction, read science fiction. If you like mystery novels, read mystery novels. If you like “pure literature” novels with an emphasis on aesthetics, there are tons of those in translation too.

      If you’re interested in premodern literature (like war epics, poetry, and all the “mono no aware” stuff), Paul Varley’s Japanese Culture is a good introduction to the cultural and historical context of such works, and the author actually illustrates his understanding of history, culture, and aesthetics with passages from famous works. It’s a textbook, but it’s a fun read that works equally well as a narrative. Varley’s emphasis is on the classical, medieval, and early modern periods, but he’s got some good stuff about modern Japan as well. In terms of contemporary Japan, well, you can read what you like and draw your own conclusions. That’s what’s great about contemporary writing, I think.

      Good luck!

  9. molly says:

    I recommend _On Parole_ by Yoshimura Akira. It’s the only thing I didn’t see on your list that I love and would make someone read if I could. That and the recent-ish book of Okinawan short stories that was put together and translated by I can’t remember who. (I’m so helpful, I know.)

    • Kathryn says:

      Thank you so much for your comment! It’s really exciting for me to know that you’ve taken a look at this list. I’m actually thinking about rewriting this page after I get back from a series of travels in mid-June (to change the “top five” and to include anthologies), and I am totally going to solicit feedback from you.

      I read Yoshimura Akira’s Shipwrecks some time ago, and I remember enjoying it – but I can’t remember much else. I think it’s time to read the book again. I just ordered a copy of On Parole, and Amazon will have it in my hands by Friday. Thank you for the recommendation!

      • molly says:

        Awesome! I really hope you like it. It’s the only book that I’ve read of his, but is extremely intense. It has stayed with me and I read it back in 2008!

        You know what really gets my goat? I can’t get The Sound of the Mountain (which is so beautiful it makes me cry) on my Kindle. I just want to reread the damn book and can’t take on any more physical books now that I’m going to be moving soon. So my only solution available to me is to go to the library and photocopy it out of Kawabata Yasunari shu, and read it in Japanese, which I really should be doing anyway. But the lack of availability for media in general is really frustrating me to no end lately. What the hell!

  10. fanaddict22 says:

    Uhm. Hello. Uhm, can you suggest some Japanese lesbian literature? If memory serves me right, lesbianism is more or less a very touchy issue in Japan, yes? I’d like to see how it’s treated in literature. I’ve read Sputnik Sweetheart but it would be good to see more samples. ^_^

    And, is that NisiOisin and Spice & Wolf that I see? o_O Thank you very much~ ^_^

    • Kathryn says:

      Hello! I love Sputnik Sweetheart too! And also Norwegian Wood, even though its portrayal of lesbian sexuality is, um, maybe a little bit too close to a male fantasy of lesbian sexuality.

      Anyway, a good place to start with Japanese lesbian literature is the book Sparkling Rain: And Other Fiction from Japan of Women Who Love Women. You can find it on Amazon here:

      http://www.amazon.com/Sparkling-Rain-Other-Fiction-Japan/dp/1892281260/

      Sparkling Rain contains stories of various themes and lengths. One of these stories is actually a translated work slash fan fiction, which is fabulous. The introductory essays at the beginning of the volume help to give the reader a sense of what the lesbian scene is like in Japan (or at least what it used to be like a generation ago), which is always useful contextual information to have.

      At the moment I’m also reading Kirino Natsuo’s novel Real World for the umpteenth time; and, even though it’s not “lesbian literatur,” per se, I still think I’d like to recommend it to you, since it’s got a teenage lesbian character whose sexuality and confusion is portrayed in what I think is a very realistic way – and yet the character’s sexuality isn’t what defines her as a character.

      By the way, are you reading the blog Okazu? Because you should totally be reading the blog Okazu:

      http://okazu.blogspot.com/

      You probably know about this blog already, but just in case…!

  11. Great to see Grotesque on your list. I absolutely loved that book as well as Out. I am just finishing a spree of Yoko Ogawa’s works. I think Revenge is brilliant!

    • Kathryn says:

      I love Kirino’s work too! I’m writing my dissertation on her, so it’s good to hear that other people enjoy her work.

      Revenge is going to be my next review, and I totally agree with your assessment. One of the great pleasures of being able to read Japanese is having access to more of Ogawa’s stories, and I hope to start translating one of her collections soon!

  12. That is great! I don’t know what initially attracted me to Out. It was my first foray into Japanese Lit, which was a natural progression for me after watching so many Japanese movies. I just loved the premise and her storytelling of these middle aged women (same goes for Murakami’s Popular Hits of the Showa Era) dealing with their “issue”.

    I am glad to meet you, btw :)

    Evan

  13. Trinity Estridge says:

    There are many great books! I am really keen on Japan. I really enjoyed Koji’s Ringu, I’ll re-read it very soon. But I don’t like Murakami very much.

  14. Roz says:

    Hi, I’m going to Japan in the summer, so I want to read some Japanese literature. I’m going to use your list to choose five books – thanks for taking the time to compile such a comprehensive list! If you had to choose just ONE (hard, I know!) what would you say I MUST read? Thanks!

    • Kathryn says:

      The answer to your question is that it depends on where you’re going and what you enjoy reading! If I might make one suggestion, though, I think Miyabe Miyuki’s All She Was Worth is a great airplane read for someone who plans to visit the greater Tokyo area. It’s got suspense and tons of local color, and the translation is fantastic. The short story anthology Japan: A Traveler’s Literary Companion is also worth your time if you’re going to be making trips away from Tokyo.

  15. filiz says:

    I don’t know how to start; thank you very much for this great blog. I am from Turkey and it is not very common to find Turkish translations of Japanese literature unless they were translated into English. There is great interest in Japanese cinema in Turkey (not speaking in terms of popularity though, I mean people going to film festivals, not many in number in fact) This interest helped me to read Mishima, Kobo Abe, Akutagawa in Turkish(Sorry for the mistakes I may be making as to spelling). I am very happy to find your reading list and that you have still been answering the questions in 2014.
    I want to ask you a personal question. How can I start learning Japanese? I don’t think I will be able to go to Japan.

    • Kathryn says:

      Thank you for your comment, and I apologize for the late reply!

      If you want to teach yourself Japanese, my favorite do-it-yourself textbooks are the Genki series. There are two main books in the series, each of which has its accompanying workbook (both of which are totally worth the extra money). Also, although I’ve never done more than glance through it myself, certain surprisingly literate non-academic Japanophiles I’ve encountered swear by Michael Rowley’s Kanji Pict-O-Graphix, so it might be worth a shot.

      Unfortunately, you’re probably not going to become super-proficient in speaking Japanese unless you spend a bit of time in the country, but it might be cool to try to find a conversation partner either in real life (you can usually arrange for classes and/or partners through institutions like embassies, Japan societies, and branches of the Japan Foundation) or online using numerous resources such as the ones listed here:

      http://www.tofugu.com/2010/04/06/tofugu-100-best-japanese-learning-resources/#social

      Good luck!

  16. André says:

    I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to dedicate yourself to a fascinating realm (and rather obscure) of literature! I purchased Masks and finished reading it last night, and struggled to find in-depth dialogue and information about contemporary female writers! I will bookmark this blog and reference it often, thank you again!

    • Kathryn says:

      Thank you for your kind words! And I hope you enjoyed Masks; it’s one of my favorite novels of all time in any language. It also tends to engage (and upset!) students, so hopefully it’s not just me.

      To be honest, I started this blog because I couldn’t find any good information about Kurahashi Yumiko online back in 2005. There was and still is quite a bit of scholarly work done on Japanese female writers and poets, but what I read as a college junior was extremely sophisticated in terms of literary theory, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of most of it!

      If you’re looking for more reviews, I highly recommend the annual “Japanese Literature Challenge” series of blogs, the most recent of which can be found here: http://japlit6challenge.blogspot.jp/

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