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World Literary Tour: Visit Japan in 5 Books

5 books of Japanese Literature

Today is National Foundation Day (Kenkokukinen-no-Hi), in Japan, a day which marks the enthronement of the country’s first Emperor.

Although it’s a national holiday, there isn’t the same level of pomp and ceremony you see elsewhere around the world on similar occasions. No grand parades or huge firework displays. In fact apart from some parades and processions to shrines, there are no really big celebration events.

We’re just going to have to make our own fun in that case.

So pour yourself a glass of sake, or, if you prefer a cup of cha, and prepare a little otsumami (a light snack) to get yourself in the mood to celebrate one of the oldest literary traditions in the world. We’re talking seriously old – some of the earliest texts date from the seventh century CE.

Japan’s Literary Heritage

Many scholars consider Japanese literature to be comparable in richness, and volume to English literature. But it’s also rather more diverse; including poetry, novels and drama as well as some genres like diaries and travel accounts that are not as highly esteemed in other countries.

Until 2013 the only Japanese author I’d read was Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains Of The Day). Some purists might question if he even qualifies since he has spent most of his life in England. But in the absence of anyone else, I’m claiming him.

I’ve been trying to make up for lost time since then and my list of Japanese authors to explore, is ever expanding. I still consider myself to be very much a beginner in this world, particularly compared to the ‘experts’ in Japanese literature like Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza and Tony who blogs at Messenger’s Booker .

5 Of My Favourite Works of Japanese Literature

So I’m not qualified to give you a list of recommended book. I’m simply going to talk about 5 novels by Japanese authors that I’ve loved in recent years.

After the Banquet  by  Yukio Mishima 

This was my first true venture into Japanese literature. Mishima Yukio is considered one of the greats of modern Japanese fiction; a highly creative and versatile novelist and playwright who became the first Japanese writer generally known abroad. 

After The Banquet is not his most famous novel – that accolade goes to his tetralogy The Sea of Fertility – but it is still highly regarded. The New York Times called it “the biggest and most profound thing Mishima has done so far in an already distinguished career” I found it a fascinating portrait of a marriage between two people whose interests and perspectives seem diametrically opposed. It proved to be a good introduction to one of the key features of Japanese literature – it tends to be enigmatic and absent of the beginning/middle/end structure I’ve been used to in Western literature.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa 

Yoko Ogawa is a prolific author, with more than 40 titles to her name. Sadly only a few (nine I think at the last count) are available in English. The Housekeeper and The Professor, which came out in 2008 , is a slim work of a relationship between a maths professor who suffered brain damage in a traffic accident and his housekeeper, a woman who becomes fascinated by numbers and equations. It beautifully captures the subtlety of relationships across generations and between people of different backgrounds and experience.

Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto

Relationships are also at the heart of Goodbye Tsugumi, a wonderfully atmospheric novel about two girls who were once close friends. Their lives took them in different directions but they decide to meet once more at a small seaside inn where they spent many of their summers. I wouldn’t say this contains any really big ideas but it was nevertheless a delight to read.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

I bought A Tale for the Time Being  at a library book sale, knowing nothing about the author beyond the fact she’d been listed for the Booker Award. It took me quite a few years to get around to reading it but then it became one of my favourite reads in 2017.

It’s a blend of a multitude of ideas and themes from Zen and the meaning of time to the Japanese tsunami and environmental degradation. It could have been a bewildering mess but instead Ozeki holds it all together with the aid of a phenomenally engaging narrator. Sixteen year old Nao (pronounced as “now”) Yasutani pours out her unhappiness in her diary but also relates the love and strength she finds through her relationship with her elderly grandmother, who lives in a remote Buddhist temple in north-eastern Japan. An absolute delight of a book.

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage  by Haruki Murakami

Which brings me up to my most recent Japanese novel.

I’ll hazard a guess that Haruki Murakami is the most famous living Japanese author. In Japan, his novels can sell 1m copies in the week of publication but he also has a global reputation. His novels have been translated into 50 languages, received numerous awards and been on best seller lists worldwide. His name often comes up as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

I’ve felt for some time that I should give him a go but the sheer size of some of his novels is off putting. The Wind Up Bird Chronicle for example is around 620 pages, a mere infant compared to 1Q84 whose three volumes come in at more than 1200 pages. Added to this is the fact that his books are frequently described as ‘strange’ and bordering on magical realism – a genre I don’t relate to very well.

But I took the plunge in 2016 because I was assured Norwegian Wood was not magical realism. I loved it. This year I took advantage of Japanese Literature Challenge 2020 to make a return visit to Murakami with Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage .

Yes it’s ambiguous , particularly because some of the mysteries are unresolved, but not so much that it can’t be understood. It’s also full of atmosphere, sometimes darkly so, as the young central character experiences nightmares and dreams as he tries to revisit the past and discover why he was ostracised by his former school friends.

I know I didn’t understood the whole of the novel but I’m beginning to accept that this is par for the course with much of Japanese fiction. So now the big question is whether I can tackle one of his ‘meatier’ novels.

I’ve barely skimmed the surface with this literary tour of Japan. There are scores of Japanese authors and books that deserve a place on this list. What would you put on your list? Which of Murakami’s novels would you recommend I try next?

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