There are fairly common themes in Japanese books, themes which seem to pervade the culture. Loneliness and isolation, disconnection: these themes appear regularly. The sense of duty against the rights, or desires, of the individual. Difficulties of love. Suffering. If you don’t like any of these themes then perhaps Japanese fiction is not for you, but somehow they always speak to me.
So if you’re interested in exploring Japanese writers, where do you start? Well, a great place to get a feel for what Japanese writers have to offer is the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, which includes the output of generations of the ‘best’ Japanese writers and gives you a flavour of what to expect if you do decide to explore further. Or, if you’re feeling brave, you could trust my list below and just leap in. In my explorations, the following represent my favourite (and by definition the best) Japanese books around.
You can’t start a list of the best Japanese books and not mention Genji. Considered by some to be the first novel, this sprawling tale casts a curious eye on the 12th Century Japanese court and the shenanigans of the ‘shining Genji’. And a tale that reminds us that whatever era you’re living in, life is never as good as it ‘used to be’. For a more complete review of Genji, read here: http://biis-books.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/tale-of-genji.html
Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata
Kawabata is one of the cornerstones of the Japanese ‘canon’ (assuming there is such a thing, the idea of ‘canon’ always strikes me as peculiarly American and, perhaps, an inevitable fallout of the authority of Harold Bloom) and all of his novels are worth a read. Many people would mention here Snow Country, a story of beauty and decay. It is true that Snow Country is a marvellous novel, but for me Beauty and Sadness is my favourite of Kawabata’s work. This is a story of the terrible impact of young love, and how its breakdown can taint our lives resulting in catastrophic consequences.
The Kangaroo Notebook by Kobo Abe
Everything written by Abe is odd and surreal, but none more so than The Kangaroo Notebook. A nightmarish story of a man who wakes to find radish sprouts growing out of his legs, and then embarks of a Kafkaesque journey into a dark underworld in which the barrier between what is real and what is imagined breaks down. Like Lewis Carroll on sake and LSD, this is a peculiarly Japanese surrealism which would probably make the most disturbing anime movie that anyone had ever seen. If surrealist fiction is your thing, you’ll love Abe. Also check out The Woman in the Dunes and The Box Man. Creepy.
A Dark Night’s Passing by Naoya Shiga
A reflective and sad novel following a young man with a dark secret from his family’s past hanging over him. Throughout his life, his bachelorhood and then his marriage, he is unable to shake this spectre of the past. A very Japanese take on depression, conveyed with directness (and yet obscurely – the Japanese are very good at this), clarity and honesty. A beautiful if sad story.
Ibuse’s terrifying novel follows the fortunes of some survivors of the Hiroshima bombing. If you ever read any novel about the effects of atomic weaponry, this should be it. Conveying the horror of the bomb and its aftermath in graphic detail, Ibuse manages to remain non-judgemental simply showing what happened and how it affected people. It is a more powerful novel for it. It is worth reading this either before or after John Hershey’s journalistic exploration of the same incident, Hiroshima. It is hard, here, to convey how excellent and essential this book is. Not easy reading, but worthwhile.
Diary of a Mad Old Man by Junichiro Tanizaki
Tanizaki is known for this and its companion piece The Key (again, it’s worth reading these together), as well as the more conventional Makioka Sisters which I haven’t got around to reading yet. Using the diary form, Tanizaki explores the mind of an old, dying man obsessed with his daughter in law (and sex). Saucy and funny, yet kind of sad.
Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima
I’ll say it here, I’m not a fan of Mishima. I know he is considered one of Japan’s greatest writers, but on the whole he leaves me cold. Last year I embarked on the full Sea of Fertility tetralogy which begins with Spring Snow and over the course of three following books explores the karmic cycle of death and rebirth. Of all the books in the tetralogy, Spring Snow was the standout piece (although if you’re interested in the book which, practically, fortells Mishima’s end then Runaway Horses is the one to read). Telling the story of forbidden, impossible love and the lengths to which one man will go to fulfil the impossible. At times frustrating, but in other respects a beautiful read.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
I think I mentioned this book before in my entry about books that are just plain nice. The Housekeeper and the Professor involves a woman who is housekeeper for the ‘professor’ a maths genius with a 45 minute short-term memory window. If you read it, I defy you not to end up with an unexpected interest in maths. I learned so much from this book about number theory, memory and relationships and it is, in short, a lovely read. An off-beat introduction to Ogawa whose usual fayre is dark, disturbing and may involve sexual violence. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Out by Natsuo Kirino
Speaking of dark, disturbing and sexual violence, Out by Natsuo Kirino is perhaps the pinnacle of what contemporary Japanese fiction does best. A downtrodden woman working in a factory offs her husband, and with the help of her equally downtrodden factory-worker friends they cover it up. But that’s just the start of their spiral into a darker, more forbidding world. Atmospheric, creepy and dark.
In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami
Staying on the same theme, a man who gives tours around Toyko’s sex district finds himself on a tour with a sadistic killer. Some really disturbing stuff in this one, if you don’t like graphic crime novels then give this one a miss. I am still emotionally scarred by two pages in this book. Just thinking about it makes me feel a little sick (I am a wimp though, bear that in mind). If you enjoy the dark, seedy underworld, death, gore and dodgy sex then Ryu Murakami is probably the author for you.
Underground by Haruki Murakami
From one Murakami to another. I have read basically everything by Haruki Murakami, and he has written some excellent books (personal favourites being Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle which equally has an extremely disturbing couple of pages that make you glad to still have custody of your own skin. Ugh) but as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to feel that Murakami, whilst good, is not a true great. His last novel 1Q84 had a great idea at its core, but it was flabby and overdone and his portrayal of the women in the book was sadly two dimensional, almost like a male fantasy of a woman (the main character spends a lot of time obsessing over her breasts and vagina). People have different views on what is Murakami’s best novel (I think this is undoubtedly Wind-Up Bird, but others would disagree) but of all his books the most affecting, the most compelling is this journalistic work of fact which centres around the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo underground. Murakami presents his interviews with the victims, family of victims and members of the Aum cult that carried out the attack. What comes from all these interviews is a chilling idea that given the same circumstances, most people would have done the same thing. It is terrifying, yet an honest portrayal of how people respond to authority.
And that concludes my list. I am sure there are some terrible omissions, writers that I myself haven’t yet gotten around to (I’m thinking Ooka, Soseki) and some deliberate (Taichi Yamada never did it for me, Banana Yoshimoto almost made the list but there’s something missing). What do you think? Have you encountered any truly great Japanese novels not mentioned on my list?