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A blog for everything bookish

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

10 Japanese writers everyone should read

Thanks to the growing availability of writers in translation, it is now possible to easily access writers from other cultures. I have a particular fondness for Japanese writers, having explored their works as liberally as I am able. The following list is not exhaustive, but is a reasonable guide to the breadth of Japanese writing worth exploring. There are some notable omissions. For example, I haven’t included Murasaki Shikibu or Sei Shonagon, both of whom are extremely worth reading. Other notable omissions include Yukio Mishima and Kenzaburo Oe who are both great writers whose works are interesting but didn’t appeal to me. If you’re interested in exploring Japanese writing, it is worth getting hold of the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories which will give you a broad spread of the best the Japanese have to offer. It is a great collection in and of itself, and a worthy presence in my library.

1. Yoko Ogawa
Yoko Ogawa
Ogawa is the mistress of dark, psychological stories. She explores the darker, less understandable parts of human nature with an unflinching eye. Hotel Iris explores a sado-masochistic relationship between a young woman and an older man, The Diving Pool collects stories of obsession. Surprisingly, one of my favourite novels by Ogawa is the highly contrasted The Housekeeper and the Professor, which is a sweet and uplifting book. Whichever Ogawa you find, she is absorbing and deeply psychological. A thrilling writer, unafraid to explore the dark side of the human experience.

2. Natsuo Kirino
Another female writer exploring the dark side of human, or perhaps more accurately women’s, nature. Violence and crime, domestic violence, adultery, murder, sex and death. Kirino shines an unforgiving light on all of these issues. I particularly enjoyed her entry to the Canongate myths series The Goddess Chronicle which explores the legend of Iznami and Izanaki the god of life and goddess of death, cast alongside the story of a young Japanese woman tied to a terrible fate. Kirino highlights the barrenness and difficulty for women in Japan who are, too easily, tied to a life without choices. She’s a rip-roaring read too, exciting and terrifying.  

Weird, I say
3. Kobo Abe
Abe is weird, really weird. I can’t tell you how weird. Perhaps most famous for The Woman in the Dunes, the story of a man who becomes trapped in a village drowning in sand, whose daily task is solely to prevent the sand from crushing his prison, Abe also wrote about a man who lives in a box (The Box Man, it’s creepy) and a man who wakes to find radish sprouts growing out of his legs (Kangaroo Notebook). Weird I tell you (but extremely compelling).

4. Yasunari Kawabata
Everything Kawabata wrote was exquisite. Exquisite is simply the only word to describe this writer. There’s a sparseness in his writing, a simplicity which belies the underlying complexity of his stories. It is the ritual of the Japanese tea ceremony captured in novel form, perhaps most openly in the novel The Master of Go which focuses entirely upon an extraordinary game of Go. My recommendation would be the wonderful Beauty and Sadness, though Snow Country is also well worth a read.

5. Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Toshiro Mifune...mmm
Famous for the story ‘Under a Bamboo Grove’ which became one of Kurosawa’s most famous movies Rashomon (which is actually the title of the collection, not the story itself). Under a Bamboo Grove is famous for the way in which it explores the same event – the rape of a woman in said grove and subsequent murder (or is it suicide) of her husband – from the perspectives of the three participants none of which give the same account of the incident. It is perhaps the most extreme example of the unreliable narrator and leaves you wondering who, if anybody, you can ever believe.

6. Fumiko Enchi
tense & difficult
Enchi is difficult to get hold of in translation, but her novels are worth the effort of tracking down. Another writer with an unflinching gaze; her novels give a sense of tension and claustrophobia whilst projected in a seemingly ordinary domestic setting. The Waiting Years is a tense and difficult novel exploring the dominion of one man over his wife and youthful mistresses. It is an oppressive but impressive read.

7. Jun’ichiro Tanizaki
The Key and Diary of a Man Old Man follow a similar theme, older men enacting a sexual obsession. But how alone are those men in acting out that obsession? Erotic and disturbing, both novels shine a light on the nature of sexual desire particularly in older relationships. For a more conservative taste, The Makioka Sisters follows the decline of an upper class family in the pre-war years. Tanizaki is a diverse writer who focuses on inter-relationships with a fresh and fearless eye.

8. Banana Yoshimoto
Banana Yoshimoto is a growing writer, a writer who appears to be growing before my eyes. Worth reading Kitchen, a collection of novellas about loss and Asleep a collection of novellas surrounding the theme of sleep. Banana Yoshimoto’s work has a youthful and personable feel, whilst addressing difficult issues of identity, loss and sense of purpose.

9. Hiromi Kawakami
Gorgeous cover
Not just because Strange Weather in Tokyo has the best cover ever, but because it is also an excellent book. Another novel exploring an unusual relationship between a woman and an older man who used to be her schoolteacher. The behaviour of both parties borders on strange, and nothing about their relationship is commonplace.  

10. Haruki Murakami
I almost didn’t add Murakami to the list, perhaps because he is so well known already or perhaps because I’ve lost faith in Murakami as a writer. But to leave him out would be unfair; whilst I haven’t gelled with his more recent works (1Q84 is an abomination of bad characterisation) his earlier works still hold much of interest. Norwegian Wood is perhaps the best known of his earlier works, but it is Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World which most grabs my attention. It’s a story with a split identity and will leave you with a curious fondness for your shadow for a long time after reading. Another surprisingly good read from Murakami is Underground, a chilling factual exploration of the Tokyo Underground sarin gas attacks, a book guaranteed to make you question exactly what you would do if someone ordered you to do it.