I love nothing more than settling down with a good book and a cup of tea, it’s my idea of a perfect wind-down after a hard day’s shopping! When I was a child I used to read a book a day during the school holidays, and I think I was 16 the first time I read anything by a Japanese author; ‘The Elephant Vanishes’, a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami – I was hooked!
Summer holiday season is fast approaching, and why not take the opportunity to discover the best of Japanese fiction?
Five: ‘Kitchen’ Banana Yoshimoto – Kitchen is my favourite book by Yoshimoto; dealing with love and loss, a young woman seeks solace and comfort in her kitchen. The kitchen has long been the heart of the home in many countries as in Japan, it’s an interesting examination of traditional family structures in modern Japan as much as a love story.
Four: ‘The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea’ – Yukio Mishima – Mishima himself was an industrial-strength oddball (take a look at his wiki biography!), but remains one of Japan’s greatest writers. The Sailor… has often been compared to ‘Lord of the Flies’, and it’s a fair judgement; youth, society, destruction and innocence are themes that crop up in both books, although in my opinion Mishima steals the show! Mishima’s early work ‘Confessions of a Mask’ is hard work as a reader, but is semi-autobiographical and may help in understanding the mind of the man.
Three: ‘Out’ Natsuo Kirino – Out is an incredibly powerful book, centering on women’s roles in modern Japanese society. The main plot follows a group of women employed in a factory making bento lunches, and involves murder, family, fraud, and an interesting sub-theme of second-generation Brazilian-Japanese immigrants. I’d also highly recommend Kirino’s other novels.
Two: ‘Norwegian Wood’ Haruki Murakami – Norwegian Wood is always mentioned when discussing Murakami, and there’s a reason why! I think it’s a great introduction to the author; I adore ‘Wind-up Bird Chronicle’, but it’s rather long and slightly surreal too. Murakami’s main protagonists follow the current Japanese fashion of being fairly unlikeable, and the men are particularly weak-willed, but I somehow find myself enjoying their company and looking forward to reading more.
One: ‘Coin Locker Babies’ Ryu Murakami – I think I can safely say that reading this book at age 17 was one of the main factors in propelling me towards Japan! Coin Locker… is a fantastic novel about two orphan boys who grow up together – one aims to be a pole-vaulter, while the other runs away to become a rock star. This is an incredibly intense book dealing with family, madness, music, love and utter destruction – one not to be missed!
As mentioned above, I have a voracious appetite when it comes to books! I have a special place in my heart for Japanese fiction not just because of my love of Japan, but for its glimpses into Japan itself and its frankness in dealing (if only in book-form) with societal issues of day. Common themes seen in many of the books above are destruction (perhaps coming to terms with the state of the post-war society & Japan’s own war-related issues), family (mostly the breakdown of the traditional Confucian family structure) and women (although women’s rights are improving, there still has been no real revolution as in Western culture). I think Japanese fiction is a fantastic tool for examining not only Japan’s society, but our own in comparison too.
A note: As you can see, my tastes lean towards the darker side of fiction, be warned! I’ve also tried to pick authors who’s books are widely available in their English translations – obscure is great, but pointless if you never get the chance to actually read it!
Feel free to recommend a book…