.If you wish to know more about Japanese culture and explore their habits, how they think, or how their society is structured- the ancient and modern conflicts within, here is a list of classical novels by men and women, as well as some of the latest and most innovative novels of today. The list includes both fictional and non-fiction best Japanese books of all time.
1.The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
There is a lot of legacy behind The Tale of Genji. It was not only the first novel ever written in Japan but is widely regarded as the first novel was ever written anywhere globally. This alone makes it the best and most important Japanese book to read right now.
In the original text of the Genji, almost none of the characters are given names. This presents a challenge for readers and translators. Rather, the characters are identified by their function or role (e.g. Minister to the Left), an honorific (e.g. His Excellency), or their relation to other characters (e.g. Heir Apparent), which changes as the novel advances. The lack of names is due to Heian-era court manners making mentioning a person’s given name too familiar and blunt. In order to keep track of the many characters, readers and translators have adopted a wide variety of nicknames.
2.Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
The story of Snow Country centers on the love story of a Tokyo man and a geisha living and working in a mountainous onsen town. Snow Country is bleak, stark, and poetic. In this novel, Kawabata vividly portrays the psychological cost of aesthetic appreciation, as well as its effect on minds prone to beauty. In the novel, the protagonist is often transported into his own mind’s dream world after witnessing beauty.
3.The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon
There are hundreds of notes explaining imperial life over a millennium ago in a smart, amusing and unique way. As the name suggests, pillow books consist of notebooks or notes that have been collated to show a period of someone’s life. Such idle notes are generally referred to as zuihitsu in Japan. This is an amusing and enlightening look into the lives of the most powerful people in Japan more than a millennium ago. The book is written from a uniquely female perspective.
4.The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
A metaphorical tale about a young boy who becomes obsessed with his mother’s new boyfriend. Noboru discovers a peephole into his widowed mother’s bedroom and uses it to spy on her. This boyfriend is a sailor whom the lad respects until he chooses love over the great wide open, and the boy takes this as a betrayal. It’s a heavy political metaphor and one of the most important works of Japanese literature.
5.Death in Midsummer and Other Stories (1953) by Yukio Mishima
Yukio Mishima’s Death in Midsummer and Other Stories is a collection of short stories filled with black humor and fraught relationships. The titular story of “Death in Midsummer” is exactly that, and the suffocating heat and languid slowness of a long summer’s day is in stark contrast to the sudden, tragic accident. A middle-class family goes on vacation to a beach resort, a decision which leads to the deaths of two children and the aunt who was minding them. Issues of power structures between the parents rise until finally the mother and father return to the beach where their young children had died.
6.Almost transparent blue by Ryu Murakami
Almost Transparent Blue was written by Ryu Murakami while he was still a student at Musashino Art University, and it won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. The book follows a group of dissolute Japanese youths in the mid-1970s. Despite the lack of plot, the book weaves a vividly raw, visually-rich journey through the daily monotony on drug-induced hallucinations, vicious acts of violence, overdoses, suicide, and group sex.
7.The Diving Pool (1990) by Yoko Ogawa
‘The Diving Pool’ is the story of Aya, a girl whose parents run an orphanage, which means she is the only child of her immediate environment to be brought up by her real parents. In her memoir, Aya describes her acts of love and cruelty objectively, as though observing her life by way of a tunnel or telescope. In his brilliant writing and razor-sharp observations, Ogawa is known for being able to turn a phrase like a knife. The Diving Pool is a psychological horror collection that explores subversive and metaphorical themes. Using loosely connected imagery, the fictional works evoke feelings and questions without answering them.
8.Kafka on the Shore (2002) by Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami’s literary universe is best explored through Kafka on the Shore. In 2014, Murakami was a strong contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, because he captivated the imagination of an international readership. All the elements of his stories are instantly recognizable: the young Kafka Tamura, a bookish 15-year-old running away from his Oedipal curse, and the old Satoru Nakata, a disabled man who can communicate with cats. Metaphysics, dreams, fate, the subconscious, and classical music are among the themes incorporated into the book.
9.Out by Natsuo Kirino
Kirino is one of the greatest Japanese feminist writers of all time. Despite writing in a variety of styles and genres, Out embodies her anger and grief the best. In the story, a factory worker, when pushed to her limits, murders her husband with the help of her female colleagues. It’s a dark thriller that erupts over hundreds of tautly written and tight pages of narrative.
10.Kokoro (1914) by Natsume Soseki
Japan’s greatest writer, Natsume Soseki was a scholar, poet, and novelist during the Meiji era. Throughout 1914, the Japanese novel Kokoro, meaning heart through various English translations, was serialized in newspapers. In this story, an old man referred to as sensei holds a special place in the heart of a young man’s heart, and the novel is a study of identity and isolation. Kokoro has been adapted into at least two films and also a two-episode part of the Aoi Bungaku anime series
11.Seven Japanese Tales (1963) by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
Among Japan’s most brilliant authors, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki is the author of The Makioka Sisters and A Cat, a Man, and Two Women, and Seven Japanese Tales provides a comprehensive overview. It explores national and personal identity, sexual desire, cruelty, and dominant and submissive relationships. Among the stories Tanizaki collects in Seven Japanese Tales, we find tales that explore the line where love becomes self-annihilation, where beauty becomes fetishism, and where tradition turns into a weapon of voluptuous cruelty.
12.The Waiting Years (1957) by Fumiko Enchi
Set in Meiji Japan, The Waiting Years is a beautifully written story of suffering. The female protagonist of the story, Tomo, is powerless to cope with the challenges she faces in her life and her marriage to her unfaithful husband. With each new character she encounters, the protagonist is further convinced that she cannot change her circumstances. This is a testament to all the great women who served as the solid pillar of her house and kept it from collapsing.
13.The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
The wind-up bird chronicle has been hailed as Murakami’s magnum opus. In addition to its perfect pace, this book has a story about anxiety and existential crises carried out in a surreal and impossible setting that makes it an exciting and thrilling read.
14.The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
This story tells of an elderly genius mathematician whose memory resets every day. Each morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are reintroduced to one another, a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms between them. His new housekeeper, our narrator, forges a unique and lasting bond with the prof, and the mathematician even develops a paternal relationship with the housekeeper’s young son. Despite not remembering what he ate for breakfast, the Professor is still full of elegant equations from the past. He devises clever maths riddles – based on shoe size or birthday – and the numbers reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her ten-year-old son. It is a reading experience unlike any other.
15.Convenience store women by Sayaka Murata
Sayaka Murata is the author of the novel Convenience Store Woman published in 2016. Through her work, she evokes the familiar atmosphere of the convenience store. In order to maintain the facade of normality, she decides getting a boyfriend is what she needs.
Retail employees who have experienced social ineptitude will relate in some way to Keiko.
In this story, Murata explores how to be considered ‘normal,’ asking whether it’s important to be seen as a functioning member of society no matter how one feels inside.
16.No Longer Human (Osamu Dazai)
The Japanese novel No Longer Human was published in 1948 by Osamu Dazai. According to Donald Keene, in his preface to the English translation, the literal translation of the title is “Disqualified From Being Human”. The novel is sometimes viewed as a biography of its author, who committed suicide shortly after finishing it. This play is divided into three major parts, which depict a man who cannot reveal his true self to others.
17.Night on the Galactic Railroad (Kenji Miyazawa)
Often translated as Milky Way Railroad, Night Train to the Stars, or Fantasy Railroad in the Stars, Night on the Galactic Railroad is a classic Japanese fantasy novel by Kenji Miyazawa published in 1927.
Movies and anime adaptations have been made of it. The story takes place in Iwate Prefecture, the author’s home. The plot follows a lonely boy, Giovanni discovers one day that he rides the Galactic Railroad with his best friend Campanella, passing the Northern Cross and many other stars along the way, escaping from his hard life.
18.I Am a Cat (Soseki Natsume)
In 1905-1906, Natsume Soseki wrote I Am a Cat about Japanese society during the Meiji period (1868-1912). The novel examines the uneasy mix of Western culture and Japanese traditions.
An opening sentence of the story is “I am a cat”. The story is told in the first person by a cat. The cat satirizes human behavior and humans in general.
19.The Sound of Waves (Yukio Mishima)
It is a popular romance novel written by Yukio Mishima in 1954, and it has been adapted into movies for some time. The Sound of Waves is the story of a first love that transcends time and culture. It tells of Shinji, a young fisherman and Hatsue, the beautiful daughter of the wealthiest man in the village. They try to overcome lots of problems and obstacles to succeed in love.
20.Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Banana Yoshimoto, one of the most prominent female authors in contemporary Japanese literature, wrote the novel that serves as the representative novel of contemporary Japanese literature. Michage Sakurai, a young woman in Kitchen, lost her parents when she was small and now lives with her grandmother. She also loses her grandmother, the only family she ever had. One of the most captivating and deeply moving books I’ve ever read about mothers, love, tragedy, and the importance of the kitchen and home in the lives of two free-spirited young women in contemporary Japan.
21.The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
Yasuko runs a Tokyo bento shop and raises her only child alone. But when her ex-husband shows up without warning one day, her comfortable life is shattered.
A single mother killed her abusive ex-husband in her kitchen during an argument. Overhearing the altercation, Yasuko’s neighbour Ishigami comes to her aid and help dispose of the body and prepare the cover-up. However, when Dr Manabu Yukawa, a.k.a Detective Galileo, is brought in to help figure out what happened to Yasuko’s ex-husband, he finds himself confronted by the most puzzling, mysterious circumstances he has ever investigated as Ishigami attempts his best to cover up the truth.
22.Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo by Miyuki Miyabe
In Miyabe’s Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo. He gathers a series of eight short stories, all of which revolve around ghosts in Japan. These stories take place during the old Edo period, during the 18th century. They depict the wandering dead, the Oni (demons), and the spaces where they dwell. In these stories, award-winning author Miyuki Miyabe explores the ghosts of Japan, and the spaces they inhabit. Be prepared for more cold if you’re reading this on a cold night.
23. The Eighth Day by Mitsuyo Kakuta
An affair between a married co-worker and a woman is the story of The Eighth Day, translated into English in 2010. An unwanted abortion brings her to her knees. She kidnaps her lover’s six-month-old baby and runs away with it. After joining a religious commune, she tries to raise the girl. It has been fifteen years since Elena, the stolen child, attempted to return to her family. Based on both the perspectives of the kidnapper and victim. Kakuta’s novel is a powerful look at the nature of family, motherhood, and life as a single mother and a fugitive in Japan. This book will leave you sobbing before you even make it halfway through.
24.Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
In this book, the seasons change, time passes, and melancholy can develop as a result of both. While drinking alone in a local sake bar. Tsukiko unexpectedly runs into one of her old high school teachers, and not being able to recall his name. She speaks of him as ‘Sensei’. Tsukiko and Sensei have carried on meeting after this initial encounter. While she is thirty years older than Sensei, the two share a close relationship despite their differences as they come together over food and sake. Interested in Japanese cuisine? A foodie at heart? You will love this book for sure.
25.Lonely castle in the mirror, by Mizuki Tsujimura
The Mirror of Loneliness requires tissues nearby. Tsujimura bestselling fantasy novel is translated into English in the form of a hardcover. Seven students escape from their stressful lives by hiding in their darkened bedrooms rather than going to school. Until they discover a portal into a parallel world that allows them to temporarily escape their daily life stresses. With its focus on modern Japanese youth, this novel explores their mental health and anxiety. The novel is quite powerful.
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