Five Essential Japanese Novels
Junko Takekawa, Senior Arts Programme Officer at The Japan Foundation in London, has kindly written the following article for Waterstones introducing five fascinating and under-appreciated modern novels by Japanese writers.
Photo: Cherry Blossom Viewing Festival, Tokyo, Japan (c) Salawin Chanthapan
I read around 100 Japanese books each year, not because of my job, which promotes Japanese culture in this country but simply because I love reading. I am still an ‘analogue person’ when it comes to books and it has to be on paper! Imagine, it is not easy to obtain this amount of books from Japan but even more difficult to choose 5 books I particularly like. But here you go! My handful selection of Japanese crime novels that I recommend. All are available in English and on paper!
Six Four - Hideo Yokoyama
I am a devoted reader of his work and I have read almost every single book by him. Unlike other best-selling novelists, he is far from prolific but every piece of work is like a gem. I am so thrilled to know that one of his works has been translated into English so he can gain the readership outside Japan that he deserves. Some may label his books “macho” as quite often the stories are set in male society in Japan. Six Four is a human story of the Japanese police force, a recurrent theme of his books. Although there is a crime there, it is not, strictly speaking, a crime novel in my opinion, but a novel about human behavior and conflict between individuals in a rigid and impersonal organisation. You may be able to see your mirror image in this book.
Journey Under the Midnight Sun - Keigo Higashino
Like other countries, Japan isn’t a utopia. There is poverty and child abuse though quite often it is hidden away from the eyes of ordinary people. Keigo Higashino is arguably the most productive and best-selling crime novelist in Japan whose work has gained a readership of millions and has been converted into popular TV dramas and films. Not every book by him is commendable (well, it is always the case for prolific writers, isn’t it?) and literature connoisseurs may not admit that they like his books but this Journey Under the Midnight Sun is a painstakingly good crime novel, tracing around the desire of a girl to pull herself up from the bottom of society and her dark past.
Villain - Shuichi Yoshida
Shuichi Yoshida is one of many Japanese novelists whose works I have enjoyed reading. Villain depicts well the extreme circumstances of two young people in a remote village in Japan who have no hope and no way out. Would you judge them as villains or victims of misfortune? This book was made into a film with which Yoshida was also involved as a script writer. After you read this book, pick up the DVD of the same title. It is also well made. In addition to crime novels such as Villain, Yoshida has written books about the life of young people in contemporary Japan like Parade but they quite often contain a dark twist.
Confessions - Kanae Minato
Minato is a sensational female crime writer. Without much bloodshed or many grotesque scenes, her books are true page-turners as she excels in digging up evil and guilt in our unconscious mind. Confessions is an early work that pushed her onto the main stage of the Japanese literature world in 2008. This book is about a confession by a female school teacher whose small child was killed at her school pool. Chillingly through her monologue, she reveals what she discovered about what had happened to her child and subtly accuses the murderer without pointing a finger until the end. Stories in “confession” style later became her trademark. If you do not like novels in a diary format or first person novels, it may not be for you but she is such a compelling story teller that it is guaranteed to grip your mind. Her Penance is also worth reading.
Finally, if you are fed up with reading a fiction, what about reading this book:
Underground - Haruki Murakami
The world may condemn me if I say I am not a big fan of Haruki Murakami’s books and am not a “Harukist” although undoubtedly he is one of the greatest novelists of the world (and I hope one day he will receive the Nobel Literature Prize!). I simply cannot get on with his writing style. I was however not able to put Underground down! This is not categorically a crime novel but one of the rare non-fiction works by Murakami with a compilation of interviews with those who were victims of and involved in the Sarin incident in the Tokyo metro in 1995. It was a sensational and shocking terrorist act in Japan. Until I read this book, I have never considered Murakami a good non-fiction writer but it resulted from his desire to know what happened and it makes the truth and pain rightly stand out and allows this book to be so readable.
The Japan Foundation was established in 1972 by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and became an Independent Administrative Institution in 2003. We promote international cultural exchange between Japan and the rest of the world, and provide financial support for a range of international cultural exchange programmes. We work principally in the fields of Arts and Culture, in Japanese language education and in Japanese studies. The Foundation’s activities are coordinated through our headquarters in Tokyo as well as through our offices, language centres and cultural centres in over 20 countries outside of Japan.
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