Reading Japanese literature in Japan is a wonderful immersive experience. If you’re a massive nerd like me, you can take literary pilgrimages to the places you visit in the novels. I have traveled to some incredibly beautiful places because Mishima sent his melancholy protagonist there to describe the beauty of the landscape while pondering the meaninglessness of life (thanks for the weekend plans). I'll never forget traveling in a small one car train through the snow blanketed countryside with Kawabata's Snow Country in my hands. The scenes I saw in the book and from the train window were one and the same.
Below is my guide to some key modern and post-war Japanese literature. The authors and novels mentioned have been hugely influential in shaping contemporary Japanese writing. This list will probably impress your Japanese colleagues and/or throw you into an existential crisis. Work your way through my abridged history of modern Japanese literature with this chronological guide:
Natsume Soseki – published works from 1905-1916
Natsume is the granddaddy of modern Japanese literature. His works have had a profound influence on the development of modern Japanese writing. Since the 21st Century there has been an increase of international interest in his work, which has been somewhat attributed to Murakami Haruki citing Natsume as his favourite writer.
Must read: Kokoro (1914) A naïve university student befriends an older man he calls Sensei, who is cynical and depressed. The story of egoism, temptation and guilt is told in three parts. The unnamed student narrates the first two parts, while the compelling final part is told by the sensei in a letter to the student. The melodrama unfolds slowly and somewhat tediously, but by the end I was as invested as a suit on Wall Street. If you liked Kokoro, try Botchan (1906) or Sanshiro (1908).
Ogai Mori – The Wild Geese (1911) I recently read a captivating review on Goodreads for this novel that said it is “the Meiji Period's answer to Lost in Translation… The end has her in the street feeling sad and confused about her life, and him going past [with a goose in his underpants / in a taxi to the airport]” I have honestly never felt more compelled to reread a novel. Realistically though, it’s sad tale of unrequited love and betrayal. In order to care for her ailing father, the poor young heroine becomes a sleazy moneylender’s mistress. Unlike Lost in Translation, this novel left my heart feeling like a dry and shriveled husk.
Ranpo Edogawa – Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1925-1956)
This anthology of short stories spans the career of Japan’s answer to Edar Allen Poe. If you need a break from stories about privileged young men in the midst of an existential crisis (I’m looking at you Natsume, Mishima, Abe and Murakami) this is the book for you. These wildly perverse, mysterious and scary stories will suck you in and spit you out feeling scared and dirty, in the best possible way.
Kawabata Yasunari – Published works from 1926-1964
Kawabata is another big gun in the canon of Japanese literature. In 1968 he became the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, probably much to Mishima’s disdain.
Must read: Snow Country (1948) A melancholy tale of a doomed romance set in the desolate beauty of Western Japan. The poetic descriptions of the landscape are what really make this story special. Read this book in winter, preferably on a train along a snowy mountain pass, as Kawabata describes the very scenery you are traveling through (I actually did). If you liked Snow Country, try Thousand Cranes (1952).
Abe Kobo – published works from 1948-1994
Abe Kobo is an avant-garde writer who has often been compared to Kafka for his surreal and nightmarish explorations of individuals in contemporary society. He creates the most contemptible protagonists I’ve ever read, and just as you feel like throwing the book across the room out of frustration towards the character, someone will step in and say exactly what you’ve been thinking the whole time. Abe is a sick genius.
Must read: The Woman in the Dunes (1962) An amateur entomologist is stranded at a sand dune for the night and seeks refuge with a local woman. When he tries to leave the next day he finds that he is held captive. This story of a man trying to escape the sand is very much like sand itself: it’s gritty, uncomfortable at times and will get under your skin, and into your sandwich. If you liked The Woman in the Dunes, try The Face of Another (1946) – full disclosure: I hated this book, but will acknowledge it is cleverly written – or the more contemporary The Ark Sakura (1984).
Mishima Yukio – published works from 1949 – 1971
Where do I even begin with this guy? First of all, Mishima is one of the most important Japanese writers of the 20th century and was considered for the same 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature that went to Kawabata. Second of all, he founded his own right wing militia, attempted and failed a coup d’état of the Japanese SDF, and then committed seppuku. If that’s not enough to spark some interest in the guy then I can’t help you.
Must read: Sea of Fertility tetralogy (1969-1971) Ok sorry, my must read is actually four books. This tetralogy is Mishima’s magnum opus. The story spans the lifetime of the protagonist, Honda. Each of the novels depicts what Honda comes to believe are successive reincarnations of his high school friend. A gripping tale runs throughout the novels. The ending of the third book notably had me involuntarily yell “shit!” and slam the book down while I was on the train. If you liked The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, try all of his books and plays.
Murakami Haruki – published works from 1979 – present
Murakami is the most internationally acclaimed contemporary writer to come out of Japan. Every man and his dog have read this guy. Criticized within Japan for writing un-Japanese novels, many of his novels take place in surreal worlds where cats talk and it rains fish. His novels are engaging and easy to read.
Must read: Kafka on the Shore (2002) A surreal page-turner about a teenage runaway, a lonely old man, and the strange crossing of their paths. If you liked Kafka on the Shore, try The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994). If magical realism is not to your liking, try Norwegian Wood (1987) instead.
Yoshimoto Banana – Kitchen (1988)
At last, a female writer! Now of course there were women creating wonderful works of writing throughout Japanese history, but y’all know the reality of the patriarchy means that they get not the acknowledgement nor fame that they deserve (and consequently, lack distribution and English translations.) That said, Yashimoto is hugely popular in Japan and her works have been made into several films and TV shows. Kitchen is a contemporary classic. The novella is told from the perspective of a young woman struggling with grief and finding comfort in the familiarity of the kitchen. I personally don’t love this book – and there is some kind of problematic language concerning a transgender character – but it’s critical acclaim makes it deserving of a place on this list. At a short 150 pages, it’s worth a shot.
I hope this guide can help you find the perfect companion for your journey. Reading these books has enhanced my time in Japan. Workplace discussions have broken out on the definitive ranking of Abe Kobo’s best books; friendly ojisan (old men) have started conversations with me on the train; and most importantly I have traveled to some truly beautiful places that I wouldn’t otherwise know about.