While it may be true that Japanese literary works are rarely promoted during book fairs and that European or American authors come to mind first when you are asked about foreign novels, there is no doubt that Japanese literature is everywhere.
Japan is better known for its unique form of short poems (haiku and tanka) and its manga but, in fact, stories from Japanese authors are constantly being turned into movies, comics and anime. Furthermore, the best Japanese novels are often very quick to be translated and shipped to other countries.
Japanese authors delve into every genre, from literary fiction to horror and feminist literature. Indeed, we could even say Japan is the home of some of the best writers in the world.
Japanese books are renowned for their narrative commentary on culture and lifestyle. If you want to learn more about Japan, or if you are planning a trip to the Land of The Rising Sun, many of the Japanese books you will find in your bookshop will teach you about the uniqueness of the Japanese culture.
If you are looking to live in Japan for a while (or forever), reading some of the Japanese literary classics will likely enrich your knowledge of the traditions, customs and lifestyle of the Japanese people, and help prepare you for your cultural transition.
Following is a smattering of what we consider to be 'must read Japanese books' from a range of eras and genre.
If your goal is to read Japanese novels in the original text, why not take Japanese lessons online?
Nobel Prize for Literature Winners
Only two Japanese authors have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature since its inception in 1901—Yasunari Kawabata (1968) and Kenzaburō Ōe (1994). In 2017, Japanese-born author, Kazuo Ishiguro, was awarded the Nobel Prize, however, although some of his early works were set in Japan, Ishiguro emigrated to Britain at the age of 5 and now speaks little to no Japanese.
Snow Country (Yasunari Kawabata)
Original title: Yukiguni
Genre: fiction, novel
You should read it because: set against the backdrop of falling snow, it is considered one of the most aesthetically beautiful works ever penned.
In 1968, Yasunari Kawabata was the first Japanese to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Snow Country was one of three novels cited by the Nobel Committee when they announced the prize, stating it was for:
... his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind.
Set in rural Japan, Snow Country is Kawabata's tale of isolation and indifference. The middle-aged male protagonist, Shimamura, begins a love affair with a geisha when he visits a hot spring resort village, completely disregarding his wife and child back in Tokyo.
Despite being tightly bound by the rules of a rural geisha, and knowing the affair cannot possibly have her desired outcome, Komako still gives herself to Shimamura fully.
With its lyrical prose, the novel is all at once suggestive, haunting and ultimately tragic
From the same author: Thousand Cranes, The Old Capital
Seventeen (Kenzaburō Ōe)
Original title: Sevuntiin
Genre: fiction, short story
You should read it because: it's a true satire of this period in Japan's history that still finds relevance nearly 60 years later.
The second of the only two Japanese writers to ever receive a Nobel Prize for Literature, Kenzaburō Ōe won the prize thanks to this amazing novel which is considered to be his masterpiece.
The plot takes place in the 1960s when Japan was facing a surge of ultra-nationalism (not too dissimilar from today). The country is still healing from the defeat and the horrors it faced during World War II. It is in this context that the main character of the novel, only named as 'Seventeen' throughout the book, will have to navigate.
The 17-year-old young man is starting to explore his sexuality, and often struggles with it. Showing some violent feelings towards his family, they do not understand him and fail to help him through the complicated intricacies of the teenage years.
Like many teens, the young man sets aside his reason and logic and allows himself to be easily influenced.
Seventeen meets dodgy characters, claiming to be right-wing partisans but really ultra-nationalists. Growing closer to them, Seventeen drifts away from his family and especially his sister, a nurse, who he thinks leans too much to the left.
The sentiment of finally belonging to a group and having a purpose blurs Seventeen's reality, even when he agrees to wear a uniform looking much like the ones German SS soldiers wore.
From the same author: Hiroshima Notes, The Silent Cry
Classic Japanese Literature
The Tale of Genji (Murasaki Shikibu)
Original title: Genji Monogatari
Genre: fiction, novel
You should read it because: it marks the beginning of Japanese literature
Considered to be the world's first novel (and written by a woman at that!), The Tale of Genji is hailed as the finest work of literature in the history of Japan.
Written in the 11th century, or the Heian Period in Japan, it follows the romantic life of the protagonist, Prince Genji, who is the son of the Emperor and one of his lower ranking concubines. While the plot has plenty of romance, death, illegitimate children and forbidden love, it also provides the reader with a comprehensive insight into the lives of Japanese nobility of the time.
The perspective is of particular interest as it is told through the eyes of an author with true inside knowledge as she was a lady-in-waiting in the Imperial Court.
If you fall in love with this story and have the opportunity to visit Japan, a trip to The Tale of Genji Museum in Uji, a thirty-minute train ride from Kyoto, is a must.
From the same author: The Diary of Lady Murasaki
The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (author unknown)
Original title: Taketori Monogatari
Genre: narrative, folklore
Published: unknown but thought to be written around the 890s
You should read it because: it's a key part of Japanese folklore and many of its events are embedded in Japanese culture today
Known variously as Taketori no Ōkina no Monogatari (The Tale of the Old Bamboo Cutter), Kaguyahime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) or simply Kaguyahime (The Moon Princess) this is one of the earliest folktales written in kana (the Japanese syllabaries).
It is the story of Princess Kaguya, who is found inside a bamboo stalk and raised by the bamboo cutter and his wife.
At the start of the story, the bamboo cutter sees a shining stalk of bamboo and, upon cutting it, discovers a tiny child who is less than three inches in length, nestled within. He takes her home and he and his wife, who have no children, decide to raise her as their own. After finding her, the bamboo cutter starts finding gold in bamboo stalks each day, and the couple become rich.
As Kaguyahime grows, she is courted by a range of lecherous and undesirable court nobles, so she sets them an impossible task and eventually reveals that, as a 'child of the moon' she is fated to return there.
This story has been retold a number of times in English and is often simplified for children, but if you can get your hands on a full copy, it is well worth the search.
Influential Japanese Authors
A number of must read Japanese books have been penned over the years by a selection of Japanese-born authors. Here is a small selection to get your list started.
Haruki Murakami (Kafka on the Shore)
Original title: Umibe no Kafka
Genre: fiction, novel
You should read it because: the clever plot structure alone is intriguing, plus Murakami truly is the master storyteller
Full of absurdity, irony and angst, Kafka on the Shore follows two different main characters through two different plot lines. Odd-numbered chapters tell 15-year-old Kafka's story as he embarks on a journey, running away from home to escape his father. Even-numbered chapters follow Nakata who has fallen into part-time work as an elderly professional cat finder.
All characters are linked to these complex stories which, little by little, entangle. An amazing tale, it is sometimes weird, sometimes funny but filled throughout with unexpected twists that slowly unravel the plot.
Often criticised for shallow characters and inconsistent plots, Murakami never leaves you indifferent. You either love his books or hate them. What cannot be taken away from this novelist is his story-telling craft. Kafka on the Shore runs to 600 pages but it will most likely keep you awake, turning pages all night long.
Some critics have described Murakami as 'travelling in a parallel world' and it is true that the reader will find some aspects of Murakami to be strange. Nevertheless, the themes he approaches resonate well with millions of readers through East Asia.
From the same author: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Norwegian Wood.
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Yukio Mishima (The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea)
Orginal Title: Gogo no Eikō
Genre: narrative fiction, philosophical
You should read it because: of its insight and controversy, done best by the 'dark figure of Japanese literature'
Typical themes in Mishima's work revolve around the serious subjects of glory and honour, alienation and gender roles—The Sailor Who Feel from Grace with the Sea is no different.
The story is one of a teenage boy. Thirteen-year-old Noboru struggles with his mother's remarriage to a sailor. At first, the young man thinks he has found a new paternal figure but quickly realises that his stepfather is not of the pirate he pictured him to be, but just a decent guy.
The gang of youngsters Noboru spends his time with, casually go around torturing innocent animals in an attempt to find their masculinity. Quickly though, animals are not enough and Noboru's stepfather becomes the subject of their next plan.
Although Mishima was criticised for his nationalism, he notably defended the gay community in the years preceding his failed coup and dramatic sepukku, or ritual suicide. Nominated three times for a Nobel Prize for Literature, he never won it.
From the same author: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Confessions of a Mask
Yoko Ogawa (The Housekeeper and the Professor)
Original title: Hakase no Ai Shita Suushiki
Genre: narrative, fiction
You should read it because: it's a unique story of love, but not romance
Perhaps Ogawa's most loved novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor, is the story of the bond formed between a housekeeper (the narrator, and a single mother) and an aging mathematician whose memory now resets itself on a daily basis. Losing his grip on reality, the professor nonetheless manages to show her the magic of maths as well as develop a strong bond with the housekeeper's young son.
From the same author: The Memory Police, The Diving Pool
Natsume Sōseki (Kokoro)
Original title: Kokoro (literal translation in English is 'Heart')
Genre: narrative, fiction
Published: 1914 (as a newspaper serial, later published in novel form)
You should read it because: Natsume Sōseki remains Japan's favourite novelist to this day
Kokoro is written in three parts. The first two, in the voice of the young man, follow the relationship of the young man and his older friend and mentor from his university days, whom he calls Sensei. Part 3 changes perspective and is told in Sensei's voice in the form of a long confessional letter.
Set in the early twentieth century, the novel is not only an exploration of generational relationships, but also of political and cultural change in Japan.
From the same author: I am a Cat, Botchan
Other Must Read Japanese Books
The Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu (Ryotaro Shiba)
Original title: Saigo no Shogun
Genre: historical fiction
You should read it because: it's a thoroughly entertaining 'history' lesson
Not well known in Europe, Shiba is the Japanese equivalent of England's Bernard Cornwell in that both write amazing historical fiction novels.
This is the story of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last Shogun of the Tokugawa family. The story depicts a nostalgic and endearing man who is to choose the path of peace for his country. Marking the end of 260 years of feudal Japan, his abdication marked the beginning of modern Japan.
Being of the historical fiction genre, it is obviously not to be taken as an accurate biography of the last Shogun—sources are not quoted and verified facts are few. Nevertheless, Shiba' style and storytelling talent will immerse you in this pivotal period of Japanese history.
From the same author: Clouds above the Hill
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A Midsummer's Equation (Keigo Higashino)
Original title: Manatsu no Hoteishiki
Genre: mystery thriller
You should read this because: it's full of surprising twists and is perfect for thriller fans—proof that Japanese authors can write in this genre
A Midsummer's Equation is part of the Galileo series, a popular set of books in Japan. It follows the adventures of the physicist, Yukawa, and his old friend, Yochimu, a police detective. The friends band together, trying to solve mysterious cases.
In A Midsummer's Equation, the guest of a seashore resort is found dead at the bottom of the local cliffs. The victim is a former policeman. The cause of death, carbon monoxide poisoning. Yukawa starts investigating.
From the same author: The Devotion of Suspect X, Journey Under the Midnight Sun
Much More to Discover...
This list barely scratches the surface of Japanese literature. Many more must read Japanese books are out there, waiting to be discovered.
If you're looking for something cultural and in the non-fiction genre, The Book of Tea (Kazuko Okakura) examines chado ('the way of tea') in the context of Japanese art and history
For readers wanting samurai stories, Musashi (Eiji Yoshikawa) tells the romanticised story of the greatest Japanese swordsman who ever lived, Musashi Miyamoto. More than just an epic adventure novel, Musashi will take you from Kyoto to Edo, describing how Japanese people lived during the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It also approaches the themes of Buddhism and Shinto, and accurately describes the discipline of the warrior class.
If you read and enjoyed The Tale of Genji, you will also love Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book which is a somewhat eye-opening and unique collection of musings and anecdotes of imperial life (from the pen of a court lady) over 1,000 years ago.
Most foreigners are familiar with Japan's unique style of poetry, the haiku. Short and easy to read, they are full of meaning. If you want to read haiku, the best place to start is with Matsuo Bashō. Recognised as the greatest master of haiku, Bashō's collection of haiku and prose in The Narrow Road to the Deep North acts as a travel diary which depicts the changing seasons and landscapes in the long-gone world of Edo.
Finally, learn more about the Japanese culture with these guides on:
What are you waiting for? There's so much to delve into.