8 Contemporary Japanese Novelists (Who Aren’t Haruki Murakami)
By Iain Maloney
On March 3, 2017
When Japanese bookshops opened up at midnight on Feb. 24 for his book launch event, Haruki Murakami was back in the news and back on our shelves. Although no publication date has yet been set for the English translation of Killing Commendatore, if you’re looking for a contemporary J-lit fix already available in translation, here are eight other authors worth exploring.
1. Hiromi Kawakami
One of the big translation events of 2014 was Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. This story of two lonely people passing the Tokyo seasons together is an excellent place to begin. Famous for being quirky and sometimes surreal, but far less twee than the more renowned Banana Yoshimoto, Kawakami is a must for readers who love to luxuriate in captivating prose.
2. Fuminori Nakamura
Sampling elements of noir and crime, Fuminori Nakamura writes bleak, violent existential thrillers that peel back Tokyo’s scabs and dig around in its wounds. His prose is sparse and haunting, underscored with a black sense of humor. English-language publishers have taken an interest, which has lead to six of his books translated in four years. His latest, The Boy in the Earth, is a vivid, vital story about a man still attempting to deal with the abuse he suffered as a child. A previous novel, The Thief, is guaranteed to make any Tokyoite avoid the darker streets at night.
3. Hitomi Kanehara
Writing in a style that reflects the uneducated “street” voice of her characters, Hitomi Kanehara is notoriously difficult to translate. As a result, she still only has two short novels in English — Autofiction and Snakes and Earrings — as well as a handful of short stories. Both are harsh, cynical books dealing with young women outside mainstream Japanese society. Open and honest about self-destruction, sexual promiscuity and the murky world of Tokyo subcultures; Kanehara’s fiction is a short, sharp shock designed to startle and unsettle. And it’s all the better for it.
4. Risa Wataya
Risa Wataya and Kanehara shared the Akutagawa Prize in 2003 but the two writers could hardly be farther apart in style. They both struggle with the experience of young women in Japan, but Wataya is less extreme in her approach. Her novel, I Want to Kick You in the Back, is a humorous and moving story of isolation and friendship in high school.
5. Hideo Furukawa
Readers may be forgiven for thinking that experimental writing and magical realism in Japan begin and end with Murakami. Hideo Furukawa — critically acclaimed but criminally under-translated — muddies the water even more with his novella Slow Boat, to be published in English later this year. It is a deliberate homage or remix of Murakami’s short story, A Slow Boat to China. Another, Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure is part memoir, part metafiction (closer perhaps to Karl Ove Knausgard, if we’re drawing comparisons) that deals with the Mar. 11 triple disaster, while Belka, Why Don’t You Bark? is written from the perspective of dogs. Japan’s still searching for a third literary Nobel laureate and Furukawa would be a good bet for the future.
6. Mieko Kawakami
Mieko Kawakami published her first book in 2007. She has since won almost every domestic literary prize going. Her stories are regularly anthologized in places like Granta, Words Without Borders and Monkey Business International. Her novella about love and obsession, Ms Ice Sandwich, is out later this year.
7. Nao-Cola Yamazaki
So far, only her short fiction has made it into English but that tentative sample is enough to leave readers desperate for more. She won the Bungei Prize in 2004 for Don’t Laugh at People’s Sex Lives and has been prolific ever since, both in fiction and as an essayist. Her prose is shot through with humor and optimism, which makes her style almost addictive.
8. Ryu Murakami
The “other” Murakami isn’t exactly a secret — his novel Audition was turned into a hit horror movie — but his existence in English translation is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Out of dozens of books, only eight of his have made it over the barrier but what there is displays a versatile, brave and challenging mind at work. Almost Transparent Blue is as flippant as it is outrageous, In The Miso Soup is not advised to anyone thinking of going drinking in Roppongi and Coin Locker Babies is simply one of the coolest and weirdest books I’ve read.
This isn’t meant as an exhaustive list of contemporary Japanese literature, rather an introduction. I could easily have done twenty or thirty more novels and no doubt still left off your favorite author. Half the fun of books is giving and receiving recommendations — so who would be on your list? Let us know in the comments!