Experiencing Japan Through Literature

By

September 3, 2014

After finishing a translated work, I always wonder what impact I could be missing out on because I didn’t read the book in its original language. I am struck with even more awe if the translated novel has left me thinking about it for days afterwards.

Below are a few Japanese books (translated into English) that have left a great impression on me, whether by breaking stereotypes, craftily incorporating mysticism, or by just the mere fact that that I could understand the setting and conflicts more because I live in Japan.

Kafka On the Shore

Haruki Murakami

kafka_2

Haruki Murakami has become a staple in Japanese literature read by foreigners, his most popular books being Dance Dance Dance and Norwegian Wood. Both stories discuss protagonists trying to find themselves and meeting other unforgettable characters amidst their soul-searching. However, both novels are written with quite different styles, with Dance Dance Dance having more “beyond this world” features embedded within.

This is where Kafka On the Shore comes in. I read Dance Dance Dance, and then Norwegian Wood. While Norwegian Wood was a great story, it was missing Murakami’s mysticism. However, the phenomenon comes back full force in Kafka. Kafka is about multiple protagonists on a soul-searching quest, and events that occur are often times unexplainable.

Most of the time I had no idea what was going on, but it was a fun ride!

The twists and turns kept me engaged, and when I got to the ending, I stopped trying to rationalize everything and just let the story soak in. Yes, there are unexplained talking cats, raining fish, and parallel dimensions, but there are also incredible characters, real emotions, and page-turning conflicts.

Kitchen

Banana Yoshimoto

kitchen

Kitchen is a brilliant story about an unconventional family in Japan. The “mother” is a stunning transgender bar hostess, the son (Yuichi) is a melancholic college student who needs inspiration in his life, and the both of them take in Mikage, Yuichi’s classmate, who just lost her grandmother, the only biological family she had left.

The kitchen, which is Mikage’s comfort zone, becomes the place that she uses to become closer to her new family and show them appreciation. Of course, the rest of their society has trouble accepting or understanding this family’s living situation, but they do the best they can to help each other get past scrutiny and tragedy.

To continue the motif of the unconventional family, you can also read Yoshimoto’s Amrita, although, I feel that the author does this theme better with, and more concisely in, Kitchen. However, both novels are touching and have a lot of heart.

Botchan

Natsume Soseki

botchan

Here is a hilarious tale of a young man, Botchan, from Tokyo, who moves to the countryside to become a math teacher. Soseki wrote this book in the early 1900s in response to the changing Japanese culture. Botchan represents the (cynical) “new” who clashes with a school staff who is stuck in their old ways of indirect demands, favors that come with an unspoken price, and rumors that shun unsuspecting people.

Botchan’s frustrations with this mind set parallel a new generation, and this reminds us that even though we encounter “old ways of thinking” in Japan today, it has become a lot better than from Botchan’s time.

Botchan’s conflicts with his students and staff are often told humorously. I still giggle when I eat Tempura (when you read, you will understand). This is not meant to be a serious novel, so read with a light heart, and pass it onto a person who is having trouble understanding Japan’s unspoken culture.

(By the way, Botchan is part of most Japanese schools’ reading curriculum, so many students have read it by the time they enter high school. Conversation starter idea!)

Please list your favorite translated Japanese works in the comments to share with others!

Topics:  

Traveling, eating, writing through Nihon.
  • Jesse Cadd

    There are a few books by Ayako Miura translated into English: Shiokari Pass and The Wind is Howling are the two I have read.

  • sarroyom

    My favorites are: Kobo Abe, Akutagawa Ryunosuke and Yasutaka Tsutsui

  • Morten Wernersen

    Banana Yoshimoto is defenetly one to check out, I’m currently halfway through Goodbye Tsugumi, the first of her books I’ve started reading, will defenetly read more of her, love her writing style, I’ve read a couple of Soseki’s too among them Kokoro and Botchan, Hiromi Kawakami I’ve read two from, Strange weather in Tokyo aka. The Briefcase and Manazuru, here style is a bit like Murakami’s, Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris, witch is a bit sinister I think, and then I’ve read almost all of Haruki Murakamis books.

  • Some of my favourites:
    Floating Clouds by Fumiko Hayashi (made into a wonderful movie too!)
    Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi
    Train Man/Densha Otoko (not exactly a novel, but a lovely light hearted read)
    Yakuza Moon by Shoko Tendo

    Not written by a Japanese author but I liked:
    Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein
    Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

    I’ve read Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris as mentioned in another comment. Looking to start on Kafka, IQ84 and Underground as well as some of Kazuo Ishiguro.

  • There are wonderful films about Geisha and I think you will like “Sisters of Gion (祇園の姉妹/Gion no Shimai)” directed by Mizoguchi.

    • Natkip

      Thank you so much! 😀 I’ll be sure to check the movie out 🙂

  • Hilde Dahl Hirai

    Besides Murakami, I like Natsuo Kirino, for her feminist aspect, set in crime scenery with lots of dark humour!

  • Alexandra Pagitsch

    My favorite book is ‘Deep River’ (Fukai Kawa) by Shusaku Endo.
    I read it on recommendation of a Japanese friend, and i have to say it’s great.

  • LJ Roxy

    i have read all three u mentioned. Besides i also like River ki by Sawako Ariyoshi, Soseki’s kokoro and books by Akutagawa.

  • Meryam Salim

    Japaneese literature is my favorite. I was always wondering how would it taste like if i read it in japaneese language.

  • Lisa Hong

    Thank you everyone for the great recommendations! Like many of you, I love Japanese literature, but I am so sad that I can’t read it in Japanese. But to think the works are so profound that even in translation, they are brilliant….. 🙂

  • Susan Wolf

    One of the best courses I had in college was Japanese Literature in Translation. Among other books we used were Donald Keene’s anthology. Even knowing the titles of classic works will impress people. “Wagahai wa neko de aru,” (I Am a Cat), by Soseki. Also his Botchan (a movie, too).

    I loved early Murakami, but not so much the recent stuff.

    My all-time favorite opening line of any novel ever, is from Kawabata’s Snow Country, “The train came out of the long tunnel, into the snow country.”

  • Rimi

    Reading Murakami gives me a sense of peace. Just as I would expect from a Japanese garden by the lake.

  • Leinan Adevo Heart

    ¿Why don´t mentioned Yasunari Kawabata? He is a legend in japanese and global literature.

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