Culture

Kills, Thrills, Love and Loss: New Titles from Japan Make Great Summer Reads

Intriguing titles and exclusive adventures all from Japan and all in your hands with this year’s GaijinPot summer reading list.

By 6 min read

Wherever you find yourself this summertime — at home, at the beach or scrambling to find anywhere with air conditioning — there’s no better way to relax, indoors or out, than in the company of great summer books.

Here we give you all our recommendations of the best new books in, on, from, or about Japan to fill your free time and your imagination during the hottest of days. So, wherever you are, pull out that book, digital or paper and let it whisk you away.

Suspense and Mystery

If you need a little excitement to fill your summer then a mystery or suspense novel might do the trick and these three may well be the best ones released so far this year.

Fuminori Nakamura delves into the mysterious disappearance of a young girl who slipped into the cracks of an ominous local group in Cult X  (Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Kalau Almony, May 2018, Soho Crime, 512 pp., ¥2,794). Noir and mystery ooze out of Nakamura’s writing, while the book is revealing in its examination of a cult that can’t hide similarities to the Aum Shinrikyo cult that led the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway and others — a story still making headlines this summer. You’ll be kept on edge to the very end and even after it’s finished you’ll be happy to know that many of Nakamura’s other novels have been recently released in English, including the Akutagawa prize-winning The Boy in the Earth.

Another wild ride with connections to true events is Hideo Yokoyama’s newly released Seventeen (Hideo Yokoyama, translated by Lousie Heal Kawai, February 2018, Riverrun, 416 pp., ¥1,417), centered around the real life experiences of the author as a journalist during the 1985 JAL Flight 123 crash into the mountains in Gunma. This is an event that shook Japan, and Yokoyama shows us what it was like to be right on the frontlines. While not really a mystery (but with surprises for anyone unfamiliar with the actual crash) Yokoyama creates an incredible amount of tension in the decisions being made with the ticking clock of deadlines feeling as nerve-racking as any time bomb and the risk of losing integrity as awful as death for a journalist.

Or, if a murder mystery is more your style, pick up the recently re-released The Lady Killer (Masako Togawa, translated by Simon Grove, April 2018, Pushkin Vertigo, 224 pp., ¥1,231) by Masako Togawa. The story is beyond simple description, blending mysterious deaths with a deeper mystery over whether this is the tale of a misogynist killer or something far more tricky. Togawa’s writing is slick as it never lets you get too confident about what’s about to happen until the twists spin you right around like a roller coaster. Hard to put down, so you may finish this one during a single poolside sitting.

Memoirs

If you’d rather avoid thrills and kills as you relax on your sofa then you may find these memoirs more to your liking.

A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir (March 2018 Penguin Press, 256 pp., ¥2,069), is the account of one of the most long-standing English writers on Japan, Ian Buruma. Whether or not you have read any of his earlier books (Year Zero: A History of 1945 is always worth picking up) you’ll be swept away by this story of a writer falling in love with a city and country that would define his entire life. A portrait of the man, but maybe more so of the city of Tokyo as it grew through the 1970’s and into the powerful and beautiful metropolis it became. A relaxing and lovely read that shines attention on Tokyo in the way that Woody Allen has so often done for New York.

Tracy Franz’s My Year of Dirt and Water: Journal of a Zen Monk’s Wife in Japan (July 2018, Stone Bridge Press, 308 pp., ¥1,897) is an insightful and charming look at her experience living alone in Japan, separated from her husband while he is secluded in training as a monk. In order to deal with the stress of being in a new country and the loneliness of being without her family and husband, Franz throws herself into the world of pottery, and through that, into a better understanding of Japan and herself. This book bears witness to one of Japan’s oldest traditions of beating negativity and sadness through working towards perfection. The beauty of the descriptions will make you want to pick up your own clay, or more likely, search out whatever piece Japanese culture lies closest to your heart.

Nonfiction

For those studious types, fear not, there are plenty of new books to teach, inform and enlighten you on just about any part of Japan you could think of.

Tuttle continues to provide beautiful and insightful guides to all things that makes up Japan. Whisky savant Brian Ashcraft’s Japanese Whisky: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Desirable Spirit with Tasting Notes from Japan’s Leading Whisky Blogger (May 2018, 144 pp., ¥2,376) is thorough and so detailed that even a connoisseur of the drink can learn a thing or two. However if samurai are more up your alley both Japan: The Ultimate Samurai Guide (July 2018, 144 pp., ¥2,052) by Alexander Bennett or Samurai Castles (June 2018, 128 pp., ¥2,376) by Jennifer Mitchelhil will satisfy your cravings. The first is a history and guide of Japan based martial arts, while that latter focuses on some of the country’s best castles and the stories behind them.

Other noteworthy nonfiction include Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan (June 2018, Stone Bridge Press, 144 pp., ¥1,331), which is both humorous and remains informative for anyone needing a little guidance on avoiding the pitfalls that sometimes await travelers in the land of the rising sun. Or, for those in the mood for a more historic education, Simon Partner’s newest work The Merchant’s Tale (December 2017, Columbia University Press, 320 pp., ¥5,109) examines Shinohara Chuemon. The name might not ring any bells for most, but Chuemon’s life and journey run parallel with the collapse of the shogunate and the opening of Japan to the rest of the world. Chuemon witnessed it all up close and personal as a trader in Yokohama, and his story along with Partner’s ability to pull out the interesting stories in this history, make this a great summer read for those escaping homework or housework but still wanting to learn a bit.

For an added summer literary bonus, the folks at Tokyo Poetry Journal are releasing Tokyo Poetry Journal Volume 6 Summer 2018 (July 2018, Printed Matter Press, 152 pp., ¥1,500) on July 21. This edition of the biannual publication of poetry, art, reviews and criticism features a special section on “Butoh & Art.” The anthology can be ordered via the group’s online store or — for a more personal and memorable purchasing experience — those in Tokyo might want to head out to Nagatacho Grid in Hirakawacho for the ToPoJo Volume 6 launch party on the day of release. The ¥3,000 admission includes a hard copy of the anthology, one drink, music and a Butoh dance performance, as well as a chance to hear readings and meet some like-hearted poetry lovers.

These are just a few of the books sitting on our desks (and our reading lists) at GaijinPot for the summer ahead.  If you have some natsu yasumi (summer holidays) coming up, take some time to relax and and maintain your cool with an icy drink in one hand and a good read in the other. No matter your mood or situation, one of the above books should fit the bill.

What books from Japan are you looking forward to reading this summer? Let us know in the comments!

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