I’ve been reading books written by Japanese authors for a few years now, and for a French man I can say that I’ve read a fair amount of them, maybe more than French books actually. Still, I could also say that there are many Japanese books I haven’t read, many classics, many new sensational novels and many recommended reads from friends. I’m also just starting reading them (very slowly) in Japanese, so I’m still very much dependent on translators’ choices to complete my reading list. So for today I compiled a small and humble list of the Japanese books that marked me. I came up with a top 10, here is what it looks like:
10. And then それから by Natsume Sôseki
Sôseki might be the most well known and studied author in Japan. Born in 1867, one year before Japan opened to the world and quickly modernized, his writings are deeply connected to one of Japan’s most important historical moment. In the late 19th century, tremendous changes occurred in the political scene, a clear generation gap formed from those who experienced the Meiji Revolution (1868 onward) and those too young to remember it, and the society struggled between integrating modern/Western ideas and preserving Japanese traditions. Sôseki is thus a pillar, a pioneer of modern Japanese literature, and some of his books are studied by every pupils of Japan. That being said, I am not a big fan of his most famous books. Still, I am not including him in my top 10 list because of his fame, but as I really enjoyed his book And then. The book narrates the life of a young man, Daisuke, who lives an idle life with his father’s money. Mingling reflections on situation of Japan in the early 20th century, on the absence of desire to work, on love, Sôseki develops ideas that are still very relevant and important nowadays.
9. Silence 沈黙 by Shûsaku Endô
Silence, which was recently adapted into a movie, is the story of a Portuguese Jesuit missionary coming to Japan in the early 17th century to inquire about his superior’s supposed apostasy (renouncement to his Christian faith). There he is welcomed by faithful Japanese Christians peasants… and persecuted by Christian-hunting Japanese authorities. As I randomly happened to read the book precisely where the story occurred, in Nagasaki area, I got subjugated to learn about a not-so-known part of Japanese history and of Christianity. I also enjoyed the theological struggles inside of the main character’s mind.
8. Grave of the Fireflies 火垂るの墓 by Akiyuki Nosaka
This short story is greatly inspired of real life events experienced by the author during World War II. Extremely blunt in style, the author succeeds in about a dozen pages to express the horrible reality of war times. Movie director Isao Takahata from the very famous Studio Ghibli realized an animation movie adapted from the novella and titled the same, which I also highly recommend, with a box of tissues nearby.
7. In a Grove 藪の中 by Ryûnosuke Akutagawa
This short story takes you inside a bamboo grove where a man died mysteriously. One by one, the people who were there when he died (and the dead man himself) testify of what has happened. However, those testimonies are all contradictory, and each account discredits the person uttering it him/herself. This confusing narration creates a story of parallel yet improbable realities, confusing the reader while appealing to his detective senses. After reading this short story I highly recommend watching Akira Kurosawa’s movie Rashômon, an adaptation of In a Grove which adds up one supplementary testimony that completely changes the overall meanings of the novella — it is as if Kurosawa had solved Akutagawa’s riddle.
6. Coin Locker Babies コインロッカー・ベイビーズ by Murakami Ryû
Also known as “the other Murakami”, Murakami Ryû is a contemporary writer of very intense literature. His only book I’ve read so far, Coin Locker Babies, is the trashy story of two boys abandoned as babies inside a coin locker and growing up living with this trauma. First set in a small island of Kyûshû, the two boys later move to Tokyo, but a gloomy version of it in which one of its centres (Shinjuku?) became a no-go zone full of junkies, illegal migrants and prostitutes of all genders. It is hard to describe how dark, cynical and surreal the novel is, but I can say that the book felt to me like a powerful howl about being entrapped inside an oppressing society, as we follow with addiction and anxiety the actions of the two boys.
5. The Thief 掏摸 by Fuminori Nakamura
Here is a less famous, yet highly talented contemporary Japanese author. The book The Thief is the story of a pickpocket based in Tokyo. If you thought Tokyo was the safest capital on earth, this book will make you start checking your pockets when pushed in a metro, or put your bag in front of you in the escalators and doubt of the integrity of well-dressed men. Fresh, intriguing, but also quite cynical, I really enjoyed reading Nakamura’s story, showing us a different but realistic part of Tokyo. I also liked trying to understand his main character’s mind and guessing where his actions would lead him — and without spoiling the end is quite intense.
4. After Dark アフターダーク by Haruki Murakami
Murakami may be the most famous Japanese author abroad those days, but to be frank, his postmodern/confusing style mixing fantastic and realist elements and his tendency to systematically skip conclusions often frustrates me. There is one book however that I deeply recommend: After Dark. Set around Shibuya (Tokyo) at night, this book wanders around different characters as they go through the night, meet, part, fight, meet again, laugh… It depicts with a sense of thrill the atmosphere of Shibuya’s night life, its restaurant, love hotels, konbini, parks, underground spaces. Murakami also gives tons of cultural references to note down or check while reading. I read it in one night in a Shibuya cafe, and walked back home at the end of the night, as the sun was pointing, with a very special sense of delight and Five spot after dark in my ears.
3. Confession of a mask 仮面の告白 by Yukio Mishima
Mishima wrote Confession of a mask in his early twenties. He describes the child/teenage-hood of an homosexual boy during the times of militarist Japan, a story very possibly autobiographical. Throughout the book, Mishima describes with first-person narration the boy trying on his mother’s kimono and later on homosexual experiences and feelings with a very acute sensibility. Yet this struggle about homosexuality is far from being Mishima’s main struggle: he died in 1970 committing ritual suicide while taking hostages after a failed attempt to trigger a coup d’état, hoping to restore the Emperor’s power. This bewildering, controversial figure of Japanese history is also one of the most influential authors of the country. Personally, I found his honest account on how children can express homosexuality and trouble of gender without realizing it simply fascinating.
2. Fill in the Blanks 空白を満たしなさい by Keichirô Hirano
3 years after his death, Tetsuo comes back to life to find that his wife, his son, his colleagues and friends have moved on. Besides, while he soon tries to find his murderer, he is told that he committed suicide. Fill in the Blanks (Compléter les Blancs in French) is from the beginning an intriguing and touching story of a man’s second chance. On top of this fascinating tale of memory recollection and reinsertion into life, the narration sometimes takes some distance with typical styles of literature. Indeed, Hirano spends time developing his own theories on social psychology through one character, a psychologist, explaining them to Tetsuo. The result is an amazing book mixing food for thoughts on death, grieving, psychology, with a story that we follow with excitement to the very last page and a complex central character to identify with.
1. M/T and the Narrative About the Marvels of the Forest M/Tと森のフシギの物語 by Kenzaburô Ôe.
I admit it, this long title is far from being sexy. Yet this book by the Nobel prize winner Kenzaburô Ôe is my favorite of all the Japanese books I’ve read so far. And it is also the least describable. Basically, the book is an account of the legends of Ôe’s hometown, in the forests of Shikoku (southern Japan), and at the same time a personal reflection on the connection between the author, his family and the history of his village. What is particularly interesting is that Ôe defies all rules of storytelling, but instead of confusing the reader, it just makes us feel closer to him, as if we were sitting together, listening to his folk tales. This book made me think about my own connection to my rural hometown, about spiritualism in daily life, but mostly took me away from Tokyo, away from anything I had read before as I was walking inside Ôe’s recollection of his forests. For me this book was a very marking read.
There are so many more authors I could have mentioned on my list, I am thinking especially about Junnichirô Tanizaki, Higuchi Ichiyô, Project Itoh, Kenji Miyazawa and Osamu Dazai, and also many more books from the authors I mentioned, but that’s my top 10 for today! I think that if I were to make a list again in, say, 5 years from now, chances are that most of the titles would be different. I hope that some people who are not particularly interested in Japan will see this post and try reading a book or two from it!
One thing I’m convinced is that Japanese literature is not that different from French literature, American literature, or any literature. I enjoy the exotic, historical, particular elements connected to Japanese culture in those novels, but I think that what I enjoy even more is that I can easily relate to them. I believe one does not need to live in Japan or to know about Japanese culture in order to feel that way. Each author, each book has its own uniqueness that echoes to all of us universally. The book just needs to find the right reader, and vice-versa. That’s why now that you’ve seen my list, I’d be very happy if you contact me saying “Hey I saw you liked this book, I think you should try reading that one too!”
As I am about to finish my undergraduate studies in Japan, I am planning to come back to France to start a Master in comparative literature. I wish to explore the books of many diverse cultures, periods and authors in order to understand better the differences and similarities that we feel around the globe, but also to receive some influence from all those sides of the world. Majoring in Japanese culture and literature in Tokyo definitely shaped who I am today, and I am very excited to keep exploring Japanese books, while I’m also starting to look more and more into other cultures too.