The Best Japanese Novels That Have English Translations

No trip to Japan is complete without riding the Shinkansen (bullet train) and seeing Mount Fuji up close
No trip to Japan is complete without riding the Shinkansen (bullet train) and seeing Mount Fuji up close | Blanscape / Adobe Stock
Lucy Dayman

Exploring Japan’s literary world is like diving headfirst into a rabbit hole of undiscovered wonders. Since the invention of the printed word, the country has produced some of the most groundbreaking and prolific novelists to ever exist. Japan’s love affair with literature is not surprising given that it spawned the world’s first-ever novel in the 11th century, The Tale of Genji, penned by female author Murasaki Shikibu. Luckily for non- Japanese speakers, there’s an abundance of English translations of many of the country’s greatest novels, both contemporary and historical.

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood

One of the biggest literary figures not only in Japan but in the wider English-speaking world and beyond, Haruki Murakami will go down in the history books as one of the greatest writers of our time. Throughout his illustrious career, Murakami has and continues to release bestsellers that typically blend the mundanity of the everyday with an undercurrent of surrealism. The 1987 novel Norwegian Wood is most people’s introduction to Murakami. A coming-of-age narrative told by protagonist Toru Watanabe, Norwegian Wood tells the story of Watanabe’s clumsy college-days foray into the world of first loves and the confusion and heartbreak they bring. The book title is a reference to The Beatles song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” – it’s a track often mentioned as the favourite song of Naoko, Watanabe’s emotionally troubled love interest.

The Thief – Fuminori Nakamura

When it comes to petty crime, Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. Café-goers have no qualms leaving their laptops and wallets on the table when running to the bathroom or ordering coffee; however, the 2009 novel The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura will make you think twice about that leaving that unattended bag. Bleak, seedy and a little too familiar, the Kenzaburo Oe Prize-winning novel is the fictional story of one of Japan’s smoothest pickpockets, a man who, invisible in his slick suit, slips in and out of Tokyo crowds, nabbing wallets from strangers with undetectable flair. After getting a little too ambitious and accepting an irresistible job offer, the thief ultimately finds himself in a bind that even the world’s smoothest criminal can’t escape.

Coin Locker Babies – Ryu Murakami

Profile of Ryu Murakami

Modern writer Ryu Murakami is one of the nation’s other literary heavyweights and is generally referred to as the ‘other Murakami’. The title is rather unfair given the influence his gritty, unflinching and at times overtly graphic stories have had on the contemporary literary scene. Released in 1980, Coin Locker Babies is a signature Murakami-style futuristic dystopian tale exploring the darker side of human nature. The novel follows the journey of two young boys, Hashi and Kiku, who grew up in an orphanage after being abandoned at birth in neighbouring train lockers. The pair team up in the hope of seeking revenge against the women who left them.

Silence – Shusaku Endo

Japan’s rich Buddhist history is one that’s been in countless works since the beginning of the country’s literary ages. But Japan also has a historic connection to Christianity, too. Silence, a novel released by Shusaku Endo in 1966, shines a light on the often dark, yet undeniably fascinating relationship between Japan and Christianity. Tracing the journey of Jesuit priest Father Sebastian Rodrigues, Silence is set in the 17th century, a time when believers had to hide their faith at the risk of persecution or even death. A realistic look at the life of Japan’s Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”), Endo’s masterful work of historical fiction is one of the most accessible windows into this dark period of Japanese history. This story was also made into a film in 2016 by the one-and-only Martin Scorsese.

I Am a Cat – Soseki Natsume

A monument to Soseki Natsume

One for the history buffs, I Am a Cat is satirical novel that came to life between 1905-1906. It was originally published as ten short installments in the literary journal Hototogisu. Author Soseki Natsume never intended to write an entire novel, but succumbed to pressure following the unprecedented success of the series. The book was a biting political commentary of its time (the Meiji era) told through the eyes of an unwanted stray cat who spent his days exploring the city and watching the humans who inhabit it. Prior to penning the story, Natsume studied Chinese philosophy, and ideologies reflecting his academic influence is weaved throughout the tale. Since its publication in the early 1900s, it remains one of Japan’s most revered works of literature.

The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa

How would you live if everyday was your last, and your first? Or what if you could only live entirely in the present? How would your life look? These are the deep philosophical questions Yoko Ogawa explores in her 2003 novel The Housekeeper and the Professor. After suffering a brain injury, the brilliant mathematician, known as the Professor, is left with an eighty-minute-long short-term memory capacity. The book weaves together the Professor’s story with that of his housekeeper, the woman dispatched to look after him. Even though every single day they start with a blank canvas, over time the housekeeper, her young son and the Professor form an unbreakable bond.

Asleep – Banana Yoshimoto

Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto

Banana Yoshimoto, author of the groundbreaking contemporary novel Kitchen, is a must-add name to any Japanese literature list. While her novel Kitchen – a heart-wrenching exploration of family, gender, identity and belonging – caught our attention in a previous article, Asleep is another Yoshimoto masterpiece. An exploration of sleep in a sleep-deprived society, Yoshimoto’s narrative weaves together the lives of three young women all caught up in their own sleep-centric stories. One woman finds herself sleepwalking, while another who is battling a drinking problem is haunted by a familiar tune every night before succumbing to the land of zzz’s and falls in love with a man whose wife is in a coma. Each tale effortlessly traverses between the worlds of reality and surrealism, just like the moment we all experience between our waking and unconscious state.

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