Japan’s literary legacy is definitely one not to be overlooked. From the international love of manga, to the groundbreaking popularity of Haruki Murakami and the historic creation of The Tale of Genji (supposedly the world’s first novel), it’s fair to say that Japan is a nation of book lovers. If you’re looking to dive a little deeper into the nation’s passion for the printed word, consider getting to know some of the country’s most exciting contemporary female authors.
Banana Yoshimoto, the pen name of Tokyo-born Mahoko Yoshimoto, is one name synonymous with Japan’s most revered contemporary literary exports. Her debut novel, Kitchen (1988), encapsulated an attitude in Japan that had not quite ever been so eloquently captured. The story followed the journey of the young female protagonist Mikage Sakurai as she struggles to get over the death of her grandmother. The novel was published while Yamamoto was still working as a waitress in a fancy country club, but it’s fair to say it set her up for a rather illustrious writing career. Perfectly capturing the exhaustion and realities of growing up in contemporary society, Yoshimoto’s efforts have continued to inspired countless hordes of aspiring and established writers across Japan and the world.
If you’re hungry to see a little more of the dark underbelly of Japan, then be sure to check out the work of Natsuo Kirino. Natsuo Kirino is the published moniker of Kanazawa-born Mariko Hashioka, a contemporary novelist who’s become one of the biggest breakthrough talents in the country’s female-driven detective fiction genre.
After trying an unsatisfying career in the world of romance novel writing, a genre not so popular in Japan and not very much enjoyed by Natsuo Kirino herself, she tried something fresh, penning Out (1997), a gritty mystery that follows the lives of four women who work the graveyard shift at a Japanese bento factory. At the time of its release, a number of male critics spoke out against the breakthrough writer’s work, citing the ancient opinion that in Japan female protagonists should only feature heavily in love stories. Thankfully, however, given the unmatched quality of her storytelling, Kirino has left such detractors in the dust.
An evident writing talent from a very young age, Hitomi Kanehara’s most popular and award-winning novel, Snakes and Earrings (Hebi ni Piasu in Japanese), was written when she was just 21 years old. The dark, moody novel follows the life of a relatively unstable young woman known as Lui who, after discovering a fascination with body modification, decides to split her tongue, just like a snake. The book was such a hit here in Japan that since its release in 2003, it’s gone on to sell well over a million copies.
Over the years, Kanehara’s work has garnered a pretty hefty amount of attention for her graphic and unrelenting depictions of sexuality, self-harm and internal battles, topics still often not spoken about in everyday Japanese society. In previous interviews and discussions, Kanehara disclosed that her own personal battles with such demons influenced her work as a young writer. It’s this honest and candid approach that’s made her not only an incredibly important contemporary writer, but an aspirational role model for other young people in Japan.
While in America writers like Bret Easton Ellis were defining what it meant to write about and for youth culture in modern society with literary hits like Less Than Zero and American Psycho, Amy Yamada was doing something similar here in Japan with the much discussed release of her sexually driven page-turner Bedroom Eyes.
Released in 1985, the novel tells the story of a young club singer and sometime sex worker Kim who falls for a US Army soldier. Yamada’s discussions of sexuality, partying and interracial relationships were still considered rather salacious when the book was published, garnering the young talent quite a reputation for being a pioneer, breaking down the social and literary taboos that some felt were stifling Japanese creative freedom.
A writer who has built a successful career on penning quirky and sweet left-of-field stories about Japan and the people who inhabit it, Hiromi Kawakami is definitely one name worth picking up if you need a little palette cleanser from all the gritty realism of many of the other contemporary literary efforts. Kawakami likes to turn her eye on the small things that are often so overlooked but completely entwined in everyday life.
Her 2014 novel, Strange Weather in Tokyo, is arguably one of her most popular releases; it follows the story of 40-year-old Tsukiko and her 70-year-old ex-school teacher and their love of seasonal Japanese cuisine (something super popular here in Japan). Another release by Kawakami worth checking out is The Nakano Thrift Shop, a 2016 release that follows the lives of a rotating cast of workers who work in the store, and the quirks that infiltrate their daily lives.
If you’re an anime or manga fan, you may be familiar with the name Hiromu Arakawa, as she’s the figure responsible for creating the mega-hit manga Fullmetal Alchemist, a story so incredibly popular it was turned into not one but two both domestically and internationally popular anime series and a live action film. Born in Hokkaido, in the more northern corner of Japan, Arakawa was raised on a dairy farm, which is arguably why in many of her illustrations today she regularly portrays herself as a bespeckled cow known as ‘Hiromi’.
Now based in Tokyo, the illustrator and writer has continued to push herself following the success of Fullmetal Alchemist, releasing a number of well-received manga outputs, most notably Silver Spoon, a coming-of-age tale set in the northern city of Sapporo.
Born in the port-side city of Yokohama, it’s fair to say that Mitsuyo Kakuta was rather hell-bent on becoming a writer from a very young age. While still a student at university, the prolific talent penned her debut novel Kōfuku na Yūgi (A Blissful Pastime in English), which garnered her awards and praise across the nation.
Since her first novel release, her uncanny talent for storytelling has seen her work full-time as a novelist throughout her life. In terms of English-translated books, arguably her most popular is Woman on the Other Shore (2007), a story that follows two women – a housewife and a career woman – who build a close relationship despite their obvious differences. Kakuta is also currently undertaking the mammoth task of translating the 11th-century novel (generally considered to be the world’s first novel) The Tale of Genji into contemporary Japanese – it’s a project that’s set to take years.