When Japan had to “open up” in 1853 after more than 200 years of sakoku, the country was unknown to the outside world. In some ways, it is. But because Japan was an early adopter of western ideas and clothes, it is easy to see Japan as a place that looks like home. Today, even things like Shinto shrines and sumo fights are recognizable as “Japan.” What Japanese writers say about their own country isn’t as well known as what other people say about their country. Authors, not the people who make movies about families living with robots, solve the mystery. These books speak for a Japan that is talked about and thought about a lot. They speak for its history, culture, and society as they are lived in and fought against.
Coin Locker Babies by Ryū Murakami
People who read Ryo Murakami’s stories don’t shy away from shining a light on the darkest parts of society. In this 1980 book, the beam gets even brighter as it follows the lives of the main characters, Kiku and Hashi, and all the ghastly things that happen to them. “Coin locker babies” are kids who were left in a coin locker in Japan in the 1970s. The boys were adopted by a childless couple who live on an island off of Kyushu, the south-westernmost of Japan’s main islands. In their childhood, they live in a world where both cities and rural areas have become decrepit over time. Soon, they move to “Toxitown,” a fictional area of mayhem in Tokyo that is home to everything that isn’t talked about in Japan, from foreigners and homeless people to drug dealers and other criminals. What follows is a surreal coming-of-age horror story that goes from the highs of love and superstardom to the lows of insanity and murder.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
“A convenience store is like a whole world of noise,” says the author. The first line of Keiko’s story about working part-time at a konbini (convenience store) is a great way to start the story. There are many times in this story where she likened the sounds of the store to church bells and herself and her co-workers to members of a religion. It’s not just a show of how small Japan’s Lawsons, 7-11s, and Family Marts are, but also a challenge to normality. Keiko works at a convenience store to become a “cog” in order to become a member of society. Before she knows it, there is more to it than that. Like Jean-Paul Sartre’s waiter who is too “waiter-like,” Keiko is like how a convenience store worker should act, but in doing so, she moves away from real life, with its traditional marriages and babies, and the haughty couples who care so much about them.
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
Lord of the Flies is part Oedipus complex and part Lord of the Flies. This book is a postwar howl of pain. A young boy named Noburo is the main character in Mishima’s work. He lives with his single mother, Fusako, in Yokohama. With his friends who are “good” students, he also happens to be in a nihilistic gang with people who are “good.” As the story goes on, there are hints of sex. Noboru found a peephole into his mother’s bedroom. It was Noboru, who was very disappointed in Fusako’s new boyfriend Ryuji, who he once admired, who set the wheels in motion for an entirely brutal plan to restore glory. In real life, Mishima grew tired of Japan’s postwar situation. In 1970, he and other members of a right-wing militia called Tatenokai stormed a military base in Tokyo and tried to start a coup by giving a speech to soldiers there. He took his own life when he was booed (ritual suicide with a sword).
Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
This picture shows how people in Tokyo interact and what they do. It’s a gentle modern-day version of the Edo period (1603-1858) ukiyo, which means “floating world.” Kawakami’s world is full of izakaya (Japanese bars), hanami (flower parties) during cherry blossom season, and baseball, which is a big deal in Japan. Strange Weather In Tokyo is about a 30-year-old woman’s growing relationship with a much older man, who she calls “Sensei.” This is a theme that is similar to that of Natsume Soseki’s best-selling Kokoro, which deals with the relationship between an older man and a younger person.
I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki
Sseki’s first book is a satire of Japan’s Meiji era (1868-1912) and its hesitant adoption of western ideas through the life of a schoolteacher. It shows his stupidity, his friends, and what he does with his time. This man isn’t the only one who lives in middle-class Tokyo. He’s a fussy person who gets angry when the kids in his neighborhood keep hitting the ball into his garden with a wooden stick (baseball had newly arrived in Japan at this time). The surprise is that the whole book is told by a cat who thinks he’s better than everyone else. This is a wild take on authorship at any time, but even more so because this novel was serialized from 1905 to 1906. Japanese has a lot of different ways to say “I,” but the cat uses wagahai to refer to itself, which is a high-toned way of saying “I.” This was rare even at the time of the book’s publication. However, the book’s popularity led to wagahai making a comeback. It’s still used by fictional, anthropomorphized characters only a few times a year.
Some Prefer Nettles by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
Tanizaki’s novel, which came out in 1929, is both a look at Japan’s history and a guide for understanding the country’s unique way of adapting to the West. He and his wife are married, but not very well. Kaname’s father-in-law, “the old man,” doesn’t think divorce is a good idea. He thinks it’s a Western way to solve problems caused by Western ideas. The old man is trying to instill Japanese values in the couple and his young mistress, O-Hisa. As Japan changes around him, the old man wants to keep up with the times. It’s not Kaname’s thing. She likes western-style things. He likes the American movie stars of the day. His dog even has a name in English. This is how it works:
The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon
A 2006 translation by Meredith McKinney may be to blame for how well The Pillow Book reads. It sounds like it was written today. Besides, it was written in the 990s and early 1000s by Fujiwara no Teishi, the empress consort of Emperor Ichijo. It was written by a lady-in-waiting for her. They were very important to the nobles of Japan during this time in history called the Heian period, which ran from 794 to 1185. Sei’s book is just a bunch of random thoughts, like an old blog. There are rivers and markets and places that are either well-known or have a poetic connection, or both. She makes lists of these things and writes opinionated indices with titles like “people who seem enviable” and “things with terrifying names.” Most of the time, though, she gives us a glimpse into the world of the court: nocturnal visits from men, Shinto festivals, and the constant exchange of witty poems between courtiers like carefully thought-out tweets.
Schoolgirl by Osamu Dazai
For his last book, Dazai wrote the autobiographical No Longer Human in 1948. The 1939 short story Schoolgirl made him famous. Narrated by the girl, the book is an unrecognized Japanese Catcher in the Rye from before World War II. “Mornings are torture,” she says. The narrator has an androgynous voice at times. She is at odds with herself and the world around her, but 81 years after the book was written, her thoughts still make sense in the world today. When a teacher went on and on about patriotism, the schoolgirl was “bored.” This could be a veiled dig at ultranationalism, which Dazai, a Marxist, was against. Everybody loves where they were born.
Vibrator by Mari Akasaka
Vibrator is a book that some people might not like because of the title, and the cover may or may not be electric pink. The book is set in Tokyo, at least for a while. The main character, Rei Hayakawa, is going to her local convenience store for the third time in a row. As a side note, she’s a freelance writer who drinks too much, by the way. Her usual self-destructive habits are put on hold and she goes on a road trip with the driver of a truck at the store. There are a lot of ugly roads in Japan and a lot of ugly winter landscapes in the country. This book shows both in their supreme monotony as Rei goes to the far north with a stranger, and deeper into herself.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
Only half of this book is set in Japan. That’s because every other chapter takes place in a place called “The End of the World,” which is either real or not. The people who live there don’t seem to have a single thought in their heads, or even a single soul. A different Tokyo called “Hard-Boiled Wonderland,” on the other hand, is the setting of every other chapter. There, the narrator works as a kind of human data processing machine. It’s a story that makes you think. The nameless narrator spends a lot of time below ground in a sewer system that is full of up-to-date kappa (amphibious demons in Japanese folklore). They emerge from this underground labyrinth at Aoyama-itchme station, one of a few Tokyo locations mentioned in the book.