4 Recommended Japanese Novels

Everybody knows Haruki Murakami, and for good reason. He is a good gateway to Japanese novels, but he doesn’t have to be your only destination! I would like to recommend two modern Japanese novelists today, Shuichi Yoshida, and Yoko Ogawa. They are very different writers, but they are both writing about isolation and its effects in Japanese society.

Japan tends to have an image of all things Kawaii, so I’m taking you on a tour of the dark stuff. Buckle up!

What you Need to Know before Reading a Japanese Novel

A Geisha paints her face and neck with smooth white paste. But at the hairline and at the collar of the kimono, you can see the skin beneath. Masks have a very traditional place in Japanese life both in folk and religious aspects. But masks are very much a core part of modern Japanese life as well.

When travelers come to Japan they often remark, “Everyone was so polite and kind!” That’s very true, but the reason for that is that as an outsider, the travelers only saw the mask. It is not that Japanese people lack anger, despair, passion, and so on, but rather that all of it is reserved for people who are considered “inside”. Most likely, there are very few people who fit that description.

Many modern novels deal with this part of Japanese life. The narrator will feel lonely and disconnected, as many young people do. It’s hard to get to know someone, hard to connect, if you’ve been taught to act always with politeness and reserve. It is an endless parade of faces with no real substance behind them….and so let’s start with Parade, by Shuichi Yoshida.

Shuichi Yoshida: A Violent Kind of Loneliness

Shuichi Yoshida is a very interesting writer, but unfortunately only two of his books currently have English translations. So, they are the ones I will focus on here.

Parade (パレード)

A sharply observed slice of urban alienation”, the Guardian.

Four people in their early twenties share an apartment in central Tokyo. True to life, most of them are a bit lost when it comes to love, careers, accepting their past, and looking for their future. Each character has their own POV chapter so you get their views not only on themselves, but their roommates as well.

Simultaneously, violent crimes start happening in their neighborhood, and a mysterious young man moves into their apartment. There is a sense that one of them has become unhinged, but who is it? Or perhaps they are all to some degree unhinged. The book keeps you guessing on how the violent acts in the neighborhood connect to these young roommates.

There are some reviews I read that said, “basically nothing happens in this book”. I think that’s an expectation problem due to the fact that this book is marketed as a crime novel. Parade is mostly about the inner world of its characters.

Memorable Quote from Parade:

“I went on crying. The tears wouldn’t stop. It was like there was another me, totally separate, ignoring the real me, and crying like crazy.”

Purchase the book on Amazon here:

https://amzn.to/2CgBDuF

Villain (悪人)

Known in Japanese as Akunin, this is likely Shuichi Yoshida’s most popular book. It was also adapted into a film which I haven’t seen yet, but I’m very excited.

Villain is much more of traditional crime novel than Parade. A young woman is murdered in rural Japan, and we, clever readers that we are, think we know who did it. But then another suspect is revealed! As a reader your emotions and suspicions rise and fall based on which characters POV you are reading at the time. Which I think is really masterful of Yoshida.

Ultimately this novel is not really about, who did it. Similarly to Parade, there is thorough examination of the characters, and what has caused them to act the way that they do. Is the killer really a Villain? Or is he just another victim of oppressing isolation, abandonment, and loneliness?

Memorable Quote from Villain

There’re too many people in the world like you,” Yoshio said. “Too many people who don’t have anyone they care about. Who think if they don’t love anyone else then they’re free to do whatever they want. They think they have nothing to lose, and that makes them stronger.”

Purchase the book on Amazon here:

https://amzn.to/2zKVFgb

Yoko Ogawa, an Introduction to Japanese Horror

I love Ogawa! I definitely feel a bit of Edgar Allen Poe in some of her short stories and in Hotel Iris. This is an atmospheric horror that has more to do with peoples behavior than with monsters and ghosts. She has a fair amount in translation so feel free to browse and choose your favorites. Personally, I think she really shines in her short story collections, like The Diving Pool.

The Diving Pool, by Yoko Ogawa

This is a collection of three novellas. The first takes place in an orphanage. A young girl falls in love with her foster brother, who she sees as pure and perfect: the ideal human. She herself is dark, pessimistic, twisted, and nonchalantly commits a terrible act of cruelty. Why did she do it? Did she realize it’s wrong? Is she sorry? You really never know in an Ogawa story.

The second story is about a woman recording her sister’s pregnancy. The tone is cold, clinical, robotic even as she writes about her sister. There is an implication of mental illness, or perhaps even hysterical pregnancy. But who is the hysterical one? The narrator or her sister? Similarly to the first story, the narrator does something potentially harmful to her sister and her baby. It’s done so casually, and I think that really makes the horror aspect of it so much stronger.

The final story does not have such a clear narrative as the other two. A young woman helps her cousin get a room at her former dorm, which is run by a triple amputee. She then begins to be drawn back there again and again. But what is real? At times it seems like the triple amputee is not even a real character, but an apparition summoned by the narrators loneliness.

What connects these three stories is the basic idea of three women seeking companionship and finding only isolation.

Memorable Quote from The Diving Pool

“When we grow up, we find ways to hide our anxieties, our loneliness, our fear and sorrow. But children hide nothing, putting everything into their tears, which they spread liberally about for the whole world to see.”

Purchase the book on Amazon here:

https://amzn.to/3dgrf34

Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa

Hotel Iris is one of Yoko Ogawa’s most popular novels, and one of the few that has the same narrator throughout the book. We see the world through the eyes of 17 year old Mari. She lives in a dilapidated seaside hotel in a town that is incredibly quiet in the off season, and comes alive just for three months a year.

Her whole life has been spent in the hotel which is slowly collapsing around her, until one day a commotion happens. An older man has an argument with a prostitute right in the halls of Mari’s small world. She is entranced by his voice and so begins an intense sadomasochistic relationship between the two.

Like Ogawa’s other works this book is deep in the realm of psychological horror and will likely leave you pretty disturbed. It is short and concise, with beautiful prose. I would say that this is a short read that will take a while to digest.

There are some explicit sexual scenes in this book, so don’t complain, I warned you!

Memorable Quote from Hotel Iris

“I can hear and smell and feel everything happening in the hotel. I can’t say I have much experience or even any real desires of my own, but just by shutting myself up behind the desk, I can imagine every scene being played out by the people spending the night at the Iris. Then I erase them one by one and find a quiet place to lie down and sleep.” 

Purchase the book on Amazon here:

https://amzn.to/2YLWbTD

A Final Note

I wanted to recommend these books today because even though these are Japanese books, about life in Japan, the problem is not uniquely Japanese. I think all of society in the internet age probably suffers from the same issues to some extent. If you have read or end up reading them, I would love the hear your thoughts!

These Amazon links are affiliate links so if you end up purchasing through them it helps me pay for keeping up this blog! Thanks all!

Published by tokyodreamlife

Nerdy girl living in Tokyo. Spends too much time playing video games and spacing out in public. Often misses her train stop. I write about traveling in Japan, living in Tokyo, and life as an expat.

3 thoughts on “4 Recommended Japanese Novels

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