Five Japanese Novels I’ve Read

I’ve long been fascinated by Japan, partly because it’s so very different from my own country and partly because it seems to me to be a place of contradictions – on the one hand a set of very traditional, sometimes ancient values and beliefs, on the other an ultra-modern, throwaway urban culture. Or at least Cover image for A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakamithat’s how it seems to an outsider like me. Here then, are five Japanese novels I’ve enjoyed, all with links to reviews on this blog.

Inevitably, given the popularity of Haruki Murakami’s books and that I’m a fan, I’ve included a novel by him. I’ve plumped for A Wild Sheep Chase, the first Murakami I read in which a Sherlock Holmes-obsessed, chain-smoking advertising executive is pursuing a sheep with a very particular birthmark after pinching an image from a postcard sent by a friend to illustrate some copy. The sheep has been spotted in the photograph by a shady character called ‘The Boss’ who has threatened our unnamed narrator with some very nasty consequences if he fails to track it down. Things become increasingly surreal as the narrator fixes the sheep in his sights on a trail that leads him from Tokyo to the snowy peaks of Hokkaido where he comes face to face with his quarry. There’s a good deal more to it than that but this is a book impossible to encapsulate in just a few words which is part of its charm. I read it with increasingly delighted astonishment. Funny, gripping and wonderfully odd.

Anyone who’s read Murakami will have noticed the frequent occurrence of cats in his fiction. I wonder if he read my next choice, Takashi Hiraide’s elegantly understated The Guest Cat narrated by a man who lives with his wife in the grounds of a large house set in a rambling garden. In their mid-thirties and childless, they both work at home and lead a quiet life, interrupted by visits from their neighbours’ recently adopted cat. Soon Chibi is coming and going has she pleases welcomed by this couple whose fragile connection to each other and the world has been intensified by her presence until they must move. Hiraide’s prose is often beautiful and a little melancholic. The glimpses into Japanese life are fascinating, further illuminated by a helpful set of translator’s notes from Eric Selland at the back of the book. Short but not slight, it’s a thoughtful rather lovely novella.Cover image for the Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

Hiraide’s lonely couple might have found solace with Hiromi Kawakami’s cast of eccentric characters in one of my favourite novels of recent years, The Nakano Thrift Shop, narrated by a young woman not entirely sure of her place in the world. Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances. As Hitomi and Takeo stumble into the most tenuous of relationships, Mr Nakano’s sister cheers them on from the sidelines. Kawakami’s four principal characters are wonderfully drawn – eccentric, idiosyncratic and thoroughly engaging but the star of the show is undoubtedly our narrator, the awkward but endearing Hitomi. Very little happens in this delightful novel but it’s an absolute joy and the ending is all you could hope for.

Shops and socially awkward characters seem to be becoming secondary themes in this post, both shared by Mieko Kawakami’s Ms Ice Sandwich in which our unnamed narrator, on the brink of adolescence, becomes obsessed with a taciturn young woman with enormous eyes who works in his local supermarket. When he hears his classmates ridiculing her, he stops his daily purchases, puzzled by their description of her as a freak, until his friend Tutti persuades him to pay one more visit before he misses the chance of seeing Ms Ice Sandwich ever again. Child narrators are extraordinarily tricky to pull off but Kawakami does it beautifully in this funny, touching story. Our endearingly thoughtful narrator spends a good deal of his time in a state of puzzlement at the behaviour of other people, his befuddlement neatly balanced by the mature, clear-eyed Tutti who ultimately saves the day. Kawakami’s brief novella ends poignantly but on a pleasing note of hope for both of them.

Cover image for Sweet Bean Paste by Durian SukegawaDurian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste is a fable-like novella about the relationship between an elderly woman who walks into a confectioner’s shop, hoping to fill the vacancy advertised in its window, and the reluctant young baker who agrees to take her on. Sentaro wants nothing more than to pay off his debts and shut up shop. He opens every day selling his pancakes filled with sweet bean paste to rowdy schoolgirls and passers-by. When Tokue offers to work for next to nothing, Santaro is deeply sceptical – she’s seventy-six, frail and her hands are deformed but soon sales soar and the schoolgirls are delighted with Tokue who listens to their problems. All seems well until rumours of Tokue’s Hansen’s disease – once known as leprosy – spread. Tokue tells Sentaro her story of state-enforced confinement despite the early cure of her condition, contracted when she was just fourteen. Sukegawa unfolds his tale in simple, straightforward prose, exploring themes of friendship, hope and awakening. The social effects of Hansen’s disease, long eradicated in Japan but still a source of stigma and prejudice, provide a sobering backdrop to this engaging tale.

I’m always on the lookout for suggestions – any Japanese novels you’d like to recommend?

If you’d like to explore more posts like this, I’ve listed them here.

31 thoughts on “Five Japanese Novels I’ve Read”

  1. Lovely post, I love the sound of most of these. Not Marakami though, I read a collection of his stories a couple of years ago and realised he isn’t for me. I read Farewell my Orange by Iwaki Kei a couple of years ago for #Witmonth and really enjoyed it. It’s set in Australia though. Funnily enough, I am reading a Japanese novel right now, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, which I think is excellent.

  2. I have a mixed record with Murakami, but would like to read the one you’ve picked, and The Guest Cat is on my shelves. Loved that Kawakami too, but didn’t like Mr Nishino, an earlier one by her. I would recommend Iris Ogawa, I’ve read three and enjoyed them all, plus Territory of LIght by Yoko Tsushima.

  3. I’ve been intrigued by Japanese fiction for a while now for the exact reasons you describe. I’m not a Murakami fan I have to say, but there are some great sounding recommendations here that I must track down 🙂 my recommends for you would be The Makioka Sisters and a more contemporary novel, Tokyo Ueno Station, both excellent in their very different ways.

  4. I am planning to read Nakano Thrift Shop this month, so good to know you rate it highly. I would recommend Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima and A True Novel by Minae Mizumura. Both are wonderful!

  5. A Wild Sheep Chase is probably the only Murakami I’ve unreservedly enjoyed, so it’s good to see it here! As for other recommendations, I’ll second the earlier mentions of Territory of Light and the work of Yoko Ogawa. The Memory Police is an excellent book, very thoughtful and thought-provoking. You’d like it, I think.

    1. Thanks, Jacqui. On the list they go. I’ve enjoyed many of the Murakamis I’ve read but not so much his more recent work and I’ve no real urge to read Killing Commendatore.

  6. I’ve not read this particular Murakami – I’ve steered away from his surreal works but did enjoy Norwegian Wood and Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. As for other recommendations, Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto is good and I loved A Tale For The Time being by Ruth Ozeki

    1. If you enjoy the less wacky Murakamis you’d probably like South of the Border, West of the Sun, Karen. I think I may even have a copy of the Ozeki lurking on the shelves unread.

  7. A reader according to my heart!
    Do you know there’s an online Murakami Bookclub? It’s a readalong actually, we use Discord. We have to read a number of chapters per week, and we comment in writing. Very enriching. We are going soon to begin The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – our last book was A Wild Sheep Chase! Let me know if you want to be invited. you can tweet me @wordsandpeace.
    There’s also a Japanese Literature Challenge organized every year by Dolce Bellezza from Jan-March. The 2020 was here, scroll down to see the titles that were reviewed, that will give you ideas of books to read: https://japaneselitchallenge13.blogspot.com/2020/01/now-it-is-january-now-we-officially.html#more

    Personally, here is the last one I read, a kind of neat Japanese Kafka: https://wordsandpeace.com/2020/07/22/book-review-inhabitation/

  8. Lovely post Susan, I’ve read three of these and loved them, and the other two (Murakami and Ms Ice Sandwich) are in the TBR. In fact, I think I moved Murakami to the ‘read soon’ pile last time you mentioned it, and then he’s languished there! I really must get a move on 🙂

  9. Kawakami’s books appeal to me – I’d like to give her a try sometime.
    I’ve read one of Yoko Ogawa’s and would like to read more of hers, as well. Have you read her?

    1. I haven’t but so many who commented on this post mention her that I will be soon. Kawakami’s writing ranges from surreal short stories to the quietly beguiling The Nakano Thrift Shop. Quite a talent!

  10. The thrift shop book does indeed sound good, and something I’d like right now. So glad to discover it here! I love Ogawa also, especially the housekeeper novel, and also another Japanese author, Hideo Yokoyama who wrote Six Four, a monster of a book that I couldn’t put down. It’s about a crime but more so about the politics and bureaucracy of the Japanese police force and their culture. I found it fascinating. So, too, his novella collection Prefecture D.

    1. I hope you enjoy the Kawakami as much as I did and thanks for the recommendations. Ogawa’s name has come up frequently in comments here but Yokoyama’s is new to me. I think I’ll start with a novella.

  11. I’ve not been reading much in Japan these days, but I share your appreciation of Japanese Literature. I especially loved The Guest Cat, in your list. As for others, I echo the recommendation of Tale of the Time Being (since you already have a copy anyhow!) and Banana Yoshimoto in general. This isn’t a Murakami I’ve read but I’ve read five or six including the biggies and I think, maybe now, or maybe recently, I’m shifting away? Or maybe not so much away from his wriitng as towards the writing of more women writers as more translations become available?

    1. I think you’re right about the increased availability of Japanese women’s writing in translation which is very welcome. I no longer jump to when I see a new Murakami on the horizon, sadly.

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