With the help of Haruki Murakami, Japanese literature has become extremely common in the mainstream literary world. Along with the obvious British and American fiction, Japan has wormed its way into the public consciousness and (in the case of a new Murakami novel) engenders the same level of hype that was often reserved for JK Rowling, with midnight openings and social media explosions. This list might have been easier if it were ‘Top Japanese Authors’, as trying to choose the best novel from some of these writers was extremely difficult. I hope that you agree with my list (although with a list such as this, I know no one will).
For the record, I have seen all ten of these novels listed as the ‘best Japanese novels’ of all time; it just depends on the publication and the person writing the list, so this will be a more personal list than I usually allow myself to write.
- The Makioka Sisters by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki
Depending on who you ask, Tanizaki is the best Japanese author and this is his best work … I disagree; however, I still believe him to be a master of the craft. It reads like a classic Victorian novel, only set in Japan in the 40s. It details the lives of the titular Makioka sisters and their hunt for a husband for the youngest, Yukiko. With the threat of war and occupation hanging over the heads of the sisters, we follow their decline as an upper-middle-class family. The novel is about decay and decline and is not the most cheerful, however, as will all Japanese novels, the prose is as poetic as it can be. No one writes poetic prose like the Japanese.
- The Silent Cry by Kenzaburō Ōe
Ōe was the second Japanese recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (with the first recipient coming up later) and it’s easy to see why when you read The Silent Cry, which although a relatively difficult read, it’s constructed to perfection and is one of the most finely crafted novels I have ever read. The novel is also not for the faint of heart, with the book starting with a hanging suicide, that also features an imaginatively placed cucumber … if you catch my meaning. Two brothers return to their home village and what follows is a series of rebellions, murders, adultery, and tales of incest … heavy stuff, with topics often not seen in Japanese fiction.
- Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Banana Yoshimoto is one of the most popular Japanese novelists in her home country and is gaining rapid popularity in the West, as well …. this could be because she has one of the best names ever, which is reminiscent of people tattooing themselves with Chinese symbols only to find out it says ‘Soup’ or something. Other people might have chosen Amrita or Goodbye Tsugumi, but I have settled for Kitchen. No other writer working today captures the youth of modern Japan better than Yoshimoto. This is particularly prevalent in Kitchen, her novella about a young woman who finds herself at a loss after the death of her Grandmother … plus most editions of Kitchen come with the excellent short story, Moonlight Shadow, included.
“Truly happy memories always live on, shining. Over time, one by one, they come back to life.”
-Kitchen – Banana Yoshimoto
- Sanshirō by Natsume Sōseki
Sanshirō is a Japanese classic by one of the absolute masters of Japanese literature. This novel is a great chronicle of the time at the beginning of the 1900s, with our young protagonist, Sanshirō, moving from the countryside to the University of Tokyo. He must then acclimatise to his wildly different surroundings. He makes friends and experiences real life for the first time; and even though the tone of the novel is one of sadness, due to his inability to find someone to love him, Sanshirō is still one of the most beautiful ‘coming of age’ novels ever written.
“Literature is neither technique or business. It is a motive force of society, a force that is more in touch with the fundamental principles of human life. That is why we study literature.”
-Sanshirō - Natsume Sōseki
- The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
I debated putting The Tale of Genji on the list, due to the debate that still surrounds the book and just what it is. Many believe Genji to be the first ever novel. It was written by the noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu sometime before the year 1021 … I’ll just let that sink in … 1021 was when the Viking King of Britain, Canute codified the British Laws. So, while there were still Vikings raping and pillaging the British Isles, some Japanese noble woman was writing something that would change the entire world … the world’s first ever novel is a very impressive feat. The Tale of Genji is that of Genji and his life and all he meets as he manoeuvres his way through the turbulent world of aristocratic society in the 10th and 11th centuries.
- Silence by Shūsaku Endō
Some may have preferred I put Endō’s The Samurai here instead, however I’ve gone for Silence, for its originality among Japanese works, as it is like no other Japanese novel I have ever read and this may be down to the uniqueness of Endō himself. Endō is a Catholic, which is strange in the largely Buddhist Japan. Silence tells the story of two Catholic priests who arrive on the shores of Japan during the 17th Century when the country was on complete lock down and any Catholics were tortured until they became heretics or were eventually killed. The priests of the novel are sent to Japan as missionaries to ‘save the souls of the local populace’ … or whatever Catholics thought they were doing at the time … and also, to find a high-ranking priest who has supposedly turned heretical and joined the ‘sadistic’ Japanese. Such a damning novel is rare from a Japanese author and so it firmly deserves a place on this list.
- The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe
A Kafkaesque nightmare from a Japanese author? Yes please! The Woman in the Dunes is such a strange tale that it couldn’t not help but find its way onto this list. It tells the story of a bug catcher who travels to a massive beach in search of … you guessed it … bugs. He finds a village in the dunes where most of the houses are hidden at the bottom of massive holes. Our protagonist finds himself trapped in one of these houses with the titular woman and can’t escape due to the sheer nature of the encroaching sandy walls that surround him. He has no choice but to help the woman dig away the sand each night to save it destroying the house and killing him, whilst he plans an escape. An incredible observation on life and the philosophy of existentialism … once read, never forgotten.
- Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
The perfect representation of minimal, yet stunningly beautiful prose that the Japanese are so good at. Snow Country (you’ll find Japanese authors are obsessed with snow) tells the tale of a wealthy Japanese man who travels to a mountain resort to holiday and relax from time-to-time. Here he falls in love with a young geisha who, due to being a geisha in a remote mountain village is little more than a prostitute and doesn’t enjoy the same luxury or cultural and societal standing of the geisha’s of Tokyo or Kyoto. Helping to win Kawabata the Nobel Prize (the first Japanese author to do so), Snow Country is a masterpiece and has reminded some critics of a haiku in its gorgeous simplicity, both in the poetic prose and the structure.
“As he caught his footing, his head fell back, and the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar.”
-Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata
- Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
I have to confess that I really, really, really wanted to put Norwegian Wood in the number one spot as it is probably my all-time favourite novel and Murakami’s best work (in my opinion), however I have decided to put Kafka on the Shore in the number two spot. Norwegian Wood, whilst absolutely heart-breakingly gorgeous and devastating, is too similar to a lot of the other novels on this list, in the fact that it is very ‘Japanese’ in its construction, narrative, and prose styling. It doesn’t demonstrate Murakami’s signature style like Kafka on the Shore does. Kafka tells the twin stories of a young boy who is running away from an Oedipal prophecy and may or may not be able to inadvertently travel great distances in a matter of seconds, without being aware of it. The other story is centred around an old man who is paid to find lost cats … he can also talk to cats and dogs and have polite conversation. At one point, it rains mackerel and the characters meet the likes of Colonel Sanders and Jonnie Walker. It’s a wild ride, but one of the most entreating and truly original novels you will ever read.
“If you remember me, then I don't care if everyone else forgets.”
Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami
- Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima
Spring Snow matches the heart-breaking beauty of Norwegian Wood, but might even be technically better … that hurt to write. Spring Snow is the first novel in the ground-breaking tetralogy of novels titled The Sea of Fertility, which deals with the reincarnation of human souls (this would have won Mishima the Nobel Prize if he hadn’t shoved a samurai sword through his abdomen). The first novel deals with the actions of a very spoilt and sometimes nasty young man called Kiyoaki as he interacts with his best friend (and true protagonist of the tetralogy): Honda and the love of his life: Satoko. The novel is touching and infuriating in equal measure at it details the love affair between Kiyoaki and Satoko and the hardships that befall them due to Kiyoaki’s nature as a stubborn and spoilt little shit … sorry, the novel still burns me up …
“Time is what matters. As time goes by, you and I will be carried inexorably into the mainstream of our period, even though we’re unaware of what it is. And later, when they say that young men in the early Taisho era thought, dressed, talked, in such and such a way, they’ll be talking about you and me. We’ll all be lumped together…. In a few decades, people will see you and the people you despise as one and the same, a single entity.”
-Spring Snow – Yukio Mishima
If you disagree with my list, then please let me know in the comments or on Twitter @MugwumpBlog, as I’m genuinely interested in your opinions on the matter … unless you want to argue the case for the movie-tie in novel for the first Pokémon film …