5 Japanese Books You Need To Read

David: I recently enjoyed a week long trip to Tokyo which was, to say the least, fundamentally transformative. For as long as I can remember, Japan is a place that I have always wanted to visit. It’s a longing that only intensified during a semester in college spent studying East Asian literature. I became obsessed with Japanese authors, and read as many translated works as I could get my hands on. I even picked up a second language class in the hopes of learning Japanese, so that I could read these works in their original language. 

And, while my linguistic skills ultimately failed me, my passion for Japanese literature did not. It should come as no surprise that I spent several hours combing through used bookstores for Japanese copies of some of my favorite books, all from Japanese authors. Sure, I can’t read these books, but they make for fantastic souvenirs. To celebrate, I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite books from Japanese authors, each available from Scribd and (thankfully) each beautifully translated into English.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki

Murakami is easily one of the most celebrated Japanese authors in modern literature, and with groundbreaking works such as Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, it’s easy to understand why. That’s why the world was more than ready for the long-awaited new work, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, a novel which sold more than one million copies the first week it was on shelves in Japan. Thankfully, the novel easily lives up to the hype. The story follows Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man who is haunted by his past, as he works to reconcile past tragedies with present struggles. It’s an incredibly moving, amazingly sincere look at what it means to grow up, and what it means to be in (and survive) all kinds of love.

Kiku’s Prayer

Perhaps known best for the novel Silence (soon to be a major motion picture from director Martin Scorsese), Shusaku Endo is one of the most interesting Japanese novelists of the twentieth century. Endo’s work is regularly compared to Graham Greene, a Western author who generally wrestles with issues of faith and reality. In Kiku’s Prayer, the comparison between Greene and Endo is easy to make. It’s a historical novel set in a period of Japanese history between the fall of the shogunate and the rise of the Meiji Restoration. It’s the perfect setting for Endo to approach the themes of religion, modernization, and the perennial nature of the human condition.

The Tale of Genji

Considered the world’s first novel (and by extension, one of the most famous novels in all of Japanese literature), The Tale of Genji was written well over a thousand years ago. Written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, the story follows Prince Genji as he embarks on a magnificent journey of love and passion. This novel has influenced generations of samurai, nobility, artists, and painters, even in modern times. Even the design aesthetics of modern kimonos feature key scenes from the work. For any student of Japanese literature, or of the written world, The Tale of Genji is a seminal work.

Lust, Commerce, and Corruption

Released in 1816 and written by an anonymous author, Lust, Commerce, and Corruption served as one of the most detailed critiques of Edo era Japanese society ever published. Written under the pen name “Buyo Inshi,” the author exposed the corruption of many samurai officials, the immense suffering of the poor due to class inequality, and the prolific operation of brothels in Japan. This translation is annotated by several specialists on Edo society, and serves as an excellent history if point of perspective for the modernization of Japanese society. It’s a fantastically interesting read (especially for Westerners), as it delivers a detailed history from a first person vantage.

The Buried Giant

Unlike many of the authors on this list, Ishiguro was raised in England and writes in English. That said, he remains one of the most celebrated Japanese novelists of modern times. He is best known for works of fiction that have been adapted by Hollywood, such as Never Let Me Go and the award-winning The Remains of the Day. Inline with that tradition, The Buried Giant follows a couple of elderly Britons named Axl and Beatrice, as they attempt to navigate the countryside after it’s been ravaged by the Roman advance. The novel is, among other things, centered on exploring the act of forgetting and the immovable power of memory. 

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