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The Best Japanese Fiction in Translation

I didn’t know I have a small obsession with Japanese translated fiction until one day I looked at my mammoth pile of books to be read (don’t lie, we all have one), and noticed almost every single one was by a Japanese author.

Translated fiction in itself is a wonderful world, where talented translators bring to life authors’ works across languages, shifting and shaping the material to create an immersive experience for the reader, and Japanese translated fiction is no exception.

Modern Japanese lit, as it was defined by the greats such as Yukio Mishima and Natsume Sōseki, is simple and understated, while also managing to be deeply poetic and songlike. These foundational principles of using clear and concise language to layer a piece of writing, to never hide behind convoluted and flowery language, have carried forward and shaped contemporary literature in Japan.

I feel the need to warn you that a lot of Japanese fiction feels very different to Australian or other Western literary landscapes and therefore when judged from a Western perspective might feel slightly odd. It might take some getting used to, but you will reap the rewards of both the style and substance if you can suspend your expectations and approach with an open mind. As such, I have compiled a list of works which I hope will provide a well rounded introduction of the world of Japanese literary fiction. Some incredibly famous, some slightly more niche, but all truly fantastic. I hope you enjoy.

Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi

Anyone who has encountered me in recent months will have been subject to my passionate rants about how truly great this book is. Emi Yagi’s debut, released August last year, perfectly encapsulates what is wonderful about Japanese literature. Sharp and witty, while also being disconcerting and at times completely perplexing, the story of Ms Shibata as she nurtures her invented pregnancy through its nine months constitutes easily one of my favourite books of 2022. Yagi’s writing is concise and unemotional in the classic style of Japanese prose, which only further compliments this protagonist’s ambiguous and often nebulous existence. If you take anything away from this post, make it this book!

After Dark by Haruki Murakami 

I couldn’t compile this list without sneaking in some Murakami. After Dark is, I believe, the best place to start with the weird and wonderful world of Murakami. A titan of contemporary Japanese literature, Murakami can be intimidating to the uninitiated, but fear not. Murakami has stated that he is highly influenced by American literature and pop culture, and has been known to write some of his books in English before then translating them back into Japanese to be released. As such, his works are a great bridge into the world of Japanese literature. This short novel follows our protagonist Mari through a single night as her life intersects with the various characters who inhabit the streets of Tokyo at night. My recommendation is to get cosy and read this in one evening, guided by the time stamps of each chapter. As you grow more tired, and your head grows foggier, the surreal atmosphere crafted by Murakami will come to life. A truly unmatched experience.

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

I just recently read this title, and it was the loveliest read. Hitomi works at Mr Nakano’s thrift shop, where, along with the peculiar owner and the very quiet Takeo, she passes her days selling odds and ends. As Hitomi begins to develop feelings for the guarded solitary figure of Takeo, she explores all of the complex anxieties which emerge from being in love, while Mr Nakano’s sister Masayo provides an eccentric and alternative view of love and life. It cannot be over-emphasised how calming this book is. If the others on this list feel perhaps too intense or odd for your tastes, The Nakano Thrift Shop might just be the ticket.

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami 

Murakami himself recommended Mieko Kawakami’s works as the best to help someone understand present-day Japan, saying it was “no empty compliment or exaggeration “ to say that “it seriously took [his] breath away.” If that doesn’t entice you to read this novel I don’t know what will. The first section of Breasts and Eggs was initially published as a novella, before being expanded by Kawakami. It follows a middle-aged woman living in Tokyo named Natsuko, her sister Makiko and Makiko’s daughter Midoriko, as the latter two journey to Tokyo to fulfil Makiko’s obsession with getting breast enhancement surgery. Midoriko has chosen to stop speaking to her mother and everyone else, an instinctive response to the impossible and complex pressures she feels herself under as a young adolescent. After a ten year time jump, we then follow Natsuko as she fixates on having a child through a sperm donor, and must navigate a system where single women are not permitted to undergo this process. An unexpectedly poignant and thoughtful exploration of conception through private donorship follows. While admittedly it’s a slightly strange premise, Kawakami brilliantly explores the complexities of a patriarchal society and issues surrounding bodily autonomy with a voice which has rightly been spotlighted as one of the most exciting in current Japanese literature.