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14th February 2024

More than Murakami: What does Japanese fiction have to offer?

Why is Japanese fiction becoming so popular? We give some insight into the rise of modern Japanese literature and recommend some of our favourite reads!
More than Murakami: What does Japanese fiction have to offer?
Photo: Tom Hermans @ Unsplash

According to Penguin Books Ltd, Japanese fiction comprised over half of the best-selling translated novels in the UK in 2023, amassing over 500,000 sales. For those who aren’t on BookTok or Goodreads, these stats might be a surprise – since when was Japanese fiction this ‘thing’ that Brits loved? But, walking into any Waterstones in 2024, you can now usually find a table of Japanese fiction picks front and centre with the classics and masses of celeb autobiographies that seem to triple in number if you look away for too long.

Much to the dismay of my Japanese Mum, I had never massively taken any interest in the fiction of my (half)homeland; I’d heard of the controversial but renowned Haruki Murakami, of course, but had never read more than my old Kanji textbooks that have been collecting dust since Year nine.

Last year I decided to change that – wanting to find out what the hype was all about and figure out why Japanese fiction has become so popular (and more importantly not to disappoint my Mum).

I’ve compiled a short list of some novels I read in 2023 that I think best highlight what makes Japanese fiction so enticing!

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd)

Kawakami’s work explores the taboo topics of sexuality, sperm donors, and the un-glamourised experience of working-class women in Japan. Breasts and Eggs is a unique novel told from the perspective of Natsuko (a failing writer), Makiko (her sister looking to get a boob job), and Midoriko (Makiko’s 12-year-old daughter who refuses to speak) – all who have complicated, hyperaware relationships with their changing bodies.

Kawakami writes how I imagine Murakami would if he had ever met a woman; picking apart the female cross-generational experience, Kawakami explores the female body without Murakami’s disturbing, fetishising hyper-sexualisation. Her Murakami-adjacent style examines the social ‘outsider’ without a totally unbearable narrator, making Breasts and Eggs a great novel if you’re interested in delving deeper than the glorified image of Japanese culture that has been created as of late.

Convenience Store Woman by Saya Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

It wouldn’t be a list of Japanese fiction recommendations without this Murata masterpiece that follows the tale of convenience store worker Keiko, an unmarried 36-year-old square peg in a Japanese round hole. Both funny and a little bizarre, the novel brings to life the convenience store culture and Japanese customer service that always entrances tourists, highlighting the hidden beauty and clockwork precision of this Japanese institution.

In Convenience Store Woman, Murata also highlights the inner workings of a society which can be ostracising and challenging for those who don’t quite fit the ‘norm’ – whatever that may be. As Keiko struggles to balance her social responsibility and personal desires, Murata uncovers a world that can seem quite alien to those who have grown up in the West, in a guilt-based society – one in which our moral consciences are predominantly driven by an internal fear of transgression and sin, rather than of disgracing the family or wider community.

This book is great if you’re looking for a fascinating social commentary on the contemporary issues in Japanese society that are often overlooked – all in only 163 pages!

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Megan Backus)

First recommended to me by my Mum, Kitchen is a modern classic centred on grief and cooking – everyone’s favourite topics. Despite dealing with some difficult and harrowing themes, (including isolation, bereavement, and femicide) Yoshimoto turns the mundanity of everyday life into something three-dimensional. There is a warmth in her descriptive style and Kitchen has become a comfort read for me. I know I haven’t sold it with the themes, but it really is a great read for this time of year – perfect when it’s raining and you’re looking for a single-sitting masterpiece.

The Great Passage by Shion Miura (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter)

The Great Passage is a slightly different recommendation, straying away from the social commentary themes that dominates popular Japanese fiction and following the creation of a 2,900-page dictionary called The Great Passage (stay with me here). It’s also been turned into a popular anime series! Doing a languages degree maybe I am slightly biased, but the book explores language and meaning in such an engaging way that sheds light on the complexity and beauty of the Japanese language. By the end I was googling job roles in the dictionary-making field (no luck, unfortunately).

As a book focused on the way that language creates relationships, Miura’s prose is of course profound and philosophical. However,  it  thankfully doesn’t feel painfully You will fall in love with her unique characters and their linguistic quirks once you wrap your head around the fact that these people have devoted their lives to making a literal dictionary.

Japanese fiction is definitely on the rise and I think these books offer so much more than just a glimpse into the kawaii culture we associate with Japan. Most importantly, they will make you look seriously intellectual (although verging on pretentious) when you’re reading on the 143 into university.

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