Top Ten of Japanese Books – My Year of Reading in 2021

In 2021 there were some new Japanese titles on the market I was interested in. My impression is, there were less new English translations available, and the new titles tend to be popular crime fiction or YA books. Throughout the year I have read regularly but not as much as in the years before. I was a little picky with my reading choices and was rewarded with some surprisingly interesting novels and short stories.

So, here is my top ten-list of Japanese books I have read in 2021 although not all of them were published in 2021. (Japanese names are written in Japanese order, where the family name comes first then the personal name.)

10. The Lake by Yoshimoto Banana

bookcover- Banana Yoshimoto- The Lake for sentimental reasons. A young woman is mourning over her deceased mother and moves to Tokyo. There she meets a man with a tragic family history. Both are struggling to cope with the past. Although it is difficult in the beginning, the protagonists find new hope and love eventually. Yoshimoto’s style is sensible, emotional without kitsch and original as ever. Full book review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

 

9. Breasts and Eggs by Kawakami Mieko

book cover- Mieko Kawakami- Breasts and Eggs- english version … by shooting star Kawakami Mieko. A controversial discussed book about a modern 30something female author in Japan. It is about modern family, birth wish and loneliness. Her writing style is exciting although there are minor deficits in the storytelling. Kawakami is a promising author and I will probably read more from her in the future. Full book review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

 

8. Where the Wild Ladies Are by Matsuda Aoko

Cover Image Where The Wild Ladies Are by Aoko MatsudaAn exciting short story collection based on traditional Japanese myths transferred into the modern Japanese world. Feminism with a twinkle in the eye and beautiful storytelling. Full book review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

 

7. First Person Singular by Murakami Haruki

A short story collection with Murakami’s typical ingredients: magical realism, love stories and music. There is nothing to complain about and I enjoy reading his books till the end of time. Full book review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

 

6. A Man by Hirano Keiichirô

This book is a surprisingly well-constructed crime novel. It is about identity theft, family drama, and discrimination of Korean citizens in Japan. Hirano Keiichirô is a talented writer who combines an exciting crime fictional story with a much-avoided historical topic in Japan.

 

5. The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Imamura Natsuko

Winner of the Akutagawa Award in 2019. Modern Japanese workplace, harassment, high tension environment. A Japanese female author I discovered this year. I would like to read more books written by her. Full book review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

 

4. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

A portrait of modern Japanese society narrated by a woman in her thirties who lives a life of an outcast in Tokyo. Sharp, mean, witty. Full book review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

 

3. Klara and the Sun by Ishiguro Kazuo

cover image Klara and the Sun by Kazu IshiguroHis first book after winning the Nobel Prize of Literature. The novel is told from the perspective of an artificial being named Klara. A modern, interesting perspective, and a play with words. A portrait of a society in a not so far future. Subtle, sharp observations. Full book review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

 

2. Death by Water by Ôe Kenzaburô

bookcover- Kenzaburô Ôe- Death by Water The Nobel Prize-winning author wrote again a book about coming to terms with the past. It takes place in wartime Japan and the present, he also weaves in his personal experiences as a father and writer. Longlisted for the 2016 Man International Booker Prize. Complex, philosophical and full of Japanese culture and history. Full book review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

 

1. At the End of the Matinee by Hirano Keiichirô

cover picture At the End of the Matinee by Keiichro Hiranoマチネの終わりに is the highlight of the year for me. I discovered the author this year. It is a love story of a male musician and a female journalist. Modern, romantic and tragic. The writing style is interesting and philosophical. The story takes place in different cities: Tokyo, Paris, New York, Baghdad, Madrid. Hirano writes about modern topics and weaves them into an emotional timeless novel.

 

My top 10-Ranking-Overview

  1. At the End of the Matinee by Hirano Keiichirô
  2. Death by Water by Ôe Kenzaburô
  3. Klara and the Sun by Ishiguro Kazuo
  4. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
  5. The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Imamura Natsuko
  6. A Man by Hirano Keiichirô
  7. First Person Singular by Murakami Haruki
  8. Where the Wild Ladies are by Matsuda Aoko
  9. Breasts and Eggs by Kawakami Mieko
  10. The Lake by Yoshimoto Banana

So, that’s it. What are your favorite Japanese books of 2021?

Thank you for reading. I hope you all stay healthy. Take care. I wish you all the best.

Book Review: Moshi Moshi

cover image Yoshimoto Banana Moshi Moshi“When we start something new, at first it is very muddy, and clouded. But soon, it becomes a clear stream, whose flow conducts itself quietly, through spontaneous movements.”

‘Moshi Moshi‘ is a love declaration to Shimo-Kitazawa, the beloved neighborhood in Tokyo with the hipster, Bohemian air. Famous for the many cafés, bars and restaurants, the secondhand shops. A lively, colorful atmosphere. The young and vibrant city district is known for its varied nightlife, local art, and design. Some call it the coolest part of Tôkyô.

Shimo-Kitazawa 下北沢 is six stops from Shinjuku with the Odakyû Line or four stops from Shibuya with the Keiô-Inokashira Line, a district in Tokyo (Setagaya).

But this quarter is in danger. City officials planned to build an 81-foot-wide thoroughfare, which will tear the neighborhood apart. In 2013 the train tracks were removed, and the station is under construction. Plus, it will be allowed to build higher buildings, which was restricted before. (links to articles about Shimo-Kitazawa with pictures: https://trulytokyo.com/shimokitazawa/ and https://www.shimokitazawa.info/ and https://www.odakyu.jp/station/shimo_kitazawa/).

The story in outlines
Yoshie–Yocchan– a young woman moves to Shimo-Kitazawa after the death of her father. He had died in a mysterious double suicide with a strange woman. On this day he forgot his cellphone at home and could not call for help. Ever since, Yoshie is haunted by dreams and her wish to call her dad because she wants to know who the woman was, and if he really wanted to die with her.

As she moves into a small, shabby apartment in Shimo-Kitazawa she feels free from the home of her parents. She tries to get rid of her memories. She grieves but gets better when she takes a job in the café Les Liens. Then, her mother comes to visit her, and asks if she can stay with her in Shimo-Kitazawa for a while. Imagine your mother wants to move into your tiny student apartment with you! So, that is the situation in the beginning.

Moshi Moshi もしもし means ‘hello’, especially on the phone. Or, if you want to say ‘excuse me!’, when calling out to someone. (for different use and meaning, please see: https://ejje.weblio.jp/sentence/content/もしもし).

Evaluation
The story is told by Yoshie’s point of view. You learn about her inner thoughts and her emotions in an interior monologue. The narrator reflects about the death of her father, about childhood and her future as the story moves on. The setting of Shimo-Kitazawa is essential. It becomes a symbol of the transience of all things.

Banana Yoshimoto’s novel sounds a little nostalgically, but it is understandable, because she describes changes, which are not only due to a natural cause, but due to gentrification of the beloved Shimo-Kitazawa. So, this is not mere regretting of the past, but some critical viewing about modern capitalism.

As always, I liked the writing style of Banana Yoshimoto. And I liked especially this novel, because I once knew the Shimo-Kitazawa, she is describing in her book very well. So, farewell lovely Shimo-Kitazawa, it was good to know you.

Reviewed title
吉本 ばなな. もしもし下北沢. 2010.
Banana Yoshimoto. Moshi Moshi. Translated by Asa Yoneda. Counterpoint, 2016 (Cover).

Book Review: The Lake

Cover image- Banana Yoshimoto- The Lake- english versionIn ‘The Lake’ Banana Yoshimoto tells the story of Chihiro, a young Japanese woman, who gets to know a young man who is living across the street. Nakajima, a shy, extraordinary intelligent and interesting man. She watches him every day when she is looking out of her window.
Chihiro recently lost her mother, who died at the hospital after a long illness. She is mourning her loss deeply and struggles with her feelings. In this situation she is glad about a new friendship with her neighbor. In the beginning they are just friends, who become lovers.
Chihiro also loves her freedom very much. Coming from a small village she embraced the opportunity of moving to Tokyo. As an independent woman she is not actively seeking a relationship, she is still grieving, and she does not feel ready for a new boyfriend, not to speak of marriage. The friendship with Nakajima feels comfortable, and it is nourishing her soul. After a while Nakajima is moving into her apartment, and it feels right for her, but they are still struggling with their past.

Nakajima has an enigmatic aura. It comes apparent that something went terribly wrong in his childhood, and he seems to suffer from a childhood trauma. Chihiro is patient, cautious and caring towards him, but she also doubts sometimes if she can handle it.
She learns about Nakajima’s mother and about two childhood friends. After a visit of his former home, a small house at a lake, Chihiro is deeply moved emotionally but somehow feels alienated. She stays with Nakajima and their relationship further deepens when the backstory of Nakajima’s trauma is revealed.

The novel is written from the perspective of Chihiro in the first-person narrative. She describes the development of her relationship with Nakajima in a detailed description of her conflicting emotions. It reminds me of a diary, as she writes most parts of the story in a stream of consciousness.
The novel is mostly about Chihiro’s inner conflicts and the novel tells everything about the evolving relationship, therefore the story feels very lively.
You even can feel Chihiro’s feelings because she tells you about them in her inner monologue, she uses emphatic language, and you can imagine, yes, this is the way how it feels when you are falling in love.
She reflects her doings and emotions, sometimes she shares her philosophical thoughts. Not every word she writes is particularly wise, but it is very interesting.
The underlying topics are tough, as it is emotional or physical abuse in childhood and how it affects human wellbeing and relationships.

Banana Yoshimoto is one of my favorite Japanese authors. I have been reading her books for a long time. In my opinion ‘The Lake’ is a very emotional and extraordinary book. Her language is very colorful, and her story is moving. I like her writing style very much. The story reminded me a little of her debut ‘Kitchen’ in the beginning, but then it took another road. Banana Yoshimoto is a mature author now and although the book’s topic is serious, I liked how she deals with it: Her attitude towards others is positive and caring. And that is what I like most about the ‘The Lake’.

Reviewed title
吉本 ばなな. みずうみ. 2005.
Banana Yoshimoto. The Lake. Translated by Michael Emmerich. Melville House, 2011 (Cover).

More book reviews of Banana Yoshimoto’s books on Japan Kaleidoskop

  1. Book review of Banana Yoshimoto: Kitchen.
  2. Book review of Banana Yoshimoto: Lizard.

 

Three Exciting Coming-of-Age Books by Japanese Authors


The ‘Coming-of-Age Day’ is celebrated in Japan on every second Monday of January as a national holiday since 1948. It is called 成人の日 – Seijin no Hi.
Japanese who turn 20 are celebrating this day, because from now on they are fully grown-ups with every right and responsibility legally speaking. And from now on they are also allowed to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. Young women are dressing up on the ’Coming-of-Age Day’ in a long-sleeved kimono and men in formal suit and tie.

Coming-of-age is an exciting topic described in world literature as in Japanese novels as well. The following books are good examples of what it feels to become an adult in Japan.

Kafka on the Shore by Murakami Haruki
What is it about?
It is a surrealist novel about a 15-year-old boy leaving his father behind and going on a secret journey. With only one photo in his hand, Kafka Tamura searches for his mother and sister, who left him and his father behind years ago. Read the full review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: 海辺のカフカ (Umibe no Kafuka) 2002.
Translated by Philip Gabriel. Vintage International (Cover 2006).

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Ôgawa Yoko
What is it about?
This is a story about an extraordinary friendship between the 10-year-old boy named Root and a retired math professor, who is slightly losing his memory because of brain damage. In the beginning they share only their passion for baseball, but soon the professor needs more help.  Read the full review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: 博士の愛した数式 (hakase no aishita sûshiki) 2003.
Translated by Stephen Snyder. Vintage International (Cover 2010).

Kitchen by Yoshimoto Banana
What is it about?
It is about a young woman dealing with life after the death of her beloved grandmother. A new friendship with a boy and his transgender mother. It is about mourning a profound loss and the beginning of a new life. All in all an emotional and touching debut novel of the now so famous Japanese author. Read the full review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: キッチン (Kitchin) 1988.
Translated by Megan Backus. Grove Press (Cover 1988)

Book Review: Lizard by Yoshimoto Banana

bookcover- Banana Yoshimoto- LizardLizard is a short story collection dedicated to the late Kurt Cobain by Banana Yoshimoto. She is a well-known Japanese author, with her roots in the pop-culture of the 90s.

What should one think of a person who calls herself a fruit? Maybe she is someone who does not take things so seriously? This is wrong!

On many pictures she looks sweet and well-behaved. Her books mostly appear nice and smooth at the first glance — But to think her stories are simple is anything but true.

In this small book you find six stories about “time, healing, karma, and fate“. Hope becomes a „transforming force“ (p. 175).

A newlywed Japanese is afraid of going home to his wife. He drank too much and on his way home he meets a homeless on the train. They talk to each other and in his imagination the other person suddenly changes into a beautiful woman. He confesses his feelings and fears of settling to the stranger. Eventually he is able to return to his house.

Lizard is a little tattoo of an autistic girl. This is also the title of a very emotional story of how she learns to know her boyfriend and opens up. It is told by the man, who is actually working as a therapist, not hers- but has the right feeling and empathy for her needs. He himself is deeply wounded and has difficulties to get close to other people.

Helix becomes a metaphor of love. Whereas Dreaming of Kimchee explains how cabbage can be the ultimate bliss for a couple. Thoughts about transience and knowledge of being alone is the topic of Blood and Water.

A Strange Tale from Down by the River is the story of Akemi. Shortly before her wedding she remembers her affairs and wild love life. Her character is described as:
“You understand how to flow with time, and not get stuck in one place. Once you master one thing and have done it enough, you move on. Or at least you´re good at pretending to move on. I think most people live their whole lives repeating the same patterns, again and again and again.“ (p. 150)

Yoshimoto’s stories are minutely observed and filled with lovely details. Many of her characters suffered from extreme experiences, but they try to overcome their difficulties. Spiritually inspired, they are able to see the magic in life again. Yoshimoto Banana writes as if her hand is guided by an angel, poetic, and her words are sometimes sparkling with joy.

Reviewed title
吉本ばなな. とかげ, 1993.
Banana Yoshimoto. Lizard. Translated by Ann Sheriff. Washington Square Press, 1996 (Cover)

More book reviews of Banana Yoshimoto’s books on Japan Kaleidoskop

  1. Book review of Banana Yoshimoto.The Lake.
  2. Book review of Banana Yoshimoto. Kitchen.