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.

Three Interesting Japanese Books published in 2021

book cover Murakami Haruki First Person Singular by Murakami Haruki

A collection of eight short stories. I liked ‘Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova’ and ‘On a Stone Pillow’ very much. As I have read the original Japanese text I cannot say much about the translation. I love to read Murakami Haruki’s books in Japanese. Some of the stories were published before in ‘The New Yorker’ or in ‘Granta’, some of them are new and exclusively in this book.

I know, short stories are not for everyone, but I like to read them. Murakami explores his past: it is about music (‘With the Beatles’ and Charlie Parker), about mysterious encounters and love in the days of his youth. As expected, the collection is written in Murakami’s unique style about everyday life with magical realistic moments, philosophical and not so philosophical thoughts.

Title in Japanese: 村上春樹: 一人称単数 , 2020.
Translated by Philip Gabriel, Knopf Publishing Group, 2021.

 

The Woman in the Purple Skirt

This is a weird and fascinating story told by a strange narrator: ‘the woman in the yellow cardigan’. The atmosphere is thrilling. You get to know nothing about the narrator’s identity in the first half of the novel. Very quickly you will understand that something is disturbingly wrong because the ‘woman in the yellow cardigan’ is stalking ‘the woman in the purple skirt’, but why?

It was a quick and very interesting read, very Japanese and weird. The female author Imamura Natsuko won the Akutagawa Award in 2019 for this novel. She was born 1980 in Hiroshima and was rewarded many times for her literary works in Japan.

Title in Japanese: 今村 夏子: むらさきのスカートの女, 2019.
Translated by Lucy North, Penguin Books, 2021.

 

An I-Novel
What is it about? The book is a diary, an account, an I-novel, which is a literary genre in its own in Japan. The book was written in English and Japanese alternately. Unfortunately, the bilingual effect could not be transferred into the English translation.

I struggled with the account of the protagonist: a Japanese woman, who immigrated into the US as a child and spent her life there. Japan became a “Sehnsuchtsort”, a place for yearning, impossible to reach for her, an idealized place with sweet memories of her childhood. So, after a while of homesickness and nostalgia she wants to go back to Japan and become a writer.

The text consists mostly of telephone calls with her sister and some backstories. The diary is an account about daily life, grief and depression. Although the title was very promising, I could not relate to the main character of the story because her narration was too depressive in my opinion. Maybe people with a similar experience can empathize more with the author.

Mizumura Minae was born in Tokyo in 1951. She has published several books, which are also translated into English. ‘The Fall of Language in the Age of English‘ and ‚Inheritance from Mother‘ sound interesting.

Title in Japanese: Mizumura Minae 水村 美苗: 私小説 , 1995.
Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, Columbia University Press, 2021.