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 LakeA 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 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 lengths 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 it and I will enjoy reading his books until 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 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

This book 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: Death by Water

Bookcover-Kenzaburô Ôe- Death by Water“And like the river current, you won’t return home.”
Kogito Choko, a writer in his seventies, is haunted by the memory of his father’s death. He had been a child, when he witnessed his father going on a boat trip during a storm, where he drowned. Kogito Choko has been traumatized by this tragedy, and nightmares about drowning are troubling him ever since. He always wanted to write a novel about it but could not.

Ten years after the death of his mother, he still wants to write his so called ‘drowning novel’. He says that he could not write this novel for several reasons, but most importantly he waited for documents stored in an old red leather trunk, which belonged to his father. His mother had restricted him access to them because she wanted to protect the family’s reputation.

Now, he hopes for creative inspiration by opening the red leather trunk, so he can finally write the ‘drowning novel’.

Kogito’s sister Asa, who is living in their parental home in Shikoku invites him to stay there. She has connections to a theatre group called the ‘Caveman Group’. The stage director and the actors have been dramatizing his works for a long time. The director is devoted to Kogito’s works. The Cavemen Group is staging a play, when Kogito comes to visit. In the ‘Forest House’ they meet and discuss Kogito’s novels and plays.

The actress Umaiko, however, finds new ways of interpreting his works. She is one of the main characters of the book. Her life intertwines with the protagonist’s in different ways as the novel moves forward.

Kogito Choko is depressive and struggles with his writings throughout the novel. His inner monologue is revealing his inner thoughts to the reader over the course of the events. This combined with letters of his sister Asa and descriptions of the evolving story presents a multi-layered picture of his family history.

Two other important characters of ‘Death by Water’ are Akari, his brain-damaged son, and Daio, a friend and life companion, who was devoted to his father. Both persons are also staying at the ‘Forest House’ during certain episodes of the novel.

Structure and Theme
‘Death by Water’ by Kenzaburô Ôe was published in 2009 in Japan. It was translated into English by Deborah Boliver Boehm in 2016 and was an International Booker Prize Nominee for the Longlist 2016.
The narrator Kogito Choko is the literary alter ego of Kenzaburô Ôe. The story is mostly told from the first person’s perspective in addition to letters and dialogues.

The novel is set in the 2000s partly in Tokyo and mostly in Shikoku in the house of Kogito’s sister, a family resident, where Kogito Choko grew up. The setting in Shikoku is essential to the story. The narrator grew up in this environment. When his father drowned in the river nearby, Kogito flew into the forest. The neighborhood is relevant, because of the local myths and legends.

‘Death by Water’ is a multi-layered novel with many references to Ôe’s literary works. Although Kogito Chôko is the narrator, there are many similarities between his and Kenzaburô Ôe’s life and works.

The overall theme is coming to terms with the past on an individual level, and with the past of the WW II and nationalism in Japan. ‘Death by Water’ deals with death, memory, growing older, guilt and atonement as an individual, as a family member and as part of the Japanese society. The novel also depicts the changes of generations and generation conflicts. It discusses the works of the author and presents a view of the younger generation and female viewpoints.

‘Death by Water’ is the latest novel of the Nobel Prize winner Ôe. A late work, where all his former works come together, with many references to his own works and to others, especially Natsume Sôseki’s ‘Kokoro’.

Evaluation
The novel is narrated in a detailed and multi-faceted manner. I liked the honesty in the inner monologue of Kogito Choko. I have not read all books by Ôe but see ‘Death by Water’ as a good reason to study them more deeply. I also liked, that the book is not only a personal novel, but the writer is coming to terms with Japanese history in a unique way. The author also references to the classic novel ‘Kokoro’. I admire the way Ôe has constructed his novel in a multi-dimensional way, and how he mastered to add new perspectives, like through the story of Umaiko.
The novel is detailed and difficult in parts. The repetitive style can be tiring and sometimes even exhausting, but I think that this is a necessary part of the reading experience. ‘Death by Water’ is one of the most complex and challenging books I have read lately.
I encourage you to read the book, but maybe not to start with it as the first book of Kenzaburô Ôe. I would recommend reading ‘A Personal Matter’ and ‘The Changeling’. Ôe also wrote many short stories. I will probably read ‘A Quiet Life’ next.

Reviewed title
大江 健三郎. 水死. 2009.
Kenzaburô Ôe. Death by Water, 2009. Translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm. Atlantic Books, 2016 (Cover).

More reviews of Kenzaburô Ôe’s books on Japan Kaleidoskop
Book review of ‘A Personal Matter’
Book review of ‘The Changeling’