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: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

book cover image -Sayaka Murata- Convenience Store Woman- riceball with a cute face “But once they get it into their heads that I’m not normal, since they all think they are normal they’ll give me a hard time about it, won’t they? “

Murata Sayaka worked in a convenience store herself, and much of her experience will probably show in her novel. ‘Convenience Store Woman’ brought her the Akutagawa Award, one of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, in 2016.

Miss Keiko Furukawa is the main protagonist, she is 36 years old, working in the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart, a typical convenience store in Japan or simply called ‘konbini’.

Her colleagues are a mix of different people like Ms. Izumi, a housewife, 37 years old and a flashy dresser, Miss Sugawara, 24, a singer in a band, a university student, a job-hopper, and her boss.
Keiko Furukawa is absorbing everything in the shop: the smell, the sound, every move of the surrounding customers. She copies the dress style of Ms. Izumi because she thinks she is a role model of what a woman in her thirties should be wearing. In her speech pattern she is parroting other staff members. She is like the embodiment of the convenience store.
Her friends and acquaintances are bullying her for not having a proper job and not being married and bossing her around. Keiko Furukawa calls working in the ‘konbini’ a dead-end job herself, but it is the only place in the world, where she feels socially accepted, like a valuable part of a team, yes, she is feeling comfortable at her workplace. Wearing a uniform, everyone in the staff seems to be equal, because they are all store workers.
Then a new staff member Shiraha appears, he is an arrogant, lazy misogynist, and an outsider like Keiko Furukawa. So, they get to know each other, and he becomes her roommate. The novel answers the question if this will change her life and shows how her surrounding reacts to this development.

The story is written from the perspective of a 36-year-old woman working in a convenience store in first person narration. Keiko Furukawa is still single in her mid-thirties and has been working part-time in a convenience store for her whole life. The overall theme is women’s living conditions in contemporary Japan and specifically how people are singled out as an outsider, when they do not play their role as expected by society, which means getting married or taking a decent career path.

The novel can be understood as a critical portrayal of contemporary Japan’s society. So-called social phenomena like ‘hikikomori’ (secluding oneself, often hiding inside and not leaving one’s apartment), working in low paid or/and part-time jobs, as a ‘freeter’ (freelancer) with little or no perspective to change one’s lifestyle for the better. These developments can be seen in Japan at least for the last three decades and have changed the society deeply, where the once so important full time employment for a lifetime at one company was the norm.

Sayaka Murata is one of Japan’s modern female authors, who writes about women in Japanese society without shying away from taboo topics and has won several literary awards. ‘Convenience Store Woman’ is her 10th novel. Her newest book is called ‘Earthling’ (地球星) published in Japan in 2018. A translation into English was made available in October 2020.

I liked ‘Convenience Store Woman’ more than I thought I would when taking the book in my hands. The cute cover was indicating the wrong direction. It is not some nice story about a girl working in a store, but a deeply moving story about a young woman searching her way in a hostile environment. She does not understand the social protocol and is not understood by her friends and family either. As an outsider of Japan’s society social interaction becomes painful for her, but she finds happiness in a place which is not appreciated by normal standards and that is her ‘konbini’. I was surprised by the literary strength of the book which stands out. So, I would like to read more of Sayaka Murata and will have a look at her new book in the future. ‘Convenience Store Woman’ is an important and unusual work.

Reviewed title:
村田沙耶香. コンビニ人間. 2016.
Sayaka Murata. Convenience Store Woman. Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Portobello Books 2018 (Cover).