Japan is a country close to my heart and since I first went there a few years ago, I have become a big fan of Japanese fiction and Asian fiction translated to English.
Japanese fiction tends to emphasise the liminal and fantasy aspects hidden at the edges of everyday reality and also exploring the inner emotional topography of people’s lives. Also, just like in real life Japan there is a reverence for the poetic, philosophical spiritual elements of nature. From the books I have read so far, there’s a focus on the outsider or lone wolf archetype. A person who goes on a spiritual and literal journey into the wilderness of their own soul and the mystical wilderness of Japan. Here are some of my favourite fictional books set in Japan.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Using profound linguistic grace and emotive firepower, author Ruth Ozeki manages to capture the relationships between people, time, space and memory in this heartbreaking, poignant, and very human novel which weaves in and out of time and place.
Themed around the interconnectedness of all things, a familiar philosophical underpinning of Zen Buddhism, Ruth Ozeki manages to interweave the story of Nao a teenage girl living in a Japan prior to the recent cataclysmic earthquake and a struggling writer living a decade later in a remote Canadian seaside town.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko is full of melancholy, joy, emotion and humanness. It’s the story of several generations of Korean migrants trying to carve out an existence against the backdrop of the unheaval of the 20th Century. The novel traces struggles, triumphs and colourful personalities of several generations of one family. It rockets along at an amazing pace and doesn’t let up. This is a book to curl up with a relish over a weekend. It packs an enormous emotional punch and was incredibly satisfying. I enjoyed this book more than any other fiction I have read for many years.
The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann
The Pine Islands is a short novel that punches well above its weight. Although it is written by a German, Marion Poschmann, this is a very Japanese novel. It’s the tale of a German transplant to Japan, Gilbert who is searching his inner world and outer landscapes of Japan for meaning in his life. Along the way he meets a suicidal young man. This is a really unique, surreal, strange and funny novel that deftly tackles deep topics in a funny way: mortality, ageing, love and connection.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Convenience Store Woman is an oddball treasure of a novel about an unusual and friendless woman Keiko and her over-sized love and dedication to her job as a sales assistant in a Convenience Store. This is a deeply emotional and funny novel by Japanese debut novelist Sayaka Murata, another one to savour on a rainy weekend.
Picnic in the Storm by Yukiko Motoya
A short story collection which takes a leaf out of Murakami’s book with its uncanny magic realism style. Although unlike Murakami, Motoya’s stories are about women and explore the world through a vivid female lens. Her stories are about women who are losing their spark and trying to regain and reclaim their former selves. Picnic in the Storm is about keeping one’s own identity, when it’s so easy to lose it in a marriage. Although it’s not as fast-moving as I would have liked.
South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami
A slim and slight book, but don’t be fooled by its physical size. Within a mere 200 pages you can sink into a thoroughly immersive story. In the hands of a less-skilled writer, this would be impossible. This is the story of lifelong erotic longing and unrequited love between two childhood friends who grow to become restless adults. The book has the vibe of a smoky, lounge-bar in Tokyo. It seems much more vast than it actually is and is over far too quickly, so I recommend slowly savouring it, it’s a bit like literary foreplay.
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
In this novel, 15 year old Kafka Tamura, a teen runaway takes refuge in a remote town. It all gets very David Lynch in this book very quickly. Mysterious celestial phenomena happen in the Shikoku mountains, along with some World War II throw-backs and guardians to the underworld. Another completely otherworldly, highly addictive book from legendary Murakami.
Have you read any other good books set in Japan that you can recommend?
12 thoughts on “Seven Unique and Moving Fictional Books Set in Japan”
Thoroughly enjoyed A Tale for the time being, and the Convenience Store Woman — thanks to your mentioning them! Delighted you got into some Murakami too. Did you try the wind up bird chronicle? Up there with Kafka for me. That Housekeeper and the professor is very much in a similar sort of vein to these.
I loved Shogun, but it’s not that overly japanese in flavour and a bit of boys adventure story, but it’s a page-turner like no other. And Mushashi (which I’ve mentioned before) is also set in feudal Japan but positively drips japanese culture. That’s a top ten all-timer for me! Wonderful!
Looking up Pine Islands, as I remember liking your review from a few weeks ago.
You know, it was thanks all to you that I got into Murakami 😁 So I really have to thank YOU. Murakami was then a gateway drug to other Japanese fiction. Thanks so much Jeremy.
It’s always good to get recommendations!
Kindle store has a deal at the moment, spend $30 and get an $8 dollar voucher…so I’m choosing a few books at the moment. Might even have to get something Japanese.
Amazing! Hope you find something good there 🙂
Still need to look for The Housekeeper and Professor too. I’m sure I’ll like it too thank you 😁
Yes, it’s thoroughly likeable. Apparently different to the author’s other books which are dark.
Wind up bird Chronicle is one of my favs thanks to you Jeremy. Only one of his I couldn’t get into so far 1Q84
Yeah I remember that…surprised me a little as you like his style but never mind. Plenty of others.
Murakami as the gateway drug…..brilliant. I need new reading material Catnip – this collection looks perfect. Cheers.
Hehe yes it definitely is a way to describe it Kev. I hope you enjoy these books as much as me. Also Jeremy reads a lot of great books and has good recommendations too
Wonderful list! I really enjoyed “Pachinko” and “Convenience Store Woman”. In all honestly, I found it hard to get into and like “A Tale for the Time Being” – perhaps I should re-read it – the thing for me was that I also thought the book was slightly pedantic and preachy – but that is my own crazy and probably unfair impression 🙂
Although I have not read David Mitchell books that are set in Japan, many people recommended them to me, especially David Mitchell’s “number9dream”. They say he really “evokes” Japan. I cannot wait to get into them.
I have never read David Mitchell..a lot of people rave about him. I would be interested to know what you think of his novels set in Japan 🙂 A Tale for the Time Being was a little preachy and a little slow at times, I thought so too but I still loved it. Take care Diana and thanks your your comment, as always! 🙂