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7 Japanese Books You Need to Read

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Japanese literature has a long and illustrious history, with its most famous classic, The Tale of Genji, dating back to the 11th century. Japanese literature has rapidly gained popularity in recent times. Japanese authors write with an elegant, often ethereal quality which fascinates the readers. Japanese literature is recommended not only for bookworms but also those who are interested in Japanese culture.

Reading Japanese literature is a great way to learn about Japanese culture and traditions. Exploring Japanese literature is like diving headfirst into a rabbit hole of undiscovered wonders. Luckily for non-Japanese speakers, there’s an abundance of English translations available. So here are some some hand-picked book recommendations by Japanese authors that every reader would be able to appreciate:

1. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

Japan’s love affair with literature is not surprising given that it produced the world’s first-ever novel in the 11th century. Murasaki Shikibu was an educated court noblewoman and author of what most consider to be the world’s first novel. The Tale of Genji is perhaps the most famous work to come out of Japan. It is a story of love set in a court of the Heian period. It recounts the story of an emperor’s son who is removed from the line of succession. The other central character is a low-ranking concubine who has to navigate her way through the social and political obstacles of the time. The book is considered a masterpiece and is widely agreed to be the finest work of literature in Japanese history. It is an immersive leap into medieval Japanese court life. It is not an easy book but definitely worth a read.

2. Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

Men Without Women is a collection of seven stories about men, of various ages and backgrounds, and they all suffer from different forms of loneliness. The theme of all seven stories is self-evident from the title. Through either divorce or death, the men in the seven stories have lost someone. Unable to move on, the men spend the rest of their days lamenting what they will never again feel. The yearning of these men to make connections and the despair they endure is heartbreaking. With few and simple words, Murakami conveys to the reader exactly what they are going through.

The most interesting story was Samsa, a sort of sequel to Kafka's Metamorphosis but reversed as Gregor Samsa wakes as a human with no memory of his time as a human. The stories are beautifully written. Murakami has such a way with words. There is not much plot to them, because as usual, Murakami writes character driven stories. I would recommend this collection for anyone interested in sampling Murakami’s writing.


3. The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

This is a weird and wonderful novella by Murakami. This is a story about a boy and his thirst for knowledge. A young boy goes to the library after school looking for some specific books. The librarian offers to find them but then the strangeness begins. The boy's simple trip to the local library turns out to be a nightmare as he finds himself entrapped in a strange prison that he cannot escape. A totally unexpected dark tale from Haruki Murakami!

You can finish this novella in an hour. I kept wanting for more but the book ended so fast. Murakami and his wild imagination is at full play and you are left with so many unanswered questions. The Strange Library is a mysterious book with dark & fantasy elements. This book reminds me of Neil Gaiman. If you have not read Murakami yet then this is a good book to start with.

4. There’s no such thing as an easy job by Kikuko Tsumara

There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job follows a young woman who has suffered burnout, abandoned her career, and moved back in with her parents. She walks into an employment agency and requests a job that is close to her home, and it requires no reading, no writing – and ideally, very little thinking. She's had a complete burnout after her previous job and just wants something that doesn't feel like work at all. Something she can go to and leave without putting much effort into. We follow her over the course of five jobs which are quite entertaining and bizarre.

Though she wants an easy job but still she gets a little too invested in some of her work. She sorts out problems that are uncalled for, meets some quirky people and eventually, kind of heals herself. The book seems quite relatable to our own work situation. Sometimes life can be just too much to handle and it’s okay to take a step out of it and find your bearings again.

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At the end of the day, whether one returns to the past or travels to the future, the present doesn't change.

— Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Before the Coffee Gets Cold

5. Before the coffee gets cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a sweet selection of interconnected stories set in a small café in Tokyo. But this cafe offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time but they must return before the coffee gets cold. This slow-moving, but beautifully paced novel about time-travel is split into four parts. Each story in the book follows a customer (or sometimes a staff member) who wishes to go back in time to meet someone they lost or learn something they never understood.

The premise of this book is so creative and beautifully crafted! It narrates heartwarming tales of love, loss, friendship, and family. It is a unique take on time travel with heartfelt stories that explore relationships and remind us to express our love and concern for our dear ones while we still can. They focus on hope even in the face of difficult situations.

This book is amazing! That's all I can really say. The stories will definitely pull at your heart. If you love Japanese literature and want to read something which will give you a new perspective, try reading this book. If you haven't read this yet, you should!


Seasons flow in a cycle.

Life too, passes through difficult winters.

But after any winter, spring will follow.

— Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Café

6. Before the coffee gets cold: Tales from the Cafe by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Tales from the Cafe is the perfect follow-up to Before the Coffee Gets Cold. It offers us more time-travel stories fuelled by memory and guilt and loss. It is just as lovely as the first book! Same bittersweet endings, same cozy setting, same quirky characters!

It was delightful to return to Cafe Funniculi Funnicula, where one can time travel for a short period, as long as you return before the coffee gets cold. Here we meet four new customers each of whom want to take advantage of the Cafe's time-travelling offer. This time we follow a man wanting to visit an old friend who died in a car crash 22 years ago, a detective wanting to give his wife the birthday gift he was never able to give, a son wanting to see his departed mother one last time and a dying man wanting to see the girl he could never marry.

The stories tell tales of redemption, self reflection, guilt or just a need for some closure. Every story is simple yet beautifully told. The book is just so heartwarming and yet sad at the same time. If you were a fan of the first book but you haven't heard about this one yet, go read it! You'll definitely love it as well.

7. The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura

It's a fast paced and enjoyable thriller. The Thief is the fictional story of a seasoned pickpocket Nishimura. He is highly skilled and proficient in his chosen crime. In the streets of Tokyo, there are few better than him. After getting a little too ambitious and accepting an irresistible job offer, the thief finds himself trapped in a intricate web of murder and theft involving the rich and powerful. He is tasked with three almost impossible tasks if he is to escape with his life.

It is a short, swift and easy read with an interesting story line. It is a fascinating and atmospheric read, thoughtful and at times emotional. However I think the ending was a bit abrupt and blurred. Overall the book is good and makes for a gripping read.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Shaloo Walia

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