Found In Translation | The Quaint Beauty of Japanese Contemporary Fiction & Book Recommendations

Hello there allies, archenemies, and everyone in between! Last month I’ve been binging a lot of Japanese literature for #AsianReadathon and while I should have read more diversely I fell completely awe struck with these short yet compelling stories. I only read Japanese contemporary fiction and I must admit, I’m more than willing to spiral down in this rabbit hole once again!

On April, I discovered my love for Japanese Crime Fiction and now I have started to appreciate its contemporary counterparts. I think what sets this kind of fiction apart is the humility pervasive in its themes as opposed to Western literary works where high stakes family drama or personal paradigm shifts often take the center stage. (I’m not shaming this genre though!)

Japanese contemporary fiction is so startlingly simple and contemplative which makes it all the more refreshing.

The writing style is more often than not straightforward but has this natural appeal to the reader without ever needing beautiful prose to do the heavy lifting. Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary creator of Studio Ghibli applied the theme of Ma in his works which he described in an interview as:

“The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness, But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.”

Source: https://bit.ly/3eWfmk0

In a 2013 online article by No Film School , they aptly described Ma as:

“a kind of melancholic innocence in his films — a slow-moving, yet always-moving emptiness”

Source: https://bit.ly/2UixlcF

Ma is not only a thematic device to use in creative works though, it’s universal in our lives but most especially in the quaint atmosphere of Japanese contemporary fiction. Japan is a highly urbanized and technologically advanced country, but behind the hustle and bustle there’s always a pervasive sense of simplicity present in their lifestyle. Most of the books I’ve read exhibited young adults that are just trying to cope from grief in different forms.

AT SOME CASES, THESE WORKS OF ART CAN BE DOWNRIGHT EXISTENTIAL AND CAN also PROVE TO BE THERAPEUTIC.

My favorite Japanese contemporary author right now would be Banana Yoshimoto and I extremely love how her stories are weaved into contrasting hopelessness and hopefulness. Her candor writing is so refreshing and I describe her works to have this air of optimistic nihilism. I still have a lot of books to read from her, in fact, I’m starting it already this month as well!

With that said, here are Japanese contemporary book recommendations for you to get started! I’ve read only a few in this genre fiction but I’m hoping to broaden it this month as well.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

“Mikage, the heroine of Kitchen, is an orphan raised by her grandmother, who has passed away. Grieving, she is taken in by her friend Yoichi and his mother (who was once his father), Eriko. As the three of them form an improvised family that soon weathers its own tragic losses, Yoshimoto spins a lovely, evocative tale that recalls early Marguerite Duras…”

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

This was such a soulful read and I was allured by the candor and beauty of Yoshimoto’s writing. This book speaks of the awkward yet natural healing of personal traumas to large-scale ones. I was particularly drawn on the characters’ way of thinking and how despite their peculiarities, I felt oddly comforted with their bluntness. This book reminds us of the brevity of our lives and that the balance between our good and terrible experiences will always be skewed, and that’s okay. 

Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto

Yoshie’s much-loved musician father has died in a suicide pact with an unknown woman. It is only when Yoshie and her mother move to Shimokitazawa, a traditional Tokyo neighborhood of narrow streets, quirky shops, and friendly residents that they can finally start to put their painful past behind them. However, despite their attempts to move forward, Yoshie is haunted by nightmares in which her father is looking for the phone he left behind on the day he died, or on which she is trying—unsuccessfully—to call him.

Ms. Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami

Ms Ice Sandwich seems to lack social graces, but our young narrator is totally smitten with her. He is in awe of her aloofness, her skill at slipping sandwiches into bags, and, most electric of all, her ice-blue eyelids. Every day he is drawn to the supermarket just to watch her in action. But life has a way of interfering – there is his mother, forever distracted, who can tell the fortunes of women; his grandmother, silently dying, who listens to his heart; and his classmate, Tutti, no stranger to pain, who shares her private thrilling world with him.

The Miracles of the Namiya General Store by Keigo Higashino

When three delinquents hole up in an abandoned general store after their most recent robbery, to their great surprise, a letter drops through the mail slot in the store’s shutter. This seemingly simple request for advice sets the trio on a journey of discovery as, over the course of a single night, they step into the role of the kindhearted former shopkeeper who devoted his waning years to offering thoughtful counsel to his correspondents. 

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Hawaguchi

In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a café which has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time…But the journey into the past does not come without risks: customers must sit in a particular seat, they cannot leave the café, and finally, they must return to the present before the coffee gets cold.

Strange Weaather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Tsukiko is drinking alone in her local sake bar when by chance she meets one of her old high school teachers and, unable to remember his name, she falls back into her old habit of calling him ‘Sensei’. After this first encounter, Tsukiko and Sensei continue to meet. Together, they share edamame beans, bottles of cold beer, and a trip to the mountains to eat wild mushrooms. As their friendship deepens, Tsukiko comes to realise that the solace she has found with Sensei might be something more.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Keiko isn’t normal. At school and university, people find her odd, and her family worries she will never fit in. To make them happy, Keiko takes a job at a newly opened convenience store where she finds peace and purpose in simple daily tasks. But in Keiko’s circle it just won’t do for an unmarried woman to spend her time stacking shelves and ordering green tea. As the pressure to find a new job – or worse, a husband – increases, Keiko is forced to take desperate action.

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

When Hitomi takes a job on the cash register of a neighbourhood thrift store, she finds herself drawn into a very idiosyncratic community. There is Mr Nakano, an enigmatic ladies’ man with several ex-wives; Masayo, Mr Nakano’s sister, an artist who has never married; and her fellow employee Takeo, a shy but charming young man. And every day, customers from the neighbourhood pass in and out as curios are bought and sold, each one containing its own surprising story. When Hitomi and Takeo begin to fall for one another, they find themselves in the centre of their own drama – and on the edges of many others.

I only listed nine contemporary books so that you won’t get overwhelmed! However, there are in fact a whole lot more books in this genre for you to enjoy once you relished on the tip of the iceberg.

  • Have you read some of these books?
  • What do you think of Japanese literature in general?
  • Do you have an book recommendations in the same vein?

19 thoughts on “Found In Translation | The Quaint Beauty of Japanese Contemporary Fiction & Book Recommendations

  1. Thank you so much for these recommendations! I’ve read almost all of Sayaka Murata’s works. (Convenience Store Woman is best employee of the decade confirmed.) I absolutely loved Strange Weather in Tokyo. This book is my first in reading translated Japanese contemporary fiction.

    I noticed in your Goodreads account that you’ve read a lot of Banana Yoshimoto’s works hehe so I’ll give her books a try, particularly Moshi Moshi. Also, next in line are The Miracles of the Namiya General Store and Ms. Ice Sandwich.

    If you haven’t read it yet, I’d also suggest Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa. It tells about the repercussions of sickness and friendships that comfort. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Selina! I have only read two of Banana’s works hahahahah but I’m definitely binging the others this month. I hope you’ll love all of these recommendations.

      I personally have an attachment to The Miracles of the Namiya General Store! It’s really heartwarming AND heartbreaking. I cried over that book plus it has already a movie adaptation w/c you can watch freely in Youtube!

      I’ve read Sweet Bean Paste as well before! Thank you for reading and appreciating this Selina :>

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read Kitchen and I love it! There’s another jap lit book that I read and really love: Sweet Bean Paste! Thanks for this recommendation, will definitely check out the other two Banana Yoshimoto book!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the recs, Divine! I definitely love Japanese literature. There’s a certain kind of nuance that makes it really charming while being straightforward. I don’t know how they do it. But I also acknowledge that the translation is also a big part of it. I’ve read author works that are translated by different persons and I can definitely tell the difference. That’s why it is one of my lifelong goals to be able to consume Japanese lit in its natural form. Still learning, but I hope I get there soon.

    This is a lovely list, btw. Haven’t read Banana Yoshimoto even though I’m hearing a lot about this author way before but now I’m excited to. 🙂

    Like

  4. Thank you for those recomendations Divine! To be honest I haven’t read so many books written by Japanese authors. I mostly read books written by Haruki Murakami but as I love finding new authors to read, I will check books you mention here 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think I’ve never read a book by a Japanese author so these recommendations are great! From this list, any book I should read first?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I haven’t read any of these books by these authors but I have heard fantastic things about Banana Yoshimoto’s books! They do sound so intriguing. The simplicity in their lives and the way their culture forges their way/vision of life are probably what makes their stories so unique and refreshing too! I think the only Japanese author (besides all the manga I read) that I’ve read are by Murakami too hahaha Thanks for sharing! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  7. These sound so intresting!!! I’ve been craving some contemporary and romance for a while so this was perfect, added a good chunk to my tbr, thank you as always Divine 🌻🧡

    Liked by 1 person

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