Friday 4 August 2017

Must-Read Japanese Books in English (Part 2: Lighter Reading)

There was lot of interest in the previous post on classic Japanese literature - it seems people are seeking good summer reading suggestions for the beach! - so here is part 2, as promised, this time focusing on more recent and much "lighter" books. As in the previous post, you can click on all the images for more information and sometimes a preview on amazon. As always, feedback and other recommendations are more than welcome! Poetry is perhaps a future possibility...

One of the most popular genres in Japan is crime fiction, known as "deductive-reasoning fiction" (suiri shōsetsu =推理小説) in Japanese. Although it has pre-war precedents, it is generally a post-war movement: the Mystery Writers of Japan Club (日本推理作家協会) was established in 1947. An ex-president of MWJ and one of Japan's most popular mystery writers is Keigo Higashino. His 2005 The Devotion of Suspect X is a modern murder-mystery classic and also the first of four novels in his Detective Galilieo series which has had huge success as a spin-off Fuji TV drama (and movie) starring the musician Masaharu Fukuyama (pictured right on the DVD of the 2008 version of the film).

In similar vein, Natsuo Kirino's 1997 Out (left) is a riveting but rather gruesome murder story written somewhat sympathetically, like Suspect X, from the killer's perspective. Hideo Yokoyama's 2013 Six Four - coming in at a massive 640 pages in the 2016 English translation - is also crime fiction but focuses less on the crime investigation and more on the human relations and power struggles within the police department and the workings of the Japanese police force itself - see here for a review.

The first book I ever read in Japanese and still one of my all-time favourites is The Newcomer (Ichigensan) written in Japanese by Swiss-born David Zoppetti who was TV Asahi's first non-Japanese employee and a staple on its News Station programme in the 1990s. It was awarded the Subaru Prize for Literature (すばる文学賞) in 1996. The story is a semi-autobiographical treatise about the experiences of a foreign student of Japanese literature at Kyoto University. The novel centres on the protagonist's relationship with a blind Japanese girl, someone who judges him solely on his Japanese ability and personality, and contrasts this with his (often discriminatory) encounters with other Japanese who cannot see beyond his "foreign" appearance. The 1999 film (right) is also excellent and the message about (non)acceptance of difference still resonates in a Japan which remains rather closed and insular. Incidentally, I have marked Friday as the day for a new "Book of the Week" and The Newcomer becomes the second nomination.

Finally, not wanting to ignore the teenage market, an honourable mention should go to Nahoko Uehashi's 12-volume Moribito (守り人=Guardian) fantasy series if only for the fact that it has been the only non-English book that actually challenged the ascendancy of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in my house! Unfortunately, only the first two books have been translated with future translations put on ice apparently due to unsatisfactory sales. Given that it is massive in Japan - the NHK drama stars the enormously popular Haruka Ayase (pictured on the DVD box-set right) - I wonder if there is not some cultural aspect to its (lack of) popularity: is good fiction always universal?