Japan Fiction Today
10 Contemporary Japanese Writers You Should Know
Kenzaburo Oe, Banana Yoshimoto, Haruki Murakami, Ryu Murakami, Natsuo Kirino, Shintaro Ishihara, Mitsuyo Kakuta, Teru Miyamoto, Amy Yamada and Kenzo Kitakata
Kenzaburo Oe hails from the forests of Shikoku, a quiet island in southern Japan. He began writing seriously in 1957, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature almost forty years later, in 1994. The Changling (2010) is his newest novel in translation, and it explores the relationship between two friends after one commits suicide.
Banana Yoshimoto’s new elliptical novel, The Lake, comes out tomorrow, and we thought we’d honor it by listing ten postwar Japanese writers whose work has been translated into English and are deserving of your attention. Also, Monkey Business: New Voices from Japan just came out, with a mind-blowingly good self-effacing short story by Yoko Ogawa titled, “The Tale of the House of Physics.” The following authors aren’t known for stories about samurai, schoolgirls, or animé, though these topics can, at times, figure into their work, but only peripherally. They tell stories that transcend easy attempts at classification, proving that Japanese literature is more than just Rashomon or The Pillow Book. These are the writers of postwar Japan, and they are a formidable group of misfits, outlaws, and introspective urban dwellers.
Banana Yoshimoto chose her first name in college, proclaiming her love of banana flowers because they are “rather cute and androgynous.” She is the daughter of Takaaki Yoshimoto, the venerable critic, intellectual, and father of the New Left movement in Japan. In 1988, she wrote Kitchen, her most well-known novel, which was translated into English in 1993. Her latest book, The Lake, also involves a young woman in mourning and how she is transformed by love. Yoshimoto is already known as the poster child for Gen X Japan, but The Lake shows her a little bit more grown up, though always wandering.
The English translation of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, 1Q84, is a weighty 1,000-page tome that will be available this October. Benedict Page writes in the Guardian: “Exploring the themes of cult religions, family ties, writing and love, 1Q84 is said to be the story of two characters, a man and a woman, in search of one another.” Murakami is probably the most familiar author on this list, mostly due to the breakout success of his 1987 novel, Norwegian Wood, which was published in English in 2000.
Ryu Murakami is a controversial figure in Japanese literature. He wrote his first novel, Almost Transparent Blue (1976), while still in college, and Coin Locker Babies was soon to follow. Both focus on the perennial topics of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. In the late 1990s, the Japanese director Takashi Miike adapted Murakami’s book, Audition, into the now notorious film by the same name. His upcoming novel, A Singing Whale, will be first released on the iPad and has a score by Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Natsuo Kirino began her career writing romantic fiction, but switched to the detective genre to write her breakout novel, Out (1997); it involves four women at a bento factory who engage in murderous activities and eventually have to pay the price, and it was Kirino’s first book published in English, though Grostesque and Real World were later translated. In an interview, she says that men were threatened by the aggressiveness of her first novel, and that “the most shocking part of Out for a lot of people is that it’s written by a married woman who has a family and a child.”
Shintaro Ishihara is an incredibly controversial figure. He’s the governor of Tokyo and a far-right politician who is always rallying against foreigners in Japan, especially “Sangokujins,” which is a derogatory word for people of Taiwanese, Korean, and Chinese descent. He also called the Rape of Nanking “a lie,” and said that the most recent tsunami was “divine punishment.” So…if you can somehow get beyond the politics (or care to, at this point), Ishihara wrote some worthwhile novels in his youth. His acclaimed first novel, Season of the Sun (1956), is about rebellious “sun tribe” culture in postwar Japan, and spawned a beach craze after its publication.
Mitsuyo Kakuta was born in Yokohama, a port near Tokyo, in 1967. She has written over a dozen novels, but Woman on the Other Shore (2007) was the first to be translated into English. The novel explores the relationship between two women in their thirties while also examining the traumatic high school experiences of one of the characters. Her novel, The Eighth Day (a bizarre tale of child abduction) will be released as film in Japan this month.
Teru Miyamoto has written many novels, but Kinshu: Autumn Brocade (1982) was his first to be translated into English. His novel Maboroshi no Hikari was made into a film in the mid-1990s, and received many accolades at the Venice and Toronto film festivals.
Amy Yamada (née Futaba Yamada) was born in the late 1950s in Tokyo, and has published controversial novels which weave in tricky issues about sexuality, interracial relationships, and xenophobia in Japan. Her 1985 novel, Bedtime Eyes, was said to embody the Gen X spirit in a way few other novelists were doing at the time.
Kenzo Kitakata is a mystery writer with a serious following in Japan. His tales of hard-boiled gangsters on the lam have earned him comparisons to James M. Cain’s work. Kitakata’s forthcoming novel, City of Refuge, will be published this June.