Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR
As someone who enjoys reading and discussing Japanese literature, I have been pleasantly surprised by the growing number of translated Japanese books that have come out in the U.S. in recent years.
Novels by Yōko Ogawa and Mieko Kawakami have been shortlisted for international prizes, and there are more than a dozen translated books from Japan coming out this fall alone — including titles by emerging writers. Much of this trend is owed to the hard work of translators who manage to capture Japanese nuances without exoticizing them, while still providing necessary context for American readers who may or may not have been to Japan.
Out of this massive genre that is as diverse as it is plentiful, there are five books coming out this fall that feel like antidotes to our accumulated stress of the last few years. These books share a common theme of protagonists who have been battered, either physically or emotionally, yet manage to crawl out of the darkness by the end. The stories vary from earnest to cynical, urban to country.
Regardless of your previous exposure to Japanese literature, these books may become your gateway to a country that is now, slowly, just beginning to ease its pandemic-related restrictions to foreign tourists.
Dead-End Memories: Stories by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Asa Yoneda)
Banana Yoshimoto has been one of the most beloved writers to come out of Japan since her 1988 debut, Kitchen. Her books often feature heartwarming characters and mouthwatering descriptions of food. Dead-End Memories is a collection of five stories first published in 2003, which the author considers to be her “most precious work.” As expected, this book will make readers especially hungry for Japanese food like omurice, hot pot, cake rolls, and even a bag of convenience store foods that you share with someone at a park.
In “House of Ghosts,” a young couple spends the night in an apartment where the deceased landlords still linger in the kitchen, seemingly unaware of their condition. “Mama!” flips Yoshimoto’s usual script and imagines the consequences of a meal meant to harm. The titular story shows how one friendship — however brief — can hold the key to overcoming one’s deep-rooted traumas.
These stories don’t necessarily have predictable, happy endings, but they left me feeling warm and cozy with a renewed appreciation of my own mundane routines and go-to comfort foods.
Diary of a Void: A novel by Emi Yagi (translated by David Boyd and Lucy North)
In this award-winning debut novel, a woman in her 30s is fed up with her male coworkers who casually pile on misogynistic comments and treat her like a janitor or secretary even though she has other duties as a full-time employee. One day, her supervisor makes a passive-aggressive remark that catalyzes Shibata to come up with a brilliant lie that will solve all her problems: she’s pregnant. Her “morning sickness” means she can’t help around the kitchen, and she has to go home at 5 p.m. everyday to get plenty of rest. The men immediately oblige — and start treating her with deference.
The novel is cleverly structured as diary entries in a government-issued booklet that allows mothers in Japan to document the pregnancy week by week. I was initially motivated to keep reading just to see how Shibata pulls off a fake pregnancy, but I quickly became enthralled by the narrator’s dead-pan humor and her sharp observations of Japanese society’s treatment of women.
American readers may notice similarities with the novel’s depiction of mommy groups and baby-tracking apps that compare the size of the fetus to various vegetables — but perhaps the most magical aspect of the story will be the normalcy of a year-long maternity leave.
Weasels in the Attic by Hiroko Oyamada (translated by David Boyd)
The acclaimed author of The Factory and The Hole returns with this new installment that might be her strongest, most memorable work yet. Just like the last two titles, Weasels in the Attic is a thin book totaling less than 100 pages, which I happily consumed in a single sitting. Length, however, does not equal weight. Every scene is deeply unsettling, reminiscent of Kōbō Abe’s surrealist fiction.
The protagonist is a married man living in the city, and he and his wife are struggling to get pregnant. Meanwhile, his friends — who he had assumed would be bachelors forever — are suddenly getting married, moving to the countryside, and starting families like it’s easy. The narrator and his wife are invited into the home of one of these friends, which is infested with weasels that cause skin rashes and psychological torment. The book simmers with eerie tension and bursts with unforgettable monologues.
Idol, Burning by Rin Usami (translated by Asa Yoneda)
Rin Usami was only 21 years old when she won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for this novel, which tackles J-pop stan culture and the doomed, one-sided relationship between a teenage fan and her oshi, or idol.
Akari is a junior in high school whose love and obsession with Masaki Ueno of pop group Maza Maza makes her a superfan — someone who will go out of her way to purchase all his merch, attend his live shows, write long blog posts analyzing his every move, and not expect anything in return. “My devotion to my oshi was its own reward,” she writes.
What’s impressive about this novel is the author’s ability to empathize with Akari’s all-consuming love for Masaki while showing just how damaging this relationship is to Akari and everyone around her. The book left me heartbroken yet hopeful, and excited for more Usami novels to come.
She and Her Cat by Makoto Shinkai and Naruki Nagakawa (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
Many of my friends are winding down at the end of the day with a new adventure video game called Stray, where the player controls an adorable stray cat as it traverses a mysterious world. She and Her Cat would be right up their alleys. The book is a novelization of an early animated film by acclaimed director Makoto Shinkai, best known for Your Name. (His latest, Suzume’s Locking Up, will be released in the U.S. in 2023.)
She and Her Cat is broken up into four stories, each one focusing on a cat and a woman that takes care of them. The perspective alternates between the cats’ and the women’s in an unapologetically cheesy yet satisfying way, much like Shinkai’s anime dialogue. Even readers who don’t consider themselves Shinkai fans or cat people can still appreciate the novel’s creative attention to detail, like the sound of rain experienced by a kitten, and the recurring motif of how we can regain the will to live, no matter how tough life gets.
Yurina Yoshikawa is a writer based in Nashville. She leads the virtual book club for the Japan-America Society of Tennessee where they discuss various works of translated Japanese fiction. Her writing has appeared in The Japan Times, Lit Hub, and elsewhere.