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Popular Japanese novels to read in English

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

by Stephen Andrews

Have you read many Japanese writers translated into English? It’s a great way to improve your English reading and there are lots of books to try, from romance to horror, adventure to mystery.

I’ve read one or two Japanese authors myself, including Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, probably one of the most famous writers in the world; The Gate by the revered author Natsume Soseki; and The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, a well-known poet. Reading Japanese novels has given me an insight into Japanese culture and history and I’ve found that Japanese writing always has a unique view of the world. Japanese writers also seem to have bit of an obsession with cat stories – more on that at the end of this blog!

So, if you fancy curling up with a good Japanese novel in English translation, here are 10 suggestions, from classic to contemporary, to get you started.

The Gate by Natsume Soseki (born 1867)

The Gate is one of Soseki’s later novels and tells the story of a middle-aged married couple, Oyone and Sosuke, who married for love in their student days. As the novel opens, their lives are at a crisis point because they have no children and Sosuke is obsessed with his career. One of his most popular books is, of course, I am a Cat, which is also translated into English.

Masks by Fumiko Enchi (born 1905)

Fumiko Enchi is the pen-name of Fumiko Ueda, one of the most prominent Japanese women writers in the Shōwa period of Japan. Masks is typical of her work, exploring sexuality, gender, human identity, and spirituality.

No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai (born1909)

A heavily autobiographical novel written at the very end of Dazai’s life, telling of a childhood struggling to understand other people, leading eventually to an adulthood dependant on drinking and bad behaviour.

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima (born 1925)

This is a popular romance novel written by Yukio Mishima in 1954. The story focuses on pure love between a poor young fisherman Shinji and a diver Hatsue from a wealthy family. They try to overcome lots of problems and obstacles to succeed in love.

IQ84 by Haruki Murakami (born 1949)

IQ84 follows the story of a young woman named Aomame who enters a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84. Murakami, born in 1949 in Kyoto during the baby boom following World War II, is an internationally celebrated author whose books have been translated into more than 50 languages.

In the Miso Soup Ryu Murakami (born 1952)

Kenji, a Japanese "nightlife" guide for foreigners, navigates gaijin men around the sex clubs and hostess bars of Tokyo. This is a typical novel by Murakami, a novelist, short story writer, essayist and filmmaker. His novels explore human nature through themes of disillusion, drug use, surrealism, murder and war, set against a dark backdrop. You might have seen the film Audition, based on his novel.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (born 1954)

The only author in this list translated from English to Japanese. He’s unique in that he was born in Japan but raised from an early age in England and writes in English. In fact, he’s thought of as more of an English novelist than a Japanese one. The Remains of the Day, set in a large English country house, is a comment on English society. You might also like to watch the film version starring Anthony Hopkins.

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (born 1958)

Kawakami’s most celebrated novel in translation. The book cleverly uses a romance between a woman and her former teacher to weave together a story of someone from post-war Japan and someone from pre-war Japan attempting to co-exist with one another.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (born 1964)

This is one of the most popular novels of contemporary Japanese literature, written by one of its most famous female authors, Banana Yoshimoto. In Kitchen, a university-age girl, Mikage Sakurai, loses her parents when she’s young and lives with her grandmother, her only family, until she suddenly passes away.

I Want to Kick You in the Back by Risa Wataya (born 1984)

Wataya won the Akutagawa literary prize when she was only 17. She’s one of the best, young female Japanese writers and her novels focus on feelings of isolation in Japanese youth.

Why do Japanese writers love cats?

I love cats. You (hopefully) love cats. And so do a lot of Japanese authors. Of course, cats have been revered in Japanese culture for centuries (just think of the maneki-neko or beckoning cat) so perhaps it’s not a big surprise to have so many cat stories.

Anyway, if you want to read a cat-book tonight, why not try one of these?

I Am a Cat by Soseke Natsume

Kafka on the Shore by Hariki Murakami

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa

The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura

Happy reading!





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