Tales from the cracks: 10 of the best books about Japan released in 2016

It’s been a difficult year — one that felt like humanity was living on a fracturing ice shelf. That uncertainty came from our exposure to wars and natural disasters, and even our struggles with “truth” itself. The best Japan-related books released in 2016 seemed to channel this feeling of instability by looking inside the growing cultural cracks. Here are 10 that went beyond old narratives about Japan and its people and delved deeper into Japan’s fragmented past, present and future: from alternative views of the Pearl Harbor attack to Japanese prostitutes in the American West and from radical 1960s anarchists to the story of an inspector trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare.

Countdown to Pearl Harbor, by Steve Twomey.
384 pages
SIMON & SCHUSTER, Nonfiction.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently announced his plan to visit Pearl Harbor to mark the 75th anniversary of the attack, making him the first Japanese leader to visit to the USS Arizona Memorial. “Countdown to Pearl Harbor,” Pulitzer Prize-winner Steve Twomey’s reappraisal of the events leading to the attack, is required reading for those wondering why the Japanese chose such a perilous path to World War II and why the U.S. fleet was caught unguarded. It goes far beyond the slew of op-eds, think-pieces and below-the-line arguments about Abe’s plan.

Twomey’s account is lively, well-written and engaging. It reinserts human dynamism into a period of history often reduced to abstract binaries.


Tokyo Decadence, by Ryu Murakami, Translated by Ralph McCarthy.
273 pages
KURODAHAN, Fiction.

With his often lurid tales of prostitutes, sadomasochistic sex and addiction, it would be easy to dismiss Ryu Murakami as the shock-jock of the Japanese literary world. But this terrific collection of his short stories from 1986 to 2003 showcases both his considerable skill as a writer — his gift for dialogue, acid wit and mastery of the short story form — with a panoramic vision of the great metropolis of Tokyo, leading us from the rooms of the New Otani Hotel to student digs in Kichijoji and back to the flashy streets of Aoyama. Murakami is aided by translator Ralph McCarthy, who is able to render Murakami’s street-smart prose into exuberantly idiomatic and readable English.


Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada, Translated by Susan Bernofsky.
288 pages
NEW DIRECTIONS, Fiction.

Entering Yoko Tawada’s wondrous worlds demands a leap of faith. In her books, the unfamiliar becomes familiar and magic eclipses reality.

“Memoirs of a Polar Bear,” her newest novel, originally published in German and translated into English, traces three generations of polar bears who live among humans in Soviet-era Moscow and Berlin. It offers an imaginative insight into how animals may view humans, in all our splendor and folly.

In an age when animal habitats are more threatened than ever — when real bears in Tohoku are forced to come down from the mountains in search of food — this book’s questions are timely. With humor and wisdom Tawada asks whether we can we undomesticate the animals we have tamed and, more difficult to answer, whether we can we undomesticate ourselves.


Japanese Prostitutes in the North American West, 1887-1920, by Kazuhiro Oharazeki.
312 pages
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON PRESS, Nonfiction.

Though many books have been written about karayuki-san (Japanese women sent to work as prostitutes) in Asia — two of the most important being “Sandakan Brothel No. 8” by Tomoko Yamazaki and “Karayuki-san” by Kazue Morisaki — records of the karayuki-san who went to America are more difficult to find. Kafu Nagai wrote about them in “Amerika Monogatari” and the newspapers of the late 19th-century Seattle and Portland also mention these women, but “Japanese Prostitutes in the North American West, 1887-1920” tells their story in unprecedented detail.

In this new book, Kazuhiro Oharazeki reveals their origins in Japan and their everyday lives as prostitutes in America’s Northwest, offering a comprehensive study of these forgotten women who crossed the Pacific to live in a foreign country where they did not know the language. He shows how their lives were intimately connected to the empire building of the United States and how they also unwittingly contributed to Japanese imperialism.


Me Against the World, by Kazufumi Shiraishi, Translated by Raj Mahtani.
120 pages
DALKEY ARCHIVE PRESS, Fiction.

“Me Against the World,” by Naoki Prize-winner Kazufumi Shiraishi, was originally released in 2008 and English readers have had to wait eight years for it to be translated. But that’s not entirely a bad thing as the novel proved to be an unexpected antidote to the ugliness of 2016.

Shiraishi starts his novel with a mock “Publisher’s Forward,” setting up the premise of a journalist who inherits a philosophical manuscript after a friend’s sudden death. The rest of the novel is a replication of the manuscript itself, which entices the reader to contemplate the meaninglessness of existence and the “cancer” that is humanity. It might sound like another dose of the year’s “ugliness,” but Shiraishi’s conclusion is surprisingly redemptive.


Dissenting Japan, by William Andrews.
356 pages
HURST, Nonfiction.

In “Dissenting Japan,” British-born translator William Andrews provides a much needed profile of the postwar Japanese Left. The book documents fringe groups — from communist radicals to avant-garde performers — weaving them into a cohesive narrative of modern Japanese counterculture. Andrews focuses on the mass movements of the 1960s and ’70s, but more recent protests against nuclear contamination, constitutional revision and the U.S. military presence in Okinawa lead him to suggest that a new Japanese progressivism is boiling beneath the surface of apathetic consumerism.

This has been a year of political upheaval and, with no end in sight, “Dissenting Japan” is relevant now more than ever.


Tokio Whip, by Arturo Silva.
370 pages
STONE BRIDGE PRESS, Fiction.

Arturo Silva understands that simple first-this-happened-then-that-happened narratives — not to mention bildungsroman about young people finding themselves in Japan — don’t suffice to capture the chaotic order and ordered chaos that is Tokyo. Rather, as Silva explains, “A style to accommodate chaos — that’s what we want here,” and that’s what he gives us in “Tokio Whip.”

He builds his novel around a love story, but what keeps us turning pages is not the narrative, but the fragments, the conversations, the descriptions, the guidebook pastiches, the film trivia and the other goodies of which “Tokio Whip” is assembled. It is the essential Tokyo novel.


Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama, Translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies.
656 pages
QUERCUS, Fiction.

“Six Four” succeeds as a classic whodunit. En route to the denouement it offers a compelling look at the complex — and often stifling — realities of the Japanese workplace. Author Hideo Yokoyama, a former police reporter, threads together the story of three missing girls in this epic tale. The first was kidnapped and murdered at the end of the Showa Era (1926-89). Years later, a second girl is kidnapped in similar circumstances and the protagonist, Inspector Mikami, a dour but dogged police press director, is central in the search for her. But all the while he’s haunted by the whereabouts of the third missing girl: his runaway daughter.


Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure, by Hideo Furukawa, Translated by Doug Slaymaker.
160 pages
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, Fiction.

Literary balm for the pain of 2016, Hideo Furukawa’s “Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure” is a triumph of imagination. Furukawa’s memoir defies genre as he reflects on the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake from the perspective of its nonhuman victims: the horses, abandoned animals and even literary characters from the author’s previous works. Furukawa, who grew up in Fukushima, directly addresses the social concerns that emerged in the wake of the tragedy while weaving in military history and metafiction. His unique view lets the voiceless be heard and affirmed, by challenging the egocentric worldview of its human readers. This is a book that will stay with you long for a long time.


Midnight in Broad Daylight, by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto.
464 pages
HARPER COLLINS, Narrative nonfiction.

In a year marked by cultural entrenchment, the true story of the Fukuharas, a Japanese-American family torn between Japan and America in the endgame of World War II, was a powerful plea for empathy.

“The enemy looks like us,” says the main character, Harry Fukuhara, summing up his dilemma of conflicting loyalties — of being torn between family and country. Named one of the best history books of 2016 by Kirkus Review, “Midnight in Broad Daylight” is a milestone of narrative nonfiction, putting real human faces on the internment of Japanese-Americans and the atom bomb horrors in Hiroshima. A must-read — and, sadly, timely.