As 2020 approaches, The Japan Times’ book reviewers look back at a decade of literature and their favorite and most impactful books written about Japan or by Japanese writers.
People Who Eat Darkness Nonfiction Richard Lloyd Parry, 403 pages, Jonathan Cape, 2011
As details of the disappearance of former flight attendant Lucie Blackman and the arrest of her suspected killer unfolded from July 2000, few foreign Tokyo residents were surprised to learn that a serial rapist and murderer had been lurking in the Roppongi night scene.
What did surprise us was his success at eluding capture for so long. Armed with pseudonyms, a supply of untraceable cell phones and never allowing himself to be photographed, Joji Obara combined wealth and anonymity to feed his obsession for years. He is believed to have drugged and raped hundreds of women, and at least two died at his hands.
Obara’s prosecution and trial spanned the decade, and you can only admire Richard Lloyd Parry for his dogged persistence. This is a story not only of a crime, but a textbook work on the obstacles to reporting mounted by Japan’s criminal and legal systems and how a British journalist grappled with them. (Mark Schreiber)
Ms Ice Sandwich Fiction, Mieko Kawakami, translated by Louise Heal Kawai, 96 pages, Pushkin Press, 2017
I love writers who wield words with an artisan’s care, whose mastery crafts with such effortless precision that the language sparkles, newly washed on the page. Mieko Kawakami is such a writer. That her subject matter is also thought-provoking while entertaining is a mark of genius. Alas, 2017’s “Ms Ice Sandwich,” beautifully translated by Louise Heal Kawai, is the only one of her longer works currently available in English.
There’s an adolescent crush at the center of the novella, but it’s really a story of two lonely children who discover lasting friendship. For such a spare work there are several layers at play: What happens to love when someone we love dies? How do we judge beauty? What makes a life meaningful?
Throughout, Kawakami’s poetic prose dances with the essence of a teenager’s worldview. She’s my writer of the decade, and I can’t wait for the next, when more of her work is expected in English. (Kris Kosaka)
Pachinko Fiction, Min Jin Lee, 496 pages, Grand Central Publishing, 2017
A sweeping historical saga, Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko” (2017) was so successful that it is being made into an Apple TV series. Readers loved the generous storytelling, in the vein of Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy. And, like other groundbreaking books, “Pachinko” is also important for how it points to the future.
It is a story of cultural hybridity, a Korean-American author writing about Koreans in Japan and America. Both intimate in tone and unvarnished in historical truth, “Pachinko” describes Japan’s colonial rule of Korea without slipping into simple propaganda. It will soon be published in Japanese, adding crucially to Japan’s understanding of its own colonial past. It is my hope that more culturally hybrid authors will follow up with insightful fiction, writing both in and about Japan. (Nicolas Gattig)
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up Nonfiction, Marie Kondo, translated by Cathy Hirano, 213 pages, Ten Speed Press, 2014
Odds are you’ve heard of Marie Kondo’s “KonMari” tidying method; her first book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” became an international phenomenon.
“Life-Changing Magic” details the KonMari method in five short chapters. Working through specific categories in order — clothes, books, papers, miscellany and mementos — tidiers evaluate whether belongings “spark joy,” discard what doesn’t and organize what remains.
Rife with Shinto undertones, the KonMari Method has its critics, who cite its apparent privilege or gripe with its “war” on books. I, however, find Kondo’s pronouncement — “The things we like do not change over time. Putting your house in order is a great way to discover what they are” — a more accurate representation of her goal: identifying priorities and ensuring your possessions reflect them. (Claire Williamson)
Belka, Why Don’t You Bark? Fiction, Hideo Furukawa, translated by Michael Emmerich, 320 pages, Haikasoru, 2012
Hideo Furukawa is one of the most original, exciting and experimental writers to appear anywhere — not just in Japan — in recent years, and “Belka, Why Don’t You Bark?” is shamefully his only full-length novel available in English.
The early space program fires up the imagination of many writers, but it takes a unique creative mind to latch onto Belka and Strelka, the Russian dogs that followed Laika into space in 1960, and think “there’s a novel in that.” Laika died in orbit, but Belka and Strelka made it back. Strelka had six puppies, one of which Nikita Khrushchev presented to John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Furukawa’s novel is built on the question, “What happened next?” Leaping from the present to the past and combining 20th-century geopolitics with human drama and full-on action thrills, this isn’t weak satire written from a pet’s perspective; this is truly radical storytelling from Japan’s least-boring hope for a Nobel Prize in literature. “Belka” isn’t just one of the best Japanese books published in the past 10 years: It’s one of the best books published in the past 10 years, period. (Iain Maloney)
Ghosts of the Tsunami Nonfiction, Richard Lloyd Parry, 320 pages, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017
I felt vaguely ashamed at having finished Richard Lloyd Parry’s “Ghosts of the Tsunami” in just a few days.
However, it is testament to Parry’s sensitive and skillful storytelling that this book is both harrowing and highly readable. As it is difficult to comprehend the tragedy of nearly 20,000 lives lost in the tsunami of March 11, 2011, Parry focuses on the experiences and grief of a handful, and pays special attention to the failure of school authorities to protect the children of Okawa Elementary School.
As Parry writes, “There is no tidying away of loose ends to be done in a story about the deaths of young children, about the annihilation of a coast — only more stories to be told, and retold in different ways. … Stories alone show the way.” (Suzanne Kamata)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet Fiction, David Mitchell, 300 pages, Sceptre, 2010
David Mitchell is most celebrated for hisnovel “Cloud Atlas,” which was adapted into a 2012 film that featured Tom Hanks, and Halle Berry among other A-list actors. But many of Mitchell’s lesser-known novels are set, at least partially, in Japan.
“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” has its eponymous character inhabit the watery fringes of late 18th-century Nagasaki in northern Kyushu, confined to the Dutch trading post of Dejima. Though it has a fantastical edge, the book is firmly rooted in historical fiction, and the four years of research that went into it shows on every page.
Living in the nearby city of Fukuoka during my first stint in Japan, “Thousand Autumns” brought to life the history of the region for me in a way museum visits and castle tours never could. Romance runs throughout, not just between its central characters, but between Mitchell and the country he called home for eight years. (Oscar Boyd)
Orchards Fiction, Holly Thompson, 336 pages, Delacorte Press, 2011
In this globalized world, young people benefit from exposure to quality, contemporary literature offering insights into different cultures, and this is my favorite work set in Japan. I have pressed Thompson’s young adult verse novel into the hands of various adolescents — and their parents — over the past eight years.
After being caught up in a classmate’s suicide, Kana, a bicultural teen, is sent to spend the summer with her mother’s family on a mikan (Satsuma citrus) farm in Japan. The universal themes of developing empathy and self-awareness will resonate with anyone, irrespective of how much or how little the readers knows about Japanese culture. Not a single word is wasted in this spare, beautifully crafted novel, making “Orchards” a quick read.
Kana’s story, however, will stay with you long after the final page is turned. (Louise George Kittaka)
This Great Stage of Fools Nonfiction, Alan Booth, edited by Timothy Harris, 324 pages, Bright Wave Media, 2018
I’ve a soft spot for any writer with an iconoclastic, maverick edge, who likes to do things their own way, not how the crowd dictates. So I’ve a particular affection for wandering British author Alan Booth (1946-93), who loved to hit the road in Japan and engage with Japanese people from all walks of life. Highly erudite and humane, Booth was pretension-puncturing, perceptive and wickedly funny.
This collection is a gem, bringing together Booth’s diverse outpourings — including his film reviews and journeys to folk festivals — plus an account of his last great walk across Shikoku. Booth got to the heart of Japan better than any writer I know, but he also revealed himself as a complex and fascinating individual, teeming with interesting ideas. He was a man taken away from us far too soon. (Damian Flanagan)
This feature is part of the The Japan Times’ series of articles and essays across different sections of the newspaper that are reviewing the 2010s.