Books

Japanese books to get you through a lockdown

Four of our critics pick their lockdown reads

by Louise George Kittaka, Nicolas Gattig and Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writers

With “staying in” now the new “going out,” housebound activities have become officially the cool thing to do. But what if you’re stuck for a good book? Read on to see four of our critics’ top reads for an extended period of self-isolation.


A Tale for the Time Being, Fiction, Ruth Ozeki, Penguin, 420 pages

The Waiting Years, Fiction, Fumiko Enchi (trans. John Bester), Kodansha International, 203 pages

Bullseye!, Fiction, Yasutaka Tsutsui (trans. Andrew Driver), Kurodahan Press, 236 pages

With more time on your hands, now could be a great time to dig into “A Tale for the Time Being,” Ruth Ozeki’s multilayered novel about two Japanese-American women. Ruth, a middle-aged novelist living on an island in British Columbia, finds a diary washed up on the beach in the aftermath of Japan’s 2011 tsunami. She is determined to learn the fate of its author, a teenager named Nao who writes compellingly about her life after relocating from the U.S. to Japan. The protagonists’ dual narratives ebb and flow like the ocean that serves as a metaphor for their lives, culminating in a surprising convergence.

Another richly textured book about women’s lives is “The Waiting Years” by Fumiko Enchi. It was prescribed reading for my undergraduate Japanese literature class and has remained a personal favorite. The novel follows the fortunes of the Shirakawa family during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Although the household orbits around the unpleasant family patriarch, the story focuses on wife Tomo and the other female characters. Shackled by their social circumstances and stoically waiting for change, the pathos and joys of their daily lives are beautifully rendered by one of Japan’s leading novelists of the 20th century.

If you’re finding it harder to concentrate in these uncertain times, consider getting your literary fix in smaller doses with Yasutaka Tsutsui’s eclectic short story collection, “Bullseye!” Arguably best-known for his novel “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time,” this anthology of work from various periods in his career shows why Tsutsui is considered one of Japan’s leading science fiction writers. Covering themes such as family relationships, aging and dystopian futures, many of the stories have uncanny parallels with the current state of the world. Some of Tsutsui’s tales will amuse, others will shock, but all will make you think.

(Louise George Kittaka)


The Makikoka Sisters, Fiction, Junichiro Tanizaki (trans. Edward Seidensticker), Vintage Classics, 576 pages

The End of the Moment We Had, Fiction, Toshiki Okada (trans. Samuel Malissa), Pushkin Press, 160 pages

After the Quake, Fiction, Haruki Murakami (trans. Jay Rubin), Vintage International, 160 pages

The first person to escape into a novel is the novelist him or herself; it’s not by chance that some of the world’s most famous literature was born during times of great social upheaval.

One example — and a welcome escape from our own anxious moment — is Junichiro Tanizaki’s epic, “The Makioka Sisters.” First serialized in Japan from 1943-48, it is a war novel without the war. As the world turned to chaos around him, Tanizaki absorbed himself in a story about a merchant family in Osaka and their efforts to get a daughter married. If you like bittersweet sentimentality and comforting family rituals with a backdrop of social decline, “The Makioka Sisters” is a sweeping distraction. The past is idealized, then preserved by avoiding the present: The book ends in 1941, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Another good read during anxious times is Toshiki Okada’s novella, “The End of the Moment We Had.” The story follows a young man and woman who meet on the eve of the Iraq War. As the world becomes big, the two become small: “Cutting the cord of time” in a love hotel without clocks, they spend the next four days in a haze of anonymous sex. Without endorsing shelter in place, Okada captures the sheepish numbness of watching upheaval from the sidelines.

A most reliable respite from reality is always Haruki Murakami. The short-story collection “After the Quake” is not among his best works, but any story like “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” can distract us from a pandemic. The book was published between two shocks to the peaceful Japanese system: the Great Hanshin Earthquake and the Aum gas attack in the Tokyo subway, both in 1995. The characters cope with disorientation and a sudden shift of reality that makes them reassess their lives. In sparse meditative prose, Murakami nails our current moment. It makes you wish Super-Frog were equipped to handle the coronavirus.

(Nicolas Gattig)


The Beast Player, Fiction, Nahoko Uehashi (trans. Cathy Hirano), Pushkin Press, 512 pages

Shipwrecks, Fiction, Akira Yoshimura (trans. Mark Ealey), Mariner Books, 192 pages

In the Shade of Spring Leaves, Fiction, Ichiyo Higuchi (trans. Robert Lyons Danly), W.W. Norton & Company, 388 pages

As the literati turn to “King Lear” jokes or dystopian reading lists, here’s my recommendations for Japanese literature in the time of quarantine.

Even if you don’t typically enjoy young adult fantasy, Nahoko Uehashi’s “The Beast Player” is a perfect read for the underlying context of the zeitgeist. At its core, Uehashi’s engaging story questions humanity’s tyranny over the natural world and persistently asserts the need for balanced compassion over unchecked greed. Sensitively translated by Cathy Hirano, this beautifully layered coming-of-age tale features a young girl, gifted with the ability to communicate with the titular beasts, as she is caught up among various political machinations determined to dominate the natural world by using her powers to weaponize the beasts. It’s a sage look at our destructive cycles of greed and authoritarian power.

For a darker look at a possible endgame to greed, visit the novella “Shipwrecks” by Akira Yoshimura. This haunting book considers survival, morality and fate while transporting you to the Japanese coast during medieval times. We follow young Isaku as he learns the fishing traditions and darker secrets of his destitute village. Mark Ealey translates Yoshimura’s stark prose for a quick read that is satisfyingly bleak in both style and story.

Finally, travel into the gritty underside of the Meiji Restoration with Ichiyo Higuchi’s “In the Shade of Spring Leaves.” Robert Lyons Danly, the translator and an accomplished professor of Japanese literature before his death, first provides a comprehensive biography on one of Japan’s most loved and influential writers, while the latter half of the book features nine of Higuchi’s most famous short stories. Higuchi died at only 24 years old, but she’s continually cited as an influence by modern writers such as Yoko Ogawa and Mieko Kawakami. Revisiting her world and worldview through Danly’s authoritative text, which relies on her diaries and short stories to speak across time and space, is a welcome trip into a complicated period of upheaval and social unrest, with many glimmers of hope among the street-wise shadows.

(Kris Kosaka)


The Changeling, Fiction, Kenzaburo Oe (trans. Deborah Boehm), Grove Paperback, 480 pages

Six Four, Fiction, Hideo Yokoyama, (trans. Jonathan Lloyd-Davies), Riverrun, 634 pages

Black Rain, Fiction, Masuji Ibuse (trans. John Bester), Kodansha International, 304 pages

After two weeks in self-isolation and with this newly implemented state of emergency, time is plentiful. I’m taking this opportunity to immerse myself in the welcome embrace of three rather hefty novels that have been taunting me from the shelf for a while.

The first is Kenzaburo Oe’s “The Changeling,” translated by Deborah Boehm. The book is a fictionalized version of Oe’s relationship with film director Juzo Itami, who fell to his death in 1997 in what first looked like suicide but was later suggested to be murder. Oe is one of Japan’s two literary Nobel laureates and, given that English translations of his work have slowed down recently (only two in the past two decades), I’ve been rationing them.

Second up is Hideo Yokoyama’s “Six Four.” I’m a fan of his novel “Seventeen,” so Jonathan Lloyd-Davies’ translation of this crime thriller is a must read, even without David Peace calling it “one of the best crime novels I have ever read,” but at 634 pages it needs the headspace only a global pandemic can provide. It’s always worth being reminded that, compared to our current situation, life could be worse, and crime fiction supplies that in spades.

Lastly, I’ll suggest Masuji Ibuse’s “Black Rain,” which follows Yasuko, a young woman suffering the effects of radiation poisoning in the years after the bombing of Hiroshima. The blurb promises “gentle humor,” but I suspect the overwhelming sense will be one of misery. Often the only thing to do in the face of horror is to lean into it and confront the reality head on. In that regard “Black Rain” seems like an apt choice for these times of pandemic.

(Iain Maloney)

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