In thinking about a question posted by a member on our Education in Japan forum on whether there are any good reads in Japanese fiction, I thought I would introduce my own list for starters for some seriously great reading of Japanese fiction books that available in English translation.

Historical novels

My own favourite Japanese fictional writer in translation are the samurai tales by Eiji Yoshikawa. His books are historical fiction, but they seem so grounded in historical fact, written so believably and the action in his books roll off the pages like some epic movie. The translations read beautifully like the best of the historical novels that we love today. His Miyamoto Musashi “Musashi” series, Taiko and The Heike Story are his greats, I wish they would translate all his works.

Japanese detective fiction

Strangely, the Japanese detective fiction genre is becoming recognized as great writing today, see n and there have been translations in recent years. Read more about this trend in:
Exploring Japanese Detective Stories: A Primer
Wikipedia: Japanese Detective Fiction

Detective stories of old Edo is an example of a “great” this rich genre.

“Featuring uniquely Japanese characters and compelling plots, “The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi” written by Kido Okamoto (1872-1939) presents readers with a number of intriguing crimes committed in old Edo (now Tokyo). The novel was translated into English in in 2007 but was first serialized monthly in the popular magazine Bungei Kurabu (Literature Club) from 1917 to 1937 and become so popular that it remains in print today.

“Hanshichi” is that rare example of Japanese detective fiction that provides both a view of life in feudal Japan from the perspective of the period between the First and Second World Wars and an insight into the development of the fledging Japanese crime novel.From The Japan Times, “Prewar detective classic looks back at the mean streets of feudal Japan“”

Recently reviewed by Japan Times and serialized for the paper’s readers, you can also read a review of the book at goodreads.com “The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi: Detective Stories of Old Edo” here. From the Japan Time’s background writeup:

“Although widely read in Japan since its publishing in the years between 1917 and 1937, it wasn’t until 2007 that [The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi] was translated into English. The book was published by the University of Hawai’i Press .  .  .                                                                                                                                                    Hanshichi is that rare example of Japanese detective fiction that provides both a view of life in feudal Japan from the perspective of the period between the First and Second World Wars and an insight into the development of the fledging Japanese crime novel.  Although it is a product of the early period of Japanese modernism  .  .  .   Hanshichi does not seek to challenge literary conventions.  Instead it aims to entertain and thrill its readers with well-crafted prose, realistic dialogue, and compelling plots, enabling them to escape into a world both strange and familiar.  Strange, in that the customs of mid-nineteenth century Japan must have seemed antiquated, even quaint, to readers of the late 1910s and early 1920s. Familiar, in that Hanshichi was not an imitation of Western fiction — as was much crime writing of the time — but boasted characters and settings uniquely Japanese…

When Hanshichi was launched in 1917, very few of Kido’s readers would have had firsthand knowledge of Edo (Tokyo) in the 1840s to 1860s, the period when the adventures are set.  As the series progressed and more and more of the old city vanished (most notably after the Great Earthquake of 1923), decreasing numbers of his readers could have recalled what Tokyo had been like in the time before Japan’s overseas wars with China and Russia in 1894 and 1904, respectively.  .  .        Hanshichi’s Edo is populated not only by fl esh-and-blood men and women but also by ghosts, spirits, and monsters of various descriptions, whose existence, while never actually proven, is frequently hinted at. They take the form of human specters, fox spirits, shape-changing cats, and other mischief makers such as the goblin-like tengu and watery kappa that lurk in rivers and on desolate moors, liminal spaces where the relative safety afforded by the city and the presence of other human beings gives way to the unfathomable and forbidding natural world. As the opening sentence of the very first adventure suggests, the Edo period was a time when the supernatural exerted a strong grip on the Japanese imagination. It was used to explain any strange and troubling event, and was as readily accepted by most samurai as by the less well-educated townspeople. Even Hanshichi, the wise and worldly expert on human nature, is never willing completely to rule out the supernatural as a plausible explanation. In recounting his adventures, he defers to his young interlocutor on all matters of modern science and empiricism, modestly professing that such things are beyond his ken.  .  .  .”

If anybody wants “in” on the mad popularity of Sakamoto Ryoma TV dramas, “Sakamoto Ryoma: The Life of a Renaissance Samurai” the novelized biography by Romulus Hillsborough is a must, though be warned, it is a huge book and a little heavy…read the excellent review and  commentary at goodreads.com If you’re not up for the undertaking, you may still want to read “Sakamoto Ryoma: The Indispensable Nobody” Hillsborough’s own background piece on Sakamoto Ryoma.

*Night of the Milky Way” and “Ghost in the Tokaido Inn” by Kenji Miyazawa M.E. Sharpe (suitable for kids aged 9-12 years but enjoyable for adult readalouds too). Professor Strong’s translation of Kenji’s (as he is affectionately known to his fans) “Ginga tetsudo no yoru” is perhaps the best, most accessible English versions available. And there are many available. (Avoid the “Rock Press” Milky Way Railway ed.) Roger Pulvers’ recent translation and John Bester’s older translation are also good (Pulvers’ may only be accessible in Japan in Jpn/Eng bilingual format), but I think Strong’s version may be the best one yet: with easy to understand English, wonderful illustrations (that hint at the story contents, not explicate) — plus you get her copious notes, biography and an alternate version — all make this a nice copy to have in children’s library. I think it is well-suited for an adult to read to a child (the notes in the back can help the parent out of a jam if asked “what is a crow-lantern?” – Reviewed by Jon Holt. He recommends also Bester’s collection “Once and Forever” and collections of his shorter stories (Restaurant of Many Orders, etc.) which patch together his brilliance. Note there is an earlier translation of The Night of the Milky Way Train published by Stone Bridge Press is available from WeatherHill).

Also “Once and Forever” by Kenji Miyazawa, John Bester (tr) reviewed at goodreads.com and excerpted below:

“It is time that Kenji Miyazawa, long recognized as a writer of genius in his own country, enjoyed the same reputation abroad. Are his fables, in which acorns quarrel and flowers fret about losing their looks, written for children or adults? They are for both: for adventurous young minds, but also for older readers in whom the spark of curiosity, combined with a taste for fantasy and a love of language, is still alight.
This collection, appearing for the first time in paperback, brings together the best of his stories. They range from cautionary tales to small prose poems, from social satire to unmistakable tragedy. All share an intense delight in the natural world — a sense of oneness with other living creatures and with the vast universe around us.

Miyazawa is entirely original. No other Japanese writer, before or since, has told stories as fresh in detail but universal in scope as this man who lived and died, still young, in Japan’s far north”

“Black Rain” by Masuji Ibuse, translated by John Bester, review extract below from  www.flashlightworthybooks.com

Black Rain is a very interesting novel because while it is about the atom bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, the author based the novel on interviews from Holocaust sufferers. The novel lays out in a very unemotional way just how the bomb destroyed lives. It does not blame anyone for the bombing… it just tells how a Japanese family is dealing with it. A very sobering and eye opening read

“Nip the Bud, Shoot the Kids” by Kenzaburo Oe review excerpt from Fiona Campbell

“Japanese literature 1945 was heavily influenced by the country’s defeat in the second world war, with many authors addressing social and political issues in their work. Oe grew up in wartime Japan. For his first novel, produced when he was just 23, he wrote about a group of boys evacuated to a remote village in the closing days of the war. This novel – frequently compared with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – began a literary career that earned Oe the Nobel prize in 1994”

“The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami (review below also by Fiona Campbell)

“This novel established Murakami as a leading figure in world literature. It also won the Yomiuri Prize, which was awarded to him by Kenzaburo Oe, formerly his harshest critic. Toru Okada, the book’s narrator, is a dreamy introvert luxuriating in unemployment, supported by his wife Kumiko. When the couple’s cat goes missing, Kumiko suggests that her husband’s time would be best spent looking for it. Then she herself disappears. As Toru searches for her, he meets a succession of strange characters – two psychic sisters, a disaffected teenage girl, a soldier who fought in the second world war. Like many of his previous novels, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle mixes American pop culture with a healthy dash of science fiction, philosophy, social commentary and detective fiction. Murakami also deals with some heavyweight subjects too, particularly the atrocities committed by the Japanese army in China during the second world war”

“I am a Cat” by Natsume Soseki (review below also by Fiona Campbell)

“I am a cat but as yet I have no name.” So opens one of the most unusual works in Japanese literature. The narrator is a cat who finds a home in the house of Mr Sneeze – a schoolteacher. In between bouts of sleep, the narrator observes his master and his friends as they struggle with daily life in the middle class society of 1920s Japan. Soseki originally submitted the first chapter to the literary journal Hototogisu as a short story but was persuaded to write further instalments. There are 11 in total. Each one stands alone, although the characters and themes carry throughout”

“The Tale of Genji” by Shikibu Murasaki, last but not least, needs no introduction for anybody living in Japan because it is a classic of Japanese literature besides being said to be the  first novel ever written…but do read “how to choose English translation…” which picks Edward Seidensticker’s version as the most beautifully translated one.

If my list above tempts you to look for more … try this list of Popular Japanese Fiction books @ Goodreads.com, it’s good but many of the books will contain many themes and much content that will not be suitable for the young.