I will always rue the fact that I discovered the joy of reading Japanese literature only recently, a little more than three years ago. Even though I am a novice, I have managed to read a spectacular collection of popular books by Japanese authors across different genres (though my favorites remain the mystery and crime genres, hands down). Japanese authors have a certain je ne sais quoi when it comes to their writing; something about them makes their works alluring and captivating, no matter the genre.
Best Books by Japanese Authors!
They capture the essence and intricacies of human nature so beautifully and write about it in a matter-of-fact manner that you cannot help but acquiesce. Having read many books by Japanese authors in the past few years, I have curated a respectably sized list of must-read books. These books vary in genres, with more focus on mystery and crime thrillers which are some of the best books in Japanese literature and generally.
1. The Honjin Murders (Detective Kindaichi Mysteries) by Seishi Yokomizo
The Honjin Murders is the first English-translated book of Seishi Yokomizo, regarded as the most excellent postwar Japanese mystery writer. This book introduces us to Yokomizo’s famous detective, Kosuke Kindaichi. He is described as a foil to Agatha Christie’s detective, the great Hercule Poirot. This book is a locked room mystery, and unlike other locked room mysteries, this one has a detailed description of traditional Japanese architecture.
The book’s events take place in rural Japan, pre-World War 2. The central mystery is the murder of a newly-married couple on their wedding night inside a locked room. The room shows no signs of any break-in by an intruder. The family and the villagers are stunned. There is also a sinister-looking mystery man who has been spotted near the place where the crime has been committed. Does he have anything to do with the murders?
It is up to Kosuke Kindaichi, the erstwhile amateur detective, to find out. Apart from the main storyline, this book also gave an insight into traditional Japanese architecture, their way of life in the rural areas, the class systems, and their importance on purity and bloodlines. This masterpiece of a book is not just an exciting thriller but also a time capsule that showcases Japanese traditions and culture. You can get the book here! 📖
2. Malice (The Kyoichiro Kaga Series) by Keigo Higashino
This book introduces the readers to Higashino’s detective Kyochiro Kaga. He is one of the two detectives featured in Keigo Higashino’s book (The other being Professor Galileo). The book’s central mystery is the death of famous author Kunihiko Hidaka. This is again a locked room mystery with the dead man being found dead inside a locked room in his locked house. The culprit is found out soon enough, but from then on, the tone of the book shifts, taking it from a whodunnit into a whydunnit.
As the reason unfolds in layers, shifting between the point of view of the culprit and the detective, the malicious reasons behind the cold-blooded murder are slowly revealed to the readers, leaving us shocked. This book is a page-turner. Once you start reading it, you cannot stop until you have completed it. Which is excellent, considering that it is under 300 pages. This book also cements that Keigo Higashino is a literary genius and not just a one-hit wonder (referring to his most famous book, The Devotions of Suspect X). You can get the book here! 📖
3. The Tattoo Murder Case (Soho Crime) by Akimitsu Takagi
There is something about locked-room murder mysteries that are so alluring to readers of crime fiction. One cannot seem to get enough of them. Japanese authors seem to know what they are doing regarding these murder mysteries, and The Tattoo Murder Case is another testament to that fact. This book looks into the tattoo culture of post-World War 2 Japan. This book shows a dark part of Japanese society filled with seedy clubs, bars, and people who are creepily obsessed with tattoos.
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In a not–so–good area, there is a meeting of a tattoo society. People who have inked their skin showcase their intricately inked bodies to a crowd of tattoo fanatics amidst rapturous applause. Amongst these tattoo-obsessed people is the young Kinue Nomura, who dazzles the crowd with her beautiful full-body snake tattoo. But she fears something terrible will happen to her and confesses her fears to her lover.
A few days after her premonition, she is found dead in the bathroom of her house, and the shocking thing is that (or maybe we should say expected at this point) it is locked from the inside. This locked room mystery seems to be the bane of the local police until an amateur detective Kyosuke Kamizu appears on the scene. The who’s, how’s, and why’s of the mystery are soon revealed (not in that particular order). This book is notable not just for its central mystery but also for introducing us to the tattoo scene of Japan and the legends and stories behind them. You can get the book here! 📖
4. The Master Key by Masako Togawa
This novel is set in a hostel for women who are all alone in the world. There are 150 women residing in this building, and all of them have secrets they want to protect at all costs. Their building is about to go under construction, which makes them scared; their secrets are in danger of being revealed to the world. There is one master key that can open all the doors in that building, and all the ladies have a vested interest in the key. They want to avoid anyone using the key to get inside their rooms.
Everyone has a motive for wanting the master key not to exist. Then all of a sudden, the master key goes missing, and soon a slew of murders are committed. Who stole the key, and who is murdering the woman? Moreover, how far are they willing to go to hide their secrets? The thriller in this novel is more psychological than action, yet it manages to convey a feeling of dread and unease within less than 200 pages, making it a work of brilliance. You can get the book here! 📖
5. Confessions by Kanae Minato
This is by far the most uneasy book on this list despite having little to no bloodshed. The book opens with a middle school teacher talking to her classroom about the murder of her young daughter in a matter-of-fact tone, chilling the rest of the students in her class to their bones. The murderers are revealed to be two male students from her classroom. The rest of the story features a shift in the narrative between different members of the classroom and the perpetrators and the reasons behind the cold-blooded murder of an innocent child.
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The sense of unease increases with each subsequent chapter, only to drop a bombshell of an ending that will leave the readers in disarray. This book feels like a rock pushed from a hill, slowly gathering momentum and crushing everything in its path until it crashes at the bottom, leaving a trail of destruction behind it. This story is more of a revenge story than a mystery story, and the level of hatred and malice are enough to make the readers’ hearts pound. You can get the book here! 📖
6. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura
This novel is a relatable, often-times funny commentary about the present state of labor and our relationship with our jobs in this capitalistic and consumerist society. In this book, the readers follow the novel’s unnamed protagonist as she hops from one temp job to another in pursuit of an easy job. She has been burned out after staying in her unspecified job of 14 years and is searching for the perfect job, which is easy to do and does not ask much of her. She samples one seemingly easy job after another, only to figure out that finding an easy job may not be such an easy job in itself. Narrated in a neutral tone, this book feels very relatable to the state of the workforce today and our relationship with it. This was a fun read and included an important message for the readers. You can get the book here! 📖
7. Heaven by Mieko Kawakami
The title Heaven belies the book’s subject matter, bullying and its effects on the victims. A nameless middle-school boy with a lazy eye is relentlessly bullied by his peers in school. At the story’s beginning, his female classmate Kojima, another victim of bullying, seeks out his companionship. Slowly, they start a covert friendship that seems to give these two lonely and victimized souls a slight reprieve from the cruelties surrounding them.
As the story progresses, Kojima’s views towards bullying also start to contradict the protagonists, and their friendship starts to have its share of toxicity because of it. The author sleekly delves into the minds of the victims of bullying and the bullies to showcase the hidden ugliness and hopelessness within the human psyche. This book is not an easy read, but it is one of the best works of contemporary Japanese literature, so it is also a book that should not be missed. You can get the book here! 📖
8. The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa
Are you a bookworm? If yes, how far will you go to save the beloved books from the clutches of people who have no right to own them? This is the quandary the book’s protagonist Rintaro Natsuki faces when a mysterious talking cat appears before him in his grandfather’s secondhand bookshop. Magic realism meets wholesomeness; this was a cozy and warm read from beginning to end. This book is a welcome reprieve from the dark and depressing books listed in this article. All book lovers will find this book and its protagonist’s love for books relatable. So how can you not give this book a read? You can get the book here! 📖
9. Terminal Boredom: Stories by Izumi Suzuki
This book is for Science-fiction and Dystopia genre enthusiasts. This is a series of short stories that are not interconnected, dealing with issues such as a planet Earth without males, only populated by females, monsters masquerading as humans, people living in fear of an upcoming nuclear fallout, and more wildly imaginative and breathtaking stories. This book is the author’s first work to be translated into English, and a team of seven translators dutifully did the translation work to help make this book available to English readers. Short stories that take you on trips to never before imagined worlds, this one is a must-read for sci-fi lovers. You can get the book here! 📖
10. Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
This book is steeped in magical realism and is about a seemingly ordinary-looking cafe that is anything but ordinary. There is an urban legend that says that this cafe has the ability to send people to the past. Then why is it not filled to the brim with customers? Because there is a big catch, there are many rules when it comes to time traveling, and not all of them are conducive to people looking forward to the thrill of traveling back in time. Only the ones who are truly desperate and have some unfinished business take it upon themselves to try to go back in time to visit their loved ones or find out what they supposedly missed.
But there are rules that these time travelers must follow to return to their own time without any harm; among these myriad rules is to ensure that the coffee does not get cold. This book was feel-good, with its moments of sadness and poignancy. This book has the potential to remain with the reader long after it has been read. And what is more, this series has two more sequels, so we do not have to say goodbye to the characters that have become dear to us. You can get the book here! 📖
These books are but a few examples of translated Japanese literature. Books by Japanese authors are a must-read for true book lovers as they have some of the best works of literature. These books have been ruling almost all genres in recent times, and there is a good reason for that, as you will find out once you start reading them. If you still need to sample the charms of Japanese books, feel free to try some (if not all of the books) listed in this article. You will not regret it!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)❓
Why are Japanese novels so popular?
Japanese literature is one of the most popular ones in the world. They capture the essence and intricacies of human nature so beautifully and write about it in a matter-of-fact manner that you cannot help but acquiesce.
What is Japanese light novel genre?
A Light Novel in Japan is similar to Young Adult (YA) novel. But they are usually shorter with some illustrations – making them easy to read overall.
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