These aren’t necessarily the “best” or most important Japanese novels, but they are my personal favorites. All ten together can give you a pretty good taste of what Japanese literature has to offer.
The Woman in the Dunes (1962) by Kobo Abe
Kobo Abe’s favorite writers include Franz Kafka and Edgar Allen Poe. It shows. The Woman in the Dunes is about an amateur etymologist who, alongside a mysterious widow, is thrown in a pit of sand. The two spend their days literally digging for their lives so the sand doesn’t bury them in their sleep. At the end of the novel, the reader is left wondering whether a 9-5 lifestyle is really any less futile.
Life for Sale (1968) by Yukio Mishima
A darkly comedic novel by one of modern Japan’s most important modern writers, Life for Sale is about a twenty-seven-year-old salaryman. After he botches his attempt at suicide, he advertises in the newspaper that his life is up for grabs. Buyer after buyer, the protagonist discovers that selling his life is more difficult than he thought. (Mishima is as controversial as he is important. Two years after he published Life for Sale, he took a hostage and tried to convince the Japan Self-Defense Forces to overturn Japan’s post-WWII Constitution. When he failed, he committed seppuku—ritual suicide.)
The Samurai (1980) by Shusaku Endo
Endo’s novel Silence is far better known in the West, especially after the 2016 film, but I prefer The Samurai. It’s based on the real-life story of a 17th-century diplomatic mission sent from Japan to Rome. Many of Endo’s stories take up the question whether East can really co-exist with West.
Hybrid Child (1990) by Mariko Ohara
Hybrid Child is hands down the strangest book on this list—a glimpse into the world of Japanese, feminist sci-fi. A (male) robot ingests the body of a young girl murdered by her mother and incorporates her spirit. Centuries later, Sample B #3 takes on a planet-running, maternal AI system who has gone insane. The novel is not to be confused with the one-shot manga, Hybrid Child by Shungiku Nakamura.
Out (1997) by Natsuo Kirino
Be warned that this novel is not for the faint of heart—or the weak of stomach. In this crime thriller, suburban housewives find themselves running a business disposing of bodies for the Japanese mafia. Although Kirino doesn’t like to be pegged as a feminist, Out certainly highlights the cultural and structural problems that hold women back in contemporary Japan.
In the Miso Soup (1997) by Ryu Murakami
“The Other Murakami” is a literary virtuoso in his own right. The protagonist of In the Miso Soup gives a tour of Tokyo’s red light district to a very odd American visitor. Gradually, the protagonist begins to suspect his client is actually a serial killer. Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a commentary on the “haves and have nots” in Japanese society as well as how the Japanese think about Americans. Like Out, In the Miso Soup contains scenes of graphic violence.
The Memory Police (1994) by Yoko Ogawa
Originally written in 1994, The Memory Police was only published in English in 2019. It is a dystopian novel with a premise that’s just plain creepy. Some unknown force is making residents of an unnamed island forget things—even themselves. The English translation was a 2019 National Book Award Finalist.
Kafka on the Shore (2002) by Haruki Murakami
At least outside of Japan, Murakami is probably the most famous Japanese author writing today. Some people suggest starting with his debut novel, Norwegian Wood, but I prefer Kafka on the Shore. A magical realist romp, the novel features an oedipal love triangle and talking cats. Be forewarned that many readers, English-speaking and Japanese-speaking, find Murakami inscrutable.
If Cats Disappeared from the World (2012) by Genki Kawamura
Genki Kawamura’s first novel, If Cats Disappeared from the World, sold more than two million copies in Japan. When the protagonist discovers he has only days to live, the Devil shows up to make him an offer: choose one thing to disappear for everyone in the world in exchange for an extra day of life. If you’re looking for a satisfying and uplifting Japanese novel, start here.
Convenience Store Woman (2016) by Sayaka Murata
The konbini is a ubiquitous part of Japanese life. Convenience Store Woman is about a thirty-six year old woman fights the societal norms that tell her she can’t keep working at a convenience store, a job she has loved for eighteen years. It’s a humorous look at the cult of success in modern Japan—a cult that probably looks familiar to many American readers.
Bonus: A Tale from the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Okay, I’m cheating here. A Tale for the Time Being is written in English by a Japanese-American-Canadian Zen Buddhist priest. As if that weren’t enough qualifications, Ruth Ozeki is also an expert on medieval Japanese literature like The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book, both of which show up in her writing. In A Tale for the Time Being, detritus that washes ashore in Canada in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukishima disaster creates a mystery across time and space.