31 Days of Listening for #JanuaryinJapan

A Tanuki as imagined by Utagawa Hiroshige

Just in time for #JanuaryinJapan. Get an overview of the history of Japanese literature in just 31 days of listening.

The texts mentioned on this list are in more-or-less chronological order by publication. Descriptions are adapted from episode descriptions.

Support Read Japanese Literature by buying your #JanuaryinJapan books through our Bookshop.org bookstore.


Read Japanese Literature’s very first episode covers The Kojiki. Gods having sex, founding of the imperial dynasty, and some of the origins of WWII. Plus thoughts on the role of women in early Japanese history.

The Uncanny Japan podcast presents “The Bamboo Cutter and the Moon Princess”, called Kaguya-hime in Japanese. It’s an old tale—one of the oldest recorded tales in Japanese—that some people believe talks about otherworldly visitors. (Uncanny Japan’s episode page includes a full transcript.)

New Book East Asia’s Tokurō Yamamoto interviews Joshua S. Mostow about his book, An Ise Monogatari Reader: Contexts and Receptions. Tales of Ise is one of the most important works of literature from ancient Japan.

Read Japanese Literature covers Japan’s oldest novel, The Tale of Genji. A hero who is a paragon of beauty with an extreme Oedipus complex.

More on Genji. A History of Japan podcast sets court politics aside to explore the life and work of Murasaki Shikibu, the eleventh-century lady-in-waiting who penned a work which is considered by many scholars to be the world’s first novel.

Read Japanese Literature takes a look at the great samurai epic The Tale of the Heike and the rise of the samurai class.

Read Japanese Literature talks about two central genres of Medieval Japanese literature—the warrior ballad and Noh drama. We’ll see two characters from The Tale of the Heike again, including the valiant female warrior Tomoe. This time, she’s a mournful ghost.

Enjoy the story of a vengeful would-be lover who turns into a 40-foot snake, a sharp-witted woman with criticisms of her husband’s equipment and a curmudgeonly Buddhist priest who learns to love poetry. Read Japanese Literature talks about setsuwa—medieval Japanese anecdotes.

Read Japanese Literature asks the important questions about literature in Edo Japan: How does “this fleeting world” become a name for the red-light district. What did reading look like in early Modern Japan? And how many dildos does a man need to pack for a trip to the Island of Women? (This episode is marked mature.)

New Books East Asia’s Jingyi Li interviews Glynne Walley about his translation of Eight Dogs. Kyokutei Bakin’s 19th-century samurai tale is one of the monuments of Japanese literature.

Read Japanese Literature talks about Ueda Akinari and his Tales of Moonlight and Rain, some of the most influential Japanese ghost stories ever written. A raging intellectual debate A supernatural party game And a friend just dying to keep his promises

The Japan Station podcast, takes up creepy apartments and Japanese ghosts with Japanese folklore expert, writer, and translator Zack Davisson.

History of Japan profiles one of the great Western interpreters of Japan: Lafcadio Hearn. How did some Anglo-Greek kid end up in Japan by way of New Orleans, and why do we still care about him today?

Uncanny Japan presents “The Dream of Akinosuke”,  Lafcadio Hearn’s translation of a sweet Japanese (originally Chinese) folktale. In it you’ll learn how insects can manipulate a person’s soul. (Uncanny Japan’s episode page includes a full transcript.)

In this episode, Read Japanese Literature looks at the Meiji Era of Japanese history and its literature. The shogunate is replaced. Japan looks outward to the West, inward toward itself. And a man named Natsume Soseki chronicles it all from the perspective of a stray cat.

Meiji at 150 talks with Dr. Melek Ortabasi about children’s literature in the Meiji Period and folklore themes in Japanese popular culture today.

Read Japanese Literature talks about women as they take up a prominent position in the story of Japanese literature for the first time in almost 1000 years. Special focus on Ichiyō Higuchi and her best-beloved story “Takekurabe”.

More on Ichiyo Higuchi. Japan Archives looks into her fascinating life, its hardships, and how she turned herself towards a career of writing. She creating exceptional pieces which are now considered great examples of writing from the Meiji Era.

The father of the Japanese short story shares his dark vision about what it means to be an artist. Read Japanese Literature takes a look at Japan in the 1910s and 1920s, the era of the Taisho Democracy and the heyday of Japan’s literary magazines and serial novels.

Read Japanese Literature talks about the I-Novel—the highest form of literature in Japan in the 1910s and 20s. Special focus on the life and work of Osamu Dazai, plus the question, “What does it take to get disqualified as a human being?”

Read Japanese Literature talks about the 1930s and 40s in Japan—fascism, WWII, and the American Occupation. How did 20 years of censorship shape Japanese literature? Also a closer look at the life and work of Akiyuki Nosaka.

Read Japanese Literature talks about the literature of change in the 1960s—how writers took on questions about what it meant to be Japanese in the post-war era and what was the continuing role of Japanese tradition. Includes special looks at Yukio Mishima and Kenzaburo Oe.

New Books East Asia’s Amanda Kennell interviews manga historian Ryan Holmberg. Holmberg recently translated Murasaki Yamada’s 1980s “feminist examination of the fraying of Japan’s suburban middle-class dreams”, Talk to My Back.

Read Japanese Literature talks about Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s and the work of Banana Yoshimoto. Runaway consumer spending. Everything kawaii. A Nobel laureate’s contempt. And a young author whose career challenged the publishing powers that be.

The bookclub podcast Books & Boba looks at Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel), a metaphysical coming-of-age story with talking cats, demon brand avatars, and lots of “icky sex”—their words.

Dr. Rebecca Copeland documents “unruly women” for Meiji at 150—from the goddess Izanami to activists and female writers of the Meiji and Taisho Eras, to contemporary writer Natuso Kirino.

Read Japanese Literature explains why there is such a wealth of contemporary books by Japanese women available in English. Special look at Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman, and the translation collective Strong Women, Soft Power.

The Japan Station Podcast talks to Allison Markin Powell about translating Japanese literature: challenges, fighting for credit, Strange Weather in Tokyo, and Lady Joker.

Books on Asia’s Amy Chavez meets up with Juliet Winters Carpenter to talk about her 70 or so translated works of Japanese literature including Shion Miura’s The Great Passage and Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel.

The Deep in Japan Podcast speaks with Motoyuki Shibata, premier translator and founder of the English-language literary journal Monkey. Monkey is one of the best sources of contemporary translated short stories.

More to listen to:

Asian Review of Books: The Asian Review of Books is the only dedicated pan-Asian book review publication. Widely quoted, referenced,  republished by leading publications in Asian and beyond and with an archive of more than two thousand book reviews, the ARB also features long-format essays by leading Asian writers and thinkers, excerpts from newly-published books and reviews of arts and culture. It provides an unparalleled forum for discussion of key contemporary issues by Asians for Asia and a vehicle of intellectual depth and breadth where leading thinkers can write on the books, arts and ideas of the day. A weekly podcast was added in 2021.

Books and Boba: Books & Boba is a book club and podcast dedicated to spotlighting books written by authors of Asian descent. Every month, hosts Marvin Yueh and Reera Yoo pick a book by an Asian or Asian American author to read and discuss on the podcast. In addition to book discussions, they also interview authors and cover publishing news, including book deals and new releases.

Books on Asia: Books on Asia is your guide to finding quality books on Japan and Asia. By offering thought-provoking content in the form of book excerpts, reviews, literary criticism, author interviews and a podcast, we hope to create an intelligent space for people to explore issues on Asia in-depth. 

Deep in Japan: The Deep in Japan Podcast provides rich and insightful interviews with people who have lived in Japan. The show seeks to get under the surface and explore Japan through the rich and variegated experiences of the people who know it best.

Japan Station Podcast: Discover Japan through conversations with fascinating people. Every episode, host Tony Vega is joined by a guest to talk about all aspects of Japan, including the Japanese language, history, Japanese pop culture, food, anime, manga, movies, music, comedy, the impact of Japanese culture around the world, underground social movements, social issues in Japan, and much more.

The History of Japan Podcast: For over a decade, Isaac Meyer has been podcasting about Japanese history. The History of Japan Podcast takes listeners from prehistory to the present day.

Meiji at 150: In the Meiji at 150 Podcast, host Tristan Grunow (UBC) interviews specialists of Japanese history, literature, art, and culture.  Topics covered will range from the position of the Meiji Restoration and Meiji Period in each scholar’s research, to how they view the significance of the Restoration in Japanese and global history, and finally to how they teach the Meiji Period in their classrooms.

  • Episode 6—Dr. Christina Yi: Dr. Yi reads the Meiji Period from the perspective of literary studies and discusses the impacts of the Meiji Restoration on writers in Japan, especially Korean and Korean-Japanese writers composing literature in Japanese.
  • Episode 20—Dr. Jack Jacobowitz: Dr Jacobowitz (Yale) chronicles internal sources for Meiji Period developments in Japanese literary practices and techniques, placing Japan in dialogue with global trends and world history.
  • Episode 56—Dr. Indra Levy: Dr. Indra Levy underlines the importance of translation in Meiji-period transformations in Japanese language, literature, and culture. 
  • Episode 71—Dr. Michael Dylan Foster: Dr. Foster guides us into the realm of yōkai, or supernatural spirits and monsters, as an introduction to the study of Japanese folklore.
  • Episode 87—Dr. Deborah Shamoon: Dr. Deborah Shamoon redraws depictions of the shōjo, or adolescent women, in Japanese cultural production in the Meiji and Taishō period, drawing connections between literature and new understandings of adolescent women’s roles in society.

New Books—East Asian Studies: New Books in East Asian Studies and New Books Japan Studies are author-interview podcast channels in the New Books Network.

Read Japanese Literature: Read Japanese Literature is a podcast about Japanese literature and some of its best works.

  • Episode 16—Writing about Japan’s “Have-Nots”: Post-bubble Japan. The history of socially-conscious Japanese literature. And Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, a powerful examination of Tokyo by one of the most invisible people imaginable—the ghost of a homeless day laborer.
  • Episode 17—The Smile of the Mountain Witch: Is she a man-eating crone? Is she a lonely wanderer? Or is she a sensual matriarch? However you define her, she’s the yama-ubaJapan’s legendary mountain witch.
  • Episode 18—Cats in Japanese Literature: Today, we’re going to look at cats in Japanese literature. We’ll start with the history of cats in Japan. We’ll move on to cats in Japanese folklore and fiction, including the work of Haruki Murakami. And finally we’ll end with a discussion of our readers’ choice, “The Town of Cats” by Sakutaro Hagiwara.

Uncanny Japan: Uncanny Japan is the brainchild of author Thersa Matsuura. Thersa has lived over half her life in Small Town, Japan, first arriving back in 1990 to study at the University of Shizuoka for two years. Her fluency in the language as well as her immersion in the culture allow her to do quite a bit of research for her books and stories. She is especially passionate about strange legends, unfamiliar folktales, curious superstitions, and all those obscure aspects of the culture that aren’t generally known. As a way to more widely share these fun and fascinating facts, Thersa started the Uncanny Japan Podcast back in 2017.

2023 Upcoming Japanese Fiction Releases

“Woman Reading a Letter” by Utamaro (c. 1750-1806)

Listed released dates listed are tentative. Descriptions are excerpted from book sellers’ or publishers’ websites. Translators are listed unless I wasn’t able to find information.

Things change quickly in the publishing industry. I’ve made my best attempt to be comprehensive. Please contact me if I have missed any titles.

Thank you to the Goodreads Japanese Literature Group for pooling information.

See a list of all new releases available to order or preorder at RJL’s Bookshop.

Upcoming Releases

Days at the Morisaki Bookshop by Satoshi Yagisawa

Translated by Eric Ozawa

(North American and European releases expected summer 2023)

The Devil’s Flute Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

Translated by Jim Rion

(North American and European releases expected summer 2023)

“This classic from the golden age of crime presents a mind-bending Japanese mystery from the great Seishi Yokomizo, whose fictional detective Kosuke Kindaichi is a pop culture phenomenon akin to Sherlock Holmes. This time the beloved scruffy sleuth Kosuke Kindaichi investigates a series of gruesome murders within the feuding family of a brooding, troubled composer, whose most famous work chills the blood of all who hear it…”

The End of August by Yu Miri

Translated by Morgan Giles

(North American and European releases expected late summer 2023)

“In 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, Lee Woo-cheol was a running prodigy and a contender for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. But he would have had to run under the Japanese flag. Nearly a century later, his granddaughter is living in Japan and training to run a marathon herself. She summons Korean shamans to hold an intense, transcendent ritual to connect with Lee Woo-cheol. When his ghost appears, alongside those of his brother Lee Woo-Gun, and their young neighbor, who was forced to become a comfort woman to Japanese soldiers stationed in China during World War II, she must uncover their stories to free their souls…”

The Final Curtain by Keigo Higashino

Translated by Giles Murray

(North American and European releases expected early winter 2023)

A Detective Kaga novel

The Flowers of Buffoonery by Osamu Dazai

Translated by Sam Bett

(North American and European releases expected late summer 2023)

The Flowers of Buffoonery opens in a seaside sanitarium where Yozo Oba—the narrator of No Longer Human at a younger age—is being kept after a failed suicide attempt. While he is convalescing, his friends and family visit him, and other patients and nurses drift in and out of his room. Against this dispiriting backdrop, everyone tries to maintain a lighthearted, even clownish atmosphere: playing cards, smoking cigarettes, vying for attention, cracking jokes, and trying to make each other laugh…”

The Forest Brims Over by Ayase Maru

Translated by Hadyn Trowell

(North American and European releases expected summer 2023)

“A woman turns herself into a forest after long being co-opted to serve as the subject of her husband’s novels–this surrealist fable challenges traditional gender attitudes and exploitation in the literary world…”

Hit Parade of Tears by Izumi Suzuki

Translated by Daniel Joseph, Sam Bett, and David Boyd

(North American and European releases spring 2023)

“Izumi Suzuki had ideas about doing things differently, ideas that paid little attention to the laws of physics, or the laws of the land. In this new collection, her skewed imagination distorts and enhances some of the classic concepts of science fiction and fantasy…”

Honeybees and Distant Thunder by Ondo Riku

Translated by Philip Gabriel

(North American and European releases expected spring 2023)

“In a small coastal town just a stone’s throw from Tokyo, a prestigious piano competition is underway. Over the course of two feverish weeks, three students will experience some of the most joyous—and painful—moments of their lives. Though they don’t know it yet, each will profoundly and unpredictably change the others, for ever…”

I Guess All We Have Is Freedom by Genpai Akasegawa

Translated by Matthew Fargo

(North American release expected spring 2023)

“In these stories, ostensibly quiet tales of a single dad in 1970s Tokyo, a doorknob practices radical politics, a peeled tomato smarts in pain, raw oysters tick like time bombs and gravestones provide a critique of capitalism…”

Kappa by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Translated by Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda and Allison Markin Powell

(North American release expected summer 2023)

“Akutagawa’s Kappa is narrated by Patient No. 23, a madman in a lunatic asylum: he recounts how, while out hiking in Kamikochi, he spots a Kappa. He decides to chase it and, like Alice pursuing the White Rabbit, he tumbles down a hole, out of the human world and into the realm of the Kappas…”

Last Chance to Say Goodbye by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Translated by Geoffrey Trousselot

(North American and European releases expected fall 2023)

“The latest novel in the international bestselling Before the Coffee Gets Cold Series, following four new customers in a little Tokyo café where customers can travel back in time.”

Love at Six Thousand Degrees by Maki Kashimada

Translated by Hadyn Trowell

(North American and European releases expected spring 2023)

“An ordinary housewife finds herself haunted by visions of a mushroom cloud and abruptly leaves her husband and son to travel alone to the city of Nagasaki, where she soon begins an affair with a young half-Russian, half-Japanese man…”

Marshland by Otohiko Kaga

Translated by Albert Novick

(North American and European releases expected early summer 2023)

“An epic novel on a Tolstoyan scale, running from the pre-World War II period to the turbulence of 1960s Japan. At forty-nine, Atsuo Yukimori is a humble auto mechanic living an almost penitentially quiet life in Tokyo, where his coworkers know something of his military record but nothing of his postwar past as a petty criminal. Out of curiosity he accompanies his nephew to a demonstration at a nearby university, and is gradually drawn into a friendship, then a romance, with Wakako Ikéhata, the brilliant but mentally unstable daughter of a university professor. As some of the student radical groups turn to violence and terrorism, Atsuo and Wakako find themselves framed for the lethal bombing of a Tokyo train….”

The Meiji Guillotine Murders by Futaro Yamada

(European release expected winter 2023)

“Japan, 1869. A time of reform and rebellion. Detectives Kazuki and Kawaji are assigned to investigate a series of seemingly impossible murders. Together with the help of a mysterious shrine maiden, can they solve each gruesome death and piece together the dark connection between them? ….”

Mild Vertigo by Mieko Kanai

Translated by Polly Barton

(North American and European releases summer 2023)

“Housewife Natsumi leads a small, unremarkable life in a modern Tokyo apartment with her husband and two sons: she does the laundry, goes on trips to the supermarket, exchanges gossip with neighbours. Tracing the conversations and interactions she has with her family and friends as they blend seamlessly into her internal monologue, Mild Vertigo explores the dizzying inability to locate oneself in the endless stream of minutiae that make up a life confined to the home, where both everything and nothing happens.”

The Mill House Murders by Ayatsuji Yukito

Translated by Ho-Ling Wong

(European release expected late winter 2023; North American release expected spring 2023)

“As they do every year, a small group of acquaintances pay a visit to the remote, castle-like Water Mill House, home to the reclusive Fujinuma Kiichi, son of a famous artist, who has lived his life behind a rubber mask ever since a disfiguring car accident.

This year, however, the visit is disrupted by an impossible disappearance, the theft of a painting and a series of baffling murders…”

Nails and Eyes by Kaori Fujino

Translated by Kendall Heitzman

(North American and European releases expected fall 2023)

“A young girl addresses her stepmother, who has moved in shortly after her mother’s death in unusual circumstances. The girl shows strangely detailed knowledge of the older woman’s life, and as her stepmother settles into the house, the girl’s obsession sharpens to an ever finer point…”

Nipponia Nippon by Kazushige Abe

Translated by Kerim Yasar

(North American and European releases expected fall 2023)

“Isolated in his Tokyo apartment, 17-year-old Haruo spends all his time online, researching the plight of the endangered Japanese crested ibis, Nipponia Nippon… His conclusion is simple: it is his destiny to free the birds from a society that does not appreciate them, by whatever means necessary. With his emotional state becoming ever more erratic, he begins sourcing weapons and preparing for a reckoning in this darkly ironic study of toxic masculinity…”

The North Light by Hideo Yokoyama

Translated by Louise Heal Kawai

(European release expected fall 2023)

“Minoru Aose is an architect whose greatest achievement is to have designed the Yoshino house, a prizewinning and much discussed private residence built in the shadow of Mount Asama. Aose has never been able to replicate this triumph and his career seems to have hit a barrier, while his marriage has failed. He is shocked to learn that the Yoshino House is empty apart from a single chair, stood facing the north light of nearby Mount Asama…”

People Who Talk to Stuffed Animals Are Nice by Ao Omae

Translated by Emily Balistrieri

(North American and European releases expected summer 2023)

“Composed of the title novella and three short stories, People Who Talk to Stuffed Animals Are Nice sensitively explores gender, friendship, romance, love, human interaction and its absence, and how a misogynistic society limits women and men…”

The Rainbow by Yasunari Kawabata

Translated by Hadyn Trowell

(North American and European releases expected spring 2023)

“With the Second World War only a few years in the past, and Japan still reeling from its effects, two sisters—born to the same father but different mothers—struggle to make sense of the new world in which they are coming of age…”

The Rope Artist by Fuminori Nakamura

Translated by Sam Bett

(North American and European releases expected late spring 2023)

“Two detectives. Two identical women. One dead body—rapidly becoming two, then three, then four. All knotted up in Japan’s underground BDSM scene and kinbaku, a form of rope bondage which bears a complex cultural history of spirituality, torture, cleansing, and sacrifice…”

The Siren’s Lament: Essential Stories by Junichiro Tanizaki

Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

(North American and European releases expected fall 2023)

“These three short stories, in a gorgeous new translation by Bryan Karetnyk, distill the essence of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s shorter fiction: the co-mingling of Japanese and Chinese mythologies, the chillingly dark side of desire and the paper-thin line between the sublime and the depraved…”

Sunrise: Radiant Stories by Erika Kobayashi

Translated by Brian Bergstrom

(North American and European releases expected fall 2023)

Sunrise is a collection of interconnected stories continuing Erika Kobayashi’s examination of the effects of nuclear power on generations of women. Connecting changes to everyday life to the development of the atomic bomb, Sunrise shows us how the discovery of radioactive power has shaped our history and continues to shape our future…”

Tatami Time Machine Blues by Tomihiko Morimi

Translated by Emily Balistrieri

(North American and European releases expected fall 2023)

“In the boiling heat of summer, a broken remote control for an air conditioner threatens life as we know it in this reality-bending, time-slipping sequel to The Tatami Galaxy.

This Is Amiko by Natsuko Imamura

Translated by Hitomi Yoshio

(European release expected fall 2023)

The Thorn Puller by Hiromi Ito

Translated by Jeffrey Angles

(North American release in December 2022; European release expected early 2023)

“The first novel to appear in English by award-winning author Hiromi Ito explores the absurdities, complexities, and challenges experienced by a woman caring for her two families: her husband and daughters in California and her aging parents in Japan…”

What You Are Looking for Is In the Library by Michiko Aoyama

Translated by Alison Watts

(European release expected fall 2023)

“‘What are you looking for?’ asks Tokyo’s most enigmatic librarian, Sayuri Komachi. But Komachi is no ordinary librarian. Naturally, she reads every book on her shelf, but she also has the unique ability to read the souls of anyone who walks through her door. Sensing exactly what they’re looking for in life, she provides just the book recommendation they never knew they needed to help them find it…”


Read about Japanese books in English translation published in 2022.

31 Days of Listening and Watching for Women in Translation Month

“A woman looking over the shoulder of a young man who is smoking a pipe and reading a book” by Utamaro (via Picryl)

Just in time for August and Women in Translation Month, here’s a list of resources about Japanese women writers for listening and watching.

The texts mentioned on this list are in more-or-less chronological order by publication. Descriptions are adapted from episode descriptions.

Support Read Japanese Literature by buying your #witmonth books through our Bookshop.org bookstore.


Historian Isaac Meyer talks about Ono no Komachi, a mysterious poet from the 800s whose poems were used to construct a fictional persona entirely separate from who she actually was.

Historian Isaac Meyer talks about the social position of women in the Heian Era, especially the story of one “particularly badass woman”: the poet and “femme fatale” Izumi Shikibu.

Read Japanese Literature covers Japan’s oldest novel, The Tale of Genji. A hero who is a paragon of beauty with an extreme Oedipus complex.

More about Murasaki Shikibu from historian Isaac Meyer. Why do we know so little about who she was? What inspired her to write Genji? Why does he dislike her work so viscerally? And how did it become so famous?

On the New Books East Asia podcast Jingyi Li talks to Dr. Takeshi Watanabe about A Tale of Flowering Fortunes, which covers about 150 years of births, deaths, & happenings in late Heian society. Dr. Watanabe the book is an exorcism of embittered spirits whose stories needed to be retold to ensure peace.

Historian Isaac Meyer covers the fascinating tale of Sei Shonagon and the Makura no Soushi, or Pillow Book. Why is a collection of anecdotes considered to be one of Japan’s greatest literary classics?

On the New Books East Asia podcast Carla Nappi talks to Dr. Christina Laffin about Nun Abutsu, a 13th-century poet, scholar, teacher, and prolific writer. Laffin’s book is Rewriting Medieval Japanese Women: Politics, Personality, and Literary Production in the Life of Nun Abutsu.

Historian Isaac Meyer covers the life and career of Tokugawa-era poet Kaga no Chiyo, a shopkeeper’s daughter-turned-nun-turned-haiku master.

On the Books on Asia podcast, Dr. Judith Pascoe discusses the popularity of Emily Brontë in Japan.

Read Japanese Literature covers Ichiyo Higuchi and Meiji Women writers.

More about Ichiyo Higuchi from historian Isaac Meyer. Meyer talks about her story, her writing, her legacy, and her tragically short career.

Meiji at 150 hosts Dr. Deborah Shamoon on shōjo (adolescent women) in the Meiji and Taishō period, including the work of Miyake Kaho and Misora Hibari.

On the Books on Asia podcast, Drs. Rebecca Copeland and Linda Ehrlich talk about their anthology Yamamba: In Search of the Japanese Mountain Witch, including author Minako Oba‘s story “Smile of the Mountain Witch”.

The Japan Foundation of New York’s Literary Series hosts author Yoko Ogawa and translator Stephen Snyder discussing the novel The Memory Police.

Books and Bao discusses An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. An I-Novel is regarded as the first bilingual novel: a book that blends memoir and fiction, tracing the life of a Japanese writer growing up in New York City.

The Japan Foundation of New York’s Literary Series hosts author Sachiko Kashiwaba and translator Avery Fischer Udagawa discussing Temple Alley Summer—a magnificent middle grade novel about the power of stories.

The Japan Foundation of New York’s Literary Series hosts author Yu Miri and translator Morgan Giles discussing the novel Tokyo Ueno Station, which won the 2020 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

The Japan Foundation New York’s Literary Series hosts author Hiroko Oyamada and translator David Boyd discussing the novel The Hole.

Books and Boba discusses Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by by Ginny Tapley Takemori. A short novel about woman who finds it hard to interact with people, who finds contentment in the routines of working at a convenience store.

The Japan Foundation of New York’s Literary Series hosts author Aoko Matsuda and translator Polly Barton discussing Where the Wild Ladies Are, Japanese folk stories retold as feminist fables.

More about Aoko Matsuda from the National Centre for Writing. Translator Polly Barton and Voices from Japan host a 2-part conversation about “one of Japan’s most promising young writers”.

Books and Bao discusses Solo Dance by Li Kotomi, translated by Arthur Reiji Morris. Willow Heath describes, “A beautiful and difficult novel about depression, queerness, trauma, and fear.”

The Japan Foundation of New York’s Literary Series hosts author Sayaka Murata and translator Ginny Tapley Takemori discussing the novel Earthlings.

More about Sayaka Murata, “the queen of punk literature”, from Books and Bao.

Books and Bao discusses The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura, translated by Lucy North. Willow Heath describes, “a Japanese novel that explores our relationships to one another as strangers, as well as the relationship between character, narrator, and reader.”

The Japan Foundation of New York’s Literary Series hosts author Kyoko Nakajima and translators Ian McDonald and Ginny Tapley Takemori discussing the short story collection Things Remembered and Things Forgotten.

Books and Bao on The Easy Life in Kamusari by Shion Miura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, “a relaxing and satisfying coming-of-age Japanese novel” and “a perfect rainy day read on a chill Sunday afternoon.”

Meiji at 150 hosts Dr. Rebecca Copeland discussing “unruly women”: the goddess Izanami, popular activists and female writers in the Meiji and Taishō Periods, and contemporary writer Kirino Natsuo.

The Japan Station podcast and translator Allison Markin Powell discuss the story of Shiori Ito and her book Black Box: The Memoir That Sparked Japan’s #MeToo Movement.

Special thank you to people and organizations that work so hard to make these resources available:

Audiobooks of Japanese Literature in Translation

Kobo Abe

Hiro Arikawa

Yukito Ayatsuji

Chesil

  • The Color of the Sky Is the Shape of My Heart
    • Translated by Takami Nieda
    • Narrated by Greta Jung

Osamu Dazai

Shusaku Endo

  • Deep River
    • Translated by Van C. Gessel
    • Narrated by David Holt
  • The Samurai
    • Translated by Van C. Gessel
    • Narrated by David Holt
  • Silence
    • Translated by William Johnston
    • Narrated by David Holt

Seishu Hase

Keigo Higashino

Keiichiro Hirano

  • At the End of the Matinee
    • Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii
  • A Man
    • Translated by Eli K. P. William
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii

Tomoyuki Hoshino

  • ME
    • Translated by Charles de Wolf
    • Narrated by David Shih

Natsuko Imamura

Kotaro Isaka

Kazuki Kaneshiro

  • Go
    • Translated by Takami Nieda
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii

Yasunari Kawabata

  • Beauty and Sadness
    • Translated by Howard Hibbett
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii
  • Snow Country
    • Translated by Edward Seidensticker
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii
  • The Rainbow (also Beyond the Rainbow) (expected summer 2023)
    • Translated by Haydn Trowell
    • Narrator TBD
  • Thousand Cranes
    • Translated by Edward Seidensticker
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii

Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Hiromi Kawakami

  • The Nakano Thrift Shop
    • Translated by Allison Markin Powell
    • Narrated by Alexandra Bailey
  • Strange Weather in Tokyo
    • Translated by Allison Markin Powell
    • Narrated by Allison Hiroto
  • The Ten Loves of Nishino
    • Translated by Allison Markin Powell
    • Narrated by Cindy Kay

Mieko Kawakami

Genki Kawamura

Erika Kobayashi

Aoko Matsuda

Kanae Minato

  • Confessions
    • Translated by Stephen Snyder
    • Narrated by Elaina Erika Davis and Noah Galvin
  • Penance
    • Translated by Stephen Snyder
    • Narrated by Karissa Vacker

Tomihiko Morimi

Yukio Mishima

  • Life for Sale
    • Translated by Stephen Dodd
    • Narrated by Kotaro Watanabe
  • The Sailor Who Feel from Grace with the Sea
    • Translated by John Nathan
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii
  • Spring Snow
    • Translated by Michael Gallagher
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii
  • The Sound of Waves
    • Translated by Meredith Weatherby
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii
  • The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
    • Translated by Ivan Morris
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii

Shion Miura

  • The Easy Life in Kamusari (Forest #1)
    • Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii
  • The Great Passage
    • Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii
  • Kamusari Tales Told at Night (Forest #2)
    • Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii

Minae Mizumura

  • An Inheritance from Mother
    • Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
    • Narrated by Allison Hiroto

Eto Mori

  • Colorful
    • Translated by Jocelynne Allen
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii

Yukiko Motoya

Haruki Murakami

Ryu Murakami

  • Audition
    • Translated by Ralph McCarthy
    • Narrated by David Shih

Sayaka Murata

Fuminori Nakamura

  • The Boy in the Earth
    • Translated by Allison Markin Powell
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii
  • Cult X
    • Translated by Kalau Almony
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii
  • Evil and the Mask
    • Translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates
    • Narrated by Kirby Heyborne
  • The Gun
    • Translated by Allison Markin Powell
    • Narrated Brian Nishii
  • The Kingdom
    • Translated by Kalau Almony
    • Narrated by Lucie Kondo
  • Last Winter, We Parted
    • Translated by Allison Markin Powell
    • Narrated by Feodor Chin, Richard Powers, and P. J. Ochlan
  • My Annihilation
    • Translated by Sam Bett
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii
  • The Thief
    • Translated by Satoko Izumo
    • Narrated by Charlie Thurston

Sosuke Natsukawa

  • The Cat Who Saved Books
    • Translated by Louise Heal Kawai
    • Narrated by Kevin Shen

Kirino Natsuo

  • Out
    • Translated by Rebecca Copleand
    • Translated by Emily Woo Zeller

Kenzaburo Oe

  • Death by Water
    • Translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm
    • Narrated by Paul Boehmer
  • Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids
    • Translated by Maki Sugiyama and Paul St. Mackintosh
    • Narrated by Edoardo Ballerini
  • A Personal Matter
    • Translated by John Nathan
    • Narrated by Eric Michael Summerer

Mimei Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa

Hiroko Oyamada

  • The Hole
    • Translated by David Boyd
    • Narrated by Brianna Ishibashi

Makoto Shinkai

  • She and Her Cat (co-written by Naruki Nagakawa)
    • Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
    • Narrated by Winson Ting, Julia Strowski, Jacqui Bardelang, Hana Teraie-Wood, Nile Farue-Bryan

Natsume Soseki

Durian Sukegawa

Kaoru Takamura

  • Lady Joker, Vol. 1
    • Translated by Marie Iida and Allison Markin Powell
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii
  • Lady Joker, Vol. 2
    • Translated by Marie Iida and Allison Markin Powell
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii

Yoko Tawada

Kikuo Tsumura

Rin Usami

Emi Yagi

Seishi Yokomizo

  • Death on Gokumon Island
    • Translated by Louise Heal Kawai
    • Narrated by Akira Matsumoto
  • The Honjin Murders
    • Translated by Louise Heal Kawai
    • Narrated by Akira Matsumoto
  • The Inugami Curse (Honjin Murders #2)
    • Translated by Louise Heal Kawai
    • Narrated by Akira Matsumoto
  • The Village of Eight Graves (Honjin Murders #3)
    • Translated by Louise Heal Kawai
    • Narrated by Akira Matsumoto

Banana Yoshimoto

Eiji Yoshikawa

  • Musashi
    • Translated by Charles S. Terry
    • Narrated by Brian Nishii

Genzaburo Yoshino

Miri Yu

Support this podcast by buying your audiobooks through Libro.fm, an audiobook seller supporting local, independent bookstores. Titles without links aren’t available on Libro.fm. Read Japanese Literature believes single-platform audiobooks limit readers’ choices.

2022 Japanese Fiction Releases

“Woman Reading a Book on a Sofa” by Yumeji Takehisa via Wikimedia Commons

Please contact me if I have missed any titles.

Thank you to the Goodreads Japanese Literature Group for pooling information.

All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami

Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd

“Fuyuko Irie is a freelance copy editor in her mid-thirties. Working and living alone in a city where it is not easy to form new relationships, she has little regular contact with anyone other than her editor, Hijiri, a woman of the same age but with a very different disposition…”

Read my review of All the Lovers in the Night.

Read more about the work of Mieko Kawakami:

At the Edge of the Woods by Masatsugu Ono

Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

“In an unnamed foreign country, a family of three is settling into a house at the edge of the woods. But something is off. A sound, at first like coughing and then like laughter, emanates from the nearby forest. Fantastical creatures, it is said, live out there in a castle where feudal lords reigned and Resistance fighters fell…”

Read my review of At the Edge of the Woods

3 Streets by Yoko Tawada

Translated by Margaret Mitsutani

“The always astonishing Yoko Tawada here takes a walk on the supernatural side of the street” in three stories.

Beautiful Star by Yukio Mishima

Translated by Stephen Dodd

“The Osugi family have come to a realisation. Each of them hails from a different planet. Father from Mars, mother from Jupiter, son from Mercury and daughter from Venus. Already seen as oddballs in their small Japanese town in the 1960s, this extra-terrestrial knowledge brings them closer together; they climb mountains to wait for UFOs, study at home together, and regard their human neighbours with a kindly benevolence…”

*This book has no scheduled US release date.

Learn more about the work of Yukio Mishima:

Before Your Memory Fades by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Translated by Geoffrey Trousselot

“The latest novel in the international bestselling Before the Coffee Gets Cold Series, following four new customers in a little Tokyo café where customers can travel back in time.”

Read more about Before the Coffee Gets Cold.

The Boy and the Dog by Seishu Hase

Translated by Alison Watts

“One dog changes the life of everyone who takes him in on his journey to reunite with his first owner in this inspiring tribute to the bond between humans and dogs and the life-affirming power of connection.”

Read my review of The Boy and the Dog.

The Color of the Sky Is the Shape of the Heart by Chesil

Translated by Takami Nieda

“Now in translation for the first time, the award-winning debut that broke literary ground in Japan explores diaspora, prejudice, and the complexities of a teen girl’s experience growing up as a Zainichi Korean, reminiscent of Min Jin Lee’s classic Pachinko and Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street…”

Dead-End Memories by Banana Yoshimoto

Translated by Asa Yoneda

“First published in Japan in 2003 and never-before-published in the United States, Dead-End Memories collects the stories of five women who, following sudden and painful events, quietly discover their ways back to recovery.”

Read my review of Dead-End Memories.

Death in Tokyo by Keigo Higashino

Translated by Giles Murray (winter 2022)

“Tokyo Police Detective Kaga finds himself forced to try and makes sense of a most unusual murder…”

A Detective Kaga novel

Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo

Translated by Louise Heal Kawai

“Kosuke Kindaichi arrives on the remote Gokumon Island bearing tragic news–the son of one of the island’s most important families has died, on a troop transport ship bringing him back home after the Second World War. But Kindaichi has not come merely as a messenger–with his last words, the dying man warned that his three step-sisters’ lives would now be in danger…”

A Detective Kosuke Kindaichi novel

Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi

Translated by David Boyd and Lucy North

“A prizewinning, thrillingly subversive debut novel about a woman in Japan who avoids harassment at work by perpetuating, for nine months and beyond, the lie that she’s pregnant…”

Read my review of Diary of a Void.

Early Light by Osamu Dazai

Translated by Donald Keene and Ralph McCarthy

Early Light offers three very different aspects of Osamu Dazai’s genius…”

Listen to RJL Episode 11: The I-Novel, Osamu Dazai, and No Longer Human.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda

Translated by Alison Watts

“Set in a Tokyo flat over the course of one night, Aki and Hiro spend one last night together before going their separate ways. Each believes the other to be a murderer and is determined to extract a confession before the night is over. Who has been killed and why? Which one is the killer?”

Idol, Burning by Rin Usami

Translated by Asa Yoneda

“A blistering novel of fame, disconnection, obsession, and disillusion by a young writer not much older than the novel’s heroine, Idol, Burning shines a white-hot spotlight on fandom and ‘stan’ culture, the money-making schemes of the pop idol industry, the seductive power of social media, and the powerful emotional void that opens when an idol falls from grace, only to become a real—and very flawed—person.”

Kamusari Tales Told at Night by Shion Miura

Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

“It’s been a year since Yuki Hirano left home—or more precisely, was booted from it—to study forestry in the remote mountain village of Kamusari. Being a woodsman is not the future he imagined, but his name means “courage,” and Yuki hopes to live up to it…”

A sequel to The Easy Life in Kamusari. Read my review of The Easy Life in Kamusari.

Lady Joker, Volume 2 by Kaoru Takamura

Translated by Allison Markin Powell and Marie Iida

“Inspired by the real-life Glico-Morinaga kidnapping, an unsolved case which terrorized Japan for two years, Lady Joker reimagines the circumstances of this watershed episode in modern Japanese history and brings into riveting focus the lives and motivations of the victims, the perpetrators, the heroes and the villains…”

A sequel to Lady Joker, Volume 1

Life Ceremony: Stories by Sayaka Murata

Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

“The long-awaited first short story-collection by the author of the cult sensation Convenience Store Woman, tales of weird love, heartfelt friendships, and the unsettling nature of human existence…”

Read more about the work of Sayaka Murata:

Read my review of Life Ceremony.

Translated by Anthony Chambers and Paul McCarthy

“Junichiro Tanizaki is one of the most prominent Japanese writers of the twentieth century, renowned for his investigations of family dynamics, eroticism, and cultural identity. Most acclaimed for his postwar novels such as The Makioka Sisters and The Key, Tanizaki made his literary debut in 1910. This book presents three powerful stories of family life from the first decade of Tanizaki’s career that foreshadow the themes the great writer would go on to explore…”

Read my review of Longing and Other Stories.

My Annihilation by Fuminori Nakamura

Translated by Sam Bett

“With My Annihilation, Fuminori Nakamura, master of literary noir, has constructed a puzzle box of a narrative in the form of a confessional diary that implicates its reader in a heinous crime…”

Rip It Up by Kou Machida

Translated by Daniel Joseph

“Set in a kaleidoscopic hyperreal Japan circa Y2K, Rip It Up catalogues the misdeeds and misgivings of a down-and-out wannabe debonair who ekes out a meager living at the fringes of the art world, wracked by jealousy at his friend’s success and despondency of his own creative (and moral) bankruptcy.”

Read my review of Rip It Up.

Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada

Translated by Margaret Mitsutani

“Welcome to the not-too-distant future: Japan, having vanished from the face of the earth, is now remembered as “the land of sushi.” Hiruko, its former citizen and a climate refugee herself, has a job teaching immigrant children in Denmark with her invented language Panska (Pan-Scandinavian)…”

Read my review of Scattered All Over the Earth.

The Shining Sea by Koji Suzuki

Translated by Brian Bergstrom

“A young woman who attempted suicide by drowning has lost her memory and ability to speak. Her lover, a young man, is on a pelagic tuna fishing boat. What happened between them…?”

Six Short Stories: The Early Works of Osamu Dazai by Osamu Dazai

Translated by Michael and Shizuka Blaskowsky, et al.

“With most stories translated into English for the first time, the book gives you a rare glimpse into the complex psyche of the nascent novelist on his way to becoming one of the most celebrated writers Japan has ever had.”

*This volume is only available on Kindle.

She and Her Cat by Makoto Shinkai and Haruki Nagakawa

Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

“Lying alone on the edge of the sidewalk in an abandoned cardboard box, a nameless narrator contemplates the indifferent world around him. With his mother long gone, his only company is the sound of the nearby train. Just as he fears that the end is near, a young woman peers down at him, this fateful encounter changing their lives forever.”

Solo Dance by Li Kotomi

Translated by Arthur Reiji Morris

“Cho Norie, twenty-seven and originally from Taiwan, is working an office job in Tokyo. While her colleagues worry about the economy, life-insurance policies, marriage, and children, she is forced to keep her unconventional life hidden―including her sexuality and the violent attack that prompted her move to Japan…”

Read my review of Solo Dance.

Summer of Strangers and Other Stories by Masao Yamakawa

Translated by J. D. Wisgo

“‘Summer of Strangers’ is a collection of Yamakawa’s works selected around the theme of life difficulties, the first collection of this author’s stories available in English. A secondary theme is the season of summer, an important element in several of these works.”

The Tatami Galaxy by Tomohiko Morimi

Translated by Emily Balistrieri

“The inspiration behind the much-loved anime series, Tomihiko Morimi’s contemporary classic is a fantastic journey through time and space, where a half-eaten castella cake, a photograph from Rome, and a giant cavity in a wisdom tooth hold the keys to self-discovery. A time-traveling romp that speaks to everyone who has wondered what if, The Tatami Galaxy will win readers’ hearts over… and over… and over again.”

Read more about the work of Tomohiko Morimi:

Three Assassins by Kotaro Isaka

Translated by Sam Malissa

“Their mission is murder. His is revenge. Suzuki is just an ordinary man until his wife is murdered. When he discovers the criminal gang responsible he leaves behind his life as a maths teacher and joins them, looking for a chance to take his revenge…”

Tokyo Express by Seicho Matsumoto

Translated by Jesse Kirkwood

“In a rocky cove in the bay of Hakata, the bodies of a young and beautiful couple are discovered. Stood in the coast’s wind and cold, the police see nothing to investigate: the flush of the couple’s cheeks speaks clearly of cyanide, of a lovers’ suicide…”

*This book has no scheduled US release date.

The Thorn Puller by Hiromi Ito

Translated by Jeffrey Angles (winter 2022)

“The first novel to appear in English by award-winning author Hiromi Ito explores the absurdities, complexities, and challenges experienced by a woman caring for her two families: her husband and daughters in California and her aging parents in Japan…”

Tower of the Sun by Tomohiko Morimi

Translated by Stephen Kohler

“One young man’s barren college life changes forever when he shares a budding romance with a girl named Mizuo…only for it to all come crashing down when she has the gall to dump him! With the specter of a solitary Christmas Eve looming, he tears through the streets of Kyoto with just his powerful (some might say delusional) imagination to protect him from the cruel world at large.”

Trinity, Trinity, Trinity by Erika Kobayashi

Translated by Brian Bergstrom

“Nine years after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, Japan is preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. An unnamed narrator wakes up in a cold, sterile room, unable to recall her past. Across the country, the elderly begin to hear voices emanating from black stones, compelling them to behave in strange and unpredictable ways. The voices are a symptom of a disease called ‘Trinity’…”

Read my review of Trinity, Trinity, Trinity.

Weasels in the Attic by Hiroko Oyamada

Translated by David Boyd

“In these three interconnected stories, Hiroko Oyamada revisits the same set of characters at different junctures in their lives. In the back room of a pet fish store full of rare and exotic fish, old friends discuss dried shrimp and a strange new relationship. A couple who recently moved into a rustic home in the mountains discovers an unsettling solution to their weasel infestation. And a dinner party during a blizzard leads to a night in a room filled with aquariums and unpleasant dreams.”

Read my review of Weasels in the Attic.

Woman Running in the Mountains by Yuko Tsushima

Translated by Geraldine Harcourt

“Set in 1970s Japan, this tender and poetic novel about a young, single mother struggling to find her place in the world is an early triumph by a modern Japanese master…”

Read my review of Woman Running in the Mountains.

Aum Anxiety

The narrative that most Japanese embrace (or imagine they share) broke down; none of these “common values” proved the least effective in warding off the evil violence that erupted under us.

Haruki Murakami, Underground

New Religions and the Aum Affair

“New Religion” (“new religious movements” or NRM) is a nebulous term for religions founded in roughly the last two centuries. Broadly speaking, they are syncretic (pulling beliefs from multiple religions that predate them), and their teachings often deviate from societal norms. Japan has a particularly fraught relationship with New Religions, especially in the wake of the 1995 “Aum Affair.”

“Picture of a Woman Applying Makeup” by Kitagawa Utamaro

Very briefly, Aum Shinrikyo is a Japanese New Religion that began in the mid-1980s. Founder Shoko Asahara eventually claimed to be a Buddha; a reincarnation of the Hindu God of destroying evil, Shiva; and a Christ Messiah (Gunaratna). Over the course of a decade, the group evolved into a millenarian religious organization with political ambitions and over ten thousand members.

On 20 March 1995, elite figures in Aum leadership carried out a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground train system. The attack killed twenty-seven people and injured thousands. In the aftermath, Japanese media whipped public opinion into an anti-Aum frenzy marked by hundreds of hours of largely anti-Aum programming on national TV. The public response quickly accelerated the century-old Japanese suspicion of New Religions and “permanently transformed concern about new religions into characterizations of these organizations as cults that kill” (McLaughlin).

The popular view in Japan was more or less that “certain types of movements, especially ones that, like Aum, preached a message of rejection of normative social mores and values and that aspired to the formation of a new spiritual order might prove dangerous to society” (Reader). In the words of one researcher, “more than any other new religion in recent history, [Aum] presented itself as the consequence of a perceived demise of modern society, one to be ritually expelled in order to reestablish social equilibrium” (McLaughlin).

But New Religious Movements like Aum have also proven to be a convenient “Other” in Japanese society. (For example, some media outlets and members of government intentionally conflated Aum with Japan’s largest New Religion, Soka Gakkai, to damage its credibility. Already a weakened organization, the group has never really recovered.) For example, The Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper condemned the attackers as “a dark, twisted shadow lurking somewhere in this peaceful and prosperous society” (as qtd. in Ushiyama and Baert).

Here, I want to explore just a few Japanese novels—1Q84There’s No Such Thing As an Easy Job, and Earthlings—that demonstrate an ongoing anxiety about Aum and the impact of New Religions. Haruki Murakami, Kikuko Tsumura, and Sayaka Murata all explore New Religion as a way to deal with alienation in modern Japanese culture.

Haruki Murakami on Aum

Haruki Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche is a non-fiction, genre-bending exploration of the 1995 attacks on the Tokyo metro. In what was published as part II of the English translation, “The Place That Was Promised,” Murakami presents interviews with former and then-current Aum members. One of the issues Murakami highlights is the feelings of “difference,” of “not fitting in” that Aum members feel:

There was a huge gap between the image I had of what an adult should be and the actual adults around me.

There always seemed to be a wall separating me from the rest of the world.

I don’t have any special skills, nothing makes me stand out from the crowd. I don’t even feel like I want to get married.

I felt a deep alienation between my outer and inner Self.

These are also the sorts of refrains repeated by many alienated characters in contemporary Japanese novels.

Murakami’s approach to “New Religions”—in the form of Aum in his non-fiction and in other forms in his fiction—is nuanced. Without ever excusing Aum or its members for the sarin attack, Murakami rejects the narrative of Aum as “foreign” or “Other.” Instead, he suggests that Aum is a response to alienation in contemporary Japanese society. He notes that

They [members of the Aum Science and Technology elite] couldn’t help having grave doubts about the inhumane, utilitarian gristmill of capitalism and the social system in which their own essence and efforts—even their own reasons for being—would be fruitlessly ground down.

To Murakami, Aum isn’t foreign, but a kind of “unwanted outcome” or “repressed subconscious” of an “excessively materialist society that excludes those who do not embrace the norms of capitalism” (Ushiyama and Baert).

Murakami’s conclusion is that it isn’t really helpful to break Aum members into Us and Them. Aum is a decidedly Japanese New Religion that exists within Japanese society, not outside it.

1Q84

Murakami also explores New Religions in his 2009-10 novel 1Q84. Unlike in Underground, here he is not constrained by material truth; as he describes in his 2009 acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Literary Prize: By telling skillful lies—which is to say, by making up fictions that appear to be true—the novelist can bring a truth out to a new place and shine a new light on it.”

Sakigake, the 1Q84’s New Religion, varies from Aum in several important ways. Nevertheless, it echoes Aum, most notably both organizations’ dependence on single charismatic gurus and their willingness to use violence to achieve their aims. (Note also that Aum was founded in 1984.) An act of violence carried out by a Sakigake splinter group seems to be the event that separates the 1984 in which the novel takes place (“1Q84”) from the historical 1984.

The novel’s heroine Aomame grew up in the Society of Witnesses—pretty transparently the Jehovah’s Witnesses. She is the strongest voice in the novel against what she thinks of as “religious fundamentalists”: their “intolerant worldview, their inflated sense of their own superiority, and their callous imposition of their own beliefs on others” fills her with an almost uncontrollable rage. But Murakami’s approach is more modulated.

As a writer, Murakami is deeply interested in metanarrative—stories that stories tell about stories. He is consistently wary of writing “good guys” and “bad guys” into his fiction because our lived reality excludes this kind of dualism. In 1Q84, Murakami considers the role of religion in helping people define the meta narrative of their own lives. In the words of Sakigake’s Leader,

Most people are not looking for provable truths. As you [Aomame] said, truth is often accompanied by intense pain, and almost no one is looking for painful truths. What people need is beautiful, comforting stories that make them feel as if their lives have some meaning. Which is where religion comes from.

The words call to mind Underground’s afterword: “Reality is created out of confusion and contradiction, and if you exclude those elements, you’re no longer talking about reality.” In 1Q84 as in the rest of his work, Murakami never creates a fictional “reality” without plenty of “confusion and contradiction.” Religions are harmful when they tell comforting stories that no longer reflect the real world.

One of the more interesting features of 1Q84 is how carefully Aomame and the Dowager who commissions her assassinations toe the line that separates them from any other cult-like organization. They, too, are alienated from society. They, too, make up an insular group. They, too, adopt their own code of morality and consequences. The Dowager insists on paying Aomame for her assassinations to prevent her from “feeling that [she] can do anything [she] want[s] as long as it’s the right thing and [her] feelings are pure.” Leader himself notes that Aomame’s attitude “is itself the very essence of religion.”

Again, for Murakami there is no Us and Them for people who might be attracted to a New Religion.

Lonely No More in There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job

I’d like to thank Bloomsbury for an early review copy of this novelThere’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job was released in the UK in 2020 and will be released in the US on March 23, 2021.

Kikuko Tsumura’s There No Such Thing as an Easy Job is about a young woman who has burnt herself out through overwork in a beloved first career. “The Postering Job” is the third of four attempts she makes to find less taxing work for herself. This time, she’ll be asking people to put up public service announcements in the front windows of their homes—“Check behind you when turning corners!”, “Make our town greener!”, “Water belongs to everyone”. (Despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to determine whether these sorts of posters are a normal part of life in Japan.)

On her first day of work, the narrator finds many posters that her employer isn’t responsible for. They feature a beautiful young woman, casually dressed, holding out her hand. The text reads “Lonely No More!” and provides the Lonely No More! organization’s contact information. These posters have a more “psychological” emphasis and a different “emotional weight” than the public service announcements the narrator is handing out.

The narrator soon learns that Lonely No More! is aggressively recruiting in the neighborhood. One resident tells her, “They don’t give up. It’s not a job with them, see—it’s a dogma.”

There are, of course, other and timelier Japanese religious organizations that Lonely No More! might call to mind for Japanese readers. Nevertheless, the Aum Affair has, perhaps indelibly, colored the public perception of all New Religions (see McLaughlin), and I feel fairly confident that Tsumura invokes an Aum-related dread in her novel.

Much like Aum, Lonely No More! exploits community members alienation or their feelings that they can’t easily participate in normal social behavior.

Also like Aum, Lonely No More! uses people who are young and attractive as its public face. The narrator reflects on how such an organization might prey on the young; she recognizes how much more vulnerable she would have been to these tactics if she were in her twenties instead of in her thirties.

When the protagonist finally investigates a Lonely No More! meeting, Tsumura’s narration again carries implicit Aum anxiety. She describes the members’ “strangely large pupils that seemed to bleed over into their irises, making their eyes seem either out of focus, or weirdly well in focus.” (Strangely dilated pupils are one of the most well-known symptoms of sarin poisoning.)

She also describes tactics that sound almost like they are pulled from the testimony of a former Aum member interviewed in Underground. He “dropped by” an Aum dojo, caught a sermon, and spoke with an Aum follower. “Later,” he continues, “I realized that was one of Aum’s standard tactics. Usually people who go to these kinds of places are lacking something or seeking something, but the dojo seemed pleasant enough, and being asked to join like that, out of the blue, I just went with the flow…”

The narrator understands the potential impact of this kind of recruitment:

To believe that such tactics wouldn’t work… was overly optimistic. In reality, when issued an invitation by a good-looking youngster who was sympathetic to their predicament, there were a lot of people who would fall for it.

For Tsumura, there’s no easy solution for dealing with groups like Lonely No More! “Helping people feel less lonely doesn’t seem like such a bad aim,” the narrator reflects, “But why do they have to go barging their way into people’s lives like that?” Surely an exploitative group isn’t the answer, but, for many people, there isn’t an obvious alternative. The narrator helps her employer successfully drive Lonely No More! out of the neighborhood, but the organization and then her employer disappear overnight. The rather anodyne conclusion to the chapter doesn’t address how the narrator or Lonely No More! members feel about being abruptly abandoned.

Tsumura, like Murakami, must carefully draw the line between which kind of organizations are threatening and which are not. The posters the narrator has been asked to put up are themselves intended for “the regularization of society.” When the narrator speaks with each homeowner, she has been assigned to ask, “How many people are in your family? Do you have any concerns? Do you have anyone to talk to about your concerns?” This is the kind of personal information Lonely No More! would exploit, and the narrator senses “a certain darkness lurking” behind the questions. Perhaps Tsumura is flirting with the idea that many of us live more closely aligned with cult-like behaviors than we would like to admit.

Earthlings

I’d like to thank Grove Press for a review copy of this novelEarthlings is available now from your favorite bookseller.

All of Sayaka Murata’s work published in English (“A Clean Marriage,” Convenience Store Woman, and now Earthlings) features women who are alienated—from society, from their families, and even from their own bodies. (Read more about women’s alienation from their bodies in Murata and other contemporary Japanese writers.) Alienation takes a more sinister turn in Earthlings and takes on traits of a New Religion.

Earthlings‘s Natsuki may be one of contemporary Japanese fiction’s most alienated characters. She notes early in the novel that the phrase “close-knit family” describes her parents and her sister; if she “weren’t there,” “the three of them would make a perfect unit.”

Like Murakami, Murata explicitly relates feelings of alienation to late-stage capitalism. Natsuki describes herself as “a tool for the town’s good” who must “study hard to become a good work tool” and “be a good girl, so that [she can] become a reproductive organ for the town.” She expects to be a failure at both, but she knows she will need to be self-sufficient someday—“when you [are] able to buy food for yourself, you [don’t] need to worry about being thrown away.”

Eventually Natsuki marries Tomoya, a man who is as opposed to society’s “Factory” as she is. (The idea that society is a Factory for making babies echoes Murakami’s “utilitarian gristmill.”) Natsuki and Tomoya marry only to avoid external criticism and never consummate the relationship. The couple reunites with Natsuki’s equally alienated cousin Yuu. They aren’t weird, they decide together—they’re all from another planet, Popinpobopia.

Natsuki has always lived by trying to allow society to “brainwash” her so she, too, “would be able to live with a smile on [her] face in the virtual reality world in which everyone [is] living.” With Yuu’s help, the trio decides instead to leave society behind and live as they want.

Living on their own, without the pressures of normative culture, darkens quickly. A few months in, they carry out murder to protect themselves and then cannibalize the corpses to keep themselves fed. When that source of meat fails, they begin cannibalizing each other in a stomach-turning orgy of consuming and being consumed.

Perhaps what makes the Popinpobopians the most frightening group of all is its size. It is a group of only three, farther from society than Aum, Sakigake, or Lonely No More!. That extra separation from society drives them to the most unthinkable (though, frankly, not the most destructive) behaviors of all.

Gunaratna, Rohn. “Aum Shinrikyo’s Rise, Fall, and Revival” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, 2018.

Hardacre, Helen. “Aum Shinrikyo and the Japanese Media: The Pied Piper Meets the Lamb of God” in History of Religions, 2007-8.

McLaughlin, Levi. “Did Aum Change Everything? What Soka Gakkai Before, During, and After the Aum Shinrikyo Affair Tells Us About the Persistent ‘Otherness’ of New Religions” in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 2012.

Reader, Ian. “Consensus Shattered: Japanese Paradigm Shift and Moral Panic in the Post-Aum Era” in Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 2001.

Ushiyama, Rin and Patrick Baert. “Cultural Trauma, Counter-Narratives, and Dialogical Intellectuals: the Works of Murakami Haruki and Mori Tatsuya in the Context of the Aum Affair” in Theory and Society, 2016. (Creative Commons Licensed)

The Goddess Chronicle: A Woman’s Ambiguous Place in Japan’s Creation Myth

To appreciate The Goddess Chronicle, you need to be familiar with The Kojiki, the oldest recorded mythical origin story of Japan. (Kirino provides a good summary in part II, chapters 5-6.)

In The Kojiki, the first anthropomorphic gods are Izanami (She Who Beckoned) and Izanagi (He Who Beckoned). They quickly notice that their bodies have some key differences:

Now the mighty one [Izanagi] turned to the mighty one [Izanami] and questioned his sister, saying: “How is your body formed?”

She replied, saying: “My body is empty in one place.”

And so the mighty one [Izanagi] proclaimed: “My body sticks out in one place. I would like to thrust the part of my body that sticks out into the part of your body that is empty and fill it up to birth lands. How does birthing them in this way sound to you?”

The mighty one [Izanami] replied, saying: “That sounds good.” (The Kojiki)

Amaterasu, Goddess of the Sun

As the first anthropomorphized gods, Izanami and Izanagi are also Japan’s first sexed and gendered gods. Before they couple, they perform a simple ritual, passing around a pillar and greeting each other in turn. This ritual is presumably why these kami (gods, for lack of a succinct alternative) are He Who Beckoned and She Who Beckoned. When Izanami beckons first, all their offspring are malformed. When Izanagi beckons first, they begin to give birth to the Japanese archipelago and many of the kami behind its more significant natural phenomena.

Eventually, Izanami dies giving birth to the fire god. Izanagi kills his newborn son in rage and grief, then goes to Yomi, the land of the dead, to search for his wife. Sadly, it is too late for Izanami—she has already eaten food from the underworld. Izanagi breaks his promise not to look at her, only to discover that she has become a rotting corpse. He runs away and seals the entrance to Yomi: “as they stood there with the boulder between them, they declared themselves divorced” (The Kojiki).

Enraged, Izanami vows that she will now kill 1,000 people a day; Izanagi counters he will build 1,500 birthing huts every day to thwart her.

Izanagi then rushes to a river to purify himself. (Purification is an important facet of Japanese religion.) Washing the filth from his body begets new kami, including the sun goddess Ametarasu.

Let me note here that Ametarasu is a part of an elite group—the sun anthropomorphized as a female, rather than as a male. Most other mythologies with women as sun deities are what you might call “out of the mainstream” today: early Egyptian, Canaanite, Celtic, pre-Islamic Arabian… In the mythologies familiar to most Westerners, the sun deity is male, often paired with a female moon goddess. The sun as a goddess is just one of the moments in Japanese mythology where a female figure takes on a position of importance, or even supremacy.

Like many creation narratives, The Kojiki takes place long before its people had any means of writing The earliest events of The Kojiki ostensibly take place before or during the Jomon Period. Material evidence of Japan’s prehistorical Jomon culture dates as early as 40k BCE.

Over centuries, a belief system centered on the sun goddess Ametarasu spread from the centers of power. (A ruling family used its purported divine descent from Ametarasu to help consolidate power.) But around the same time, the movement of peoples and culture between Japan and the continent was introducing new ideas to the Japanese:

  • The Kojiki relates that a Chinese emperor sent a Confucian teacher and The Analects to Japan around 400 CE, although this account is often disputed.
  • Recent scholarship has placed the gradual importation of Daoist ideas into Japan between the fifth and eighth centuries (Richey).
  • In the mid-to-late sixth century, a delegation from the Korean Peninsula brought Buddhist priests to Japan.

Imported Patriarchy

In early East Asian histories, there are many accounts of women with political and/or religious power in Japan. In fact, “the earliest Japan of which we have any real historical relic is a time in the third century when the islands were ruled by a priestess and her household” (Ellwood). Notably, we learn about Himiko (also Pimiko or Shingi Wao) in the classical Chinese history Records of the Three Kingdoms. The writer describes her this way: 

[Himiko] occupied herself with magic and sorcery and bewitched the populace. Thereupon they placed her on the throne.

Japan in the Chinese Dynastic Histories, as qtd. in De Bary, et al.

This (presumably male) chronicler falls back on that favorite accusation of men threatened by a woman’s power—“she’s a witch.” But this kind of religiopolitical power seems to have been the norm in early Japan, where women held important shamanistic positions and were said to be actually possessed by kami. “Before the importation of Chinese culture,” Sallie B. King claims, “shamanistic miko were sometimes powerful women who served at the highest level of the state.”

Though there is always a difference between theology and institutional practice, King describes Shinto as a set of beliefs in which it is “not possible” to “divide the world into absolute categories of sacred and profane, soul and body, heaven and earth” (note the contradiction with the dualism of Daoism) or to “identify females with the inferior member of each pair.”

Robert Ellwood makes a case that Japan experienced a “patriarchal revolution” that coincided with the introduction of Daoist ideas (especially yin and yang, which I’ll come back to in a minute), Confucianism, and Buddhism. Confucianism, in particular, is a patriarchal tradition: a shared generative force passes down through the male line, giving pride of place to a family’s oldest male offspring. Many schools of Buddhist practice and teaching, moreover, give special emphasis to the role of male monks; even the historical Buddha long resisted creating an order of nuns.

By the time of The Kojiki’s promulgation in the 710s, society was “largely denatured of real female magic, mystery, or personality” (Ellwood, emphasis his). The sun goddess and empresses had become “figureheads in heavenly and earthy patriarchal orders, at best only sanctifying them with matriarchal tokens.”

So, The Kojiki presumably draws on an older tradition that predates Ellwood’s “patriarchal revolution.” The written, eighth century account, though, takes a native, shamanistic, female-(centered?) tradition and superimposes the religious philosophies gradually adopted into Japanese culture. This tension—between older and contemporary attitudes about women—comes across in Natsuo Kirino’s The Goddess Chronicle.

The Goddess Chronicle

On the timeless island of Umihibe in ancient Japan, life revolves around two female shamans. Kamikuu (“Child of the Gods”) takes the role of yang for the island—she is creative, pure, life-giving, fertile.

Kamikuu’s sister—her paired yin—is Namima (“Woman Amid the Waves”). Namima is her sister’s opposite: she watches over the dark and the dead and must remain perpetually a virgin.

Namima is the novel’s central character and narrator. She isn’t aware of her role as “Woman Amid the Waves” until the day she takes on that role. She has already broken the role’s central taboo and secretly become pregnant. She and her lover flee Umihibe in the night. After giving birth to their daughter, Namima wakes up to her lover strangling her to death. Eventually her spirit makes its way to Yomi, where she meets an Izanami who continues to nurse the grudge against Izanagi she has held since the beginning of the world. Namima spends the rest of the novel as Izanagi’s faithful attendant.

Yang and Yin Debasing a Goddess

Recall the importation of Chinese ideas into Japan. One of the most enduring is the Daoist notion of unity and duality often cribbed in the West as yin and yang. Very briefly, this dualism describes how forces that seem opposite or contrary are actually connected and interdependent. Yin is the receptive principle, associated with a host of natural phenomena, including disorder, dark, and water. Yang is the active principle, associated with order, light, fire… Particularly under Confucianism, the yang became associated with the male, and became the greater of the two. Yin and yang have often loaned a philosophical explanation for men’s superior position to women.

On Umihebi, “the dualities found in nature are embodied by women instead of men” (Lianying). Women are mothers or virgins. They deal with life or death. They are objects of worship or pity.

Lianying claims “women are all excluded from the decision-making process of the societies they inhabit,” but this isn’t precisely true on Umihebi. Even though Kamikuu is a woman, she is also yang—masculine and active. She may not choose her fate—which of the villagers of either sex does?—but she takes on an important leadership role on the island for the rest of her life. It is the men on Umihebi who are disposable, who are excluded, not the women.

The ancient Japanese may have recognized this dual, contradictory facet of woman’s nature, even in a woman’s biological functions: “There is some evidence… that in very early times, menstruation and childbirth may have been seen as either polluting or sacred, or both” (King). To Kirino’s Izanami, “there is a deep connection between death and birth.”

Kirino’s Izanami’s provides her own explanation why yin and yang, though equally valuable parts of a whole, are no longer equally respected:

I [Namima] recalled Izanami’s words: “Heaven and earth, man and woman, birth and death, day and night, light and dark, yin and yan. You may wonder why everything was paired in this way, but a single entity would have been insufficient. In the beginning, two became one, and from that union new life came. Whenever a single entity was paired with its opposite, the value of both became clear from the contrast—and the mutual association enriched the meaning of both.”

But once Izanami had died, the value of the pairing was lost and she became associated only with the dark half: earth, woman, death, night, dark, yin and, yes, pollution.

The Japanese are generally more tolerant of ambiguity than English-speakers. But Izanami’s position is also uniquely contradictory. She is a goddess; she has died. She was life; she’s now death. She loathes her position; she also chooses it.

(Lianying claims that being goddess of the underworld is “a role not of [Kirino’s Izanami’s] choice,” but it is. After Kirino’s Izanagi dies a mortal death, Izanami has an opportunity to let go of her anger. Yet despite continually claiming it has been her fate to become the goddess of the underworld, she finally declares, “It is my lot, my choice to accept all of the world’s defilement.”)

In a world divided between yin ang yang, Izanami doesn’t fit neatly into either category—does she bring life or death? Izanami’s tragedy, Kirino proposes, “lies in her inability to define who she wants to be” (Lianying). 

Who Tells Your Story?

At the novel’s end, Namima claims, “This, then, is Izanami’s story.” Why isn’t Izanami the narrator?

Namima is the narrator of Izanami’s story because her story is Izanami’s. On one level, “the identification with Okami [polite word for kami] is an experiential fulfillment of Shinto teachings on the identity of human nature (once sufficiently purified) with kami nature” (King). On another, the story Namima and Izanami share is the story of all women—their choices limited by the structures the patriarchy imposes. After all, as Izanami notes, “It’s always the woman who dies.”

Anesaki Masaharu. History of Japanese Religion, 2012.

De Bary, WM, et al. ed. Sources of Japanese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600, 2nd ed., 2001.

Ellwood, Robert. “Patriarchal Revolution in Ancient Japan: Episodes from the ‘Nihonshoki’ Sujin Chronicle” in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 1986.

Hemmann, Kathryn. “Dangerous Women and Dangerous Stories: Gendered Narration in Kirino Natsuo’s Grotesque and Real World” in Rethinking Japanese Feminisms, 2019.

King, Sallie B. “Egalitarian Philosophies in Sexist Institutions: The Life of Satomi-San, Shinto Miko and Zen Buddhist Nun” in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 1988.

Lianying Shan. “Rewriting Women’s Oppression through Myth and Nature—Kirino Natsuo’s Tokyo Island and The Goddess Chronicle” in Japanese Language and Literature, 2018.

O No Yasumaro. The Kojiki: An Account of Ancient Matters, translated by Gustav Heldt, Columbia, 2014.

Pregadio, Fabrizio. “Religious Daosim” at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2017.

Richey, Jefffrey L., ed. Daoism in Japan: Chinese Traditions and Their Influence on Japanese Religious Culture, 2018.

Toshio Kuroda. “Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion” in Japanese Language and Literature, trans. James C. Dobbins and Suzanne Gay, 1981.

Tucker, John. “Japanese Confucian Philosophy” at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, spring 2018 ed.

The Evaporated People in Contemporary Japanese Literature

Each year in Japan, thousands of people disappear. They haven’t been kidnapped. They haven’t been murdered. (Japan has one of the lowest murder rates in the world. An American is almost twenty-seven times more likely to become a homicide victim.)

“Spirit of the Heron Maiden” by Kyoko (c. 1920) via Wikimedia Commons

They are the evaporated—the johatsu.

First, let’s acknowledge that the evocative noun probably creates an exoticism that isn’t entirely deserved. According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, there were more than 56,000 Americans over the age of 18 with active missing persons records at the end of 2019. Nevertheless, Japanese privacy laws make the johatsu almost impossible to track down. The government relies on citizens to register in the cities where they live; if they don’t comply, there is no official record of where they are.

Catering to people who want to disappear has become a niche business in Japan. Movers help would-be johatsu vanish into neighborhoods where they can live anonymously—often hotbeds of activity by the Japanese mafia, or Yakuza.

According to Léna Mauger, a French journalist who brought the johatsu to the attention of the Western world with her book, The Vanished: The “Evaporated People” of Japan in Stories and Photographs, people who disappear do so most often because they are ashamed. A student fails an important exam. A woman falls in love with another man. A breadwinner loses his job.

The people left behind often never find out why their loved one has vanished.

Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami

Manazuru opens with the protagonist, Kei, taking an unplanned trip to Manazuru, a tiny coastal town in Kanagawa Prefecture of only eight or so thousand residents.

Her husband disappeared “without warning twelve years ago.”

The language Kawakami uses to describe Kei’s complex feelings is evocative and haunting:

After Rei’s disappearance, I had no place. I still didn’t know where to channel what I felt. When the path ahead is still unformed, we lose all sense of our location. The fear in me resembled the inability to tell upstream from downstream, to perceive the direction the water was going.

and…

Only the things we are still holding on to can vanish into the past. If we no longer have it, it can’t be lost that way. Can’t vanish anywhere. Nonexistent, it is nonetheless unable, moreover, to go.

…and…

I’ve heard that when you start to dream of what you’ve lost, it means the hurt is healing… I never dream of Rei, even now.

More than a decade in, she is no longer in real mourning. Like a Penelope who will never welcome Odysseus home, what she needs most is closure. Is her husband still alive? Why did he leave? “Did [her] husband want to die? Or did he disappear because he wanted to live?” Will she ever see him again? Maybe most importantly, has the time come to let go of her grief?

Sometimes, of late, I forget him. It’s strange, when his presence used to be so thick. When his sudden departure only made his presence thicker.

Perhaps what most holds Kei back is that she considers first her husband and now their teenaged daughter to be extensions of herself: “I had thought we were family, the borders between our bodies indistinct, Momo and Rei [her husband] and I, the three of us mingling, dissolving.” Kei is unaccountably unable to say Rei’s name even during their marriage, and Kawakami reinforces Kei’s loss of self by exploring Kei and Rei as mirrors of each other. 

Kei compares Rei at the beginning of their relationship to “the retreating tide.” “Try to stand your ground,” she says, “still it draws your body in.” With Rei, she “sensed [her]self blurring.” After they marry and have a child together, “even then” her body “blurs.” When he leaves, he destroys the part of her he has figuratively taken into himself. (There’s probably something Freudian to be said about the way Kei, a woman, feels that she has entered Rei, a man.) Later, when Kei reads Rei’s diary after he disappears, she finds it “sickening” because it forces her to acknowledge “he is separate from [her].”

After birth, Kei “did not regard [her daughter Momo] as her own person.” Admitting that Momo is a separate self is terrifying: “It was all right as long as I told myself I was nothing but my own body, but when I let my feelings shift toward Momo’s infant weight in my hands, I became terribly afraid.” Twelve years after her husband’s disappearance, she’s now losing another part of herself—her teenaged daughter is becoming an autonomous person.

Being the wife of a johatsu has inalterably shaped Kei, her expectations for her life, and her relationships with other people. Even twelve years later, it still calls her self into question.

A Man by Keiichiro Hirano

A Man takes up the johatsu from a different angle as an attorney tries to track down the true identity of a client’s dead husband. A Man is about the things that drive people to evaporate—and, on a philosophical level, what questions the life of a johatsu raises about the nature of identity.

Author Keiichiro Hirano claims his novel is inspired by a man he met in a bar—Kido-san, the namesake of the novel’s protagonist. The man introduces himself as one person, then eventually claims to be another. “Do you understand what it’s like to be honest through lies?” the man asks.

Daisuké Taniguchi is the novel’s most important character, though he dies just a few pages in. His mourning widow, Rié, invites his estranged brother to her home. He notices the picture of her late husband on the Buddhist altar: “That isn’t Daisuké,” he reveals.

Rié believes she must now uncover her husband’s true identity. She makes arrangements for a lawyer, Akira Kido, to investigate on her behalf.

Kido soon begins to take the case a little too seriously, to ask himself what it would be like to change identities. Pretending for one night to be someone else, he “feel[s] out the comfort of his new life as though trying on a garment or test-driving a car.” Maybe this will be his new hobby: “synchronizing himself with the life story of another so as to vicariously inhabit their inner world.”

Hirano also raises the role of larger societal problems that make disappearance so tempting to Kido—presumably to an entire group of Japanese. Kido suffers from “a kind of existential anxiety” that has more to do with “Japan’s dark prospects,” the narrator tells us, than they do with his own identity.

Eventually, Kido discovers that “Daisuké Taniguchi,” Rié’s husband, is actually Makoto Hara, the son of a notorious murderer running away from what he considers his tainted family—recall how many of the johatsu disappear because of feelings of shame. With the help of a forger, he has bought Taniguchi’s place on the Taniguchi family register so he could assume a different identity. (A family register is an important document in Japanese culture and government, keeping official track, for example, of births and deaths.)

One of the-character-formerly-known-as-Makoto’s old friends describes him with a notably moving metaphor:

Makoto was, let’s say… Well, you ever heard of gender identity disorder? You know where your body and mind just don’t match up? For Makoto it was something like that. Yup. Like someone’s stuffed you into this disgusting mascot suit and you’re stuck in there for your whole life.

By disappearing, Makoto Hara is able to discover his own identity.

Manazuru and, to a certain extent A Man, both end without a neat resolution. Perhaps that is because, by their very nature, the johatsu and the social conditions that create them are unresolved. We can make guesses about whys and hows, but, as Kido reflects, “It might very well be hubris to believe that you could understand a person’s true thoughts and feelings even when looking straight at them.”

Mauger, Léna. The Vanished: The “Evaporated People” of Japan in Stories and Photographs, 2016.

Simone, Alina. “Japan’s ‘Evaporated People’ Have Become an Obsession for This French Couple” at pri.org, 2017.

Sun Sheau Huei. “Vanishing without a Trace.” YouTube, 2019.

A Regressive Vision of Women’s Happiness: Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

“The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed. Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can do is ask them to do their best per head… although it may not be so appropriate to call them machines.”—Former Japanese Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa

Yanagisawa served under Shinzo Abe, who is currently (summer 2020) serving his fourth term as Prime Minister of Japan.

“Mother and Child with Puppies” by Kitagawa Utamaro via Wikimedia Commons

A 2009 study by Scott North found that, “The burden of family work in Japan falls disproportionately on wives, even those who work full time and have relatively high incomes… Couple’s actions continue to be oriented strongly to symbols of patriarchal prestige, such as husband’s birth order position and breadwinner status.”

In 2017, despite several half-hearted public policy attempts, Amnesty International’s East Asia Researcher Hiroka Shoji claimed that Japanese society “still sees household chores and childcare as the main responsibility of women, whether or not they are in paid employment.”

This sort of sexism—assuming a woman is in charge of the domestic sphere—is certainly not foreign to Westerners. But many observers note the special persistence of gender inequality in Japan. Predictably, gender inequality pops up in contemporary Japanese literature.

Published in Japanese just five years ago, Before the Coffee Gets Cold puts forward a regressive vision of happiness for women.

There are certainly any number of anti-feminist best sellers in the US. (Note that the Midnight Sun, an extension of Stephanie Meyer’s famously problematic Twilight universe, is currently an Amazon best seller more than a month before its August 2020 publication.) But I think Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a special kind of insidious. 

The premise of the novel is that, for unexplained reasons, one particular chair in a timeless, underground Tokyo café will transport you, once and only once, backwards or forwards in time. You can only travel to other moments within that same café. Nothing you do in the past actually changes the present. And you have to finish your visit before your coffee gets cold or be doomed to become a vengeful ghost.

Sure, the premise is a little camp, but I’ve enjoyed other sentimental Japanese best-sellers like If Cats Disappeared from the World and The Traveling Cat Chronicles. Maybe I just like cats. But the unexplained plot device in Before the Coffee Gets Cold seems to promise women happiness if only they’ll conform to traditional norms about Japanese women’s behavior.

In the first of four chapters, The Lovers, the beautiful and ambitious Fumiko wishes she had asked her long-term partner not to move to the US to pursue his dream job. It’s not that she particularly wants to marry him. It’s more that she is turning twenty-eight this year, “she [has] been interrogated on many occasions by her persistent parents,” and “after her little sister got married…she [has] started to think getting married might be OK if it was to Goro.” With a little help from the café, she meets Goro in the past, and he tells her he’ll be returning to Japan in three years. All this attractive, intelligent woman has to do is wait for him. She’s thrilled.

In Husband and Wife, the reader learns that two of the cafe’s regular patrons are actually married. Kohtake is a nurse. Her husband, Fusagi, is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease and has recently begun to forget his wife. Kohtake has resigned herself to the situation: “I will care for him as a nurse. I am a nurse, so I can do that.”

The husband she meets in the past isn’t a rom com hero. He is crotchety and easily annoyed. We find out that he once threw her birthday present away simply because she asks him for it and he hates being told “to do something that he had been meaning to do himself.” Even so, anything he says to Kohtake brings back “waves of nostalgia and happiness.” 

The Fusagi of “back then” gives Kohtake a letter to read in the future. He asks that she leave him “if life becomes too hard for [her] as [his] wife.” Yet he continues that, even if he loses his memory, he wants “to be together as husband and wife.” In other words, far from releasing her, he’s telling her that a professional relationship between a man and his nurse is not sufficient for him; she must also act like his wife. For the rest of the novel, Kohtake comes into the café each day, greets Fusagi as her husband, and waits to find out whether he will treat her civilly or not. The Notebook in reverse?

The Sisters focuses on another of the café’s regulars. Hirai is the anti-feminist strawman, a woman who is willing to break down in crocodile tears to manipulate a man “because tears are a woman’s weapon.” Flouting her parents’ wishes and expectations, she abandoned the family inn for big city life as the owner of a small hostess club. For years, she has been avoiding her younger sister, now heir-apparent to the family business because surely, Hirai thinks, her sister resents being left holding the inheritance bag.

Then her sister dies. Hirai travels back in time to speak with her one last time only to discover her sister has never been resentful—she just wants to run the inn together with Hirai. Hirai agrees, though it seems like she is only trying to appease a sister who is fated to die anyway.

Then Hirai’s friends on the café staff find out about her promise. They pressure her to keep it: “How unhappy would your sister be if she knew that your promise was only made for today?” So the free-spirited twenty four year old who left home to become her own person returns to take her place as conventional first born and successor to the inn. A few weeks later, her friends receive a photo:

In the photo, Hirai [is] standing in front of the inn. With her hair in a bun, she [is] wearing a pink kimono, indicating her status as the owner of Takakura… [She is] smiling like she [does]n’t have a care in the world.

Mother and Child is perhaps supposed to be the novel’s most touching episode. Café owner Nagare and his wife Kei are expecting. Even though Kei has a heart condition and may not survive the pregnancy, she is determined to carry the pregnancy to term.

The premise that Kei will die because of her pregnancy is almost implausible. Japan has one of the very lowest maternal mortality rates in the world—five deaths per 100,000 live births. (At fourteen per 100,000 live births, the US nearly triples Japan’s maternal mortality rate.) Nevertheless, before she faces death, Kei is determined to travel to the future to meet her child.

In the future, it soon becomes clear that Kei has not survived the pregnancy. She is overwhelmed not by sorrow or regret, but by a desire to apologize to her daughter that “giving birth to [her] is the only thing [Kei] will ever be able to do for [her].” As if that isn’t enough.

Kei never seems to even consider changing her mind about the pregnancy.

Kei’s choice is certainly a brave one. But in the context of Before the Coffee Gets Cold it is also a symbol of what Japanese society has traditionally asked of women—to put their husband, then their sons, then their daughters all ahead of themselves.

North, Scott. “Negotiating What’s ‘Natural’: Persistent Domestic Gender Role Inequality in Japan” in Social Science Japan Journal, 2009.

“A Tokyo Medical School Rigged Exam Results to Favour Men. But Japan’s Sexism Problem Runs Even Deeper” at Amnesty International, 2018.

“Toward a Society Where All Women Shine: An Intensive Program to Help Women Break through the Glass Ceiling” at Japan.go.jp.

“Yanagisawa Calls Women Child-Bearing Machines” at The Japan Times, 2007.

Cannibalism in Two Contemporary Japanese Novels

Futakuchi-Onna from Ehon Hyaku Monogatari (絵本百物語, “Picture Book of a Hundred Stories”)

Like many other countries, Japan has its own body of folklore with cannibalistic monsters. For more than a thousand years, demonic female yamauba have roamed Japan’s mountains, assisting some travelers, eating others. The connotations of cannibalism in Japanese folklore are always negative.

Today, cannibalism is a quietly contentious political issue in Japan. In the early 90s, historian Toshiyuki Tanaka publicized documents that he claims “clearly show that this cannibalism was done by a whole group of Japanese soldiers [during World War II], and in some cases they were not even starving.” He claimed the motive was most often “to consolidate the group feeling of the troops”—what better way to unite troops than to break a strong taboo together?

Tanaka reported that he hadn’t been able to publish his work in Japan because it was deemed “too sensitive.” As recently as 2014, many in Japan were outraged by the depiction of Japanese cannibalism in the WWII biopic Unbroken—“there was absolutely no cannibalism,” one Shinto priest claimed, “That is not our custom.”

There’s also the notorious case of Issei Sagawa, the Japanese man who killed and cannibalized a Dutch woman. He has both horrified and fascinated the public for the last thirty years and developed a kind of cult following not unlike the unsettling hero worship of Ted Bundy in the United States. After a stint in prison of only two years, he’s made a career of his notoriety. His colorful resume includes soft-core porn star and sushi critic.

And don’t forget the internet rumor that Japan passed legislation in 2014 to allow for the consumption of human flesh. (It didn’t, of course.) According to the fake news, you could now eat part of another person for as little as $120.

In each of these cases, the Japanese response to cannibalism is more or less the same as the American response. Cannibalism is perhaps the ultimate taboo, the taboo Sigmund Freud describes, fairly accurately, as the only taboo “to be universally proscribed” and “completely surmounted.”

On the other hand, Elizabeth Kenney sees cannibalistic symbolism in the Shinto funeral—for example “all the eating that goes on during the funeral rites,” including simultaneously with the cremation of the corpse, and the custom of picking through the ashes with chopsticks for bone fragments.

Kenney also claims that, even though Shinto priests aren’t “sympathetic to this practice,” multiple Japanese have reported eating bone or drinking a tea made with ashes: “We drank Grandmother’s ashes in order to keep her with us, to be joined with her.”

In the West, cannibalism as communion isn’t completely unknown either. In a Christian context, for example, it might call to mind the Christian Eucharist, when Jesus instructs his disciples, “Take this bread and eat it, for it is my body.” (Pagan Romans used false accusations against Christians to justify persecution, making Christians into an Other, as I’ll discuss in a minute.)

It’s this second idea, that cannibalism accommodates the joining of two or more people, that I want to explore.

Cannibalism as the Communion

In an influential book on the subject, The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy, anthropologist William Arens calls into question whether there has ever been firm, substantiable evidence of cultures that accepted the practice of cannibalism. Claims about cannibalism are an almost universal way of marking the Other, dividing the Them who eat people and the Us who do not. Arens’s claim is especially relevant in a post-colonial context because cannibalism historically “acts as a mythic justification for the dominance of colonizer over colonized.”

In ME and Earthlings, cannibalism is inverted. Instead of marking difference, it accommodates the creation of community.

ME by Tomoyuki Hishino

Japanese uses several first-person pronouns (e.g. I, me, or we). Ore, the I used in the original Japanese title of Tomoyuki Hoshino’s ME, is a gruff and almost exclusively male pronoun. The title, Ore Ore, refers to a scam young men pulled on older people, calling them to say, “It’s me,” and ask for urgently-needed money. The Japan Times estimates that, at its height, the “Ore Ore” cost Japan’s elderly $450 million a year.

The “Ore Ore” is really only a launching point for a much broader narrative. After successfully pulling the scam, Hitoshi Nagano discovers that his victim’s mother thinks he really is her son, Daiki Hiyana. Later, Hitoshi’s own mother doesn’t recognize him, and he quickly and inevitably takes on Daiki’s name and family. Thus begins the exploration of the novel’s central themes: “individualism, masculinity and nationalism” (Kidd).

Hitoshi/Daiki now meets two nearly-identical strangers, both also named Hitoshi Nagano. The trio initially form a closely-bonded group. Hitoshi/Daiki thinks, “we couldn’t help believing in ourselves, even though in our heart of hearts, each of us was distrustful of himself.” This distrust of self will become both pathological and deadly later in the novel.

In spite of this friendship, these first three MEs are fundamentally lonely. Only one of them has a girlfriend, and he breaks up with her shortly after meeting the two other MEs. Hitoshi/Daiki assures himself, “We don’t need marital partners. Our mutual understanding far exceeds any that we might have with a girlfriend or wife.” Even though they later discover female MEs, the protagonist never seriously considers a romantic relationship. We are again faced with a protagonist who, like Breasts and Egg’s Natsuko and Convenience Store Woman’s Mizuki, isn’t strongly motivated by sex or relationships.

The bond between the young men continues until their world quickly fills with ever more other MEs. One of the trio feels driven to murder his two companions, a compulsion all the MEs begin to share. The MEs start using the euphemism “to delete” in place of “to murder,” a turn of phrase that dehumanizes and calls to mind something artificial.

The situation soon turns apocalyptic, and Hitoshi/Daiki tries fleeing to the mountains outside of Tokyo. Of course, all of the other MEs have the same thought. The mountains are soon full of MEs, all deathly afraid of each other and competing for very limited sources of food. In a few months, they’re driven to cannibalism to survive.

In the chapter “Transmigration” (reincarnation), the protagonist dies an uncountable number of times. But no matter how often Hitoshi/Daiki is killed by other MEs, he is always rebirthed in the land of the living. The theology here is strongly Buddhist. Like an interminable Groundhog’s Day or some kind of purgatory, he is stuck living the same circumstances over and over again until he reaches enlightenment.

Ultimately, it is cannibalism that leads to Hitoshi/Daiki’s epiphany about the other MEs. On the brink of starvation, he tries to reach a compromise with another ME over a dead ME’s body: 

Share? Why not? Why had I not thought of that before? Why had I convinced myself of the necessity of bringing the other down? Share? Was that not a splendid idea?

It seems like pure habit when he goes back on his word not to harm the other ME—and just retribution when the other ME kills him.

This time, he finds his consciousness reborn into his dead corpse. While he is being eaten (painlessly, thank goodness), he finally comes to a realization: every time he has “deleted” and eaten another ME, he has betrayed himself. Now, though dead and voiceless, he offers himself freely to his companions:

Go ahead and eat me… every bit of me. Give my bones to the beasts anon. See to it that there is not a trace of me remaining. And if my carcass has any nutritional value, I should be grateful. Eat me. Live long and prosper. It is enough if I can contribute to your welfare.

He also realizes that, for the first time in his life, he is useful to someone.

After Hitoshi/Daiki’s consciousness moves into the body of the living ME, he has a plan. He will reconcile with the other MEs, end the “deletions,” start a communal farming project…

But he is now the only ME left on the mountain. Like “an undulating assault [comes] the absolute realization that [he is] the only one left.” The others have all deleted each other. His dreams of entering into a community with all the MEs, to reintegrate his self, cannot be realized.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

I am grateful to Grove Press for their digital review copy of Earthlings. The novel will be released in October 2020. Please note that this analysis does include spoilers.

Fans of Sayaka Murata’s other work in English will find themselves on familiar ground in Earthlings. A first person, female narrator doesn’t quite get society. Keiko (Convenience Store Woman) and Mizuki (“A Clean Marriage”) would likely sympathize with Yuki’s description of her town as “a factory for the production of human babies.” Like Murata’s other women, Yuki finds herself on the periphery of society—not so much by choice as by her failure to understand why she should follow the dictates of her culture. Again like Keiko and Mizuki, she voluntarily enters a non-sexual marriage to get representatives of “the factory” off her back.

But Earthlings is a good deal darker than Murata’s other work in English. Toward the end of the novel, Yuki, her husband, and her cousin retreat from the city for Yuki’s grandfather’s tumble-down estate. None of them are Earthlings, they decide. Instead, they are from the planet Popinpobopia, a fantasy world Yuki’s cousin shared with her when they were children. Over the course of several months, they intentionally shed their humanity. Time loses its meaning as the narrative moves into stream-of-consciousness.

Eventually, Yuki experiences sexual desire for the first time. Ever since a teacher molested her as a child, she hasn’t felt a sense of autonomy over her body and loses her sex drive; she had thought “[her] sexual urge was broken and that [she] would never in [her] life experience it again.” Now, as the boundaries between her self and her companions’ selves begin to dissolve, she begins “to feel a sexual urge forming.” Their relationship remains chaste—at least for the time being.

Then winter arrives. Unable to forage for food, they eventually turn to cannibalism to survive. Yuki realizes that this act is a final act of departure from the human community: if they do this, they will “lose any chance of ever being accepted into the Earthling fold again.”

Although cannibalism begins as a necessity, it becomes a generous act of sharing. Each of the three Popinpobopians volunteers in turn to die to nourish the others. In the end, they decide to cut away small pieces of their bodies so they can taste each other. Their cannibalism becomes a unifying force through a grotesque orgy of consuming and being consumed. It is unclear whether or not there is actual sexual contact, but it’s not actually that important. Through the act of cannibalism, they are literally joining their flesh.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of Murata’s cannibalism is that it is generative. When Earthlings finally discover the three, Yuki’s husband and cousin have massively swollen bellies. They claim to be pregnant, and promise they will continue to multiply.

It’s possible Murata may be trying to normalize the practice of cannibalism—at least voluntary cannibalism. Maybe it does, as the Popinbopians claim, make logical sense. But it’s difficult to get past what Tony Milligan calls “the yuck factor.” Could Murata really expect her readers to react differently than the humans do at the end of the novel?: that is, with violent vomiting and cries that “[ring] out to the far corners of the planet, setting the forests trembling.”

So here is the claim of both novels: In an isolating society that increasingly rejects sex and personal relationships, cannibalism is the only way to have meaningful communion.

A grim apocalypse indeed.

Aoyama, Tomoko. “Cannibalism in Modern Japanese Literature” in Reading Food in Modern Japanese Literature, 2008.

Arens, William. The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthrophagy, 1980.

Kenney, Elizabeth. “Shinto Mortuary Rites in Contemporary Japan” in Cashiers d’Extrême-Asie, 1996.

Kidd, James. “A Mind-Bending Exploration of Identity and the Problems of Contemporary Japan” at Post Magazine, 2017.

Mickkelson, David. “Did Tokyo Open the First Human Meat Restaurant?” at Snopes.com, 2017.

Milligan, 2019. “Tokyo Ghoul and the Trouble with Cannibalism” in The Metaphor of the Monster: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Understanding the Monstrous Other in Literature, 2020.

Schmitt, Bill. Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, 2018.

Spencer, Geogg. “Japan Hears of World War II Cannibalism a Half-Century Later” at AP.com, 1992.