SF! A Booklist of Japanese Science Fiction in Translation

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Kobo Abe

Ken Asamatsu

  • Queen of K’n-yan (translated by Kathleen Taji)

Yoshio Aramaki

Toh Enjoe

Taiyo Fujii

  • Gene Mapper (translated by Jim Hubbert)
  • Orbital Cloud (translated by Timothy Silver)
  • Featured in The Apex Book of World SF 5
  • Featured in Everyone: Worlds without Walls
  • Featured in The Rosetta Archive: Notable Speculative Fiction in Translation

Kaori Fujino

Ryo Hanmura

Jyouji Hayashi

Tobi Hirotaka

Akira Hori

Shinichi Hoshi

  • The God of Fortune (translated by Robert Matthew)
  • The Spiteful Planet and Other Stories (translated by Bernard Susser and Tomoyoshi Genkawa)
  • A Well-Kept Life (translated by Marina Hoshi Whyte and Kim Hines)
  • Voice Net (translated by Marina Hoshi Whyte and Kim Hines)
  • Featured in The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories
  • Featured in We, Robots

Takuji Ichikawa

Rokuro Inui

Takashi Ishikawa

Chohei Kambayashi

Shigeru Kayama

Hirai Kazumasa

Morio Kita

Yusaku Kitano

Erika Kobayashi

Sakyo Komatsu

  • Japan Sinks: A Novel about Earthquakes (translated by Michael Gallagher)
  • Virus: The Day of Resurrection (translated by Daniel Huddleston)
  • Featured in The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories

Tensei Kono

  • Featured in The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories

Kaoru Kurimoto

Gengen Kusano

Osamu Makino

Taku Mayumura

  • Administrator (translated by Daniel Jackson)
  • Featured in The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories

Miyuki Miyabe

  • The Book of Heroes (translated by Alexander O. Smith) and The Gate of Sorrows (translated by Jim Hubbert)
  • Brave Story (translated by Alexander O. Smith)
  • Crossfire (translated by Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi and Anna Husson Isozaki)
  • The Devil’s Whisper (translated by Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi)
  • Ico: Castle in the Mist (translated by Alexander O. Smith)
  • Puppet Master (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
  • Shadow Family (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter)
  • Featured in Phantasm Japan
  • Much of Miyabe’s other writing might qualify as SF.

Yusuke Miyauchi

Ryu Mitsuse

Tomihiko Morimi

Haruki Murakami

Ryu Murakami

  • Coin Locker Babies (translated by Stephen Snyder)
  • Some of Murakami’s other writing might qualify as SF.

Norio Nakai

Asa Nonami

  • Body (translated by Takami Nieda)

Issui Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa

Mariko Ohara

Shunro Oshikawa

Hiroko Oyamada

Project Ito

  • Genocidal Organ (translated by Edwin Hawkes)
  • Harmony (translated by Alexander O. Smith)
  • Metal Gear Solid: Guns of the Patriots (translated by Nathan Collins)
  • Featured in The Future Is Japanese
  • Featured in Phantasm Japan

Hiroshi Sakurazaka

  • All You Need Is Kill (translated by Alexander O. Smith)
  • Featured in Hanzai Japan

Yuya Sato

Hideaki Sena

  • Parasite Eve (translated by Tyran Grillo)

Soji Shimada

Kazufumi Shiraishi

Hiroe Suga

Izumi Suzuki

Koji Suzuki

  • Dark Water (translated by Glynne Walley)
  • Death and the Flower (translated by Maya Robinson and Camellia Nieh)
  • Edge (translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies and Camellia Nieh)
  • Paradise (translated by Tyran Grillo)
  • Promenade of the Gods (translated by Takami Nieda)
  • Ring series:
    • Ring (translated by Robert Rohmer and Glynne Walley)
    • Spiral (translated by Glynne Walley)
    • Loop (translated by Glynne Walley)
    • Birthday (translated by Glynne Walley)
    • S (translated by Greg Gencarello)
  • The Shining Sea (translated by Brian Bergstrom)

Seia Tanabe

Koshu Tani

Yoko Tawada

  • The Emissary (translated by Margaret Mitsutani)
    • Also published as The Last Children of Tokyo
  • Scattered All Over the Earth (translated by Margaret Mitsutani)
  • Some of Tawada’s other writing might qualify as SF.

Dempow Torishima

Aritsune Toyota

Yasutaka Tsutsui

Sayuri Ueda

Juza Unno

  • Fast Forward Japan (translated by J. D. Wisgo)
    • also published as Science: Hopes and Fears (translated by J. D. Wisgo)

Masaki Yamada

Hiroshi Yamamoto

Tetsu Yano

  • Featured in The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories
  • Featured in The Penguin World Omnibus of Science Fiction
  • Featured in Requiem: New Collected Works by Robert A. Heinlein and Tributes to the Grand Master
  • Featured in Tales from the Planet Earth: A Novel with Nineteen Authors

Baku Yumemakura

  • The Psyche Diver Trilogy (translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies):
    • Desires of the Flesh
    • The Darkness
    • The Demon’s Cry

Transcript of Episode 23: Writing from Okinawa

Find out more about Episode 22 of the Read Literature podcast on the episode page.

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  • Notes and sources
  • Ways to support the podcast

This is Read Japanese Literature. My name is Alison Fincher.

Read Japanese Literature is a podcast about Japanese fiction and some of its best works All the works we discuss are available in translation, so you can read along if you want. You can find out more at ReadJapaneseLiterature.com.

You may have noticed that I’m fairly late putting out this episode.  I apologize. I’ve needed a little extra time to think.

Talking about literature in translation is… complicated. Actually, it’s becoming increasingly clear I want to do at least one episode on translation itself. What texts get translated and why? What are the pros of translation? What gets lost? Why might an author prefer not to have their work translated?

Prepping this episode really highlighted some of the complications of talking about literature in translation. There isn’t that much literature from Okinawa available in English. In fact, the 1st full-length, stand-alone novel from Okinawa wasn’t published in English until 2017. That’s Shun Medoruma’s In the Woods of Memory, translated by Takuma Sminkey.

As you might expect, there also isn’t as much English-language scholarship about literature from Okinawa. My bibliography for this episode is a lot shorter than normal. And the story I’m able to tell about the history of Okinawa’s literature relies pretty heavily than normal on the work of just a few scholars. I’m very grateful for those scholars: Davinder Bhowmik, Michael Molasky, and Steve Rabson. They’re generally very highly regarded.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I know the way English-speakers think about other cultures and their literatures are filtered through our own historical and cultural biases. At least for me, it was more obvious than normal when I was prepping an episode on Okinawan literature. And I had a harder time looking at multiple stories and sources for a more nuanced perspective.

I’ve done my very best anyway. And it would have been wrong to continue to leave Okinawa out of the story of Japanese literature just because it was hard. But I wanted to be straightforward about why this episode was challenging in the name of intellectual honesty.

A quick content warning: This episode will include some discussion of the Battle of Okinawa. It is a truly horrific moment in history, so we’ll be discussing suicide, rape, and murder.

I’m going to give you a head’s up before we discuss the history itself, so you can skip that content if necessary. But it’s also important history. And it’s going to be relevant to Shun Medoruma’s story “Droplets” at the end of today’s episode.

[3:21] Since it isn’t a place a lot of English-speakers know much about, I want to give you just a little bit more information about Okinawa before we get started.

First of all, the term “Okinawa” gets used to mean a lot of different things. Many (maybe most) non-Japanese people use “Okinawa” when what they mean are the Ryukyu Islands.

Remember that Japan itself is an archipelago. The four “main islands” are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. [Honshu] is the largest island. It’s where Tokyo and most of Japan’s main cities are. It’s also the site of Tohōku, which we discussed in the last episode.

The Ryukyu Islands are a chain of islands that stretch from Japan’s southernmost “main island” (Kyushu) all the way to Taiwan. The official Japanese name for this island chain is Nansei-Shoto.) Okinawa itself is the largest island in the Ryukyu Island chain.

The term “Okinawa” can also refer to Okinawa Prefecture. A Prefecture is roughly the equivalent of an American state or Canadian province—Japan is divided into 47 prefectures.

Two-thirds of the Ryukyu Islands are part of Okinawa Prefecture. The northern third of the Ryukyu Islands are part of Kagoshima Prefecture. In Japanese, these islands are called “Satsunan-shotō” or “the Satsunan Islands”.

Almost 1.5 million people call Okinawa Prefecture home. Okinawa Prefecture is one of Japan’s smallest prefectures [by population]. 

Okinawa Prefecture is about 880 square miles—that’s 2280 square kilometers. And as I mentioned, Okinawa is its largest island. Okinawa is also the site of the capital city of the prefecture, Naha.

[5:38] I’m going to start today with a deeper dive into the history of the Ryukyu Islands/Okinawa. I haven’t done a history section this deep since season one. If you haven’t been with us since the beginning, season one is a broad overview of the history of Japanese literature. 

I think the deep dive is important today because I, unfortunately left Okinawa’s history mostly out of season one. I think that’s a mistake I made—sorry about that—and its history is vitally important to its literature.

We’ll move on to the way literature has developed in Okinawa. We’ll start with some of its oldest recorded texts…some of its Meiji- and pre-war writing… but we’ll really focus on Okinawan literature after the war. The vast majority of Okinawan literature translated into English dates from after 1950.

We’ll end with the life and work of writer/activist Shun Medoruma—especially his Akutagawa-winning story “Droplets”.

[6:47] Over the next few minutes, I hope I can give you the broad outlines of Okinawan history—at least enough to help make sense of the story of Okinawan literature. If you want a more thorough history of Okinawa or the Ryukyu Islands, I highly recommend the History of Japan Podcast by Isaac Meyer. He has a two part series [parts one and two] about Japan and Okinawa—as well as several other episodes. I’ll put links on the episode page.

Formal Japanese interaction with the Ryukyus didn’t begin until the 15th century. But we have lots of information about what the islands looked like before that. Some of the people living in the Ryukyus immigrated from East and Northeast Asia, just like many of the people living in Japan. But others came from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. These migrants would have brought with them special skills in farming and fishing.

By 1300, three kingdoms ruled the Ryukyus:

  • Nanzan in the south
  • Chūzan in the center
  • And Hokuzan in the north

Chūzan was the most powerful—it eventually took control of the entire Ryukyus.

In 1372, Chūzan asked China to establish a formal tributary relationship. They paid money to China and more-or-less deferred to what China wanted. In return, they got political favors and favorable trade conditions. It was a lucrative deal for a country that thrived on trade.

In the early 1400s, a man named King Shō Hashi united the Ryukyu Islands to create the Ryukyu Kingdom.

This tributary system remained the status quo in the Ryukyu Kingdom for about  two centuries. And that period is sometimes referred to as “The Golden Age of the Ryukyu Kingdom”.

[8:23] But in 1609 the Japanese invaded.

The extremely powerful Shimazu Clan forced the Ryukyu Kingdom to accept a suzerain-vassal relationship. The Ryukyuans had less control now over their own government than they had before—but they still had a great deal of autonomy for another two centuries.

So the Ryukyuan Kingdom actually managed to be both a vassal state of Japan and a tributary state of China at the same time. This was a great system for China and Japan. You might remember the term sakoku—Japan’s “closed country” policy. Sakoku was at its height in the 17th and 18th centur[ies]. It lasted from 1603 to 1868. The Ryukyuan Kingdom made it possible for China and Japan to trade with each other, and the trading partners could kind of pretend… they weren’t.

As for the Ryukyuan Kingdom, they benefited in some ways, but it was consistent with a long-standing pattern. The Ryukyuans… the Okinawans… tend to get stuck in the middle between larger, more powerful countries on either side.

[9:39] That compromise system—vassal to Japan, tributary to China—ended in 1872.

The Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867. The Meiji Regime took its place in 1868. Four years after the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom.

The Japanese government created Okinawa Prefecture in 1872. Okinawan men gained the right to vote for representatives in 1912, more than twenty years after the National Diet was established.

The Meiji Government applied its “Civilization and Enlightenment” policies to Okinawa with special zeal. These Meji policies weren’t always met with resistance. Okinawans were sometimes the motivating force behind policies like the use of Tokyo dialect in schools.

Nevertheless, Okinawans often faced the same kinds of prejudices as Koreans, Chinese, or other marginalized groups in Japan. Okinawa Prefecture received less government investment than other prefectures. They paid higher taxes.

It also happened to Okinawans as individuals, especially if they tried to move to the mainland. For example, many businesses put out signs that said Okinawans shouldn’t bother looking there for housing or employment.

[11:07] And then the Pacific War began. 

World War II was absolutely brutal—especially for Okinawa. (Here, I’m talking specifically about the Island of Okinawa rather than the whole Ryukyu chain or the prefecture.) The Battle of Okinawa left more than a fourth—maybe as many as half—of Okinawan residents dead.

I might not go into more detail, but the Battle of Okinawa is extremely relevant for Okinawan literature. It’s also a moment in history worth remembering. Some of the details will come up again. If you want to be spared an historical account, you probably want to skip ahead about four minutes.

[The US Army and US Marine Corps invaded Okinawa Island on April 1, 1945. That invasion was the beginning of an 82-day battle. It cost the lives of about 13,000 American troops and over 110,000 Japanese troops. That number includes 30,000 Okinawan civilians conscripted into the Japanese army for the battle. And, of those, several thousand were schoolboys between fourteen and seventeen years old mobilized in the Tekkestu Kinnōtai or “Iron and Blood Imperial Corp”.

Legally, the boys were “volunteers”. In reality, most of them didn’t have much choice. The main character in “Droplets” was 1 of these “soldiers”.

Hundreds of schoolgirls were forced to join the Himeyuri or “Lily Corp” as nurses. Their position as non-combatants didn’t save them from brutal conditions or death. There’s another character in “Droplets” whom we aren’t going to discuss today who was a member of the Himeyuri.

All told, the battle probably cost over 230,000 lives, most of them Okinawan civilians. 

This is where I’m afraid I have to get very upsetting—I need to explain the reason the civilian casualties were so high. And to do that, I’m going to have to talk about suicide and a number of other gruesome topics.

The Japanese government went out of its way to convince Okinawan civilians they would be raped and tortured if they were captured by the American military. Many Okinawans took their own lives to make sure that didn’t happen. And the Japanese imperial army often provided them with the means to do it.

Many members of the Himeyuri—the schoolgirl nurse corp—jumped off cliffs or shared a single hand grenade to accomplish the task.

Okinawans shared the responsibility of killing family members, sometimes while they were already sheltering in family tombs. 

Japanese soldiers intentionally killed Okinawans. Sometimes simply by driving them out of places where they were sheltering. Sometimes by killing people they thought put them in danger. Small children who might cry. Okinawans speaking in dialect. (Japanese soldiers claimed to think they might be spies.)

Japanese soldiers killed Okinawans caught stealing limited food supplies that had been co-opted by the military.

Some of this history is controversial, as we’ll discuss in a few minutes. But hundreds of thousands of Okinawans have protested even in the last decade to make sure these historical accounts remain in Japanese textbooks.

American soldiers were guilty of atrocities during the Battle of Okinawa, too. But overall, Okinawans were shocked by how relatively well they were treated by American GIs. Compared to the Japanese military, the 1945 American military was considered downright humane. They also provided scant—but desperately needed, food, clothing, and medical treatment. Many Okinawans still feel betrayed by the Japanese government for how badly they were lied to about the way the Americans would treat them.]

[15:12] The Battle of Okinawa ended on June 23. Even today, many Okinawans regard June 23 as the final day of World War II. But it wasn’t until August 15, 1945, that the Emperor of Japan made his 1st ever radio broadcast to announce Japan’s unconditional surrender.

It’s easy to walk away from the story of the Battle of Okinawa with a sense that Okinawans were purely victims. But many Okinawans—especially Okinawan writers—have asserted that Okinawa also needs to confront the role Okinawa played in Japan’s wartime imperialism. 

In April of 1945, the US issued the Nimitz Proclamation. The Nimitz Proclamation declared that “the Islands of Nansei Shoto [aka the Ryukyus] and Adjacent Waters” were now under the “final administrative authority” of the US Navy. “All powers of the Government of the Japanese Empire,” it went on, “[Were] hereby suspended”.

American control of the Ryukyus continued after the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco re-established peaceful relations between Japan and the Allied Powers. After the US ended its occupation of the rest of Japan in 1952. In fact, the American occupation of the Ryukyus lasted for 27 years—until May 15, 1972.

During the 1950s, the US military rapidly expanded its facilities in Okinawa. In the 1950s and 60s, the US even moved nuclear weapons through its Okinawan bases. 

To be clear, the US wasn’t the only motivating force behind this military buildup. Under Japan’s 1945 Constitution—which occupying American authorities wrote—Japan can only maintain a defensive military. Japan did—still does—depend on its alliance with the US as a part of its national security policy. And so many people in Japan want the US military in Japan—just not in their backyards.

The Okinawan response to American GIs after the Battle of Okinawa may have been positive, but Okinawans weren’t excited about a prolonged American occupation. A lot of Okinawans opposed the American presence. More than 70% of the Okinawan electorate supported reunification with Japan. (And that was the most commonly fought for solution. Not Okinawan independence, but reversion—the term for returning Okinawa to its prefectural status.)

[17:58] In 1969, Japanese Prime Minister Satō and US President Nixon agreed to return Okinawa’s status as a Japanese prefecture. In the end, reversion took place in May of 1972.

Even though reversion is something Okinawans fought for very hard, it has been something of a mixed blessing. On the plus side, Okinawans have Japanese passports. They can travel to and from Japan as Japanese citizens.

On the other hand, mainland Japanese companies came to Okinawa and quickly overwhelmed a lot of Okinawan businesses.

And, reversion didn’t have the effects a lot of Okinawans had hoped for. Many Okinawans dreamed of social and economic opportunities that didn’t really appear.

And even today, the Japanese government still allows Okinawa Prefecture to bear the brunt of the American military presence.

Okinawa Prefecture makes up just three-fifths of a percent of Japan’s landmass. As of 2006, 75% of all US bases were based in Okinawa. And bases took up 18% of the land on the main island. 

The Japanese government has promised, and promised, and promised to find new sites for the bases. But no one else in Japan wants the bases in their prefectures either.

Again, the American military is important to Japan’s national security plans—one poll found that 76% of Japanese people wanted the US military present in Japan. But that doesn’t make the US presence benign. For example, in 1995 three US servicemen based in Okinawa raped a twelve-year-old Okinawan girl. The incident was only the tip of the iceberg of criminal complaints against American GIs—but this one in particular kicked off huge protests.

Most of the complaints are more mundane—though no less valid: noise, pollution, the risks of accidents…

Another poll found that 43 percent of Okinawans want the US bases in Okinawa closed completely. And again, let me add that Okinawans aren’t just angry at the US. They’re also angry at a national government that doesn’t seem to be listening to them.
[20:32] US bases aside, by most measures, Okinawa is still behind the rest of Japan economically. For example, in 2018, Okinawa Prefecture had the second lowest per-capita income of all 47 Japanese prefectures—3.1 million yen or $29,000 US.

[20:58] Scholars Michael Molasky and Steve Rabson edited one of the most important English-language anthologies of Okinawan literature. I’m relying heavily on the background on Okinawan literature in their introduction to the anthology Southern Exposure.

Okinawa literature has usually been more “regional” than literature from mainland Japan—and that’s sometimes been something of a choice.

We’ve talked a lot about how insular and cliquey Japan’s literary establishment can be. Remember the bundan? The bundan rarely stretched itself to accommodate people outside of Tokyo. Little surprise it didn’t stretch all the way to accommodate people from Okinawa.

Instead of fighting for a place in the bundan, the Okinawan literary community has fostered what Molasky and Rabson describe as “an unabashedly ‘regional’ literature capable of appealing well beyond its narrow borders”.

But let me go back a bit…

[21:57] The oldest written Okinawan literature dates to the “Golden Age of the Ryukyu Kingdom” that we discussed a few minutes ago. That period of peace as a Chinese tributary before the Shimazu Clan invaded. But even though the Ryukyus were a tributary for China, they also traded with Japan, Korea, and the rest of Southeast Asia.

People in the Ryukyu Kingdom adopted not Chinese characters as their writing system but the Japanese syllabary—kana. (This is actually a much more appropriate writing system for languages like Japanese, as we discussed in our very first episode.)

The adoption of a writing system allowed the people of the Ryukyus to record much older legends and songs that had been passed down orally. It’s the same kind of process that allowed the people of Japan to collect texts like The Kojiki and other early Japanese anthologies. [Learn more about The Kojiki with RJL.]

In the Ryukyus, the earliest collection is the Omoro Soshi—Okinawa’s most important work of classical literature.

Even though it was collected between around 1530-1630, some of the selections go all the way back to the 1100s. There is something like an English-language translation of the Omoro Soshi: Mitsugu Sakihara published A Brief History of Early Okinawa Based on the Omoro Sōshi in 1987.

Unfortunately, there is almost no other pre-Meiji writing accessible to English-language readers.

[23:26] Japan’s annexation of the Ryukyu Islands shaped Okinawan writing. There’s a little more available to English-language readers that was written between 1872 and World War II. Some of it’s anthologized in Southern Exposure. Molasky and Rabson describe “the struggle over Okinawa’s cultural identity” as “the predominant issue in prewar literature”.

We aren’t going to cover any of those writers in depth today, but I hope to come back to some of their writing in the future. That includes writ[ers] like Baku Yamanokuchi, who is also one of Okinawa’s best-beloved poets—although he also wrote prose. And Fusako Kushi, who is 1 of a very small number of prominent women writers in Okinawa before the 1980s.

[24:13] What Molasky and Rabson call the “1st dynamic period in post-war Okinawan literature” began in the mid-1950s.

Now… when I talk about “literature”, I usually talk about fiction. That’s mainly to narrow my scope—and I think it usually makes sense.

Kyle Ikeda at the University of Vermont reminds us that we should also think about non-fiction as literature, too—especially in the context of Okinawan literary history.

For one thing, Europeans and Americans considered non-fiction “literature” for most of our cultural history. For another, Japan’s literary traditions—like the I-novel—make the line between fiction and non-fiction kinda blurry. (We discussed that in an episode last season about Osamu Dazai.)

Kyle Ikeda makes the point that non-fiction accounts are particularly important for Okinawan literature. This is especially true of accounts of the Battle of Okinawa. He quotes Okinawan literature scholar Masanori Nahahodo, who calls this kind of narrative nonfiction Okinawa no senki bungaku or “Documentary War Literature of Okinawa”.

“Documentary War Literature of Okinawa” is hugely impactful.

Mainland Japanese accounts of the Battle of Okinawa tend to celebrate the camaraderie and sacrifice of Japanese and Okinawan soldiers… And they tend to downplay or completely omit the terrible atrocities Japanese soldiers carried out against Okinawan civilians.

These are the accounts Japan’s Ministry of Education is most likely to approve for use in school textbooks. The stories that go in school textbooks tend to become the histories everyone “knows” about their own country.

In 2007, for example, the Japanese Ministry of Education recommended removing references to the Japanese military encouraging group suicides in Okinawa. That incident incited a protest of over 110,000 Okinawans.

And so the “Documentary War Literature of Okinawa” has helped preserve memories of what life looked like during the Battle of Okinawa for Okinawan [civilians].

[26:25] A lot of post-war Okinawan fiction has also dealt with the Battle of Okinawa or its long aftermath… especially the American occupation or war memory. 

Scholars Davinder Bhowmik and Steve Rabson identify Ryohaku Ota’s 1946 story “Black Diamonds” as “the first work of postwar Okinawan fiction”. 

But that post-war fertile period Molasky and Rabson mentioned was really kicked off by a student magazine out of the University of the Ryukyus called Ryudai Bungaku. Remember that the fertile period began in the 1950s—decades before reversion. American censors hated Ryūdai Bungaku because its editors never hesitated to criticize the American military.

Two Ryūdai Bungaku editors went on to become prominent Okinawan journalists—Akira Arakawa and Shinichi Kawamitsu.

They also founded a second literary journal in 1966 called Shin Okinawa Bungaku or “New Okinawan Literature”. That journal was the most important journal in Okinawan publishing for decades, until iit shuttered in 1993.

According to Molasky and Rabson, “most critics agree that modern Okinawan literature” really “c[a]me into its own” in the 1960s, especially with the publication of Tatsuhiro Ōshiro’s story “Cocktail Party”. “Cocktail Party” won Oshiro the 1967 Akutagawa Prize.  (The Akutagawa Prize is probably Japan’s most celebrated literary award. If you want to learn more about the Akutagawa,  check out our episode 20 about the Akutagawa Prize and Kobo Abe.)

Keep in mind that the Akutagawa Prize was founded in 1935. Tatsuhiro Oshiro was the very 1st Okinawan to win… and it wasn’t until 1967. Very few other Okinawan writers have won the prize.

In 1996, Eiki Mataoyshi won the Akutagawa in 1996 with his novella Pig’s Revenge. Pig’s Revenge is different than a lot of contemporary Okinawan writing. It isn’t about the war or the occupation. Politics is almost entirely absent. It’s simply a story that takes place in Okinawa that features Okinawan people. 

Even though Matayoshi already had an impressive career, critics were pretty cynical about his win. Maybe he won because the competition was weak. Maybe he’d won because Okinawa had been in the news because of protests against the American military bases. Maybe he won because the prize had been going to “minority writers” like Zainichi Koreans… Imagine 2010s and 20s American critics complaining the award had gone “woke”.

Shun Medoruma got something of a different—a more positive reaction—after he won in 1997 for his story “Droplets”.

[29:43] Shun Medoruma was born in a village on the northernmost part of the island of Okinawa—in 1960. For context, Yoko Tawada was born in 1960; Yoko Ogawa was born in 1962…

1960 is also memorable in Japan for the Summer of Rage. “The Summer of Rage” was a coming together of 2 events into a major turning point in modern Japanese history: the renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty and the Mitsui Corporation’s Miike Coal Mine Strike. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets over the course of several months—and protests grew so violent that President Dwight Eisenhower had to cancel a planned visit.

I should note that “Shun Medoruma” is a pen name. The author is a famously private man. He insists that critics and the media not reveal his personal name.

Medoruma has been a relatively well-known writer in Okinawa for most of his adult life. He started winning Okinawan literary awards when he was still in college at the University of the Ryukyus. 

But he became a prominent voice in mainland Japanese literature when he won the 1997 Akutagawa Prize for his story “Suiteki” or “Droplets”.  Very few Okinawan writers support themselves solely through writing. When Medoruma won the Akutagawa, he was working as a high-school teacher. 

[31:08] These days, Medoruma publishes essentially no fiction. In early 2023, Dr. Lisa  Hofmann-Kuroda translated several of Medoruma’s essays for The Baffler. And they were published under the title “From the Deep Forests and Seas of Yambaru: Against the U.S. Military Presence in Japan”. Her introduction explains that Medoruma has turned “all of his time and attention toward protesting the presence of the American military in Okinawa” since 2009. Medoruma also keeps a prominent political blog.

The essays in “From the Deep Forests…” give us a nice snapshot of the sorts of things Medoruma has been doing with his time instead of writing fiction.

“The Sea of Henoko, Midsummer” dates to 2017. Medoruma describes spending every other day canoeing in Henoko Bay to protest the US Marine Corps’ construction of a military base there. Construction began in 2014. On top of political objections, protestors also have very legitimate concerns about environmental damage.

They’re especially worried about the Okinawan dugong.  It’s a marine mammal related to the manatee that’s also an important part of Okinawan mythology and culture. The population has fallen to critically endangered status during the bases’s construction—there are now believed to be fewer than ten (that’s two digits: 1-0) ten remaining Okinawan dugongs left in the wild.

In Medoruma’s words, translated by Hofmann-Kuroda, “We go out in groups of ten boats, leaving around eight in the morning and returning at four in the afternoon… If you go out in two three-hour shifts—morning and afternoon—that’s six hours in a canoe. If you go out every other day, that’s ninety hours a month, 1,080 hours a year.” He thinks that’s about average for his group.

They end at four, wash their canoes and tools. Medoruma heads home around six to shower, do laundry, do a little strength training. He organizes photos and videos, and blogs. By then it’s around midnight—Medoruma’s in bed by one or two am and back up the next morning about six.

“I have almost no time to read books, let alone write on this schedule,” he says. “I’ve often thought to myself that I should stop protesting, or at least significantly cut down on the amount of time I spend protesting, to focus on writing my novels. But I could never bring myself to do it.”
[33:47] In case you’re wondering, the Henoko Base controversy is ongoing. The base is way over schedule and way over budget, but neither the Japanese government nor the US military is willing to admit defeat. Protesters aren’t giving up. The Okinawan Prefectural government isn’t giving up. In December of 2022, the Okinawan Prefectural government lost a Japanese Supreme Court case about the base on a technicality—it was the prefecture’s fifth such legal attempt to halt base construction.

[34:22] Before we begin our discussion of “Droplets,” I want to provide just three ideas to give us context.

First, I want to say something about translator Michael Molasky’s use of dialect in his translation.

The use of dialogue is a thorny issue for Okinawan writers. If a writer uses dialect, they make their work less accessible to mainland readers. A less accessible work reaches far fewer readers… and makes far less money. On the other hand, Okinawan writers who don’t use dialect risk isolating themselves from their culture. This has become less true over time—most younger Okinawans are fluent in “standard” Japanese. 

As you might expect, the use of dialect is also complicated for translators. In the introduction to Southern Exposure, Molasky and Rabson identify several ways they might deal with it. Ignore it. Transliterate the words—that means write them with the Roman alphabet—and then define what they’ve transliterated with footnotes. Transliterate the words and then not define it with footnotes. Or translate the words into a different, English-language dialect.

Molasky used this approach for “Droplets”. But he also made the decision with Medoruma on how to translate the dialect into English. The two of them wanted to preserve a marked difference in social class between the main character and his wife, Ushi. So Ushi talks something like someone from Appalachia would talk because she has much less education than her husband.

[35:50] Second, “Droplets” is a work of magical realism. Earlier this season, Read Japanese Literature did an entire episode on magical realism. I talked about why I continue to use the term “magical realism” even though it’s controversial in some circles. More than almost anywhere else in Japan, Okinawa has the kind of colonial history that many people associate with magical realist fiction.

The short definition of magical realism is that it is a way of telling a story that is mostly realistic—except that there are elements of “irreducible magic” that are fundamental parts of the tale.

[36:30] The third thing I want to talk about before we bring up “Droplets” is the “gourd melon”. 

The Japanese term is tōgan. The northern Okinawan dialect term is subui. It is a watermelon-ish melon. In Okinawa, it’s usually boiled and eaten as a vegetable.

Medoruma doesn’t usually comment on his own stories, but he does remind his readers that a large number of gourd melons appeared after the Battle of Okinawa. And the anecdotal explanation is that they were nourished by the hundreds of thousands of corpses produced by the battle.

[36:06] “Droplets” begins this way.

It was during a dry spell in mid-June, the rainy season, when Tokushō’s leg suddenly swelled up.”

Tokushō wakes up from a nap to find that his lower leg and foot have swollen to enormous proportions, bigger than his thigh. He can’t move or speak. And his leg and foot are still swelling. He watches as his leg and foot swell to the size of “an average gourd melon” and turn a pale green.

His wife, Ushi, comes to wake him up. (Ushi, by the way, is the Japanese word for “cow”.) Her first response to his illness is… anger? She needs his help on the farm. If he didn’t spend his nights drinking, playing cards, and sleeping around, this wouldn’t have happened.

She slaps his swollen leg, his big toe splits open, and something starts dripping out of his big toe. So she sticks a jug under his foot to catch the liquid. She tastes it… like you do… and it has “the mild sweetness of the juice from an unripe hechima gourd”. Then… she goes to call the doctor. Eventually, she decides she’ll cure Tokushō herself, or at least with the help of traditional medicine. But Tokushō lays paralyzed and speechless for weeks.

One night, the sleeping Tokushō wakes up to find his room full of injured men in tattered army uniforms. One by one, they bend over and lick the water that’s dripped from his toe to his heel.

Tokushō is horrified… and also ticklish. But mostly he has no idea what is going on.

After that, soldiers show up every night. The third night, Tokushō recognizes one of them as his friend Ishimine. The boys served together in the Blood and Iron Imperial Service Corp during the Battle of Okinawa. Tokushō was only sixteen years old at the time.

Tokushō can’t talk anymore. But when he could talk, he hated talking about his time in the Blood and Iron Imperial Service Corp. In the last few years, he had been pressured into it for the village’s oral history project. He has spoken at nearby schools. He got a small honorarium for his efforts—a little cash payment as a thank you. And he has started embroidering the truth—changing his story to match “what his audience wanted to hear”. In other words, he told the nicer version of events—the kind of mainland version of events. Okinawan soldiers bravely fought until they couldn’t fight anymore, and then sacrificed themselves in the name of Japan.

Ushi wasn’t happy when she found out what he was doing: “You start fibbin’ and makin’ up sorry tales to profit off the war and you’ll get your fair punishment in the end.” Maybe the whole experience—the swelling, the paralysis—is the punishment Ushi was afraid of.

About two-thirds of the way through the story, we finally get Tokushō’s memory of what really happened to Tokushō and Ishmine. It’s a heartbreaking memory: Tokushō failed to bring back water to injured and dying men. As Tokushō sees it, he betrayed and abandoned his companions. Then again, many of them were little more than children—including Tokushō. And it’s clear these events of just a few days changed the courts of his entire life.

Tokushō thinks that having his toe sucked, “relieving the soldiers’ thirst” is “the only way to atone for his sins”. But what are his sins, exactly? No one haunted him for decades. Maybe it’s that Tokushō, like many Okinawans, had let his memories fade. He had finally given into stories about the war that were much easier to live with. He tried to make himself forget. And he was profiting off telling a version of events that other people wanted to hear.

It isn’t until the night he forces himself to remember that the spirits tell him, “Thank you. At last the thirst is gone”. The next morning he wakes up, and he is healed.

[41:48] So why read Okinawan literature?

It’s easy for an English reader to focus on the “biggest names” in translated literature from Japan. Contemporary writers like Haruki Murakami or Mieko Kawakami. And earlier twentieth century writers like Yukio Mishima or Osamu Dazai.

We’re readers in translation. The picture we get of “Japanese literature” is always a little blurred. It’s painted by what publishers choose to give us access to in English translation.

(Just in case it isn’t clear, I’m extremely grateful for that access—both to publishers and translators who make it possible to read work from Japan at all.) But we can also sharpen the edges of that by looking to voices outside the mainstream.

There has been notably little work by writers from Okinawa prefecture translated into English. The anthologies Southern Exposure and Islands of Protest are steps in the right direction. Many of the stories in these anthologies are excellent works of fiction well worth reading for their own sake.

And there’s a lot more to “Droplets”, too. I didn’t even touch on several subplots. Tokushō’s good-for-nothing cousin tries to sell the liquid oozing coming from his foot. And there’s a 3rd companion who knows what happened to Tokushō and Ishimine during the Battle of Okinawa. She was serving as a member of the Himeyuri or “Lily Corp” as a nurse. I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Southern Exposure to read the story for yourself.

I’ve been reading from Shun Medoruma’s “Droplets”, translated [by] Michael Molasky. It’s available in the anthology Southern Exposure: Modern Japanese Literature from Okinawa. That anthology is edited by Michael Molasky and Steve Rabson. Buy your books from our Bookshop.org page to support the podcast.

You can also support the podcast by leaving a review on your podcast app of choice.

If you’re using Read Japanese Literature as a classroom resource, be sure to let us know. We’re grateful to the professors and lecturers who have been in touch.

The very best way to support Read Japanese Literature is through Patreon for as little as $3 a month. Remember that subscribers get early access and bonus content with every episode. Thank you so much to our supporters! Find out how you can join them at patreon.com/readjapaneseliterature.

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Thank you to Dr. Kristen Luck with the Okinawa Collection and Japan Resource Center at the George Washington University Library.

Thank you to the Japanese Literature group on Goodreads and the Japanese literature Twitter community.

And thank you as always to Producer Khaim for today’s music, @khaimmusic and khaimmusic.com.

Transcript of Episode 22: Fukushima Fiction

Find out more about Episode 22 of the Read Literature podcast on the episode page.

  • Link to listen
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This is Read Japanese Literature. My name is Alison Fincher.

Read Japanese Literature is a podcast about Japanese fiction and some of its best works. All the works we discuss are available in translation, so you can read along if you want. You can find out more at ReadJapaneseLiterature.com.

Quick content warning: The events of 3/11 were terrible. We’re covering them in detail today.

[0:40] On March 11, 2011, at 2:46pm, one tectonic plate forced its way on top of another 45 miles (or 72 km) off the Eastern coast of Japan. It caused a 9.0 magnitude megathrust earthquake that lasted about six minutes. That’s the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan—the 4th most-powerful earthquake recorded since scientists started keeping records in 1900.

To give you a sense of the earthquake’s intensity:

This earthquake is now known as “Higashi nihon daishinsai” or “The Great East Japan Earthquake”.

[1:52] The Great East Japan Earthquake triggered a tsunami—a great wave—that may have reached heights up to 133 feet (more than 40 meters). It rushed as far as 6 miles (or 10 kilometers) inland at speeds up to 435 miles per hour. (That’s about 700 kilometers an hour, the speed of a passenger jet at cruising altitude.) And it caused massive destruction along more than 250 miles of Japan’s eastern coast. (That’s about 400 kilometers.) Some of Japan’s coastal cities were wiped away in minutes.

We think about the tidal wave just in terms of Japan. But an object in motion stays in motion… And the tidal wave reached Antarctica hours later, it broke off chunks of ice the size of Manhattan Island in New York City.

A few weeks after the disaster, the World Bank issued a report estimating that the financial damage from the earthquake and tsunami alone could reach $235 billion (American). That makes The Great East Japan Earthquake the most expensive natural disaster in history. But the disaster wasn’t over yet.

[3:07] The earthquake and tsunami also disabled the reactor cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The afternoon of March 12, one of those reactors exploded—creating problems with two others. Another exploded the following Monday. The next day, a third explosion released radiation at 10,000 times normal levels.

By April 9, the Tokyo-based company that ran the plant admitted contaminated water had probably leaked into nearby soil and water. A week later, Japanese authorities created a 12-mile “no-go” evacuation zone around the plant. (That’s about 20 kilometers). More than 300,000 people were eventually evacuated because of the meltdowns.

Three months later, the company finally reported leaks might have spread into the Pacific Ocean.

Collectively, people inside and outside of Japan refer to this series of disasters as “san ten ichi-ichi” or “3-11”

The government of Tokyo released official death numbers around the 10th anniversary of 3/11 in 2021. It reported 19,759 deaths.

6,242 injuries.

And 2,553 missing. Most of the missing are presumed dead.

Hundreds of thousands of people who evacuated the area still haven’t returned home—many never will.

[4:45] We’re going to back up a little bit to look at the bigger picture of the affected region—Tohoku—and its place in Japan’s history and culture. It’s a region that has a complicated place in Japan’s politics and imagination.

Then we’ll move on to Japan’s response to the 3/11 disaster—with a special focus on the way Japan’s writers responded.

By the way, I’m using the term “Fukushima Fiction” today. That term comes from Rachel DiNitto’s book Fukushima Fiction: The Literary Landscape of Japan’s Triple Disaster. Dr. DiNitto is a professor of Japanese literature at the University of Oregon.

In English, “Fukushima” has become a kind of stand-in for the entire disaster. Fukushima is the site of the nuclear meltdown, but much of northeastern Japan was devastated by the triple disaster.

In Japan, some people have used the term shinsai bungaku or “earthquake literature” to describe the same set of stories—obviously “earthquake literature” doesn’t really express the full extent of the disaster either.

Today’s episode will end with the life and work of Hiromi Kawakami. Her story “Kamisama” has been translated into English as “God Bless You”. She revisited and rewrote the work “God Bless You” in response to 3/11. It was one of the first literary responses to the Triple Disaster.

[6:16] The word “Tohoku” is written with the characters for “east” and “north”. So it is literally the northeast of the Honshu, the largest island of the Japanese archipelago. Six of Japan’s 47 prefectures fall in the Tohoku region: Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, and Yamagata.

The Tohoku region is an area of almost 26,000 square miles. (67,000 square kilometers). That’s about 30% the total landmass of Honshu—a space larger than the entire nation of Denmark.

It was once populated by the Emishi people. The Emishi were hunter-gatherers. They were also skilled horse-people. 

The centralized Japanese government based in Nara made its first attempt to conquer the region in the eighth century. The Japanese government had a hard time doing this. 

By the beginning of the 9th century, the central Japanese government did control most of what is now Tohoku. Most of the Emishi that remained became a part of broader Japanese society. Some of them immigrated north to the northern island of Hokkaido. There’s some debate about whether the Emishi and the Ainu people native to Hokkaido are related.

[7:36] Over the course of centuries, Tohoku became the bread-basket of Japan—or at least the “rice-basket”. 

Most of the region isn’t especially suited, though, for wet-rice agriculture. That’s the way people in Japan tend to grow rice. That means Tohoku was also susceptible to famine when the weather ruined crops. But Tohoku was important to central Honshu and the wealthier, more prestigious centers of power.

The wealthier, more prestigious centers of power needed Tohoku to sustain its way of life—needed the resources to thrive. And Tohoku became dependent on the income it got from selling resources to the centers of power. That dynamic has led some scholars to call the Tohoku region Japan’s first colony or an “internal” colony.

[8:34] The Meiji Restoration in 1868 reinforced Tohoku’s position. The Meiji Government’s policy of “Civilization and Enlightenment” would need to “civilize and enlighten” Tohoku as well… at least in the ways that would benefit the Meiji Government—the people who were in power.

[8:53] Throughout the 20th century, for example, the Tohoku region also provided day laborers for projects in Tokyo. During the economic miracle—the high growth period of the 1960s—a lot of laborers came to Tokyo to find jobs. These laborers were known as “golden eggs”. They were like gold for their employers—cheap, young, almost interchangeable—and there seemed to be an unlimited supply.

Today, many people still think of Tohoku as a region continually exploited by Tokyo—and for some good reasons. The GDP per capita in Tohoku is below the average GDP per capita for the whole of Japan—and it’s less than half the average GDP per capita in Tokyo. We’ll come back to perceived disconnect between Tohoku and the rest of Japan in just a minute.

[9:48] The flip side of this kind of constant Othering, is that Tohoku also has a unique place in Japan’s culture.

Matsuo Basho is almost certainly Japan’s most famous haiku poet—at least outside of Japan. His The Narrow Road to the Deep North is about his travels through Tohoku. That book, by the way, is also translated as The Narrow Road to the Interior.

Incidentally, my favorite Bashō haiku takes place in Miyagi Prefecture. It’s about a place called Matsushima—it’s a group of islands. It doesn’t even require translation!

Matsushima ya

Aa matsushima ya


[10:36] After WWII, Tohoku was presented to the Japanese as an alternative to the militarized Japan of the 1930s and 40s. It became a kind of symbol of what Japan could be. In the words of historian Tomio Takahashi, the region represented “a Japan that [the Japanese] could be proud of”.

A decade later, during the high growth era, Tohoku came to represent a kind of “storehouse” for everything that was supposed to be quintessentially Japanese—for “old Japan”.

In 1970, Japan National Railways launched an advertising campaign called “Discover Japan”—and it was written… in English. They were trying to encourage Japanese people to travel domestically and explore their own country. Several of the destinations promoted in this campaign were in Tohoku, including places like Tono and Osorezan.

The campaign presented travel within Japan as cool—especially for young women. But it also made these destinations look so different, so exotic, so Other, that the average Japanese person would need to visit them the way they’d visit a foreign country. The message was something like, “Why bother to travel abroad? There are places in your own country that would be beautifully old fashioned and backward! How quaint!”

[12:06] Let me pause here to talk about a couple of Japanese ideas that get thrown around a lot when people talk about 3/11. I’m borrowing here from the work of Dr. Tamaki Mihic at the University of Sydney. She wrote an important and phenomenal book on Re-Imagining Japan after Fukushima. You should know that her book is free via a Creative Commons license. Check for a link on the episode page.

I like the way Dr. Mihic emphasizes these particular ideas. I think each illuminates problems with the relationship between Tohoku and the rest of Japan.

[12:43] The first idea that Dr. Mihic brings up is “kizuna” or a kind of “bond between people”. It’s really more relevant to personal or family relationships. But during the 3/11 disaster and the aftermath, it became almost synonymous with how “group-oriented” and “community-first” the Japanese are supposed to be.

If you’re American or British, you might remember how heavily the news relied on Japanese stereotypes in their media coverage. The Japanese aren’t even looting! There are noble elderly people volunteering to decontaminate radioactive sites! Yes, these are worthwhile observations. And I don’t mean to downplay anyone’s actions. What I’m trying to say is that the Western media coverage focused on these stories because they reinforced ideas that Westerners hold about what the Japanese are supposed to be like.

Japanese viewers could watch foreign news with real-time translation. And these kinds of stories reinforced the idea that unity and cooperation are uniquely Japanese values. In fact, kizuna was such a prominent word in 2011, that it was voted the kanji of the year over the kanji for “disaster” and “quake”. 

[14:05] The second idea that Dr. Mihic raises is “gaman”. Gaman comes from the verb ganbaru—“to persist” or “to hold on” or “to do your best”. If you’ve ever watched Japanese anime, you’ve almost certainly heard one character tell another, “Ganbatte!” It was a popular favorite in the international media’s coverage of 3/11.

One March 17 USA Today article cites a (non-Japanese) senior director at the Japan Society in New York City: “Suffering and persevering is a type of virtue in Japan… among the most commonly heard expressions there are gaman… gambaru… and shoganai (‘it cannot be helped’)”.

After the disaster, “Ganbatte Japan!” and “Ganbatte Tohoku!” were popular refrains. 

[15:05] Now—why did I bring up these ideas? It’s clear from the rhetoric that has come from leaders in Tokyo that any kind of kizuna bonds between Tohoku and Tokyo are fairly weak. For one thing, there have been some extremely public and notable gaffes.

Right after the disaster, then-governor of Tokyo Ishihara Shintaro called the earthquake “divine retribution”. According to Shintaro, Japan could “use the tsunami to wash away egoism, to wash away the many years of crud built up on the hearts of the Japanese”.

(You might remember from earlier episodes just how much I dislike Tokyo’s ultranationalist, Akutagawa-winning governor—this is the same misogynist who described Mieko Kawakami’s Chichi to Ran as “egocentric, self-absorbed rambling” as well as “unpleasant and intolerable”.)


One of the problems with Ishihara’s remarks is that the worst of the “divine retribution” was visited on Tohoku—not Japan at large and certainly not on Tokyo. The reaction against Ishihara’s remarks was so heated he actually (gasp) retracted them! That was almost unheard of.

And then in August 2016, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared at the closing ceremony for the Rio Summer Olympics. He popped out of a giant green pipe wearing Super Mario’s signature red hat to celebrate what Japanese politicians were promoting as “the Reconstruction Olympics”.

Maybe not a gaffe per se? But even a year after Abe’s appearance, more than half of the evacuees from Tohoku—that’s almost 120,000 people—still didn’t have permanent housing.

In April 2017, Reconstruction Minister Masahiro Imamura commented that the earthquake “was okay because it happened over there in Tohoku”. He later clarified, “Even in Tohoku, that terrible damage of 25 trillion yen was incurred. If it hit places near the Tokyo area, it would have been an unimaginable disaster”. He was actually forced to resign several days later.

[17:31] In the mind of many people in Japan, Tohoku is once again being treated as a kind of “national sacrifice zone”. Reminders to “Ganbatte Japan!” after 3/11 rang hollow. It seemed like Tohoku was the only place people were really being asked to endure. And how fair is it, really, to tell people to “keep doing their best”, when circumstances are so far out of their control?

Keep in mind that Tepco—the Tokyo Electric Power Company—is the one that owns the Fukushima Daiichi plant. It provided power to people living in Tokyo—not Fukushima or anywhere in Tohoku. And it’s pretty clear that TEPCO—the Tokyo Electric Power Company— bears most of the blame for the accident.

[18:23] And the 2020 “Reconstruction” Olympics? The process of labor[ers] leaving Tohoku for Tokyo repeated itself. In the 2010s, economic circumstances forced those laborers to leave behind unfinished rebuilding projects from 3/11. And construction costs in Japan rose for the 1st time in decades—by as much as 30%.

[19:00] In 2012, the Japan Science and Technology Agency released a fascinating study about press coverage of 3/11. Japanese people who watched TV four or more hours a day in March and April 2011 were at a significantly elevated risk of PTSD. Footage of the disaster was just so horrifying that watching coverage was traumatizing. 

Many accounts of the disaster called it soteigai—“beyond imagination”. But imagining something is exactly what fiction is for.

[19:35] For the next few minutes, we’re going to talk about how Fukushima fiction has played a role in helping Japan come to terms with 3/11 and its aftermath.

In April 2011, the Japanese government established the “Reconstruction Design Council”. According to reports, the committee’s goals included inspiring “sufficient motivation” to the Japanese people to help them face reconstruction. Another was to “convince foreign nations of the outstanding quality of Japanese knowledge”.

One of the items the committee took up was the official representation of the disaster. It’s known, for example, that the government suggested journalists and writers take advantage of words like fukko (“reconstruction”) and kibo (“hope”). They should also use soteigai—the word for “unimaginable” or “unforeseeable” that we mentioned just a minute ago.

They shouldn’t use words like muryoku (“powerlessness”). Zetsubo (“despair”). Merutodaun (“meltdown”).

[20:44] A member named Genyū Sōkyū was both a priest and an Akutagawa-winning writer. In an essay, he claims the government wanted to keep radioactive contamination off the committee’s agenda entirely—it was “too great a problem”. Many of the committee members weren’t pleased. And this is part of the reason I prefer the term “Fukushima fiction”. Just because it reinforces the way writers in Japan really stood up for the inclusion of radioactive contamination in the response to 3/11.

In late April 2011, a literary critic named Minako Saitō called on authors to “express their 3/11 experiences through literature”—and, it was effectively in the face of the official government position.

[21:33] Just a quick side note: I’m not sure where to put poet Ryoichi Wago in our story today. He’s a poet. I don’t normally cover poetry. Japanese poetry is not something I know much about. But Wago and his work are an important part of this story—so let me mention him here.

As early as March 16, 2011, he was publishing poetry about the disaster on Twitter. Wago teaches Japanese language and literature in Fukushima Prefecture. And a lot of his poetry highlights the way Tohoku is left out by the rest of Japan, as we discussed earlier in his episode.

This is an excerpt from one of his poems:

Those who drive us out from our native place, cruel people who drive out us Japanese.

They are “we Japanese”.

I have now discovered that our nation is like this.

A new volume of his poetry in English translation came out in February 2023. Since Fukushima was translated by Ayako Takahashi and Judy Halebsky.

[22:40] To me, what’s especially noteworthy about writers and 3/11 is that writers felt like they had a special role to play, something only that only they could do.

Haruki Murakami, for example, spoke about the work authors could do when he accepted the Catalunya Prize in Barcelona that June. I’m going to read you a long quote from that speech:

The work of repairing damaged roads and rebuilding houses is the dominion of the appropriate experts. But when it comes to rebuilding damaged morals and ethical standards, the responsibility falls on all our shoulders… 

And he’s talking there to everyone, all of us.

In this great collective effort, there should be a space where those of us who specialize in words, professional writers, can be positively involved. We should weave together with words new morals and new ethical standards. We should plant vibrant new stories and make them sprout and flourish. These stories will become our shared story.

[23:48] There were also authors who were also motivated by a desire to help victims materially. Many writers collaborated on collections to help raise funds and/or awareness. I can think of 3 prominent ones that are available in English:

2:46—Aftershocks—Stories from the Japan Earthquake is a “Twitter-sourced charity book about how the Japanese earthquake at 2:46 on March 11, 2011 affected us all”. It came out in English and includes work by Yoko Ono, William Gibson, Barry Eisler, and Jake Adelstein. And it was out within four weeks of the disaster.

March Was Made of Yarn is an anthology of seventeen works by Japanese and non-Japanese authors. It was edited by David Karashima and Elmer Luke. And it was published on January 1, 2012 simultaneously in Japan, the UK, and the US. 

The third collection I can think of is called Shinsai to fikushon no ‘kyori’: Ruptured Fiction(s) of the Earthquake. The effort was coordinated by Makoto Ichikawa of Waseda Bungaku and published in 2012. All the stories were written in Japanese. It was published as a dual-language collection in Japanese and English with work by some pretty big-name English-language translators. It also includes two stories translated into both Chinese and Korean. (FYI, I had to buy my edition from a Japanese bookstore and have it shipped from Japan.

[25:25] Before we move on to Hiromi Kawakami [see 30:00], I want to mention a few examples of Fukushima fiction that are available in English—and from North American and European bookstores. I’ve picked these titles because they’re important, and they represent important themes in Fukushima fiction.You can find a more complete list of what has been translated on the episode page. Note that only a tiny portion of Fukushima fiction has been translated into English.

2011’s Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure might be one of the most important and direct literary responses to 3/11. In English, it has the subtitle “A Tale That Begins with Fukushima”.

Horses, Horses is an example of the most direct kind of Fukushima fiction. It takes place in Tohoku. The characters and events are deeply embedded in the region. And the action is a direct, explicit response to 3/11. It was written by Hideo Furukawa, who is a Tohoku native. It was translated into English by Doug Slaymaker, with the help of Akiko Tanenaka.

In Horses, Horses, a semi-autobiographical narrator travels to his childhood home near Fukushima after the disaster. It’s a stream-of-consciousness book—it follows the thoughts of the narrator as they jump from one idea to another, almost at random. It’s also a magical realist book. Most notably, the protagonist of Furukawa’s most famous novel, The Holy Family, shows up in the back of Furukawa’s rental car.

[27:02] Other examples of Fukushima Fiction are more indirect. I think Yoko Tawada’s 2014 The Emissary is almost certainly a work of Fukushima Fiction. (The Emissary was also translated as The Last Children of Tokyo.) It’s the same translation under both titles by Margaret Mitsutani.

In The Emissary, Japan has been devastated by some kind of man-made catastrophe. As a result, the “aged-elderly” seem almost immortal. The children of Japan are feeble and disabled. It’s heavily implied they’ve all been poisoned by radiation.

We’ll take a look in just a minute at Hiromi Kawakami’s “God Bless You, 2011”. It’s another story where some vague event caused a terrible nuclear disaster. Because Kawakami wrote the story in March 2011, the connection is more obvious—even if it’s not any more explicit.

[27:58] Fukushima Fiction also transcends the Japanese language. Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is one of my very favorite books. Ruth Ozeki is a Japanese-American-Canadian Zen Buddhist priest. Her novel is a brilliant, quantum-magical-realist story. It connects a fictional version of Ozeki with a teenager who may or may not have been killed on 3/11. So it’s Fukushima fiction… but it’s also part metafiction, part coming-of-age story, part return narrative, part sci-fi, part disaster narrative, part Zen meditation, part exploration of the meaning of life…  I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

[28:43] Today, in 2023, I think we should maybe even be talking about post-Fukushima fiction—fiction that incorporates the events of 3/11 into the way the world is now.

Trinity, Trinity, Trinity by Erika Kobayashi was first published in 2019 in Japan. It was published in English translation by Brian Bergstrom in 2022. While the book takes up 3/11, it also connects Fukushima to Marie Curie, the Nazis, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Los Alamos… When I reviewed it for the Asian Review of Books, I described it as “something like a next-step in Japanese atomic literature… A chronicle of radioactivity, beginning with the discovery of [pitchblende]… in Saint Joachim’s Valley during the 15th century”.

And finally, it’s worth noting that some authors believe all fiction after 3/11 is post-Fukushima fiction. Keiichiro Hirano writes thrillers. He has spoken publicly about how the disaster inspires all of his fiction—even though he never explores 3/11 in any of his books.

[30:00] Hiromi Kawakami was born in 1958. (Let me just clarify here, that she is not related to Mieko Kawakami.)

1958 is the year that Kenzaburo Ōe won the Akutagawa Prize for “Prize Stock”. Hiromi Kawakami is nine years younger than Haruki Murakami—and eight years older than Banana Yoshimoto.

Kawakami was born and raised in Tokyo. She graduated from Ochanomizu Women’s College, also in Tokyo, in 1980. She’s a scientist by training. Her university thesis was about the reproductive cycle of sea urchins.

After graduation, she started writing and editing for a Japanese science fiction magazine. Then she taught middle and high school science. When her husband needed to move for work, Kawakami started to stay home. But she continued to write.

Kawakami began writing literary fiction—that high literature—in the early 90s. In 1996, she won the Akutagawa Prize for her short story “A Snake Stepped On”. That story has been published in English translation in the collection Record of a Night Too Brief, translated by Lucy North.

In 2001, she won the Tanizaki Prize for Sensei no kaban or “Teacher’s Briefcase”. We haven’t really talked about the Tanizaki Prize. It’s an annual award for a full-length work of fiction or drama “of the highest literary merit” by a professional writer. Sensei no Kaban is better known in English as Strange Weather in Tokyo, translated by Allison Markin Powell. It is a beloved story of many readers of Japanese fiction in translation.

[31:00] Hiromi Kawakami wrote Kamisama in 1993. As a matter of fact, Kamisama was her 1st published literary work. Kamisama has been translated into English as God Bless You, but the title literally just means “God”.

Kawakami’s 1993 “God Bless You” opens in medias res—in the middle of the action with no explanation—“The bear invited me to go for a walk to the river, about 20 minutes away.”

This is a real, full-grown, male bear. And he has moved into apartment 305, three doors down the hall from the narrator. This is magical realism—the kind we talked about a few episodes ago. Magic that coexists along with the every-day. No explanation whatsoever.

The bear has also made the old-fashioned gesture of presenting the narrator with “moving-in noodles” and packets of postcards. 

“He sure wants people to like him,” the narrator thinks to themselves, “But then you probably have to do that if you’re a bear.” (Most people assume the narrator is a woman—the story never specifies. I’m going to use female pronouns from now on just to make things easy.)

It turns out they may have a vague connection through the narrator’s uncle. The bear calls it a “karmic bond” or the bonds of fate—further evidence that this is an old-fashioned bear.

By the time they get to the river, the narrator and the bear are both hot. They meet a boy and his dad who have been swimming in the river. Neither of them treat the bear like a person:

“Daddy, it’s a bear!”

“Right you are”

“A real bear!”

“A bear for sure.”

“A bear! A bear!”

They never look the bear in the eye. But the boy yanks the bear’s fur and kicks his legs. Finally, he shouts “Punch!” and kicks the bear in the stomach before running off.

The bear is surprisingly good natured about this: 

Good grief. But young people don’t mean any harm, you know. I mean, human beings are of all sorts, but children have no real malice.

The bear turns to the river and begins to fish. He does it very well. He is a bear, after all. He guts the fish, cleans it, salts it, cooks it… and gives it to the narrator: “A memento of our day together.”

It turns out that the bear has prepared for everything. Not just the cooking supplies, but out of his bag, he pulls a towel for the narrator to take a nap on. 

He offers to sing her a lullaby. He’s disappointed when she refuses. But when she wakes back up, he’s sleeping beside her.

They return to her apartment. “What a fine outing!” he says.

Before he goes, he awkwardly asks, “Would you mind if we hugged? Where I come from, that’s what we do when we say goodbye to someone we feel close to. If you don’t like the idea, of course, then we don’t have to.”

The narrator accepts the hug. Who could resist?

And the bear expresses his hopes that the bear god might bestow his blessing on her.

Some readers are puzzled by this charming and mostly-happy story. Perhaps the boy and his father represent the way Japanese society—all societies, really—mistreat people who are different?

Dr. Mihic at the University of Sydney offers this explanation: 

The fact that the bear’s traditionally Japanese actions appear odd and old-fashioned shows how much Japanese society has changed and how little kizuna there remains in Japanese society.

So we’re back to that kizuna bond again. The one that seems broken between the people of Tohoku and the people of the rest of Japan.

[35:42] The editors of March Was Made of Yarn describe “God Bless You, 2011” as “the 1st literary piece to emerge in Japan from the stunned silence after March 11”. Hiromi Kawakami revisited her famous 1993 story just weeks after 3/11. The story was published in the literary journal Gunzō that June.

The characters and broad outline of the plot of “God Bless You” are the same—but the tragedy is in the differences.

By the way, March Was Made of Yarn includes both versions of “God Bless You” as well as a “postscript” from Kawakami. But “God Bless You, 2011” is printed first. I would strongly suggest you flip ahead and start with the original 1993 story. “God Bless You, 2011” is available for free online, but it’s worth buying the book to read the original 1993 version first. It’s also worth buying the book because all of the other stories are magnificent.)

Again we open in medias res—“The bear invited me to go for a walk to the river, about 20 minutes away.” But this time the narrator clarifies that she hasn’t gone out yet without her protective clothing. It’s hot—and now she’s going to try.

The narrator has been wearing protective clothing since “the incident”, the narrator will be “clad in normal clothes that expos[e] the skin”. The Japanese phrase here for “the incident” is “ano koto” or literally “that thing”.

The bear is her neighbor again, but now there are only three people still living in their building. The shared connection has changed too. Maybe the narrator is friends of a friend of a friend the bear met at an evacuation center.

By the time they get to the river, they both know they’re contaminated by radiation. The narrator has taken care earlier in the year. She can still “afford some exposure”. The bear says he’s bigger, so his maximum dose is higher.

And this time, there aren’t any children to cause trouble here—malicious or not. In fact, there are “no children left anywhere in the area”. Presumably, their parents have evacuated all of them.

The impersonal strangers this time are adult men.

“It’s a bear, isn’t it.”

“I envy bears.”

“Bears can handle strontium. Plutonium, too.”

“What do you expect? They’re bears.”

“So that’s why? They’re bears.”

“Yeah, because they’re bears.”

When they leave, the bear assures the narrator that he isn’t, in fact, resistant to strontium and plutonium”. As the reader probably already knows, that is a ridiculous claim to make about a fellow mammal.

After the nap, that super-prepared bear now pulls from his bag a Geiger counter to scan the narrator and then himself. And the narrator finds the beeping of the Geiger counter “familiar”.

The radiation complicates that hug. The narrator tells us, “The fact that bears don’t take baths mean[s] there [will] probably be more radiation on his body”.

But she continues, “it [has] been my decision from the start to remain in this part of the country, so I [can hardly be squeamish”.

At the very end of the story, the narrator takes a shower and records the estimate of radiation she has received that day. It’s .03 millisieverts on the surface of her body and .19 millisieverts of internally received radiation. That puts her annual totals at 29 and 17.8, respectively.

According to critic Yōichi Koromi, many contemporary Japanese readers would immediately realize that the narrator had exceeded her annual limit. The narrator doesn’t seem alarmed; perhaps her government has deemed this normal? That doesn’t seem like an unlikely explanation.

In April 2011—not long after Kawakami finished writing the story… actually before the story was published—the Japanese government raised “acceptable” annual exposure from one millisievert to twenty millisieverts. It returned “acceptable” to pre-disaster levels in August 2012.

[39:57] Earlier in the episode, we talked about Japanese writers’ reactions to 3/11. This is how Hiromi Kawakami described hers in the postscript to “God Bless You, 2011”:

My reaction to all that I saw and heard in the aftermath of the earthquake was, “Why have I kept myself in the dark all these years, never attempting to find out what I should have known?”

[40:25] So why read Hiromi Kawakami?

Hiromi Kawakami is part of an important generation of Japanese women writers who have defined and shaped 21st-century Japanese fiction. She and her contemporaries—writers like Yoko Ogawa and Yoko Tawada—have been hugely influential on the last thirty years of Japanese writing.

She’s one of the writers picked up by the group of translators, Strong Women, Soft Powerthree translators we talked about in an earlier episode. These women have pushed hard to make Japanese women’s writing available to an English-speaking audience.

Hiromi Kawakami is also one of my very favorite Japanese authors.

Her work in English is incredibly diverse.

You can find a list of work by Hiromi Kawakami, including several things you can read for free, on the episode page.

As always, buy your books through our Bookshop.org page to support the podcast. I’ve also posted a list of “Fukushima Fiction” titles like Horses, Horses…, The Emissary, and A Tale for the Time Being on the episode page.

Today, I’ve been reading from Ted Goossen and Motoyuki Shibata’s translation of “God Bless You” and their translation of “God Bless You, 2011”. Those were both published in March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown

You can also read “God Bless You, 2011” for free on Granta magazine’s website. Links to both on the episode page.

If you want to support Read Japanese Literature, please consider. Leaving a review on your podcast app of choice.

You can also become a supporter through Patreon for as little as $3 a month. Remember that subscribers get early access and bonus content with every episode.  Thank you so much to our new supporters! Find out how you can join them at patreon.com/readjapaneseliterature.

I tried to find ways to support people in Tohoku still recovering from the events of 3/11. I found several organizations doing good work. Unfortunately, their websites are in Japanese. I’ve put their link on the episode page anyway in case donating is an option for you.

We’d love to hear from you about the podcast. There are so many ways to stay in touch:

Thank you to Sharon Dormier at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for her continued and invaluable help with sources. Thank you to the Japanese Literature group on Goodreads and the Japanese Literature group on Facebook. Thank you [to] the Japanese literature Twitter community.

And thank you as always to Producer Khaim for today’s music, @khaimmusic and khaimmusic.com.

Donate to support Tohoku:

Transcript of Episode 21: Sexlessness in Japanese Fiction

Find out more about episode 21 of the Read Literature podcast on the episode page.

  • Link to listen
  • Notes and sources
  • Ways to support the podcast

This is Read Japanese Literature. My name is Alison Fincher.

Read Japanese Literature is a podcast about Japanese fiction and some of its best works. All the works we discuss are available in translation, so you can read along if you want. You can find out more at ReadJapaneseLiterature.com.

A quick content warning—This episode mentions domestic violence in a novel, but doesn’t describe it in detail. This episode has also been marked mature. Maybe I’m being too cautious? But we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about sex and artificial insemination, but we’re not going to be explicit—or at least we’re only going to use technical medical language. At the end of the episode, I’m also going to repeat an R-rated swear word one of Mieko Kawakami’s characters uses in a novel.

[1:03] While browsing a matchmaking site, Mizuki comes across the perfect listing:

“Seeking a Clean Marriage… an amicable daily routine with someone I get along well with, like brother and sister, without being a slave to sex.”

Mizuki is intrigued. She has never wanted to be “wife, friend, and mother” to the same man. So they get married. Two years later, they decide to have kids.

At a swanky clinic, they make an appointment to use “the Clean Breeder”. It’s a machine that will help them “facilitate, in the purest sense of the word, reproduction”. The doctor promises, “Nowadays, your partner is not necessarily a sex object—this is a wonderful advancement”.

I find the rest of Sayaka Murata’s “A Clean Marriage” hilarious, but maybe my sense of humor is warped. The Clean Breeder helps Mizuki’s husband ejaculate and, hopefully, impregnate his wife without, in his words “any form of sexual contact”. It’s a delightful inversion of the indignity a woman goes through during childbirth. The nurses urge him on:

“Is it OK like this, Mr. Takahashi? Please do your best.”

“Mr. Takahashi, please tell us when life is issuing. Raise your hand!”

“One last little push, Mr. Takahashi!”

Murata’s entire story, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, is free to read on Granta’s website. And it’s linked on the episode page.

[2:38] “A Clean Marriage” is just one example of trends I want to explore in contemporary Japanese fiction. Protagonists who don’t have sex. And women who want to have babies anyway. (Maybe I’m a little cynical, but Valentine’s has put me in the mood.)

To take a closer look at these trends, we’re going to ask a couple of questions about contemporary Japan: What is so-called “celibacy syndrome”? Does it even exist? What role does motherhood play in a shrinking society like Japan’s? And how do sexlessness and motherhood play out in Japanese fiction?

We’ll end with a closer look at Mieko Kawakami’s best-selling novel, Breasts and Eggs.

[3:27] Let me start, as I often do, with a caveat: when English-speakers talk about how “sexless” Japan is, there’s a certain amount of cultural blindness involved. And a good bit of exoticism about Japan. Almost everyone in the developed world is having less sex than their elders were having a few decades ago. For example, a 2019 study found that almost 40% of American adults reported having sex once a month or less.

Anyway… starting in the mid-2010s, the Japanese media and then the rest of the world started paying a lot of attention to Japan’s habits in the bedroom. A 2015 study by the Japan Family Planning Association found that almost 50% of respondents reported they hadn’t had sex in the last thirty days. The Japanese media have dubbed this apparent “plague” of sexlessness, sekkusu shinai shokogun or “celibacy syndrome”.

When they were asked why they hadn’t had sex, the respondents to the survey had a lot of reasons. They were tired. They and their partner had lost their spark. There’s also mendokusai.

Mendokusai is a catch-all phrase. Roughly translated, it means something like “I can’t be bothered”. Sex is too much of a hassle.

But what really worried the media… and the government… was that 18% of men said they weren’t interested in sex at all.

You might be asking yourself—why would people care so much about who is having sex? It’s because, as a general principle, people who don’t have sex also don’t have babies.

[5:12] Japan has one of the lowest birthrates in the world. You’ve surely noticed by now that the Japanese media likes to have a term for everything—kōrei shoshika means “low birthrate, many elderly”.

Today, Japan has a population of about 126 million people. But that population is expected to shrink to about 110 million by 2040. The “replacement threshold” for a country to maintain its population is about 2.1 births per woman. In other words, the average woman needs to have two-ish children during her lifetime for a country’s population to stay the same size.

Japan’s fertility rate hit a historic low in 2005. It rose again briefly over the next decade and a half, but then the pandemic hit. In 2021, Japan saw its lowest-ever fertility rate—1.3 children born per woman. And so Japan’s Prime Minister, Kishia Fumio, used his New Year’s speech in January to emphasize that Japan is on what he calls “the brink of not being able to maintain a functioning society”.

Now, it’s a little early to make blanket statements, but low birth rates may just be a fact of life in developed, late-stage capitalist economies. For comparison, the birthrate in the US is 1.64 births per woman. Actually, several countries have lower birth rates than Japan including Monaco, South Korea, and Andorra, for example.

But Japan also has a long history of refusing to admit long-term residents and new citizens. (That’s another story for another day.) However, low birth rate plus low immigration equals a population is shrinking faster than almost any other country’s.

[7:11] Japan also has an aging population. It has the second highest median age in the world at 48.6 years. Famously, Japanese companies sell more diapers for incontinent adults than babies.

Together, the low growth and aging population pose huge demographic and economic challenges.

[7:34] The media has tried to tie “celibacy syndrome” (if it exists) to various subcultures. We’re going to take a moment to look at a few examples. Hopefully you’ll see just how silly it is to try to peg Japan’s low birthrate on any small group.

A professor at a well-regarded Tokyo university coined the term parasaito shinguru in 1999. Those are both English loan words. The term translates as “parasite singles”. Parasaito shinguru has become part of Japan’s national vocabulary.

The term refers to a single adult who lives with their parents. A lot of single young adults in Japan in 1999 didn’t have much of a choice. These were people who had come of age after the Economic Bubble burst—the so-called “Lost Generation” or the “Employment Ice Age Generation”. They grew up struggling to meet extremely high educational standards because they thought the reward would be a high paying job. They graduated. There were no jobs.

This narrative might sound familiar to American Millennials.

The connotations are parasaito shinguru are supposed to be negative—who likes a parasite? But today, a lot of young people in Japan like living with their parents. And a lot of parents like living with their adult children. Young people like it because they can save money. Rent, as most adults know, can be expensive.

Parents often like this arrangement because they get to see more of their kids. Sometimes they get to share expenses. And often the kids transition naturally into the role of caregivers as their parents age.

Parasaito shinguru is an exotic sounding term—but there are grown adults living with their parents all over the world. You might recall that the majority of American young adults were living with their parents in July of 2020. And many of them still are.

[9:35] Soshoku danshi or “grass-eating men” are also easy scapegoats for Japan’s low birth rate.(Although the term literally means “grass-eating men” it’s more often translated as “herbivore men”.)

The term was coined by a female Japanese columnist in 2006. It describes men who aren’t that interested in sex—or at least not in actively pursuing sex at the expense of other hobbies and their own peace of mind.

The cultural debate about herbivore Men was more au courant a decade ago, so it was hard to track down more updated statistics in 2023. But a decade ago, one survey found that more than 60% of unmarried men in their 30s happily described themselves as herbivore men. In another survey of one thousand single men in their 20s and 30s, more than 7[50] self-identified that way. Some commentators even peg herbivore men as an open rebellion against masculinism, materialism, and Westernism in Japan.

[10:38] Hikikomori is another Japanese group that gets endless media attention. The word literally means “pulling inward” or “being confined”. These are people who live in extreme isolation, sometimes refusing to leave their homes. It’s a term that now has an official definition from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare:

Hikikomori is a condition in which the individuals affected refuse to leave their parents’ house, do not work or go to school, and isolate themselves away from society and family in a single room for a period exceeding six months.

No one is quite sure how many hikikomori there are. Estimates range from the hundreds of thousands to over a million.

Again, there’s a certain level of Orientalism here. The Japanese label “hikikomori” sounds more exotic than “recluse” or “hermit” or “shut in”. There are certainly large numbers of people who qualify in many countries, including much of Europe and the United States.

Again, analysts are quick to blame hikikomori for Japan’s low birth rates. But even high estimates of the hikikomori population put them at less than 1% of the population of Japan.

[11:56] I should also mention that people also point fingers at the LGBTQ+ community sometimes gets blamed for Japan’s low birthrate as well. Most LGBTQ+ people aren’t part of the “celibacy syndrome” dialogue, but they are blamed for not having babies. This blame, of course, is highly unjust for a lot of reasons. I’ll just mention the one that is especially relevant for our purposes today. The Japanese government has made it extremely difficult—legally speaking—for members of the LGBTQ+ community to adopt or have biological children. We’ll talk about that a little bit more in a few minutes.

[12:32] There is a lot of celibacy syndrome in contemporary Japanese fiction. Or at least a lot of adults who don’t want to have sex. For example, Kaori Ekuni broke new ground in 1991 with her Twinkle Twinkle. The protagonist is a married asexual woman married to a gay man who is partnered with someone else. 

Many of Akutagawa-winning author Sayaka Murata’s works include male and female characters who don’t like sex. We opened with her story “A Clean Marriage”. The protagonists of Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings are just as uninterested.

There’s also ME by Tomoyuki Hoshino. That one features a male protagonist talking with a group of (also male) doppelgangers: “We don’t need marital partners,” one says. “Our mutual understanding far exceeds any that we might have with a girlfriend or wife.” (That excerpt was translated into English by Charles de Wolf.)

There are links to purchase all of these books on the episode page.

[13:41] When people talk about women’s role in “celibacy syndrome”, the question isn’t usually framed as “why aren’t women having sex”—it’s usually framed as “why aren’t women getting married?”  Today, about 47% of Japanese women between 15 and 49 are married. “15-49” is a standard, global comparison of “reproductive age”. The legal minimum age for Japanese women to marry was sixteen under the 1947 constitution; it has been 18 since 2022.

In Japan, the average age for a woman’s first marriage is 29. The vast majority of unmarried Japanese women say they plan to marry, but a growing number never do. According to one 2021 survey, 15% of women between 18 and 34 said they had no intention to ever marry. That same survey has been conducted since 1982. And that’s the highest number ever recorded.

[14:45] So… most Japanese women report they plan to marry. But here’s something to think about. Up to 90% of young, unmarried Japanese women also report believing that staying single is preferable to what they imagine marriage is like. The big question is why. The gender gap is often floated as a reason so many Japanese women seem to find marriage… unappealing. And the gender gap almost certainly plays a role.

Here are some examples of how that gender gap is tied to Japanese marriages.

Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research estimates that married women spend seven times as much time on housework as their husbands whether or not they work. (Lest we non-Japanese get too self-righteous—American women still do an average of two extra hours of housework a day.)

It’s also difficult for married Japanese women to keep working outside of the house, regardless of housework. They still fight a cultural expectation that they’ll quit and stay at home when they marry. Married Japanese women are less likely to earn promotions. They also deal with the term oniyome or “devil wife”. It’s a slang insult for married working women.

And if women don’t quit when they marry, they’re often expected to resign when they get pregnant. Constitutionally that expectation is illegal, but that’s almost impossible to enforce. Women who do get pregnant are sometimes hounded out of the workplace. Twenty percent of Japanese women report matahara or maternity harassment. The stats get worse for women who don’t have full-time employment. Nearly half of them report being victims.

[16:37] Given all of this cultural context, it’s not hard to understand why pregnancy in modern Japanese literature is… complicated. Actually, pregnancy has almost always been complicated in Japanese literature. Just like it has almost always been complicated in most literatures. After all, pregnancy is pretty much one of the most basic facts of human life. It’s also pretty horrific, dangerous, and, even when successful, ends in a bloody mess. (I say this as the mother of two.) Worldwide, pregnancy hasn’t always been something readers (or even authors) are excited to think about.

One of Japan’s very oldest written texts, The Kojiki, involves marriage and pregnancy. Izanami, the creator goddess, initiates sex with the creator god, Izanagi. She gets pregnant, and the offspring they bear is misshapen. They bear a misshapen offspring.

They try again. Izanagi initiates this time. They conceive and give birth to the Japanese archipelago and many of the kami behind many of Japan’s more significant natural phenomena. Eventually, Izanami dies giving birth to the fire god. You can learn more in Read Japanese Literature’s very first episode.

Pregnancy and childbirth come up in the great Japanese work The Tale of Genji. The protagonist is a man, but the book was written by a woman. Many of the text’s most poignant moments feature the women in Genji’s life.

[18:08] There isn’t a lot of surviving fiction by or about women for the next thousand years or so. But Meiji-Era women writers took up pregnancy starting around the 1870s. At the time, the Japanese state was invested in the image of mother as ryōsai kenbo—good wife, wise mother. 

Early Japanese feminists spent a lot of time debating these ideas. For example, many newspapers carried a series of essays in the late 1910s known as the bosei hogo ronsō—the protection of motherhood debates. The authors took up questions like what does it mean to be a mother? What role, if any, should the state actually have in motherhood? But by the late 1920s and 1930s, questions about the nation and the war overtook more domestic concerns.

[19:00] The 1950s and 1960s were an opportunity for “good wives and wise mothers 2.0”—this time in service to the economy instead of to the state. According to the powers that be, they would stay home to procreate and raise the children. Their husbands could go off to work as salarymen. As units, couples could power Japan’s Economic Miracle.

The 1950s were a relative low point for twentieth-century Japanese women’s writing. And very few Japanese women writers took up sexuality or pregnancy.

In the 1970s and 80s, women’s rights activists started to see more success in Japan. The ūman ribu movement (or “women’s lib movement”) didn’t try to reject motherhood. To quote from the highly-useful book Rethinking Japanese Feminisms, the ūman ribu movement  aimed to “build a society in which women might want to have children”.

At the same time, Japanese fiction started to include more nuanced depictions of pregnancy and motherhood. (Actually, Professor Julia Bullock at Emory University makes a fascinating case that fiction writing came first—that a handful of Japanese women writers of the 1960s were some of the first women in Japan to “rewrit[e] femininity through literature”.)

[20:20] Today we’re talking about sexlessness and having sex or without a male partner. The two most relevant writers from this period that I can think of are Yuko Tsushima and Izumi Suzuki.

Yuko Tsushima is one of the first Japanese writers to seriously evaluate the question of single motherhood in Japanese fiction. In novels like Territory of Light and Woman Running in the Mountains, single mothers reject relationships with their babies’ fathers to raise their children on their own. The social stigma these women face is huge. And I should mention that there is still a significant social stigma about single motherhood in Japan today. 

Tsushima’s novels are excellent. I’d love to do an entire episode about her work. We’re in 2023 are lucky—phenomenal translations of several of her novels by Geraldine Harcourt have recently been reissued. And you can find links on the episode page.

[21:25] Izumi Suzuki is an extremely idiosyncratic science fiction writer. She’s also an extremely prescient one. Her stories were decades ahead of her time. Her first English-language collection, Terminal Boredom, was published in 2021. (I’m hoping to devote an episode to Japanese sci-fi and Izumi Suzuki when her next collected edition, Hit Parade of Tears, comes out later in the spring.)

Terminal Boredom includes two notable stories for our purposes today. (Both were translated by Daniel Joseph.) The first is called “Women on Women”. In that tale, men no longer rule society through “violence and cunning”. Instead, they live in an “exclusion zone”—and women only visit to get pregnant.

The second is the title story, “Terminal Boredom”. Mendokusai—that “can’t be bothered” attitude—has overrun Japan. Young people can’t be bothered to do just about anything. When they get involved in relationships, it’s out of a feeling of obligation. Some are so bored they forget to eat and just… lay down and die. Most of Japan’s young people are too tired and bored to have sex at all. “Older folks are amazing. They’ve got so much energy, so much stamina. They go to work every day, and somehow they still find it in them to have love affairs”. 

[22:56] In the later 1980s—the Bubble Era—the most prominent fiction by women didn’t really take up pregnancy at all. In many of Banana Yoshimoto’s stories, for example, the romantic relationships are almost like the relationships between brother and sister. The people who play maternal roles are often big sisters… part of found families… or transwomen. The role of biological motherhood is significantly absent. Sex and procreation just don’t play a part.

[23:28] In some of the most recent fiction by Japanese women, writers have questioned whether a woman who wants to have a baby can bypass sex altogether. Without resorting to science fiction, the most practical solution for these women is artificial insemination.

Artificial insemination is the process of taking sperm from a male and using it to fertilize a female egg. Not in a lab, in a petri dish—that’s in vitro fertilization or literally “in glass” fertilization. Artificial insemination is just the process of taking sperm and inserting it into a uterus, but not through penetrative sex.

The first recorded successful artificial insemination of a human being was performed in Scotland in 1776. Artificial insemination was introduced to Japan as a Meiji-Era modernizing reform in the 1890s.

Believe it or not, doctors recommended that a couple should actually have sex as part of the artificial insemination process, but they should use a condom. Then the doctor could use the condom to extract a man’s semen, only then they would use it to impregnate the woman. After all, at least according to a paper by scholar Shirai Chiaki at Shizuoka University, contemporary doctors thought masturbation caused a loss of vital energy. Not a good idea if you’re trying to sire children.

The woman in question was also supposed to be a man’s wife. At least officially, the first Japanese baby conceived with the aid of donor sperm wasn’t born until 1949. Many people thought the use of donor sperm was a form of adultery.

For almost seventy years, policy about sperm donation and artificial insemination was set by the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Doctors and hospitals follow their guidelines or they risk losing membership. The government never really intervened.

[25:33] Today, only married couples have legal protections as the parents of their children. A woman who gives birth using a donated egg is legally its mother. Her husband can’t deny he’s the father, even if the couple used donated sperm. 

Access to donated sperm is still a problem. In Japan, only married couples have access to fertility treatment. Gay marriage is still not recognized by the Japanese government. So even gay couples who want to marry aren’t eligible. That means there are no legal protections for LGBTQ+ couples when it comes to assisted pregnancy.

In 2021, Japan had only one commercial sperm bank. And it didn’t serve single adults or LGBTQ+ couples. 

[26:19] Single women or LGBTQ+ couples have a couple of options—neither of them perfect. It’s generally safer to buy sperm from an overseas sperm bank. Women can either travel abroad or pay to have it shipped to them. If they’re lucky, they can find a domestic doctor to help. Most doctors won’t risk losing their membership in the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology to assist. But overseas donors or travel are expensive. And this process is also time consuming.

Japan also has a thriving sperm donation black market. There are success stories. But there are also women who describe pretty grotesque situations—like men who ask for graphic pictures.  And, of course, sperm donation outside of a medical facility carries health risks like spread of bacteria or even STIs. Without legal protections, there’s always a chance a donor might later try to claim a child he helped conceive as his own.

We’re going to come back to artificial insemination when we talk about Breasts and Eggs at the end of the episode.

[27:30] The most extreme example of a book about pregnancy without a father or sex that I can think of is Emi Yagi’s Diary of a Void. It was published in English translation last year (2022) by David Boyd and Lucy North. The protagonist, Shibata, is a 34 year old office worker. She’s tired of picking up the slack for her male coworkers just because she’s a woman. She’s the one who has to answer calls, make copies, purchase supplies, sort and distribute packages, replace ink, pick up trash, empty shredders, clean the fridge… So one day, she tells her supervisor she can’t wash the coffee mugs. She’s pregnant. The smell will make her vomit.

Shibata is not pregnant. But she’s now committed herself to a nine-month ruse.

Diary of a Void is the height of sexless pregnancy in contemporary Japanese literature. There’s no sex. There’s no love. And there’s no real baby at all.

[28:40] Mieko Kawakami was born in 1976. That makes her a little more than a decade younger than Banana Yoshimoto… just a little older than Tomihiko Morimi and Sayaka Murata, both of whom we’ve covered on this podcast.

(It also means that Mieko Kawakami is an author of the internet age. I’ve had access to so many author interviews. I’m going to be able to quote from Kawakami a lot. And you can find links on the episode page.)

Like many writers, Kawakami has a diverse resume. Her father wasn’t usually around. By the time she was fourteen, she had lied about her age, and she was working in a factory that made heaters and electric fans. She later worked as a bar hostess, and then as a singer—she debuted on a major label in 2002. Then she began her writing career as a blogger. She started the blog to promote her work as a singing career, but it soon became an outlet. At the height of her blog’s popularity, she was logging about a hundred thousand hits a day. (If you’re old enough to remember blogging culture, those are pretty impressive stats.)

Some of her first published work is poetry. Eventually blog posts developed into her 1st novel, My Ego, My Teeth, and the World. She published that novel in 2007.

A year later, Kawakami won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize for her novella Chichi to Ran—in English, Breasts and Eggs. (Just as an aside, Mieko Kawakami found inspiration for Chichi to Ran in Ichiyō Higuchi’s story “Takekurabe”—we talked about that story at length in our episode about The Women Writers of Meiji Japan.)

Chichi to Ran is only the starting point for the Breasts and Eggs we’re talking about today.

And I’ll explain more in just a minute.

[30:38] Mieko Kawakami has also become an important feminist voice of her generation. She greatly annoyed Akutagawa winner and then-Governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara when she won the Akutagawa Prize. Ishara was, obviously, a writer. But he was also a prominent ultranationalist and famous misogynist views and nasty things to say about Chinese and Koreans. Ishihara was a member of the Akutagawa Selection Committee at the time. (Many former winners serve on this committee.) So the Bungei Shunjū magazine published his comments about Kawakami’s novella when she won the prize:

“The egocentric, self-absorbed rambling of the work [Chichi to Ran] is unpleasant and intolerable.”

(As far as I’m concerned, annoying Ishihara is a praiseworthy accomplishment. And I share that sentiment with a lot of people.)


In 2020, Kawakami told a Guardian reporter that she used to think of feminism as “hysterical old women on TV”. “As you get older,” she continued, “It just seems so obvious for women to get feminist.” She describes her problem with “the patriarchal system” in Japan and the “religious-like pressure that people are put under to conform [there]”. A lot of her work tackles those themes head on—especially Breasts and Eggs.

[32:03] The things Kawakami stands up for—fair treatment of women, equitable marriage, working motherhood—are lived values for Kawakami. She married author Kazushige Abe in 2011. 

Kazushige [Abe]’s first novel in English translation [Nipponia Nippon] is expected in fall 2023, translated by Kerim Yasar. The couple also have a young ten year old son together.

None of this is to say Kawakami wants to be pigeon-holed by the label “feminist”. (One of her frequent translators, Sam Bett, remarked, “I would say that if in a hundred years Mieko is remembered only for being a feminist author, she would look back on that and be pissed”.) Kawakami has been somewhat more diplomatic. She’s said she would prefer to be “understood as a human writer”.

[32:50] Mieko Kawakami also has a fascinating and public friendship with Haruki Murakami. Murakami, as you probably know, is one of Japan’s best known writers. He wrote a rave review of Chichi to ran after Kawakami won the Akutagawa Prize.

From 2015 to 2017 the pair had four different conversations totaling sixteen hours. These conversations were later published in a book called The Owl Spreads Its Wings with the Falling of the Dusk. Unfortunately, the whole thing hasn’t been translated into English. There is a short excerpt published on Lit Hub, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd. You can find it linked on the episode page.

Bett and Boyd have translated parts of the conversation where Kawakami challenged Murakami about his female characters. Kawakami seems to speak for many women readers when she challenges [him] on some of the claims he makes. Claims like claims like… the narrator of Killing Commendatore is “the sort of person who a twelve year old girl would feel comfortable talking to about her breasts”.

[33:59] What English speakers read when they pick up Breasts and Eggs isn’t the book that won Kawakami the Akutagawa Prize in 2008. Our Breasts and Eggs is a significantly expanded version that Kawakami reworked and published in Japan in 2019 as Natsu Monogatari or Summer Story. I know I have some listeners who are able to read in other languages. You may have encountered Chichi to ran in translation. I know, for example, there’s a French translation of the 2008 Akutagawa winner.

In a recent New York Times Magazine article, Kawakami explained:

I put everything I had into [2008’s] Breasts and Eggs.I put everything I felt into it. But after 10 years, I knew that there was room to build on its philosophy of feminism, and I better understood the changes that women go through.

This is how Kawakami explained the book in an October 2020 English-language Twitter post:

It seems there are some misunderstandings of the facts.

I think it’s important to clear a few things up.

I wrote Breasts and Eggs from scratch in 2019. I used the same characters and settings of the novella I had written ten years ago, but both Book One and Book Two of Breasts and Eggs were written in 2019 and it’s a completely different book from the novella.

In that same post, she also clarified, “Some people wrote that Breasts and Eggs was originally a blog but that’s not true. I have no idea where that rumor came from”.

[35:35] It’s pretty clear to me that those rumors came from 2008 articles about Kawakami’s Akutagawa win. A particularly insulting article in the UK’s Independent is titled “Young Commuter Bloggers Snatch Japan’s Literary Laurels”. The entire article groups a young woman who just won Japan’s top literary award with people writing “cell phone novels”.

But cell phone novels are another story for another day… or maybe even another episode. Breasts and Eggs was not a cell phone novel. It has virtually nothing in common with a cell phone novel. And it didn’t start out as a blog, either.

It’s astonishing to read some of those early reviews of Chichi to ran. They come across as shockingly dismissive. A 2008 Independent article calls her “a Björjk-loving 31-year-old”. It goes on to quote author Roger Pulvers:

[Kawakami’s] popularity is part of the phenomenon of confessional fiction of the chick-lit variety, where the writer is very frank about sex and personal, especially family relationships.

I mean… maybe that’s not supposed to be dismissive, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a work of fiction that just won a coveted literary award labeled “chick-lit”. 

Honestly, even some of the press coverage a decade later was pretty insulting. Take The Japan Times headline “‘Breasts and Eggs’: Not Just Some Elevated Piece of Literary Chick-Lit”—the emphasis there is obviously mine. By the time Breasts and Eggs premiered in English, Kawakami had become a global force to be reckoned with. In 2020, Breasts and Eggs was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and one of TIME Magazine’s 10 Best Books of 2020.

[37:47] Breasts and Eggs stars three women. Natsu is our narrator. She’s a writer who lives in Tokyo. In part one, her older sister, Makiko, is visiting from Osaka. And Natsu’s niece—Makiko’s twelve year old daughter—Midoriko has come along as well.

Kawakami establishes in just the first three pages that these women don’t have positive experiences of fatherhood. Natsu and Makiko’s dad didn’t work. He was physically violent. He abandoned them when they were in elementary school. And they fled with their mom before he could come back.

Makiko’s husband left while Makiko was pregnant with Midoriko. And Midorikoknows virtually nothing about her father. 

The three women also represent three different attitudes about motherhood. Makiko, the oldest sister, is a mom. Her daughter thinks she regrets having a baby. I don’t think she regrets her daughter so much as the pregnancy itself. She can’t stand what pregnancy has done to her body. Part one of the novel is about how much she resents the way her body has aged, and she has come to Tokyo to consider getting breast implants.

Natsu doesn’t like sex. She’d kind of like to have a baby anyway. 

Midoriko, the twelve year old, finds both sex and motherhood repulsive.

[39:12] Natsu has tried—really tried—to make sex work. She had a partner she wanted to spend her life with. But sex made her “so uneasy”, “never enjoyable or comfortable or fulfilling”.

“Opening [her] legs and having him inside [her]… was the worst”. Once her partner was naked on top of her, she says, she “was all alone.”

Gendered expectations made it impossible for her to communicate. She expects he would have listened. But she “just assumed [she] had to go along with him—because it was on [her], as a woman, to fulfill his sexual desires”. Sometimes she wonders if she can even be a woman without sexual desire. She’s come to think that “passion and sex [are] incompatible” for her. And she and her partner broke up some years ago.

It take[s] Natsu a few years to realize that maybe she doesn’t have to be alone just because she doesn’t like sex. One night she sees a report on TV: “Is it possible, without a partner, to get pregnant and raise a child on your own?—Sperm Donation: An In-Depth Report.” In most of what remains of the novel, Natsu researches artificial insemination. Is it right for her? What are the ethical implications?

Eventually, Natsu meets a man named Aizawa. Aizawa is an advocate for people conceived through anonymous sperm donation. In the end, Aizawa is the man who serves as Natsu’s sperm donor. They get around many of the problems with the sperm donation underground that we talked about earlier by lying to a doctor. And that’s not an uncommon solution.

The conclusion and denouement of Breasts and Eggs nicely wraps up some of the main themes of our episode today. Natsu and Aiza sort of fall in love. But they never get together. They never decide to have children together in a conventional way. And they never start a sexual relationship. To Natsu, it’s too important to have a baby. And neither sex nor romantic love are worth the sacrifices they require.

[41:20] What about twelve year old Midoriko? She’s going through puberty. Her friends are going through puberty. And it’s forcing the issue. 

Midoriko journals throughout the novel. So even though she’s not the narrator, we get to hear her innermost thoughts. This is kind of a cool way to conduct a novel. She journals about one conversation at school that’s especially noteworthy:

…I forget who, but someone was saying, ‘I was born a girl, so yeah I definitely want to have a baby of my own eventually.’ Where does that come from, though? Does blood coming out of your body make you a woman? A potential mother? What makes that so great anyway?… Life is hard enough with just one body. Why would anyone ever want to make another one? I can’t even imagine why anyone would bother.

[42:13] For Japanese policy makers worried about “celibacy syndrome”, the oldest sister Makiko may offer the most threatening sentiment in the entire novel. As I’ve already mentioned, Makiko has been burned by the men in her life who were supposed to be father figures. She mentions that her ex, Midoriko’s father, claimed to be something of a feminist: “He went around, patting himself on the back, like he’s so much better than all those men,” she said. Then she summarizes the sorts of things he used to say—

I know the pain that women feel. I respect women. I’ve written papers about it, I know where all the landmines are. My favorite author is Virginia Woolf…

She goes on, “So fucking what, though, right? How many times did you clean the house last month? How many times did you cook? How many times did you go grocery shopping”

And then she concludes

There will come a time when women stop having babies. Or, I don’t know, we’ll reach a point where the whole process can be separated from women’s bodies, and we can look back at this time, when women and men tried to live together and raise families, as some unfortunate episode in human history.

[43:34] So why read Mieko Kawakami?

As I’ve mentioned, Mieko Kawakami is one of the most important voices coming out of Japan today. Her work is being widely translated. And her books are some of the most anticipated titles when they are released in English. The people translating her work—Sam Bett, David Boyd, Louise Heal Kawai, Hitomi Yoshio—are some of the most talented translators working between Japanese and English today.

Kawakami is a marvelous writer. And she takes up some of the ideas that are most important to contemporary Japan—really to any late-stage capitalist society. Questions about isolation, motherhood, pregnancy… all in a shrinking society.

Today we looked at Breasts and Eggs. It’s a good book. Not my favorite Mieko Kawakami—I love her novel Heaven. It is a story about the meaning of suffering from the perspective of a bullied middle school boy. Very difficult to read, but worth it—at least from my perspective.

[44:39] I’ve been reading from Sam Bett and David Boyd’s translation of Breasts and Eggs. Buy your books through our link to Bookshop.org to support the podcast.

There are other ways to support the podcast. Leave a review on your podcast app of choice. (Thank you to the listeners who have done that.) You can also become a supporter through Patreon for as little as $3 a month. (Thank you to our new supporters.) Find out how you can join them at patreon.com/readjapaneseliterature.

We’d love to hear from you about the podcast. There are so many ways to stay in touch:

Thank you to the Japanese Literature group on Goodreads and the Japanese Literature group on Facebook.
And thank you as always to Producer Khaim for today’s music, @khaimmusic and khaimmusic.com.

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 New and Upcoming Japanese Fiction Releases

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

(updated November 2023)

Titles from Japanese translated into English for publication in 2023. Does not include poetry, manga, light novels, or children’s literature. 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.

See a list of titles released in 2022.

New Releases

Before We Say Goodbye 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.”

The Cthulhu Helix by Katsufumi Umehara

Translated by Jim Hubbert

“Award-winning science fiction author Umehara drags you screaming into a darker future as the monsters of our own genetic code come to life, revealing all too clearly humanity’s fatal misunderstanding of its place in the universe… and its very reason for existence, weaving the Cthulhu Mythos, genetic engineering, and the battle against extinction into a masterpiece of horror.”

Days at the Morisaki Bookshop by Satoshi Yagisawa

Translated by Eric Ozawa

“Twenty-five-year-old Takako has enjoyed a relatively easy existence—until the day her charming boyfriend Kashikoi, the man she expected to wed, casually announces he’s been cheating on her and is marrying the other woman. Suddenly, Takako’s life is in freefall. She loses her job, her friends, and her acquaintances, and spirals into a deep depression. In the depths of her despair, she receives a call from her distant uncle Ojisan…”

The Deer King, Volume 1: Survivors by Nahoko Uehashi

Translated by Cathy Hirano

“Van, a former soldier made slave, toils away endlessly in a salt mine. An unexpected chance at liberation drops in his lap when a pack of infected dogs passes through, killing everyone but him and a young girl he names Yuna. Van hopes to make a peaceful life for them both now that they’ve escaped. However, the disease that cleared out the mine begins to spread, endangering the nation and placing Van and his ward at the center of a conflict greater than any the world has ever seen. Thus begins a tale of ecosystems, viruses, and cultural relations.”

Dragon Palace by Hiromi Kawakami

Translated by Ted Goossen

“These eight stories are masterpieces of metamorphosis and transformation, infused with Kawakami’s unique brand of humor and beauty. Moles, octopuses, and hippopotamuses interact with humans in a revelatory dance.”

The Devil’s Flute Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

Translated by Jim Rion

“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…”

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

The End of August by Yu Miri

Translated by Morgan Giles

“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…”

Finger Bone by Hiroki Takahashi

Translated by Takami Nieda

“1942. At the turning point of the war, the Imperial Japanese Army is in retreat. On Papua New Guinea, the unnamed narrator of Finger Bone is wounded in the fighting and sent to a field hospital to recover…”

The Flowers of Buffoonery by Osamu Dazai

Translated by Sam Bett

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

“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…”

Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again by Shigeru Kayama

Translated by Jeffrey Angles

“Although the Godzilla films have been analyzed in detail by cultural historians, film scholars, and generations of fans, Kayama’s two Godzilla novellas—both classics of Japanese young-adult science fiction—have never been available in English. This book finally provides English-speaking fans and critics the original texts with these first-ever English-language translations of Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again. The novellas reveal valuable insights into Kayama’s vision for the Godzilla story, feature plots that differ from those of the films, and clearly display the author’s strong antinuclear, pro-environmental convictions.”

  • Read my review in The Asian Review of Books.

Hit Parade of Tears by Izumi Suzuki

Translated by Daniel Joseph, Sam Bett, and David Boyd

“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

“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…”

The Goodbye Cat by Hiro Arikawa

“We meet Spin, a kitten rescued from the recycling bin, whose simple needs teach an anxious father how to parent his own human baby; a colony of wild cats on a holiday island shows a young boy not to stand in nature’s way; a family is perplexed by their cat’s devotion to their charismatic but uncaring father; a woman curses how her cat constantly visits her at night; and an elderly cat, Kota, hatches a plan to pass into the next world as a spirit so that he and his owner may be together for ever..”

In Dreams: The Very Short Stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Translated by Ryan Choi

(Out in the UK; North American release expected late fall 2023)

“Deftly translated by Ryan Choi, these stories and vignettes (plus two short plays) all have radical brevity in common, demonstrating that Akutagawa was an early and prescient master of what we now call ‘flash’ fiction and non-fiction.” 

Kappa by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Translated by Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda and Allison Markin Powell

“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…”

Mild Vertigo by Mieko Kanai

Translated by Polly Barton

“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.”

Love at Six Thousand Degrees by Maki Kashimada

Translated by Hadyn Trowell

“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…”

The Mantis by Kotaro Isaka

Translated by Sam Malissa

“Kabuto is a highly skilled assassin eager to escape his dangerous profession and the hold his handler, the sinister Doctor, has over him. The Doctor, a real physician who hands over Kabuto’s targets as ‘prescriptions’ in his regular appointments with him, doesn’t want to lose Kabuto as a profitable asset, but he agrees to let him pay his way out of his employment with a few last jobs. Only the most lucrative jobs involve taking out other professional assassins, and Kabuto’s final assignment puts him and his family—who have no idea about his double life—in danger.”

  • The Mantis is the third entry in Isaka’s Assassins series, including Three Assassins and Bullet Train. It can be read as a stand-alone.

The Mill House Murders by Ayatsuji Yukito

Translated by Ho-Ling Wong

“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.

The Mud of Centuries by Yuka Ishii

Translated by Haydn Trowell

Yuka Ishii ’s debut novel The Mud of a Century was a major literary success in Japan where it won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize.

Several days after a once-in-a-century flood moves through the Indian city of Chennai, choking the Adyar River with the titular mud, a Japanese woman contracted to an IT company as a language instructor finds herself caught up in a deluge of flashbacks and memories, reflecting on unspoken words and unlived lives and contemplating the muddy chaos of her own karma.

Nails and Eyes by Kaori Fujino

Translated by Kendall Heitzman

“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

“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

“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

“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 Premonition by Banana Yoshimoto

Translated by Asa Yoneda

“Yayoi, a nineteen-year-old woman from a seemingly loving middle-class family, has lately been haunted by the feeling that she has forgotten something important from her childhood. Her premonition grows stronger day by day and, as if led by it, she decides to move in with her mysterious aunt, Yukino.”

The Rainbow by Yasunari Kawabata

Translated by Hadyn Trowell

“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

“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

“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

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

“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 , Do You Copy? by Natsuko Imamura

Translated by Hitomi Yoshio

“Other people don’t seem to understand Amiko. Whether eating curry rice with her hands at school or peeking through the sliding doors at her mother’s calligraphy class, her curious, exuberant nature mostly meets with confusion.

When her mother falls into a depression and her brother begins spending all his time with a motorcycle gang, Amiko is left increasingly alone to navigate a world where she doesn’t quite fit…”

The Thorn Puller by Hiromi Ito

Translated by Jeffrey Angles

“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

“‘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…”

Upcoming Releases

The Final Curtain by Keigo Higashino

Translated by Giles Murray

(North American and European releases expected early winter 2023)

A Detective Kaga novel

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? ….”

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


  • 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.

See a list of 2023 new and upcoming releases.

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…”

Read my review of The Thorn Puller.

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.


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.


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)