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So many wonderful books have been written to help us better understand the Japanese people. These books help us reconcile the contradiction of a culture that finds beauty in unrefined simplicity and yet feels infinitely bizarre and complex to most foreigners. Travellers, scholars, and Japanophiles have written volumes about how we should perceive the country and why things are the way they are. For decades, I have loved and devoured these books by outsiders – but the greatest insights in understanding this wonderful country have come from Japanese authors writing about everyday subjects and with no intention of helping foreigners like myself better understand their country.
Fortunately for those who can’t read Japanese, many of the country’s best authors are painstakingly translated into English to accurately capture the mood, ambiguity and poetry of the original. Here are two novels that are readily available in English, which can help you pull back the curtain on a society that sees the world just a little bit – or perhaps a lot – differently than most.
Banana Yoshimoto – Kitchen
Banana Yoshimoto is internationally known but her stardom is particularly far-reaching in Japan. Having such an unforgettable name doesn’t hurt, but what really made her a household name was her debut novel Kitchen. It was a blockbuster when released and now gained the status of a classic. A theme of loss and sadness pervades the book, yet Yoshimoto handles the tragedies heaped upon our protagonist with an understanding of the ephemeral nature of life that Japan has become almost synonymous with (thanks in no small part to the fact that it is regularly slammed with natural devastation in the form of earthquakes, landslides, fires, typhoons, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions). I reread this novel in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, and now the heartaches in this book feel forever connected to the terrible suffering wrought by that triple tragedy. But as with life, even in a pandemic or disaster, there are moments of joy, new friendships, drag bars and, of course, a kitchen.
Natsuo Kirino – Out
Don’t be put off by the length of this book. The 400 pages turn themselves as you experience an underside of Tokyo that takes you beyond the warm smiles and thoughtful hospitality that we all experience as travellers in Japan. While I wouldn’t recommend trying to infer much about Japanese culture from the gruesome violence portrayed in Out, it does show that the country isn’t all geisha, sushi and bullet trains. Though most guidebooks would have you believe otherwise, it’s a rare few who spend their time thinking about tea ceremonies and flower arrangement. The everyday problems that affect us all are the same ones that dominate most Japanese lives. Natsuo Kirino gives us a peek at some of them, and along the journey takes us into the early morning work regimes of bento factories and opens the door to the apartment of a blue–collar family. Out is immediately accessible and yet there is a tone and perspective that is uniquely Japanese. If you aren’t culture-shocked, there will be plenty else in this book that is sure to shock you.
Books by Banana Yoshimoto and Natsuo Kirino are available at all good online book stores. The images are provided as links and aren’t owned by this site.