For eight months, Mikami has been the head of the Press Office in the Police Headquarters of Prefecture D. He still struggles with his own desire to open up communication with the local press and his superior’s demands to keep things as they are. The matter escalates just when the Director General from Tokyo has scheduled a visit to the victims of an as-yet unsolved kidnapping that happened 14 years earlier. While Mikami tries to prepare for the visit, he discovers not only the true reason behind it, but also a serious cover-up related to the old crime. With Criminal Investigations and Administrative Affairs locked in a power struggle, Mikami finds himself alone between the lines. All things come to a head when another kidnapping happens that has eerie similarities to the unsolved one. Will Mikami be able to find out the truth?
This mystery gives insights into the daily workings of Japan’s police apparatus. Mikami does not solve any crimes, but his investigation into the commissioner’s visit and why everybody suddenly refuses to talk to him is among the most gripping stories I have ever read. Although they are not taking a front seat (because the Japanese audience would be well aware of them) the descriptions of the intricate hierarchies and stifling rules of the police are a reminder of a culture most foreigner will never understand or experience.
Hideo Yokoyama was born in 1957 in Tokyo. For 12 years he worked as an investigative reporter for a regional newspaper in Gunma Prefecture. His crime novels are meticulously researched; Six Four took him 10 years to write and caused a heart attack. This book – the most popular of the eight novels he wrote so far – was ranked Best Japanese mystery novel in 2013. He lives with his wife in Gunma Prefecture.
Try out this amazing thriller – it’s a long one, so be warned – and get it from amazon!
Botchan is a young mathematics teacher, fresh out of college, and his first assignment takes him to a small school in the countryside. From the first day, he – the Tokyo metropolitan – looks down on everything in his new town, especially his country-bumpkin students. They, however, know how to pay him back in the same coin: by pulling all sorts of pranks in school and cheerfully commenting on his private life. Botchan does not fare much better with his colleagues, and the only one he feels somewhat closer to – Porcupine – is engaged in a silent but fierce battle with another teacher – Red Shirt.
Botchan soon sees himself trapped between the front lines of the battle, and while he begins to see Porcupine as a friend, an alliance with Red Shirt will have more long term benefits. At some point, Botchan will have to choose…
Botchan, sometimes translated as “Master Darling” has morality as its main theme, and is still widely read by pupils throughout Japan. It is a fun little book and the quarrels of the teacher’s room bridge cultures as well as time…
Soseki Natsume, pen-name of Natsume Kinnosuke, was born in 1867 as the 6th child of a rather poor family. From the age of 15, he wanted to become an author, and because of his father’s disapproval, he entered university in 1884 where he studied architecture and English. He went to England in 1901 for two years, and did not like the experience. Upon return to Japan, he began publishing haiku and short stories. Today, he is one of the most famous writers of Japan. Botchan is based on his own experiences of teaching in a small school in Shikoku and considered one of the most important works of Japanese literature. Natsume died in 1916, only 49 years old, from a stomach ulcer.
If you’re not afraid to go back to your own years in school, try out this book from amazon.
Father Sebastian Rodrigues is a Catholic priest whose dream it is to go to Japan as a missionary. When news reaches Portugal that his old teacher, Father Ferreira, has apostatized, he finally receives permission to go to Japan, where Christianity has been outlawed and all foreign priests are persecuted.
When Rodrigues enters Japan in a little boat in the dead of the night, a hidden Christian community welcomes his arrival and hides him from the authorities. However, he is soon betrayed and imprisoned, where he awaits his trial at the hand of the lord Inoue. While in prison, Rodrigues reflects on his life and faith, and can finally meet with Ferreira, who has an unexpected confession.
I greatly enjoyed this gripping story, and from the very beginning, you want to know what will happen next. Endo tells of the persecution of Christianity in the early Edo Period in great detail, but always through the eyes of the outsider Rodrigues. Once captured, he questions his determination and even faith, and the “silence” of the title refers to that of God, who is unmoved by the sufferings of the Japanese Christians and Rodrigues’ prayers. A great history lesson in a great story of human (and divine?) failure. Highly recommended!
Shusaku Endo was born in 1923 in Tokyo, but his family moved to Machuria when he was three. Already in elementary school, he published a newspaper with friends. He returned to Japan with his mother after her divorce in 1933, and one year later, he was baptised at a Catholic Church. He began studying in 1943 and started publishing stories in literary journals throughout the war. Endo received the Akutagawa Prize for “White Men” in 1954 and the Tanizaki Prize in 1966 for “Silence” which was turned into a movie by Martin Scorsese. Most of Endo’s writings have a decidedly Christian, if not Catholic bent. He died in 1996 in Tokyo.
This historical novel may not be the best read for the Christmas season, but if you want to give it a try, it’s available from amazon.
The Woman in the Dunes
Niki Jumpei travels to a remote beach to catch sand beetles for his collection. On his search, he discovers a village with houses that are overcome by the sand, so much so, that some of them stand on the bottom of pits dug into the dunes. When he misses the last bus home, the village elders allow him to stay with a woman who lives in one of these sunken houses. The next morning however, Jumpei finds himself trapped down there. Forced to help the woman excavate the sand so as not to be buried by it, he must choose whether to fight against the inevitable or to give in to it – and to the woman.
This is probably the best known book by Kobo Abe and a personal favourite of mine to which I return ever so often. We follow Jumpei’s inner journey as he is trapped at the bottom of the pit, and the question “what would I do” is ever present. The ending of this novel is interesting, and depending on your own answer to the question above will either come as a shock or as a natural conclusion of Jumpei’s path.
Kobo Abe, born in Tokyo in 1924, was a Japanese writer, playwright, musician, photographer and inventor. Following his father’s footsteps, he studied medicine in Tokyo and graduated in 1948. In his last year in medical school, he started writing short stories, and already in 1951, he recceived the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. Woman in the Dunes, published in 1961, earned him the Yomiuri Prize and international acclaim as was turned into a movie. Abe was famous for his surreal and modernist style. He died in 1993.
Somehow I feel that this kafkaesque novel is the perfect ending for 2020. If you want to give it a try, you can get it from amazon.
When Izumo no Okuni comes to Osaka with some fellow villagers, all she wants to do is dance. Her rustic folk dances and songs quickly gain her a loyal following among the common folk, and she even gets invited to perform for high ranking samurai and court nobles. Her husband Sankuro, ever so interested in fame and fortune, would like her to dance only for wealthy patrons, but Okuni opts to move to Kyoto instead. There, at the banks of the Kamo river near Shijo street, her distinct and innovative style draws large crowds of spectators and, in time, competitors who imitate her. However, Okuni remains ahead of them all, and despite numerous setbacks, she remains “Best in the World” and single-handedly invents what is known today as Kabuki.
This book blends what is surely known about Izumo no Okuni with old tales and legends. The result is a gripping life story of a woman who did not always get her way, but nevertheless insisted on leading her own life amidst the turbulent last years of the Japanese warring period and the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
I greatly enjoyed this book about Izumo no Okuni that follows her life from the age of 17 until her death at 37. While much of her personality depicted here must be considered fiction, it is hard to conceive how a less strong-willed person would have been able to create an art form that is still practised (and innovated) today, 400 years after her death. Fans of Kyoto will recognise some of the places mentioned in this book.
Sawako Ariyoshi, born 1931 in Wakayama, developed an interest in the theater already as a student and her own plays are widely performed in Japan. She was a prolific writer of short stories and novels and became one of the country’s most famous female novelists who won the prestigious Akutagawa prize and a number of other Japanese literary awards. Her books deal with social issues like the depopulation of rural areas or the plight of the elderly that are as current now when they were written. She died in 1984.
If you’re ready for a fun historical novel that is set in Japan and does not feature any swordfighting – not real one, at least – get this book from amazon.
Kwaidan: Studies and Stories of Strange Things
This is a, if not the, classic collection of Japanese ghost stories. While there are many famous ghost stories related to classic Japanese literature, like the Tale of the Heike, the 17 stories contained here are old folk tales. For example, “The Story of Mimi-nashi-hoichi” tells of the dangerous experience of a blind musician who gives a concert on a graveyard. And “Yuki-onna” warns of the dangers of not keeping a woman’s secret.
Collected more than 100 years ago, these stories have lost none of their charm and have rightfully earned their place among the must read books for everyone interested in Japan and its culture.
Lafcadio Hearn was born 1850 in Greece and moved to the US when he was 19 to work as a journalist. In 1890, he was sent to Japan and was soon offered a teaching position. Hearn wrote a great number of articles with a focus on Japanese customs and folklore, even though he is mainly known for the collection of ghost stories above. He married into a Japanese family and took the name Koizumi Yakumo, under which he is famous in Japan. He never left the country again and died in Tokyo in 1904 from heart failure.
Japanese people tell each other ghost stories in summer to cool down. To be true to tradition, you should get the book one of these days, perhaps from amazon.
The Elephant Vanishes
This is a collection of 17 short stories by Haruki Murakami. They don’t have a common theme, but they are all tied together by an “I” narrator, which gives the stories an almost personal feeling. Most often, this narrator seems like a stand-in for Murakami himself (a male author talking about his past), but there are also stories told from a female perspective. Typical for Murakami, in the beginning, the stories are grounded in the real world until something happens that is unlikely or impossible:
A man searches for his wife’s cat and spends the afternoon lying in the sun in a stranger’s garden. A woman becomes an insomniac who does not need to sleep at all and doesn’t even feel tired. A man works in an elephant factory until a dancing dwarf takes possession of his body. A woman is the target of a love sick green monster. A couple robs burgers from a MacDonalds in the middle of the night. An elephant vanishes without a trace from a heavily guarded enclosure. A man talks about his desire to burn down barns.
I’ve been reading a lot of Murakami’s books and short story collections lately. The selection of stories in this book felt more coherent than in “After the Quake”, which I read just before this one, even though there was no common theme here. The stories range from light hearted to cruel, from funny to profound. Since Murakami writes literary fiction, there is often not much plot, but the insights into the characters makes up for the fact that not much is happening.
Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and studied drama in Tokyo. While managing a Jazz club in Tokyo, he started writing at age 29 and has since become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide who has won many international literary prizes.
If you need something to take your mind off things without having to commit to a long time of reading, this collection of shorts of various length is a good book to pick up. Available at amazon.
It’s midnight in Tokyo and once again, Mari doesn’t want to go to bed, doesn’t even want to go home. A regular late customer, she sits in a Denny’s cafe reading when Takahashi enters, a trombone case slung over his shoulder. He recognizes Mari from a date some years previous and sits at her table for a while but he soon leaves for his band practice. Mari is alone again until Kaoru, the manager of a nearby love hotel, storms into the place and asks Mari for help. A young Chinese prostitute has been assaulted in her hotel, and she needs an interpreter. Mari follows Kaoru into the night, and soon she is enveloped in the weird stories that happen after dark in the big city.
Three stories are being told in this book: The one of Mari and Takahashi, of Kaoru and what’s going on in her love hotel, and – of Eri, Mari’s beautiful sister, who, like Snow White, has been sleeping for a very long time… The three stories don’t form a single whole, but like the myriad of rail tracks in Tokyo, only cross and touch each other at intervals, but in general, they run independently.
Haruki Murakami, born in Kyoto in 1949, studied drama in Tokyo and afterwards managed Jazz club in Tokyo. He started writing at age 29 and has since become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide. He has won many Japanese and international prizes. In this book, Murakami has painted a perfect japanese picture – beautifully detailed in the important parts, but with enough empty space for the beholder’s imagination.
Follow Mari into the night in Tokyo and check out the book on amazon.
In the year 1537, yet another child is born into the family of an impoverished samurai. Although little Hiyoshi is smart and streetwise, he cannot hold an apprenticeship and is finally kicked out of the house by his stepfather. Wandering through the provinces, he encounters the young Oda Nobunaga and immediately decides to serve him. Starting out as a lowly sandal-bearer, a combination of hard work, tenacity and wit lets him climb the social ranks higher and higher until, in his 40s, he is known as Hideyoshi and considered one of the top generals of Japan. From there, it is just a small step to avenge the murder of his lord Oda Nobunaga and to become Taiko, the leader of the country.
This epic historical fiction – the abridged English translation runs just shy of 1000 pages – follows the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi from his humble beginnings all the way to his appointment as Taiko. Through his sharp wit and gift for rousing speech, he manages to manoeuver the dangerous Sengoku Period (the Warring States of Japan) and remains the unchallenged victor at the end.
Whenever I read books like this, I wonder how much we really know about any historical figure. I know that the Japanese are meticulous record keepers and even many private letters of that time survive. Still, how much do we really know about Hideyoshi and his relationship to Nene, his wife? Anyway, If you’re even remotely interested in Hideyoshi and his time, this is a very exciting read!
Eiji Yoshikawa, born in 1892, began his literary career at twenty-two years of age. During his thirties he worked as a journalist, but kept writing short stories and novels that were often published serially in newspapers and magazines. He received the Cultural Order of Merit, the Order of the Sacred Treasure and the Mainichi Art Award. When he died from cancer in 1962, he was considered among the best historical novelists of Japan.
For all of you who need something longer to keep them occupied during the Corona shutdown, get this book at amazon.
Bestselling author Kunihiko Hidaka was found murdered in his office by his wife and his old friend, Osamu Nonoguchi. Detective Kaga, who happens to be an old acquaintance of Nonoguchi’s, investigates the case and thankfully, the murderer is quickly found. All the evidence that is subsequently revealed seems to corroborate the motive as the murderer explains it, but detective Kaga is not satisfied. Thus begins a search for the true motive behind the killing, which sends Kaga back to the past of Hidaka and Nonoguchi – as well as his own.
This is not your typical whodunit, but more of a whydunit. After about a quarter of the story, the murderer has been found. However, the motive he reveals is nothing but a smokescreen erected to slander the victim beyond his death, and the real “Why?” comes to light only at the very end. While I know that people can go to great lengths to destroy an enemy, I found the fabricated motive too far-fetched, and the denouement of the real one at the end somewhat disappointing, although it was quite chilling. But maybe I’m just too much of a goodie two shoes…
Keigo Higashino, born 1958 in Osaka, started his professional writing career in 1986. He published more than 60 novels, 20 of which have been turned into films. He won a number of prestigious awards and served as the 13th president of Mystery Writers of Japan from 2009 to 2013.
Find out why the writer was killed and get the book from amazon.