I’ve long loved Japanese literature and over the years with each passing August I’ve picked up more and more books translated from Japanese for Women in Translation Month. Hiromi Kawakami, Yuko Tsushima, Yoko Ogawa, and so many others have become some of the authors I recommend and return to most often. Here I’ve collected some of my favorites, 20 must-read Japanese books by women in translation. And if you’re looking to read a book on Japanese translation itself, I highly recommend Polly Barton’s brilliant and stunning reflection of language and life, Fifty Sounds.
Territory of Light follows a woman starting her life over again with her young daughter after being left by her husband. Her new Tokyo apartment is awash in light but she finds herself falling further into darkness and depression. As time passes, she confronts her new reality and makes plans for the future. It is a painful and honest journey, one that will ring true to many who have had to remake their life in a new image after loss, but it’s so beautifully told. The translation is particularly exquisite. “At once tender and lacerating, luminous and unsettling, Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light is a novel of abandonment, desire, and transformation.”
MANAZURU BY HIROMI KAWAKAMI, TRANSLATED BY MICHAEL EMMERICH
Twelve years have past since Kei’s husband disappeared and left her alone with their 3-year-old daughter, Momo. Still haunted by the disappearance, Kei keeps returning to the seaside town of Manazuru to remember and connect to something just out of reach. Manazuru is a beautifully subtle and profound story of loss and memory. There’s this restless quality to the novel that’s utterly gorgeous and — as is usually the case with Kawakami — there’s a strange, unusual element that I wouldn’t dare spoil for you! Find your way into the other works of Hiromi Kawakami with this reading pathways post.
Published in Japan in 2008, Mieko Kawakami’s novella Breasts and Eggs won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize and the praise of authors like Yoko Ogawa and Haruki Murakami. This newly expanded novel is Kawakami’s first to be published in English and has already been hailed as a “feminist masterwork.” Breasts and Eggs is an intimate and striking novel of women’s bodies and agency in modern Japan, following three women — sisters Natsu and Makiko and Makiko’s daughter Midoriko — as they reflect on and determine their futures.
I loved this collection of strange and wonderful stories. Winner of the Akutagawa Prize and the Kenzaburo Oe Prize, Motoya is a magician — she takes mundane, daily life and just twists it into these amazingly clever and fantastic tales. In these stories, a newlywed notices that her husband’s features are sneakily sliding around his face to match hers, umbrellas are more than they seem, women are challenging their boyfriends to duels, and you might want to reconsider dating the girl next door.
THE FACTORY BY HIROKO OYAMADA, TRANSLATED BY DAVID BOYD
In Hiroko Oyamada’s English language debut The Factory, three characters find work at a sprawling industrial factory. They settle into their new jobs and they soon realize that their lives have slowly (or is it quickly? Time doesn’t seem to make sense any more) been taken over by the factory. Reality dissolves, strange creatures begin to appear, and the list of unanswered questions about this unusual factory grows longer. Winner of the Shincho Prize for New Writers.
THE HOLE BY HIROKO OYAMADA, TRANSLATED BY DAVID BOYD
The Hole is a surreal and atmospheric novel reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, David Lynch, and Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. Asa and her husband move to a remote home in the countryside after her husband transfers jobs. A chance encounter with a strange creature leads Asa to a series of bizarre circumstances as she tries to find her place in this new world. It’s especially impressive to see Oyamada create such a sensory rural novel, full of the lethargic, sticky heat of summer and the buzz of cicadas, after seamlessly crafting the industrial setting in her debut novel The Factory, also translated by David Boyd.
Drawn & Quarterly has the most fantastic offerings of literature in translation and so I was thrilled to hear about The Sky is Blue with a Single Cloud, the first collection of stories by the “visionary and iconoclastic feminist cartoonist” Kuniko Tsurita to be available in English. Tsurita was the first and only regular female contributor in the legendary alt-manga monthly Garo and this collection reclaims her historical and literary importance. I particularly loved Gabrielle Bellot’s piece in The Atlanticabout the collection — in her thoughtful review, Bellot discusses the ways in which Tsurita broke both gender and genre norms in her art.
Kazu is a ghost that haunts Ueno Park — where he had previously lived in one of its homeless villages until the time of his death — but when you’ve finished this elusive and devastating novel, Kazu will begin to haunt you too. Described as a work of “post-tsunami literature and a protest against the 2020 Tokyo Olympics” and a novel for our times for its scathing critiques of the imperialist and capitalist systems, Tokyo Ueno Station hits even harder in the wake of the pandemic as vulnerable populations worldwide have been impacted disproportionately and the gulf between rich and poor grows at alarming rates.
Spring Garden follows Toro, a divorced man living in an older apartment complex that’s about to be demolished in a rapidly urbanizing Japan. Toro is drawn into an unusual relationship with Nishi, an artist living upstairs who tells him about her interest in the sky-blue house next door to the complex. The house soon becomes symbolic to both Taro and Nishi “of what is lost, of what has been destroyed, and of what hope may yet lie in the future for both of them.” This poignant novella of memory and loss left me stunned. Part of Pushkin Press’s incredible Japanese Novellas Series, which I’ve found to be a great resource for discovering new authors.
Keiko Furukura has worked at a convenience store for 18 years, comfortable in the patterns and norms of the store and its customers but aware of her family and society’s general disappointment in her. When a young man enters her life she has the chance to change everything — if she wants to. From one of Japan’s most exciting contemporary writers, Convenience Store Woman is a dark, funny, and compelling novel with a heroine that defies convention and description.