We curated a list of the best Japanese books you have to own!
When you hear Japanese books, you’re probably thinking of manga and anime. But besides manga and anime, there are many Japanese literary masterpieces that have left their mark on readers around the world.
These novels are so brilliantly written that they have been translated and published in many different languages around the world.
Japanese literature dates back to the 8th century. Over the years, Japanese novels have come to be known for their intense storylines that are out of this world. Most Japanese novels incorporate some form of Japanese culture in their stories.
For the bookworm, if you don’t know where to begin when it comes to Japanese literature, we have put together this list of some of the best Japanese books.
Best Japanese Books: Quick Summary
|Best Japanese Books||Author||Genre|
|The Tale of Genji||Murasaki Shikibu||Classic Japanese Fiction|
|The Silent Cry||Kenzaburo Oe||Classic Japanese Fiction|
|I Am a Cat||Natsume Soseki||Classic Japanese Fiction|
|Kafka on the Shore||Haruki Murakami||Fantasy Fiction|
|Snow Country||Yasunari Kawabata||Classic Japanese Fiction|
|Kokoro||Natsume Soseski||Classic Japanese Fiction|
|The Waiting Years||Fumiko Enchi||Classic Japanese Fiction|
|Norwegian Wood||Haruki Murakami||Japanese Romance|
|No Longer Human||Osamu Dazai||Classic Japanese Fiction|
|What I Talk About When I Talk About Running||Haruki Murakami||Japanese Memoirs|
|Shiver||Junji ito||Japanese Horror|
|Kitchen||Banana Yoshimoto||Japanese Romance|
- Related: Best Japanese Books to Learn for Beginners
- Related: Best Japanese Female Authors
- Related: Best Japanese Novels
How did we pick out the best Japanese books?
Our team of in house experts went over 30 different Japanese books and rated them based on story, use of language, and ease of reading. After extensive research, we have put together this list of the best Japanese books.
“The Tale of Genji” is said to be the first novel ever written. Centuries after its initial publication, it continues to be one of the most popular and most loved books in Japan.
Best Japanese Books
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida
When it comes to the best Japanese books to read, one name stands out: Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump.
Written by an author living with non-verbal autism, this memoir provides a unique and unprecedented exploration, as well as profound insights into the mind of those diagnosed with autism.
Though written when Higashida was just thirteen years old, the book gives an insight into the innermost thoughts and feelings that those living with severe autism experience on a daily basis and has become an essential source for both adults and children looking to understand more about autism.
The Reason I Jump stands out from many other books in the genre as it seeks to provide an understanding of the author’s world and the way they view their environment.
Higashida explains his physical and emotional needs, his relationship to language and communication, and his thoughts on the world around him.
Mine is ‘The Reason I Jump’ by Naoki Higashida (written entirely on alphabet grid). The first book about autism by an #ActuallyAutistic author I ever read, it gives amazing insight into how he experiences the world and inspired me to work to help autistic people be heard. pic.twitter.com/VQhJxjvEdy— Rachel Prosser (@RachelMProsser) March 1, 2018
He also shares his experiences with joy, pain and frustration, and offers anecdotes of his own personal struggles in a unique and compelling way.
Though Higashida’s words come with a unique innocence that can become lost in the pages of so many other books, the experiences he describes are no less real or profound.
He speaks candidly of his struggles to find a way of understanding other people and the world around him but also demonstrates how some of the most meaningful moments can come from his perspective.
Higashida’s own words “My world is one of language, of symbols exchanged between me and the outside world” reflect his emotional journey and offer a more profound understanding of what it’s like for someone living with non-verbal autism.
The Reason I Jump is a remarkable read for anyone looking for a deeper exploration into the life of people living with autism.
Naoki Higashida’s journey takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster and provides thought-provoking and insightful experiences that reveal how each of our lives and struggles is unique.
Higashida’s powerful story provides an empowering message and captures the essence of what it’s like to live with non-verbal autism, as well as many of the moments that prove that our differences don’t define us.
This is one book that must be read to be truly understood and appreciated.
The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura
The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura is one of the best Japanese books to read, and for good reason.
12. the woman in the purple skirt by natsuko imamura 3/5 stars pic.twitter.com/BL5JFG8BvY— katarina🤍 (@bxmbinakatarina) February 8, 2022
It powerfully puts a laser focus on the lives of down-and-out women in modern Japan.
The story is enthralling and the dialogue is both humorously deadpan and poignantly heartbreaking.
Imamura has created complex and colorful characters, each of whom are easy to connect to and sympathize with.
The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura— Rebecca (Becky) Ilham (@beckyilham) August 10, 2021
tr. Lucy North (@japanonmymind)
Wow. A totally unexpected story that unfolds layer by layer as you turn the pages, not unlike unwrapping a piece of intricately covered sweet.
TWITPS is the subject of obssession…#WIT#WITMonth pic.twitter.com/7L8LIayDei
Whether it be the lonely woman who sits on her balcony, waiting for her no-show lover, or the working mother with a demanding job and two toddlers, Imamura dives deep and gives a voice to the less fortunate among us.
Natsuko Imamura’s portrayal of these characters is nothing short of outstanding.
From the moment readers meet the downtrodden and downtalked, yet resilient and defiant protagonists, they are challenged to explore their own understanding of what it means to be an underdog in a male-dominated society.
The individual stories of the women in the purple skirt, as well as their lives as a whole, are both thought-provoking and heartbreaking.
It’s no surprise that The Woman in the Purple Skirt won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for the book in 2019, and it’s clear why.
It is a shining example of Japanese literature that powerfully and thought-provokingly captures the struggles and humanity of down-and-out women in modern Japan.
Natsuko Imamura has crafted a stunning story that manages to be both poignantly sad and humorously funny. This is one book that has earned its spot on the list of best Japanese books to read.
Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa is a short story that speaks to Japanese honor and the fight to stay alive. The title is derived from the Rashomon gate, a ruined gate in southern Kyoto, which has become a symbol of despair, disarray, and tragedy.
This powerful story tells the tale of a servant who finds himself inside the broken Rashomon gate and is racked by the choice between starving to death and trying to survive.
In the story, the protagonist, a humble servant, is deathly ill and has no money for food and shelter.
He believes his death is imminent, yet finds the strength to bear yet another day of sorrow and despair. While struggling to stay alive, he meets an old woman with whom he shares a conversation at the gate.
She offers him a role in a human trafficking ring, allowing him to live, feed his family and make an income.
As the story progresses, the main character is torn between his own honor and personal beliefs, and the grim reality facing him: to die or to live in shame? He desperately wants to turn his back on the proposition and search for another way to support his family.
In the end, he chooses to survive by participating in the human trafficking operation.
Although it was ultimately a heart-wrenching decision and something he felt great shame over, he ultimately chose the best option for himself and his family.
The story of the servants’ difficult dilemma and his journey to stay alive illuminates Japanese honor and the depths of despair and mortality.
Rashomon is a powerful story that puts us in the shoes of a person with no real life-line, faced with a true choice between death and shame. The climax of the story is exquisitely crafted and captures the crux of what it is to be human, as we all struggle with choices we never wanted to make; between morality and mortality.
The Tale of Genji
Year of publication: around 1008
The Tale of Genji is believed by many to be the world’s first novel. It is considered to be the finest literary work in Japanese history.
Genji loses his mother at the young age of three and later falls in love with his stepmother. He indulges in a series of love affairs in the hopes of forgetting his forbidden love. However they all end in disaster. He later kidnaps a young girl and tries to educate her to be like the woman he loves.
The story follows him through his many marriages until his death. The story ends abruptly and there are many varying opinions on what the author intended to convey.
Another appealing aspect of the book are the titles of the chapters. For me, they seemed to enhance the story and effect of the book.
Related: Best Japanese History Books
The Silent Cry by Kenzaburo Oe
Year of publication: 1967
Set in the early 1960s, this Japanese classic tells the tale of two siblings, the narrator Mitsusaburo and his younger brother Takashi.
Mitsusaburo is the one eyed narrator who is married to Natsumi. Together they are faced with a series of misfortunes and have to leave their physically and mentally handicapped baby at an institution.
Mitsu has to face the reality of his friends suicide and Natsumi turns to alcohol to cope. The brothers return to the village where they spent their younger days. There they start working with “the emperor of supermarkets”.
The Silent Cry is one of the best books written by Kenzaburo Oe and is the perfect place to begin reading his work.
I am a Cat by Natsume Soseki
Year of publication: 1972
Another Japanese masterpiece, “I Am A Cat”, is a satirical novel authored by Natsume Soseki.
The novel speaks about how Japanese society functioned during the Meiji period. This cheeky and witty novel is a real piece of Japanese classic fiction.
This novel has become one of the most popular topics for assignments among Japanese school children. The book was later adapted into a 1936 film.
Kafka On The Shore By Haruki Murakami
Year of publication: 2002
Written by world renowned Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, “Kafka on the Shore”, is considered to be one of the best novels ever written and has been the recipient of many awards.
The book tells the story of a young boy named Kafka Tamura and a disabled man, Satoru Nakat who can talk to cats.
The book is a true mind bender and portrays the use of music as a form of communication. This novel also taps into metaphysics and the relationship between dreams and reality, making this a must read for anyone who is looking for a fresh take on fiction.
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
Year of publication: 1937
Authored by Yasunari Kawabata, “Snow Country” is still considered as one of the greatest classical pieces in Japanese literature.
This is a story of isolation and is set during heavy snowfall in rural Japan with Shimamura as the protagonist. The story unfolds as he begins an affair with a geisha and begins to neglect his family.
This lyrical and suggestive novel won Yasunari the 1968 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Kokoro by Natsume Soseki
Year of publication: 1914
This is probably Natsume Soseki’s most famous novel. Set in the Meiji period, Kokoro has three parts to it.
The novel explores the relationship between a young man and his elderly teacher.
The book is so impactful that it has inspired the production of two movies and two manga series.
The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi
Year of publication: 1957
Set in the midst of an upper class middle class Japanese family, “The Waiting Years” is a story of suffering.
A gripping story about Tomo and the struggles she has to endure, this novel is still relevant to modern times even after all these years.
Fumiko Enchi is known for writing about the state of women in a patriarchal society. This book is no different and beautifully captures the male domination in society and objectification of women.
Norwegian Wood By Haruki Murakami
Year of publication: 1987
“Norwegian Wood” is another must read by Haruki Murakami.
Set in the late 1960s, the story follows Toru Watanabe. He reminisces his days in college while he was in Tokyo. Readers are introduced to Naoko and Midori, two prominent female roles in Toru’s life.
Like Murakami’s other novels, Norwegian Wood has underlying implications. The book has been adapted into a film with the same name and was released in 2010.
No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai
Year of publication: 1948
Many believe that this is the autobiography of Oamu Dazai since he died by suicide shortly after the book was completed.
“No Longer HUman” is narrated in the first person and deals with many themes from the author’s like, including suicide, isolation, and depression.
The book has three parts to it and follows Oba from his childhood to his twenties. Many call this a timeless novel and that speaks of the hardships faced by an individual trying to fit into society.
The book has been made into films in 2009 and 2019. FUrther, the book has also been adapted into an anime series, aime feature film, and manga.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running By Haruki Murakami
Year of publication: 2007
Known for his fantastic style of writing and surreal take on fictional writing, Murakami has given the world another masterpiece in the form of his memoir.
A real page turner, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” talks about Murakami’s life and the things that mean the most to him .
Running is one of the more prominent themes of the book. The author started running in the 1980s and the book talks about his participation and interest in marathons.
Shiver By Junji Ito
Year of publication: 2015
This list would not be complete without mentioning manga. “Shiver” is a 2015 collection of short stories by Junji Ito.
Let me warn you, these are your regular horror stories of ghosts and ghouls. Instead, Junji Ito introduces killer balloons, a dangling arm with a multitude of tiny holes, and so many more terror inducing concepts.
The perfect blend of horror and manga, this book is a must read for all horror enthusiasts.
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Year of publication: 1988
Do not be misled by the title of Banana Yoshimoto’s “Kitchen”. This book deals with grief and death and the process that goes into dealing with the two.
The book tells the story of Mikage‘s love for the kitchen and her job aa a culinary assistant, all set against the backdrop of tragedy.
The book has won many awards and has also been adapted into two films. “Kitchen” continues to be one of the Yoshioto’s best books.
Best Japanese Books: FAQs
What is the most read book in Japan?
One of the most popular books in Japan is “The Tale of Genji”. This is a famous classic that dates back to the 11th century.
Who is the best Japanese author?
There are many renowned authors in Japan who have made their mark in the literary world. Some of the more popular ones are:
Is reading popular in Japan?
Yes, reading is quite a popular pastime in Japan. Statistics from a 2018 survey show that almost 85% of the respondents read physical books and about 35 read e books.
What are novels called in Japan?
In Japan, raito noberu translates to light novels. Sometimes, rainobe and ranobe are also used to refer to novels. Light novels are also called Japanese Novella in English.