World Reading Challenge: Books Around The Globe 2023
This year marks the sixth year of the World Reading Challenge. For the past five years I’ve been reading my way around the world, reading one book per week that represents a different country or region. It’s been a momentous journey; both immensely challenging and fulfilling at the same time. In the year ahead, I’m planning to continue this adventure with something a little different, so here are 52 novels for an incredible year of reading!
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The World Reading Challenge 2023: Introduction
I first created the World Reading Challenge five years ago to expand my own reading horizons and explore the world through literature. The first four years took me around the globe through all 195 UN member and observer states, while last year was focused on novels by women around the world. Since it started, many readers have joined me in this ambitious challenge and it has continued into subsequent years. These are the books we’ve read in previous years so far:
- World Reading Challenge: Books Around The Globe 2018
- World Reading Challenge: Books Around The Globe 2019
- World Reading Challenge: Books Around The Globe 2020
- World Reading Challenge: Books Around The Globe 2021
- World Reading Challenge: Books By Women 2022
The World Reading Challenge 2023: Books From One Country
I’ve spent the past five years actively diversifying my reading, exploring the far corners of the globe through literature. Setting myself such ambitious reading goals has kept me motivated (and accountable!) and I’d like this to continue. However, while this journey has brought me immense joy, it has also been challenging; leaving me little time to read anything else, including a growing pile of books I’ve been longing to read.
So this year, I’m trying something different and focusing on immersion. I’m going to read 52 books that all represent a single country, with the novels all related to this country in a number of ways. It’s a country I’ve been immensely privileged to call home, where I’ve travelled to every prefecture (all 47 of them!) and one that features on my to-read list more than any other. I’ll be spending the year reading my way around Japan.
How were the books selected?
I’ve always loved Japanese literature and my to-read list is filled with Japanese novels. The books on this list are all related to Japan in a number of ways; they are either set there, have characters from there, reflect the culture or are by local authors. The books include perspectives from a variety of authors from Japan and beyond, were penned across the decades and aim to capture a range of literary styles. They were largely written by women and also take into account popularity, awards, reviews, ratings and availability in English.
I hope you’ll find something here to inspire your own reading, or perhaps even join me in reading your way around Japan. If it’s not your cup of tea, perhaps you’ll consider immersing yourself in another country this year? Our country-based reading lists are full of ideas. If you can’t find the country you’re looking for, let me know in the comments, we’re always adding new reading lists.
Wishing you a wonderful year of reading ahead! 💖
The World Reading Challenge: Bonus Titles
It was hard to narrow this list down to just 52 books! In addition to the longer list below, these are some extra titles I’m also hoping to read this year:
- Tokyo Express by Seicho Matsumoto
- The Boy and the Dog by Seishū Hase
- She and Her Cat by Makoto Shinkai
- Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda
The World Reading Challenge 2023
1. The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe, 1962
The Woman in the Dunes, by celebrated writer and thinker Kobo Abe, combines the essence of myth, suspense and the existential novel. After missing the last bus home following a day trip to the seashore, an amateur entomologist is offered lodging for the night at the bottom of a vast sand pit. But when he attempts to leave the next morning, he quickly discovers that the locals have other plans. Held captive with seemingly no chance of escape, he is tasked with shoveling back the ever-advancing sand dunes that threaten to destroy the village. His only companion is an odd young woman, and together their fates become intertwined as they work side by side through this Sisyphean of tasks.
2. The Box Man by Kobo Abe, 1973
In this eerie and evocative masterpiece, the nameless protagonist gives up his identity and the trappings of a normal life to live in a large cardboard box he wears over his head. Wandering the streets of Tokyo and scribbling madly on the interior walls of his box, he describes the world outside as he sees or perhaps imagines it, a tenuous reality that seems to include a mysterious rifleman determined to shoot him, a seductive young nurse, and a doctor who wants to become a box man himself. The Box Man is a marvel of sheer originality and a bizarrely fascinating fable about the very nature of identity.
3. No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai, 1948
Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human, this leading postwar Japanese writer’s second novel, tells the poignant and fascinating story of a young man who is caught between the breakup of the traditions of a northern Japanese aristocratic family and the impact of Western ideas. In consequence, he feels himself “disqualified from being human” (a literal translation of the Japanese title).
4. The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai, 1947
The story is told through the eyes of Kazuko, the unmarried daughter of a widowed aristocrat. Her search for self meaning in a society devoid of use for her forms the crux of Dazai’s novel. It is a sad story, and structurally is a novel very much within the confines of the Japanese take on the novel in a way reminiscent of authors such as Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata – the social interactions are peripheral and understated, nuances must be drawn, and for readers more used to Western novelistic forms this comes across as being rather wishy-washy.
5. The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi, 1957
The beautiful, immature girl whom she took home to her husband was a maid only in name. Tomo’s real mission had been to find him a mistress. Nor did her secret humiliation end there. The web that his insatiable lust spun about him soon trapped another young woman, and another … and the relationships between the women thus caught were to form, over the years, a subtle, shifting pattern in which they all played a part. There was Suga, the innocent, introspective girl from a respectable but impoverished family; the outgoing, cheerful, almost boyish Yumi; the flirtatious, seductive Miya, who soon found her father-in-law more dependable as a man than his brutish son…. And at the center, rejected yet dominating them all, the near tragic figure of the wife Tomo, whose passionate heart was always, until that final day, held in check by an old-fashioned code.
6. The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura, 2019
Almost every day, the Woman in the Purple Skirt buys a single cream bun and goes to the park, where she sits on a bench to eat it as the local children taunt her. She is observed at all times by the undetected narrator, the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan. From a distance the Woman in the Purple Skirt looks like a schoolgirl, but there are age spots on her face, and her hair is dry and stiff.
Like the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan, she is single, she lives in a small, run-down apartment, and she is short on money. The Woman in the Yellow Cardigan lures her to a job where she herself works, as a hotel housekeeper; soon the Woman in the Purple Skirt is having an affair with the boss. Unfortunately, no one knows or cares about the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan. That’s the difference between her and the Woman in the Purple Skirt.
7. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro, 1986
In the face of the misery in his homeland, the artist Masuji Ono was unwilling to devote his art solely to the celebration of physical beauty. Instead, he put his work in the service of the imperialist movement that led Japan into World War II. Now, as the mature Ono struggles through the aftermath of that war, his memories of his youth and of the “floating world”—the nocturnal world of pleasure, entertainment, and drink—offer him both escape and redemption, even as they punish him for betraying his early promise. Indicted by society for its defeat and reviled for his past aesthetics, he relives the passage through his personal history that makes him both a hero and a coward but, above all, a human being.
8. Mild Vertigo by Mieko Kanai, 2023
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.
9. Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata, 1964
Opening on the train to Kyoto, the narrative, in characteristic Kawabata fashion, subtly brings up issues of tradition and modernity as it explores writer Oki Toshio’s reunion with a young lover from his past, Otoko Ueno, who is now a famous artist and recluse. Ueno is now living with her protegée and a jealous lover, Keiko Sakami, and the unfolding relationships between Oki, Otoko, and Keiko form the plot of the novel. Keiko states several times that she will avenge Otoko for Oki’s abandonment, and the story coalesces into a climactic ending.
10. The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata, 1953
Ogata Shingo is growing old, and his memory is failing him. At night he hears only the sound of death in the distant rumble from the mountain. The relationships which have previously defined his life – with his son, his wife, and his attractive daughter-in-law – are dissolving, and Shingo is caught between love and destruction. Lyrical and precise, The Sound of the Mountain explores in immaculately crafted prose the changing roles of love and the truth we face in ageing.
11. Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, 2019
In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a café which has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time. In Before the Coffee Gets Cold, we meet four visitors, each of whom is hoping to make use of the café’s time-travelling offer, in order to: confront the man who left them, receive a letter from their husband whose memory has been taken by early onset Alzheimer’s, to see their sister one last time, and to meet the daughter they never got the chance to know.
12. Tales from the Café by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, 2020
From the author of Before the Coffee Gets Cold comes a story of four new customers each of whom is hoping to take advantage of Cafe Funiculi Funicula’s time-travelling offer. Among some faces that will be familiar to readers of Kawaguchi’s previous novel, we will be introduced to: The man who goes back to see his best friend who died 22 years ago. The son who was unable to attend his own mother’s funeral. The man who travelled to see the girl who he could not marry. The old detective who never gave his wife that gift…
13. People From My Neighbourhood by Hiromi Kawakami, 2020
A bossy child who lives under a white cloth near a tree; a schoolgirl who keeps doll’s brains in a desk drawer; an old man with two shadows, one docile and one rebellious; a diplomat no one has ever seen who goes fishing at an artificial lake no one has ever heard of. These are some of the inhabitants of People From My Neighborhood. In their lives, details of the local and everyday—the lunch menu at a tiny drinking place called the Love, the color and shape of the roof of the tax office—slip into accounts of duels, prophetic dreams, revolutions, and visitations from ghosts and gods. In twenty-six “palm of the hand” stories—fictions small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand—Hiromi Kawakami creates a universe ruled by mystery and transformation.
14. The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami, 2005
Objects for sale at the Nakano Thrift Shop appear as commonplace as the staff and customers that handle them. But like those same customers and staff, they hold many secrets. If examined carefully, they show the signs of innumerable extravagancies, of immeasurable pleasure and pain, and of the deep mysteries of the human heart. Hitomi, the inexperienced young woman who works the register at Mr. Nakano’s thrift shop, has fallen for her coworker, the oddly reserved Takeo. Unsure of how to attract his attention, she seeks advice from her employer’s sister, Masayo, whose sentimental entanglements make her a somewhat unconventional guide. But thanks in part to Masayo, Hitomi will come to realize that love, desire, and intimacy require acceptance not only of idiosyncrasies but also of the delicate waltz between open and hidden secrets.
15. The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami, 2003
Who loves Mr Nishino? Minami is the daughter of Mr Nishino’s true love. Bereaved Shiori is tempted by his unscrupulous advances. His colleague Manami should know better. His conquest Reiko treasures her independence above all else. Friends Tama and Subaru find themselves playing Nishino’s game, but Eriko loves her cat more. Sayuri is older, Aichan is much younger, and Misono has her own conquests to make. For each of them, an encounter with elusive womaniser Mr Nishino will bring torments, desires and delights.
16. All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami, 2011
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. When Fuyuko stops one day on a Tokyo street and notices her reflection in a storefront window, what she sees is a drab, awkward, and spiritless woman who has lacked the strength to change her life and decides to do something about it.
17. Heaven by Mieko Kawakami, 2009
Hailed as a bold foray into new literary territory, Kawakami’s novel is told in the voice of a 14-year-old student who subjected to relentless torment for having a lazy eye. Instead of resisting, the boy chooses to suffer in complete resignation. The only person who understands what he is going through is a female classmate who suffers similar treatment at the hands of her tormentors. These raw and realistic portrayals of bullying are counterbalanced by textured exposition of the philosophical and religious debates concerning violence to which the weak are subjected.
18. Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami, 2013
Ms Ice Sandwich seems to lack social graces, but our young narrator is totally smitten with her. He is in awe of her aloofness, her skill at slipping sandwiches into bags, and, most electric of all, her ice-blue eyelids. Every day he is drawn to the supermarket just to watch her in action. But life has a way of interfering – there is his mother, forever distracted, who can tell the fortunes of women; his grandmother, silently dying, who listens to his heart; and his classmate, Tutti, no stranger to pain, who shares her private thrilling world with him.
19. If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura, 2012
Our narrator’s days are numbered. Estranged from his family, living alone with only his cat Cabbage for company, he was unprepared for the doctor’s diagnosis that he has only months to live. But before he can set about tackling his bucket list, the Devil appears with a special offer: in exchange for making one thing in the world disappear, he can have one extra day of life. And so begins a very bizarre week.
20. Out by Natsuo Kirino, 1997
Natsuo Kirino’s novel tells a story of random violence in the staid Tokyo suburbs, as a young mother who works a night shift making boxed lunches brutally strangles her deadbeat husband and then seeks the help of her co-workers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime. The ringleader of this cover-up, Masako Katori, emerges as the emotional heart of Out and as one of the shrewdest, most clear-eyed creations in recent fiction. Masako’s own search for a way out of the straitjacket of a dead-end life leads her, too, to take drastic action.
21. Solo Dance by Kotomi Li, 2018
An important queer voice from East Asia’s millennial generation. 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. There is also her unusual fascination with death: she knows from personal experience how devastating death can be, but for her it is also creative fuel. Solo Dance depicts the painful coming of age of a gay person in Taiwan and corporate Japan. This striking debut is an intimate and powerful account of a search for hope after trauma.
22. The Frolic of the Beasts by Yukio Mishima, 1961
Set in rural Japan shortly after World War II, The Frolic of the Beasts tells the story of a strange and utterly absorbing love triangle between a former university student, Kōji; his would-be mentor, the eminent literary critic Ippei Kusakudo; and Ippei’s beautiful, enigmatic wife, Yūko. When brought face-to-face with one of Ippei’s many marital indiscretions, Kōji finds his growing desire for Yūko compels him to action in a way that changes all three of their lives profoundly. Originally published in 1961 and now available in English for the first time, The Frolic of the Beasts is a haunting examination of the various guises we assume throughout our lives, and a tale of psychological self-entrapment, seduction, and crime.
23. The Easy Life in Kamusari by Shion Miura, 2009
Yuki Hirano is just out of high school when his parents enroll him, against his will, in a forestry training program in the remote mountain village of Kamusari. No phone, no internet, no shopping. Just a small, inviting community where the most common expression is “take it easy.” At first, Yuki is exhausted, fumbles with the tools, asks silly questions, and feels like an outcast. Kamusari is the last place a city boy from Yokohama wants to spend a year of his life. But as resistant as he might be, the scent of the cedars and the staggering beauty of the region have a pull.
24. The Great Passage by Shion Miura, 2011
A charmingly warm and hopeful story of love, friendship, and the power of human connection. Award-winning Japanese author Shion Miura’s novel is a reminder that a life dedicated to passion is a life well lived. Inspired as a boy by the multiple meanings to be found for a single word in the dictionary, Kohei Araki is devoted to the notion that a dictionary is a boat to carry us across the sea of words. But after thirty-seven years creating them at Gembu Books, it’s time for him to retire and find his replacement.
25. The Forest of Wool and Steel by Natsu Miyashita, 2015
Tomura is startled by the hypnotic sound of a piano being tuned in his school. It seeps into his soul and transports him to the forests, dark and gleaming, that surround his beloved mountain village. From that moment, he is determined to discover more. Under the tutelage of three master piano-tuners – one humble, one cheery, one ill-tempered – Tomura embarks on his training, never straying too far from a single, unfathomable question: do I have what it takes?
26. Colorful by Eto Mori, 2021
A beloved and bestselling classic in Japan, this groundbreaking tale of a dead soul who gets a second chance is now available in English for the very first time. “Congratulations, you’ve won the lottery!” shouts the angel Prapura to a formless soul. The soul hasn’t been kicked out of the cycle of rebirth just yet—he’s been given a second chance. He must recall the biggest mistake of his past life while on ‘homestay’ in the body of fourteen-year-old Makoto Kobayashi, who has just committed suicide. It looks like Makoto doesn’t have a single friend, and his family don’t seem to care about him at all. But as the soul begins to live Makoto’s life on his own terms, he grows closer to the family and the people around him, and sees their true colors more clearly, shedding light on Makoto’s misunderstandings.
27. The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya, 2018
Please note: this book is also known as Picnic in the Storm.
A housewife takes up bodybuilding and sees radical changes to her physique–which her workaholic husband fails to notice. A boy waits at a bus stop, mocking businessmen struggling to keep their umbrellas open in a typhoon–until an old man shows him that they hold the secret to flying. A woman working in a clothing boutique waits endlessly on a customer who won’t come out of the fitting room–and who may or may not be human. A newlywed notices that her husband’s features are beginning to slide around his face–to match her own.
28. Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, 2018
Natsuki isn’t like the other girls. She has a wand and a transformation mirror. She might be a witch, or an alien from another planet. Together with her cousin Yuu, Natsuki spends her summers in the wild mountains of Nagano, dreaming of other worlds. When a terrible sequence of events threatens to part the two children forever, they make a promise: survive, no matter what. Now Natsuki is grown. She lives a quiet life with her asexual husband, surviving as best she can by pretending to be normal. But the demands of Natsuki’s family are increasing, her friends wonder why she’s still not pregnant, and dark shadows from Natsuki’s childhood are pursuing her. Fleeing the suburbs for the mountains of her childhood, Natsuki prepares herself with a reunion with Yuu. Will he still remember their promise? And will he help her keep it?
29. Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata, 2019
In these twelve stories, Murata mixes an unusual cocktail of humor and horror to portray both the loners and outcasts as well as turning the norms and traditions of society on their head to better question them. Whether the stories take place in modern-day Japan, the future, or an alternate reality is left to the reader’s interpretation, as the characters often seem strange in their normality in a frighteningly abnormal world.
In “A First-Rate Material”, Nana and Naoki are happily engaged, but Naoki can’t stand the conventional use of deceased people’s bodies for clothing, accessories, and furniture, and a disagreement around this threatens to derail their perfect wedding day. “Lovers on the Breeze” is told from the perspective of a curtain in a child’s bedroom that jealously watches the young girl Naoko as she has her first kiss with a boy from her class and does its best to stop her. “Eating the City” explores the strange norms around food and foraging, while “Hatchling” closes the collection with an extraordinary depiction of the fractured personality of someone who tries too hard to fit in.
30. Things Remembered and Things Forgotten by Kyōko Nakajima, 2021
‘If we want to understand what has been lost to time, there is no way other than through the exercise of imagination … imagination applied with delicate rather than broad strokes’. So wrote the award winning Japanese author Kyoko Nakajima of her story, Things Remembered and Things Forgotten, a piece that illuminates, as if by throwing a switch, the layers of wartime devastation that lie just below the surface of Tokyo’s insistently modern culture. The ten acclaimed stories in this collection are pervaded by an air of Japanese ghostliness. In beautifully crafted and deceptively light prose, Nakajima portrays men and women beset by cultural amnesia and unaware of how haunted they are – by fragmented memories of war and occupation, by fading traditions, by buildings lost to firestorms and bulldozers, by the spirits of their recent past.
31. Revenge by Yōko Ogawa, 2013
An aspiring writer moves into a new apartment and discovers that her landlady has murdered her husband. Years later, the writer’s stepson reflects upon his stepmother and the strange stories she used to tell him. Meanwhile, a surgeon’s lover vows to kill him if he does not leave his wife. Before she can follow-through on her crime of passion, though, the surgeon will cross paths with another remarkable woman, a cabaret singer whose heart beats delicately outside of her body. But when the surgeon promises to repair her condition, he sparks the jealousy of another man who would like to preserve the heart in a custom tailored bag. Murderers and mourners, mothers and children, lovers and innocent bystanders—their fates converge in a darkly beautiful web that they are each powerless to escape.
32. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa, 2009
He is a brilliant math Professor with a peculiar problem–ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory. She is an astute young Housekeeper, with a ten-year-old son, who is hired to care for him. And every morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are introduced to each other anew, a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them.
Though he cannot hold memories for long (his brain is like a tape that begins to erase itself every eighty minutes), the Professor’s mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. And the numbers, in all of their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her young son. The Professor is capable of discovering connections between the simplest of quantities–like the Housekeeper’s shoe size–and the universe at large, drawing their lives ever closer and more profoundly together, even as his memory slips away.
33. The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda, 2020
The novel starts in the 1960s when 17 people die of cyanide poisoning at a party given by the owners of a prominent clinic in a town on the coast of the Sea of Japan. The only surviving links to what might have happened are a cryptic verse that could be the killer’s, and the physician’s bewitching blind daughter, Hisako, the only person spared injury. The youth who emerges as the prime suspect commits suicide that October, effectively sealing his guilt while consigning his motives to mystery.
34. The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada, 2013
The English-language debut of Hiroko Oyamada—one of the most powerfully strange young voices in Japan. In an unnamed Japanese city, three seemingly normal and unrelated characters find work at a sprawling industrial factory. They each focus intently on their specific jobs: one studies moss, one shreds paper, and the other proofreads incomprehensible documents. Life in the factory has its own logic and momentum, and, eventually, the factory slowly expands and begins to take over everything, enveloping these poor workers. The very margins of reality seem to be dissolving: all forms of life capriciously evolve, strange creatures begin to appear… After a while—it could be weeks or years—the workers don’t even have the ability to ask themselves: where does the factory end and the rest of the world begin?
35. The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada, 2020
Asa’s husband is transferring jobs, and his new office is located near his family’s home in the countryside. During an exceptionally hot summer, the young married couple move in, and Asa does her best to quickly adjust to their new rural lives, to their remoteness, to the constant presence of her in-laws and the incessant buzz of cicadas. While her husband is consumed with his job, Asa is left to explore her surroundings on her own: she makes trips to the supermarket, halfheartedly looks for work, and tries to find interesting ways of killing time.
36. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, 2013
In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying, but before she ends it all, Nao plans to document the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in a ways she can scarcely imagine. Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.
37. Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki, 2014
Divorced and cut off from his family, Taro lives alone in one of the few occupied apartments in his block, a block that is to be torn down as soon as the remaining tenants leave. Since the death of his father, Taro keeps to himself, but is soon drawn into an unusual relationship with the woman upstairs, Nishi, as she passes on the strange tale of the sky-blue house next door. First discovered by Nishi in the little-known photo-book ‘Spring Garden’, the sky-blue house soon becomes a focus for both Nishi and Taro: of what is lost, of what has been destroyed, and of what hope may yet lie in the future for both of them, if only they can seize it.
38. Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki, 1914
No collection of Japanese literature is complete without Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro, his most famous novel and the last he completed before his death in 1916. Kokoro—meaning “heart”—is the story of a subtle and poignant friendship between two unnamed characters, a young man and an enigmatic elder whom he calls “Sensei”. Haunted by tragic secrets that have cast a long shadow over his life, Sensei slowly opens up to his young disciple, confessing indiscretions from his own student days that have left him reeling with guilt, and revealing, in the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between his moral anguish and his student’s struggle to understand it, the profound cultural shift from one generation to the next that characterized Japan in the early twentieth century.
39. Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa, 2013
Sentaro has failed. He has a criminal record, drinks too much, and his dream of becoming a writer is just a distant memory. With only the blossoming of the cherry trees to mark the passing of time, he spends his days in a tiny confectionery shop selling dorayaki, a type of pancake filled with sweet bean paste. But everything is about to change. Into his life comes Tokue, an elderly woman with disfigured hands and a troubled past. Tokue makes the best sweet bean paste Sentaro has ever tasted. She begins to teach him her craft, but as their friendship flourishes, social pressures become impossible to escape and Tokue’s dark secret is revealed, with devastating consequences.
40. The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, 1948
In Osaka in the years immediately before World War II, four aristocratic women try to preserve a way of life that is vanishing. As told by Junichiro Tanizaki, the story of the Makioka sisters forms what is arguably the greatest Japanese novel of the twentieth century, a poignant yet unsparing portrait of a family–and an entire society–sliding into the abyss of modernity.
Tsuruko, the eldest sister, clings obstinately to the prestige of her family name even as her husband prepares to move their household to Tokyo, where that name means nothing. Sachiko compromises valiantly to secure the future of her younger sisters. The unmarried Yukiko is a hostage to her family’s exacting standards, while the spirited Taeko rebels by flinging herself into scandalous romantic alliances. Filled with vignettes of upper-class Japanese life and capturing both the decorum and the heartache of its protagonist, The Makioka Sisters is a classic of international literature.
41. The Last Children of Tokyo by Yōko Tawada, 2018
Please note: this novel is also published as ‘The Emissary‘ in some countries. An earlier version of this article listed it separately, thanks so much to reader Yarima for letting me know!
Yoshiro thinks he might never die. A hundred years old and counting, he is one of Japan’s many ‘old-elderly’; men and women who remember a time before the air and the sea were poisoned, before terrible catastrophe prompted Japan to shut itself off from the rest of the world. He may live for decades yet, but he knows his beloved great-grandson – born frail and prone to sickness – might not survive to adulthood. Day after day, it takes all of Yoshiro’s sagacity to keep Mumei alive. As hopes for Japan’s youngest generation fade, a secretive organisation embarks on an audacious plan to find a cure – might Yoshiro’s great-grandson be the key to saving the last children of Tokyo?
42. Scattered All Over the Earth by Yōko Tawada, 2022
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): “homemade language. no country to stay in. three countries I experienced. insufficient space in brain. so made new language. homemade language.”
43. Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura, 2017
Seven students are avoiding going to school, hiding in their darkened bedrooms, unable to face their family and friends, until the moment they discover a portal into another world that offers temporary escape from their stressful lives. Passing through a glowing mirror, they gather in a magnificent castle which becomes their playground and refuge during school hours. The students are tasked with locating a key, hidden somewhere in the castle, that will allow whoever finds it to be granted one wish. At this moment, the castle will vanish, along with all memories they may have of their adventure. If they fail to leave the castle by 5 pm every afternoon, they will be eaten by the keeper of the castle, an easily provoked and shrill creature named the Wolf Queen.
44. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura, 2020
A young woman walks into an employment agency and requests a job that has the following traits: it is close to her home, and it requires no reading, no writing – and ideally, very little thinking. She is sent to a nondescript office building where she is tasked with watching the hidden-camera feed of an author suspected of storing contraband goods. But observing someone for hours on end can be so inconvenient and tiresome. How will she stay awake? When can she take delivery of her favourite brand of tea? And, perhaps more importantly – how did she find herself in this situation in the first place?
As she moves from job to job, writing bus adverts for shops that mysteriously disappear, and composing advice for rice cracker wrappers that generate thousands of devoted followers, it becomes increasingly apparent that she’s not searching for the easiest job at all, but something altogether more meaningful…
45. Territory of Light by Yūko Tsushima, 1978
Territory of Light is the luminous story of a young woman, living alone in Tokyo with her three-year-old daughter. Its twelve, stand-alone fragments follow the first year of her separation from her husband. The novel is full of light, sometimes comforting and sometimes dangerous: sunlight streaming through windows, dappled light in the park, distant fireworks, dazzling floodwater, desaturated streetlamps and earth-shaking explosions. The seemingly artless prose is beautifully patterned: the cumulative effect is disarmingly powerful and images remain seared into your retina for a long time afterwards.
46. Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi, 2022
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. When thirty-four-year-old Ms. Shibata gets a new job in Tokyo to escape sexual harassment at her old one, she finds that, as the only woman at her new workplace–a company that manufactures cardboard tubes–she is expected to do all the menial tasks. One day she announces that she can’t clear away her colleagues’ dirty cups–because she’s pregnant and the smell nauseates her. The only thing is… Ms. Shibata is not pregnant.
47. Hardboiled & Hard Luck by Banana Yoshimoto, 1999
Banana Yoshimoto’s warm, witty, and heartfelt depictions of the lives of young Japanese have earned her international acclaim and best-seller status. In Hardboiled, the unnamed narrator, hiking in the mountains on the anniversary of her ex-lover’s death, is haunted by her past and learns to make peace with her loss. Hard Luck is about another young woman whose sister lies in a coma. As she prepares to say good-bye to her loved one, a new friendship promises hope. Yoshimoto’s voice is clear, assured, and deeply moving, displaying again why she is one of Japan’s, and the world’s, most beloved writers.
48. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, 1988
Banana Yoshimoto’s novels have made her a sensation in Japan and all over the world, and Kitchen, the dazzling English-language debut that is still her best-loved book, is an enchantingly original and deeply affecting book about mothers, love, tragedy, and the power of the kitchen and home in the lives of a pair of free-spirited young women in contemporary Japan. Mikage, the heroine of Kitchen, is an orphan raised by her grandmother, who has passed away. Grieving, she is taken in by her friend Yoichi and his mother (who was once his father), Eriko. As the three of them form an improvised family that soon weathers its own tragic losses, Yoshimoto spins a lovely, evocative tale that recalls early Marguerite Duras. Kitchen and its companion story, “Moonlight Shadow,” are elegant tales whose seeming simplicity is the ruse of a writer whose voice echoes in the mind and the soul.
49. Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto, 2010
In Moshi Moshi, Yoshie’s much-loved musician father has died in a suicide pact with an unknown woman. It is only when Yoshie and her mother move to Shimo-kitazawa, a traditional Tokyo neighborhood of narrow streets, quirky shops, and friendly residents that they can finally start to put their painful past behind them. However, despite their attempts to move forward, Yoshie is haunted by nightmares in which her father is looking for the phone he left behind on the day he died, or on which she is trying—unsuccessfully—to call him. Is her dead father trying to communicate a message to her through these dreams? With the lightness of touch and surreal detachment that are the hallmarks of her writing, Banana Yoshimoto turns a potential tragedy into a poignant coming-of-age ghost story and a life-affirming homage to the healing powers of community, food, and family.
50. Tokyo Ueno Station by Miri Yū, 2019
Born in Fukushima in 1933, the same year as the Emperor, Kazu’s life is tied by a series of coincidences to Japan’s Imperial family and to one particular spot in Tokyo; the park near Ueno Station – the same place his unquiet spirit now haunts in death. It is here that Kazu’s life in Tokyo began, as a labourer in the run up to the 1964 Olympics, and later where he ended his days, living in the park’s vast homeless ‘villages’, traumatised by the destruction of the 2011 tsunami and enraged by the announcement of the 2020 Olympics. Akutagawa-award-winning author Yū Miri uses her outsider’s perspective as a Zainichi (Korean-Japanese) writer to craft a novel of utmost importance to this moment, a powerful rebuke to the Imperial system and a sensitive, deeply felt depiction of the lives of Japan’s most vulnerable people.
51. How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino, 1937
First published in 1937, Genzaburō Yoshino’s How Do You Live? has long been acknowledged in Japan as a crossover classic for young readers. Academy Award–winning animator Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle) has called it his favorite childhood book and announced plans to emerge from retirement to make it the basis of a final film.
How Do You Live? is narrated in two voices. The first belongs to Copper, fifteen, who after the death of his father must confront inevitable and enormous change, including his own betrayal of his best friend. In between episodes of Copper’s emerging story, his uncle writes to him in a journal, sharing knowledge and offering advice on life’s big questions as Copper begins to encounter them. Over the course of the story, Copper, like his namesake Copernicus, looks to the stars, and uses his discoveries about the heavens, earth, and human nature to answer the question of how he will live.
52. The Pachinko Parlour by Elisa Shua Dusapin, 2018
It is summer in Tokyo. Claire finds herself dividing her time between tutoring twelve-year-old Mieko, in an apartment in an abandoned hotel, and lying on the floor at her grandparents: daydreaming, playing Tetris and listening to the sounds from the street above. The heat rises; the days slip by.
The plan is for Claire to visit Korea with her grandparents. They fled the civil war there over fifty years ago, along with thousands of others, and haven’t been back since. When they first arrived in Japan, they opened Shiny, a pachinko parlour. Shiny is still open, drawing people in with its bright, flashing lights and promises of good fortune. And as Mieko and Claire gradually bond, a tender relationship growing, Mieko’s determination to visit the pachinko parlour builds.
What do you think of the World Reading Challenge?
Have you read any of these books before? Are you planning to try the world reading challenge? Do you have a recommendation for a great book from Japan? What are you planning to read this year? If you were reading books from only one country, where would it be? I’d love to hear more about your ideas for this world reading challenge in the comments below!