21st Century East Asian Literature · 21st Century Japanese Literature · Cultural Fiction · Cultural Issues · Favorites · Feminism · Literary Fiction · Must-Reads · New Releases · Reviews · Social Issues

Misumi Kubo: So We Look to the Sky

kuboskyTitle: So We Look to the Sky (ふがいない僕は空を見た)
Author: Misumi Kubo
Translator: Polly Barton
Genre: 21st Century Japanese Literature, Literary Fiction
Source: Publisher in exchange for a review
Publisher: Arcade
Release Date: August 3, 2021 (USA); July 20, 2010 (Japan)
Format: Hardcover; 978-1-95162-771-3; $25.99
Pages: 288
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Summary: In a series of connected short stories, Misumi Kubo explores the the silent and unseen hardships faced by individuals and how one’s life and future are shaped by such experiences. Each story is framed by a scandalous affair between a high school student and a housewife, posted on the internet for the public to see. The ramifications of this affair spread out across each story as Kubo weaves a profound and brutally honest story focused on themes of the female body, roles of women in society, the increasing burdens and social pressures placed on youth, and bullying. 

Review: First, I must point out that, if you haven’t read this novel yet, it is very sexually explicit. If that isn’t your thing, then you may want to look elsewhere. With that said, even though this novel is explicit, it isn’t gratuitous, and each sexual encounter, each exploration of the body and human intimacy, serves as a crucial vehicle for a more serious discussion of the themes Kubo explores here.

One of the most prominent themes linking the stories in this collection is two-fold: that of the female body and women’s roles in society. In this framework, Kubo criticizes patriarchy’s view that women are not sexual beings and should not seek sexual gratification lest they be viewed as “dirty.” In this vein, Kubo outlines the importance of the female orgasm as integral to women’s well-being sexually as well as holistically–she outlines that female sexuality and sexual fulfillment is the foundation of women reaching full autonomy and agency in their lives. This concept is juxtaposed with traditional notions of general roles and norms as constructed through Machiko. She is Keiichiro’s mother and mother-in-law to Anzu, our adulterous “main character.” I call her the main character because her affair is the elephant in the room for each story in this collection. Hers is the body at the center of the “woman question” that Kubo interrogates. Machiko is positioned as the female body preferred by tradition: angelic, fertile, the perfect mother who sacrifices herself for her children and family, sexless, and who now devotes herself to her daughter-in-law’s fertility–or lack thereof. She’s everything Anzu is not. The more Machiko imposes herself on Anzu’s body, the more Anzu rebels and is repulsed by Machiko. We are to sympathize with Anzu, who is happy in who she is and how she lives her life. She chooses to be childfree and as the system–Machiko–further imposes itself, the more destructive its force becomes. This, Kubo illustrates, is not the way.

Diving further into the rest of the stories, we get a peek into the lives of several high-school students who are friends with our other “main character,” the quiet and cool Takumi, who becomes infamous for his affair with Anzu. We get a glimpse of what his affair does to the girl who maintains an unrequited crush on him; we see his friend, living in the projects and struggling to support himself and his grandmother while trying to consider his own life and goals. Then we see Takumi and the consequences of his relationship with Anzu.

The text shifts to Takumi’s friend, Ryota, who deals with economic disparities and class divides in his narrative. These struggles are juxtaposed with the seemingly posh lifestyle of his manager Taoka, with whom he works a late shift at a convenience store. Ryota is the victim of a neglectful mother who steals his money and has abandoned him with his senile grandmother, and who–it could be inferred–prostitutes herself to men for lodging while working a menial factory job. Meanwhile, Ryota and his gran struggle to even feed themselves. In the midst of this, he is bullied for his friend Takumi’s involvement with Anzu after their affair is published online. You learn that one of his co-workers, who tries to help him with schoolwork and grades, turns out to be a pedophile. Ryota’s story is an interesting contrast to Takumi’s, as in many ways, as Takumi’s predicament allows Ryota to turn victimizer in certain situations, while reflecting on what it means to be the bigger person.

In these stories, victimization runs as a rampant theme, showing that the choices we make, and the way we treat others, has profound and reverberating effects on the people around us–and we are responsible for the aftermath in those lives. Nothing is ever a truly victimless crime, and often, the harm we do others can last a lifetime. Also important in this text is the concept of social norms and how society makes no space for marginalized groups or individuals, and how that needs to change. Overall, the book asks pertinent questions about social change, social responsibility, and the morality of the way we treat others.

All of the above is wrapped up in a very engaging, quick-paced prose dressed in a brutally honest and forthright tone. The translation never faltered, and I feel it captured the original. I blazed through this book so fast, and it was an amazing ride. I highly recommend this book.

Barnes & Noble
Kobo Books
Your Local Indiebound

21st Century East Asian Literature · 21st Century Japanese Literature · Cultural Fiction · Cultural Issues · Favorites · Literary Fiction · Must-Reads · Reviews · Social Issues · Women's Literature

Banana Yoshimoto: The Lake

6035141Title: The Lake (みずうみ)
Author: Banana Yoshimoto (吉本 ばなな)
Genre: Literary Fiction; 21st Century Japanese Fiction
Publication Date: May 3, 2011 (USA); December 1, 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Melville House
Source: Purchased
Format: Hardcover; 978-1-93363-377-0
Pages: 188
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Summary: After the death of her mother, the narrator moves to Tokyo in hopes of dealing with and overcoming the deep grief this loss has brought her. In the midst of her recovery, she strives to become a respected graphic artist, and spends her free time dreaming out of her apartment window. Over time, she realizes that she’s become used to seeing a young man across the way staring out of his window as well.

Over the course of their interactions, the narrator and this young man, Nakajima, move from tentative friends into an equally tentative romantic relationship. Through their relationship, she soon learns that he has been the victim of some mysterious childhood trauma. They venture one day to visit his friends out of town at a lake, and she realizes that Nakajima’s trauma might be due to his involvement in a religious cult.

Review: The Lake is perhaps one of Banana Yoshimoto’s most powerful, bold, and thoughtful novels, and its allusion to the Aum Shinrikyo cult–the group that released poison gas in the Tokyo subway system–makes this an importantly reflective novel on the trauma that lingers in Japanese social consciousness. Highlighting the trauma so entrenched in cultural consciousness is main character, Nakajima, and at the same time the narrator, through whom readers will feel a deep sense of just how damaging lingering trauma can become.

This alluded-to trauma affects both characters to the point that, when they form a friendship that slowly blossoms into something like love, they’re unable to be certain in or trust in those feelings because of the constancy of loss. Why hope in something that you will just, again, lose? Neither can move on in their lives, or with each other, until some kind of equilibrium or healing is met. Even acceptance and hearing/acknowledging that “this happened to me” is important to both individuals.

Yoshimoto’s sparse writing style allows for a stronger emotional impact on the reader. Flowery prose is exchanged for character-driven introspection and acute word choice that drives the emotion and depth of the narrative/subject home. The characters are also what drive the novel’s tight and quick plot. Readers will not linger too long at any point in the story, as Yoshimoto focuses on a quick pace that fosters urgency in discovering the root of the character’s trauma–particularly Nakajima’s–as they work toward resolution.

And they do reach some sort of space where they can be happy, a space where they can feel safe and accepted. However, Yoshimoto skillfully points to the notion that, by the end of The Lake, this is the point where the work and healing truly begin. In many areas, this novel is rather careful and poignant exploration at its subjects, and she handles them very well. Finally, by the end, I am left considering at what point a nation can move forward, and what that movement and result would look like. Such a question the author doesn’t even try to answer, and maybe it isn’t for me, her, but rather for those affected.

However, it’s possible, and it makes me love this book all the more. I highly recommend it.

This book is out of print, sadly. Prices vary on second-hand copies available at Amazon and similar retailers. If you read Japanese, you may still be able to get a copy through Kinokuniya online.

21st Century East Asian Literature · 21st Century Japanese Literature · Cultural Fiction · Cultural Issues · Fantasy · Favorites · Must-Reads · New Releases · Reviews · Science Fiction · Social Issues

Mizuki Tsujimura: Lonely Castle in the Mirror

Title: Lonely Castle in the Mirror
Author: Mizuki Tsujimura
Genre: Fantasy, 21st Century Japanese Fiction
Release Date: April 22, 2021 (UK); May 11th 2017 (Japan)
Publisher: Doubleday
Source: Purchased
Format: UK Paperback; 978-0-85752-728-8; Price varies by store
Pages: 400
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Summary: Seven junior high school students, all of whom have dropped out, wake up one morning to find their bedroom mirrors glowing. Unable to face their own realities, they reach into their mirrors and find a magic castle on the other side. The castle offers each student an escape from the trauma, stress, loneliness, mental illness, and varying struggles they face. Moreover, the castle and its host, a mysterious Wolf Queen offers them the chance at an answer that will fix their troubles–find the key to the Wishing Room and have one wish granted for one person. However, the splendor, calm, and promise of the castle comes with a caveat; if they don’t leave each day by 5PM, they will be punished.

As the children spend time in the castle, the competition that should divide them actually draws them closer to each other. The more time they spend in the castle, the more they reveal the stories and struggles they carry with them. Slowly, the children come to find refuge and strength, support, and above all, friendship in each other. Overall, they learn the value of reaching out to others and the healing power of friendship.

Review: Mizuki Tsujimura is known for her mystery novels, so Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a bit of a departure for her with it being more of a fairy-tale/fantasy novel. However, it is clear why this novel is so beloved and highly talked about in Japan, and now the USA and Europe.

The novel tackles some difficult themes surrounding school bullying and childhood mental health and the consequences of not providing adequate support for students who deal with these issues. Readers experience this narrative through the eyes of Kokoro, a young seventh year student who one day finds herself the outcast in her middle school after a “mean girl” group eyes the boy Kokoro used to be friends with. They isolate, relentlessly badger, threaten, and tease Kokoro until she’s forced to leave school and stay home. The bullying and social isolation take such a toll on Kokoro, that she ends up unable to leave her house due to increased frequency of panic attacks and fear of being harmed by her classmates.

Once Kokoro is pulled into the castle within the mirror, she finds an opportunity not just to escape her horrors, but to heal from the trauma of those experiences. She meets other students like her, with similar hardships. She finds a certain strength in numbers, with new friends who hold no preconceived notions about her or her past. Everyone in the castle is accepted for who they are. Furthermore, they come to understand the importance of reaching out to people, in seeking help and the healing to be found in such support.

Specially highlighted is the role adults, especially teachers and school staff, play in the continuation of bullying as well as the need for them to step in and build trust with their students. As seen with Kokoro, she doesn’t trust the adults around her; she even worries her own mother will judge her in ability to “get over it” or let bygones be bygones as Mr. Ida would have her do. Therefore, the bullying and trauma continues and escalates. Mr. Ida particularly presents the image of the teacher that is more concerned with following the rules and status quo than he is about listening and supporting mental health empowerment.

What we see in these characters is what UNICEF calls a global problem for school children, particularly Japanese school children. School-aged children in Japan rank worst among rich developed nations in terms of mental health and resource availability (Japan Times). We see each character struggle with this system in their own way.

Not to spoil, but by the end, the novel raises some hope if each person within the system, when presented with a problem, would rise to the occasion as an ally. The novel shows that everyone in society benefits when everyone does their part.

Overall, this was such a fantastic book, and I loved that even for a fantasy novel it was deep, thoughtful, and purposeful. Each character was dynamic, and the prose is fluid, lyrical, and smooth. Moreover, the tone, spirit, pacing, etc make this novel infectious. Tsujimura’s skill with mystery IS evident in this book; there’s a small mystery to solve between each of the children and why they’re really in the castle, and it adds a special dynamic to the story. The setting and imagery are vivid, with just enough left to the reader’s imagination. The blanks you get to fill in add atmosphere to the story.

I highly recommend this book. I’ll be thinking about it and its characters for a long time, and it’s officially one of my favorite reads of the year so far. It’s not available yet in the USA as of posting this review, but you can order it in English from Book Depository UK with free shipping to most countries. I’ve included the link below. You cam get a Japanese edition from Kinokuniya.

Book Depository

21st Century British Literature · Favorites · Literary Fiction · Must-Reads · New Releases · Reviews · Science Fiction · Social Issues

Kazuo Ishiguro: Klara and the Sun

Title: Klara and the Sun
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Genre: Literary Fiction, Science-Fiction, 21st Century British Literature
Publisher: Knopf
Release Date: March 2, 2021
Source: Purchased
Format: Hardcover; 9780593318171; $28.00
Pages: 320
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Summary: Klara is an AF (Artificial Friend), an artificial intelligence humanoid who sits in her store window, waiting for a discerning child to come take her home. While Kara sits in her window, she displays incredible and outstanding observational and discernment abilities, and she learns and grows through watching the behavior of those humans who come to shop in her store and from those who pass by.

When Josie walks into her store to purchase Klara and bring her home, Klara will embark on a remarkable journey to save the life of the child she has vowed to watch over. What emerges are questions and revelations about what it means to love, to hope, and what it means to be truly “human.” (See Goodreads)

Review: It has been a long time since I’ve read Kazuo Ishiguro’s works, so I went into reading “Klara” as rather a blank slate. Then, as I got further into its pages and the explorations he makes, the reasons why I love Ishiguro’s writing–and all the themes of his previous works–came flooding back to me. It really is a gem of a novel and a “classic” Ishiguro work in a new and exciting way.

First for the classic Ishiguro: his interrogation of contemporary socio-cultural issues and the human mindset are still there, but with a futuristic implication. The book asks the question, “what does it mean to be human,” and it is a question, interestingly, posed from the perspective of an Artificial Friend (an A.I. robot). We follow this android, named Klara, as she observes and learns from the humans around her. We watch her slowly and remarkably grapple with emotion, recognizing and even “feeling” said emotions, and by the end, we wonder if “humanity” is more than being skin and bones. Does the human brain really differ from that of an android?

Klara’s differences when juxtaposed with human characters like Josie, her mother, or Rick, highlight human tendency to separate and other, to fear, what is different. Ishiguro is not a stranger to questions around social and class divides; he explores these issues in his previous books like Remains of the Day. AFs become their own sort of “class” within general society. She isn’t human, so she can only participate in this sphere if invited to do so. She is often seen and treated as an object, as seen by the actions of Josie’s classmates during a home gathering–they want to toss Klara across the room just to see how she ends up. Similarly, she isn’t part of the domestic help class, so she exists outside of the realm occupied by people like Josie’s housekeeper. Klara does not engage in housework or other service-type activities. In fact, Josie’s housekeeper is wary, even skeptical of Klara, and repeatedly shoos or removes Klara from the vicinity. Thus, Klara is an in-between–the sole purpose of her existence being to care for Josie and be her companion. When this purpose is finished, she will go into “retirement.” Bluntly, Klara is discarded once she has outstayed her usefulness. 

The existence of AFs also highlight a growing divide in human society regarding the “post-employment” world they come to live in. AFs and AI have taken over most of the workforce, leaving humans with only a few areas of employment left–you can be things like an engineer, or perform technical research, maintenance, construction , etc. This alludes to the fact that society has likely reached a point where everyone receives a universal income and can devote their lives to other pursuits. To get ahead, children are genetically modified to increase their intellectual strength and improve their chances to enter into competitive and exclusive universities–which will increase their social status. Other children who do not participate in this are left behind to lag and struggle in life. 

Outside of the novel’s thematic, philosophical, and moral explorations, Ishiguro writes with all the style, beauty, and fluidity of a literary master–and he is. I love how he leaves just enough vagaries for the reader to piece together the novel how they would like, to fill in the gaps he leaves for us. The atmosphere of this novel made it easy to get comfortable and stay with the characters, to keep turning pages. I was sad when I turned the last page and left Klara behind. In a way, Ishiguro crafts a main character that becomes the reader’s AF. In a nutshell, this novel was beautiful, a classic Ishiguro while bringing something new. I’m sad that this book seems so underrated right now, but I highly recommend it. 

Barnes & Noble
Kobo Books
Your Local Indiebound


Mieko Kawakami: Heaven

Title: Heaven (ヘヴン)
Author: Mieko Kawakami
Genre: 21st Century Japanese Fiction, Literary Fiction
Release Date: May 25, 2021 (originally published in Japan 2009)
Publisher: Europa
Source: Publisher in exchange for a review
Format: Hardcover; 978-1-60945-621-4; $23.00
Pages: 192
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Summary: Hailed as a bold foray into new literary territory, Kawakami’s novel is told in the voice of a 14-year-old student who is 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. (via Goodreads)

Review: I want to preface my review with a comment regarding other reviews I’m seeing pop up for Heaven, Kawakami’s second novel translated into English. I see a lot of English-speaking readers bemoaning the “dumbing down” of Japanese fiction in translation, and the litmus test used for this are works by writers like Yukio Mishima. I want to say, first, that it’s unfair and erroneous to compare this to Mishima. Mishima wrote in a different era, for a different end. He has a style all his own. I also think it’s erroneous to compare Kawakami to Haruki Murakami, as is common for most Japanese authors to be released in the US or UK. I find it strange and problematic that the public’s go-to reaction is to compare a female author and her work to that of a male author and his work–it reeks of latent sexism, holding a female author up to the patriarchal standard saying she should live up to this masculine ideal. Really, Kawakami and her work should be allowed to exist on her own plain, on her own two feet, and have her work stand on its own merit. Why readers default to these comparisons is baffling, but that is another essay for another time I guess.

Second, Heaven is nothing like Mishima, Murakami, or any of her contemporaries. In fact, I believe this work to present some of the best of what contemporary Japanese fiction has to offer–and I do not find it, in any way, “dumbed down” or diluted in theme, seriousness, or complexity. Quite the opposite. Kawakami isn’t afraid to present the reader with tough and uncomfortable topics., and she interrogates the norms and hidden things society needs to address.

Heaven follows two young high school students and examines the physical and mental abuse they suffer as they are bullied in school. Bullying continues to be a problem, not just in the USA or Great Britain, but it is especially problematic in Japan’s school system, and it is a problem that goes unnoticed, and is not talked about.

This is the indictment Kawakami makes in Heaven, exploring what allows the perpetuation of bullying, and the what the moral and philosophical arguments are in that perpetuation.

Like Breasts and Eggs. Kawakami has great skill in exploring the absent, the unspoken, and she does that here through our two protagonists–junior high students who silently endure violence, mockery, and psychological, physical, and emotional abuse that leave scars that are long-lasting, seen, and unseen. What’s poignant, is the absence of the adults that are morally, ethically, and socially required to step in to support and protect the vulnerable, but do not because of willful or blissful ignorance.

The absence of adults in this novel angered me (kudos to Kawakami for her ability to invoke such raw emotion), as I think we’re supposed to feel, and I think this is an important novel that should be on library shelves everywhere. It’s required reading. Kawakami reveals that global society needs to take a long hard look at itself and the violence we allow to fester.

Overall, I read this in English translation (and have the Japanese edition), which was superb, lyrical in style, and smooth in its pacing and continuity. It was, in my opinion, an excellent translation, and it solidifies Mieko Kawakami as a modern classic in every way.


Minae Mizumura: An I-Novel

inovelTitle: An I-Novel
Author: Minae Mizumura
Genre: I-Novels, Literary Fiction, Linguistics, 20th Century Japanese Literature
Release Date: March 2, 2021 (English), 1995 (Japanese)
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Source: Publisher in exchange for a review
Format: Paperback; 9780231192132; $20.00
Pages: 344
Rating: ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤

Summary: An I-Novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s. Minae is a Japanese expatriate graduate student who has lived in the United States for two decades but turned her back on the English language and American culture. After a phone call from her older sister reminds her that it is the twentieth anniversary of their family’s arrival in New York, she spends the day reflecting in solitude and over the phone with her sister about their life in the United States, trying to break the news that she has decided to go back to Japan and become a writer in her mother tongue. (via Goodreads)

Review: Highly inventive, smart, and poignant, Mizumura proves that she’s on the forefront of literary innovation and artistic brilliance. This book should be in every library collection, every personal home bookshelf. Mizumura pushes the boundaries of not just Japanese fiction, but of literature as a whole, and highlights the intricacies and amazing things that language can do. I love how the Japanese language is included alongside the English, and that both languages rely on each other for complete understanding of this exquisite work.

This raises interesting questions of hegemony and the world’s reliance on English, as well as race, nationality, and what it means to be a writer in this framework.

The characters are fully drawn out, relatable, and likeable. The themes of this novel are poignant and introspective. I keep thinking about this book even now, long after I had closed the final page.

The translation really does a great job of capturing Mizumura’s voice, her vision, and it’s well-written and engaging overall. Fans of the I-novel genre, and fans of Japanese literature will love this.

Highly recommended.

20th Century East Asian Literature · 20th Century Japanese Literature · 21st Century East Asian Literature · 21st Century Japanese Literature · Cultural Fiction · Cultural Issues · Dystopian Fiction · Favorites · Feminism · Magical Realism · Must-Reads · Op-Ed · Social Issues · Women's Literature

Three Japanese Authors to Read Instead of Haruki Murakami

If you like reading Japanese fiction, and you’re like me, I’m sure you remember the time when you first started becoming interested in the aesthetic and many wonders Japanese fiction revealed to you. Also, of your experience was like mine, the first author thrown at you was Haruki Murakami. Author of the strange, uncanny, and modern aesthetic that Japan is quizzically admired for, Murakami has established himself as a juggernaut of the country’s literary scene. However, to put it bluntly, I do not believe that he represents the best that Japan and Japanese literature have to offer the world. His style, even in Japan, is controversial, at once Western while also retaining something quintessentially “Japanese” within it. He’s also questionable in his treatment of his female characters, and the critique of misogyny in Murakami’s fiction is ongoing among critics. I’d argue that he doesn’t reflect Japanese literature in general, but that’s me. This isn’t to say that I don’t like Murakami–because I do–but Japan is not Murakami, and Murakami is not Japan. I hope that makes sense.

So, here are three modern and contemporary Japanese authors (in translation) that you should read if you want a true experience in Japanese aesthetics, the bizarre, and the thoughtful. And without restating the obvious, every author is a woman, because…GIRL POWER. #SorryNotSorry

1. Banana Yoshimoto

I am placing Yoshimoto here at number one for several reasons. First, I am completely biased in that I believe she is absolutely amazing, and her books are worth international acclaim. Second, she had the misfortune early in her English-language career to have her books translated and released within the same time frame that Murakami was becoming a household name in the USA and abroad. As the West gravitated toward Murakami, the world seemed to forget about Yoshimoto. This is such a disservice. For readers who cite their love of Murakami’s use of magical realism, the surreal, and the bizarre, should really pick up a copy of Yoshimoto’s N.P., Asleep, and Goodbye Tsugumi. She offers novels that present an ethereal, magical prose that explores women and feminism, family, grief, and strength. I can’t recommend her any more highly.

2. Sayaka Murata

Only two volumes of Murata’s bibliography have been translated into English, and they are: Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings. Both novels explore the idea of society as a factory, a social design intended to maintain a “norm” of Japanese life. The main characters in each story do not follow this “norm,” the implications of which take on bizarre forms that give these stories a very science-fiction/dystopian feel. Murata shows she isn’t afraid to criticize social norms, the very idea of what is “normal” and the damage it can do to a person to try and force them into submitting to these norms. She’s quickly becoming a juggernaut in contemporary fiction, and she is another writer I highly recommend.

3. Yu Miri

Miri is perhaps one of the most important writers on this list, but for a vastly different and important reason from the rest. Miri is a Korean naturalized immigrant to Japan–called “zainichi.” This term is problematic, as it is used very broadly to mean almost any Korean immigrant, especially those who moved to Japan post 1965; however, it is really a term used to define Korean immigrants living in Japan during the colonial period.

Miri is one of these contemporary immigrant voices, and her English-translated work Tokyo Ueno Station has deservedly garnered a lot of attention, in the west as well as in Japan and Korea. Tokyo Ueno Station sheds light on the rampant racism and social alienation that Korean immigrants experience in Japanese culture and society. The main character in this novel belongs to the zainichi demographic, and his marginality is made more difficult and heartbreaking by his persistent homelessness. What follows through this short but deep novel is a scathing indictment of contemporary Japan and its ingrained racism, classism, and willful ignoring of the needs for social justice.

There you have it.

This list is by no mean complete, and I am planning a “part two” to this list. There are so many novels novels from Japan getting their time in the sun in the English-language market, and I am excited to see what voices emerge in the  months and years to come. Yoshimoto is a great place to start if you haven’t read much Japanese fiction and would like to get your feet wet. Her contemporary, Hiromi Kawakami, is another great starting point, and will figure into my next list.

Let me know your thoughts down in the comments if you’ve read any of the above authors, or any that aren’t yet on my lists! I’m always looking to add to my TBR.


20th Century East Asian Literature · 20th Century Japanese Literature · 21st Century Detective Fiction · 21st Century East Asian Literature · 21st Century Japanese Literature · Classics · Cultural Fiction · Cultural Issues · Literary Fiction · Must-Reads · Mystery · Reviews · Social Issues · Suspense/Thrillers

January 2021 Wrap-Up

Well! We now have a full month of 2021 behind us. 2020 was a productive reading year for me, but it seems like I’m off to a bumpy start for this year–I’ve only read three books. For January, I continued my trek through Japanese fiction (yes I know there’s a January in Japan readathon, but for me this is all year). I took my journey back to some pre-and-post-WWII classics from Mishima Yukio and Dazai Osamu, and then did a complete 180 and read a thriller by Keigo Higashino.

Star by Yukio Mishima

In Star, readers watch a very self-absorbed film actor grow increasingly more self-absorbed and unhinged over the course of it’s few pages. I’ve read Mishima before, and this novella felt different than his ever-romantic The Sound of Waves or Spring Snow. If you like dives into the human psyche though, this is for you.

Mishima wrote this novella shortly after having acted in the film “Afraid to Die,” and it is hailed as “a rich and unflinching psychological portrait of a celebrity coming apart at the seams– begging the question: is there any escape from how we are seen by others?” (via Goodreads)

Schoolgirl by Osamu Dazai

Dazai’s Schoolgirl. published 1939, exists contemporaneously with the start of WWII, and is exactly what you think it would be–a dive into the daily routine and thoughts of a young Japanese schoolgirl. This book was praised, and still is, for its inventive language in Japanese. It is also praised for its deep foray into its exploration of a nation and society on the cusp of a disappearing era. (Goodreads)

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

I don’t normally read crime thrillers, but I read Higashino’s Miracles of the Namiya General Store (not a crime thriller), and I ended up LOVING his writing. So, I decided to give “Suspect X” a try. It hooked me, and I plan on reading his other crime fiction.

There was so much to unpack, and it was very unique and fresh to what little crime fiction I’ve read before. You see the crime from the first couple chapters, and then watch a cat-and-mouse game of wits and intelligence to see if the detective–the upstanding figure of Japanese society–can catch the murderer. It was so tense and exciting.

Here’s the Goodreads summary, since I couldn’t adequately summarize it myself:

“Yasuko Hanaoka is a divorced, single mother who thought she had finally escaped her abusive ex-husband Togashi. When he shows up one day to extort money from her, threatening both her and her teenaged daughter Misato, the situation quickly escalates into violence and Togashi ends up dead on her apartment floor. Overhearing the commotion, Yasuko’s next door neighbor, middle-aged high school mathematics teacher Ishigami, offers his help, disposing not only of the body but plotting the cover-up step-by-step.

When the body turns up and is identified, Detective Kusanagi draws the case and Yasuko comes under suspicion. Kusanagi is unable to find any obvious holes in Yasuko’s manufactured alibi and yet is still sure that there’s something wrong. Kusanagi brings in Dr. Manabu Yukawa, a physicist and college friend who frequently consults with the police. Yukawa, known to the police by the nickname Professor Galileo, went to college with Ishigami. After meeting up with him again, Yukawa is convinced that Ishigami had something to do with the murder. What ensues is a high level battle of wits, as Ishigami tries to protect Yasuko by outmaneuvering and outthinking Yukawa, who faces his most clever and determined opponent yet. (via Goodreads)

Overall, I’d say January was an okay reading month for me, but I feel like I can do more. I have a list for February that I will post soon, as I plan to continue reading my way across Japan.

What is on your TBR for this month? Let me know if the comments!


Op-Ed · Reflections · Saturday Shenanigans · Tuesday Trifles

November and December 2020 Wrap-Up

2020 was not my year. I don’t think it was anyone’s year, really. Especially so, blogging just has not been on the top of my priority list. If anything, the thought of it fueled some anxiety when all I wanted to do was read. Also, I took a look back over my planned reads for October, and I am a bit sad that I didn’t fulfill those goals. I had some exciting books selected, but October turned into a rather slumpy month for me reading-wise. What I did manage to read was driven by my mood. And really, the whole month was slumpy for just about everything. I blame the whole Covid thing–2020 just did not spark joy or feelings of motivation.

So, I’m just going to wrap this year up by taking a look at what I managed to read for November and December, and to round out this year. I’ll just start fresh in 2021.

The books I managed to read at the tail-end of 2020 are:

  1. Ms. Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami
  2. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
  3. Earthlings by Sayaka Murata
  4. People from My Neighbourhood by Hiromi Kawakami
  5. Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa
  6. Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda
  7. Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
  8. Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Cafe by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
  9. Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

All but one volume are contemporary Japanese fiction selections. About half-way through 2020, I rediscovered my love for an area of world literature that I have studied for years, but that I fell away from for no apparent reason. I think what helped pull me back was that most of the books offer some glimmer of hope for the self, society, or the world in general. Most selections present characters that endure hardship, failure, uncertainty, etc., and they come through it stronger and in a better place. Some even get second chances to build bridges to the people they love, or to make amends for past wrong-doings or missed opportunities. I think most of us can agree that 2020 really attacked our feelings of hope and tested our strength and will at many turns.

Moreover, many of the selections offered a chance to escape as well. Hiromi Kawakami’s People from my Neighborhood, Aoko Matsuda’s Where the Wild Ladies Are, or Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings, offered strange characters doing strange things in strange worlds that mirror or own. Such selections offered a change to peep into people’s secrets, watch a character try to return to a home planet she believes she’s from, or watch myths unfold again in a new way.

Each title from the list above is worth your time and is worth a space on your shelf (and heart). They are the books that got me through the tale end of 2020 and that are taking me into 2021. I’ve linked the titles to their Goodreads pages to check out. I won’t write out summaries. If they sound familiar, or sound interesting, please visit their little corners on Goodreads. You won’t regret it, and I recommend them all.

Now, here’s to hoping I can do better in the blogging realm in 2021. No promises, but thank you all that have stuck with me during my random hiatuses and disappearances. Sometimes life and mental health don’t allow us to do the things we want or need, but all we can do is try. 

I hope 2021 sees you all safe, happy, and that it brings you a life of joy, peace, and prosperity. 

21st Century East Asian Literature · 21st Century Japanese Literature · Cultural Fiction · Cultural Issues · Literary Fiction · New Releases · Reviews · Social Issues

Yu Miri: Tokyo Ueno Station

Title: Tokyo Ueno Station
Author: Yu Miri
Genre: Literary Fiction, 21st Century Japanese Literature
Release Date: June 23, 2020
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Source: Purchased
Format: Hardcover; $25.00; 978-0-59308-802-9
Pages: 192
Rating: ❤ ❤ ❤

Summary: Kazu is dead. Born in Fukushima in 1933, the same year as the Japanese Emperor, his life is tied by a series of coincidences to the Imperial family and has been shaped at every turn by modern Japanese history. But his life story is also marked by bad luck, and now, in death, he is unable to rest, doomed to haunt the park near Ueno Station in Tokyo. Kazu’s life in the city began and ended in that park; he arrived there to work as a laborer in the preparations for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and ended his days living in the vast homeless village in the park, traumatized by the destruction of the 2011 tsunami and shattered by the announcement of the 2020 Olympics. Through Kazu’s eyes, we see daily life in Tokyo buzz around him and learn the intimate details of his personal story, how loss and society’s inequalities and constrictions spiraled towards this ghostly fate, with moments of beauty and grace just out of reach.

“Now, noises, colors, and smells are all mixed up, gradually fading away, shrinking; I feel if I put out my finger to touch it, everything will disappear, but I have no fingers to touch with. I can no longer touch, not even one hand to the other in prayer” (40).

Continue reading “Yu Miri: Tokyo Ueno Station”