20 Essential Works of Japanese Literature

Japan’s ancient history has imbued it with a diverse literary heritage largely ignored by American literati and professors, save for a few notable exceptions. Anyone wanting to further explore the full range of the country’s written works should consider this list a primer of the highlights to hit before moving on to other poems, novels, plays, comics and short stories. Plenty of amazing writers and narratives exist beyond these, of course, and anyone who digs for them will dredge up a slew of literary treasures.

  1. Kokin Wakashu (circa 905) by Various: Emperor Uda and his scion and successor, Emperor Daigo, ordered this collection of royal waka to celebrate Japan’s rich creative heritage. Spanning 21 collections and roughly 1,111 poems, it was compiled by court poets Mibu no Tadamine, Ki no Tsurayuki, Ki no Tomonori and Oshikochi Mitsune and included works by Ono no Komachi, Ariwara no Narihira and Fujiwara no Okikaze Henjo as well as the editors themselves.
  2. Taketori Monogatari (10th Century) by Unknown: Known alternately as “The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter” and “The Old Bamboo-Hewer’s Story,” folklorists believe this narrative is quite possibly the oldest in Japan. Because of the bizarre content, including glowing stalks of the eponymous plant, some even think of the story as one of the earliest science-fiction stories as well.
  3. The Tale of Genji (early 11th Century) by Murasaki Shikibu: Many, if not most, literary critics and aficionados consider The Tale of Genji humanity’s first novel. At least in the format familiar today, anyways. Featuring over 400 characters, though focusing on the life of only one, it provides history buffs a glimpse into Japanese life under the feudal system. In spite of this epic scope, Murasaki Shikibu masterfully maintains internal consistency.
  4. Konjaku Monogatarishu (circa 12th Century) by Various: Only 28 of the original 31 volumes of Konjaku Monogatarishu survive today. Thousands of folk stories from across Asia, including India and China, come together thanks to the efforts of a currently unknown compiler. Many believe it was a Buddhist monk’s doing, and the exact date of its inception is unknown, too.
  5. The Tale of the Heike (13th Century) by Various: Like many medieval literary works, this epic poem was less the efforts of one rather than a collaboration from many. It depicts the histories of the Minamoto and Taira tribes and their mutual struggle for dominance during the Genpei War. The history trickled its way down to the contributors thanks to Japan’s ancient oral tradition.
  6. The Complete Haiku (17th Century) Matsuo Basho: Anyone critical of haiku thanks to their contemporary comedic applications should pick up Matsuo Basho’s work. Many literary types consider him amongst the greatest — if not the absolute greatest — Japanese poets of all time. With elegant simplicity, he expounds on everything from nature to daily existence.
  7. Takekurabe (1895-1896) by Higuchi Ichiyo: Taking place in the Yoshiwara district, this short novel traces the life spans of several children as they come of age in close proximity to licensed prostitution. Much time is spent mourning the loss of youthful freedom and imagination as the years and responsibilities pile on.
  8. I am a Cat (1905-1906) by Natsume Soseki: One of Japan’s finest satires, I am a Cat deconstructs Meiji politics and social constructs, particularly those liberally borrowing from the “West.” The narrator itself is a little housecat watching the neighborhood’s day-to-day doings and relating them back with detachment and irony.
  9. A Dark Night’s Passing (1921-1937) by Shiga Naoya: As with many of the literary works listed here, this novel began life as a serial printed in a magazine rather than a full manuscript. Shiga Naoya went with the highly popular slice-of-life format to relay the story of an unmarried man and the many misadventures he bumbles into regularly.
  10. Thousand Cranes (1952) by Yasunari Kawabata: Yasunari Kawabata was the very first Japanese writer to ever earn the Novel Prize in Literature, and the nomination committees specifically mentioned Thousand Cranes as one of the major factors in their decision-making process. A war orphan seeks the companionship of his father’s mistress in order to forge some semblance of family in his life. Things quickly fall apart.
  11. Fires on the Plain (1954) by Ooka Shohei: World War II understandably left an indelible impact on the Japanese creative sphere, and Fires on the Plain perfectly encapsulates the emotions and experiences of soldiers towards the end. Private Tomura, the protagonist, finds himself stranded in the Filipino jungle after being booted from his company. What results is an encroaching delirium with some sickening consequences.
  12. Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) by Yukio Mishima: The titular temple is an actual location in Kyoto, and the true story of a wayward monk resorting to arson inspired one of Japan’s most famous (and infamous) authors to fictionalize it in one of his celebrated novels. Only loosely based on reality, Mishima’s masterpiece dives into the mind of the perpetrator himself. An overwhelming obsession with beauty and perfection eventually drives the narrator mad and prompts him to burn the beloved shrine.
  13. A Personal Matter (1964) by Kenzaburo Oe: Author Kenzaburo Oe was the second Japanese writer to ever earn the Novel Prize in Literature, and this novel undoubtedly solidified his place amongst the literary canon. Here, he pulls from his own life experiences and expresses the myriad virulent emotions that come with fathering a brain-damaged child.
  14. The Woman in the Dunes (1964) by Hiroshi Teshigahara: This deeply existential novel concerns an entomologist lost to the toils of a sandy little village, where a widow is tasked with perpetually keeping the dunes from encroaching. The two become lovers, and the newcomer eventually succumbs to the same daily drudgery. Fans of the postmodern and avant-garde should pick up The Woman in the Dunes when exploring the full range of Japanese literature.
  15. Phoenix (1967-1988) by Osamu Tezuka: Manga in Japan enjoys far more popularity and mainstream acceptance than comic books do in America, hence why the country views Osamu Tezuka’s beautiful, complex works national treasures. Although Phoenix remained unfinished after his death, each of the 12 self-contained volumes sports a standalone story reflecting a broader theme. This masterpiece dissects existential and Buddhist philosophies for a thoroughly provocative reading experience.
  16. Almost Transparent Blue (1976) by Ryu Murakami: In spite (or because) of a life packed with the usual sex, drugs, rock and roll and few responsibilities, the protagonists meander through their various narratives with little enthusiasm or motivation. The looming specter of an American military base punctures the largely plotless novel with a distinctly foreign presence.
  17. The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro: Kazu Ishiguro earned a Booker Prize for his third novel, garnering him considerable attention in Britain (where he is a citizen) and Japan alike. Here, a staid English butler contemplates his station in life along with a feisty housekeeper, but allows his stuffiness to ruin many chances at having nice things.
  18. Akira (1982-1990): Both Akira‘s art and story are brutal, kinetic and highly visceral, but unwind a thoroughly provocative narrative about child abuse and exploitation. Science fiction fans or literary critics unafraid to explore genre fare will appreciate how deeply it impacted the cyberpunk movement and many subsequent writers and artists.
  19. Kitchen (1988) by Banana Yoshimoto: A young woman learns some important lessons about life and love thanks to her culinary experience. Food is always somehow present no matter where she is, and a curious assortment of individuals open up their hearts to help assuage the pain from her grandmother’s death.
  20. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-1995) by Haruki Murakami: Haruki Murakami’s oeuvre abounds with essential reads, but The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle continues to enjoy the most international renown decades later. After protagonist Toru Okada’s cat runs away, he finds himself embroiled in a plot that unravels his boring little life and reveals the puzzles underneath. This haunting, twisted work earned the author multiple awards and a place as one of the literary world’s preeminent postmodern novelists.

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