Classic Japanese Literature: Japanese Novels and Short Story Collections

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Explore classic Japanese literature with this curated list of best classic Japanese novels and short story collections, from the 18th century through the post-World War II era.

Blossoming cherry tree on a sea green background

Classic Literature of Japan

I love going on treasure hunts back through the pages of literary history; there’s always more to find. Lately I’ve set myself to learn more about Japanese classics, and I’ve discovered and read some wonderful gems and added others to my TBR list!

Japan is on my bucket list of places to visit, but since it’ll probably be years before that happens, at least I can learn more about the country and culture in the meantime!

From my very limited knowledge of classic Japanese fiction, one difference I’ve noticed between Japanese literature and Western literature is that the former seems to be more quotidian, in a way. Japanese literature doesn’t always follow the beats of rising and falling action, checking off plot milestones according to the pattern of Western fiction. That’s not to say there isn’t drama in Japanese literature–it just doesn’t always play out the way you expect it to! And the prose is beautiful; it can be very calm, meditative, or melancholy.

As with all my book lists posts on Tea and Ink, I narrowed down my selections from a ton of options. Ultimately, I don’t include books “just because” they’re classics or critically-acclaimed; they have to be books that I believe will interest and suit Tea and Ink readers in particular. In other words, this is an Elsie Callender-created list, not an AI-generated mashup(; I hope you enjoy this list and find some new favourites!

Classics Reading Challenge

If you’re following along with our 2023 Classics Reading Challenge, April’s prompt is to read a classic Japanese novel or short story collection. Any of the following books could count for the challenge, and it’s never too late to join (even if it’s past April when you read this!)

Best Classic Japanese Novels and Short Story Collections

Tales of Moonlight and Rain by Ueda Akinari (1776)

While the United States was busy declaring its independence from the British, over in Japan Ueda Akinari was publishing the woodblock edition of Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), a seminal work in Japanese literature. Tales of Moonlight and Rain is a collection of nine short stories with a supernatural, ghostly quality. 

Akinari laced his stories with wordplay, symbolism, and numerous allusions to earlier Chinese and Japanese literature, folklore, philosophy, and theater. But even if these references are lost on most modern-day Western readers, the stories still make for haunting and engaging reading on a misty, moonlit night.

Note: In my opinion, the first tale in the collection with its long roster of names and places is the least interesting. But keep reading–the subsequent tales are better!

Related: Here are more spooky short stories if you’re in the mood for something a little haunting!

In the Shade of Spring Leaves by Ichiyō Higuchi (1892-1896)

In a time when Japanese women authors were scarce, Higuchi made a name for herself as a promising and respected writer of short stories and poems, and is considered the first professional female writer of Japanese literature. After the death of her brother and samurai father, Higuchi sought to supplement her family’s paltry income by becoming a writer. Unfortunately, as her reputation grew her health declined, and she died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. 

Unlike other authors of the period, Higuchi’s writing often focused on the lives of the underprivileged and lower-class, rather than the aristocratic classes. She lived with her mother and sister near a red-light district, and her writings became increasingly sensitive towards the condition of women. 

There are no complete English-translated editions of her 21 short stories, but the volume I’ve pictured here includes a sampling of 9, as well as a fascinating biography and excerpts from Higuchi’s extensive diary.

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki (serialized 1905-1906)

Set in Tokyo, I Am a Cat is a comic satire told from the perspective of a domestic cat with a high opinion of himself. The cat’s human is a school teacher named Sneaze, and the cat observes Sneaze’s interactions and conversations with his wife, kids, and friends, sharing his own philosophical insights with the reader along the way.

Sōseki began his writing career with haiku, short sketches, and other poetry, but I Am a Cat was his first major success and he went on to become one of Japan’s most famous novelists.
The first chapter of I Am a Cat was originally intended as a single short story for a literary journal, but Sōseki’s editor asked him to continue it. Each chapter can stand alone, so the book makes for a good “ongoing read” to have on your nightstand if you’re the type of reader who has multiple books going at once!

Night on the Galactic Railroad by Kenji Miyazawa (written around 1927, published posthumously in 1934)

This short fantasy novel is about a lonely boy named Giovanni and his only friend, Campanella, who one night find themselves magically whisked away on a fantastical train journey through the stars. Aboard the train, the boys meet other travelers and encounter wonders at each station they travel to across the Milky Way. This evocative and unusual story will appeal to fans ofThe Little Prince, the fantasy of George Macdonald, and films from Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

Miyazawa was a prolific writer of poetry and children’s stories, but practically unknown and unrecognized during his short lifetime (he was only 37 when he died). However, after his death his friends published many of his works and Miyazawa has become a respected and beloved author.

There are several translations of Night on the Galactic Railroad, and it is sometimes published under other names like Milky Way Railroad and Night Train to the Stars. I can’t really find a general consensus on which translation is best. I’ve linked to an edition translated by Julianne Neville, as it includes a couple of Miyazawa’s other short stories to give you more of a taste of his work. Whichever edition you choose, I just recommend that you avoid reading any introductions–and possibly even the back cover of the book!–if you’d like to guard against spoilers.

Mt. Fuji across the lake with Japanese maple tree in the foreground, and collage of classic Japanese novels across the bottom

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (serialized 1935-37; final novel published in 1948)

Snow Country is a short and poignant novel of ill-fated love, adorned with spare, purposeful prose and lyrical imagery. The protagonist is Shimamura, a wealthy man from Tokyo who takes occasional retreats to a hot-springs resort in the snowy north country. There he rendezvous with his mistress, a geisha named Komako who works at the resort. Komako loves Shimamura despite the fact that she knows they can never be together; Shimamura has a “real life” back at home with a wife and kids.

Snow Country was one of Kawabata’s early novels and is considered his masterpiece. Over the course of his career Kawabata became a highly-respected and internationally-renowned author, and in 1968, became the first Japanese person to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue (1949)

This novella explores the psychological effect of an extramarital affair on the lives it touches. The main narrative is told in the form of three letters, one from Shoko, who discovered her mother’s affair by reading her mother’s diary; one from Midori, the cheated-on wife; and one from Shoko’s mother Saiko. All three deeply-personal letters are written to the man at the center of the affair, and each one carefully reshapes your understanding of the other letters and their writers.

The Hunting Gun is a quiet, introspective, eloquent gem of a novel that you can read quickly but may find that you need to read again.

The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (serialized 1943-48)

The Makioka Sisters is set against the backdrop of World War II, but focuses on the domestic affairs of the Makiokas, a declining aristocratic family residing in the port city of Osaka. There are four Makioka sisters, two of whom are married and established with households of their own. When the novel opens, the family is preoccupied by the necessity of getting the third sister–shy and now an “old maid” at 30–married and settled. Meanwhile, the headstrong youngest sister–who does have a lover–must wait until her older sister is married before she can become a bride herself.

At different points The Makioka Sisters is reminiscent of Austen, Tolstoy, or even Alcott’s Little Women, but is more quotidian than any of them, with a long page count and a slowly-flowering narrative. Although the novel was very popular when serialization began in 1943, the government ordered publication to be stopped because the book was too feminine and domestic in a time when they wanted masculine-flavoured patriotism and nationalistic fervor to be at the forefront. The government condemned the novel for spending too much time on the “grossly individualistic lives of women.”

The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo (1946)

The detective fiction genre is very popular in Japan, and had its rise during the World Wars era and after. Seishi Yokomizo was a prolific author of honkaku-style or “orthodox” detective fiction, which resembles Golden Age detective fiction and often pays conscious homage to mystery writers like Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and Ellery Queen.

The Honjin Murders was Yokomizo’s first novel to feature his series detective, Kosuke Kindaichi. The book is set in a remote mansion and centers around a double murder case–a husband and wife brutally murdered on their wedding night. Their room is locked from the inside, and the only clue appears to be a bloody katana, left in the trackless snow surrounding the house.

The main criticism this book draws from modern readers is that the ending is too far-fetched. I personally have no problem reading mystery stories with “creative” endings and enjoy the ride regardless, but that’s something to keep in mind if it bothers you! If you like The Honjin Murders, you’ll be happy to know that several of Yokomizo’s Kindaichi novels have also been translated into English, and it looks like there’s more in the works!

Colorful koi swimming in the water

Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse (1965)

Set during and in the years following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Black Rain centers in part around the predicament of Yasuko, whose exposure to the “black rain” of the nuclear fallout has damaged her marriage prospects. Yasuko tries to hide her bouts of radiation sickness from her family, while they try to prove to their community that Yasuko wasn’t near the city during the bombing. 

The novel is a stark but beautiful story of survivors going about their daily lives, trying to make sense of the tragedy and understand its implications.

The author himself was a native of Hiroshima, but was not in the area during the bombing. Instead, he used the diaries and eyewitness accounts of survivors to inform his own narrative.

Silence by Shūsaku Endō (1966)

Silence is an historical fiction novel set in 17th century Japan. Father Rodrigues, a Jesuit priest from Portugal, travels to Japan to encourage the local Christians and seek out Father Ferreira, an earlier missionary who has supposedly left the faith. When he arrives, Rodrigues finds the local church in dire straits. The government is using torture to silence Christians, and Rodrigues grapples with his faith in a God who seems silent in response.

Endō based his novel on real people and events, and as a Catholic author drew on his own faith to explore themes of suffering and sacrifice. The novel was made into a 2016 movie directed by Martin Scorsese. Some editions of Silence include a foreword by Scorsese, which I recommend you read after the novel, since he tips off a major plot point. 

Bright gold and orange koi swimming in dark water

What classic novels and short stories from Japan are on your reading list?

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4 Comments

  1. I am reading “How Do You Live?” by Genzaburo Yoshino, published in 1937. I picked this book because Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are making it into a movie, which will be Miyazaki-san’s last movie.

    I did read fairy tales in March, but it was not a pre-1970s book. I already owned a Kindle book collection of fairy tales called “Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales” which was published in 2015. Of course the fairy tales were all old, and from all over the world, but the collection was newer. Must admit, after I finished, I have pretty much decided to never ready fairy tales again!!

    Thank you.

    1. I haven’t heard of How Do You Live. I will certainly check that out!

      Angela Carter is a big name in fairy tales, but I am not personally a fan of her fairy tale retellings or perspective. She goes to some weird places!

  2. ‘Taiko’ by Eiji Hosokawa which tells the story of the three great warlords who successively unified Japan: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. The main focus is on Hideyoshi, the farmer’s son who rose to be the Taiko. There’s a rhyme taught to every Japanese school child which gives an idea of their very distinctive characters and leadership styles:
    “What if the bird will not sing?”
    Nobunaga: “Kill it!”
    Hideyoshi: “Make the bird WANT to sing.”
    Ieyasu: “Wait.”

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