1. 源氏物語 (Genji Monogatari)
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu is sometimes considered the world’s first novel or rather the world’s first classic novel. It tells the story of Hikaru Genji’s life who was born as son to the Emperor Kibitsubo. Following Genji’s family dramas, love affairs and political rise and falls, the reader learns a lot about high-society culture during the Heian period.
Since the author is a woman and also addresses a female audience, the book is mostly written in kana as was custom for women during that period. Still, because of its complex and old grammar and vocabulary, it is extremely difficult to read even for native speakers. (It may be comparable to reading ‘original-language Shakespeare’.) Luckily, there are translations into “modern” Japanese. (And English of course.)
2. 枕草子 (Makura Soshi)
The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon was written around the same time as The Tale of Genji and reflects observations made in the Imperial court during the Heian period. It is basically a collection of thoughts and descriptions represented in poetry. While it is mostly a personal work and therefore does not address a specific audience, it is an important and interesting work of literature due to the author’s poetic writing skills. Yet again, it might be extremely difficult to read in Japanese considering its ancient language. If you want to try so nevertheless, we recommend you have an English version to side-read.
3. 吾輩は猫である (Wahagai wa neko de aru)
I Am a Cat was written Natsume Soseki in the early 20th century during the Meiji period.
It is common knowledge that Japanese people like cats. They adore them. This work even tops this impression as its narrator is… a cat; a supercilious, arrogant pet, who throughout various short stories or “chapters” describes the lives of middle-class Japanese people. These are basically its owner, Kushami Sensei (eng.: Mr. Sneeze) and his family friends.
The novel became known for its hilarious satiric humor and is still considered a classic.
4. 雪国 (Yukiguni)
Snow Country by Kawabata Yasunari follows the love affair between Shimamura, a wealthy loner from Tokyo, and Komako, a hot-spring geisha living in the province. As pointed out throughout the novel, the geishas in provincial hot springs did not enjoy the same high-regarded status as their artistically well-trained colleagues in Kyoto or Tokyo.
Published between 1935 and 1937, the novel focuses not only on the love story itself but also on the exterior factors that led to its outcome. It thereby gives great insight into Japanese culture and provincial society during that time.
1Q84 by Murakami Haruki is a series of books with the first one being published in 2009. The title references to George Orwell’s 1984, as the letter Q plays with the Japanese pronunciation of the digit 9.
In the book, the two protagonists Aomame and Tengo find themselves in an alternative reality called “1Q84”. The two enter this mysterious reality separately but are gradually drawn towards each other during their journey towards this “other” 1984; a world that is terrorized and about to be taken over by an evil supernatural force.
The novel is said to be both surreal and exciting just as well as shocking, while some consider it Murakami’s magnum opus. It may be fiction but yet analyzes and depicts Japanese contemporary culture.
Did we get you interested? Go ahead and let these fantastic books transport you to a completely different time or culture.
However, should you decide to read any of these in Japanese, don’t get frustrated if you don’t understand everything at once. Always keep in mind that reading is considered the most difficult skill when it comes to Japanese.