Five Essential Works of Japanese Literature

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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