Mini-Reviews: Japanese fiction in translation

Mini-Reviews: Japanese fiction in translation

japanese fiction


When I have the choice between reading another book or reviewing the one I have just read, I usually choose to read another one. As much as I adore shouting about books on my blog, reading is, after all, my first love!

Therefore, I have decided to do some mini-review posts to tell you about some other books which I have read and think you might enjoy.

The mini-reviews this time are all themed around literature in translation, specifically some contemporary Japanese writing in translation. I love reading books that have been translated as they often give you a completely different perspective on an issue or idea. A lot of contemporary Japanese fiction tends to be quite quirky and character-focused, both features I like, so I have really enjoyed reading the books in this post.

Have you read any of these?

Are there any that you would like to pick up?

japanese fiction

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (Translated by Geoffrey Trousselot)

In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a café which has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time.

In Before the Coffee Gets Cold, we meet four visitors, each of whom is hoping to make use of the café’s time-travelling offer, in order to: confront the man who left them, receive a letter from their husband whose memory has been taken by early onset Alzheimer’s, to see their sister one last time, and to meet the daughter they never got the chance to know.

But the journey into the past does not come without risks: customers must sit in a particular seat, they cannot leave the café, and finally, they must return to the present before the coffee gets cold . . .

Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s beautiful, moving story explores the age-old question: what would you change if you could travel back in time? More importantly, who would you want to meet, maybe for one last time?

Who would you meet if you could go back in time? Nothing you say or do will change the present, and you can only stay until the coffee gets cold, but it would mean that you could see someone one more time. Would it be worth it?
This is a beautiful, thoughtful book which will stick with me for a long time. Each story follows a different character and their reasons for wanting to go back in time. I liked how the layers of each person’s story were built up carefully and delicately, drawing you into the reasons behind their regret and making you think about the impacts of a simple decision. This is one that I will definitely reread as I feel like I would get more out of it with each reading. Deceptively simple story but with so many emotions.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

Keiko Furukura had always been considered a strange child, and her parents always worried how she would get on in the real world, so when she takes on a job in a convenience store while at university, they are delighted for her. For her part, in the convenience store she finds a predictable world mandated by the store manual, which dictates how the workers should act and what they should say, and she copies her coworkers’ style of dress and speech patterns so she can play the part of a normal person. However, eighteen years later, at age 36, she is still in the same job, has never had a boyfriend, and has only few friends. She feels comfortable in her life but is aware that she is not living up to society’s expectations and causing her family to worry about her. When a similarly alienated but cynical and bitter young man comes to work in the store, he will upset Keiko’s contented stasis—but will it be for the better?

Sayaka Murata brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the familiar convenience store that is so much part of life in Japan. With some laugh-out-loud moments prompted by the disconnect between Keiko’s thoughts and those of the people around her, she provides a sharp look at Japanese society and the pressure to conform, as well as penetrating insights into the female mind. Convenience Store Woman is a fresh, charming portrait of an unforgettable heroine that recalls Banana Yoshimoto, Han Kang, and Amelie.

I thoroughly enjoyed this!
Keiko gets a part-time job in a convenience store while at university. 18 years later she is still there, happy in a world where she can succeed as a human. She has always known that she is different but struggles to understand why. Her family talk to counselors, her teachers despair, but it isn’t until she trains as a worker in a convenience store that anyone takes the time to teach her about different facial expressions and body language and ‘how to be human’ as she puts it. She thinks of herself as a mixture of the people around her and camouflages herself as ‘someone normal’ by copying he co-worker’s style and make-up as well as imitating that way people around her speak. I loved her observations of how other people change themselves depending on the social situation they are in.
This is a cleverly-written, thought-provoking story while also being quite humorous at times.
Highly recommended!

The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada (Translated by Margarest Mitsutani)

Yoshiro thinks he might never die. A hundred years old and counting, he is one of Japan’s many ‘old-elderly’; men and women who remember a time before the air and the sea were poisoned, before terrible catastrophe prompted Japan to shut itself off from the rest of the world. He may live for decades yet, but he knows his beloved great-grandson – born frail and prone to sickness – might not survive to adulthood. Day after day, it takes all of Yoshiro’s sagacity to keep Mumei alive.

As hopes for Japan’s youngest generation fade, a secretive organisation embarks on an audacious plan to find a cure – might Yoshiro’s great-grandson be the key to saving the last children of Tokyo?

This book presents a chillingly-plausible future where the younger generation are sickly and damaged by environmental degradation, while the elderly become their caretakers. Japan has cut itself off from the outside world, with references to other countries and foreign words being purged ftom the language.
Yoshiro, a 105-year-old man, works full-time while also caring for his grandson, Mumei, who is made sick by everything and practically housebound. The book raises pertinent points about politics, newspeak and the impact of environmental disasters, but it ended without any real resolution which let me down slightly.
A slow but thought-provoking and interesting read.

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Allison Markin Powell)

When Hitomi takes a job on the cash register of a neighbourhood thrift store, she finds herself drawn into a very idiosyncratic community. There is Mr Nakano, an enigmatic ladies’ man with several ex-wives; Masayo, Mr Nakano’s sister, an artist who has never married; and her fellow employee Takeo, a shy but charming young man. And every day, customers from the neighbourhood pass in and out as curios are bought and sold, each one containing its own surprising story. When Hitomi and Takeo begin to fall for one another, they find themselves in the centre of their own drama – and on the edges of many others.

A tender and affecting exploration of the mystery that lurks in the ordinary, this novel traces the seemingly imperceptible threads that weave together a community, and the knots that bind us to one another.

I find it hard to rate some popular Japanese fiction in translation because you definitely don’t read it for the story, more the detailed observation of the minutiae of everyday life and the character growth through minuscule clues and half-explained vignettes of their lives.
This is something which some people love while others dislike; nothing much happens but you still finish feeling a sense of connection with the characters and with an appreciation for the strange quirks which we humans share.
This book follows the lives of several people linked to the Nakano Thrift Shop over a period of years as the relationships around them grow, die and change. Each chapter is centred around a specific object in the shop, using it to highlight particular incidents in a character’s life or prompt them to muse on their feelings or memories.
At times, extremely slow going and often quite odd, I am still glad I read this and will look out for other books from Kawakami.

japanese fiction

Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami (Translated by Louise Heal Kawai)

A boy is obsessed with a woman who sells sandwiches. He goes to the supermarket almost every day, just so he can look at her face. She is beautiful to him, and he calls her “Ms Ice Sandwich”, and endlessly draws her portrait.

But the boy’s friend hears about this hesitant adoration, and suddenly everything changes. His visits to Ms Ice Sandwich stop, and with them the last hopes of his childhood.

A moving and surprisingly funny tale of growing up and learning how to lose, Ms Ice Sandwich is Mieko Kawakami at her very best.

When I reach out to get my order from Ms Ice Sandwich, the air suddenly goes cold. She’s still turned in my direction, but her eyes have shifted to the next customer, and that magical breeze stops blowing. The blanket is ripped away, the condensed milk dries up, the cat runs off, and finally the rabbit’s ear droops . There’s nothing to do but to walk slowly towards the doors, head down, eyes fixed on the toes of my trainers . I glance up once I’m outside, but there’s nothing to see. I realize it’s the same old place in this same old town with all its houses squashed together. The stuffy summer evening air rises up from the ground, and it’s suddenly difficult to breathe.

A young boy deals with his first crush, the intricacies of friendship, the bonds of family and the process of letting go in this charming novella. This book is a really genuine look through his eyes and a breath of fresh air to read, reminding me of the awkwardness and sweetness of adolescence.

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami (Translated by Lucy North)

The Akutagawa Prize-winning stories from the author of Strange Weather in Tokyo.

In these three haunting and lyrical stories, three young women experience unsettling loss and romance.

In a dreamlike adventure, one woman travels through an apparently unending night with a porcelain girlfriend, mist-monsters and villainous monkeys; a sister mourns her invisible brother whom only she can still see, while the rest of her family welcome his would-be wife into their home; and an accident with a snake leads a shop girl to discover the snake-families everyone else seems to be concealing.

Sensual, yearning, and filled with the tricks of memory and grief, Record of a Night Too Brief is an atmospheric trio of unforgettable tales.

This is a collection of three stories, all quite eccentric. I really enjoyed the second story, ‘Missing’ but found the first story so incoherent that I struggled to finish it, even though I am quite accustomed to weirdness in Japanese literature. The third story also left me a bit confused. Beautiful language but, as with all anthologies, a bit hit or miss for me therefore not a new favourite I’m afraid.

Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki (Translated by Polly Barton)

Winner of the Akutagawa Prize, a sharp, photo-realistic novella of memory and thwarted hope.

Divorced and cut off from his family, Taro lives alone in one of the few occupied apartments in his block, a block that is to be torn down as soon as the remaining tenants leave. Since the death of his father, Taro keeps to himself, but is soon drawn into an unusual relationship with the woman upstairs, Nishi, as she passes on the strange tale of the sky-blue house next door.

First discovered by Nishi in the little-known photo-book ‘Spring Garden’, the sky-blue house soon becomes a focus for both Nishi and Taro: of what is lost, of what has been destroyed, and of what hope may yet lie in the future for both of them, if only they can seize it.

This book gives a window in the lives of some young people living in Tokyo and their shared fascination with the blue house next door. Not much happens, but the characters are lovingly drawn and I found this a really thoughtful read.

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (Translated by Allison Markin Powell)

Tsukiko is in her late 30s and living alone when one night she happens to meet one of her former high school teachers, ‘Sensei’, in a bar. He is at least thirty years her senior, retired and, she presumes, a widower. After this initial encounter, the pair continue to meet occasionally to share food and drink sake, and as the seasons pass – from spring cherry blossom to autumnal mushrooms – Tsukiko and Sensei come to develop a hesitant intimacy which tilts awkwardly and poignantly into love.

Perfectly constructed, funny, and moving, Strange Weather in Tokyo is a tale of modern Japan and old-fashioned romance.

This book grew on me more and more as I read it, becoming slowly entwined with Tsukiko’s life and her relationship with Sensei. At times, tender and at times almost razor-edged with sharp observations, this book makes you feel like the characters are members of your own family or close friends, leaving you with a sense of mourning at the novel’s close. Thoughtful and delicate.

japanese fiction


Have you read any of these books?

Would you like to read any of them after reading this post?

Could you recommend any other books that have been translated?

What are you reading at the moment?

Check out some more mini-reviews themed around Girls in Politics, the Sea , Mermaids , Rescue Dogs , Clockwork , Circuses , Female Pilots,  Greek Mythology , Gaming , Hot Air BalloonsRemembrance , Villains or Girls Having Adventures?

While you’re here, why not check out my reviews of No Ballet Shoes in Syria, The Wise and The Wicked, The Day War Came, The Burning, Perfectly Preventable Deaths, Herstory or Power to the Princess?

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Thanks for reading!

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