Japanese books about contemporary Japan

When it comes to Japanese books, many are familiar with the magical realist works of Haruki Murakami. But beyond that, Japan has published many more novels with unique premises that have garnered prestigious awards, translations, and even adaptations into series and movies.

Whether you’re new to Japan’s literary scene or simply looking for a good read, here are 30 Japanese books set in contemporary Japan for you to read to your heart’s content. 

1. Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

Japanese books - convenience store woman
Image credit: Good Reads

Being a woman in Japan is tough and Keiko Furukura can attest to that. As an asexual single woman in her mid-30s, Keiko is repeatedly told that she’s an oddball. Much to the chagrin of her family and friends, she thrives in the highly regimented world of konbini (convenience store) and has worked there part-time for 18 years. 

Convenience Store Woman is a short novel about Keiko’s attempts to fit into society’s mould. With a deadpan and humorous writing style, the novel will have you chucking as you flip through the pages. 

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon 

2. The Great Passage – Shion Miura

Japanese books - the great passage
Image credit: Good Reads

Fascinated by the power of words, Kohei Araki firmly believes that a dictionary is akin to a boat that carries us through a sea of words. The Great Passage follows a group of passionate people and their journey to compile a dictionary. 

The premise sounds dull, but the book manages to tell a touching story about love, friendship, the power of words and our connection to them. The best-selling novel has been adapted into a film and anime series, so do check them out after you’ve turned the last page. 

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon 

3. The Nakano Thrift Shop – Hiromi Kawakami

Japanese books - the nakano thrift shop
Image credit: Allen & Unwin 

Set in a neighbourhood thrift store in Tokyo, The Nakano Thrift Shop follows Hitomi as she takes up a job as a cashier. Much like the second-hand bric-a-brac sold at the store, her colleagues and boss are no less eccentric. 

Against the quirky backdrop of the thrift store, Hitomi navigates her romantic feelings for her coworker, Takeo, and explores the meaning of human connection. 

Available here: Amazon 

4. Strange Weather in Tokyo – Hiromi Kawakami

Japanese books - strange weather in tokyo
Image credit: Good Reads 

Strange Weather in Tokyo tells the story of a younger woman falling for an older man in contemporary Japan. 

Tsukiko, a single woman approaching her 40s, coincidentally meets her former Japanese teacher in her favourite bar. Most of the book is just them drinking sake and chatting. But it eventually progresses from a chance encounter to a casual friendship, finally leading to some kind of romantic relationship. 

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon 

5. Ms Ice Sandwich – Mieko Kawakami

Japanese books - ms ice sandwich
Image credit: Good Reads

The titular character, who sells egg sandwiches at the supermarket, has earned the nickname of Ms Ice Sandwich” due to her striking icy blue eyelids. Smitten, the young unnamed narrator returns to buy a sandwich everyday just so he can see her. A funny tale about first love, Miss Ice Sandwich is a quirky coming-of-age story as the narrator tries to navigate changes while growing up. 

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon 

6. Breast and Eggs – Mieko Kawakami

Japanese books - breasts and eggs
Image credit: Pan Macmillan

Breast and Eggs paints an intimate picture of womanhood in modern Japan through 3 women – struggling writer Natsu, her older sister Makiko, and Makiko’s prepubescent daughter Midoriko. 

Unable to accept her changed body after giving birth, Makiko has come to Tokyo to get a breast enhancement surgery. Midoriko is coping badly with pubertal development, and Natsu has anxieties about growing old alone. Their journey to find their footing and identities make for a riveting read as you’ll find yourself rooting for them.

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon 

7. Spark – Naoki Matayoshi

Japanese books - spark
Image credit: Book Depository 

We can’t all be naturally funny, much less pursue a career in stand-up comedy. But that hasn’t stopped our protagonists from foraying into manzai (漫才), a traditional form of stand-up comedy that involves a duo trading jokes at great speed. 

Spark recounts the tale of two manzai comedians in Japan – Tokunaga, who is struggling to make a name for himself, and seasoned comedian Kamiya, who has taken Tokunaga under his wing. This short novel, which explores manzai and follows the ups and downs of the characters’ careers, has since spawned a Netflix original series. 

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon

8. Spring Garden – Tomoka Shibasaki

Japanese books - spring garden
Image credit: Good Reads

Social isolation and loneliness have serious repercussions for individuals in today’s society, and our protagonists are not exempt from it. 

Spring Garden revolves around an old apartment block in Tokyo, which is slated for demolition. Confronted by the forces of urbanisation, Taro and Nishi, 2 of the last residents of the apartment block, connect with each other and try to find meaning in an increasingly isolated world.

Available here: Amazon

9. Moshi Moshi – Banana Yoshimoto

Japanese books - moshi moshi
Image credit: Good Reads

After losing her father to a double suicide with his secret lover, Yoshie is determined to leave everything behind – including her nowwidowed mother – by moving to the hip neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa in Tokyo. 

Her plan to start afresh does not go as planned – her mother ends up moving in with her and she meets someone with news about her father. Moshi Moshi explores the father-daughter relationship, a journey of acceptance, and ultimately healing from past wounds. 

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon

10. Kitchen – Banana Yoshimoto

Japanese books - kitchen
Image credit: Books Actually 

First released in Japan in 1988, the debut novel by Banana Yoshimoto caused such a stir that she was instantly hailed a young writer of great talent. Kitchen is considered a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary Japanese literature. 

Brought together by death, Mikage and Yuichi seek comfort from each other to cope with the despondency they feel from the loss of their loved ones. Through motifs of death and food, the book will fill your stomach and your soul. 

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon

11. The Travelling Cat Chronicle – Hiro Arikawa

Japanese books - the travelling cat chronicles
Image credit: Amazon

Cats get a bad rep for being aloof and uncaring. But The Travelling Cat Chronicles will dispel this stereotype once and for all, changing the minds of cat haters and vindicating cat lovers’ devotion for their feline friends.   

Even if you’re ambivalent about cats, you will enjoy this moving tale about a man and his cat, Nana, travelling across Japan to visit old friends. Unbeknownst to Nana, his owner, Satoru, is trying to find a new home for him. The book conveys the unconditional love between humans and their feline companions. 

Available here: Amazon

12. The Lonesome Bodybuilder – Yukiko Motoya

Japanese books - the lonesome bodybuilding
Image credit: Contemporary Japanese Literature 

The Lonesome Bodybuilder is a collection of 11 bizarre and surreal short stories, most of which deal with themes of marriage, gender, loneliness, and intimacy. 

From a lonely housewife who takes up bodybuilding to get the attention of her workaholic husband to a shop assistant trying to help a customer who’s stuck in the fitting room, these strange tales of modern life will have you reading into the wee hours. 

Available here: Amazon

13. The Emissary – Yōko Tawada

Japanese books - the emissary
Image credit: New Directions Publishing

An unknown environmental catastrophe has changed Japan permanently – the elderly are immortal, while the youths are so frail that they can barely stand.  

For a story set in a dystopian world, The Emissary defies expectations by being unusually peaceful and joyous. It focuses on the day-to-day routine of Mumei and his grandfather, Yoshiro, as they wander about post-apocalyptic Japan. 

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon

14. I Want To Kick You In The Back – Risa Wataya

Japanese books - i want to keep you in the back
Image credit: Book Depository

Hatsu, a firstyear student and outcast in high school, is having trouble fitting in. She develops a unique relationship with Ninagawa, a fellow loner who is obsessed with a top model. 

The relationship is not romantic or platonic in nature. Such ambivalent feelings of a teenager seeking meaningful connections convey the unchecked frustration of adolescents growing up and navigating increasingly complex human relationships. 

Available here: Amazon

15. Territory Of Light – Yūko Tsushima

Japanese books - territory of light
Image credit: Penguin Books Australia

Young and alone, an unnamed mother moves into a brightly lit apartment with her 2-year-old daughter after her husband has left her. Though hopeful to begin her new life, reality quickly dims as she copes with her stalker husband, a demanding job, and her daughter, who is acting up. 

Territory of Light tells a story of motherhood and womanhood from the perspective of a single woman coming to terms with her failed marriage.  

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon

16. All She Was Worth – Miyuki Miyabe

Japanese books - all she was worth
Image credit: Good Reads

Police detective Shunsuke Honma is on leave due to an injury, and a distant relative of his late wife contacts him for help. The latter’s fiancée, Shoko Sekine, has disappeared after a bank rejected her application for a credit card.  

What started as a simple missing person case eventually morphs into a mess of identity theft and something more. All She Was Worth exposes the dark side of a consumerdriven economy and shows how even the most ordinary person can fall prey to insurmountable debts. 

Available here: Amazon

17. The Housekeeper And The Professor – Yōko Ogawa

Japanese books - the housekeeper and the professor
Image credit: Good Reads

Awkward self-introductions are uncomfortable but necessary when you first meet someone new. But in this story, the titular housekeeper and math professor are introduced to each other every morning. Due to a peculiar brain condition, the professor’s memory will erase itself every 80 minutes. 

Though he can’t hold memories for long, the professor’s mind is still alive with elegant equations and numbers. As he introduces the poetic world of numbers to the housekeeper and her son, he discovers a formula that forges a meaningful connection between the unlikely trio. 

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon

18. Tokyo Ueno Station – Yu Miri

Japanese books - tokyo ueno station
Image credit: Amazon

In Tokyo Ueno Station, the spirit of the recently deceased Kazu, who was homeless before his passing, lingers in one of Tokyo’s busiest stations. Though born in the same year as the emperor in 1933, Kazu was anything but privileged. Despite working hard all his life to support his family, his efforts were in vain as he ended up sleeping rough in Ueno Park. 

As Kazu reminisces about his ill-fated life, the book confronts us with the reality of homelessness and the marginalised community in modernday Japan. 

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon

19. Sweet Bean Paste – Durian Sukegawa

Japanese books - sweet bean paste
Image credit: Oneworld Publications

Ex-convict Sentaro has given up on his dream of becoming a writer. He spends his days drinking away and working aimlessly in a tiny confectionery shop selling dorayaki, a confectionery that consists of sweet bean paste sandwiched between two pancakes. 

That is until Tokue, an elderly woman with disfigured hands and a harrowing past, comes along and makes the best bean paste Sentaro has ever tasted. As she imparts her skills, a sweet friendship blossoms between the 2 and they learn to find strength in each other to overcome social prejudice. 

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon

20. The Factory – Hiroko Oyamada

Japanese books - the factory
Image credit:
Good Reads

3 people were recently hired to work in an industrial factory – an overqualified woman shreds paper, one proofreads documents, and another has been tasked to study moss. 

Told from 3 alternating first-person narratives as they perform menial jobs, The Factory is a microcosm of the meaninglessness of modern life. Over time, the dreariness of mindless work begins to take a toll on these workers. 

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon

21. If Cats Disappeared From The World – Genki Kawamura

Japanese books - if cats disappeared from the world
Image credit: Pan Macmillan 

If Cats Disappeared From The World is a hypothetical scenario that cat lovers would hate to entertain. When the narrator is diagnosed with terminal cancer and told that he has only months to live, a devil offers him a proposition – he can make one thing disappear from the world for one extra day in life. 

But there is a catch – the devil gets to choose the thing that disappears. In the face of mortality, the narrator sets out to discover what truly matters in modern life. 

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon

22. Where The Wild Ladies Are – Aoko Matsuda

Japanese books - where the wild ladies are
Image credit: Good Reads 

Where The Wild Ladies Are is a collection of interconnected traditional Japanese ghost stories retold through a feminist lens. 

The slightly spooky stories take place in a company where most of the employees are women and ghosts. The supernatural beings appear in several stories to teach the living a gentle lesson about emancipation and womanhood in Japan. 

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon

23. Coin Locker Babies – Ryū Murakami

Japanese books - coin locker babies
Image credit: Good Reads

In the summer of 1972, 2 infants were abandoned by their mothers in coin-operated lockers at a train station. Fate brought them together to the same orphanage, and the pair, Hashi and Kiku, become brothers before being adopted by the same foster parents. 

At the age of 16, the troubled boys set off to Tokyo, vowing to find and destroy their respective biological mothers who abandoned them. Coin Locker Babies tells a vindictive tale of the troubling and real problem of child abuse in Japan today. 

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon

24. In The Miso Soup – Ryū Murakami

Japanese books - in the miso soup
Image credit: Good Reads 

What starts out as a simple plot – an American tourist and his tour guide visiting the red-light districts in Japan quickly goes amiss. The behaviour of the American tourist is so peculiar that his guide Kenji starts to harbour a horrifying thought – what if he is the infamous serial killer running amok in the city? 

Graphic, grotesque, and oftentimes downright scary, In The Miso Soup is not for the fainthearted. 

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon

25. Women On The Other Shore – Mitsuyo Kakuta

Japanese books - woman on the other shore
Image credit: Amazon

2 different women in their mid-30s – one a housewife with a young daughter and the other a single career woman – form an unlikely friendship through a fateful encounter. Woman on the Other Shore traces the struggles of being a woman in Japan today, with issues ranging from childrearing and marriage to singlehood and independence. 

Available here: Amazon

26. The Thief – Fuminori Nakamura

Japanese books - the thief
Image credit: Good Reads 

A seasoned pickpocket has no qualms about stealing wallets from strangers – to the extent that he doesn’t even remember the snatch sometimes. When he is offered a proposition to rob an old rich man, he accepts and easily completes the job. 

Little did he know, his victim was a prominent politician and was brutally murdered after the robbery. Now dragged into the complicated world of the yakuza (Japanese mobs), the thief must carefully navigate a world that’s out of his depth. 

Available here: Amazon

27. Snakes And Earrings – Hitomi Kanehara

Japanese books - snakes and earrings
Image credit: Good Reads

Fascinated by Ama and his body modifications, Lui, a young woman in Tokyo, moves in with the former pretty much immediately. After Ama takes Lui to his friend’s tattoo parlour, Lui ends up having an affair with Ama’s friend and makes increasingly dangerous personal choices. 

A raunchy novel that explores the violent world of Japan’s underground youth culture, Snakes and Earrings touches on explicit topics like tattoos, sex, drugs, alcohol, and self-mutilation. 

Available here: Amazon UK

28. Before The Coffee Gets Cold – Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Japanese books - before the coffee gets cold
Image credit: Good Reads

A small back alley café in Tokyo offers its customers more than just a good cup of brew – they are given the unique chance to travel back in time. But there is a condition – customers must sit in a particular seat and travel back to the present before the coffee gets cold. 

Before The Coffee Gets Cold follows the interconnected stories of 4 visitors hoping to revisit their past. It raises the age-old question – what would you change if you could revisit your past?  

Available here: Book Depository

29. In The Pool – Hideo Okuda

Japanese books - in the pool
Image credit: Good Reads

Unlike what the simple title and cover might suggest, In The Pool is hardly a quiet read to pass the time. Protagonist Dr. Ichiro Irabu is a middle-aged neurologist with an injection fetish. He runs his operation in the basement of a hospital with his assistant, a sexy nurse. 

A handful of visitors, troubled by different predicaments, end up seeing the unorthodox doctor – including a divorced man who can’t get his erection to calm down and a high school student who is addicted to his cell phone. 

Available here: Amazon

30. Backlight – Kanji Hanawa

Japanese books - backlight
Image credit:
Good Reads

Based on a real event that happened in 2016, Backlight recounts the story of a 7-year-old boy who was abandoned by his parents along the roads as punishment. He then went missing in a bear-inhabited forest in Northern Japan for 6 days. 

To build suspense for an outcome that is already known, the author tells that story from the perspective of psychology professor Ishida and a team of professionals, who are enlisted to help locate the missing child. Through the search, Ishida contemplates his own childhood and the issue of child discipline in Japanese culture.

Available here: Book Depository, Amazon

Japanese books to add to your reading list in 2021

Start 2021 right and consider picking up these novels. If you find yourself running out of Netflix titles or anime series to binge on, give these Japanese books a shot and explore the quirky world of Japanese literature.  

Check out these for articles more recommendations: 

Cover image adapted from: Good Reads, Contemporary Japanese Literature, and Amazon

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