This past August, as the literary world celebrated Women In Translation month, Japanese female writers rose to the forefront of the conversation. UK publisher and literary magazine Granta published a well-received collection of Japanese short stories (the majority of them written by women) and the discussions using the hashtag #japanlit were dominated by fans of female Japanese writers.
There’s no doubt that Japanese women are making waves in the literary scene. Here are some writers and novels you don’t want to miss out on.
Born in Tokyo and writing in both Japanese and German, Tawada has won several prestigious awards including the Akutagawa Prize and the Goethe Medal. Known for her high concepts novels, her latest book The Last Children of Tokyo (also known as The Emissary) is a chilling social commentary on Japan’s possible future. In Memoirs of a Polar Bear, humanity is examined through the eyes of three generations of polar bears. Consisting of three novellas, translated from the original German, this book explores some painful historical themes. Tawada is known for taking risks in her writing and having the skills to deliver.
Murata’s Convenience Store Woman has been one of the hottest Japanese fiction releases of this year. Also a winner of the Akutagawa Prize, this is her first full novel published in English. Murata examines people who don’t quite fit the acceptable social norms, particularly when it comes to sex and relationships. In The Clean Marriage, a short story recently published in Granta Magazine, she writes about a couple who live happily as brother and sister. Similarly, in Convenience Store Woman, the protagonist Keiko has little interest in relationships or much of anything outside her role at the store she works in. Murata’s writing is frank, charming and occasionally veering into oddity.
Kawakami’s style is almost instantly recognizable, dealing with similar themes to Banana Yoshimoto — favoring quirky settings and characters, she creates stories that are guaranteed to stay with you. Her descriptions of food and the way she captures moments that are distinctly Japanese has made her a firm favorite with Western audiences. Her most famous novels are Nakano Thrift Shop and Strange Weather in Tokyo (shortlisted for the Man Asian Prize) but she regularly appears in short story anthologies such as The Book of Tokyo. Her most recent short story collection, Record of Night Too Brief, is a surreal and allegorical concept novel akin to those of Murakami.
Kawakami has been making waves in Japan for a while, winning the Tsubouchi Shoyo Prize for Young Emerging Writers and the Akutagawa Prize, as well as being singled out as a favorite of Murakami, who was “deeply impressed” by her short story Breasts and Eggs. Originally from Osaka, Kawakami is a singer-songwriter, blogger and novelist. You can read her translated short-stories online but currently only one of her novellas, Ms Ice Sandwich, which is a section of the full-length novel Longing, has been published in English. The narrative follows the stream of consciousness of a young lonely boy who becomes obsessed with the unusual looking woman who works in the local sandwich shop. The novella deals with intense themes of love and loss and her captivating writing style captures them perfectly.
Multi-award winning author and playwright Motoya is an established name in Japan. Until now, very little of her work has been translated in to English but her series of short-stories, The Lonesome Bodybuilder (also known as Picnic in the Storm), is gaining a lot of attention for its inventive and fearless storytelling. Praised for her sensitivity and insight when writing about the psychology and struggles of young women, Motoya’s short stories twist ordinary situations and mundane life into surreal tales, often with a feminist stance. Some examples include: a boy mocking passers-by as they battle with a typhoon before realizing that umbrellas are the secret to flight, or a newlywed who is suspicious that her husband’s features are moving around his face to match her own. There is one thing guaranteed with Motoya’s work: no story is ever going to go the way you predict and that is something we don’t find too often in literature.