Among Japan’s literary luminaries, their voices stand out as particularly captivating, bringing unique perspectives to life, love, tradition, and modernity.
As a bookworm, no trip to the mall or a different country is complete without a visit to the bookstore. I’ve always delighted in discovering new authors and reading them alongside old favorites, with many a new discovery eventually making its way to my all-time faves.
Like most book lovers, I’ve also had certain reading eras. In my pre-teens to my early teenage years, for example, I had a romance novel era—Sweet Dreams, Sweet Valley High, The Babysitters Club, and all the YA books ‘90s kids like myself would be familiar with. I devoured them all. When Harry Potter first took the world by storm, I rediscovered my love for fantasy, which was first ignited in me by J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit as a sixth grader. In the years that followed, I mostly read works set in fantastical and dystopian worlds. I also have a recurring Holocaust-and-other-tragic-historical-events era, wherein I obsess over books set in dark periods of human history.
Fast forward to more recent times. In the past decade or so, I’ve been drawn to Asian and Asian-American writers. Oh, how much I relish works written by Asian voices about Asian lives and the Asian-American diasporic experience! Jhumpa Lahiri, Jia Tolentino, Elaine Castillo, Ocean Vuong, Vaddey Ratner, Min Jin Lee, Michelle Zauner, Kevin Kwan, Ruth Ozeki, Mia Manansala—I can go on and on. And one group has got me obsessed for quite some time now: contemporary female Japanese authors.
Their writing is distinctly Japanese—spare, clean, straightforward prose, mostly devoid of frills, but provoking contemplation.
As a Japanophile, it’s easy for me to be interested. But my love for the works of this group of writers, however, beyond their ethnicity. I’ve grown to love their style and relatability.
I’m fascinated by how these writers have a voice that is distinctly Japanese—spare, clean, straightforward prose, mostly devoid of frills. Underneath the subtlety, however, is a vividness and depth that often provokes contemplation, leaving me pondering a story even days after I closed a book. I could only wish to write with such clarity and introspection!
Many of these writers tackle themes that are highly relatable, especially as human beings living in this contemporary world. Most of their works explore the friction between traditional and modern values as seen in cultural clashes, familial and generational conflicts, and the constant struggle to conform to societal norms and expectations.
They also delve into issues surrounding identity, particularly in the context of globalization and increasing cultural exchange. These themes grapple with questions to which many of us struggle to find answers, hence, the broad appeal of their writing. You need not be a woman or Japanese to appreciate and relate to their works.
Here are seven of my favorite contemporary female Japanese authors. They are all highly acclaimed and multi-awarded, not only in their home country, but also in the international literary scene. Most of their works have been translated into multiple languages and are available in local bookstores.
Murata is known for her unique voice that seeps throughout her thought-provoking novels. She was born on August 2, 1979 in Chiba Prefecture, and her works often challenge societal norms and touch on themes related to identity, conformity, and the complexities of modern life.
Convenience Store Woman (Konbini Ningen) is perhaps the first novel that made her a familiar name among Filipino readers. The book tells the story of Keiko Furukura, a woman in her mid-thirties who has worked at the same convenience store for half her life. Told through Keiko’s deadpan, sometimes eccentric, perspective, Murata examines the pressures to conform to societal expectations and the struggle to find one’s place in a society that often expects, even demands, conformity.
Murata’s other notable works include Earthlings (Chikyū Seijin) and Audition (Ōdishon).
Ogawa is known for her trademark lyrical and contemplative style. Born on March 30, 1962, in Okayama, she often tackles love, memory, human relationships, and the intricacies of everyday life.
One of her most well-known works, and my personal favorite among her impressive bibliography, is the novel The Housekeeper and the Professor (Hakase no Ai Shita Sūgata). The story revolves around a gifted mathematician suffering from short-term memory loss and his interactions with his housekeeper and her son. Through the novel, Ogawa is able to capture simple, everyday moments in a most enchanting way.
Her other notable works include Hotel Iris, The Memory Police (Kioku no Onna), and Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales (Ribenji).
Among the authors on this list, it was Hiromi Kawakami with whom I first became familiar. It was in 2014 in BooksActually, a quaint bookstore in Tiong Bahru, Singapore, where I chanced upon a slim book with a strange cover and an equally strange title: Strange Weather in Tokyo. As a lover of anything Tokyo, I bought the book without even reading the blurb.
I owe my love for everything written by female Japanese authors to that book. I wouldn’t be writing this story had I not bought Strange Weather in Tokyo on impulse.
Born on April 1, 1958, in Tokyo, Kawakami writes stories characterized by poetic, dreamlike, and evocative style, often exploring the subtleties of human relationships and everyday life.
Strange Weather in Tokyo (Kamisama), also known as The Briefcase in some translations, happens to be her most popular novel. The story follows Tsukiko and her unexpected friendship with her former high school teacher. Through their relationship, Kawakami explores loneliness and our primal need for human connection.
Some of her other notable works include The Nakano Thrift Shop (Kottō Nakano Shoten), another one of my favorites, and Manazuru, among others.
One of the first contemporary female Japanese authors to gain global renown is Banana Yoshimoto (real name Mahoko Yoshimoto). Born on July 24, 1964, in Tokyo, Yoshimoto is best known for her spare yet lyrical style. Her works often explore the human psyche, and probe deep into themes like love, loss, and the difficulties of modern life.
It was her critically acclaimed debut novel Kitchen (Kitchin) which brought her international recognition. Published in 1988, the novel follows the story of Mikage as she copes with the death of her grandmother and an overwhelming sense of displacement. Kitchen explores themes related to family, grief, identity, and our search for meaning in our finite lives.
To this day, 35 years after Kitchen’s publication, Yoshimoto remains one of the most influential contemporary Japanese authors.
The Japanese-German Tawada writes in both Japanese and German. Her works often explore themes of identity, language, and cultural displacement. Born on March 23, 1960, in Tokyo, she later moved to Germany at the age of 19, where she became a prominent figure in contemporary German-language literature.
Being of dual nationalities, Tawada infuses the literary world with a unique perspective, with a style characterized by linguistic experimentation and a blend of different cultural influences. Her works frequently blur the boundaries between reality and imagination.
One of her notable works is the dystopian novel The Last Children of Tokyo, published as The Emissary (Kentōshi) in her home country. The story is set in a Japan that has cordoned itself off from the world, where older citizens live much longer, and the younger ones struggle with short lives. The novel explores filial love, the passage of time, and the impact of societal shifts on individuals and families.
Miri is a South Korean-Japanese author who was born on June 26, 1968, in Yokohama, to a Korean father and a Japanese mother. Her biracial background influences much of her work, allowing her to address issues related to identity, migration, and belonging.
Her works, known for their power and empathy, often focus on the experiences of marginalized communities facing discrimination, specifically Koreans living in Japan, also called the Zainichi Koreans.
Her haunting novel Tokyo Ueno Station (Tōkyō Ueno-eki)—one of my favorites even if it led me to an existential crisis of sorts—follows a homeless man in Tokyo’s famous Ueno Park and looks into how loss affects the human psyche.
Author and poet Mieko Kawakami is known for her works that explore themes related to gender, identity, conformity, and human relationships. Born on August 31, 1976, in Osaka, Kawakami is also among Japan’s most prominent feminist voices, advocating for gender equality and women’s rights.
One of her most well-known novels, Breasts and Eggs (Mune to Oppai), is an exploration of womanhood and motherhood through the lives of three women as they make sense of their desires, dreams, and societal pressures. I think every young woman should read this novel, as many of the themes explored are relatable and emotionally resonant.
Other notable contemporary female Japanese authors are Natsuko Imamura (The Woman in the Purple Skirt), Emi Yagi (Diary of a Void), Hitomi Kanehara (Snakes and Earrings), Yukiko Motoya (The Lonesome Bodybuilder: Stories), Risa Wataya (I Want to Kick You in the Back), among others.