The Best Japanese Books | #BookBreak

Book Break is travelling the world today,
we have come to Japan! To explore the world of Japanese literature. Why is it so beloved in the West? And what
sets it apart? Because writers from Haruki Murakami to Banana
Yoshimoto to Yukio Mishima have these cult followings in the West. And even writers who write in English like
Kazuo Ishiguro still have this very distinct style. Ishiguro said that growing up in a Japanese
family but living in England was really crucial to his writing, because it gave him a different
way of seeing the world to his peers. Of course, there is such a wealth of Japanese
literature, with such a long history, that it’s completely impossible to generalise it
into any one style, anything that makes Japanese literature what it is. But I’ve been looking at a lot of different
Japanese books, and I think you will find some themes running through them, like perhaps
a more philosophical approach than many Western books. And more of a focus on beauty in all its different
forms. Lots of the books are very descriptive, but
with very simple, quite lyrical language. Many of them can be very dark, which is perhaps
the stereotype of Japanese literature. But all of the books I’ve read have been just
incredibly nuanced, the types of books you want to read over and over again just to begin
to understand their depths. So as I mentioned, Japanese literature has
an incredibly long and illustrious history. So I thought let’s start by going all the
way back to the beginning, to probably the most famous classic to come out of Japan,
the Tale of Genji, which dates all the way back to the 11th century,
and was written by a woman. So the Tale of Genji was written by a lady
in waiting, named Murasaki Shikibu, though there are some debates about how much of it
she actually wrote herself. And it took quite a long while for the book
to become quite so popular as it is today, because it was originally written in archaic
language, and also in a very poetic style, which made it really difficult for the average
modern Japanese reader to decipher. So it wasn’t until the early 20th century
that it was first fully translated into modern Japanese, and then from there could be translated
into other languages. So the story follows Hikaru Genji, who is
removed from the line of succession by his emperor father, and demoted to be a commoner. And the story follows his career path and
his romantic exploits. And it’s considered by some to be the first
ever novel, so it’s really an amazing one to look into. So that’s a great place to start, because
it’s arguably the birth of modern literature. But now I’m going to jump all the way forward
to one of the most recent Japanese bestsellers, Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. So this one is about a woman who doesn’t fit
in to society’s expectations of her. She’s perfectly content with her life, other
than being aware that her family are always worrying about her. She loves her job working at the convenience
store, where she’s worked for 18 years, and while she’s there she pays close attention
to the dress codes and speech patterns of people around her so that she can adopt them and act normal. So it’s quite reminiscent of Eleanor Oliphant,
and it offers up this really amusing insight into society’s expectations and the pressure
to conform as well as this kind of questioning of what
is or isn’t considered normal And for people who’ve never been to Japan,
it’s a really interesting look at the convenience store, which is totally different from anything
we have over here, and seems to play such a big role in daily life in Japan. A book that I’m half way through reading at
the moment and loving is Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi. So this is a really fun quirky book, about
a time travelling cafe in Tokyo. Where customers have the ability to go back
in time, but there’s all sorts of rules that go with that, and one of the main ones being
they must return to the present before their cup of coffee gets cold. So in the book we meet four different customers,
all on different missions to revisit something from their past. And it’s kind of a musing on what would we
do differently in our lives, and what do we ever actually have the power to change. Now I’ve got two books with the word ‘cat’
in the title, starting with The Guest Cat by Takeshi Hiraide. So this is about a couple in their mid-thirties,
living in Tokyo, and working as freelance writers. And they’ve slowly found that they have very
little to say to each other anymore. Until one day, a neighbour’s cat wonders into
their house, and into their lives, and it’s a very sweet, short book, about the effect
that this cat has on the couple. Slowly drawing them away from their work and
out into the garden, where they’re able to reconnect with the world and with nature and
rediscover the beauty in the world. And then my other cat-themed book is If Cats
Disappeared From the World by Genki Kawamura. So this one is about a young man who receives
a terminal diagnosis, and finds that he only has about a week left to live. And then the devil appears, and offers him
up a deal, where he can gain an extra day of life if each day he picks something, or
agrees to something, to vanish from the world. So for example the first one that’s picked
is phones. Phones just cease to exist as if they never
did. And so each day, we see a new thing vanish
from the world, and it’s, again, a very philosophical book, about him musing on his relationship
to those items, and how those items impacted his relationships to other people. And it’s about him slowly realising what he
wants his place in the world to be. And it’s all about the pain and beauty of
mortality. It’s a really lovely book. Now a Japanese writer who’s had a huge cultural
impact on the West is Marie Kondo. She wrote The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying
Up, which is the book that started a tidying revolution over here, with people throwing
away all the items that didn’t spark joy for them anymore. Put the hands up emoji below if you have Marie
Kondo’d your house because I feel like we all have. So inspired by that, she went on to write
The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up. Which is a lovely, fictional, graphic novel,
all about a young woman who transforms her home, work life, and love life, all using
these kinds of tidying methods. And we haven’t heard the last of her yet,
because coming up next year, she’s got a new lifestyle book, which is all about transforming
your work life. So keep your eyes peeled for more news on
that. Now two books I wanted to mention here are
books not written by Japanese authors and not originally written in Japanese, but I
wanted to mention them to show other ways in which Japan has had such a massive cultural
impact on the West. So these are two books written by Western
authors, but inspired by their travels through Japan. So first, there’s Kaizen, by Sarah Harvey,
which is everything that Sarah Harvey learned while living in Tokyo about the Japanese philosophy
of kaizen, which essentially means good change. So kaizen is all about making step by step,
little changes to improve your life, and being really kind and gentle with yourself along
the way. And being patient and not giving up. And it’s been used for a long time in Japan
in a management context And has actually been shown to make, for example,
Japanese factories, much more productive. So in her book, Sarah Harvey writes all about
what she learned about kaizen, and also how she saw it being applied to people’s personal
lives, and what we in the West could really learn from that. And another love letter to Japan is Anna Sherman’s
The Bells of Old Tokyo. So this is all about how before Japan adopted
Western time, the bells of Edo, which was the old Tokyo, ran people’s lives. Then Japan switched to Western time, and all
of that was lost. So in this book, Anna Sherman goes on a journey
to visit the places where the bells once rang. And along the way, she meets a myriad of fascinating
characters, and listens to them and learns their stories. So it’s a really interesting exploration of
Japanese culture and history, and travelling in time. So those are all the books I’m going to mention
in this video, otherwise we’ll be here literally all day if I try and talk about the entirety
of Japanese literature. But there are so many more to explore if you’re
interested. I didn’t even get to talk about Japanese classics
like the Sea of Fertility series, or there’s a book Snow Country which is this doomed love
story by Yasunari Kawabata, who was the first Japanese person to win the Nobel Prize for
Literature. Or there are the very famous, very violent
novels, by Ryu Murakami, there are just so many more to explore. So on that note, please do leave a comment
below, letting me know your favourite Japanese books, and then we can all swap recommendations. And of course, do give this video a thumbs
up if you liked it, and hit that subscribe button below for new videos every week. Coming up next week, we are celebrating National
Poetry Day. And if you want to go behind the scenes with
Book Break, do go over and look at our Instagram @bookbreakuk. See you next time!

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