Friday, April 8, 2011

Japanese Fiction Series:Great Untranslated Books

This is the ­­­third in a series of blog posts introducing Japanese fiction to English speaking readers in the hopes that we become more aware of Japan's place on the international literature stage.

For this blog post, I will be introducing a few Japanese novels that haven't been translated into English yet. These novels have found success in Japan but have not expanded to the foreign market yet. This list is by no means comprehensive, as it is limited to those that I have already read, but I do think that some of these novels would catch the interest of at least a few foreign readers if only they were translated into English.

Kokuhaku (Confessions), by Kanae Minato

If I could choose any one book that I'd like to see translated into English, it would be this one. It's a powerful psychological thriller about a single mother and middle-school teacher whose daughter has been killed by two students from her homeroom class. Confessions was turned into a movie in 2010, and was selected as Japan's entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar for that year.

It starts with a very long monologue from a teacher to her class on the last day of school, where she announces both her retirement and that she knows who murdered her daughter. Upon revealing the murderers' identities, and how she came to this conclusion, she leaves, but not before mentioning that the milk they were drinking before her speech was tainted with the blood of her HIV-positive former fiancée. This is the shocking first chapter of this novel, which unfolds from six different perspectives of people involved with the killers, from mothers to classmates, showing the events prior to, during, and after the murder itself. Minato touches upon the themes of justice, revenge, family, juvenile law, and bullying throughout her storytelling, which creates a story that paints a picture of the dark side of modern Japan.

I would like to add here that even if you watch the movie, it has been tweaked just a bit so that it fits the director's personal interpretation of the novel. The novel itself actually brings into play many more questions about the reliability of each narrator and what has really happened when all is said and done.

Ahiru to Kamo no Coin Locker (The Foreign Duck and Native Duck's Coin Locker) by Kotaro Isaka

It's a shame that the translated title of this novel doesn't do it justice in showing just how strangely simple it sounds in Japanese, as it sets the tone for this novel, and draws in readers with its absurdity. The story itself is of a college student starting to live by himself away from home who meets his neighbor, a strange boy who, like himself, has a fondness for Bob Dylan. Spending time with this man, whose strange ideas include robbing a bookstore to acquire a dictionary for their Bhutanese neighbor, he learns about his girlfriend and a case that ended with her death. As the novel progresses, and huge twists and revelations occur, one becomes confused as to who is who, and it becomes difficult to figure out the truth, and whose story is the truth and whose is a lie.

Sabaku (Desert), by Kotaro Isaka

Kotaro Isaka is good at writing his novels to fit songs. If the novel above was set to Bob Dylan's Blowing in the Wind, Sabaku is set to the songs of the punk rock Ramones. It's the story of five university students who meet freshman year; about the relationships they build with each other, playing mahjong and getting involved in shenanigans throughout their four years in college. From metaphors comparing society to a desert and college students being on the cusp of entering this desert, to referencing current oil wars and American politics, Isaka also brings his own brand of casual social commentary into this work through his diverse set of characters, whether they be the overly idealistic and annoying Nishijima, or the calm narrator Kitamura, who observes everything around him objectively with a "bird's eye view."

The format of the novel is also unique, depicting snippets from sequential seasons of four years of college (freshman year spring, sophomore year summer, fall of junior year, and winter of senior year, then back to spring for a last chapter on graduation). This is an unconventional and enjoyable novel about growing up that also depicts the current everyday life and mindset of the Japanese college student.

Colorful, by Eto Mori This novel puts an unidentified sinner's soul into the body of a 14-year old boy who tried to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. The twist is that in order to get the chance to be reincarnated in his next life, the sinner must find out and realize what sin he committed during his own life, which apparently has something to do with the young boy whose body he inhabits. As he lives the pitiful life of a miserable teenager who was good at art but was going through the "worst day of his life," the sinner struggles to find the connections between him and this boy while living the boy's life, all the while trying to make the best of this life he's been given. This is a light, uplifting novel about second chances and how looking at things from a different point of view can drastically change perspectives.

Switch wo Osu Toki (When You Push the Switch), by Yusuke Yamada

Yusuke Yamada is popular with young audiences in Japan and is known for his gory teen thrillers and mysteries. This novel stands out to me as one of his best works, as it seems to be more toned down than most of his other works, and is thus targeting a larger target age group.

Many people know about Japan's high suicide rate. In this novel, the Japanese government, in an attempt to study the psychological causes of suicide, has built facilities nationwide where 10-year old children are taken away from their parents, given a switch to stop their hearts, and monitored in facilities until they push the switch themselves. The novel takes place at one of these centers seven years after the start of this program. There are only five children left who haven't pushed their switches, and the man in charge of them is tired of his job, so he begins provoking them. Enter a new character, a young man who comes to visit the center. Whether he is trying to help the children or the manager of the facility, though, remains ambiguous, leading to an epic and thrilling wild goose chase that shows why people choose to live…or push their switches.

So, what do you all think? Were there any books from this post that caught your eye? If there was, please leave us a comment!


In light of the continuing difficulties lasting in Japan, I encourage people who wish to lend a hand but don't know what to do to visit the following websites, all of which are contributing to help those suffering from the earthquakes, tsunami, and nuclear breakdown here and here.


  1. I have just reviewed a translation of Colorful. It is so good I have a good cry every time I sit down to read it. There is some light editing needed to get come British English word choice don't fit US lexicon. It needs some translator notes added because the author assumes you know how a Japanese school works.

    1. Hi there, I just came across this comment while trying to find the english translations to the book. May I know where did you read it because I have been trying to find it for a long time. Thanks in advance.