In a famous 1990 essay, one of the most respected living writers in Japan lamented that, “Serious literature and a literary readership have gone into a chronic decline, while a new tendency has emerged over the last several years … a largely economic one … reflected in the fact that the novels of certain young writers like Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto each sells several hundred thousand copies.”

The writing of Water, Wood, and Wild Things: Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town was surely an act of devotion. It is a book that defies easy categorization by genre. Readers who enjoy travel literature will surely love author Hannah Kirshner’s ability to root her writing in a place and a culture. Foodies will find evocative descriptions of unfamiliar dishes, along with detailed, thematically-linked recipes at the end of each chapter—along with instructions for finding unusual ingredients in Euro-American grocery stores. While not an academic tome, Water is nonetheless a well-researched book backed up with the support of an ethnographer and a three-page source list. 

Sayaka Murata’s English-language debut novel, Convenience Store Woman, caused a sensation when it appeared in a 2018 translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori. The story of an offbeat, thirty-something sales clerk at a “Smile Mart” helped spur a boom in English-language translations of Japanese literature, especially literature by women.

Solo Dance is a novel about identity. Yingmei Zhao is in the fourth grade when she develops a crush on a girl in her class. In the years that follow, she realizes her life in Taiwan isn’t going to look like everyone else’s. She won’t marry. She won’t start a family. When sexual assault shatters her sense of security and self, she decides to start over in Japan. Even though Japan is “a queer desert,” she has fallen in love with the country through the literature of Osamu Dazai and Haruki Murakami.

In 1985, a character in a now-iconic cartoon by Alison Bechdel proposed three standards for a worthwhile story. It needs at least two women. They must have at least one conversation with each other. And that conversation must be about something other than men. One of the many issues raised by what is now known as “the Bechdel Test” is the failure of representation of female friendship in so many of the stories people consume.