By Brent Crane

Tokyo in the 1920s (via Flickr)

Japan as a nation has gone through one of the most remarkable transformations in modern history. From feudalism in the 18th century to a militaristic Axis power during World War II and then on to one of the most modern, sophisticated and wealthy nations on Earth, Japan's progression has been nothing short of tumultuous.

It's no surprise then that throughout the last few decades Japan has produced some of the most innovative, haunting and genuinely imaginative authors in modern literature. These are five works spanning the last century of Japanese authorship, each of them a fantastic work in modern literature, and each of them a piece of art from a uniquely Japanese perspective:

Seven Japanese Tales by Junichiro Tanizaki

A poet, novelist, essayist and filmmaker, Tanizaki (1886-1965) is one of the greats of early modern Japanese literature, and this collection of short stories includes works from various periods of his life. Like many Japanese writers who would succeed him, much of Tanizaki’s writing was concerned with the effects of the West on traditional Japanese culture. Echoing that motif, his writing style was often a mix of traditional storytelling and experimental prose, a combination that proves refreshingly exotic yet comfortably familiar to a Western reader.

Indeed, this anthology is a fine introduction to Tanizaki and modern Japanese literature in general. There is the tale of the sadistic and beauty-obsessed tattoo artist who toils over his magnum opus of a gigantic spider on the back of a femme fatale in the subtly erotic “The Tattooer” (1910) or the vivid exploration of truth, fabrication and human nature found in “The Theif” (1921). In an ode to the lasting importance of Tanizaki, both stories contain similar themes found in the works of acclaimed Japanese-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro, who has himself admitted to the influence of Tanizaki on his own work, which is most evident in Ishiguro’s novel An Artist of the Floating World (1986).

Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata

Cited as one of the novels that landed Kawabata the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, Thousand Cranes (1952) is a story of love, grief and shame in post-war Japan. The protagonist Kikuji has been recently orphaned by the death of his parents and begins a love affair with one of his late father’s mistresses — a romance that would spell grave consequences for both.

Though a short novel with few characters, Kawabata is able to weave an astonishing level of interconnectedness between the personalities. With a subtlety reserved for only the greatest writers, Kawabata connects the crossing paths of characters with the socio-cultural developments of a rapidly recovering Japan.

The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away is included with three other novellas by Oe in the collection Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness

The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away by Kenzaburo Oe

Few names in the Japanese canon have inspired as much controversy as Oe. A fierce pacifist, anti-nuclear activist and democrat, Oe’s literary work has aroused both praise from his supporters and death threats from his opponents. But whether one agrees with his politics or not, no one can argue that he isn’t a damned good writer.

His 1972 novella, The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away, tells the tale of a goggles-wearing, bedridden man dying of liver cancer who narrates the novel dubiously, recounting the story of his life and convoluted family history with a fair amount of romantic indulgence. Addressing Japanese militarism, emperor-worship and filial obligation, this stands as one of Oe’s most contentious and rewarding works.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Considering how similar his surreal and nihilistic writing style is to Franz Kafka’s, the title of one of Murakami’s most celebrated novels is almost endearingly ironic. Kafka on the Shore (2002) is a novel that John Updike described as an “insistently metaphysical mind-bender.” The book traces two parallel storylines: the first one about a troubled 15-year-old runaway who calls himself Kafka, and the other about a memoryless, illiterate old man who communicates with cats. While a definite page-turner, the ultimate meaning behind the novel is cryptic. Part magical realism, part suspense and part philosophy, this is a remarkably colorful novel that, true to Updike’s evaluations, inspires odd contortions of the mind.

Ashes by Kenzo Kitakata

While chock full of all the villainy, mystique and suspense you’d expect from a crime novel, Kitakata’s depiction of a middle-aged yakuza member struggling with the limits of ambition in Ashes (2003) achieves a level of character complexity unmatched by most gangster books. Kitakata steers far from cliche, constructing a protagonist who, while still a mobster in the Kyoto underworld, is refreshingly human. While the author is a proven mystery writer (he’s the former head of the Japan Mystery Writers Association), Ashes is more of a character study than anything else — and a remarkable one at that.

Have you read any of the titles above? If not, do any of them sound particularly interesting? Are there any other books you’d recommend as an introduction to the vibrant world of modern Japanese literature? Tell us all about it in the comments below!

Brent Crane is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. He likes to write about Asia and has done so for publications like The Diplomat, The American Interest and Beijing Cream. If you like, you can follow him on Twitter: @bcamcrane

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