Ink & Passion: Modern Women Writers Who Changed Japan

Part II: From Early Post-War Era To Modern Days

By Renae Lucas-Hall
February 23, 2017
Art & Culture, Book Corner

The faces behind Japan’s post-war turbulence, restlessness and extreme passion.

In the first part of our series focusing on influential Japanese women writers, we introduced seven women who penned some of Japan’s best known books from the Meiji to the early Showa eras. In the second part of the series, we look at 10 equally influential writers from post-war Japan to recent times.

Japan’s defeat in World War II provoked stories full of loss and desperation, while the 1970s and 1980s saw a rise in works focusing on moral, intellectual, and psychological issues. In recent days, we witness an emphasis on dark themes: restlessness, inability to accept the status quo; extreme emotional writing and strong female characters with a sense of purpose. It’s an era of women recognizing their rights and needs — and through their works, they call for recognition.   

The Crime Master: Natsuo Kirino (1951–present)

This hugely popular author has been called “the queen of Japanese crime.” Natsuo Kirino writes books that delve into the darkest recesses of the mind but their saving grace is the way they shine light on the less fortunate and the downtrodden, which motivates and empowers women.

Kirino’s first foray into the literary world began when she attended script writing classes which set her on a course to write romance novels. However, when she realized that she didn’t feel passionate about this genre, she moved on to hardboiled detective stories.

Kirino’s stories can be unapologetically gruesome, sordid, seedy and unsavory. Her protagonists are nearly all female, there’s often a twist which turns completely innocent characters into criminals and the reader feels they’re watching all the action from the side-lines, which makes for exhilarating reading.

Five of her books have been translated into English: Auto (Out, 1997), a winner of the Mystery Writers of Japan Award, Gurotesuku (Grotesque, 2003), which won the Izumi Kyoka Prize for Literature, Riaru Warudo (Real World, 2003), Intrusion (2011) and Joshinki (The Goddess Chronicle, 2008), also a Murasaki Shikibu Prize-winning title. Kirino has also won the Naoki Prize, the Yomiuri Prize and the Tanizaki Prize.

The Sci-Fi & Fantasy Polymath: Kaoru Kurimoto (1953–2009)

Born in Tokyo and a graduate of Waseda University, Kurimoto wrote nearly 400 books in her rather short lifetime. She is best-known for her contributions to science-fiction and she’s famous for her 130-volume Guin Saga, which has been adapted for manga and anime and translated into many languages.

Kurimoto is recognized as a writer of new wave science-fiction, but she also wrote horror, fantasy, historical romance, mystery and predominantly in the yaoi or boizu rabu (boys’ love) genre, which is aimed at female readers. She wrote under two pen names: Sumiyo Imaoka for her novels and Azusa Nakajima for critiques and music.

She won several prizes early in her literary career, including The Gunzo Prize in 1977, and she was the youngest ever woman to win The Edogawa Rampo Prize in 1978. Kurimoto hosted a genre-themed radio station in the 1970s, but continued writing fiction and nonfiction. Kurimoto has been praised for her interpretation of gender, power and patriarchal themes.

Her first science-fiction novel Alien Satsujin Jiken (The Case of the Alien Murderer, 1981) was influenced by the popularity of the Star Wars movies, while her Guernica 1984-nen (Guernica 1984, 1984) paid homage to George Orwell.

The Love Crusader: Hiromi Kawakami (1958 – present)

If you’re looking for offbeat fiction that looks into the reality of Japanese contemporary women’s love lives, this is your author. Hiromi Kawakami is also a haiku poet and an essayist, as well as an author of seven novels, the majority of which focus on the highly realistic stories about the lives and loves of women in contemporary Japan. Her collection of short stories entitled Kamisama (God, 1994) was well-received and won the Pascal Short Story Prize for New Writers.

Kawakami also won the Akutagawa Prize in 1996 for Hebi no fumu (Tread on a snake). She was praised for her unpredictable and imaginative writing style.

In 2000, she won the Ito Sei Literature Prize as well as the Joryu Bungaku Sho (Woman Writer’s Prize) for Oboreru (Drowning). Her novel Sensei no kaban (The Briefcase or Strange Weather in Tokyo) — a book about the love affair of a woman in her 30s and a man in his 70s — is among her best known works and was awarded the 2001 Tanizaki Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012 and the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Her writing is sensual in nature and reflective, but it has also been described as disconcerting and exhilarating.

The 50 Shades Of Black: Amy Yamada  (1959–present)

If Fifty Shades of Grey was a Japanese book, it would’ve been written by no one else but Amy Yamada. This charismatic autor is taking her readers on a long and intense journey of the A to Z of sex, drugs and the darkness of hardcore heterosexual and intercultural relationships in Japan and its foreign community.

Moving from one town to another for her father’s job when she was growing up, Amy Yamada (real name: Futaba Yamada) fell victim of constant bullying and ostracism. Feeling isolated from her own people, Yamada shifted her interest to foreigners —  particularly the black community living in Japan. She began listening to black soul music in middle school and she was moved by the powerful songs about poverty, racial tension and social injustice.

Yamada dropped out of Meiji University’s Literature Department and began writing books about relationships with black men, as well as hedonistic lifestyles including drugs, violence and the kind of sexual taboos that would often shock her readers.

In 1995, her debut book Beddotaimu Aizu (Bedtime Eyes), the intense and controversial love, sex, drugs and booze story of a Japanese woman and an African-American military man from Yokosuka base, was a huge success and won the Bengei Prize. She received the Naoki Prize for her novel Soru Myujikku Rabazu Onri (Soul Music Lovers Only) in 1987, the Hirabayashi Taiko Bungaku Prize for Fuso no Kyoshitsu (Classroom for the Abandoned Dead) in 1989; the Tanizaki Prize for Fumi Zekka (Wonderful Flavor) in 2005, the Noma Bungei Prize for Gentleman in 2012 and the Kawabata Yasunari Prize for Seisen Teruteru Bozu in 2016.

The Universal Writer: Yoko Ogawa (1962–present)

Yoko Ogawa has become a worldwide success on par with Haruki Murakami, partially because her books are so easy to translate into English. There are also very few signs or markers in her stories referring to the Japanese culture, making her works appealing to a broader, international audience.

Ogawa’s protagonists are usually female and one dimensional, but her themes are universal and concentrate on isolation, intimacy, death, self-observation, women’s roles in society and spiritual awakening. Her female narrators often meet strange and puzzling men by chance who come and go, leaving the narrator with feelings of poignant regret but also a sense of fulfilment.

Ogawa has published more than 40 works of fiction and nonfiction and she has won every major Japanese literary award. Her most famous books are Daibingu puru (The Diving Pool: Three Novellas, 1990), Hoteru Airisu (Hotel Iris, 1996), Kamoku na shigai, midara na tomurai (Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, 1998), and Hakase no ai shita sushiki (The Housekeeper and the Professor, 2003), which was later adapted for a film.

The Breeze Of Fresh Air: Banana Yoshimoto (1964–present)

With a prevalence of negativity, nostalgia and pessimism characterizing the majority of Japan’s famous novelists’ works, Banana Yoshimoto is a breeze of fresh air during your afternoon reading break with a cup of warm tea.

Mahoko Yoshimoto once said she chose the pen name Banana Yoshimoto because banana blossoms look “cute and androgynous.” Japan is at the heart of all of her writing and she likes to produce works for the young (and the young at heart) in a manga-esque style. Her gastronomic incline has transformed her into an amazing food writer, a role she also freely explores via her Twitter account (@y_banana), which is full of food images and references. She adores listening to music and she dedicated her short story Lizard to Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. Yoshimoto also loves to sleep and dream and her stories converge somewhere between reality and the subconscious.

Yoshimoto’s themes center on the gruelling experiences people face in their journey towards maturity, as well as extra-marital affairs, beauty, sexuality, existentialism and death. Her writing style is relaxed, personable and full of sensibility and humor.

Yoshimitsu has written over 12 novels, several volumes of short stories, and numerous essays. She quickly rose to fame when her book Kitchin (Kitchen, 1988) was translated into English in 1993 and later into many other languages. This book was adapted for films in Japan and Hong Kong. Other famous books include Tsugumi (Goodbye, Tsugumi, 1989), Shirakawa yofune (Asleep, 1989), Amurita (Amrita, 1994) and Hadoboirudo/hadorakku (Hardboiled & Hard Luck, 1999).

The Female Murakami: Kaori Ekuni (1964–present)

Often referred to as “the female Murakami,” Ekuni is one of the most influential and versatile writers of modern Japan. 

Born in Tokyo’s Setagaya district to a haiku poet father, Shigeru Ekuni, Ekuni was raised under the influence of poetry and literature. Her books often depict young women’s ups and downs in life, but the strength of her female characters leaves her readers hopeful, motivated and inspired. Ekuni has a dedicated female fan base, especially in Korea where her books remained on the top-fifty bestseller list for four straight years.

Her first piece of writing won a children’s literature award, and she won the Murasaki Shikibu Prize for her novel Kira hikaru (Twinkle Twinkle) in 1992. This story about the intensity of the city life, commodity culture, marriage, forgiveness, and acceptance, was translated into English and became an international bestseller. Her novel Oyogu no ni Anzen de mo Tekisetsu de mo Arimasen (Not Safe or Suitable for Swimming) won the Yamamoto Shigeru Prize in 2002, and Gokyu Suru Junbi wa Dekite Ita (I Was Already Prepared to Wail in Lament) won the Naoki Prize in 2004.

The Woman In All Of Us: The Mitsuyo Kakuta (1967–present)

Born in Yokohama, Mitsuyo Kakuta wanted to be a writer from an early age. Her first piece of writing won the Kaien Prize for New Writers in 1990 when she was still studying at Waseda University. In 2002, she published two novels, Konomikaru paresu (Economical Palace) and Kuchu teien (Hanging Garden), but it was her book Taigon no kanojo (Woman on the Shore) — a novel about the different lives of single and married women, focusing on the self-criticism women undergo when thinking that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence — that won the Noma Literary New Face Prize and the Naoki Prize and raised Kakuta to a literary pedestal.

In 2007, Kakuta won the Chuo Koron Literary Prize for her book Yokame no semi (Cicada of the Eighth Day), the tragic story of a desperate, childless woman who ends up kidnapping and raising her lover’s daughter only to lose her as an adult, which was adapted for film and a television drama series. It was translated into English in 2010.

Kakuta has published over 80 works of fiction, most of which have been extremely popular with Japanese female readers, who feel empowered by her works. She’s married to the writer Takami Ito and she’s currently working on a translation of The Tale of Genji.

The Grotesque Master: Kanae Minato (1973–present)

You’re going to need a very strong stomach to get through Kanae Minato’s best-known book Kokuhaku (Confessions). Published in 2011 and translated into English in 2014, this novel has taken the world by storm. The premise of this story is unsettling and it’s easy to see why this author has been dubbed the queen of iyamisu (eww mysteries) when you read her disturbing book. First the reader is led to believe a mother, whose daughter is murdered, is motivated by injustice to take revenge on her child’s 13-year-old killers, but as the story unfolds, this protagonist’s actions became diabolically unbalanced and the lack of compassion by the mother and the child murderers casts a dark and disturbing shadow over the whole story.

Minato was a home-economics teacher and a housewife who dreamed up this horrifying novel as she went about her daily chores. Originally from Hiroshima, Minato avidly read mysteries by Agatha Christie and Edogawa Rampo in her youth. Her book Confessions won the Japanese Bestsellers Award, it was made into a film that was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011. Many of her other books have also been adapted for television.

The Rebel With A Cause: Hitomi Kanehara (1983–present)

Hitomi Kanehara wrote her first novel when she was just 21. Her books are a representation of the troubled youth in Japan today who express themselves through negative emotionality, sexual experimentation, tattoos, piercings, body modification and lifestyles based on rebellion and violent behavior.

Kanehara’s writing style is extremely bold. She delights the reader as she bends her stories using techniques that are equally innovative and shocking. Her father, Mizuhito Kanehara, is a literary professor and a translator of children’s books so you’d expect her to be well-educated, but Kanehara — a rebel from a very early age — dropped out of elementary school. After eventually returning to education, she decided to quit high school a few years later. Genuinely interested in writing, however, Kanehara continued attending her father’s writing seminars in pursuit of a writing career.

Kanehara became an overnight success when she won the Shueisha (Subaru Literary Prize) and she became the youngest writer with Risa Wataya to win the Akutagawa Prize for her first novel Hebi no piasu (Snakes and Earrings) in 2003. This book about a dangerous twist of love, sex, violence and passion, with its shocking themes and nihilistic characters, sold over one million copies and was later adapted into a movie, which became one of the most popular works and gave rise to fame to lead role actress Yuriko Yoshitaka. Her second book Asshu beibi (Assh Baby) was published in 2004 and her third novel Otofikushon (Autofiction, 2006) was nominated as a candidate for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007.

Who is your favorite Japanese female author? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Renae is the author of Tokyo Hearts and Tokyo Tales at Cherry Blossom Stories. She graduated with a B.A. in Japanese studies at Monash and after a six-week homestay in Japan she received a high distinction in her language exam for knowing all the best department stores in Tokyo. She taught English in Japan and worked with the Japanese for many years, but she now lives in the UK. When she visits Tokyo, she likes to go shopping for modern and traditional Japanese items and she enjoys dining out at restaurants in Shimokitazawa and Daikanyama, as long as they don’t cost a zillion yen.

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