Reading About Japanese Culture With Osusume Books

SEASON 2 EPISODE 11

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We’re back with more Japanese entertainment to help you with your quarantine boredom. We discussed movies and podcasts last month, and this time, we’re looking at books.

In this week’s episode, Anthony interviews Yuka Ogasawara, owner and founder of Osusume Books, a monthly subscription service that delivers hand-picked selections from a vast array of English-translated Japanese contemporary literature.

While living in Tokyo, Yuka, a self-described bookworm, met many English-speaking foreigners with a passion for Japanese literature, but not many knew where to look beyond the Haruki Murakami threshold. She started recommending Japanese books that she liked, and this eventually evolved into her business.

Why are westerners attracted to Japanese books? Yuka admits this is hard to explain, but is possibly related to the mystery and attractive image of Japan from a foreign lens:

There’s a general mystery or wonder around Japan, like, the image of Japan, like Kyoto or crazy Tokyo, and it’s also mysterious, because they don’t speak Japanese and they don’t really know what’s going on. Visiting Japan is on everyone’s to-do list, and books are one of the ways to explore that.

The concept of Osusume Books is similar to other subscription-based goods—you pay a monthly subscription and receive books at your doorstep—but what makes Osusume books unique is that Yuka will personally choose books for you based on books you’ve enjoyed so far, so you’ll receive selections curated by a real, live human bookworm, rather than an algorithm or random selection.

Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is inarguably the most successful Japanese author in the foreign market. English translations of his novels are easiest to find, and since many others have read his books, they’re easier to talk about, discuss, and find reviews in English.

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

Devotion of Suspect X Book Cover What makes this murder-mystery novel interesting is that the killer is revealed to the reader at the beginning of the story. The mystery isn’t who killed the victim, but how the detectives try to solve the crime and make sense of it all. As it goes with most mystery novels, Yuka wasn’t able to reveal much about the details of what makes this such a great novel, except that the mystery definitely isn’t something you’d expect. There’s also a movie adaptation of this novel, which, surprisingly, “didn’t disappoint” according to Yuka.

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Strange Weather in Tokyo Book Cover This one was described as a classic Japanese love story. It’s slow-paced, with many of the conventions of a love story, but Yuka says you’ll find it hard to put down. The ending is beautifully warm and fuzzy, and will likely make you cry. If you liked the movie “Lost in Translation,” you’ll like this book.

Audition by Ryu Murakami

Audition Book Cover This thriller by Ryu Murakami was also adapted into a movie directed by Takashi Miike and released in 1999. The plot involves a documentary maker who falls in love with a shy, unassuming girl, and the horrors that follow. Yuka recommends this book particularly for Murakami’s ability to describe terrifying scenes in gripping detail.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

While a story about a Japanese convenience store employee may not sound interesting, that’s exactly what makes this book worth reading. Murata paints an exciting image of what it’s like working in a Japanese convenience store, which was well-developed due to her own stint as a convenience store worker. The story follows a socially odd female konbini worker in her late 30s, who finds herself able to fit in only by following the sterile behaviours outlined in her company’s manual. The themes deal with questioning social normalcy and finding your place as a strange person in society.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

This drama follows a mathematics professor who suffers from short term memory loss and his relationship with his housekeeper and her son. Yuka says her affinity for this novel lies in how the author writes about math—something we usually see as cold and logical—in warm, human ways, and integrates it into a key piece of the story.

Whether you’re new to Japanese literature or have trouble finding new books to read, we highly recommend taking advantage of Yuka’s extensive knowledge of Japanese contemporary literature and by heading over to Osusume Books.

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