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Read in 2019: 27 Japanese books!

Now that we are saying goodbye to 2019, it’s time to look back on all the books I have read since January. Most of them come from my reading challenge for 2019. I have read a total of 27 books, which is an absolute record for me! However, I feel that my readings were more diversified in 2018, and even though I read more this year, I mainly chose mysteries and detective novels.

My 3 favourite books this year!

My favourite book is without a doubt 『新参者』by Keigo HIGASHINO. He is my favourite author of genre fiction, so it is no surprise that his books always figure among my favourites. However 『新参者』 is special. I could have spent the whole year following detective Kyoichiro KAGA as he solves mysteries in his new neighbourhood. It is a great detective novel with an exciting investigation, but it is also a novel about the people who detain a key to the mystery, their family and their secrets. I highly recommend it!

Next, we have『天啓の殺意』by Sin NAKAMACHI. This book does not have outstanding reviews on Amazon, but I loved this mystery/crime novel. First of all, it is a good murder story with an engrossing investigation, but what I loved most of all is how the author plays with his reader and intentionally misleads us.

Finally, I have to bring 『わたし、定時で帰ります』by Kaeruko AKENO to the top three. I like office/work-related stories because Japanese working habits are so difficult to understand to me that I am eager to hear more about it. This novel is a little on the “light” side, especially towards the end, which annoyed me a little because I prefer reading more realistic novels, but the energy, the optimism and the good-humoured tone of the story made it an enjoyable read.

My 3 favourite characters

Without a doubt, my favourite character is Kyoichiro KAGA… the problem is that, although I only read one book by Keigo HIGASHINO this year, I could include it in every list that starts with “my favourite…”. So let’s pick 3 characters that I have “met” for the first time this year:

Yasuhiko MUKOUDA, the barber of the little town Tomazawa who appears in 『向田理髪店』by Hideo OKUDA. In fact, I should include all the other characters of the book because all the inhabitants of Tomazawa have warmed my heart and made me smile. The stories in 『向田理髪店』 are about people, their hopes, disillusions and dreams, even the brief ones. I loved it, it is a warm-hearting read. Highly recommended!

The reason why I loved Sadato SAKATA, the protagonist of 『検事の本懐』by Yuko YUZUKI, is because he shares similarities with Kyoichiro KAGA… Of course, he is a different character, but still some depictions of his personality, the way he works and thinks reminded me of Higashino’s famous detective… Sadato SAKATA is a public prosecutor, he does not say much about himself or his past, he is diligent in his work but follows what he thinks is right, which is sometimes in conflict with the system or his hierarchy. I want to read more books of the Sadato SAKATA series to get to know the character better.

Finally, I loved the character of Saburo SUGIMURA from the novel 『誰か』by Miyuki MIYABE. This novel is the first book of a series featuring Saburo SUGIMURA. 『誰か』is not one of my favourite novels, it is slow-paced, the mystery in it is not that gripping, and it took me quite some time to finish it. What made me continue reading it is the protagonist. He is a just an ordinary nice person who wants to do things right, it is easy to feel close to him, and I will certainly read other books of the series in the future.

Best Mysteries: 3 books I couldn’t put down

Obviously, I loved『新参者』and it was so engrossing that I was able to read it on a plane. This was the first time in my life that I was able to read a book on a plane (I usually feel so anxious that I can hardly concentrate on a film, even less so a book). But『新参者』was so good I managed to put my fears aside and read for most of the flight.

But let’s pick three other books:

The two books by Sin NAKAMACHI were unputdownable. I found that 『天啓の殺意』was more engrossing than 『模倣の殺意』, but if you like one, you will also like the other. They are similar in two ways. First, they both challenge the reader by trying (successfully in my case) to deceive you. Another similarity is the topics chosen. In both, a writer is involved and we get to know a little about the publishing world. Some sceneries (like the hot-spring baths hotel) are also featured in both novels. These are exactly the kind of detective novels that I like.

I read 『殺人鬼にまつわる備忘録』by Yasumi KOBAYASHI very recently, and it was a real page-turner! The protagonist suffers from anterograde amnesia and has to face a murderer who can add fake memories to people’s mind. This confrontation leads to interesting thoughts about how our memory works, but it is more a psycho-thriller than a book on memory or a serious depiction of amnesia.

Other books that were engrossing and had the qualities of a page-turner are:

  • 『ガーディアン』by Gaku YAKUMARU
  • 『誓約』by Gaku YAKUMARU
  • 『ジャッジメント』by Yuka KOBAYASHI (short stories)

Books with interesting topics

Here are some books that I loved because they had interesting topics, addressed social problems or simply gave me things to think about.

Non-mystery books

The book with the most interesting topic to me is 『わたし、定時で帰ります』by Kaeruko AKENO. If you are interested in Japanese work culture, this one is a great choice because it is highly entertaining and does not contain a lot of difficult, work-related discussions.

The two following books are different in their themes and tone, but they have a similar structure: through different stories, we follow the daily life, struggles and hopes of several characters. They all live in the same neighbourhood or town and have learned to help each other because nobody else will.

In 『下町やぶさか診療所』by Yo IKENAGA, we follow a local doctor, his patients and friends. The doctor’s office is a central place where people, often elderly people, come to talk rather than get treatment.

『向田理髪店』by Hideo OKUDA is about the small town of Tomazawa which lost its vitality and youth when the coal mine shut down. Those who remained have seen young people leaving, shops shutting down and facilities degrading. But some of them still keep the hope of seeing their town flourish again. Any novelty is welcomed, gossip is everywhere, small dramas arise, but the inhabitants keep their dreams and are always there when someone needs help.

Mystery and thrillers

『ガーディアン』by Gaku YAKUMARU tackles the problem of school bullying but not in the way you would imagine. It also asks interesting and difficult questions about how far should we go to prevent school bullying.

While it was a little difficult to read, 『切り裂きジャックの告白』by Shichiri NAKAYAMA contains interesting thoughts about organ donations in Japan and brain death (which is apparently controversial). The problem is that these discussions were introduced in the middle of what was supposed to be a suspenseful police investigation to track a serial killer… I found that both the story and the discussions on organ donation were interesting, but they didn’t work well together.

『検事の本懐』by Yuko YUZUKI is a collection of short stories and one in particular really caught my interest. Public prosecutors from different regions are called to Tokyo to investigate a political scandal. From browsing tons of documents to interrogating persons related, the prosecutors found themselves in a whirlpool of unpleasant work and difficult choices. It was depicted in a realistic way and it was exciting to see behind the scenes.

I would not recommend it to everyone because it contains several scenes of physical and psychological tortures, but Tetsuya HONDA’s novel 『ケモノの城』explores the relationship between victim and aggressor and depicts how some people can renounce their liberty and fall under the control of a violent, authoritative figure.

Speculative fiction

Maybe there’s a relation between speculative fiction and a chair? 🤔

Yasumi KOBAYASHI asks an interesting question about our memory in『殺人鬼にまつわる備忘録』: what if someone could insert fake memories inside your head? How far would it affect your behaviour and your beliefs? I found these reflexions fascinating, and it made me want to read more about how our memory works.

In『ジャッジメント』, Yuka KOBAYASHI creates a fictional Japan where the law of retaliation is applied. People who have been injured or relatives to a person who has been murdered have the right to inflict exactly the same treatment to the aggressor: “an eye for an eye”. The book is mostly centred on ethical choices and considerations: will the victims choose to avenge themselves? What will they learn about themselves in the process? How well did they know the one they lost?

Books that I liked but not that much

The followings are books that I liked but not as much as I thought I would. The reason is mainly that these books were not what I expected them to be.

First of all, 『6月31日の同窓会』by Yukiko MARI had a promising setting: people receive this mysterious invitation for June 31st and… die? Unfortunately, I found that it lacked a driving energy that would make me want to continue to read. I felt that the characters were passive and that there was no real investigation to solve the mystery.

『誓約』by Gaku YAKUMARU was also not as good as I expected it to be. It is a good thriller, suspenseful, engrossing and so on…. but it was just that. The thing is that this novel was a huge best-seller in South Korea, number 1 in the biggest online and offline bookshops of the country. Well, it is a good thriller, but not very original or inventive, and the end was not really convincing to me.

『父からの手紙』by Kenji KOSUGI was a good book too, but not one of my favourites. The characters and the story are good, but I found that there were a lot of repetitions, especially when the author described how the characters felt. At several times, I had the impression that I had read the same sentence or a very similar one in a previous chapter.

Finally, I think I should bring 『首折り男のための協奏曲』by Kotaro ISAKA to this list. I loved several aspects of this book, but I was disappointed to find out that I was not reading a novel but a collection of short stories. The back cover clearly states that everything will make sense in the end, making you believe that you are reading a novel. While I did enjoy the short stories, I also felt a little let down and frustrated that the promising and exciting beginning of this “novel” led to nothing after all.

Difficult books

Without a doubt, the most difficult book that I have read this year (apart from the ones I gave up on) is『ボクたちはみんな大人になれなっかた』by Moegara. Honestly, I don’t know what kept me reading when I had such a hard time understanding some passages!

Apart from this novel, I haven’t struggled much. I will just list the three books that were more difficult than the others:

『追憶の夜想曲』by Shichiri NAKAYAMA is a legal thriller. I had no problem following the story but there were passages that remained opaque to me. Especially a long discussion at the beginning of the novel. I think that one of the reasons why the beginning was difficult is because I haven’t read the first book of the series and『追憶の夜想曲』, which is the second book, refers to events that happened, I imagine, in the first book.

Same author, same difficulty level: 『切り裂きジャックの告白』by Shichiri NAKAYAMA. Here again, I was able to follow the police investigation but the parts about organ donations and the medical and ethical reflexions related to it were difficult.

Finally, it is hard to recall exactly because I read it in January, but if I remember correctly 『誰か』by Miyuki MIYABE had some challenging passages too.

Easy books

It is very hard to give advice concerning easy books to read in Japanese. If you ask me, I will answer that any book by Keigo HIGASHINO is the easiest one. I do think that his books are easy to read, but there is also the fact that I have read 15 books by now, and I am used to his writing.

Apart from 『おはなし・ねこあつめ』written by Haruka SHIOTSUKI, I haven’t read a book that was obviously easier than the other ones. Neko Atsume is a book for children based on the popular mobile game by Hit-Point. It is a collection of short stories with illustrations. As it is often the case with books for children, Neko Atsume contains vocabulary that Japanese learners might not know, but it has only very few kanji and all have furigana. The illustrations also make it easy to understand what happens.

It might not be the easiest book on this list, but 『継続捜査ゼミ』by Bin KONNO is worth noting because it is mainly based on dialogues. A professor and his students study unsolved crimes of the past and also work on some campus mysteries. In most of the scenes, they will sit in the classroom or a restaurant and discuss the cases. I found this book engrossing, easy to read and unique in its structure.

After that, there are a bunch of mystery novels that all have a similar difficulty level. I could read all of them without looking up words and I don’t recall that they had particularly difficult passages:

  • 『新参者』by Keigo HIGASHINO
  • 『殺人鬼にまつわる備忘録』by Yasumi KOBAYASHI
  • 『天啓の殺意』by Sin NAKAMACHI
  • 『ガーディアン』by Gaku YAKUMARU
  • 『ジャッジメント』by Yuka KOBAYASHI
  • 『模倣の殺意』by Sin NAKAMACHI
  • 『誓約』by Gaku YAKUMARU
  • 『ケモノの城』by Tetsuya HONDA

Entertaining books

I have read several novels that are for entertainment only and don’t really bother to build credible situations, settings and characters. They usually have unrealistic elements every time police procedurals are involved.

Two of these books were similar in setting and very close to the Sherlock Holmes/John Watson duo as depicted by the BBC series “Sherlock”:

Shiki KUZUMI says himself that his book 『推理作家(僕)が探偵と暮らすわけ』is inspired by the BBC series: a detective and a writer move in together and solve crimes together.

『ノッキンオン・ロックドドア』by Yugo AOSAKI is more original because the two characters are both detectives. But you cannot help but see similarities, especially since one of the characters compares himself to Sherlock Holmes and his colleague to John Watson.

By the same author, 『図書館の殺人』was also on the light side. The investigation was very interesting, but it was conducted by a high school student who works together with the police…

Finally, we have 『メゾン・ド・ポリス』by Miaki KATO where a young female police officer works with retired police officers who live together. I liked this book, I found it original and I liked the general atmosphere of it. I wish the cases were more engrossing or suspenseful, but overall, it was a refreshing read.

I have chosen these books mainly because I thought they would be easier to read than the others. This was not always true, however. The books that I mentioned above were as easy or even easier than these “light” novels. I think that the main cause is not the Japanese level, but simply that I find realistic novels more engrossing.

While I did enjoy reading the first three titles, I must also say that I am tired of this kind of detective fiction where solving crime is a game, where detectives have “sparkling eyes” when confronted with a particularly tricky puzzle, or where they are young genius with high deduction skills, often eccentric, childish or unpleasant. In these stories, the plot is mainly centred on solving the crime, and little is said about how this tragedy affects people. I think that I will take a break from this kind of fiction next year.

Nonfiction books

I wanted to read more nonfiction in 2019, but I have not. I read a self-development book 『学びを結果に変えるアウトプット大全』by Shion KABASAWA which I liked. It stresses the importance of output in your learning process, and this is something that I really need to integrate more in my studies. I realise now that I do remember quite well what the books I have read this year are about, and how I felt when I read them. I am sure that is because I wrote a book review for each of them.

2019 has been a year of tensions between Japan and South Korea, and I wanted to know more about anti-Korean sentiment in Japan. I chose the best-seller 『今こそ、韓国に謝ろう』by Naoki HYAKUTA, and I was shocked to see that 1- such books are being published and that 2- it was a huge success. The whole purpose of the book is to belittle Korea, assert the superiority of Japan over its neighbour and mock Korean culture. It only addresses the questions of forced labourers or comfort women in a very dishonest way and focuses mainly on justifying the annexation of Korea, using outdated colonialist arguments. This book only stimulates anti-Korean sentiment among its readers and more generally, encourages racism.

Conclusion

And that’s all the books I have read in Japanese in 2019!

I wish that I had read more widely instead of restricting myself to mysteries, thrillers and detective novels. But 2019 was the year of the JLPT N1, and I needed my readings to be easy and relaxed. For 2020, I will focus my energy on reading more genres and nonfiction. I want to read not only more difficult books but also more different books and widen the range of books I can read in Japanese.

Happy New Year’s Eve!

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