‘When you fall in love, the natural thing to do is give yourself to it’ – Haruki Murakami
Romance novels account for 1 in 3 of all mass market books sold. But why is this genre of storytelling such a cause of fascination?
The allure of romance novels
Most, if not all of us want to fall in love. But sometimes the idea of a breath-taking romance can be more attractive than the reality – which can alter our lives drastically and bring unwelcome moments of jealousy and anxiety, as well as life-lifting euphoria.
Romance novels, on the other hand, give us a taste of love from the safety of our bedrooms. They let us to be swept up without being swept away; feel passion without being overwhelmed; and enjoy the journey without worrying about the destination.
With the typical brilliance we’ve come to expect from Japanese authors, our favourite 5 love-filled Japanese novels will wrap you in delight and set your hearts alight with feeling.
Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
Translated by Allison Markin Powell (2013)
‘Despite the age difference of more than 30 years, I felt much more at ease with him than friends my own age.'
A chance encounter in a local bar sparks a tender friendship and consequent romance between 37-year-old Tsukiko and her former high school teacher – whom she still calls ‘Sensei’.
Both peculiar and socially awkward, they find solace through each other’s company. They share meaningful conversations over food and drink as they struggle to understand and act on their inexplicable connection. Hiromi Kawakami explores loneliness, ageing and love in urban city. With sparse and poetic prose is enchanting, the reader is engrossed in a magical atmosphere as both characters begin to realise and accept their unusual love.
‘Would you like consider a relationship with me, based on a premise of love’ – Tsukiko
Socrates In Love by Kyoichi Katayama
Translated by Akemi Wegmuller (2005)
Kyoichi Katayama explores a deep love between two high-school students, Saku and Aki. Reflecting back from an older Saku’s perspective, we find out Aki dies from leukaemia. Their love story is recounted with jaw-dropping emotion as we enter the heart of Saku, who struggles to live with his longing memory of Aki. This tear-jerking masterpiece involves philosophical conversations about life and death, God and heaven, and the nature of love. It speaks to anyone with a lost lover and all seeking a more peaceful acceptance of the past. As Saku’s grandfather tells Saku about his deceased wife:
‘The things that never come true stay in our hearts forever’
‘She and I have always been together. These last fifty years, there never was one moment when we weren’t together.’
Twinkle Twinkle by Kaori Ekuni
Translated by Emi Shimokawa (2003)
Kaori Ekuni tells the reader in her foreword:
‘To be perfectly honest with you, I think it's reckless to love and trust another person. It's clearly foolhardy. I'd like it very much if the many daredevils who go ahead anyway, enjoyed this book.’
Homosexual doctor Mutsuki (in a gay relationship) and emotionally unstable, slightly alcoholic Shoko enter afake marriage to free themselves from the suffocating demands of their parents’ and society’s expectations. Kaori Ekuni explores this platonic love, highlighting Japan’s marital expectations including the pressure to conceive children quickly.
Interestingly, although Shoko holds no wish for a relationship, she deeply admires the love Mutsuki has with his long-term boyfriend (Kon) and begins to understand the role of physical love in a relationship. Platonic vs romantic love, homosexuality, societal and familial expectations, alcoholism and mental health are touched on beautifully throughout.
'Love alone helped us get through life. Without it, life was simply too haphazard.'
Translucent Tree by Nobuko Takagi
Translated by Deborah Iwabuchi (2008)
Winner of the Tanizaki Prize, Translucent Tree is a pacey and racy romantic reunion story which packs a strong punch. Married documentary maker, Go Imai, decides to visit Tsurugi City, where he filmed a remarkable sword maker 25 years ago. After running into the sword maker’s daughter, Chigiri Yamazaki (now a divorced single mother looking after her ill father) – sparks fly.
They hold a memory of their meeting years ago. Now both in their mid-to-late 40s, their chance encounter teaches them to love again. A poignant novel about death, sex and ageing, passion, and sorrow – with a shocking twist ending. One that ultimately asks the question: have you had that romantic meeting you can’t stop thinking about?
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
Translated by Jay Rubin (2006)
‘I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a 100% realistic novel’ – Haruki Murakami
Norwegian Wood is Haruki Murakami’s early experiment at realism. Yet even without raining fish, talking cats and different worlds, this novel is magic. Reflecting back on his student days in Tokyo (1969-1970), Toru Watanabe (now 37) narrates his journey into adulthood – filled with loneliness, confusion, longing, and deep love. After the suicide of his friend Kizuki, Toru falls for Kizuki’s former girlfriend: Naoko. But she’s mentally ill and sent to a mental hospital in the hills. Between his visits, Toru yearns for her from his Tokyo student accommodation – wondering if their love can work, if he can heal her broken soul. He then meets Midori: a bubbly drama classmate he believes is ‘So cute the mountains crumble and the oceans dry up’. He now must choose between the two as he faces up to heavy-hearted decisions of adulthood.
‘When you fall in love, the natural thing to do is give yourself to it. That’s what I think. It's just a form of sincerity.’
Touching upon mental health, suicide, growing up and falling in love for the first time – Norwegian Wood is the atmospheric and unforgettable novel which shot Murakami to literary stardom.
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