For what is probably my most popular post of last year, I read five Japanese bestselling books… about cats. It was such a fun post to do and I still revisit all of the comments and love I got on that post because all of your love meant so much to me. This year I have definitely been slowing down on the reading experiments and really enjoying reading whatever I want (mostly). So it’s not all that surprising that my first reading experiment of 2022 came about by accident.
This year, I have been really into Japanese literature for some reason. So after I had already read three Japanese books this year and had plans to read two more, I realized I could turn this into a reading experiment. And then, as I read them, I started to realize something interesting: these books are all from fairly different genres and have a variety of interesting characters, but they have a very different vibe than the Japanese books about cats.
If you remember from the cat books post, all of them were sad. Someone – cat or human – died in basically all of them. There was cancer and divorce and cats getting hit by cars. And it while they were good books, they weren’t the happiest or most fun to read. It was kind of a depressing bunch of books. So I thought it might be interesting to kind of compare these to see if Japanese books without cats were as sad as those with cats. Is all Japanese literature sad? Or just the books about cats? Take your bets now, and let’s get to the books!
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
I feel like this book has been talked about kind of a lot lately. Or maybe I’m just seeing it everywhere. Either way, this was one of the first books I read this year (long before the idea for this experiment came about). It is about a thirty-six-year-old woman who works in a convenience store in Tokyo. And she is completely content with her life. She enjoys working in the store and has no desire for the things everyone thinks she should want: a husband, children, a house, etc. It’s not mentioned directly in the book (or synopsis), but it’s very clear our main character is on the spectrum. So it was a very interesting perspective to read from.
But my feelings about this one were kind of complicated. I liked it. I really enjoyed reading from a perspective so different from my own. (Just a quick note. As someone who is not on the autism spectrum, I can’t comment on how accurate this is or if it’s harmful in any way. I haven’t found anything online to that effect. If you have, please let me know – I’d love to learn how so I can be more educated).
Anyway, this one just made me feel uneasy and kind of sad, and I’m not quite sure if that’s what it was going for. I do like that we had a neurodiverse main character who was unapologetically herself. However, (and this might be a bit of a spoiler) I didn’t love that she was so completely uninterested in anything better for herself. I get that she was comfortable in her life, and didn’t love change (though she adapts fairly well with changes in this book), but she just seems so content with being fine and doesn’t believe she deserves good. It made me sad, and honestly a little frustrated on her behalf. I just wanted to let her know that she deserved better, even if that was completely different than what her family thought she should want. Still, not as sad as any of the Japanese cat books.
Even though I didn’t totally love this one – largely because it frustrated me because I loved the main character and wanted her to have, or at least want, better – I still really liked it. I can definitely understand the hype surrounding this one, and I do want to read more Sayaka Murata – I’ve already added Earthlings to my list because it seems kind of weird, which is right up my alley. So, more anxiety-inducing than sad, but still good.
Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura
This is actually YA, which I read very rarely nowadays, but I made an exception for this one because both the cover and the story intrigued me. It’s about a group of kids who are – for whatever reason – not attending school. One day, while they are each at home, a mirror in their house starts to glow. When they step through the mirror, they end up in a massive castle with a little girl wearing a wolf mask, who introduces herself as the Wolf Queen.
The Wolf Queen tells them there is a key hidden somewhere in the castle, and whichever one of them finds it will have a wish granted. I liked the premise – even though I was a little confused as to why everyone seemed kind of okay with a bunch of kids just not going to school. But, otherwise, I really enjoyed this one. I like these kind of slightly weird fantasy elements in Japanese books – there was something similar in If Cats Disappeared from the World.
It was a fun read that kind of felt like middle grade, even though the characters were slightly older (thirteen to sixteen, if I remember correctly). I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys books like Percy Jackson or the City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab. It wasn’t sad, but the ending was definitely a little bittersweet. While it didn’t make me cry, but I might have teared up a tiny bit. It was definitely not as depressing as the cat books, even though it had it’s sad moments. I ended up giving this one four stars. I thought the ending was a tiny bit rushed, and there were things I wish were explained a little more, but I still loved it.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
There is a cat on the cover of this book, but don’t worry, this book contains absolutely zero cats. Not sure what that cat is about, but it is very cute, so I will allow it. This is a book about a café in Tokyo which allows people to travel back in time. We get four semi-connected little vignettes about the people who choose to travel back and why. It did help to go in knowing this was adapted from a stage play, because the setting and the structure make a lot more sense that way. It felt a little bit like reading a play (but I have a background working in theater, so that might just be me).
I’m not quite sure what it was about this one, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I thought I would. It was good, but I didn’t think it was amazing. Because each of the characters who travels back essentially gets their own short story, and with learning all of the rules and technical aspects of the time travel, there wasn’t quite enough time to get to know all of the characters as well as I would have liked.
This was probably the saddest book of the bunch so far. These were not happy stories. I actually got my little book club to read this one, and out of the the three of us, I am the only one who didn’t cry. I might just be broken. But I honesty kind of felt like this book had a little bit of that “sad just to be sad” thing going on. I liked that there was an element of trying to understand what would make someone desperate enough to travel back in time to have a conversation with someone. But after a few of the stories, it was like, we get it, this book is sad. There were some more bittersweet moments, and I didn’t think it was quite as bad as some of the cat books, but this just didn’t quite do it for me.
While I didn’t love this book and wasn’t all that invested in the stories, I did pick up the sequel, Tales from the Café. From what I understand, it’s a similar structure, and I did enjoy the premise enough that I’m curious to see where else this author takes it. And if we get some questions answered.
Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa
This is one I hadn’t heard of until a lovely follower mentioned it. Which was right around the time I was thinking of doing this experiment, and it sounded cute, so I added it. It’s about a man who, after being released from prison and giving up on his dreams, is working in a dorayaki shop. He’s kind of just down on himself and passing time without really living. But every day, he goes into the shop and makes the sweet bean paste-filled pancakes before drinking and then going to bed. Over and over and over.
Until one day, when an elderly woman comes to the shop and inquires about the help wanted sign in the window. The man takes one look at her disfigured hands and turns him down. The woman leaves, but leaves him with a container of her homemade bean paste. And the man, who isn’t a fan of the dorayaki he makes and sells, has to admit that hers is much better than the store-bought stuff he uses. So he reluctantly hires her to make bean paste for the shop. She teaches him how to make bean paste, and they start to form a friendship. But when customers start to notice the woman and her hands, a sad secret about her past comes to light.
This was just a sweet little book about friendship and connecting with people and following your dreams, even if life forces you to change them a little. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Definitely my favorite so far. I am very glad I discovered this one, because it’s been kind of the highlight of this experiment so far (even though I have liked everything I’ve read). I think it’s pretty safe to say at this point that I am a fan of Japanese books.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
So. Much. Math. To whoever said this book is not did not contain a lot of math, you lie. Okay, not really, but this book still made my head hurt. I have never had a science/math/numbers brain. My brain is specifically designed for history and English and random useless facts. So the fact that this book tricked me into learning what amicable numbers are was not appreciated. Especially since I then stayed up later than I wanted to thinking about them.
I honestly did really enjoy this story. It’s about a retired math professor who only has eighty minutes of short-term memory, his new housekeeper, and her son. It’s just a cute story about the three of them forming a sort of little family. It was a sweet little story. But I definitely should have read this first, because my brain was not okay to handle any amount of math this week.
Overall, this was a good book. I enjoyed the story, and I did like it. If anyone tells you this doesn’t have much math in it, they are lying. But if numbers don’t bother you or hurt your brain, I would definitely recommend this one. It was fairly similar to Sweet Bean Paste, so that’s an excellent option if you’re like mean and numbers make your head hurt.
Final verdict: the Japanese cat books still win the sadness award. Which might be due to the fact that I am more sensitive to animals being hurt than adult humans (most of the time). But I do think these books were more bittersweet than actually sad. Yes, there are deaths in four of these five books. But I actually had to go back and check because while I was reading them, it didn’t feel like nearly as depressing as the cat books. So yay for that. I guess.
But overall, I really enjoyed doing this post! I can definitely say I am a fan of Japanese books. I love how quirky and creative it tends to be. While these weren’t all favorite books, I did read a few I truly loved, and that’s always a win.
What did you think of this reading experiment? Are there any other experiment ideas you’d like to see me do?
And check out my bookshop, where you can buy books and also shop my curated collections of my personal favorites AND all of the books I’ve read for my reading experiments. Or you can just buy whatever books you want to. I get a small commission at no extra cost to you, and you get to support your choice of indie bookstores – it’s a win all around!