You no longer have to catch a flight to discover the wonders of Japan, instead, you can simply pick up a book – and this is where this guide comes in.
Do you love being immersed in new realms and traveling back in time, especially if these scenarios allow you to see your loved ones or fulfill everything you have ever wished for?
If so, you’re sure to enjoy these 12 best Japanese fantasy books, ranging from paranormal activity to science fiction – there is something for everyone.
For instance, one of which includes a young woman who has to collect souls and prove her worth and a Mulan retelling.
With these books, you’ll be traveling to Feudal Japan, a back alley cafe, London, a remote island, and Los Angeles, California.
You’ll discover everything Japanese fantasy novels have to offer, including stories with a futuristic flair, where cats can talk, authorities steal memories, and where characters need to overcome their assumed destinies and curses.
With this in mind, below I have outlined 12 of the best Japanese fantasy novels that are sure to keep you hooked from the very beginning.
Let’s get started.
12 Best Japanese Fantasy Novels
What would you do if there was an organization that controls what you can and can’t remember? Well, this is the proposition of Yōjo Ogawa’s unsettling and intriguing story.
For the people living on a nameless island just off the coast of a nameless land, life is considered normal, however, there’s one oddity: things keep disappearing.
It starts off with hats, then ribbons, and then birds – all of which cease to exist now. From there, things only get more serious.
Things only get more bizarre by the fact that no one remembers these things once they have disappeared.
Well, almost everyone. On the island, there are a few individuals that remember the color of roses or the smell of perfume.
However, these people constantly live in a state of fear due to the Memory Police.
Here, they are routinely monitoring and patrolling the streets of the island, whisking off anyone who hasn’t forgotten what they shouldn’t remember.
One such person includes the unnamed protagonist’s mother. However, she can only be kept hidden and away from the Memory Police for so long.
While the premise itself is somewhat simple, the more you get into it; the more unsettling it becomes. If you’re looking for something to send shivers down your spine, then this is the novel for you.
- Thought provoking
- Lacks world-building – you don’t know how the Memory Police operate. Some readers thought this needed more backstory
Here, the two protagonists embark on an odyssey of discovery. Both paths are separate, however, they are perpetually linked, too.
The first character we’re introduced to is a 15-year-old boy, Kafka. Following his father’s dark prophecy, he decides to run away.
On a quest to find the rest of his family, Kafka comes across someone else who is willing to take him in.
The next protagonist is the aging Nakata. During his childhood, he suffered from a mysterious incident which has turned him into somewhat of a simpleton.
However, in addition to his mental difficulties, Nakata holds a secret, one in which he is able to talk to cats.
If you’re new to Haruli Murakami books, then Kafka on the Shore serves as a good introduction to newcomers.
Like Murakami’s other fantasy novels, this book is packed with tons of quirky ‘miracles’ and magical realism that will keep you hooked. That said, there are some particularly dark moments, too.
Kafka on the Shore provides readers with some likable and relatable characters.
When reading, you’ll feel like you’re in some dreamlike space – leaving you to interpret the book for yourself.
- Incredibly well-written
- Mesmerizing and utterly captivating
- Interesting characters
- Some readers found the book hard to get into. That said, once you do get into the plot, it becomes more enjoyable
This novel follows the story of Ren Scarborough, an anomaly. Half-Japanese Shinigami, half-British Reaper – she is trapped in the middle of two worlds.
Set in 1890s London, Ren strolls the streets collecting souls using skills she has honed for centuries.
To prevent any trouble with the Reapers, she makes sure her Shinigami side is under wraps.
However, an unexpected lapse in control forces her to leave England where she flees to Japan with her younger brother in hopes of the freedom and sense of belonging she has always longed for.
However, even with the Shinigami, Ren only finds distrust and rejection. Therefore, to prove her self-worth, she decides to do the impossible… prove that “death is her destiny” once and for all.
The Keeper of Night features a lot of YA writing techniques that keep you hooked throughout – resulting in an enjoyable fantasy novel based in Japan.
- Likable characters
- Some readers thought the ending was rushed
Equipped with a giant sword, an Elf sidekick, an iron hand, and a body made entirely of scar tissue, our protagonist, Guts the Black Swordsman is on a quest to defeat all evil, regardless of the amount of blood that needs spilling.
Assisting him on this quest is The Brand – not a person, an unholy symbol that is permanently ingrained in his body, allowing evil to be drawn towards him.
While this may seem like a destiny of doom, the symbol allows the protagonist to easily locate and dispose of the evil in the world that is out to claim his soul.
Similar to other Manga books, any sort of subtlety isn’t included – this is the same for Berserk, too.
Hence, you should keep in mind that this manga is one of the more violent Japanese fantasy books featured on this list.
That said, in addition to gore and intense injuries, you’re also provided with compelling characters and humor.
Therefore, if your stomach can handle it, this may be the book for you.
In addition to the manga, there is also a TV adaptation which is considered to be one of the best anime of all time by some, as well as a film trilogy adaptation, too.
- Great storyline
- Beautiful moments
- Very graphic
This novel follows the story of a young trans woman, Shizuka Satomi who has recently escaped the clutches of her abusive family and is following a kind boy, who she was introduced to at queer youth, to Los Angeles.
As a skilled violinist, she acquired a range of proteges as pupils. However, the reason for acquiring such affluent students isn’t as prestige-based as you may believe.
Instead, she is doomed to deliver seven souls to Hell otherwise; she risks her own. So far she has collected six and only needs one more to free herself from her fate.
That is when Katrina Nguyen comes in. Like Shizuka, Katrina is also a transgender runaway who might have all the skills necessary to make the match.
However, Shizuka meets Lan Tran – a refugee, a mother of four, and also a retired captain of a starship – and her world gets infinitely larger.
Combining science fiction with fantasy, Light from Uncommon Stars will take you on an adventure like no other.
While it is set in the United States, the main character is Japanese.
- Brilliant writing
- Some readers thought too much was happening at once
In a world of monsters and gods, living a boring and uneventful life as an innkeeper’s daughter might just be a blessing in disguise for Miuko.
However, any dream of a stable and peaceful life is shattered forever when she gets cursed by a demon and has to embark on an adventure she never anticipated.
From the curse, she is inflicted with a deadly touch. While this comes with its obvious dangers, it also ensures the freedom she never thought was possible.
Equipped with an awesome magpie spirit sidekick, Miuko is always having to find ways out of life-threatening instances.
That said, will she ever be able to break free from her curse and return to the world she once knew? The bigger question is whether or not she’ll want to return.
If you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli and Traci Chee’s YA adventure, then you’ll find this novel contains a lot of similar themes.
- Strong female protagonist
- Very engaging
- Some readers didn’t like the footnotes
It is safe to say that Wataru Mitani is having a troubling time.
His family is being broken apart by his father who is running off with a mistress, which causes his mother to become depressed.
As such, the young 5th grader’s life at the moment is very unpleasant, indeed.
Fortunately, he has one distraction: the old Daimatsu building.
There have been claims that the abandoned building is haunted by ghosts – this doesn’t scare Wataru, he is there to investigate.
One day, he notices an old man entering the building and decides to follow, however, what he didn’t know is that he’d crossed into the word of Vision through a portal that is only opened every 10 years for 90 days.
Here he discovers that if he’s able to collect five gemstones and deliver them to the Tower of Destiny, he will receive one wish.
However, is this a real place or his imagination?
This novel could be considered to fall somewhere in the middle of The Secret Garden and Pan’s Labyrinth, with the young hero escaping the strugglings of everyday life to have an adventure in a world full of fantasy.
If you’re looking for a more family-friendly Japanese fantasy book, then this is the one for you.
- Adventure packed
- Some readers found it to be too long
Seven lonely students have had enough of a hectic life and decide to hide away in their rooms, however, the last thing they thought was going to happen is a taste of magic.
All they had to do was touch the glowing glass on their bedroom mirrors and they were whisked away to a land with a mysterious castle.
Here, you’ll find winding staircases, portraits, chandeliers, and… clues.
While the castle was a refuge from their lives, it is also a puzzle, too, and the first one to solve the problem and provided with a wish.
No longer worrying about the real world, the students stay in the castle carefree. That is; unless they remain past 5 pm.
Once the clock strikes 5, they become prey to the castle’s keeper: the Wolf Queen – who is extremely ravenous.
If you’re an introvert and are looking for a way to escape reality, if only for a little bit, then this is the perfect Japanese fantasy novel for you.
- Portrays the power of human connection
- Some readers thought the pacing was strange
This novel is situated in a world where androids have their own civilization and humans are considered the minority.
Here a storyteller intends on ending artificial life, however, this was before meeting the beautiful android, Ibis.
During a battle, Ibis rushes the storyteller to an android hospital, and during his recovery, she tells him the tales that led to the fall of humanity.
While The Stories of Ibis isn’t completely fantasy, strictly speaking, there is a strong fantasy flavor with science fiction at the core of it.
Here, the author takes a unique approach to storytelling whereby a short collection of stories are wrapped up in an overarching narrative.
Here, Ibis is telling the stories, like how humans tell stories around a campfire.
This novel takes traditional folk tales and gives them a feminist retelling twist.
In Where The Wild Ladies Are, a woman rejected by her boyfriend gets transformed into a monster and uses a temple bell to trap him.
Instead of being portrayed as feared, like in the original tale, her actions are seen as empowering and justified.
Another tale follows a woman who fishes a skeleton out of a river during a fishing trip and then becomes partners with a ghost – the same ghost who was killed by the man she refused to marry.
These retellings are like a breath of fresh air – dusting off the original tales with unique and interesting twists.
Where previously, ghosts were only seen as haunting they are now seen as comforting. Likewise, feminine traits are no longer seen as overpowered but respected.
Relatable, humorous, cleverly reworked, and witty, this Japanese fantasy book is ideal for anyone looking to stray away from the somewhat male-centric folklore.
- An interesting modern take on folklore
- Some readers found the strongest stories to be in the beginning
Even though it could be considered a slight stretch when it comes to Japanese fantasy novels – since it contains both paranormal and science fiction elements – Before the Coffee Get Cold is a great choice for anyone interested in time travel.
This is where we are introduced to a quaint and unassuming cafe in Tokyo, Japan. While serving coffee, it is also a 140-year-old establishment that allows you to time travel.
There are four visitors in the cafe for this very reason, and, as the title suggests, they can only travel back and confront the ones they want before their coffee gets cold.
If they fail to do so, then they are confronted with some ghostly consequences.
- Unique premise
- Some readers found it repetitive
The next novel on this list is Flame in the Mist – one of the most popular YA fantasy books set in Japan. One thing that contributes to its popularity is the fact that it is a Mulan-retelling.
Being the daughter of a samurai during the Feudal-period in Japan, Mariko feels as if she has no power of her own.
With her arranged marriage approaching, she has to decide whether she is going to sit back and accept her fate or take her future into her own hands and fight back.
Of course, Mariko decides she’s going to fight. She does so by taking the identity of a man and fighting the members of the Black Clan who are out to get her.
However, what happens when love is added to the picture? Will her new community support her and disregard her true identity?
- Slow in places
When it comes to purchasing the best Japanese fantasy novel, there are a few considerations to keep in mind.
As such, I have outlined everything you need to remember to purchase the best book.
Before purchasing any book, you should always make sure to read the reviews carefully.
This will give you a clear indication of whether or not the book is worth your time.
That said, you should always keep an open mind, too.
What might be bad for one person may be great for another – it all depends on your preferences and what you’re looking for.
While this guide focuses on Japanese fantasy books, there are still a ton of different sub-genres that go into this.
Such sub-genres include coming-of-age, horror, science fiction, and much more.
Therefore, you should keep this in mind when looking for the right book for you.
There are Japanese fantasy novels for all sorts of different preferences.
Whether you’re looking to go on a thrilling adventure, escape reality, or learn something new, this guide is sure to provide you with a book to help you achieve this.
Hopefully, this guide has provided you with some inspiration when it comes to the best Japanese fantasy novels.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are English Translations For Japanese Novels Accurate?
While American licensors will rarely change the settings, names, or storylines of Japanese stories to accommodate them to an American audience, English translations aren’t always 100% accurate, either.
This is mainly due to the fact that licensors want to reach the widest audience possible with maximum profits.