Book Club Nominees

6 (More) Japanese Horror Books

by @DunMiff, curator of HOWLS Book Club nominees for May 2023’s “It’s Over 9,000!!!” category

Every year, in the final days of April through the first week of May, Japan celebrates Golden Week; a week that encompasses 4 of Japan’s national holidays. During this time, many businesses close, people travel and visit family, and every major game console holds a sale on literally every anime video game in existence. Golden Week is a big deal. So, to celebrate the holiday (back in May, that is), HOWLS read—what else—J-Horror! I’ve curated the following list of horror-adjacent titles written entirely by Japanese authors. Let’s get to it!

Penance by Kanae Minato

When they were children, Sae, Maki, Akiko, and Yuko were tricked into separating from their friend Emili by a mysterious stranger. Then the unthinkable occurs: Emili is found murdered hours later.

Sae, Maki, Akiko, and Yuko weren’t able to accurately describe the stranger’s appearance to the police after the Emili’s body was discovered. Asako, Emili’s mother, curses the surviving girls, vowing that they will pay for her daughter’s murder.

Like Confessions, Kanae Minato’s award-winning, internationally bestselling debut novel, Penance is a dark and voice-driven tale of revenge and psychological trauma that will leave listeners breathless. (StoryGraph)


In Japan, there is a subgenre of the mystery/crime genre known as Iyamisu, which literally translates to “Eww Mystery”; a subgenre which deals with grisly episodes and the dark side of human nature. Kanae Minato is known in Japan as the Queen of Iyamisu. Despite being a superstar of the genre in her native country, only 2 of her novels have ever been translated into English: Confessions and Penance. We’ve read Confessions, it’s time to give the Queen her due.

Bookshop* | StoryGraph | Goodreads | Amazon

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Natsuo Kirino’s novel tells a story of random violence in the staid Tokyo suburbs, as a young mother who works a night shift making boxed lunches brutally strangles her deadbeat husband and then seeks the help of her co-workers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime.

The ringleader of this cover-up, Masako Katori, emerges as the emotional heart of Out and as one of the shrewdest, most clear-eyed creations in recent fiction. Masako’s own search for a way out of the straitjacket of a dead-end life leads her, too, to take drastic action.

The complex yet riveting narrative seamlessly combines a convincing glimpse into the grimy world of Japan’s yakuza with a brilliant portrayal of the psychology of a violent crime and the ensuing game of cat-and-mouse between seasoned detectives and a group of determined but inexperienced criminals. Kirino has mastered a Thelma and Louise kind of graveyard humor that illuminates her stunning evocation of the pressures and prejudices that drive women to extreme deeds and the friendship that bolsters them in the aftermath. (StoryGraph)


Out has appeared twice on previous HOWLS lists and even made it to the finals in the original March Madness and I am genuinely shocked that it’s never won. This novel checks so many boxes that this group loves: a female poc author, an all-female main cast of likeable characters, a tense fast-paced story with multiple twists, plenty of violence and gore without having too much…this book has everything. It’s been a year and half since its last defeat; I think it’s finally time for this book to claim a victory.

Bookshop* | StoryGraph | Goodreads | Amazon

Dendera by Yuya Sato

When Kayu Saitoh wakes up, she is in an unfamiliar place. Taken to a snowy mountainside, she was left there by her family and her village according to the tradition of sacrificing the lives of the elderly for the benefit of the young. Kayu was supposed to have passed quickly into the afterlife. Instead, she finds herself in Dendera, a utopian community built over decades by old women who, like her, were abandoned. Together, they must now face a new threat: a hungry mother bear. (StoryGraph)


One reviewer described this book as “Lord of the Flies meets The Golden Girls”, which should honestly be all you need to know to want to read it. Couple that with tons of gore, a huge cast of all-female characters and chapters from the perspective of a bear and you have, what sounds to me, like an amazing book.

Bookshop* | StoryGraph | Goodreads | Amazon 

Nan-Core by Mahokaru Numata

What if everything you thought you knew about your family was a lie?

A young man makes a shocking discovery while visiting his parents’ home. Along with a purse and a lock of hair that may have belonged to his recently deceased mother, Ryosuke finds three journals with notes that seem to be the confessions of a murderer.

Now, he has to figure out what’s fact, what’s fiction…and who are these people he’s called “Mom” and “Dad.” (StoryGraph)


Equal parts horror, mystery, thriller, family drama and…romance? A hidden gem of the previously-mentioned Iyamisu subgenre, this book is a dark, grim, page-turner of a novel. Told partially from the point-of-view of a man who has recently lost his mother and partially in the form of journal entries found among his deceased mother’s belongings, what unfolds is a complex story with some truly unexpected twists. Fans of Japanese thrillers and crime novels should not sleep on this one.

Bookshop* | StoryGraph | Goodreads | Amazon 

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

It was a clear spring day, Monday, March 20, 1995, when five members of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo conducted chemical warfare on the Tokyo subway system using sarin, a poison gas twenty-six times as deadly as cyanide. The unthinkable had happened, a major urban transit system had become the target of a terrorist attack.

In an attempt to discover why, Haruki Murakami, internationally acclaimed author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and arguably Japan’s most important contemporary novelist, talked to the people who lived through the catastrophe—from a Subway Authority employee with survivor guilt, to a fashion salesman with more venom for the media than for the perpetrators, to a young cult member who vehemently condemns the attack though he has not quit Aum. Through these and many other voices, Murakami exposes intriguing aspects of the Japanese psyche. And as he discerns the fundamental issues leading to the attack, we achieve a clear vision of an event that could occur anytime, anywhere. Hauntingly compelling and inescapably important, Underground is a powerful work of journalistic literature from one of the world’s most perceptive writers. (StoryGraph)


Every list of J-Horror inevitably includes a Murakami novel, but I’m throwing you a curveball with this entry. No, this isn’t a novel by “the other Murakami”; this book is from the legend himself, Haruki Murakami. In this non-fiction title, Murakami interviews various people who experienced the Tokyo sarin gas attack of 1995, some of them victims, some of them family and friends of victims and some of them are even former members of the cult responsible for the attack. It’s a truly fascinating look at Japanese society and how this attack has affected it in the decades since.

Bookshop* | StoryGraph | Goodreads | Amazon 

Deathnote Vol. 1-12 by Tsugumi Ohba

When Light Yagami finds a notebook giving him power over death, will he use it for good—or evil?

Light Yagami is an ace student with great prospects—and he’s bored out of his mind. But all that changes when he finds the Death Note, a notebook dropped by a rogue Shinigami death god. Any human whose name is written in the notebook dies, and now Light has vowed to use the power of the Death Note to rid the world of evil. But when criminals begin dropping dead, the authorities send the legendary detective L to track down the killer. With L hot on his heels, will Light lose sight of his noble goal…or his life?

Light tests the boundaries of the Death Note’s powers as L and the police begin to close in. Luckily Light’s father is the head of the Japanese National Police Agency and leaves vital information about the case lying around the house. With access to his father’s files, Light can keep one step ahead of the authorities. But who is the strange man following him, and how can Light guard against enemies whose names he doesn’t know? (StoryGraph)


It wouldn’t be possible to properly celebrate Golden Week without a hefty dose of manga, and I’m going all-out with this one. Half supernatural horror, half psychological thriller, Death Note is, objectively, one of the most successful and beloved manga/anime of all time. For many, it was their gateway to anime and manga. It’s true that the live-action Netflix movie is a gigantic dumpster fire on the same level as M. Night’s Airbender film and should never be viewed by anyone, but it remains the sole black mark on an otherwise flawless series.

Bookshop* | StoryGraph | Goodreads | Amazon 

And The Winner Is…

Out of these six books, HOWLers voted to read Out by Natsuo Kirino. This is an older list and we’ve already read this book, but you can see what we thought about it by joining the Discord!

*The HOWLS affiliate storefront pays a 10% commission to HOWL Society and gives a matching 10% to independent bookstores

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