Yoko Ogawa (1962-)

Prolific author Yoko Ogawa has been successfully publishing novels in Japan since the late 1980s. Over the years, she has won several major Japanese literary awards, including the Kaien Prize, Akutagawa Prize, Yomiuri Prize, Izumi Prize, and the Tanizaki Prize. Her work has also appeared in the New Yorker, A Public Space, and Zoetrope. As Ogawa's popularity has grown, her work has started to appear in English translation.


Ogawa's most widely reviewed work in English translation to date is The Diving Pool: Three Novellas. The collection, published in 2008, features novellas titled "Dormitory," "Pregnancy Diary," and "The Diving Pool." All of the stories are set in urban Japan and feature female protagonists in their late teens or early twenties. The book's title novella portrays Aya as she falls for Jun, who is essentially her foster brother. Aya's parents run an orphanage, and she is raised alongside her parents' charges. Aya's complicated love for Jun is also offset by her cruelty towards Rie, the youngest girl in the orphanage. In "Pregnancy Diary," Ogawa tells the tale of a woman who tracks her sister's pregnancy in her journal. The woman's sister endlessly craves homemade grapefruit jam, which in the end, may turn out to be poisonous to the fetus. The third novella, "Pregnancy Diary," features the landlord of a college dormitory. The landlord, an amputee, is fascinated by the students' intact limbs. When one of the students goes missing, the landlord becomes the main suspect.

Aside from the similarity of the settings and protagonists in each story, critics remarked that all three novellas are suspenseful and strange tales. Furthermore, the work was universally acclaimed, and critics lamented that Ogawa's work has not been more widely translated. They also looked forward to additional translations amid Ogawa's growing popularity in the United Kingdom and the United States. Although Victoria James, writing in the London Independent, felt that the stories are "perhaps too similar in structure and conceit," she nevertheless called the book "a welcome introduction to an author whose suggestive, unsettling storytelling speaks volumes by leaving things unsaid." Joanna Briscoe, writing in the London Guardian, was also pleased by the tales. She noted that "women in Ogawa's work are essentially impassive, numbed, even dazed. ... Their disconcerting inertia in response to their restricted roles is counterpoised with eruptions and vicious twists." Furthermore, Briscoe added, Ogawa's "exquisite, controlled prose avoids becoming brittle through her depth of emotional understanding. To read Ogawa is to enter a dreamlike state tinged with a nightmare, and her stories continue to haunt. She possesses an effortless, glassy, eerie brilliance."

Reviewers in the United States were just as impressed as those in England. Indeed, Cherie Thiessen, reviewing The Diving Pool in January, remarked that "the three pithy works contained in this new publication are ... sleek and muscular." She also stated: "Lucky this book is slim. It's a collection you are probably going to be driven to read more than once." A Kirkus Reviews contributor also applauded the book, calling it "a masterfully twisted triptych of dark novellas [that] marks the American debut of a critically acclaimed Japanese fiction writer."

Ogawa's Hakase no aishita sushiki was translated and published as The Housekeeper and the Professor, a story "about chosen family, relationships, mathematics and baseball (okay, baseball is a small part of it, but I loved this added bonus)," explained Rachel Baker on the Old Musty Books Web site. "While reading this book, I was simply amazed at how enticing mathematics could be." The characters are nameless (they are known simply as "the Professor," "the Housekeeper," and "Root," the housekeeper's young son). "Names are inconsequential because so few characters play within the plot," wrote Karen D. Haney on the Curled Up with a Good Book Web site. "After a devastating accident," Baker explained, "the professor only has eighty minutes of short term memory. This means, every single morning, the Housekeeper has to reintroduce herself to the Professor before she can go into his house. One would think there would be no way to build a relationship with this sort of setback. This book shows it's possible." "Feelings intertwine with numbers," Haney stated, "and before readers know it, they feel the same fascination with mathematics that the Professor and the Housekeeper come to cherish together as her own interest in numbers draws her to him."

"They also bond over baseball," explained Jim Higgins in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Root is nuts about it. The Professor, too, is a fan. He has never seen a game, but he has a tin of prized baseball cards, including his favorite player, left-handed Hanshin Tigers pitcher Yutaka Enatsu, whose perfect number twenty-eight is so pleasing." "Dive into Yoko Ogawa's world (she is the author of more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction) and you find yourself tugged by forces more felt than seen," declared Dennis Overbye in the New York Times Book Review. "What is the problem with all the men in the housekeeper's life? Who is the woman in the photograph buried under baseball cards in a tin on the professor's desk? Can the professor love somebody he can't remember?" "Ogawa never minimizes the professor's limitations or the difficulty of caring for him, but she has a sublime sense of his value, his enduring capacity for affection and his ability to illuminate the world of numbers," stated Ron Charles in the Washington Post Book World. "Of course, befriending a man who forgets who you are every day inspires a heart-breaking kind of pathos, but the housekeeper never dwells on that sadness. She's more impressed by the professor's special insight into the mathematical underpinnings of the universe."

"Soon, the satisfaction taken in mathematics creates a soothing music between all three characters, echoing that of their relationship, which finds ways, like an equation, to restate, strengthen, correct and balance itself against various trials," declared Joan Frank in the San Francisco Chronicle. "As the professor ages he grows frailer, and what remains of his memory begins to sputter." "The smart and resourceful housekeeper ... falls under the spell of the beautiful mathematical phenomena the Professor elucidates," stated Booklist contributor Donna Seaman. "The trio begins to resemble a family," wrote a Kirkus Reviews contributor, "with an unspoken understanding of each other that transcends language and convention." Ogawa's account of their "eccentric relationship," concluded the Kirkus Reviews contributor, "reads like a fable, one that deftly balances whimsy with heartache."

"The book as a whole is an exercise in delicate understatement, of the careful arrangement of featherlight materials into a surprisingly strong structure. The pure mountain air of number theory blows gently through all its pages," wrote Steven Poole in the London Guardian. "Only at length does the reader wonder whether the touching illusion that Ogawa creates--of a lasting friendship with a man whose memory only lasts eighty minutes--was just that, an illusion." "There are also severe narrative drawbacks in placing a character with anterograde amnesia at the centre of a story," wrote Spectator reviewer Charles Cumming. "But Ogawa largely overcomes these through the clarity of her prose and the originality of her approach." "I adored this wonderfully book. It's certainly one of my favourites this year and probably one of the best books I've ever read," declared a contributor to the Daisy's Book Journal Web site. "To say it's beautifully written is an understatement."

In Ogawa's next novel, Hotel Iris, a seventeen-year-old named Mari helps her mother run a shady seaside hotel. Mari becomes strangely attracted to a man who was thrown out of the hotel for loudly abusing a prostitute, and who also may or may not have killed his wife. Soon enough Mari becomes involved in a sadomasochistic relationship with the man, and she is also dragged into his web of lies.

Reviewing the work for National Public Radio's Fresh Air, contributor Maureen Corrigan put forth: "This is a novel you find yourself reluctantly transfixed by. Ogawa is a writer capable of seducing readers against their will. ... Using spare strokes and macabre detail, Ogawa creates an intense vision of limited lives and the twisted ingenuity of people trapped within them. You'll be glad you read Hotel Iris and also glad to check out." M.A. Orthofer, a contributor to the Complete Review Web site, remarked: "Hotel Iris moves along and comes together in an intriguing fashion, but ultimately feels underdeveloped, just like its protagonist. The physical is presented in graphic (and shocking) detail, but the psychological is not explored nearly enough." London Independent contributor Daniel Hahn opined: "It's brave territory for Ogawa, and she manages it with sharp focus; she creates moments of breathtaking ugliness, often when least expected." A Kirkus Reviews contributor reported: "Minimalist Ogawa ... trades the eccentric relationships of her debut novel for a much darker affair in her latest plumbing of human experience." A Publishers Weekly contributor labeled the work a "haiku-like fable of love contorted into obsession."

Departing again from long-form fiction, Ogawa shows her narrative power and precision in Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, a collection of short stories translated by Stephen Snyder. The subject matter of these closely linked stories can be grim, macabre, even tragic and sad, but reviewers repeatedly commented on how her literary style and writing skills make the unusual into unlikely examples of narrative excellence. "Perhaps what makes the world of Ogawa's fiction tolerable is precisely its quality of nightmare, tinged with bleak comedy and marked by surrealistic images," observed Toronto National Post reviewer Philip Marchand.

The stories establish an assortment of atmospheric settings and emotional responses. In "An Afternoon at the Bakery," a grieving mother stops by to purchase strawberry shortcake for a son who died years earlier, suffocated in an abandoned refrigerator. The mother, possibly driven insane by grief, discovered her son's body, she reveals, and never had the chance to eat cake with him before he died. "Old Mrs. J" describes how the narrator, a struggling writer, discovers that the landlady grows carrots in the shape of human hands. A traffic accident covers the road with spilled tomatoes in "The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger." In "Sewing for a Heart," a master bag maker is asked to create a container to hold a woman's heart, which grows outside of her body.

Interconnected objects and images recur in these stories. The tomatoes in "The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger" reappear in "Tomatoes and the Full Moon," in which a woman picks up some of the fruits from the deadly accident site and offers some of them to a fellow resort guest. The characters in "Fruit Juice" eat strawberry shortcake from the same bakery featured in "Afternoon at the Bakery." "By linking these 'eleven dark tales,' Ogawa makes a powerful case for the interrelatedness of discrete instances of horror, crime, and passion," commented Rhoda Feng in a Huffington Post review.

In this collection, "Ogawa is peerless at exploring the prismatic significance of the minutest activities and occurrences of prosaic life, making them the portal to horrid secrets in the lives of her characters. She delivers little shocks of grotesque and otherwise unnerving detail specially calibrated to disturb our sense of the quotidian," remarked Feng. "Ogawa's writing is simple and effective, and her technique for merging the tales demonstrates her mastery of the written word," observed a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, found Ogawa's collection to be a "delectably fantastic, endlessly intriguing tales of obsession, revenge, and unforeseen interconnections."


"Ogawa Yoko." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2020. 


  • Further Reading


    • Booklist, February 1, 2008, Ray Olson, review of The Diving Pool: Three Novellas, p. 26; January 1, 2009, Donna Seaman, review of The Housekeeper and the Professor, p. 46; December 15, 2012, Donna Seaman, review of Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales,, p. 19.
    • Economist, January 26, 2013, "Slightly Off: New Japanese Fiction," review of Revenge,, p. 75.
    • Guardian (London, England), August 2, 2008, Joanna Briscoe, review of The Diving Pool; May 2, 2009, Steven Poole, "Prime Reading."
    • Independent (London, England), August 8, 2008, Victoria James, review of The Diving Pool; June 28, 2010, Daniel Hahn, review of Hotel Iris.
    • January, January, 2008, Cherie Thiessen, review of The Diving Pool.
    • Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2007, review of The Diving Pool; December 1, 2008, review of The Housekeeper and the Professor; March 15, 2010, review of Hotel Iris; November 15, 2012, review of Revenge.
    • Library Journal, April 1, 2009, Victor Or, review of The Housekeeper and the Professor, p. 71.
    • Los Angeles Times, January 25, 2009, Susan Salter Reynolds, review of The Housekeeper and the Professor.
    • Mainichi Daily News, April 27, 2007, "Novelists Yoko Ogawa, Hiromi Kawakami to Join Akutagawa Literary Prize Nomination Committee."
    • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 15, 2009, Jim Higgins, review of The Housekeeper and the Professor.
    • National Post (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 15, 2013, Philip Marchand, "Open Book: Revenge, by Yoko Ogawa, ," review of Revenge.
    • New Yorker, February 9, 2009, review of The Housekeeper and the Professor, p. 109; February 25, 2013, review of Revenge,, p. 81.
    • New York Times Book Review, March 1, 2009, Dennis Overbye, "You Must Not Remember This," p. 9.
    • Publishers Weekly, October 29, 2007, review of The Diving Pool, p. 30; November 17, 2008, review of The Housekeeper and the Professor, p. 40; February 8, 2010, review of Hotel Iris, p. 28; November 12, 2012, review of Revenge,, p. 41.
    • San Francisco Chronicle, March 15, 2009, Joan Frank, review of The Housekeeper and the Professor.
    • Spectator, June 6, 2009, Charles Cumming, "Strength in Numbers," p. 36.
    • Washington Post Book World, February 15, 2009, Ron Charles, "Infinite Loop: A Woman Cares for a Mathematician Who Never Remembers Who She Is," p. 6.



    • Complete Review, http://www.complete-review.com/ (December 19, 2009), M.A. Orthofer, review of Hotel Iris.
    • Curled Up with a Good Book, http://www.curledup.com/ (October 7, 2009), Karen D. Haney, review of The Housekeeper and the Professor.
    • Cyberhobo.net, http://www.cyberhobo.net/ (October 7, 2009), review of The Housekeeper and the Professor.
    • Daisy's Book Journal, http://lazydaisy0413.blogspot.com/ (October 7, 2009), review of The Housekeeper and the Professor.
    • Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ (March 7, 2013), Rhoda Feng, review of Revenge.
    • January, http://januarymagazine.com/ (October 7, 2009), Cherie Thiessen, review of The Diving Pool.
    • Man Asian Literary Prize Web site, http://www.manasianliteraryprize.org/ (April 28, 2014), biography of Yoko Ogawa.
    • National Public Radio, Fresh Air, http://www.npr.org/ (April 14, 2010), Maureen Corrigan, "In a Seaside Town, Hidden Desires Surface."
    • National Public Radio Website, http://www.npr.org/ (February 18, 2013), Alan Cheuse, "Under Ogawa's Macabre, Metafictional Spell," transcript of All Things Considered radio review of Revenge.
    • Old Musty Books, http://www.oldmustybooks.com/ (October 7, 2009), Rachel Baker, review of The Housekeeper and the Professor.
    • Words without Borders, http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/ (April 28, 2013), Mithili G. Rao, review of Revenge.