I always like to read about a destination before I visit and Japan is perfect for this. It has a unique and fascinating culture and learning more about it before you visit will increase your enjoyment of the country.
There is a huge range of books about Japan including memoirs, novels, and books on Japanese culture. Here are some of my favourites:
Non-Fiction Books About Japan
1) A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony by Hector Garcia
A Geek in Japan is a great introduction to Japanese culture including a brief history of the country that explains that the Japanese are so different because they were isolated from the rest of the world for centuries. The book covers both traditional culture such as sumo and tea ceremonies as well as modern Japanese business and youth culture.
Some of it is a little dated—you won’t see many manga magazines anymore as everyone is reading on their phones—but it’s an interesting read and could help avoid cultural misunderstandings.
2) Lost Japan by Alex Kerr
Part memoir, part exploration of Japanese culture, Lost Japan was written by an American who has lived in Japan since he was a boy. He loves the country but isn’t afraid to criticise how things are changing and his fears that traditional Japanese culture and arts will be lost. His explorations include thatched roof houses, Kabuki theatre, art, and calligraphy.
3) Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto by Victoria Abbott Riccardi
Untangling My Chopsticks is a memoir by a young American woman who travels to Kyoto to learn about tea kaiseki, the intricate multi-course meal that is traditionally served before a tea ceremony.
It’s an enjoyable read and you’ll learn lots about Japanese food and culture. As a vegetarian, I appreciated the final section on shojin ryori, the Zen Buddhist vegetarian cuisine where tea kaiseki originated.
4) Rice Noodle Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan's Food Culture by Matt Goulding
It doesn’t make sense for a vegetarian like me to enjoy this book as I can eat almost nothing described here. Despite this, I found it a compelling insight into Japanese food culture from convenience stores to kaiseki and everything in between. It explores why Japanese food is so good—partly because of the shokunin chefs who dedicate their lives to cooking one type of food perfectly. This is a must-read for foodies.
5) Yokohama Yankee: My Family's Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan by Leslie Helm
Yokohama Yankee is a fascinating look at life for foreigners in Japan beginning with the author’s great-grandfather who arrived in the country from Germany in the mid-19th century, just after it had opened up to outsiders. Despite five generations of the Helm family living in Japan, running a business there, and even marrying locals, they never truly integrate.
6) Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden is one of the most famous novels about Japan. Golden used interviews with Iwasaki, one of the best geishas of her generation, to inform his work but she was unhappy with the result that portrays geisha as prostitutes, which she denies.
Geisha, A Life is her response to the novel—a real memoir of a geisha about the ups and downs of life as a famous high-class dancer and entertainer in Gion, Kyoto. It’s not as dramatic as the novel and the writing is a little dry, but I was fascinated with this hidden world. Note that in the UK the book is called Geisha of Gion.
7) Tokyo on Foot: Travels in the City's Most Colorful Neighborhoods by Florent Chavouet
For something different try this fun and beautiful illustrated memoir by a French guy who moves to Tokyo for six months. He documents his experience by drawing Tokyo’s streets and people and incorporates his observations about life in Japan. While it’s not a travel guide, it does give you an introduction to the city’s different neighbourhoods. The ebook doesn’t work well on a regular Kindle but looks great on an iPad.
Novels Set in Japan
8) Shōgun by James Clavell
Shōgun is an epic novel about an English sailor who ends up on the shores of feudal Japan in 1600. At first he is reviled as a barbarian foreigner but he gradually integrates into Japanese culture, becomes a samurai, and falls in love.
It’s 1000 pages long and it took me a while to get into, but when I did I couldn’t stop reading. Although it’s fiction, it’s based on real characters and is a fascinating insight into samurai life.
9) A Tale for The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
I adored this novel about a Canadian writer who finds the diary of a Japanese teenager washed up on the shores of her remote island. She becomes engrossed in this troubled teen’s life in Tokyo. The book covers topics as wide-ranging as the nature of time, Zen Buddhism, quantum mechanics, kamikaze pilots in WW2, cyberbullying, and the environment.
It’s intelligent but readable, has engaging characters, and shows a darker side of the often idealised Japan.
10) The Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama
The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is set in Tokyo during WW2 and the two decades after. It tells the story of two brothers, each with a passion for a Japanese art form—sumo wrestling and creating Noh theatre masks—that are steeped in tradition.
We learn of the family’s horrific struggles during the war and I realised how rarely I’ve read about the war from the other side’s perspective. It’s a novel about family, love, loss, tradition, and the resilience of the human spirit.
11) Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko is a wonderful engrossing novel about four generations of a Korean family who moved to Japan in the early 20th century. As in Yokohama Yankee it was shocking to read how difficult it was for foreigners to integrate into the country and how even third generation immigrants born in Japan were refused citizenship and treated as inferior.
Novels by Japanese Authors
12) Anything by Haruki Murakami
Murakami is the most well-known Japanese author internationally and I highly recommend reading at least one of his books. You won’t necessarily learn much about Japan from them, but all his books are brilliant and many have a large dose of magical realism.
You can’t really go wrong. The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is a surreal classic, Norwegian Wood is more realistic fiction (and possibly more accessible), and I recently enjoyed Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. As a runner and writer, I’m also a big fan of his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
15) Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
Another classic Japanese book, Snow Country is a stark and lyrical tale of a love affair between a geisha at an isolated hot spring resort and a wealthy dilettante who is incapable of loving her. There’s not much action; it’s more about capturing moments like in a haiku poem.
14) Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima
Spring Snow is another coming of age love story by Mishima, just as beautifully written but more complex. It portrays the relationship between the son of a nouveau-riche family and the daughter of an impoverished but aristocratic family at the beginning of the 20th century when society was becoming more westernised. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books in this Sea of Fertility tetralogy.
13) The Sounds of Waves by Yukio Mishima
This classic Japanese novel is a simple but beautiful coming of age story about a love affair between a poor young fisherman and the daughter of a wealthy ship owner. It’s set on a small island in Japan in the mid 20th century and I loved the glimpse into the daily lives of the fishermen and diving women including prayers at the Shinto temple and gossiping at the bathhouse. What are your favourite books about Japan or by Japanese authors? Leave a comment below.
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