Japan is no doubt culturally one of the most fascinating countries but it can be very challenging to get a deeper understanding of its culture and traditions if the level of your Japanese skills is “0” just like me. While I occasionally got lucky to have the company of an English speaking resident of Japan during my travels in the country (where I am now a resident), books also helped me a lot not only to enjoy my visits even more but also to partially overcome language related challenges and dive a little bit deeper into the Japanese culture. So I thought that it may be a good idea to list some of the books about Japan (or taking place in Japan) that helped me to better understand Japan. (P.S: Instead of the photos of the book covers, I took the liberty to use some of the photos that I took during my four visits to Japan in the last six years.)
# 1 An Artist of the Floating World
An amazing read by the latest Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro (born in Japan but now a citizen of United Kingdom). The book focuses on the life of a retired painter and his relationship with his two daughters. One of the daughters is already married whereas the other one goes through the cumbersome match making procedures in post-World War II Japan. Ishiguro`s novel takes you through izayakas in Tokyo, make you listen to sake fueled dialogues between an art teacher and his students, get a glimpse of the art scene of the time right before and after the war and understand how the traditional Japanese neighborhoods have been transformed over the years. Through the regrets of the books hero, you also get a sense of how tragically a war can divide a nation. In addition to an Artist of the Floating World, “A Pale View of Hills” is another good one of Ishiguro focusing more on the characters rather than the events of the period. On the other hand, as the author also openly says that it is not among his favorite works, one of his earlier works – “When We Were Orphans” felt more like a rushed venture with a focus to have a movie made out of the book and is hardly a favorite.
# 2 Lost Japan: Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan
Do not read this great book by Alex Kerr during or before your first trip to Japan. Let yourself get amazed with the country first, fall in love with it blindly without noticing any of its unpleasant sides. If you loved Japan the first time, it is very likely that you will keep visiting (the country is known to have an addictive effect on people). You may with your second visit to Japan (when there are less butterflies in the stomach) start noticing certain things about the country, which are not all that fascinating and only if you are already at that stage, Alex Kerr`s book (that I read during my first visit to Yakushima) will be a great supplement to confirm your doubts about the country that you once madly fell in love with. Do not worry though, by that time, even though the butterflies may long be gone, your love for Japan will already be deep enough that you will continue to love it no matter what. Alex Kerr still lives in Japan if that helps. Lost Japan is a great read to dive into the world of a man who is madly in love with Japan but is also not afraid to criticize the country and tell us how it changed over the years.
# 3 The Old Capital
An amazing alternative guide to Kyoto by Japans first Nobel prize winner Yasunari Kawabata. This is a quite short novel telling the story of a family running a kimono house in Kyoto and which takes you through almost every landmark in Kyoto (Arashiyama included!). The book has an interesting literary structure where milestone events take place so quickly (and in one short sentence!) that it makes you focus on the details rather than the events. Another great book by Yasunati Kawabata is Snow Country – telling the love story between a rich man and a geisha in a hot spring village in the mountains of Japan. I read both books during my latest visit to Japan and Old Capital is more ideal if you are looking for something to also act as a non-traditional guide to the country. Finally, if you want to get a glimpse of literary geniusness of Kawabata – I would highly recommend the Dancing Girl of Izu and Other Stories.
# 4 Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto
I read this one when I was traveling in Gifu prefecture in the winter of 2016. This is an autobiographical story from a quite famous travel writer Pico Iyer about his days in Kyoto and love affair with a married Japanese women. It is a very captivating read giving you insight about the expat life in Japan, taking you inside family homes in Kyoto but also and more interestingly allowing you to witness the dynamics of a romantic relationship between a westerner and a Japanese person. Some of Pico Iyers remarks about the women in Japan are thought provoking but it is too difficult to judge as the book focuses on a very personal experience. I wonder how they did not make a movie of this book yet as his story would surely make a captivating one.
# 5 A Wild Sheep Chase
I sure love Murakami even though he is not my absolute favorite (his Norwegian Book is among my all time favorite books though). I find his writing style a little too pretentious sometimes and cannot stop thinking that a lot of stories also serve to praise himself (like Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage). Anyways, his books are however still great companions to any trip to Japan and he is one of the reasons why I first visited Hokkaido in the middle of the winter. Part of the story in his strange book Wild Sheep Chase takes place in Hokkaido and I particularly like his description of the imaginary and mystical Hokkaido hotel called Dolphin Hotel. The way Hokkaido is described by Murakami in his book passes you such a strong feeling of secludedness. The feeling was so strong that I thought I would be the only one sitting in a regional train in Hokkaido bound for north when I first visited the island in the winter of 2015. It did not quite turn out to be like that and I could barely find a seat in the train. However, once you get off the train and then get out of the town, secludedness in its most beautiful form will make sure to greet you.
# 6 Fear and Trembling
It has been so long since I read the books of the Belgian author Amelie Nothomb, long long before I visited Japan and at an age I still cared enough to keep up my French (she originally writes in French but all her books are translated into English and also into Turkish). Nothomb was born in Japan (her father was a diplomate) where she returned for work in her early 30s. Fear and Trembling focuses on the work environment in Japan and walks you through the unpleasant work environment that women in Japan – and particularly a foreign one – can be exposed to. While I made it sound like such a dark story, she uses a very funny language and with her words, successfully charicutarize the unpleasant situations she experienced. Fear and Trembling is the best known one of her many books focusing on Japan.
# 7 Kitchen
A book by Banana Yoshimoto. No – her real name is not Banana but that is what she picked as her author name. Her short novel Kitchen, while touching upon the topic of what kitchen means for a home, focuses on the grief we suffer after losing a loved one and bring together very alternative characters. Yoshimoto is one the best known authors of contemporary Japanese writing and I need to read more books from her to understand if her writing style appeals to me or not. Kitchen is any case a quick and captivating read that I engaged in during a short stay in Tokyo. As a side note for Turkish readers, the book also reminded me a lot of “Mutfak Cikmazi” by Turkish author Tahsin Yucel, a book telling the story of a man spending all his time in the kitchen to overcome a painful break-up.
#8 Another Kyoto
Another book by Alex Kerr. While Another Kyoto may at first look and feel like a small encyclopedia including many boring details – I ensure you that it is a lot more than that. I am grateful – as a big Kyoto fan – to Alex Kerr for this book, which really add so much to sightseeing in Kyoto. His book has separate sections focusing on walls, toris, gardens and many other components of Japanese culture that you will redundantly see during any visit to Kyoto and feed you with such fine details that will really help you to better appreciate what you are seeing. Alex Kerr has a very captivating writing style, which makes you read technical details about Kyoto walls in the same exciting manner as if you are reading a thriller.
#9 Strange Weather in Tokyo
Just like Old City is to Kyoto, this great read by Hiromi Kawakami is a great alternative guide to Tokyo. The story focuses on an intense relationship turned into love between a young women and her former high school teacher whom she calls “sensei”. I strangely read this one during a winter trip to Lofoten Islands and immediately wanted to travel to Japan once again. The story follows the change of seasons in mainly Tokyo walking us through all things Japanese starting with warm sake and continuing with iced cold beer (well this one may not be purely Japanese but they sure love it a lot in Japan!). I also read the more recent the Nakano Thrift Shop by the same author. While it took me sometime to start enjoying the book, once you get into the quirks of the characters almost half way through the book, it becomes a very engaging read.
#10 Makioka Sisters
Last but not the least – if you will read one book about Japan, it may well be Makioka Sisters by Tanazaki. Telling the story of an Osaka family and the three sisters while walking you through the generations in Japan and also the changing role of the women in the society. It is an amazing read and everyone will easily find a character to relate to. Again, if you have time only for one book about Japan, my preference would be Makioka Sisters.
#11 Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival
I recently read this book – just few months after my recent move to Tokyo. I am not sure if a first time traveler with no prior interest about Japan would enjoy it but it was one of the best books that I have read about Japan. While the author David Pilling commentary centers around the tragic 2011 tsunami in East Japan, he touches upon many other topics including economics, politics and history of Japan. The booked helped me to make a better sense of certain things I have been experiencing in Japan (not negative, just simple observations about the culture) and I recommend it to anyone who wants to go beyond the travelers perspective and dive little bit deeper into the role of Japan within Asia and the World.
#12 The Woman in the Dunes
I read this book by Kobo Abe when I was traveling in Kanazawa in December 2018. The moment I finished it, I returned to page 1 to re-read it. Sounds a bit odd? I have never done that before and I would not even describe this book among my favorites. However, with its strange story and even the stranger atmosphere, it captured me and I somehow felt like not wanting to step outside of the strange world that it created – even though it was literally a very claustrophobic environment. It is the story of an entomologist going to a small town for the weekend to look for an insect. He unfortunately misses his bus back home and …
#13 Convenience Store Woman
If you have already been to Asia, you probably already know that the life almost revolves around convenience stores, which are open 24/7. Japan is no exception to this and it sure takes the things a little bit further (when does not it?) – with some of the huge grocery stores also being open 24/7. The convenience stores – or “kombinis” as called in Japan, carry everything that one may need to go through its day including socks and clean white button down shirts for the office workers! So I sure could not resist the urge to check out the highly praised Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. It was a good read with a story centering around a very alternative character in some ways resembling me the hero of L`Etranger by Albert Camus. The hero is a recluse woman who dedicated her life to the convenience store where she has been working for decades even though she could have gotten a much better job elsewhere. But then what is a better job? How do we find it? I can however assure you that it is not from one of those do what makes you happy books, it is much stranger than that. I found Murata to be a quite courageous writer and I wish that she pushed her hero a little bit more instead of giving us sneak peaks of how out of the line she could mentally get.
#14 The Nakano Thrift Shop
#15 Some Prefer Nettles
Another great one by Tanazaki this time taking a more intimate look at marriage in Japan. The author – through one of the heros father also introduces us to the side of Japan, which wants to be free of Western influence. Puppet theater, beautiful kimonos. a falling marriage, approved affairs are some of the themes that you will come across in this novel.