Books About Japan

Man pouring tea in a tea house in Nakasendo Japan

Japan is culturally one of the most fascinating countries, yet it does not unveil itself very quickly. The language barrier, a very strong one, makes it difficult to get a deeper understanding of the traditions and cultural context that make the country a unique destination.

During my travels to Japan, before it became my permanent home, I heavily relied on the, fortunately, wide selection of books available in English to put my observations in a better context.

These are some of the Japan themed-books that make a good companion for any trip to Japan.

Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

If you will read only one book about Japan, it may well be Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki. The book tells the story of an Osaka family and the three sisters while walking you through the generational differences in Japan and the changing role of women in society. It is an amazing read and everyone will easily find a character to relate to. I also recently read Quicksand by Tanizaki. It was a very interesting story of a very interesting love triangle – again an Osaka story. His range as an author is mind-blowing.

Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki

Another great one by Tanizaki this time taking a more intimate look at the concept of marriage in Japan. The author – through one of the protagonist`s father – introduces us to the side of Japan, which wants to be free of western influence. Puppet theater, beautiful kimonos, a failing marriage, and pre-approved affairs are some of the themes that are explored in this novel. 

Lost Japan: Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan by Alex Kerr

Lost Japan is one of the best books about Japan written by a foreigner. The book, which partially reads as a memoir, is a collection of fourteen essays by Kerr that touches upon various cultural features of the country. He introduces us to kabuki, life in rural Japan (in the deliciously remote Iya Valley in Shikoku), calligraphy, and many other aspects of Japan that he is, or once was, fascinated with. Unavoidably, there is also strong criticism – as the title suggests – but with a genuinely affectionate tone.

But do not read this excellent book by Alex Kerr during or before your first trip to Japan. Let yourself get amazed by the country first and fall in love with it blindly without noticing any of its unpleasant sides. If you loved Japan the first time, you will likely come back.

On your second visit to Japan, you may start noticing certain things about the country that are not all that fascinating – “What is that abandoned concrete building doing on an otherwise pristine beach?” By your third visit (“Oh, so these are not native but planted trees, an entire forest of planted trees? And that is a result of a state policy?”), you will likely be ready to read Alex Kerr’s book to confirm your doubts about the country that you once madly fell in love with. 

Do not worry, though. By then, even though the butterflies may 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 for part of the year (dividing his time between Japan and Thailand), if that helps.

Lost Japan is a great read to dive into the world of an exceptional mind who is madly in love with Japan but is also not reluctant to criticize the country and walk us through how it changed over the decades.

Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival by David Pilling

I read this book only a few months after my move to Tokyo. I am not sure if a first time traveler with no prior interest in 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 the history of Japan. The book helped me to make a better sense of certain things I have been experiencing in Japan (not necessarily negative, just observations about the culture) and I recommend it to anyone who wants to go beyond the travelers perspective and dive a little bit deeper into the role of Japan within Asia and the world.

Things Remembered and Things Forgotten by Kyoko Nakajima

I delayed reading this book for months. I thought the theme – the grief – would make me feel sad and uneasy in a year of pandemic when we were forcibly separated from loved ones. 

Kyoko Nakajima`s book is a collection of ten stories focusing on the theme of grief. But she has such a fresh and strangely cheering perspective on a topic that is destined to make you feel down. It was probably one of the best reads for me this year among the books by Japanese authors. 

The Little House by Kyoko Nakajima

Another excellent read from Kyoko Nakajima. The story takes place during pre-war and wartime Japan (set between 1930 and 1945) and is told from the perspective of a housemaid in Tokyo. Thanks to Nakajima`s affectionate storytelling style, right off the first page, I started caring about nearly all the characters in the book. The story is driven by familial secrets and how those affect each member of the family. I wish more of her work was translated into English.

The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai

I must confess that it took me a while to get into this book, but once I did, I did not want it to end—an excellent post-war Japan story by Osamu Dazai

The story focuses on a widowed mother, a divorced sister, and a veteran brother with addiction issues, all struggling with the changing dynamics in their country – moving from a feudal society to an industrial one. The family, once belonging to the aristocratic class, leaves their home in Tokyo and moves to the Izu Peninsula. In the new era, they must earn their living by working in the fields. 

None of the characters are particularly likeable, and that is strangely the allure of the book – they are all perfectly imperfect. You never truly get to know them and their motives; all three are full of surprises that carry you until the end of the book when you finally better understand them.

Dazai dives deep into the personal impact of the post-war dynamics on the characters but also hints at the bigger picture and the cultural dynamics of the period. The Setting Sun is a dark yet very engaging read (like many other delightful reads from post-war Japanese literature).

Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

This famous novel by Natsume Soseki, first published in 1914, is the heartbreaking story of a friendship. It is one of the classics taught in Japanese high schools. The main theme of the novel is guilt, a theme explored engagingly free of cliches.

Another well-known novella by Natsume Soseki is Botchan (坊っちゃん), also taught in high schools, which tells the story of a mathematics teacher and his clash with students in Matsuyama of Shikoku where he gets his first teaching job.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko is a Buddenbrooks (by Thomas Mann) type of novel by a highly praised Korean author, Min Jin Lee. It tells the story of a Korean family who immigrated to Japan during the pre-World War II era. The story spans multiple decades, from 1910 to 1989. Pachinko focuses on the Korean identity in Japan and how living as a minority in one of the most reserved cultures in the world feels.

The racism and discrimination the family faces constitute the center of the story. Each family member deals with their situation differently.  

Pachinko was my first on-page exposure to the Korean perspective on Japan, and I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the perspective that it offered.

The author’s desire to touch upon many cultural issues simultaneously results in too many characters and, consequently, some underdeveloped ones. Pachinko is, however, still a terrific (and a page-turner) read that will keep you busy for a while. It is 530 pages long.

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

I started re-reading Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe as soon as I finished it. I have never done that before and would not even describe this book among my favorites. However, its strange story and even stranger atmosphere that the author skillfully created made me not want to step outside of Abe’s world – even though it was – literally – a very claustrophobic environment. 

The Woman in the Dunes, classified as a psychological thriller, tells the story of a school teacher and amateur entomologist visiting a small town for the weekend to search for an insect species. Unfortunately, he misses his bus back home. And after that – no, he does not turn into an insect. With all due respect to Kafka, Abe’s story is much stranger than that, as it feels very real. At the urge of the village elders, he spends the night in a home occupied by a widowed woman at the bottom of a sand dune.

Also turned into a movie, Woman in the Dunes is a strange story of love, lust and acceptance.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

If you have already been to Asia, you probably already know that life revolves around convenience stores that are open 24/7. Japan is no exception, and it sure takes things a little bit further (when does it not?) – with some big grocery stores also being open 24/7. The convenience stores – or “kombinis” in Japanese- sell everything one may need throughout the day, including socks and clean white button-down shirts for office workers.

Given the “cultural” importance of convenience stores in Japan, I could not resist the temptation to read the highly praised Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata as soon as its English translation came out in 2018.

The (anti) hero of the book, Keiko Furukura, is a recluse woman who – despite having the necessary qualifications for a much higher-paying job – dedicated her life to the convenience store where she had been working for decades. But then, what is a better job? How do we find it?

Convenience Store Woman is not from one of those books where the message is to follow your heart and do what makes you happy. It is delightfully much more bizarre than that. It partially reads as Murata’s tribute to Alber Camus’s The Stranger; I felt like emotionless Keiko could get along well with Camus’s Meursault.

Murata is a very courageous writer, but I wish she pushed her hero even a little further in terms of her mental isolation and not just gave us sneak peeks of how societally unacceptable her behavior could get. Still, this refreshingly engaging read highlights some of the strangest aspects of urban Japanese culture.

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

An amazing read by a Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro (born in Japan but now a citizen of the 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 the readers through the izakaya scene in Tokyo, makes you listen to sake-fueled dialogues between an art teacher and his students, and gives you a glimpse of the art scene of the period. We, as the readers, also get privy to the internally voiced regrets of the book’s protagonist about his war-time behavior. This is a tragic story of how a war can divide a nation.

The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata

An amazing alternative guide to Kyoto by Japan`s first Nobel prize winner Yasunari Kawabata. This is a very short novel telling the story of a family running a kimono house in Kyoto. The novel takes the readers 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. A

Another great book by Yasunati Kawabata is Snow Country , which tells the love story between a rich man and a geisha in a hot spring village in the mountains of Japan. Old Capital is the more ideal choice if you are looking for something to also act as a non-traditional guide to the country. Finally, if you want to get a sense of the literary genius of Kawabata – I would highly recommend the Dancing Girl of Izu and Other Stories.

Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb

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 young enough when I still cared enough to keep up my French (she originally writes in French but all her books are translated into English).

Nothomb was born in Japan (her father was a diplomat). After decades abroad, she returned to Japan in her early 30s. Fear and Trembling focuses on the work environment in Japan and walks you through the unpleasant office behavior that women in Japan – and particularly a foreign one – can be exposed to. While I made it sound like such a dark story, Nothomb is known for her excellent use of humor and I can categorize this book as humorous non-fiction. Fear and Trembling is the best known one among her many books focusing on Japan.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

A book by Banana Yoshimoto. No – her real name is not Banana, this is her pen name. Her short novel Kitchen, while touching upon the topic of what kitchen means for a home,  focuses on the grief that we suffer after losing a loved one. The story brings together fairly eccentric 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.

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

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 woman and her former high school teacher. I strangely read this one during a winter trip to the 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!).

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

It took me some time to get into this book by Hiromi Kawakami but halfway through it, it became more engaging. I still prefer Strange Weather in Tokyo by the same author but this book is also a fine read, giving you insights about merchants` lives in Tokyo with multiple characters, each with a remarkable capacity to say the strangest things at the most ordinary and unexpected moments.

Walking in Circles: Finding Happiness in Lost Japan by Todd Wassel

I recently read this book by Todd Wassel during my walking trip to Shikoku. This is the account of his walk covering the entire Shikoku Pilgrimage Route. It is an engaging read where the author makes the reader (or me) care about him and whether he will manage to finish the whole pilgrimage route. It is one of those easy to read travel accounts that you may particularly enjoy if you are planning your own Shikoku walk.

Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Japan by Pico Iyer

I read this book when I was traveling to Shirakawa-go in the winter of 2016. This is an autobiographical story from a famous travel writer Pico Iyer about his days in Kyoto and his love affair with a married Japanese woman. It is a very captivating read giving you insight into the expat life in Japan, taking you inside family homes in Kyot, 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 Iyer`s remarks about the women in Japan are a little controversial but it is too difficult to properly 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. 

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Murakami`s name usually comes up first if you look up books about Japan. I like Haruki Murakami even though he is not my absolute favorite (his Norwegian Wood 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).

“His books are, however, still great companions for any trip to Japan, and he is one of the reasons why I first visited Hokkaido in the middle of winter. Part of the story in his strange book ‘Wild Sheep Chase’ takes place in Hokkaido, and I particularly liked his description of the imaginary and mystical Hokkaido hotel called Dolphin Hotel. The way Hokkaido is described by Murakami in his book conveys such a strong feeling of isolation. The feeling was so strong that I thought I would be the only one sitting on a regional train in Hokkaido bound for the north when I first visited the island in the winter of 2015. It did not turn out to be the case, and I could barely find a seat on the train. But rest assured that the wonderful Hokkaido is still worth a visit and there are many corners on the island where you will be greeted with nothing but solitude.

I regularly update this post as I read more about Japan. In the meantime, another book related post is my post on Books About Mt. Everest