20 Fascinating Books About Japan to Read Before You Visit

This page contains affiliate links. Please read our disclosure for more info.

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 are some of the best books about Japan including memoirs, historical novels, books on Japanese culture, and novels by Japanese authors.


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) Hitching Rides with Buddha by Will Ferguson

In the 1990s a Canadian English teacher sets out to follow the cherry blossom front across the length of Japan—by hitchhiking with a series of quirky characters.

This memoir is humorous and sometimes melancholy. The cherry blossoms are just an excuse to get to know the Japanese, but I enjoyed the scenes of raucous hanami parties. I also learnt a lot about Japan as he explores topics such as sumo, temples, and kodo drummers and describes the places he visits along the way.

Note this book was originally published in Canada as Hokkaido Highway Blues.

6) 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.

7) 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.

8) Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World by Lesley Downer

A British woman who has lived for many years in Japan spends an extended period in Kyoto to learn about the secret world of the geisha.

The book is well-written and researched and mixes history with personal stories from the geisha and maiko (apprentice geishas) she meets across the country.

It’s also a good introduction to Japanese history as the geisha world is affected by events such as the opening of Japan to the rest of the world and World War II.

While it’s rather dated as it was written in 2000, it’s still a fascinating insight into this unique world.

9) 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.

Back to Contents

Novels Set in Japan

10) 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.

11) 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.

12) The Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is set in Tokyo during WWII 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.

13) 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.

14) The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery

An enjoyable long novel about a young American girl who ends up alone in Japan at the end of the 19th century. She’s taken in by the owners of a tea ceremony school as they transition into the Meiji era when the country is modernising and they struggle to find a place for the traditions of tea.

15) Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Like many people, I read this in the late 90s and became fascinated by the world of the geisha in Gion, Kyoto in the 1930s and 40s.

I recently reread it while spending a month in one of Kyoto’s geisha neighbourhoods and seeing them walk down our street most days. While much has changed since the time this novel was set, it’s incredible that this secret world still exists.

There’s some controversy over the accuracy of the book, but it’s an easy read and good introduction to the world.

16) A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

A moving novel about a survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bombing who moves to the US. Decades later a badly scarred man turns up claiming to be her grandson who she thought had died.

The story looks back at the history of her and her family before the bombing and the family secrets that begin to come out.

Back to Contents

Novels by Japanese Authors

17) 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 also 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

18) Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

A 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.

19) 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.

20) 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 couldn't get into the following book in this Sea of Fertility tetralogy, though.

More Japanese Culture, Direct to your Inbox!

Sign up to our newsletter and get our exclusive Visiting Japan email series, full of more media suggestions as well as destinations and tips to make your trip a memorable one!
No spam! Unsubscribe any time!

Thank you for subscribing! You should receive an email from us very soon. Click on the link in the email to confirm your subscription.

What are your favourite Japan books? Leave a comment below.

If you are looking for more travel reads, see my picks for the best coffee table travel books (they make brilliant gifts!), travel memoirs, books about Hawaii, Iceland books to read before you visit, and books about South Africa

If you enjoyed this post, pin it!

Before you visit, here are 15 fascinating books about Japan you must read!


  1. Love Japanese literature. Many thanks for this post. I have read most of them. And i agree they are all great. I will add some of the other books I haven’t read to my list.

    You should add: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, The Sailor who fell from grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima, Miso Soup by Ryū Murakami, The Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino, Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto.

    Reply ↓

  2. For architecture and urbanism geeks such as myself, I recommend “Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City” by Jorge Almazan + Studio Lab, which examines Tokyo’s unique urbanism embodied by yokocho alleyways, zakkyo buildings and ankyo streets. Thoughtfully written and beautifully illustrated, this book provides interesting insights into what makes Tokyo the vibrant city it is.

    Reply ↓

  3. My favorite English book about Japan is still The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth. Although depressing at times, the writing is humorous and it is a glimpse into Japan in a different time.

    I would also, if I may, like to recommend my own edited volume, A Passion for Japan. It offers a unique inside look at life in Japan through 30+ personal narratives by long-term residents, each writing about a specific passion. Available on Amazon.

    Reply ↓

  4. Rainy Day Ramen and the Cosmic Pachinko is a great read for any potential visitors to see a gripping and gritty outsiders view. Or The Cat and the City is also nice trek through Tokyo with interweaving stories.

    Reply ↓

  5. You might consider the work of contemporary Japanese mystery writer Natsuo Kirino. “Out,” which details the lives of four women and what transpires when one commits a murder, is probably her best known novel. “Grotesque” is a disturbing look at the paths two sisters take as they move forward in life. Other novelists that deserve a look include Tanizaki, for “The Makioka Sisters” and “Naomi.” and Dazai, for the “The Setting Sun” and “No Longer Human.”

    Reply ↓

  6. I would like to add my non-fiction work to this list. It is called “No Pianos, Pets or Foreigners! My Life in Japan in the 80’s”. It’s available on Amazon.

    Reply ↓

  7. The book the Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa remains one of the most insightful books to me on Japan. It illuminates from a first person point of view some of the original exciting steps originating the Meiji Reformation. He’s on Japan’s equivalent $100 bill. More info from https://jpninfo.com/4625 : Yukichi Fukuzawa was an influential writer, educator and journalist. He established the Keio University and the Jiji-Shinpou (“The Times”) newspaper.
    It is said that with Fukuwaza’s ideologies came the beginning of modern Japan and the end of plutocracy. He believed that every person should be given equal opportunities to education, regardless of wealth.
    Having travelled to Europe and the United States, Fukuzawa believed Japan was behind its Western counterparts, thus, he advocated the incorporation of Western ideas into Japan, particularly in education.
    Fukuzawa published best-selling books. His writings include a Japanese-English dictionary, within which he introduced two new katakana characters to represent “V” sounds.

    Reply ↓

  8. An interesting fact about Japanese literature is that Lady Murasaki is widely recognized as the first person to write a novel. She wrote “The Tale of Genji” in the 11th century. Here’s a link for parts of the novel on google books:


    For some glimpses of life in Japan during the late 1800s, there are the writings of Lafcadio Hearne who went to Japan as a news correspondent in 1890 and stayed until his death in 1904.

    Reply ↓

  9. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by historian Herbert P. Bix (2001) won the Pulitzer Prize for its relentless exploration of 20th century political history and for conclusively demonstrating that Hirohito was personally, thoroughly responsible for overseeing and approving decades of war crimes and should have been charged accordingly rather than let off the hook by international tribunals.

    Reply ↓

  10. If anyone is looking for a Non-fiction read about history or politics, I suggest The Autobiography of Ozaki Yukio. Ozaki was a parliamentarian in Japan’s government for over 60 years, and his personal account of the events during his life (1858-1954) is incredibly interesting. His involvement in the implementation of constitutional government and his advocacy for global disarmament after WWI are really informative and thought-provoking! It is translated by his grand-daughter Fujiko Hara.

    Reply ↓

  11. Love Japan and will definitely bee reading a few of these books to get in even more excited to go to Japan.

    Reply ↓

  12. What a great collection of titles – a few are already on my wish list. I do most of my travel via fiction and the cultural differences that come across so strongly in Japanese literature can make it such thought-provoking reading.

    Reply ↓

    • Yes, Japanese literature is fascinating because of the cultural differences. I love both historical and contemporary fiction that’s set there. It transports you to another world.

      Reply ↓

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *. Your email address will not be published. By clicking the Submit button, you give consent for us to store your information for the purposes of displaying your comment and you accept the terms of our Privacy Policy.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.