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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Novels by Japanese Authors
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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