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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Novels Set in Japan
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.
It’s intelligent but readable, has engaging characters, and shows a darker side of the often idealised Japan.
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.
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.
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.
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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This post was originally published in November 2017 and updated with new books in December 2019.
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