Table of Contents
One of my favorite things to do is read books written about a place I’m traveling or by the people who live there. I love to do it even more when I’m going to be spending a lot of time in a new culture or, like our current situation, moving there for a few years. Books about- or especially written by- another culture can help you understand this new the people better than just traveling there. The subtle differences in how people handle situations, view the world around them, or just speak is amazing and shouldn’t be overlooked when learning about those different from ourselves. Travel isn’t just about pretty sights. After moving to Japan I realized how lacking my experience has been with Japanese books and authors. That needs to change. Below I’m going to share the reading list of books to read before visiting Japan. I can’t wait to read through the books on this list I haven’t gotten to yet and to see what you think I should add.
Check out my list of English Bookstores in Tokyo to see where you need to go on your trip to Japan.
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A Pale View of the Hills– Kazua Ishiguro
“In his highly acclaimed debut, A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro tells the story of Etsuko, a Japanese woman now living alone in England, dwelling on the recent suicide of her daughter. Retreating into the past, she finds herself reliving one particular hot summer in Nagasaki, when she and her friends struggled to rebuild their lives after the war. But then as she recalls her strange friendship with Sachiko – a wealthy woman reduced to vagrancy – the memories take on a disturbing cast.”
Moshi Moshi– Banana Yoshimoto
“In Moshi Moshi, Yoshie’s much-loved musician father has died in a suicide pact with an unknown woman. It is only when Yoshie and her mother move to Shimokitazawa, a traditional Tokyo neighborhood of narrow streets, quirky shops, and friendly residents that they can finally start to put their painful past behind them. However, despite their attempts to move forward, Yoshie is haunted by nightmares in which her father is looking for the phone he left behind on the day he died, or on which she is trying― unsuccessfully―to call him. Is her dead father trying to communicate a message to her through these dreams?”
The Devotion of Suspect X– Keigo Higashino
“Yasuko lives a quiet life, working in a Tokyo bento shop, a good mother to her only child. But when her ex-husband appears at her door without warning one day, her comfortable world is shattered.
When Detective Kusanagi of the Tokyo Police tries to piece together the events of that day, he finds himself confronted by the most puzzling, mysterious circumstances he has ever investigated. Nothing quite makes sense, and it will take a genius to understand the genius behind this particular crime…”
Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo– Miyuki Miyabe
“In old Edo, the past was never forgotten. It lived alongside the present, in dark corners, and in the shadows. In these tales, award-winning author Miyuki Miyabe explores the ghosts of Japan, and the spaces of the living world they inhabit. Written with a journalistic eye and a fantasist’s heart Apparitions bring the restless dead, and those who encounter them, to life.”
The Housekeeper and the Professor– Yoko Ogawa
“He is a brilliant math Professor with a peculiar problem–ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory.
She is an astute young Housekeeper, with a ten-year-old son, who is hired to care for him.
And every morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are introduced to each other anew, a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them. Though he cannot hold memories for long (his brain is like a tape that begins to erase itself every eighty minutes), the Professor’s mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. And the numbers, in all of their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her young son. The Professor is capable of discovering connections between the simplest of quantities–like the Housekeeper’s shoe size–and the universe at large, drawing their lives ever closer and more profoundly together, even as his memory slips away.”
Out- Natsuo Kirino
“Natsuo Kirino’s novel tells a story of random violence in the staid Tokyo suburbs, as a young mother who works a night shift making boxed lunches brutally strangles her deadbeat husband and then seeks the help of her co-workers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime.
The ringleader of this cover-up, Masako Katori, emerges as the emotional heart of Out and as one of the shrewdest, most clear-eyed creations in recent fiction. Masako’s own search for a way out of the straitjacket of a dead-end life leads her, too, to take drastic action.”
1Q84– Haruki Murakami
“A young woman named Aomame follows a taxi driver’s enigmatic suggestion and begins to notice puzzling discrepancies in the world around her. She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 —“Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled.
As Aomame’s and Tengo’s narratives converge over the course of this single year, we learn of the profound and tangled connections that bind them ever closer: a beautiful, dyslexic teenage girl with a unique vision; a mysterious religious cult that instigated a shoot-out with the metropolitan police; a reclusive, wealthy dowager who runs a shelter for abused women; a hideously ugly private investigator; a mild-mannered yet ruthlessly efficient bodyguard; and a peculiarly insistent television-fee collector.”
Read Also: Bars and Restaurants from Murakami Novels
The Eighth Day– Mitsuyo Kakuta
“The year is 1985. Kiwako is an ordinary office worker, in love with a married man, until an unwanted abortion causes her to snap. She kidnaps her lover’s six-month-old baby and runs away with her, eventually taking refuge in an all-female religious commune. Here, she attempts to raise the girl.
Fifteen years later, the child, Elena, is an adult contending with the difficulties of returning to her “natural family,” made up of a mother who doesn’t come home, an alcoholic father, and siblings with whom she can’t connect.”
I am a Cat– Natsume Soseki
“Richly allegorical and delightfully readable, I Am a Cat is the chronicle of an unloved, unwanted, wandering kitten who spends all his time observing human nature – from the dramas of businessmen and schoolteachers to the foibles of priests and potentates. From this unique perspective, author Sōseki Natsume offers a biting commentary – shaped by his training in Chinese philosophy – on the social upheaval of the Meiji era.”
Strange Weather in Tokyo– Hiromi Kawakami
“Tsukiko is drinking alone in her local sake bar when by chance she meets one of her old high school teachers and, unable to remember his name, she falls back into her old habit of calling him ‘Sensei’. After this first encounter, Tsukiko and Sensei continue to meet. Together, they share edamame beans, bottles of cold beer, and a trip to the mountains to eat wild mushrooms. As their friendship deepens, Tsukiko comes to realize that the solace she has found with Sensei might be something more.”
See Also: Our list of best places to visit in Japan in winter.
And Then– Natsume Sōseki
“And Then, ranked as one of Soseki Natsume’s most insightful and stirring novels, tells the story of Daisuke, a young Japanese man struggling with his personal purpose and identity, as well as the changing social landscape of Meiji-era Japan. As Japan enters the 20th century, ancient customs give way to western ideals, creating a perfect storm of change in a culture that operates on the razor’s edge of societal obligation and personal freedom.”
Silence– Shūsaku Endō
“Shusaku Endo is Japan’s foremost novelist, and Silence is generally regarded to be his masterpiece. In a perfect fusion of treatment and theme, this powerful novel tells the story of a seventeenth-century Portuguese priest in Japan at the height of the fearful persecution of the small Christian community.”
“Banana Yoshimoto’s novels have made her a sensation in Japan and all over the world, and Kitchen, the dazzling English-language debut that is still her best-loved book, is an enchantingly original and deeply affecting book about mothers, love, tragedy, and the power of the kitchen and home in the lives of a pair of free-spirited young women in contemporary Japan. Mikage, the heroine of Kitchen, is an orphan raised by her grandmother, who has passed away. Grieving, she is taken in by her friend Yoichi and his mother (who was once his father), Eriko. As the three of them form an improvised family that soon weathers its own tragic losses, Yoshimoto spins a lovely, evocative tale that recalls early Marguerite Duras. Kitchen and its companion story, ‘Moonlight Shadow,’ are elegant tales whose seeming simplicity is the ruse of a writer whose voice echoes in the mind and the soul.”
In a Grove– Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
“In a Grove” is an early modernist short story consisting of seven varying accounts of the murder of a samurai, Kanazawa no Takehiro, whose corpse has been found in a bamboo forest near Kyoto. Each section simultaneously clarifies and obfuscates what the reader knows about the murder, eventually creating a complex and contradictory vision of events that brings into question humanity’s ability or willingness to perceive and transmit objective truth.”
Coin Locker Babies– Ryū Murakami
“A surreal coming-of-age tale that establishes Ryu Murakami as one of the most inventive young writers in the world today.
Abandoned at birth in adjacent train station lockers, two troubled boys spend their youth in an orphanage and with foster parents on a semi-deserted island before finally setting off for the city to find and destroy the women who first rejected them. Both are drawn to an area of freaks and hustlers called Toxitown. One becomes a bisexual rock singer, star of this exotic demimonde, while the other, a pole vaulter, seeks his revenge in the company of his girlfriend, Anemone, a model who has converted her condominium into a tropical swamp for her pet crocodile.
Together and apart, their journey from a hot metal box to a stunning, savage climax is a brutal funhouse ride through the eerie landscape of late-twentieth-century Japan.”
The Thief– Fuminori Nakamura
“The Thief is a seasoned pickpocket. Anonymous in his tailored suit, he weaves in and out of Tokyo crowds, stealing wallets from strangers so smoothly sometimes he doesn’t even remember the snatch. Most people are just a blur to him, nameless faces from whom he chooses his victims. He has no family, no friends, no connections…. But he does have a past, which finally catches up with him when Ishikawa, his first partner, reappears in his life, and offers him a job he can’t refuse. It’s an easy job: tie up an old rich man, steal the contents of the safe. No one gets hurt. Only the day after the job does he learn that the old man was a prominent politician, and that he was brutally killed after the robbery. And now the Thief is caught in a tangle even he might not be able to escape.”
After Dark- Haruki Murakami
“A short, sleek novel of encounters set in Tokyo during the witching hours between midnight and dawn, and every bit as gripping as Haruki Murakami’s masterworks The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore.
At its center are two sisters—Eri, a fashion model slumbering her way into oblivion, and Mari, a young student soon led from solitary reading at an anonymous Denny’s toward people whose lives are radically alien to her own: a jazz trombonist who claims they’ve met before, a burly female “love hotel” manager and her maid staff, and a Chinese prostitute savagely brutalized by a businessman. These “night people” are haunted by secrets and needs that draw them together more powerfully than the differing circumstances that might keep them apart, and it soon becomes clear that Eri’s slumber—mysteriously tied to the businessman plagued by the mark of his crime—will either restore or annihilate her.”
Confession of a Mask– Yukio Mishima
“Confessions of a Mask tells the story of Kochan, an adolescent boy tormented by his burgeoning attraction to men: he wants to be “normal.” Kochan is meek-bodied, and unable to participate in the more athletic activities of his classmates. He begins to notice his growing attraction to some of the boys in his class, particularly the pubescent body of his friend Omi. To hide his homosexuality, he courts a woman, Sonoko, but this exacerbates his feelings for men. As news of the War reaches Tokyo, Kochan considers the fate of Japan and his place within its deeply rooted propriety”
Norwegian Wood– Haruki Murakami
“Toru, a quiet and preternaturally serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. Toru begins to adapt to campus life and the loneliness and isolation he faces there, but Naoko finds the pressures and responsibilities of life unbearable. As she retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself reaching out to others and drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman.”
Memoirs of a Geisha– Arthur Golden
“In Memoirs of a Geisha, we enter a world where appearances are paramount; where a girl’s virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder; where women are trained to beguile the most powerful men; and where love is scorned as illusion. It is a unique and triumphant work of fiction – at once romantic, erotic, suspenseful – and completely unforgettable.”
Tokyo Underworld– Robert Whiting
“Through the eyes of Nick Zappetti, a former GI, former black marketer, failed professional wrestler, bungling diamond thief who turned himself into “the Mafia boss of Tokyo and the king of Rappongi,” we meet the players and the losers in the high-stakes game of postwar finance, politics, and criminal corruption in which he thrived. Here’s the story of the Imperial Hotel diamond robbers, who attempted (and may have accomplished) the biggest heist in Tokyo’s history. Here is Rikidozan, the professional wrestler who almost single-handedly revived Japanese pride, but whose own ethnicity had to be kept secret. And here is the story of the intimate relationships shared by Japan’s ruling party, its financial combines, its ruthless criminal gangs, the CIA, American Big Business, and perhaps at least one presidential relative. Here is the underside of postwar Japan, which is only now coming to light.”
The Tale of Genji- Murasaki Shikibu
“Written in the eleventh century, this portrait of courtly life in medieval Japan is widely celebrated as the world’s first novel. The Tale of Genji is a very long romance, running to fifty-four chapters and describing the court life of Heian Japan, from the tenth century into the eleventh.”
A Tale for the Time Being– Ruth Ozeki
“In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying, but before she ends it all, Nao plans to document the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in a ways she can scarcely imagine.
Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future. “
In the Woods of Memory- Shun Medoruma
“In the Woods of Memory is a powerful, thought-provoking novel that focuses on two incidents during the Battle of Okinawa, 1945: the sexual assault on Sayoko, 17, by four US soldiers and her friend Seiji’s attempt at revenge. Narrations through nine points of view, Japanese and American, from 1945 to the present day reveal the full complexity of events and how war trauma inevitably ripples through the generations.”
Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan– Donald Keene
“Hailed as the ‘leading expert on Japanese literature’ by the New York Times Book Review, Donald Keene has devoted more than half a century to the study and appreciation of Japanese art and culture. This memoir chronicles his extraordinary life and intellectual pursuits.”
Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan– John Roderick
“In 1959 journalist John Roderick joined the Tokyo bureau of the Associated Press. There, he befriended a Japanese family, the Takishitas. After musing offhandedly that he would like to one day have his own house in Japan, the family unbeknownst to John set out to grant his wish. They found Roderick a 250-year-old minka, or hand-built farmhouse, with a thatched roof and held together entirely by wooden pegs and joinery. It was about to be washed away by flooding and was being offered for only fourteen dollars. Roderick graciously bought the house, but was privately dismayed at the prospect of living in this enormous old relic lacking heating, bathing, plumbing, and proper kitchen facilities. So the minka was dismantled and stored, where Roderick secretly hoped it would stay, as it did for several years. But Roderick’s reverence for natural materials and his appreciation of traditional Japanese and Shinto craftsmanship eventually got the better of him. Before long a team of experienced carpenters were hoisting massive beams, laying wide wooden floors, and attaching the split-bamboo ceiling. In just forty days they rebuilt the house on a hill overlooking Kamakura, the ancient capital of Japan. Working together, they renovated the farmhouse, adding features such as floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors and a modern kitchen, bath, and toilet. From these humble beginnings, Roderick’s minka has become internationally known and has hosted such luminaries as President George H. W. Bush, and Senator Hillary Clinton. John Roderick’s architectural memoir Minka tells the compelling and often poignant story of how one man fell in love with the people, culture, and ancient building traditions of Japan, and reminds us all about the importance of craftsmanship and the meaning of place and home in the process.”
The Inland Sea– Donald Richie
“In this acclaimed travel memoir, Donald Richie paints a memorable portrait of the island-studded Inland Sea. His existential ruminations on food, culture, and love and his brilliant descriptions of life and landscape are a window into an Old Japan that has now nearly vanished. Included are the twenty black and white photographs by Yoichi Midorikawa that accompanied the original 1971 edition.”
The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan– Alan Booth
“Traveling only along small back roads, Alan Booth traversed Japan’s entire length on foot, from Soya at the country’s northernmost tip, to Cape Sata in the extreme south, across three islands and some 2,000 miles of rural Japan. The Roads to Sata is his wry, witty, inimitable account of that prodigious trek.
Although he was a city person–he was brought up in London and spent most of his adult life in Tokyo–Booth had an extraordinary ability to capture the feel of rural Japan in his writing. Throughout his long and arduous trek, he encountered a variety of people who inhabit the Japanese countryside–from fishermen and soldiers, to bar hostesses and school teachers, to hermits, drunks, and tramps. His wonderful and often hilarious descriptions of these encounters are the highlights of these pages, painting a multifaceted picture of Japan from the perspective of an outsider, but with the knowledge of an insider.
The Roads to Sata is travel writing at its best, illuminating and disarming, poignant yet hilarious, critical but respectful. Traveling across Japan with Alan Booth, readers will enjoy the wit and insight of a uniquely perceptive guide, and more importantly, they will discover a new face of an often misunderstood nation.”
Confessions of a Yakuza– Junichi Saga
“This is the true story, as told to the doctor who looked after him just before he died, of the life of one of the last traditional yakuza in Japan. It wasn’t a “good” life, in either sense of the word, but it was an adventurous one; and the tale he has to tell presents an honest and oddly attractive picture of an insider in that separate, unofficial world.
In his low, hoarse voice, he describes the random events that led the son of a prosperous country shopkeeper to become a member, and ultimately the leader, of a gang organizing illegal dice games in Tokyo’s liveliest entertainment area. He talks about his first police raid, and the brutal interrogation and imprisonment that followed it. He remembers his first love affair, and the girl he ran away with, and the weeks they spent wandering about the countryside together. Briefly, and matter-of-factly, he describes how he cut off the little finger of his left hand as a ritual gesture of apology. He explains how the games were run and the profits spent; why the ties between members of “the brotherhood” were so important; and how he came to kill a man who worked for him.
What emerges is a contradictory personality: tough but not unsentimental; stubborn yet willing to take life more or less as it comes; impulsive but careful to observe the rules of the business he had joined.
And in the end, when his tale is finished, you feel you would probably have liked him if you’d met him in person. Fortunately, Dr. Saga’s record of his long conversations with him provides a wonderful substitute for that meeting.”
Yakuza Moon: The True Story of a Gangster’s Daughter– Shoko Tendo
“In this lively and inspiring adaptation by a rising star in the manga world, and with illustrations by a leading artist, Shoko Tendo’s powerful story has been recreated. Yakuza Moon is a heartrending and eye-opening account of her experiences growing up in Japan’s gangster society.
Born into the family of a wealthy yakuza boss, Shoko Tendo lived her early years in luxury. But labeled “the yakuza kid,” she was the victim both of bullying and discrimination from teachers and classmates at school, and of her father’s drunken rages at home. Then, the family fell into debt, and Tendo fell in with the wrong crowd. By the age of fifteen she was a gang member; by the age of eighteen, a drug addict; and in her twenties, a willing participant in a series of abusive and violent relationships with men.
Tendo sank lower and lower. After the death of her parents and her own suicide attempt, she began a tortuous, soul-searching reevaluation of the road she had taken. An unconventional act of empowerment (getting tattooed from the base of her neck to the tips of her toes) finally helped her take control of her life, leading to redemption and happiness.
Already an international success and translated into fourteen languages, Tendo’s story is sure to appeal to many new fans in this outstanding graphic version.”
Dave Barry Does Japan– Dave Barry
“Not since George Bush’s memorable dinner with the Japanese prime minister has the Land of the Rising Sun seen the likes of a goodwill ambassador like Dave Barry. Join him as he belts out oldies in a karaoke bar, marries a geriatric geisha girl, takes his first bath in public, bows to just about everyone, and explores culture shock in all its numerous humorous forms, including Failing to Learn Japanese in Only Five Minutes (Or: “Very Much Good Morning, Sir!”); Humor in Japan (Take My Tofu, Please!); Sports in Japan (“Yo, Batter! Loudly Make it Fly!”), and more.”
The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto– Pico Iyer
“When Pico Iyer decided to go to Kyoto and live in a monastery, he did so to learn about Zen Buddhism from the inside, to get to know Kyoto, one of the loveliest old cities in the world, and to find out something about Japanese culture today — not the world of businessmen and production lines, but the traditional world of changing seasons and the silence of temples, of the images woven through literature, of the lunar Japan that still lives on behind the rising sun of geopolitical power.
All this he did. And then he met Sachiko.
Vivacious, attractive, thoroughly educated, speaking English enthusiastically if eccentrically, the wife of a Japanese “salaryman” who seldom left the office before 10 P.M., Sachiko was as conversant with tea ceremony and classical Japanese literature as with rock music, Goethe, and Vivaldi. With the lightness of touch that made Video Night in Kathmandu so captivating, Pico Iyer fashions from their relationship a marvelously ironic yet heartfelt book that is at once a portrait of cross-cultural infatuation — and misunderstanding — and a delightfully fresh way of seeing both the old Japan and the very new.”
Rice Noodle Fish– Matt Goulding
“This is not your typical guidebook. Rice, Noodle, Fish is a rare blend of inspiration and information, perfect for the intrepid and armchair traveler alike. Combining literary storytelling, indispensable insider information, and world-class design and photography, the end result is the first ever guidebook for the new age of culinary tourism.”
Hokkaido Highway Blues– Will Ferguson
“It had never been done before. Not in 4000 years of Japanese recorded history had anyone followed the Cherry Blossom Front from one end of the country to the other. Nor had anyone hitchhiked the length of Japan. But, heady on sakura and sake, Will Ferguson bet he could do both. The resulting travelogue is one of the funniest and most illuminating books ever written about Japan. And, as Ferguson learns, it illustrates that to travel is better than to arrive.”
Geisha, A Life– Mineko Iwasaki
“In Geisha, a Life, Mineko Iwasaki tells her story, from her warm early childhood, to her intense yet privileged upbringing in the Iwasaki okiya (household), to her years as a renowned geisha, and finally, to her decision at the age of twenty-nine to retire and marry, a move that would mirror the demise of geisha culture. Mineko brings to life the beauty and wonder of Gion Kobu, a place that “existed in a world apart, a special realm whose mission and identity depended on preserving the time-honored traditions of the past.” She illustrates how it coexisted within post-World War II Japan at a time when the country was undergoing its radical transformation from a post-feudal society to a modern one.” **This is a memoir written by the woman interviewed for Memoires of a Geisha.
Hiroshima– John Hersey
“On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atom bomb ever dropped on a city. This book, John Hersey’s journalistic masterpiece, tells what happened on that day. Told through the memories of survivors, this timeless, powerful and compassionate document has become a classic ‘that stirs the conscience of humanity'”
Are there any books I need to add to my list? Let me know so I can scope them out!
This post may contain affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission, at you extra cost to you, if you make a purchase using the links. You can also see my full Disclosure and Terms and Conditions (you know, the real boring stuff).
**All Book descriptions come from Goodreads
Are you ready for Japan?
- Book Your Flights– To find the cheapest flights, flexibility is a must. Some great options are Google Flights for the calendars to find the cheapest options, Skiplagged, and Skyscanner. For more options see our resources page. For Japan, check flights for both Tokyo Airports (Haneda and Narita), as well as Osaka (Kansai).
- Find Transportation- Buy your JR Pass for your bullet train and inter-city travel before you leave home. Research a Suica card, the public transportation card you can either buy before or as soon as you arrive.
- Book Your Accommodation– Look at Booking.com, Hotels.com, or Expedia for hotels in Japan. You can also look at AirBnB or VRBO as we’ve had great luck finding inexpensive, large, and clean homes to rent.
- Book Tours and Experiences- Check Klook or Viator for some of the best tours and attractions for a great price for experiences like Tokyo Skytree, TeamLab Borderless, and Universal Osaka. For Tokyo Disney Resort, check my guide here.
- Stay Connected– Order a pocket WIFI for airport pickup if you’re with a family or group, or order a SIM card just for your phone. Check out our guide to staying connected here.
- Buy Travel Insurance- I always recommend World Nomads for insurance. It’s better to protect yourself in case of mishaps. Learn more about World Nomads in this FAQ post.
- Pack Your Bags– Check out my packing lists, or my favorite travel gear to help you remember all of the essentials.
- Learn About Japan– Learn about Japan with guidebooks like Lonely Planet, or, shameless plug, search around my site for more info.