Before you travel to any new country, you should know a little about its history, food, art, language, and customs. Japan’s literature and culture are so rich and the best way to learn more is to tuck into a few Japanese novels by some of the best Japanese authors, as well as some fantastic travel and history books. With that said, here are seven books to read before you visit Japan, land of the rising sun.
You think ancient Japan, you picture samurai, geisha, and ninja. You think modern Japan, you picture anime, robots, and neon-lit streets. More than any other nation, Japan is famous in equal parts for its history and its modern culture. It has done such a good job of both separating and marrying the two together. As such, its tourism grows every single year.
We clamour to Japan from all over to see the Kinkaku-ji of Kyoto, to climb Mt. Fuji, to shop for anime merchandise in Akihabara. But before we do any of this, we should really get a better understanding of what makes Japan special. What is it that the Japanese value? How does their country work with so much harmony and peace? Why is their art as unique and beautiful as it is? To help answer these questions, here are seven books – Japanese novels, history books, and culture guides – to read before travelling to Japan.
Japanese Novels and Culture Books
Written by Will Ferguson
We’re not starting with one of the best Japanese novels, nor even one of the great Japanese authors. Instead, we’re starting with a grump Canadian man.
Story time: Before I lived in Japan (the first time), I was gifted this book by a friend. What I thought would be a fun book that would familiarise me with the roads and trains and cities of Japan turned out to be an illuminating story about living as a foreigner in Japan, the post-war growth of Japanese society and infrastructure, and a journey filled with as many laughs as tears.
Hokkaido Highway Blues treats you to fascinating anecdotes about Japanese folklore, language, history, fashion, food, everything. It’s such a great place to start when getting used to modern Japan. In other words, and quite surprisingly, it is one of the best books on Japanese culture.
Written by Jonathan Clements
Speaking of the best books on Japanese culture, this book is a fantastic place to start. We’ve read a few books on the history of Japan, but none hit the mark quite like this one. Clements is an expert on both Chinese and Japanese language and culture, and his unwavering adoration for Japanese culture – both ancient and modern – shines through in this fun, fluid, vibrant book.
If you want to learn the truth about Zen, how the Samurai truly worked and behaved, and how exactly Japan paved its own road through Asian history, this is the book you need to dig into. It’s written with wit, wisdom, and playfulness, but packs a real knowledge punch.
While Clements is an expert and someone with a clear and intense adoration for Japanese history and culture, he’s also someone capable of coming at certain topics from a different angle. The way that he explores the religious history of Japan, for example, is truly eye-opening. When you see how thin this book is, you’ll wonder how he packs so much in, but Clements finds a way. This us truly one of the best books on Japanese culture right now.
Written by Sayaka Murata
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
One of the best Japanese novels to come out of the country in years was 2018’s Konbini Ningen (or Convenience Store Woman). It’s a short novel that tells the story of a woman who has worked in a convenience store for 18 years.
This is the peak of modern Japanese novels, and it holds the state of modern-day Japanese life under a lens by force. It brings to light the fragility of Japanese society, how it behaves like clockwork so long as all the cogs are greased. And the job of a convenience store person is very much one of these cogs.
If you want to really dig into the psychology of Japan’s culture before you visit Japan, this book is also a wonderful look at how your average Japanese person observes mental health, strangeness, and the ladder of work and family that we all must be on because of reasons. Sayaka Murata is one of the best Japanese authors writing today.
Read More: Our full review of Convenience Store Woman
Written by David Pilling
This book was a huge success that went beyond Japan, striking a nerve with journalists, economists, politicians, and writers across the world. It’s an informative and infinitely well-researched book that examines the post-war Japanese economy.
Bending Adversity discusses the bubble burst at the start of the ‘90s; it touches on issues of feminism and inequality. It interviews Japans most famous writers and artists to get an insider perspective.
If you want to know how Japan’s modern-day infrastructure, economics, and politics work (but you also don’t want to be bogged down with jargon and numbers, this book is overflowing with heart, making it a must-read before you visit Japan as well as one of the best books on Japanese culture, especially in the modern day.
Written by Yu Miri
Translated by Morgan Giles
Newly released in 2019, this phenomenal novel is a chilling indictment of the invisible class system that plagues modern-day Japan. Yu Miri, a Korean-born Japanese citizen presents us with a tragic protagonist who worked his entire life, barely surviving (until he no longer can) under the weight of Japanese bureaucracy, class, and government. Most tragic of all is the fact that he is born on the same day as the emperor. And yet the emperor will be remembered while our protagonist dies alone and nameless.
Tokyo Ueno Station is not a friendly novel in many respects, but it is a truthful and transparent one, and it would be valuable in the hands of anyone who puts too much faith in capitalism and the actions of the government.
It’s always good to be up-to-date on the latest literature before you visit Japan, and this is one of the very best Japanese novels of the 21st century, proving Yu Miri to be one of the best Japanese authors around.
Read More: Our full review of Tokyo Ueno Station
Written by Hiromi Kawakami
Translated by Allison Markin Powell
This novel, by one of the best and most beloved Japanese authors, is a delight. The story of a young woman who meets one of her old teachers in a bar, forms a tight friendship with him which steadily and awkwardly grows and grows, and struggles to reconcile her adoration for him with her frustration at his archaic ways.
Strange Weather in Tokyo very much a clash of old and new. The old Japan that now exists in temples and museums is alive in Tsukiko’s sensei, but doesn’t really have a place in the world she is now thriving in. So what you have here is a very vivid show of how Japan has changed and evolved in such a small space of time, personified as two wholly likeable and hilarious characters.
Of all the Japanese novels I’ve ever read, this has stayed with me as one of the best. It’s also one of the few Japanese novels that doubles as one of the best books on Japanese culture.
Read more: Our full review of Strange Weather in Tokyo
Written by Alex Kerr
Alex Kerr has a thing for traditional Japan, as such he has here produced one of the very best books on Japanese culture. He has studied its tea ceremonies, kabuki and bunraku theatres, and is a master calligrapher.
In Lost Japan, Kerr takes us on a personal and intimate journey through a life spent uncovering the parts of Japan that are vanishing. He decries pachinko and the crushing existence of sad salarymen, and he romanticises the arts of Japan which are unparalleled across most of the world.
To truly peer into the heart of Japanese art, architecture, and history, you need to read this beautiful book. Kerr cares, and he’ll have you caring, too. Before you visit Japan, let Kerr teach you about its deep artistic and cultural history.
Read more: Our full review of Lost Japan
Written by Anna Sherman
The Bells of Old Tokyo begins with a scene-setting: “The Five O’Clock Chime sounded, its notes drifting across Shiba Park.” Shiba Park sits at the edge of the iconic Tokyo Tower, and houses the Buddhist Zōzō-ji Temple. Herein we can immediately see the book’s greatest strength. Sherman has chosen a human approach to historical exploration: she weaves together a journey through Tokyo’s greatest and darkest moments, changes, people, and parts with a stunning narrative that often paints a vivid, vibrant picture. It sets a calming tone and makes Tokyo feel tangibly alive and breathable on the page.
The Bells of Old Tokyo is a love letter to Japanese culture – both antique and modern. It’s at once celebratory and mournful. It’s driven by a personal story and peppered with cultural and historic facts that light up the brain like a plasma lamp. It is the answer to all the questions we have when we visit Tokyo
Read More: Our Full Review of The Bells of Old Tokyo.
9) The Only Gaijin in the Village
by Iain Maloney
As the title suggests, Iain is the only gaijin in the village: a native Scot who moved to Japan back in 2005, found love, built a life, and eventually decided to move out into the countryside, since both he and his wife grew up rural in their respective countries and were itching for a return to green hills and wide views of the horizon.
His organic method of storytelling almost makes The Only Gaijin in the Village a hard book to define. It’s certainly a personal memoir, but it’s also a book that enlightens us about aspects of Japanese tradition, history, language, and politics that we had never even considered until now.
10) An Artist of the Floating World
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro is also, as I’ve already mentioned, my favourite author, and An Artist of the Floating World is my favourite Ishiguro novel. It’s a complex piece of historical fiction set after the events of World War II. Our protagonist, Ono, was once a great painter, but during the events of WWII he began making right-wing propaganda art which, after the war ended, discredited him as a traitor to the ideals and morals of Japan.
This novel is an intense exploration of personal politics, moral duty, and betrayal. It follows Ono closely and allows us time to live with him and his decisions, as well as how his family and friends now treat him. An absolute masterpiece of Japanese historical fiction.
11) Japanese Ghost Stories
by Lafcadio Hearn
Japanese Ghost Stories is the perfect place to start if you’re looking for some Japanese folklore books to read all about the ghosts, fantastical beasts, and yokai of Japanese history. It’s a beautiful collection of eerie, strange, romantic, unsettling ghost stories from across Japan’s history, recorded here in English for us to enjoy.
Read More: Books on Japanese Mythology
12) The Tale of Genji
by Murasaki Shikibu
The Tale of Genji has quite the legacy. Not only is it the first Japanese novel, but it is widely considered to be the first novel ever written. Written by the Kyoto noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century CE, The Tale of Genji takes us on a journey alongside the son of an emperor: Hikaru Genji.
Genji is no longer in the line of succession, and spends much of the novel’s story forming and then ruining relationships with various women in Kyoto. The novel is a fascinating insight into the lives of Japan’s nobility back when Kyoto was the capital of Japan. It’s also a witty and smart novel that still holds up as one of the great works of classic Japanese fiction.
If you’re interested in more wonderful Japanese literature and non-fiction then check our archives for a wealth of goodies.
Will predominantly writes about the books of Books and Bao, examining the literature of a place and how the authors have used the art of storytelling to reflect the world and the culture around them.