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15 Essential Books to Read Before You Visit Japan

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.

books to read before you visit japan

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.

Before you visit Japan, you can also get in the mood with our custom playlist of songs inspired by Japan!

Beautiful Books to Read Before you Visit Japan

We visit 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 the best Japanese books — Japanese novels, history books, and culture guides — to read before you visit Japan.

Pure Invention by Matt Alt

pure invention

Pure Invention — or, to give the book its full title, How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World — is an essential and captivating history lesson for anyone curious about how such things as anime and manga, video games, karaoke, kawaii culture, and Hello Kitty came to dominate global pop culture.

If you grew up on Japanese anime and video games, if you’ve ever owned a Walkman or a karaoke machine, or if you were ever curious about the economic boom of Japan in the second half of the 20th Century, Pure Invention is for you.

Matt Alt, a Japan-based writer and translator, begins this book with World War II and the man who created the toy car: a little metal Jeep with a working axel and rolling wheels; the kind that countless children have owned over the decades. From here he looks at how this led to anime and Hello Kitty.

The journey that Pure Invention takes us on really is a captivating one. It explores politics and economics, design and aesthetics, and even Japanese philosophy and ethics to look at how toys, games, and cartoons from Japan ended up, as the book’s title rightly says, conquering the world.

If you’ve always wanted to visit Japan because you have found yourself fascinated by the nation’s pop culture, or because you grew up on it and love it to this day, Pure Invention is essential reading for you before you visit Japan.

Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton

fifty sounds polly barton

Polly Barton is the Japanese-to-English translator of such books as Aoko Matsuda’s Where the Wild Ladies Are and Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job. She cut her teeth on Japanese culture as a teacher on the JET programme, and this is her memoir/essays on life and language in Japan.

This is an essential read before you visit Japan, and for people intrigued by Japanese language and culture. It tells of one British woman’s journey to discovering, appreciating, and living the Japanese language while living on a quiet, remote Japanese island.

Fifty Sounds is a wonderful introduction to the unique beauty of the Japanese language. It follows the life of a writer (and future translator) as she learns the language through experiencing love and work. It paints a unique picture of discovering Japanese language and culture; there is nothing quite like it.

The essays in Fifty Sounds are philosophical, funny, intimate, and eye-opening. These expose the unique quirks and mechanics of the Japanese language while providing readers with a uniquely linguistic lens, through which to view the culture of modern Japan.

Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson

hokkaido highway blues

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.

A Brief History of Japan: Samurai, Shogun, and Zen by Jonathan Clements

brief history of japan jonathan clements

Speaking of the best books on Japanese culture, this book is a fantastic place to start before you visit Japan. 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.

How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow

how kyoto breaks your heart

How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart is a short collection of personal essays bound together to make one moving memoir about the personal and professional life of a woman living in Japan’s old capital. Florentyna is a Malaysian woman who studied in London before moving to Tokyo, and then Kyoto. In this book, we learn about how the city and its people challenge and change her.

We learn about her work as a tour guide, what its like seeing the tourist hotspots of Kyoto through the eyes of someone who has visited them all dozens of times. We read touching and humorous anecdotes about locals, tourists, famous places, and hidden gems. We learn about her favourite spots; places that make her feel at home, like she belongs in Kyoto.

We also read about her friendships, her heartbreak, her personal struggles and crises. This is a touching personal tale that paints a vibrant and vivid picture of Kyoto, its citizens, what makes it so unique and beautiful, and what it’s really like to live and work there as a foreigner trying desperately to belong.

Before you visit Japan, and Kyoto specifically, this is a very touching little memoir to enjoy.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Sayaka Murata Convenience Store Woman Japan

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

Bending Adversity by David Pilling

bending adversity

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.

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri

Translated by Morgan Giles

tokyo ueno stationn

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

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Translated by Allison Markin Powell

strange weather in tokyo

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

Lost Japan by Alex Kerr

Lost Japan 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

The Bells of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman

The Bells of Old Tokyo

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.

The Only Gaijin in the Village by Iain Maloney

the only gaijin in the village iain maloney

As the title suggests, Iain is the only gaijin in the village.

He is 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.

Read More: Our Full Review of The Only Gaijin in the Village.

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

an artist of the floating world

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.

Japanese Ghost Stories by Lafcadio Hearn

japanese ghost stories

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

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

the tale of genji

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.


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