These are 15 of the best books about Japan that are worth reading if you plan to visit or are just interested in Japan life in general.
This list could easily be ’50 books to read’ as there are so many to recommend but these 15 books about Japan are my favourite.
Some of these are what I regard as some of the best books about Japanese culture and Japanese history and they also cover modern-day life and everything in-between.
After spending several months travelling around Japan and writing travel guides for the places visited I decided to write articles about Japanese culture, books, movies, and more so if you’re planning a trip to Japan or are just interested in Japan, then these will all give a good insight into the Japanese way of life.
The descriptions used are part mine about why I loved the book, and part is taken from the description on the book itself to give you a full idea of what it’s about.
There are also links (affiliate) to Amazon where you can get them to read if you want.
Shogun by James Clavell
Shogun by James Clavell is my personal all-time favourite book about Japan.
It’s set in feudal Japan when hardly any foreigners had stepped foot on Japanese soil.
A bold English adventurer. An invincible Japanese warlord. A beautiful woman is torn between two ways of life, two ways of love
All brought together in a mighty saga of a time and place aflame with conflict, passion, ambition, lust and the struggle for power.
For me, it’s one of the best books about Japanese culture in feudal Japan.
Memoirs of a Geisha
Memoirs of a Geisha is about entering 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.
In my opinion (like all books here) it’s a must-read for anyone going to Japan, to learn about Japanese history and especially about geishas that still exist in parts of Japan like geishas in Kyoto.
Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan
Tokyo Vice is from the only American journalist ever to have been admitted to the insular Tokyo Metropolitan Police press club: a unique, firsthand, revelatory look at Japanese culture from the underbelly up.
At nineteen, Jake Adelstein went to Japan in search of peace and tranquillity. What he got was a life of crime . . . crime reporting, that is, at the prestigious Yomiuri Shinbun.
For twelve years of eighty-hour workweeks, he covered the seedy side of Japan, where extortion, murder, human trafficking, and corruption are as familiar as ramen noodles and sake.
But when his final scoop brought him face to face with Japan’s most infamous yakuza boss—and the threat of death for him and his family—Adelstein decided to step down . . . momentarily. Then, he fought back.
In Tokyo Vice, Adelstein tells the riveting, often humorous tale of his journey from an inexperienced cub reporter—who made rookie mistakes like getting into a martial-arts battle with a senior editor—to a daring, investigative journalist with a price on his head.
With its vivid, visceral descriptions of crime in Japan and an exploration of the world of modern-day yakuza that even few Japanese ever see, Tokyo Vice is a fascination, and education, from first to last.
Man, I loved this book! I’m a crime drama addict as it is but one set in Tokyo and involving yakuza, yes!
This also makes one of the best books about Tokyo to read, especially if interested in some of the seedy underbelly of such tourist nightlife spots like Roppongi and Shinjuku.
Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan
Continuing the ‘yakuza’ theme that is part of Tokyo Vice this is an excellent book about the yakuza.
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.
Dogs and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Modern Japan
Dogs and Demons are where Alex Kerr chronicles the many facets of Japan’s recent, and chronic, crises — from the failure of its banks and pension funds to the decline of its once magnificent modern cinema.
He is the first to give a full report on the nation’s endangered environment — its seashores lined with concrete, its roads leading to nowhere in the mountains — as well as its “monument frenzy,” the destruction of old cities such as Kyoto and construction of drab new ones, and the attendant collapse of its tourist industry.
Kerr writes with humour and passion, for “passion,” he says, “is part of the story. Millions of Japanese feel as heartbroken at what is going on as I do. My Japanese friends tell me, ‘Please write this — for us.'”
I enjoyed reading this as it tells a part of Japan that most visitors would miss. I believe in learning all sides to a country when visiting to get the full perspective. This will do that for you in Japan.
Hokkaido Highway Blues
Hokkaido Highway Blues is 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.
This guy has a philosophy like my own when it comes to travel and that’s the main reason I enjoyed this so much, add to that he travels Japan is perfect. Great road trip!
After Dark at its centre 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.
After Dark moves from mesmerizing drama to metaphysical speculation, interweaving time and space as well as memory and perspective into a seamless exploration of human agency—the interplay between self-expression and empathy, between the power of observation and the scope of compassion and love.
Murakami’s trademark humour, psychological insight, and grasp of spirit and morality are here distilled with an extraordinary, harmonious mastery.
In my opinion… just get it and read it and make of it what you will! Not for everyone but highly recommended by me.
Spring Snow is set in Tokyo, 1912. The closed world of the ancient aristocracy is being breached for the first time by outsiders – rich provincial families, a new and powerful political and social elite.
Kiyoaki has been raised among the elegant Ayakura family – members of the waning aristocracy – but he is not one of them.
Coming of age, he is caught up in the tensions between the old and the new, and his feelings for the exquisite, spirited Satoko, observed from the sidelines by his devoted friend Honda.
When Satoko is engaged to a royal prince, Kiyoaki realises the magnitude of his passion.
For me, it’s one of those great books about Japanese history and culture.
1Q84 is about 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 unravelled.
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.
A love story, a mystery, a fantasy, a novel of self-discovery, a dystopia to rival George Orwell’s — 1Q84 is Haruki Murakami’s most ambitious undertaking yet: an instant bestseller in his native Japan, and a tremendous feat of imagination from one of our most revered contemporary writers.
One of the best Japanese writers says it all, a modern classic to read.
A Geek in Japan
A Geek in Japan is the essential guide for every fan of manga, anime, J-pop, or Zen, A Geek in Japan is a hip, smart and concise guide to the land that is their source.
Comprehensive and well informed, it covers a wide array of topics in short articles accompanied by sidebars and numerous photographs, providing a lively digest of the society and culture of Japan.
Designed to appeal to the generations of Westerners who grew up on Pokemon, manga and video games, A Geek in Japan reinvents the culture guide for readers in the Internet age.
Spotlighting the originality and creativity of the Japanese, debunking myths about them, and answering nagging questions like why they’re so fond of robots, author Hector Garcia has created the perfect book for the growing ranks of Japanophiles in this inspired, insightful and highly informative guide.
I loved this book for its take on modern Japan. Not only one of the best books about Japan but also a guide you through what to expect in the modern era.
Rice Noodle Fish
No list of books about Japan would be good unless it included something about Japanese food, which is some of my favourite food in the world.
Rice Noodle Fish is an innovative new take on the travel guide, Rice, Noodle, Fish decodes Japan’s extraordinary food culture through a mix of in-depth narrative and insider advice, along with 195 colour photographs.
In this 5000-mile journey through the noodle shops, tempura temples, and teahouses of Japan, Matt Goulding, co-creator of the enormously popular Eat This, Not That! book series, navigates the intersection between food, history, and culture, creating one of the most ambitious and complete books ever written about Japanese culinary culture from the Western perspective.
Written in the same evocative voice that drives the award-winning magazine Roads & Kingdoms, Rice, Noodle, Fish explores Japan’s most intriguing culinary disciplines in seven key regions, from the kaiseki tradition of Kyoto and the sushi masters of Tokyo to the street food of Osaka and the ramen culture of Fukuoka.
You won’t find hotel recommendations or bus schedules; you will find a brilliant narrative that interweaves immersive food journalism with intimate portraits of the cities and the people who shape Japan’s food culture.
This is not your typical guidebook. Rice, Noodle, Fish is a rare blend of inspiration and information, perfect for the intrepid and armchair traveller 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.
I love Japanese food as I said and this is currently my best book about Japanese food and one of the best books on Japan travel in general.
Yasuke (African Samurai)
Yasuke (also known as African Samurai) is the story of the first African Samurai in Japan.
When Yasuke arrived in Japan in the late 1500s, he had already travelled much of the known world. Kidnapped as a child, he had ended up a servant and bodyguard to the head of the Jesuits in Asia, with whom he traversed India and China learning multiple languages as he went.
His arrival in Kyoto, however, literally caused a riot. Most Japanese people had never seen an African man before, and many of them saw him as the embodiment of the black-skinned (in local tradition) Buddha.
Among those who were drawn to his presence was Lord Nobunaga, head of the most powerful clan in Japan, who made Yasuke a samurai in his court. Soon, he was learning the traditions of Japan’s martial arts and ascending the upper echelons of Japanese society.
In the four hundred years since, Yasuke has been known in Japan largely as a legendary, perhaps mythical figure.
Now African Samurai presents the never-before-told biography of this unique figure of the sixteenth century, one whose travels between countries, cultures and classes offers a new perspective on race in world history and a vivid portrait of life in medieval Japan.
This is a good video that explains a lot about Yasuke:
The Woman In The Dunes
After missing the last bus home following a day trip to the seashore, an amateur entomologist is offered lodging for the night at the bottom of a vast sand pit.
But when he attempts to leave the next morning, he quickly discovers that the locals have other plans. Held captive with seemingly no chance of escape, he is tasked with shoveling back the ever-advancing sand dunes that threaten to destroy the village.
His only companion is an odd young woman, and together their fates become intertwined as they work side by side through this Sisyphean of tasks.
A classic existential book from Kobo Abe combining myth and suspense.
I Am A Cat
Written from 1904 through 1906, Soseki Natsume’s comic masterpiece, I Am a Cat, satirizes the foolishness of upper-middle-class Japanese society during the Meiji era.
With acerbic wit and sardonic perspective, it follows the whimsical adventures of a world-weary stray kitten who comments on the follies and foibles of the people around him.
A classic of Japanese literature, I Am a Cat is one of Soseki’s best-known novels.
Considered by many as the most significant writer in modern Japanese history, Soseki’s I Am a Cat is a classic novel sure to be enjoyed for years to come.
An enchanting and fascinating insight into Japanese landscape, culture, history and future.
Originally written in Japanese, this passionate, vividly personal book draws on the author’s experiences in Japan over thirty years.
Alex Kerr brings to life the ritualized world of Kabuki, retraces his initiation into Tokyo’s boardrooms during the heady Bubble Years, and tells the story of the hidden valley that became his home.
But the book is not just a love letter. Haunted throughout by nostalgia for the Japan of old, Kerr’s book is part paean to that great country and culture, part epitaph in the face of contemporary Japan’s environmental and cultural destruction.
More About Japan
So that’s the rundown on what I would recommend for books about Japan. Hopefully, you found the one you like.
Also, have a look at 10 movies I would watch before visiting Japan as well. They are my favourite.
And if you have an interest in Japanese animation these are 10 Japanese animations I recommend to watch.
And you guessed it… another 10 recommended list. This one is the 10 best samurai movies to watch.
Tip: Amazon has a 30 day free trial of their kindle unlimited where you can find all of these books to read about Japan.
*Disclaimer: I own none of the images in this post. They are used in fair usage in order to publicly discuss the books.
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