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One of the best ways to better understand a nation is through its literature. If, like me, you’re eager to learn more about the Land of the Rising Sun, reading books about Japan should be on your to-do list.
I confess to being a fan of Japanese novels, so much so that I even joined a Facebook group where enthusiasts like me discuss these works of literature. There’s just something enigmatic and ethereal about Japanese books and it’s not surprising that more readers are growing fond of Japanese authors.
That being said, listing down 30 books about Japan means omitting so many amazing, even revolutionary, works of art. Japanese literature has a long and illustrious history.
Hence this list is not meant to be exhaustive nor definitive. Instead, this will give you some insights into Japanese history and culture. I’ve limited this list to books set in Japan written by Japanese authors, with only one exception on non-fiction books.
Books about Japanese history
From the samurai to World War II and contemporary Japan, the richness of Japanese history never fails to fascinate. These books, while fictional in form, reflect Japan’s colourful past.
1. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
It’s only right to start at the beginning – that is, the very first novel to come out of Japan. Written in the early 11th century by a lady-in-waiting in imperial Heian (modern-day Kyoto), The Tale of Genji is considered the world’s first novel.
This novel tells the story of Hikaru Genji, son of Emperor Kiritsubo. Genji is removed from the line of succession and becomes an imperial officer instead. The book highlights the encounters of Genji and the lives of nobility at the time.
One of the most famous books about Japanese history, The Tale of Genji offers witty commentary on the political and social traditions of medieval Japan.
2. The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi
The Waiting Years is a beautiful story of what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal society. Set in Meiji Japan, the story follows Tomo, the wife of a diplomat whose lust for women is unquenchable. Tomo, tied by an old-fashioned code of allegiance, is charged with the task of finding a concubine for her husband.
Written by one of the greatest women writers of 20th century Japan, The Waiting Years was published in 1957 and won the Noma Literary Prize on the same year. The novel is Enchi’s most celebrated work and remains relevant to this day.
3. Kokoro by Natsume Soseki
First serialized in a newspaper in 1914, Kokoro is one of the best books about Japan and the cultural shift in the Meiji era.
The novel explores the friendship between a young man and an elderly he calls sensei. The book deals with topics of isolation, conformity, and the search for identity.
4. The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon
Like The Tale of Genji, The Pillow Book is written by a Heian court lady. But Sei Shonagon’s work is a collection of ideas, musings, anecdotes, poems, and observations inspired by her experiences and surroundings.
In essence, The Pillow Book exposes secrets of court life, making it a valuable historical document.
5. Almost Transparent Blue by Ryu Murakami
While previous books in this list delved into pre-World War II Japan, Almost Transparent Blue unveils the dark side of 1970s Tokyo. In this novel written while he was still a university student, Ryu Murakami tells the story of his own youth and his friends.
In what would become Murakami’s trademark nihilistic style, this novel explores themes of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. While many criticized Almost Transparent Blue for its dark themes, it went on to win the Gunzo Prize for New Writers and the Akutagawa Prize in 1976.
6. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Nagasaki but raised in the UK, has written only two books set in Japan. An Artist of the Floating World is one of these two and it is his most political novel as of yet.
The book follows an ageing artist who was a former pro-government painter before and during World War II. Once a celebrated artist, he lives in post-War Japan with feelings of shame, guilt, and denial while grappling with old age and solitude.
7. In the Woods of Memory by Shun Medoruma
In the Woods of Memory is a gripping novel about two incidents during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945: the gang rape on Sayoko, 17, by four US soldiers, and Seiji’s (Sayoko’s friend) attempt to take revenge on her abusers.
While the novel is critical of the US military, it mostly focuses on how rape affects not just a few people but a community. It heavily criticizes Japanese society and touches on the topic of victim shaming. Disturbing and thought-provoking, this is one of the most important books about Japan to come out of Akutagawa Prize-winner and Okinawa-born Shun Medoruma.
Books about Japanese culture
Perhaps Sakoku, Japan’s 200-year isolation from the world, is to blame for the country’s unique culture; it allowed the Japanese to develop an identity without intervention from other nations. The following books about Japan deal not just with these idiosyncrasies and distinctiveness, but also with the darkness in the heart of modern Japan.
8. I Am a Cat by Natsume Soseki
One of the most beloved books about Japan by one of the most important Japanese authors, I Am a Cat is a cheeky novel written in 1905-1906.
The titular cat is a household cat who scoffs and pokes fun at the words and actions of its owner. Throughout the book, the cat is bemused at the pretentiousness of the upper-middle-class Japanese society during the Meiji era.
9. Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri
Born in Japan to Korean parents, Yu Miri is not a stranger to racism and abuse in Japan. Her writing often denounces the hypocrisies and underlying darkness of modern Japan. In Tokyo Ueno Station, she rebukes the imperial system, protests against the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and takes a hard look at the political culture of Japan.
The novel follows the ghost of Kazu who was born the same year as the Emperor but was not as fortunate. He was born in Fukushima, worked in Tokyo, traumatized by the 2011 tsunami, and dies homeless in Ueno Park. His ghost haunts the park, observing the strangers passing by, and gets enraged by the announcement of the Tokyo Olympics.
10. Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima
The first book in the Sea of Fertility tetralogy, Spring Snow is a coming-of-age story set in Tokyo, 1912. It highlights the relationship between Kiyoaki, a son of a rich family, and Satoko, a daughter of an aristocratic family, fallen on hard times.
Spring Snow is one of the most descriptive books about Japanese culture in a pre-World War II setting. Mishima paints with words, vividly describing the natural background of Kiyoaki and Satoko’s story while also portraying the shift in Japanese culture at the time, as Westernisation slowly influences society.
11. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Offering a unique take on the working class of the 21st century, Convenience Store Woman is one of the most successful contemporary books about Japan. It tells the story of a convenience store clerk who has had the job for 18 years.
Witty and sarcastic, it’s a biting commentary on corporate Tokyo and modern Japanese culture.
12. Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoka Matsuda
Japan has a rich body of traditional stories, myths, folktales and fables, often based on Shintoism, Buddhism, and legends of samurai and geisha. There are lots of books about Japanese mythology and folklore but Where the Wild Ladies Are is special.
Here, traditional Japanese folktales take on new life through contemporary and feminist retellings. Humans live side by side with spirited women – ghosts – who provide various services, from babysitting to fighting crime.
Non-fiction books about Japan
While fictional books about Japan depict the intricacies of Japanese culture, nothing can be more realistic than non-fiction books.
13. In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki
In Praise of Shadows, published in 1933, is Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay on Japanese aesthetics. Here, he explores traditional Japanese culture and values, detailing and contrasting them against Western cultures. Topics are so diverse, from architecture to cosmetics to candlelight and even toilets.
14. Confessions of a Yakuza by Dr. Junichi Saga
Confessions of a Yakuza recounts the life of Eiji Ijichi, one of the last traditional Yakuza in Japan, as told to the doctor who nursed him during the last months of his life. It was a life of adventure, gambling, and women.
It’s unflattering in many ways but oddly refreshing especially after seeing countless gangster movies that incorrectly portray the Yakuza. Definitely one of the most enlightening and compelling books about Japan.
15. Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki
Most of us are no stranger to Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. Golden interviewed Mineko Iwasaki, the most famous geisha in Japan, for his book. Iwasaki was unhappy with the misuse of her words, later suing him and releasing her autobiography.
Like the Yakuza, the geisha is also a misunderstood part of Japanese culture.
In Geisha, A Life, Iwasaki details how at the age of five she left her home to train as a geisha. For the next 25 years, she learned the customs, language, and art of ancient Japanese entertainment. At 29, she retired and later got married, a move that paralleled the slow demise of the geisha culture.
16. A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony by Hector Garcia
The only Westerner in this list, Hector Garcia was born in Spain and worked in Switzerland before moving to Japan, his home of almost two decades. He has written several books about Japanese culture, with A Geek in Japan being the most famous one.
Written specifically for fans of Japanese contemporary and otaku (nerd) culture, A Geek in Japan is a great introduction to a wide array of topics concerning local culture from the modern (video games, anime, vending machines, cool hangout places) to the traditional (sumo, tea ceremonies, Zen). It’s comprehensive and especially practical if travelling to Japan.
Contemporary novels by Japanese authors
Thanks to the translation boom in the West, contemporary Japanese literature is gaining traction. These books about Japan focus on modern society which is just as enthralling as Japan’s rich past.
17. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Written in 1988, Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen was considered ahead of its time. It follows Mikage Sakurai, an orphan dealing with the death of her grandmother. Her grandmother’s friend, Yoichi, and his transgender mother, Eriko, take her in.
Mikage soon discovers her passion for cooking and food, while their new family navigates love and friendship amidst loss.
18. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
A winner of the Hon’ya Taisho award and a bestseller, Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor is the most emotional work from one of Japan’s most influential writers.
The book tells the story of an ageing mathematician who suffers brain damage and can produce only 80 minutes’ worth of memories. A housekeeper and single parent comes to take care of him. They soon develop an odd but beautiful bond and the mathematician even becomes a paternal figure to her son.
Not a love story but a unique story of love, The Housekeeper and the Professor is poignant and enchanting.
19. Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
One of the most popular contemporary writers in Japan, Hiromi Kawakami is famous for her quirky, offbeat fiction. In Strange Weather in Tokyo, she tells a May-December love story between a woman in her late 30s and her old high school teacher she calls sensei.
The two become drinking buddies, frequenting a local sake bar, and soon develops a friendship that deepens into romance. The journey is laced with beer, sake, miso soup, poetry, banter, and a touching love that you can’t help but root for.
20. Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
Breasts and Eggs is a short novel written by Mieko Kawakami in 2008. A winner of the Akutagawa Prize, it has not been translated to English. Instead, Kawakami rewrote a full-length novel of the same title in 2019, a full-length novel of the same title. It uses the same characters and settings as the original novella.
A powerful feminist masterpiece, Breast and Eggs is narrated by Natsu, an aspiring writer in Tokyo. Natsu’s sister, Makiko, and her 12-year-old daughter, Midoriko, arrives from Osaka. The journey of these three explores motherhood, societal expectations, the female body, and what it means to be a woman in modern Japan.
21. The Boy in the Earth by Fuminori Nakamura
With elements of urban noir and crime, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Boy in the Earth takes readers on a dark and melancholic ride. The book follows an unnamed taxi driver in Tokyo who is dealing with awful memories of his past and his abusive family, all while daydreaming about suicide and experiencing terrifying blackouts. Moving, haunting, and definitely not for the faint of heart.
22. Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima
Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light tells the story of a year in the life of a woman separated from her husband and now lives in Tokyo with her three-year-old daughter. It was first published from 1978 to 1979 as a series of 12 stories in the literary magazine Gunzo.
Part unsettling, part comforting, but overall entrancing, Territory of Light is a quiet tale of a single mother navigating ‘70s Japan.
Short story collections by Japanese authors
Want to read more books about Japan but pressed for time? Short stories are a great alternative. Often just as compelling as novels, these works introduce us to more authors and bodies of work in a limited time.
23. Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami
Many of us were introduced to the world of Japanese literature through the internationally acclaimed Haruki Murakami. While his stand-alone works like Norwegian Wood, Kafka on the Shore, and Sputnik Sweetheart are all good introductions to his masterful writing, Men Without Women is perhaps the quickest way to read more of his prose.
This collection of short stories is about men who have lost women in their lives, either to other men or to death. Like most of his works, Men Without Women is enigmatic, laced with wry humour and melancholy.
24. Death in Midsummer and Other Stories by Yukio Mishima
A prominent novelist and playwright, Yukio Mishima is a master of short prose. In Death in Midsummer and Other Stories, he handpicks nine of his short stories for translation.
These stories deal with themes of loss, death, honor, superstition, and freedom while giving intense lessons on Japanese culture. Complex, sombre, and grounding, even.
25. The Cake Tree in the Ruins by Akiyuki Nosaka
Best known for his riveting short story Grave of the Fireflies (yes, the Studio Ghibli anime film), Akiyuki Nosaka has written stories that are inspired by his own experiences as a child during World War II.
The Cake Tree in the Ruins is a collection of intensely moving stories that condemn the absurdity of war while illustrating the heartbreaking effects of war on children and even animals.
Award-winning Japanese novels
Many of the Japanese books above are winners of several awards in and outside Japan. The novels below are some of the frequently-mentioned award-winning works that deserve to be on your reading list.
26. Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
A classic Japanese novel, Snow Country is widely considered as Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata’s greatest work. Set in a snowy onsen town in western Japan, it tells the story of a love affair between a Tokyo man and a geisha.
Dealing with themes of isolation, indifference, lust, and love, Snow Country is easily one of the most lyrical books about Japan and its solemn beauty.
27. Out by Natsuo Kirino
Natsuo Kirino is not just one of the most powerful feminist authors in Japan. She is also one of the most popular Japanese mystery novelists. Her edge-of-the-seat thriller, Out, won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award and its translation was also a finalist for the 2004 Edgar Award.
Out is about four women, living and working in a Tokyo factory, secretly dreaming of escaping their suffering. One of them snaps and murders her husband. She turns to her fellow female workers for help in covering up the crime but they soon have to fend off the police and even a crime family. Scathing and thrilling, Out is an angry attack on Japanese patriarchal society.
28. The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo
Serialized in the magazine Houseki in 1946, the classic novel The Honjin Murders went on to win the first Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1948. Amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi is the young and eccentric protagonist in this locked-room mystery. He attempts to solve the death of a newlywed couple in the village of Okamura.
Detective Kindaichi went on to feature in another 76 novels and even appeared in television and stage adaptations.
29. The Silent Cry by Kenzaburo Oe
Lauded by the Nobel Prize committee as Kenzaburo Oe’s most essential work, The Silent Cry is a magnificent picture of the changes happening in a family and in Japan itself.
Two estranged brothers, one working in Tokyo and one who moved to the U.S., return to the village of their childhood to sell their family home. This leads to a resurfacing of baggage and their family history.
Published in 1967, this remains one of the most relevant books about Japan to this day.
30. Spark by Naoki Matayoshi
Naoki Matayoshi may be a new name in Japanese literature but his Akutagawa Prize winner Spark no doubt stacks up against other contemporary works. This bestseller is inspired by his own experience as a comedian in Japan.
Spark follows Tokunaga, a young comedian struggling to make a name for himself. He is taken under the wing of the more experienced, but no more famous, Kamiya. The novel is centred on their friendship and the traditional Japanese form of comedy known as manzai.
And there you have it! You won’t run out of options the next time you find yourself craving Japanese reads.
Interested to know more about Japan? Check out this list of things Japan is famous for, Japanese snacks you can buy online, and apps you can download if you want to learn the language. For more book recommendations, you can also check these lists of Korean, Malaysian, Swedish, and Brazilian books.