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One of the best ways to understand local perspectives is to read a book about a place. In this guide, I recommend thought-provoking books about Japan that range from deeply personal novels to expansive historical accounts.
Japan is widely celebrated around the world for its pop culture, cuisine, and scenic beauty. However, there are many aspects to Japan’s society and history that can only be understood through reading or hearing different stories.
More so than most other countries, Japan’s society has rigid behavioral norms that shape individuals’ thoughts and lives. Many of the books I recommend in this guide offer their own take on the value of conformity and what it means to be a “true” Japanese.
Read the list below of my favorite books about Japan.
Best Books About Japan
by Ruth Ozeki
I love this story about a Canadian writer who finds on the beach a washed-up diary of a Japanese teenage girl. The diary recounts the girl’s daily life as she navigates the challenges of adolescence. The girl and the adult writer both reflect on existential themes like time’s passage and life purpose.
This book doesn’t shy away from detailing the dark side of Japanese society and culture. Seeing the topics examined through characters with different perspectives (adult vs. child, Western-raised vs. Japanese-raised) raised a lot of new ideas and questions in my mind about Japanese norms.
by Mieko Kawakami
This story centers on a freelance copy editor living in Tokyo in her mid-thirties. The woman lives alone and barely interacts with anyone, save her editor. One day, she has an intense realization that she lives a dull life and decides to try and change it.
I adore this author’s work because she does a phenomenal job of writing about the acute, unique loneliness that people can feel when living in a metropolis surrounded by millions of people. Reading this book will help you get a deeper understanding for the isolated reality of some Tokyo urbanites.
by Miru Yu
Tokyo Ueno Station’s main character is a ghost who floats above the metro station. Throughout the book, he reminisces about his life and the series of misfortunes and decisions which brought him to literally drift aimlessly after death.
This novel wistfully muses about poverty, victimhood, and why fortune smiles so brightly on some and shuns others.
Through reading this book, you’ll learn about various historical events of 20th-century Japan.
by Jake Adelstein
This fast-paced book tells the true-life tale of the author, the only American reporter to be part of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club. Over his years as a journalist, he covers a variety of stories about Tokyo’s criminal underworld.
Tokyo Vice (now also an HBO show by the same name) is a great read if you want to learn about Tokyo’s dangers and what it was like for a foreigner to deeply infiltrate parts of Japanese society.
Convenience Store Woman
by Sayaka Murata
The protagonist of this quirky novel is a thirty-something, single female who has worked in a convenience store in Tokyo for 18 years. She is happy following the clear instructions of the store’s employee manual, but faces societal pressures to date, have a family, and start a career.
Convenience Store Woman packs a lot of depth into a quick read. The story prompted me to reflect about the necessity and perils of conformity. Even though the novel is set in the microcosmic setting of a Japanese convenience store, many of the themes are universal.
by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko chronicles the lives of four generations of a Korean family in 20th-century Japan (the book inspired an Apple TV series).
I really enjoyed this book and the tv series because it tells a different side of Japanese history than is often shared in Japan or the Western world. Pachinko explores how Japan’s complex and painful history with imperialism and immigrants affected a family.
Especially for a highly homogenous society like Japan’s, Pachinko provokes a lot of questions about what it means to be an immigrant in Japan.
by Mikiso Hane & Louis Perez
This is one of my favorite historical books about Japan. While a bit dense, the book does a very thorough job of explaining Japan’s political, social, and cultural origins.
The book covers a range of historical topics, including the imperial dynasty, rise and rule of the samurai class, feudalism, and popularity of religious nationalism. I appreciated how Premodern Japan puts into context many events and themes that shape Japanese culture today.
by Amy Stanley
I really enjoyed this glimpse into a woman’s experience in 19th-century Japan. The heroine is a Buddhist priest’s daughter born and raised in the countryside. Instead of following a traditional life path as a wife in her home village, she runs away to Edo (now known as Tokyo).
I learned a lot of details about Japanese daily life of that time period through reading this book. I recommend Stranger in the Shogun’s City to anyone who has an interest in Japanese history, particularly around women’s lives and roles.
by Mieko Kawakami
This story follows a family of three women (two thirty-something sisters and a teenage daughter of one of them). Each woman wrestles with her own anxieties about what her future will hold.
In my opinion, this author does an unbeatable job of conveying the quiet struggles of modern Japanese working class women. Japanese society rewards conformity. In this book, you’ll see how that often leads to people developing rich and reflective inner worlds.