36 Books on Japan That’ll Spark Your Wanderlust

by | Apr 21, 2024 | Books, Japan | 31 comments

Planning a trip to Japan and looking for a book set in the country?

Or do you just want to dip your toes into Japanese literature and need some ideas about what to read?

In this post, I’m going to share with you my honest and unbiased review of 34 of my favorite and not-so-favorite novels about Japan and Japanese culture.  Hopefully, this list will help you decide which books to read, borrow, or skip.

So grab some tea and a good book and let’s escape to Japan!

By the way, if you’re traveling to Japan soon, check out my Japan itinerary post and my post on how to see Tokyo in four days.

You can also find more of my book lists from around the world HERE!

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Japan Books by Contemporary Japanese Authors

This section includes books written by Japanese authors after 1980.

1. What You Are Looking for Is in the Library

By Michiko Ayama (2023)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Everybody is connected. And any one of their connections could be the start of a network that branches in many directions. If you wait for the right time to make connections, it might never happen, but if you show your face around, talk to people and see enough to give you the confidence that things could work out, then ‘one day’ might turn into ‘tomorrow.’”

What You Are Looking for is in the Library is a fun and light read set in contemporary Japan. It is perfect for before, during, or after your trip to Japan.

The book centers around a neighborhood library in Tokyo and the reference librarian named Sayuri Komachi. Each chapter follows the life of a different person from the neighborhood. They are all dissatisfied with their lives and end up at the library looking for answers to what’s wrong with them. They find their answers in a book recommended by Sayuri. This book changes each person’s life.

It’s just a fun and feel-good book about the importance of finding purpose in life and the happiness that comes from doing something you love. If the book had been set in the U.S., I might have found it too sappy for my taste. However, its Japanese setting made it seem sweet and unique.

If you’re looking for a book to take with you on the plane to Japan, What You Are Looking for in the Library is a good choice.

2. Before the Coffee Gets Cold

By Toshikazu Kawaguchi (2020)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“With the coffee in front of her, she closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply. It was her moment of happiness.”

Let’s start with the setting: a 100-year-old coffee shop in a basement in a back alley in central Tokyo. Despite not being air-conditioned, the coffee shop never feels hot, even during the unbearably hot Tokyo summers. It’s always comfortably cool.

That’s not all that’s strange about the place. It’s a small shop with only three tables and three bar seats. However, one chair at one table has special powers to transport people into the past or the future. Unfortunately, you must follow a few rules. The most important rule is that you must finish drinking the coffee before it gets cold.

Each chapter tells the story of a customer entering the coffee shop and traveling backward or forward in time.

I enjoyed Before the Coffee Gets Cold and liked the very Japanese themes and characters. The anti-feminist features of each story might turn some readers off. For me, I found that they helped me understand Japanese culture more.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold is the first in a series of four books following the same kind of time-traveling coffee shop. I’ve only read this one and started listening to the audiobook of the third one in the series Before Your Memory Fades. The audio version is good.

3. Days at the Morisaki Bookshop

By Satoshi Yagisawa (2023)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“It’s only in secondhand books that you can savor encounters like this, connections that transcend time. And that’s how I learned to love the secondhand bookstore that handled these books, our Morisaki Bookshop. I realized how precious a chance I’d been given, to be a part of that little place where you can feel the quiet flow of time.”

Out of all the books on this list, Days at the Morisaki Bookshop, gave me the greatest sense of wanderlust. Before  I even finished it, I wanted to hop on a plane to Tokyo and find the Jimbocho neighborhood, the bookshop-lined Yasukuni Street, and the Morisaki Bookshop.

Twenty-five-year-old Takako has just broken up with her boyfriend and quit her job. Hearing about her unemployment and broken heart, Takako’s eccentric Uncle Satoru invites her to stay in the studio apartment above his bookshop in exchange for help running the shop.

Takako arrives barely able to get out of bed and uninterested in life, especially books. One night, unable to sleep, she picks up a book. She falls in love with reading, and her life literally changes overnight. Books connect her to the people of Jimbochi and she sees the neighborhood in a whole new light. Most of all, they heal her broken heart.

The book shines in the world it creates – the bookshop and the neighborhood of Jimbocho. Jimbocho is an area of Tokyo famous for its bookshops, especially secondhand ones. The streets are lined iwth bookshops.

A sequel is coming out later in 2024 (More Days at the Morisaki Bookshop) and I’m eager to read it.

I liked Morisaki Bookshop more than Before the Coffee Gets Cold and What Are You Looking for in the Library.

4. Breasts and Eggs

By Mieko Kawakami (2020)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Writing makes me happy. But it goes beyond that. Writing is my life’s work. I am absolutely positive that this is what I’m here to do. Even if it turns out that I don’t have the ability, and no one out there wants to read a single word of it, there’s nothing I can do about this feeling. I can’t make it go away.”

Mieko Kawakami is one of Japan’s most popular contemporary writers. Her most famous book, Breasts and Eggs, is one of my top five favorite books set in Japan.

It’s a good book for those who want to delve into women’s issues in Japan

The book is about three women: Natsu (the narrator), her sister Makiko, and Makiko’s 12-year-old daughter, Midoriko. Natsu is a single, 30-year-old struggling writer living in Tokyo. Makiko is an equally struggling 39-year-old single mother who works as a bar hostess.

Breasts and Eggs is divided into 2 parts. In part 1, Makiko and Midoriko visit Natsu in Tokyo. Makiko is obsessed with getting her breasts enhanced and her daughter with having her period. Part 2 takes place ten years later and focuses on Natsu’s obsession with getting pregnant. She visits Makiko and Midoriko in Osaka.

The book is about women and their relationships with their bodies: their breasts, their periods, their sexual desires, and their fertility. 

This book is excellent for those who like interesting characters and relationships. The story is a good look into what it’s like being a woman in Japanese society, yet women from many cultures can relate to the themes. It’s also a good book for anyone who wants to see a more working-class, less affluent side of Japan

5. Convenience Store Woman

By Sayaka Murata (2018)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Convenience Store Woman is a beautiful, weirdly wonderful, sweet novel! It’s sad, funny, and dark. I loved it so much that I spent a sunny Saturday afternoon on the couch reading it until I reached the end.

Keiko Furukura never fit in until she turned 18 and got a job at a convenience store. There, she found purpose and happiness. Through the employee manual, she finally understood the rules of social interaction.

However, she’s now 36, and her friends and family are pressuring her to conform to society’s definition of an acceptable life: Find a boyfriend, no matter how much of a loser he is, and find a real career, no matter how unhappy it would make her.

Why I loved this book: Keiko is a wonderfully sympathetic character. She represents all the misfits of the world who don’t conform to what society considers acceptable or successful. A great story with a profound message about conformity.

6. The Nakano Thrift Shop

By Hiromi Kawakami (2017)

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I picked up Nakano Thrift Shop because I enjoyed another book the author had written, Strange Weather in Tokyo. However, it wasn’t as good.

The narrator is Hitomi, a young woman working at the Nakano Thrift Shop. We don’t learn much else about her; she is kind of an empty figure in the novel. We never find out how she got to the gift shop or why she’s working there.

Instead, we learn a lot about the other endearing and oddball characters who work and shop at the secondhand shop.

It’s an okay book about Japan. The characters are interesting, but not much happens, and the story kind of goes nowhere.

7. Strange Weather in Tokyo

By Hiromi Kawakami (2017)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Strange Weather in Tokyo is a poignant novel about loneliness and love.

Its main characters are 38-year-old Tsukiko and retired school teacher Sensei, who meet in a neighborhood bar and eventually fall in love. The twist is that Tsukiko was Sensei’s student 25 years ago.

This is a very Japanese novel: the rituals, the social taboos of two differently aged people falling in love, the lack of directness and frankness that leaves so much unsaid, and the wonderful food and drink.

This novel is full of insights into Japanese culture and cuisine. It makes the perfect book to read while traveling in Japan..

8. Kitchen

By Banana Yashimoto (1987)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I’ve actually read Kitchen twice, which I don’t normally do. However, in preparation for my trip to Japan, I wanted a novel that wasn’t written by a man. At that time, there were few Japanese books written by women. Now, you can find a lot of good books by Japanese women.

The book is about Mikage, a young Japanese woman whose grandmother passes away. She moves in with a friend and his mother who help her deal with the loss. Her friends and the kitchen become her comfort and the center of her recovery.

Reading it a second time was a more meaningful experience than my first time. When I read it last year, my father had just passed away, so I could relate to what the character was going through.

It’s a good book about Japan that can give you a glimpse into the Japanese way of dealing with grief. It’s very short and easy to read.

9. Tokyo Ueno Station

By Yu Miri (2015, 2020)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
  • Winner of the 2020 National Book Award in Translated Literature
  • A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

If you’re planning on visiting Tokyo, read Tokyo Ueno Station. Most visitors notice only the fun and flashy side of Tokyo—neon lights, anime and cosplay, sushi and ramen, and its efficiency and cleanliness. This book will get you to notice the other side of Japan—the homeless, poverty, inequality, and loneliness, giving you a richer and more meaningful travel experience in Japan.

The story is about a homeless man named Kazu whose ghost wanders around Ueno Station and Park, overhearing snatches of conversations from park visitors and inhabitants and reminiscing about his life.

As Kazu’s ghost roams Ueno, he reminisces about his hard life, growing up poor in a small town near Fukushima, moving to Tokyo, and then becoming homeless.

Kazu also tells you how the homeless survive in Japan. Sometimes they are treated with kindness (restaurants and convenience stores), while other times with cruelty (sadistic school children).

Tokyo Ueno Station gets you thinking about how much luck and fate have to do with what happens to people. Why are some people luckier than others? Is it their fate? Bad decisions? Karma?  Buddhism plays a significant role in the book as Kazu’s family is deeply religious.

10. Go: A Coming-of-Age Novel

By Kazuki Kaneshiro (2018)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Go: A Coming of Age Novel

I really enjoyed Go: A Coming of Age Novel, a book about a Zainichi (the word used for a Korean-born, raised, and living in Japan) teenager named Sugihara.

It’s a coming-of-age story about a teenager searching for identity and love. Alongside the story is an examination of what it means to be Korean in Japan, the attitudes and prejudices of the Japanese toward Koreans, and the attitudes and prejudices of Koreans toward Japanese.

You can also find this book on my best books on Korea list.

11. The Housekeeper and the Professor

By Yoko Ogawa (2009)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Housekeeper and the Professor is a heart-warming and poignant story about an unlikely friendship between a mathematics professor, his housekeeper, and her son.

The professor lost his memory years ago in a car accident. He can only remember his life before the day of his accident in 1975 and the last eighty minutes of his present life. Every eighty minutes his memory is erased.

The housekeeper is a single-parent with a ten-year-old son who is named Root by the professor because the shape of his head is like the square root.

It’s a good story, and the characters are sweet. 

12. The Memory Police

By Yoko Ogawa (1994, 2019)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Memory Police was my favorite novel of 2020. This is a Japanese dystopian novel. It was originally written in 1994 but not translated into English until 2019.

On an unnamed Japanese island, objects keep on disappearing. One day, a ribbon. The next, birds, calendars, and fruit. For some people, once the objects disappear, they lose all memory of them ever having existed. For others, the memories never disappear, and they live in fear that the Memory Police will discover their ability to remember.

This haunting novel reminded me of Murakami’s weirdness, Orwell’s dystopian world, and Anne Frank’s fears. In fact, Anne Frank’s diaries deeply influenced the author when she was younger. According to an interview the author had with Motoko Rich for the New York Times, her library is full of books on the Holocaust.

13. Where the Wild Ladies Are

By Aoko Matsuda, 2016

Translated by Polly Barton

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Looking for some witty feminist short stories set in Japan?

In Where the Wild Ladies Are, Aoko Matsudo takes traditional Japanese folktales and retells them with a modern, female-empowering twist. In her stories, women are not to be feared or suppressed but instead celebrated and empowered.

Thanks to National Public Radio’s characterization of the book as a collection of ghost stories, I bought it thinking it was going to be a good read for Halloween. These are NOT scary stories. There are ghosts and spirits in them, but they’re very tame.

The book gave me some insight into what Japanese women deal with in today’s world.  In “A Fox’s Life,” an older woman learns not to hide the fact that she’s more intelligent and faster than all her male colleagues and classmates.

The back of the book contains a useful summary of the original folktales. It will help you better understand Matsudo’s version.

 Some of the stories are wonderful; others are duds.

14. The Devotion of Suspect X

By Keigo Hagashino (2011)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Devotion of Suspect X is a bit different from most mysteries. In most, you don’t know who the killer is, but in this one, the killer is revealed from the very beginning. As a result, you might think that it would lack suspense. But that is not the case! There’s lots of it! The suspense is in seeing whether or not the killer and her accomplice can get away with the murder. I was rooting for them to succeed. There is also an unexpected twist at the end. Different but enjoyable.

I think this book can give you some insights into how the Japanese view single mothers, spousal abuse, police procedures, and the life of bar hostesses.

I’ve read several of Keigo Higashino’s mysteries. This book is his best.

15. The Mill House Murders

By Yukito Ayatsuji (2023)

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Mill House Murders: The Classic Japanese Locked Room Mystery (The Bizarre House Mysteries Book 2)

If you want a Japanese mystery with the flavor of an Agatha Christie novel, then one of the books in the Bizarre House series is a good choice. I’ve only read the second one, The Mill House Murders. Although the book alludes to events in the first book, you don’t need to read the series in order to understand what’s going on.

Every year, a group of art enthusiasts visits the bizarre Water Mill House and its reclusive owner, Fujinuma Kiichi. Kiichi wears a mask and gloves due to an accident that disfigured his face.

The group comes each year to look at the art of Kiichi’s father, a famous painter. After his accident, Kiichi bought up all of his father’s works of art and hid them away in his house. This yearly ritual is the only time outsiders get to see the paintings.

However, the past two years’ visits have turned bizarre, with a stolen painting and a series of murders all taking place on stormy nights.

Luckily, an amateur detective shows up during the second year to solve the mystery.

A good mystery novel should be solvable if the reader pays attention and follows the clues. In this one, I was able to solve it right before the detective revealed the murderer.

Books by Haruki Murakami

These are some of my favorite books by Haruki Murakami. You can also visit a post on my ranking of all the Murakami books I’ve read (many are not on this list).  

16. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

By Haruki Murakami (2014)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For those of you who want to read Murakami but don’t want the magical realism, the weird sex, and the weird characters, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a great option.

I loved the book! It’s actually my second favorite Murakami book, probably because I’m not a fan of magical realism and this book doesn’t have any. Also, the plot involves a mystery (not the murder kind of mystery), and I love mysteries. Plus, the main character is relatable—at least to me he was.

Tsukuru Tazaki is a train station engineer living in Tokyo. He’s somewhat of a loner who has had a lot of bad luck with relationships (romantic and platonic). The story centers around a mystery: why did his four best high school friends suddenly ostracize him?

It’s a sad book with an interesting look at modern-day Tokyo.

17. Kafka on the Shores

By Haruki Murakami (2005)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Many people recommend starting with Kafka on the Shore if you’re a Murakami virgin. It’s got many features that make his books so unique and memorable. This book is magical realism in overdrive. Expect lots of weird sex and weird characters. There’s a man who can talk to cats, a runaway high school student, Johnny Walker, Colonel Sanders, an androgynous librarian, another librarian with a mysterious past, a group of elementary school students and their teacher who went hiking in a magical forest during WWII, some Japanese soldiers who think they’re still fighting WWII, and a really cool library. The book centers around two storylines. The first involves Kafka Takamura, a fifteen-year-old boy, who runs away from home and ends up hiding out in a library. The second is about the illiterate, elderly man, Nakata, who can talk to cats. He ends up murdering a man who mistreats and kills cats.  Eventually, the two storylines converge.

18. The Wind-up Bird Chronicles

Haruki Murakami

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is another good book for Murikami virgins or anyone looking for a second book by the author with lots of magical realism and weird characters. I found it to be more grounded and more relatable than Kafta on the Shores.

Uninspired by his career and unambitious in general, Toru quits his job. His wife, Kumiko, tells him, “Hey, no problem. I’ll work long hours to support the both of us.” He spends his days making sandwiches, lying on the couch listening to music, perusing the want-ads, looking for their lost cat, chatting it up with a weird neighbor, and waiting for Kumiko to come home.

Meanwhile, Kumiko is coming home later and later. She drops hints that Toru doesn’t really know her, and basically gives him the old “I-have-a-headache” excuse. Before Toru realizes it, his wife has left him. No note. Nothing.

Toru’s heartbroken but determined to win her back. First, though, he must find the cat, uncover the hidden history of Japan during World War II and Kumiko’s sinister brother, and solve the mystery of the abandoned house.

I’ve read the book twice. The first time I didn’t finish it. The magical realism was too much for me. The second time, I liked it, and I couldn’t get the story out of my mind even long after I finished it. The weird stuff that happens has an underlying meaning. If you can catch the meaning behind everything, I think you’ll like the book more.

I’d read Wind-Up over Kafka on the Shore.

19. Norwegian Wood

By Haruki Murakami (2010)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Norwegian Wood is my favorite Murakami novel. There’s no magical realism or outrageously weird characters.

The book is set in Tokyo in the 1960s. Toru Watanabe is a first-year university student. He doesn’t fit in with any group at his university.

The novel focuses on his complicated relationships with two women: the troubled and mentally unstable Naoko and the outgoing and opinionated Midori. He’s torn between his feelings for both women.

The writing is beautiful, the dialogue is witty, and the characters are wonderfully developed.

20. Sputnik Sweetheart

By Haruki Murakami (2001)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Another terrific novel by Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart is a story about unrequited love. It’s not as normal as Norwegian Wood but also not as weird as Kafka on the Shore.

K falls madly in love with his best friend, Sumire, but she doesn’t love him in the same way. Her first love is her writing. That is until she meets an older woman whom she feels madly in love with. However, Miu doesn’t have the same feelings for Sumire. When Sumire vanishes from a Greek island, K drops everything to go look for her.

The writing is good, the characters are interesting, and the characters are well-developed.

21. 1Q84

By Haruki Murakami (2011)

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Do not make 1Q84 your first Murakami novel. At over 1,100 pages, it’s too long and too convoluted.

The book’s chapters alternate between the two main characters’ (Aomame and Tengo) stories. Aomame, a physical trainer, enters an alternate reality called 1Q84 (it’s the year 1984). Meanwhile, Tengo becomes immersed in a fraudulent ghostwriting project that changes his life forever. As the story progresses, their two lives converge.

The book has Murakami’s usual cast of eccentric characters: a wealthy dowager who protects battered women, a dyslexic and cryptic teenage girl, a Russian literature-quoting bodyguard/assassin, a mysterious cult leader, some creepy little people, a tenacious NHK fee collector, and best of all a clever but physically repulsive investigator.

The first half of the book is so good that I zipped through it. I was head over heels in love with Aomame and Tengo—I loved them! There are lots of weird people and events, but they add to the mystery of the plot.

Then, at the 50% mark, the book takes a turn for the worse. Holes start appearing in the plot. The weirdness goes into hyperdrive. The story becomes so far-fetched and illogical that I stop caring what happens to Aomame and Tengo. I hated the direction the book took.

If you’ve read one or two other Murakami books, then by all means, jump into this 1,100-page mess. Some readers love it, but others agree with me.

Books on Japan by Foreign Authors

This section covers books set in Japan that were written by non-Japanese writers.

22. American Fuji

By Sara Backer (2002)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

How much do I love this book?

I’ve read American Fuji four times. It’s maybe my favorite book on Japan. Part of it probably has to do with the fact that, like the main character, I also taught English in Asia for many years. The other reasons are that it’s a mystery, and I love mysteries, and it involves a lot of cultural misunderstandings. I find cultural differences to be fascinating.

The story takes place in the 1980s or 1990s in a more conservative part of Japan.

There are two main characters: Gabby Stanton, an American professor living in Japan, and Alex Thorn, a father whose son died in Japan. No one will tell Alex how his son died.

Gabby has lost her job and is now working at a funeral home selling “fantasy funerals.”  Gabby becomes Alex’s guide in uncovering the truth and navigating the culture of Japan.

It’s an unputdownable novel about Japanese culture told from the point of view of someone not Japanese but who lived in the country for a long time.

23. An Artist of the Floating World

By Kazuo Ishiguro (2012)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

An Artist of a Floating World is a great book for those who like historical fiction and who want to understand what the Japanese people felt after the war.

During the war, Masaji Ono was a revered artist. He painted propaganda art that the government used to drum up support for the war.

Now it’s 1948 and the war is over. Many in Japan are angry and they blame people like Ono for leading them into a foolish and destructive war. Ono must come to terms with this anger as well as his past mistakes and their effects on his family.

Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my favorite authors and this is one of his three best novels.

24. The Buddha in the Attic

By Julie Otsuka (2011)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The Buddha in the Attic is a great book to read to understand what the Japanese living in the U.S. went through during World War II. The story follows a group of Japanese picture brides as they journey from Japan to America and eventually to the Japanese internment camps during WWII. The story is told from a plural point of view “we,” of the Japanese picture brides—a faceless collective narrator. It took me a few chapters to get used to the style and enjoy the book. This list of books on Japan has several books involving Japanese in the U.S. during the war. The Buddha in the Attic is one of the more interesting and unique books.

25. The Devil of Nanking

By Mo Hayder (2011)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Devil of Nanking is a fun, creepy, and suspenseful novel. It takes place in both Tokyo and China.

There are two stories in one. The first one is about an eccentric English girl’s quest to find a film documenting some horrific atrocities of the Japanese military during the rape of Nanking. The other story is about the man who supposedly has that film and what happened to him in Nanking during the Japanese invasion and occupation.

Hayder nails the suspense and the atmosphere of both Tokyo during the 1990s and Nanking in 1937. I felt like I was right there in Tokyo and Nanking.

Some people suggest reading Iris Chang’s Rape of Nanking first to understand the context. I read The Devil of Nanking first and it was fine, but I also had some knowledge of the atrocities that had taken place.

26. Memoirs of a Geisha

By Arthur Golden (1999)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Memoirs of a Geisha is a riveting and powerful book that’s hard to put down.

The story starts in 1929 Japan. Chiyo Sakamoto is a young girl from a poor fishing village. Her parents sell her to a Kyoto geisha house, where she learns to become a geisha. Over the years, she faces many hardships, including rivalries with other geishas, a manipulative boss, demanding customers, and the changes in Japanese history from war to recovery. She eventually rises to become one of Japan’s most celebrated geishas.

I know some people criticize the author for fetishizing Asian women and for inaccurately portraying geishas. All I know is that it’s a fantastic story.

Memoirs of a Geisha was made into a movie. The book is ten times better than the movie.

27. Pachinko

By Min Jin Lee (2017)

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Pachinko is another fabulous historical work of fiction that’s hard to put down. It focuses on the lives of Koreans living in Japan.

It starts in the early 1900s in Korea with a Korean woman named Sunja. Sunja falls in love with a wealthy Korean-Japanese man and gets pregnant. To save her family’s reputation, she marries a kind Christian minister and moves to Japan. There, she and her family are treated as second-class citizens. They face many hardships of World War II and instances of discrimination.

Pachinko is one of my top six books set in Japan. You will not be disappointed!

You can also find this book on my top 15 books on Korea list.

28. A Tale for the Time Being

By Ruth Ozeki (2013)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliant novel by Ruth Ozeki. It follows the lives of two people: Ruth in Canada and Nao in Japan.

One day, a Canadian writer named Ruth is walking along the beach when she finds a Hello Kitty box washed ashore. The box seems to have floated across the Pacific from Japan during the 2012 tsunami. In the box are the belongings and diary of a Japanese girl, Nao, and her life of being bullied at school. Ruth tries to find out what happened to Nao.

This is a powerful and moving story that was hard for me to put down. If I were to reread one of these books on Japan, this one would probably be it.

29. Snow Falling on Cedars

By David Guterson (1994)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Snow Falling on Cedars is another book that you will love. It’s worth reading even though it was first published in 1994. It’s part mystery, part love story, and part historical fiction.  The story takes place in a small rural community in Washington state in the 1950s with flashbacks to the 1940s when the Japanese were rounded up and sent to internment camps. Their fellow townspeople stood by and did nothing. Many moved into the Japanese families’ homes and stole their land and property. The events that take place in the 1950s are just as tragic. A local fisherman is found dead and suspicion lies on another resident of the town, who happens to be of Japanese ancestry. The story is riveting, the writing is moving and powerful, and the content is informative. This is the best book about Japanese Americans during World War II. Read it!

30. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

By David Mitchell (2010)

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is my least favorite book about Japan. Although I loved the historical setting, I just couldn’t get into the sappy and melodramatic love story. In fact, I never finished it. The story takes place on Dejima Island, the Dutch Settlement in Nagasaki, in 1799. Jacob de Zoet is a young Dutchman who goes out East to earn enough money to be able to marry his wealthy fiancée. However, Jacob encounters Orito Aibagawa, the daughter of a Japanese doctor, and falls in love with her at first sight. They never speak to each other. Meanwhile, Orito is sent off to a remote and abusive convent for Buddhist nuns. The interesting part of the story is the interactions between the European sailors and Japanese officials and society. The racism was hard to swallow. The worst was how the Dutch treated their slaves.

31. The Translator

Nina Schuyler (2013)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Translator by Nina Schuyler is a well-written and intriguing novel. It will appeal to readers who are interested in foreign languages or neurological disorders.

At first, it seems like a straightforward medical drama about Hanna, a 50-year-old polyglot and Japanese translator, who one day falls and hits her head, losing her ability to speak any language other than Japanese. Believe it or not, this has actually happened in real life.

Despondent and lonely from her predicament, she accepts an invitation to Japan to speak at a conference. There she has an uncomfortable run-in with the author of the last work she translated right before her fall. This meeting leads her to seek out the author’s muse, an unpredictable and tormented Noh actor. Through her relationship with the actor, Hanna is forced to reexamine her relationships.

I found Hanna to be an interesting and complex character. I loved how Schuyler weaves the story of Hanna’s failure to translate the Japanese book with her failure to understand the people she loves. Very beautifully written story!

32. When the Emperor was Divine

By Julie Otsuka (2007)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
When the Emperor was Divine is another moving book about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. It tells the heartbreaking story of a nameless Japanese-American family during WWII as they lose their property and are sent to internment camps. The story is told from multiple points of view: the mother’s, the daughter’s, the son’s, etc. Julie Otsuka wrote another book about Japanese-American and World War II internment camps called Buddha in the Attic.  However, I prefer When the Emperor Was Divine. It’s more personal and moving than the other book. Perhaps my only complaint is that it’s too short.

33. The Little Teashop in Tokyo

By Julie Caplin (2020)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Little Teashop in Tokyo: A feel-good, romantic comedy to make you smile and fall in love! (Romantic Escapes, Book 6)

The Little Teashop in Tokyo is another book that will spark your wanderlust for Japan. It’s great to read after your trip to Japan. I found myself reliving my trips there.

However, a warning: it’s a romance, so if that genre is not your thing, then skip it.

Blogger and photographer Fiona has just won a two-week trip to Tokyo to work with one of Japan’s most famous photographers. Unfortunately, the famous photographer has a family emergency, and in his place is a famous British photographer, Gabe.

It turns out that Fiona knows Gabe. He was her teacher and she used to have a crush on him. In fact, he was partly involved in her motivation to drop out of school.

At first, Gabe doesn’t recognize Fiona and acts like mentoring her is beneath him. However, their relationship blossoms once Gabe realizes how talented Fiona is.

The romance was Okay. It’s cute, but for me, it played second fiddle to the scenes of Fiona visiting the sights of Japan: Teamlab Borderless, Shibuya Crossing, the Meiji Temple, Mount Fuji, and Kyoto. It was a fun escape and a fun way to return to Japan without leaving my home!

Classical Japanese Fiction by Japanese Authors

This section covers books written by Japanese writers before the 1980s.

34. The Makioka Sisters

By Junichiro Tanazaki

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Finally, if you’re looking to read just ONE classic Japanese novel, make it The Makioka Sisters by one of Japan’s most important writers, Junichiro Tanizaki.  This book is by far my favorite. This beautifully written book takes place in Japan before and during WWII and follows the story of three sisters from Osaka as they deal with both the impending wedding of the youngest sister and the changes in Japanese society. Each sister deals with the changes in their own way. The story is full of beautiful details, the characters are complex and multi-dimensional, and the cultural insights into Japan are fascinating.

35. The Old Capital

By Yasunari Kawabata (1962)

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
If you want to read ONE book during your time in Kyoto (or right before), the perfect book is The Old Capital. Written by one of Japan’s greatest writers, Yasunari Kawabata, the book takes place in Kyoto right after the end of the American occupation. Kawabata paints such a romantic and vivid picture of Kyoto that you feel like you’re right there with the characters in the old capital. The story is about a young woman named Chieko. She is the adopted daughter of a kimono wholesaler and his wife. Throughout her life, her parents have told her contradictory stories about her adoption. With so many unanswered questions about who her birth parents are, Chieko keeps pushing away those who love her. That is until she meets someone who can give her the answers she needs. The Old Capital is a good story. It’s a short easy read. Perhaps because I’m not Japanese, I had a hard time understanding people’s motives and sometimes their actions didn’t make sense.

36. Spring Snow

By Yukio Mishima (1969)

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Spring Snow is the first novel in Yukio Mishima’s masterful tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility. Some of you will like it, while others will find the book’s misogyny too much. Set in Tokyo in 1912, it tells the story of the handsome and introspective Kiyoaki Matsugae, the son of a newly wealthy and powerful family. Kiyoaki is in love with his childhood best friend, Satoko Ayakura, but he doesn’t realize it until she’s engaged to a royal prince. I have mixed feelings about this famous Japanese novel. On the one hand, I can appreciate Mishima’s beautiful and richly thematic writing. The story was engaging enough to keep me reading late into the night. There were scheming servants, blackmail, court intrigue, rape, and jealousy. The descriptions of Japanese protocol and rituals were also fascinating. It was set during an interesting time when the old powerful intellectual families were being supplanted by wealthier, more provincial families. On the other hand, I was frustrated with the book’s misogyny. I know I needed to keep in mind the context of when and where it was written, but still, I found myself wanting to throw the book across the room whenever I came across a disparaging remark about women or another rape turned into passionate sex. Mishima doesn’t understand women.

Have you read any of these books? If you have any other suggestions for novels on Japan, let me know in the comment section below.

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25 books on Japan to spark wanderlust and a suitcase with red sun on outside


  1. Great list! I am visiting Japan in December and am going to read a couple of these before my grand trip! Thanks for all the recommendations

    • Thanks! I’m going in August.

  2. Ohh there is so many I want to read. I already have Pachinko and the Artist of the Floating World in my library que. Great reviews. And I love a Tale for the Timebeing. 🙂

    • Thanks! I know I loved A Tale for the Time Being, probably the best on the list. Pachinko is great, too, especially from a cultural and historical perspective.

  3. Nice list! I’m not a fan of Murakami, but some of these sound pretty interesting.

    • I totally understand. When I first read Murakami, I didn’t like him at all.

    • I have read several of these and have been so touched by the characters. I am ready for more having taught there for DOD in ‘72- ‘73 and returned for a cruise in 2023. Beautiful country and good and kindly people. I also watched VENITIA on NHK for years.

      • What an amazing experience to have taught in Japan in the 1970s! I would have loved to have seen Japan back then.

  4. Oh what a great list! I love how much Murakami you have going on! I love reading Japanese horror and suspense novels, though they might scare people from visiting 😉 my favourites are Keigo Higashino’s Malice and Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

    • I usually don’t like horror novels, but I love suspense and I really liked Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X, so I’ll check out Malice and I’ll check out Revenge. Thanks for the suggestions!

    • I hope so. It’s not as expensive as traveling in the U.S. or Europe.

  5. I admit I’ve read non of them before I went to Japan, but thanks for sharing this great list.

    • Even if you aren’t going there, there are a few that are worth reading anyways: A Tale for a Time Being, Norwegian Wood, The Devil of Nanking, etc.

      • I will definitely:)

    • I think the experience of reading a book about a place after visiting it can be just as meaningful.

  6. Ah, a list like this has to have lots of Murakami. I really liked A Tale for the Time Being, and thank you for including The Devil of Nanking.

    • I’m glad someone else has read The Devil of Nanking. What a great book!

  7. Amazing choices!! Haruki Murakami is my favorite 🙂 I’m going back to japan this September, and I will definitely check some of the books you mentioned here when I’m there. Thanks for all the recommendations!

    • I hear Murakami is coming out with another book this year!

  8. I am doing the same before my trip in March. I would like to also recommend: Silence by Shusaku Endo and The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

    • Thanks for the recommendations!

  9. All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe, Totto-Chan by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, and Max Danger, The Adventures of an Expat in Tokyo, byRobert J Collins. OK, I’m old and it was over 40 years ago and things are different now, but the last one is laugh out loud funny, honest.

  10. Thanks. Good List. Also consider THE FINAL YEN by R. Sebastian Bennett–accurate and engaging book about foreigners in Advertising in Tokyo in 1989, the pinnacle of Japanese economic power

  11. In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow by Kenneth W. Harmon. A Kirkus Reviews “Best book of 2020”

    • Thanks for the recommendation!

  12. Great list!
    What about Shogun? I enjoyed it a lot.
    Although not entirely in Japan, “Shoe Dog” has a lot of related Japanese experience.

    • Yes, I know that book. I actually haven’t read it, ubt I know that lots of people have and they’ve really liked it. I’ve read Clavell’s books on Hong Kong, though.

  13. Thanks for this list – much appreciated. It will send me off to library and bookshop to find some titles.

    To the list of books by foreign authors I would also add –

    ‘The Cat and the City’ by Nick Bradley.

    This deals with the grittier side of Tokyo through the wanderings of a stray cat which provides the link between all the characters’ stories.

    One of those characters then enters his second, lighter book

    ‘Four Seasons in Japan’.

    • Hi Susan! I’ve heard of the book and was intending to read it. Becaues of your recommendation, I’ll move it up on my reading list.


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About the Bamboo Traveler

Welcome to The Bamboo Traveler, a travel blog dedicated to helping those travelers who want to dig deeply into the history, heritage, and culture of a place. Whether it’s through the pages of your passport or the pages of a book, I’ll help you travel the world and uncover the history, culture, food, architecture, and natural beauty of some of the world’s most fascinating places.


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