30 COOLEST Novels on Japan: Read Before You Go!

by Jan 24, 2021Books, Japan

In this post, I’m going to share with you my honest and unbiased review of 30 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.

For those looking to dip their toes into Haruki Murakami, I suggest first reading Norwegian Wood. 

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

For a book on Japanese-Americans during the war, Snow Falling on Cedars is still the best. Pachinko is a great book that looks at the lives of Koreans living in Japan.

If you’re looking for an unputdownable book to help you escape from this pandemic, I highly recommend The Devil of Nanking,  A Tale for a Time Being, The Memory Police, and Memoirs of a Geisha.

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!

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links.  As an Amazon Associate and a Bookshop.org Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.  Please see this website's Disclosure for more info.

1. American Fuji

By Sara Backer (2002)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I love, love, love this book. How much do I love it? I’ve read  American Fuji at least four times. It’s got an interesting story with a bit of a mystery and lots of cultural misunderstandings. As someone who taught English in Asia for many years, I could relate to the main character.

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 him how he 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 Japan and Japanese culture told from a gaijin’s point of view. Read it!

2. An Artist of the Floating World

By Kazuo Ishiguro (2012)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a great book for those who like historical fiction and who want to understand what the Japanese people were feeling after the war.

The narrator is Masaji Ono, a once-revered artist during the war. He used to paint propaganda art for the government, which was used to drum up people’s 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 that foolish and destructive war. Ono must come to terms with this anger as well as his past mistakes and their effects on his family. 

3. The Buddha in the Attic

By Julie Otsuka (2011)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

What stands out for me about The Buddha in the Attic is that 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 that style and started to enjoy it.

The story follows a group of Japanese picture brides as they journey from Japan to America and eventually to the Japanese internment in camps during WWII. This is a great book that highlights a shameful and tragic event in American history.

This list contains a few books about Japanese-Americans. This is one of the more interesting and unique ones. I liked reading from the brides’ perspective, how they felt as they journeyed to a new country to be with husbands that they never knew.

4. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

By Haruki Murakami (2014)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is the 4th Murakami book that I’ve read. I was hesitant to read this book at first as the reviews were less than stellar. I was happily surprised by how much I loved this book. One of my top ten novels about Japan. Great characters and a bit of a mystery that keeps you turning the pages late into the night.

Like a lot of Murakami’s books, I could relate to much of what the characters were thinking and going through. The story is about a man named Tsukuru Tazaki, a train station engineer who lives in Tokyo. He’s somewhat of a loner who has a lot of bad luck with relationships. The story centers around Tsukuru’s quest to find out why his four closest high school friends ostracized him.

This is just a really good and kind of sad book with a bit of mystery. It also gives you some insight into modern-day Tokyo.

5. Convenience Store Woman

By Sayaka Murata (2018)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Written by Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman is a beautiful, weirdly wonderful, sweet novel! It’s sad and funny and dark. It’s so good that you’d rather spend a sunny Saturday afternoon on the couch reading it until you get to the end.

The main character is a 36-year-old Tokyo resident, Keiko Furukura. Keiko had never fit in until she turned 18 and got a job at a convenience store. She found purpose and happiness by working at the store. And through the employee manual, she finally understood the rules of social interaction. However, at 36, she is being pressured by her friends and family to conform to society’s definition as an acceptable life by finding a boyfriend no matter how much of a loser he is and getting 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. The book stays with you long after you’re done reading it. A great story with a profound message about conformity.

6. 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 that I was being transported back to both these two time periods. Brilliant book!

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.

7. The Devotion of Suspect X

By Keigo Hagashino (2011)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Devotion of Suspect X, the only mystery on my list of books about Japan, 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 will 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 Japanese view single mothers, spousal abuse, police procedures, and the life of bar hostesses.

8. Go: A Coming-of-Age Novel

By Kazuki Kaneshiro (2018)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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 of 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 of Koreans toward Japanese.  This story is of how Sugihara tries to escape these prejudices.

A fascinating and informative book about the life of Koreans in Japan.

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

9. The Housekeeper and the Professor

By Yoko Ogawa (2009)

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa 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.

The story is about the role of families and memory in relationships. And math.

It was a good story, and the characters were sweet. However, at times the premise annoyed me. It seemed too implausible.

10. 1Q84

By Haruki Murakami (2011)

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

1Q84 is one of Murakami’s more recent books and it’s his longest by far at over 1,100 pages. Its length intimidated me, so I put off reading it for a long time. But since I was going on a long trip and it happened to be discounted on Amazon, I took the plunge and bought it.

Luckily, IQ84 was so good that I zipped through the first 50% of the book in a week. I was head over heels in love with the two main characters. Definitely a 5-star book I thought at that point. But then it took a turn for the worse and my love affair with 1Q84 stumbled. Too much magical realism and fantasy. Too far-fetched and illogical for my taste. Holes in the story opened up that bothered me. It took me a month and a half to finish the rest of it. In the end, I’m giving 1Q84 4 out of 5 stars. Good (fun characters), but not great. Norwegian Wood and Colorless Tsukuri were great because they had only smidges of unreality. This one had too much.

Summary of the story: 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 as you’re introduced to a 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 and its leader, some creepy little people, a tenacious NHK fee collector, and best of all a clever but physically repulsive investigator.

11. Kafka on the Shores

By Haruki Murakami (2005)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

After my first failed attempt to read Murakami about fifteen years ago, I decided to give him another chance in preparation for my trip to Japan last year. This one has as much crazy stuff in it as there was in the first one I read, Windup Bird Chronicles, but I was prepared for all the craziness, so I liked Kafka on the Shore much better.

I read the book a year ago and what I remember is that there was a talking cat, a runaway high school student, a truck driver, an old man who killed someone, an androgynous librarian, another librarian with a mysterious past, a group of elementary school students and their teacher who had some supernatural experience while hiking in a magical forest during WWII, some Japanese soldiers who think they’re still fighting WWII, and a really cool library. It’s all just really weird.

My advice is to suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride!

12. Kitchen

By Banana Yashimoto (1987)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I’ve actually read Kitchen twice, which I don’t normally do. But in preparation for my trip to Japan, I wanted a novel that wasn’t written by a man.

The book is about Mikage, a young Japanese woman whose grandmother just passed 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.

13. The Makioka Sisters

By Junichiro Tanazaki

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I read The Makioka Sisters 20 years ago while living in South Korea. I remember loving the book when I read it. It takes place in Japan during the early 20th century (before WWII) and follows the story of three sisters from Osaka and their coming-to-terms with a new Japan. This is one of the best novels on my list of best novels on Japan for an understanding of pre-war Japan. Interesting story. It’s hard to find an ebook copy, though.

I highly recommend it!

14. Memoirs of a Geisha

By Arthur Golden (1999)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I read Memoirs of a Geisha when it first came out in 1999. I remember having a hard time putting it down.

As the name suggests, it tells the story of a young girl from a poor fishing village who is sold to a geisha house in 1929. The story follows her life in Kyoto first as a maiko and then as a geiko.

It is one book on this list of best novels set in Japan that I would like to read again. For an understanding of Japan before WWII, I highly recommend it.

15. The Memory Police

By Yoko Ogawa (1994, 2019)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is my favorite novel of 2020. Originally written in 1994 but not translated into English until 2019, The Memory Police has received loads of critical praise.

On an unnamed Japanese island, objects keep on disappearing. One day a ribbon. The next birds, calendars, fruit. For some people, once the objects disappear, they lose all memory of them having ever existed. For others, the memories never disappear, and they live in fear that the Memory Police will discover their secret that they can’t forget and will make them disappear as well.

A young woman discovers that her editor is one of those whose memories are still intact. Fearing that he will soon be arrested, she hides him in a secret room in her house, where they work together on her novel, hoping that it will restore her memory and keep her soul from completely disappearing.

This haunting novel reminded me of the weirdness of Murakami, the dystopian world of Orwell, and the fears of Anne Frank. 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.

Reading a thought-provoking book like this one at the end of a year like 2020 felt so apropos. For some of us, so much of our old lives—going to the theater, restaurants, bars, hanging out with friends—have disappeared, while for others, nothing has disappeared. Even memories of those more normal times also seem to be fading.

But the book doesn’t have to be read during a pandemic to have meaning. One can see the book as an allegory for any kind of authoritarian regime that tries to rewrite history.

16. 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.

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 and why she’s working there. Instead, we learn lots about the other endearing and oddball characters who work and shop at the secondhand shop.

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

17. Norwegian Wood

By Haruki Murakami (2010)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Norwegian Wood is my favorite Murakami novel. Unlike two other books of his on this list of best novels on Japan, Kafka on Shore and Windup Bird Chronicle, this one is more straightforward and “normal.” If you’re not into magical realism (I’m not!) and you REALLY want to know what all the hype is about regarding Murakami, start here!

Norwegian Wood follows the story of Toru, a young college student, an all-around nice guy, and a bit of a loner. The novel focuses on his complicated relationship with two fascinating women, Naoko, and Midori. It’s one of those coming-of-age stories about a young person finding himself.

This is the first time I really appreciated Murakami’s beautiful writing style, witty dialogue, and wonderfully developed characters. It’s a beautiful book and one that I hope to read again.

18. The Old Capital

By Yasunari Kawabata (1962)

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Written by one of Japan’s greatest writers, Kawabata, The Old Capital is a short novel set in postwar and post-occupation Japan about a young Japanese woman named Chieko, the adopted daughter of a wholesaler of kimonos and his wife. Throughout her whole life, her parents have told her contradictory stories about her adoption.  With so many unanswered questions about who her birth parents were, Chieko keeps those who are in love with her at bay. That is until she meets someone who can give her the answers she needs.

The Old Capital is a good story. It’s short and easy to read. Perhaps because I’m not Japanese, I had to keep an open mind to understand people’s motives.

What I really liked about the book, though, were the romantic, poignant and poetic descriptions of Kyoto and its many festivals. The book takes place in one year in the life of Kyoto starting in the winter and ending in the fall. I felt like I was traveling with the characters back to Kyoto as they visit the old capital’s most famous temples and shrines and take part in its numerous festivals.

A good book to read while in Kyoto.

19. Pachinko

By Min Jin Lee (2017)

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Pachinko is a sweeping historical novel about life for Koreans under Japanese occupation and while living in Japan as seen through the eyes of one Korean family.

It follows the story of a Korean woman named Sunja, who falls for a wealthy Korean-Japanese man, gets pregnant, and eventually moves to Japan.

Although the story and writing aren’t perfect, I think you’ll find the historical context fascinating. What was it like for the Koreans in Japan during the war and during their country’s occupation?

It’s one of my top six novels about Japan.

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

20. Snow Falling on Cedars

By David Guterson (1994)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Snow Falling on Cedars is another book that I loved when it came out a while ago, in 1994. 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 and while their neighbors stood by. What takes place in the 1950s is also 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 but also informative. This is probably the best book about Japanese-Americans during World-War II. Read it!

21. 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. 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 his 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 the 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.

22. Sputnik Sweetheart

By Haruki Murakami (2001)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Sputnik Sweetheart is another terrific novel by Murakami about longing and unrequited love. It’s crazy and weird like Kafka on the Shore, but I felt like I could relate to the characters more in this one than in Kafka.

K has fallen 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 who she feels madly in love with. When Sumire vanishes from a Greek island, K is called to help look for her.

If you’re looking for another Murakami novel about Japan after Norwegian Wood and Kafka, try this one!

23. Strange Weather in Tokyo

By Hiromi Kawakami (2017)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Strange Weather in Tokyo is a poignant and tender novel by Hiromi Kawakami 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. The age and their previous relationship become barriers to further intimacy.

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 gastronomy, so it makes the perfect book to read before and during a trip to Japan.

24. 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 written by an American writer, Ruth Ozeki, who also wrote another terrific but not widely-known book called My Year of Meats.

It tells the story of a Canadian writer named Ruth who finds a Hello Kitty box that has drifted onto the shore near her home in Canada. The box seems to have floated across the Pacific from Japan during the tsunami of 2012. In the box are the belongings and diary of a Japanese girl, Nao, and her life of torment and being bullied.

I read this book when it first came out in 2013 and loved it. This is probably my favorite book from this list of best novels about Japan. It is so moving and so well-written. If I were to reread one of these books on the list, this one would probably be it.

25. 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 novel on this list of best novels about Japan. Although I loved the historical setting, I just couldn’t get into the sappy love story.

The story takes place on Dejima, the Dutch Settlement in Nagasaki, in 1799. The main character is Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutchman who goes out East to make enough money to be able to marry his wealthy fiancée. However, Jacob encounters Orito Aibagawa, the daughter of a Japanese doctor, and falls madly in love with her.

On the one hand, it was fascinating to read about how the Japanese and Europeans interacted. It was also depressing to read about how racist the Europeans and Americans were at that time.

On the other hand, I just couldn’t stand the melodramatic love story and after a while, I had to give up. 

26. 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 (cross our fingers that it’s in 2021), 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.

Kazu grows up poor in a small town near Fukushima (remember the earthquake and tsunami). For most of his adult life, he lives apart from his family, working at construction sites in other cities around Japan. Tragedy and heartbreak visit him again and again. Then at the age of 67, he ends up 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 are deeply religious.

A great book for those who want to understand Japan better!

27. The Translator

Nina Schuyler (2013)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Translator by Nina Schuyler is a well-written and intriguing novel. I think that if you’re into foreign languages and/or neurological disorders like you’d read in a book by Oliver Sacks, you’ll like it as well.

At first, it seemed 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 made to reexamine her relationships.

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

28. When the Emperor was Divine

By Julie Otsuka (2007)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

When the Emperor was Divine is another book on my list of best novels on Japan having to do with the internment of Japanese-Americans. 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.

If you have to pick one of Otsuka’s to read, I prefer this one over Buddha in the Attic. 

29. 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.

What I liked about it is that it gave me some insight into what Japanese women deal with in today’s world. In “Smartening Up,” a young woman frustrated by her appearance is visited by the ghost of her dead aunt who teaches her not to be ashamed of her flaws. In “A Fox’s Life,” an older woman learns not to hide the fact that she’s smarter and faster than all her male colleagues and classmates. In another great story, “What She Can Do,” a single mother deals with the criticism of divorcing her husband and juggles working full-time and raising her child alone.

There’s a useful summary of the original folktale in the back of the book that will help you understand Matsudo’s version better.

I’m giving this collection 4 stars. Some of the stories are wonderful; others are duds. The writing or translation is inconsistent—sometimes it’s not clear which person a pronoun is referring to and sometimes the story jumps in time and place and it’s not clear what happened.

30. The Wind-up Bird Chronicles

Haruki Murakami

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

If you’re looking for a book by Murakami that’s got plenty of magical realism and a lot to say about love and loss and the history of Japan during World War II, then Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a good choice.

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. Kumiko, meanwhile, is coming home later and later, dropping hints that Toru doesn’t really know her, and basically giving him the old I-have-a-headache excuse. Before Toru realizes it, his wife’s left him. No note. Nothing.

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

I have mixed feelings about this book. At times getting through it felt like a chore. It’s too long and there are long sections, when not much happens. The characters aren’t as interesting of a character as ones in later Murikami novels.

But after I finished it, I couldn’t stop thinking about Toru’s story. There’s a lot of underlying meaning behind all the weird stuff that happens.  And the book captures that sadness and numbness that you feel when an important relationship ends.

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.

Get FREE trials of my favorite Amazon products:

  • Kindle Unlimited – I have a subscription to Kindle Unlimited just for all the free Lonely Planet guidebooks. You get FREE books and magazines including Lonely Planet books with a 1-month FREE trial.
  • Audible – Audible is amazing for those who need something to listen to while going for long walks. You get 2 FREE books with a FREE one-month trial.
  • Amazon Prime 30-Day FREE Trial – I was an Amazon Prime Member for years (I’m traveling full-time now so it’s not so useful). I loved its free shipping and its Amazon Prime movies and TV shows (Mrs. Maisel, Bosch, and Expanse).
  • Prime Student 6-month FREE Trial - If you have a university email account, you can get an even better deal with a FREE 6-month trial of Amazon Prime.

Are you on Pinterest?

Hey! How about saving one of these pins to Pinterest to read for later?

And feel free to follow me on Pinterest, where you'll find lots of travel articles for everywhere around the world.


books on Japan
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.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

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.


Get Your FREE Japan Itinerary Guide Here!

Subscribe to my newsletter to receive the latest travel tips for Asia and get a free 4-page PDF version of my 3-Week Japan Itinerary.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest