27 Great Books on Japan – Novels
In my latest books for the world traveler series of posts, I’m going to share with you my honest and unbiased review of 27 of my favorite and not-so-favorite novels about Japan and Japanese culture. By reading this list, you’ll know which books about Japan to buy, borrow, and skip. Hopefully, this will save you from making the wrong decision.
For those looking to dip their toes into Haruki Murakami, I suggest first reading Norwegian Wood.
So grab some tea and a good book and let’s escape to Japan!
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Table of Contents - Books about Japan
5 out of 5 Stars
- American Fuji
- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
- Convenience Store Woman
- The Devil of Nanking
- The Makioka Sisters
- Memoirs of a Geisha
- Norwegian Wood
- Snow Falling on Cedars
- A Tale for the Time Being
- When the Emperor Was Divine
4 out of 5 Stars
- Artist of the Floating World
- Buddha in the Attic
- Devotion of Suspect X
- Kafka on the Shore
- Sputnik Sweetheart
- Strange Weather in Tokyo
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles
3 or 3.5 out of 5 Stars
2 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!
By Kazuo Ishiguro (2012)
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The main character is Masuji Ono, an artist who used his art to promote the military government’s imperialist ambitions. Much of the story takes place in Ono’s mind as he reminisces about the floating world, the nocturnal pleasure world of drinking, geishas, sex, etc. during Japan’s Tokugawa and Meiji eras. Ono needs to comes to terms with society’s anger towards him and others in powers who led the country on a path of death and destruction as well as the changes taking place in his country after WWII.
This is a fascinating book about post-war Japan.
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.
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.
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.
By Mo Hayder (2011)
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
I’ve read The Windup Bird Chronicles twice. The first time was in 2004. I didn’t know anything beforehand about Murakami’s style of writing, so I was unprepared for the crazy, unexplainable things that happened in the book. I just didn’t like it.
I read it a second time in 2020 after having already read many other Murakami books, so I was better prepared for his bizarre world. I liked it better than the first time. BUT I have mixed feelings about it. At times getting through the book felt like a chore. It’s long and there are so many disjointed stories. Honestly, it got really boring in some parts. But then upon finishing it, I was sort of astounded at how brilliant Murakami is and how deep it all was because it finally made sense.
I found this book to be heartbreakingly sad. It’s about the end of a marriage. You know when one person goes in one direction and the other person goes in another until the two people no longer know each other. Murikami shows this loss in a very unique and brilliant way that is not apparent in the beginning. You have to understand that much of the strange stuff that happens in his books has meaning below the surface.
Wind-up Bird has many of Murakami’s typical characters. Toru is yet another loner, alienated, unambitious nice guy who goes through life listening to music and never getting too much upset about anything. He’s contentedly married to Kumiko. He thinks their marriage is perfect. But the signs are all there for the opposite to be true. Kumiko is constantly working late and complaining that he doesn’t really know her. She finally leaves him. The rest of the book is spent with Toru trying to find himself and trying to bring Kumiko back.
There are lots of other eccentric characters and there’s a whole side story on the Japanese in Manchuria during World War II that’s fascinating.
How does it compare to other Murakami novels? Murakami’s later novels have more interesting characters than Wind-Up Bird and his later novels, though longer, seem actually tighter than this one. I liked it, but it’s definitely not my favorite by a long shot.
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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