Getting caught up in the hype of the Japan tourism train is almost too easy. The delicious food, stunning landscape, and beautiful people make it a cinch to fall in love with the country even before you’ve visited.
But have you ever thought about reading beyond (ironically) what fun travel articles write and romanticise about online?
Japan is a country that is rich with history and tradition that’s still steeped in their culture, even today. There’s so much of the country to take in, understand, appreciate, and reflect on when you travel there.
One way you can deepen your knowledge of this country is by reading books about Japan, whether it’s historical, fiction, or nonfiction. There are so many books out there that spin tales and spit facts about Japan in ways that are so much more interesting that you realise. Whilst not all experiences and stories covered are positive, they shed light into the human aspects of Japan and all that it is and has been.
Below we’ve listed off some of the greatest books which cover the history of Japan, Japanese culture, and a few of the best Japanese novels for you to snuggle with on a lazy afternoon and get lost within.
The 5 Best Books About Japan History
1. The Book of Five Rings – Miyamoto Musashi
We’re starting off this list with a global bestseller, written by a 17th century samurai. Can anything top that?
The Book of Five Rings was written in 1643 by Miyamoto Musashi, a samurai who was fiercely undefeated back in his day, and considered a revered figure in the history of Japanese samurais
This book is a historical manifesto on swordsmanship, strategy, and winning, written initially for his students, and yet is still relevant many generations later.
What makes this book so intriguing is that his principles are thoughtful yet basic, simple yet powerful. For Musashi, writing this novel on such things as techniques on overpowering assailants and attacking opponents off-guard is rooted into a common theme: that the way of martial arts is a mastery of the mind rather than simple technical prowess.
Read More: Best Japanese Historical Dramas
It’s evident that you don’t have to be a martial artist, or even a martial arts enthusiast, to enjoy this fascinating read.
The book itself has been translated multiple times since its inception, however William Scott Wilson’s version has been very well-received by audiences far and wide.
Get It Now: The Book of Five Rings
2. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II – Iris Chung
The Rape of Nanking is a book whose pages have been turned by many Japanese historians from around the world. This title is one that is always on the tip of people’s tongues when asked about shocking and graphic Japanese historical novels that don’t hold back.
The Rape of Nanking is superbly written by Iris Chang. It recounts one of history’s most brutal massacres that is nowhere near as publicised as it should be. It delves into the details of December 1937, when the Japanese army entered the ancient city of Nanking (the then capital of China), and massacred 300,000 Chinese civilians.
It cycles through three perspectives: those of Iris’ grandparents who barely escaped the massacre, that of the Japanese soldiers, and that of a group of Westerners who created a safe zone within the city, saving countless lives.
3. The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore
The historical roots of Japanese ‘yokai’ are murky. Existing for as long as people can remember, any monsters, ghosts and supernatural beings of any sorts were labelled yokai, and they have inspired countless traditional and pop culture references for centuries.
These days, they are especially popular in anime, manga, films (not limited to just Japanese films) and computer games.
In this book, Michael Dylan Foster delves deep into the history and cultural context of yokai (through years of research), to break down the roots, meanings, and reasons behind the existence of yokai.
This is less of a serious read and more of a delightful read for the general audience. This book will enlighten you on how these yokai, from tengu mountain goblins to shape-shifting foxes, influence Japanese culture and their importance in Japanese folklore.
4. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present – Andrew Gordon
If you’re interested in straight modern history, look no further than this book.
A Modern History of Japan is a book that wonderfully and intricately details the past two centuries of Japanese history. It powers through the times of the shogunate reign (military power) to the modernising revolution pushed by samurai in the late 19th century. It truly gets fascinating when you start reading about how Japan opened up their trading borders and began adopting Western traits such as hairstyles, clothing, and military organisation.
The author, Andrew Gordon, creates a descriptive and intriguing narrative of Japanese modern history, with strong points for paying attention to levels of social standing as they all existed through the changing times of Japanese history.
5. A Brief History of Japan: Samurai, Shogun and Zen: The Extraordinary Story of the Land of the Rising Sun – Jonathan Clements
Jonathan Clements is the mastermind behind this wonderful book which recounts the fascinating history of the people of Japan, ranging from “ancient teenage priest-queens to teeming hordes of salarymen”.
This documentary/storytelling historical book uses a more relaxed approach to recounting Japanese history whilst still skilfully weaving together the past, present, and future.
It highlights the many ways in which Japan’s history and culture juxtapose each other: a modern nation still steeped with ancient traditions; one of the most fast-paced societies in the world which exists in a country predominantly covered by mountains and forests.
This is a wonderful well-rounded book about the history of Japan that anyone can enjoy.
Get It Now: A Brief History of Japan
Read more: 10 Popular Historical Japanese Figures
The 5 Best Books About Japanese Culture
1. Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life – Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles
If you’ve looked into Japanese culture before, chances are you would have come across some beautiful Japanese words that don’t have a direct English translation. This in itself is purely fascinating and a great start to getting lost in the nuances of the Japanese culture that differ so much from the western world.
One such word is ‘Ikigai’, which essentially translates to your ‘reason for being’.
What exactly does this mean, you ask?
Well, ask yourself, what is your purpose in life? Have you discovered it yet? Do you have one, or many? What gets you out of bed? What fills your soul with purpose and contentment?
As discovered and explored by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles, the Japanese people have long mastered the art of finding their ikigai and thus leading long and happy lives.
This book is a light read, and follows their journey as they traverse Japan to understand how the idea of ikigai is understood and practiced by different people across Japan.
2. Japanese Tattoos: History, Culture, Design – Brain Ashcraft with Hori Benny
Japanese tattoos are some of the most interesting and sought-after around the world. From crazy spirals of Koi fish to weaving magical dragons, samurai warriors, exotic geisha, and even neko dolls, the art of Japanese tattoos is intricate and superbly developed.
Brian Ashcroft, author of this intriguing book, has spent over 20 years in Osaka and has written for many publications. This particular novel explores the roots of how the designs of Japanese tattoos began and follows the journey through to today.
There are interviews with prominent Japanese tattoo artists and explores tebori, the traditional act of tattooing in Japan.
Get It Now: Japanese Tattoos: History, Culture, Design
3. Lost Japan – Alex Kerr
Have a fascination with traditional Japanese arts and crafts? Then this book by Alex Kerr, an American who moved to Japan during his early adulthood, is the perfect read for you.
Alex very quickly fell in love with the nuances of its traditions and culture and spent years obsessing over and thus learning a deep amount about the traditional arts culture of Japan.
You can expect to read about his understanding and love for the dedication and mastery of practices, the origins and legacies of the arts and craft, and topics across the board covering theatre, design, painting, and even writing.
Get It Now: Lost Japan
4. Rice Noodle Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture – Matt Goulding
This book is like a Japanese foodie’s Bible! Written by Matt Goulding, this book delves into compelling insights of the Japanese food culture. Starting from convenient stores and moving to luxury kaiseki restaurants, and covering everything in between, it walks you through how and why Japanese food is just so darn irresistible.
This book is a balanced blend of compelling storytelling, insider information and mass amounts of delightful images.
5. Pure Invention – Matt Alt
Described as being one of the most powerful novels on Japanese culture, Pure Invention is for those who want a deep dive into Japanese culture – from its humble beginnings to its global-scale pop-culture phenomenon that exists now.
These days, when you think about Japanese pop culture, you think of anime, manga, karaoke, arcades, stuffed toys. But, believe it or not, it was not always like this.
After Japan experienced the worst stock-market crash in the 1990s, it seemed that it was never going to fully recover. However, when the country began to rebuild itself, it shot itself far into the future.
Building empires in small, adorable cartoon characters, from Hello Kitty to Dragon Ball Z, proved to be so successful that it escalated the country back into relevance and right to the top of the social culture standing of the world.
Get It Now: Pure Invention
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The 5 Best Japanese Novels
1. A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki
This contrite story is about a young Japanese girl, Nao, who has endured too much in the world. She makes the fateful decision to leave the world, but not before documenting the story and life of her great grandmother in a secret diary, not realising that this diary will move on to touching the lives of so many more people than she could imagine.
Ruth is a novelist living on a remote island across the world who happens upon Nao’s diary. Little did she know that picking up the Hello Kitty lunchbox that was washed ashore would affect her life forever.
Get It Now: A Tale for the Time Being
2. Shogun – James Clavell
This captivating novel by James Clavell is a story of romance, power, the differing notions of love, and loyalty.
You meet John Blackthorne, an Englishman whose ship was blown ashore in Japan. There exists Toranaga, a powerful feudal lord in Japan who’s out to seize ultimate power by becoming Shogun, and Lady Mariko, a beautiful interpreter who becomes a major impact on his life from there onwards.
This novel greatly exposes the complex nuances of how foreigners were welcomed, or more so received, in Japan, and also how their lives are altered (for better or worse) by exposure to such a strange and new culture.
Get It Now: Shogun by James Clavell
3. The Street of a Thousand Blossoms – Gail Tsukiyama
This is a beautifully nostalgic book about orphaned brothers who both hold big and passionate dreams, only to have them stilted by the ripple effects of war.
Hiroshi is the star sumo wrestling pupil who is on his way to becoming a rising force to be reckoned with, and Kenji develops a deep fascination, or borderline obsession, with the traditional arts and craft of Noh theatre masks.
However, when the war starts trickling into their quiet, unassuming village, both brothers must make the ultimate decision about chasing their dreams and thus forge new paths.
This masterpiece centres around tradition versus change, love and loyalty, and family.
Get It Now: The Street of a Thousand Blossoms
4. Pachinko – Min Jin Lee
Pachinko is a novel that’s held number one spots across numerous bestseller lists, has been nominated for multiple prestigious awards, and was a deserving recipient of the Medici Book Club Prize.
Pachinko is a powerfully written novel about a Korean teenager, the daughter of a crippled fisherman, who falls in love with a wealthy stranger. Upon falling pregnant and then finding out that the stranger, who promised her the world, is actually married, she makes the decision to not be bought by him.
Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a minister passing through her town on his way to Japan, and begins her next chapter in a foreign country with him.
This is an extraordinary tale about perseverance, the deep-rooted discrimination traditionally prevalent in one of the world’s most culturally appealing countries, love when you least expect it, and loyalty to family and oneself.
Get It Now: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
5. Memoirs of a Geisha
Rounding off this incredible list is the worldwide bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha. Many people may recognise this title as it was famously made into a movie in 2005 starring Zhang Ziyi.
If you haven’t watched the movie, we recommend reading the novel beforehand, as there are nuances within the book that unfortunately doesn’t flow through to the film.
Arthur Golden eloquently voices the story of Chiyo Sakamoto Sayuri, a girl who, at the tender age of 9 years old, is taken from her home and sold into slavery to a revered geisha house.
The novel delves beautifully into the exquisite world of geishas; where appearance takes priority, love is deemed an illusion, and hierarchy is of paramount importance.
Get It Now: Memoirs of a Geisha
We hope you enjoy pursuing this list of the best books about Japan and end up with a couple of our suggestions in hand! Japan as a country is just so immersive and intriguing, and we can’t think of a better way to get to understand the nuances of the country than through proper non-fiction historical and cultural novels and fantastical fiction novels.
If you want to keep learning more about Japanese culture, you can also read this blog post about traditional Japanese masks.