The 30 best novels about Japan you should read before visiting the country: the ultimate Japan reading list!
Even though I have an English literature and Creative writing degree, I barely speak about my love for reading on my website. It’s so heavily focused on my passion for exploring new places, that my reading addiction is pushed to the sideline. Until today!
How about combining my degree and love for reading with my all-time favourite travel destination: Japan. I’ve always been interested in the Japanese culture and by reading a ton of Japanese novels, I feel like I’ve got a much better understanding of the country, its history and the culture. Here are my 30 favourite novels about Japan, separated into historical and contemporary novels. You can find a Goodreads list of them here. Enjoy!
Best Historical Novels About Japan
1. Geisha of Gion (Geisha, a Life) by Mineko Iwasaki
One of the most famous/popular books about Japanese culture must be Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. Instead, I’d highly recommend (nay, I URGE) you to read one of my favourite books of all time: Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki. Golden interviewed Iwasaki for his novel, but breached the contract, twisted her words and facts to make it seem like Geishas are high-class prostitutes. For an American to write a historical novel about such a delicate part of another culture, twisting facts to make the plot more entertaining for a western audience and thereby shaming a profession that plays such a big part in Japanese culture is just unacceptable. I felt quite uneasy after reading such a problematic book.
Iwasaki wrote her own autobiography (Geisha of Gion) in response to this, to show the reality of the secret Geisha life and published it some years later. It follows her journey of becoming Japan’s most famous Geisha until her sudden retirement at age 29. She shares her daily schedule, the hard work that went into her training and shows the reader a real glimpse into traditional Japanese culture. I actually read this novel before Memoirs of a Geisha and before I knew about the lawsuit, but it immediately turned into a novel that I kept rereading over the years. It’s such a unique story that made me feel more connected and understanding of Japanese history and culture.
2. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
This historical novel follows a Korean family to move to Japan in the early 1900s. It is the first novel for an English speaking audience about the Japanese-Korean culture, making it quite an important novel on this list. Pachinko follows the daughter of a fisherman in Korea. She falls in love with a wealthy man, but when she falls pregnant and finds out he is married, she refuses to live her life this way. Instead, she marries a man who is on his way to Japan – she and her son leave home to join him.
Pachinko is a book about family, integrity and sacrifice. Taking you from the dazzling lights of Japan’s high streets to the pachinko parlours and Japan’s criminal underworld. Because of Japan’s history with Korea, this book really gives you a better understanding of what happened and how it affected people in the past.
3. Lost Japan by Alex Kerr
If you want to learn about Japan, its history, its culture and dive into the nostalgia of traditional Japan – this book is perfect for you. This novel is almost like a love letter to everything Japanese. Because it was written by an American author who has spent most of his adult life living in Japan, it is very accessible for westerners. Kerr speaks full enthusiasm about everything he loves about the country, but he’s unafraid to also criticise it.
The two extremes of traditional and hyper-modern – which are so characteristic of Japan – are something Kerr speaks about frequently. Is the traditional part of Japanese culture slipping away through modernization?
Lost Japan is the perfect novel to read in preparation for your own trip to Japan or for those who are interested in learning more about the complex culture, history and future of this beautiful country.
4. I am a Cat by Soseki Natsume
I am a Cat was written between 1904 and 1906 as an episodic story in the literary magazine Hotoguisu. It turned into one of the most famous and most original pieces in Japanese literature – a classic that deserves to be read. A satiric masterpiece about the upper-middle-class during the Meiji period (1868 to 1912) through the eyes of a cat that walks around the neighbourhood, picking up conversations of the people around him. Filled with clever wordplay, brilliant wit and all-in-all an absolute must-read for those who are looking for more novels about Japan.
It slightly reminded me of being the middle of a Studio Ghibli movie, especially because everything is told through the funny, lovable, yet judging cat. On top of that, it gives a great insight into the upper-middle-class in the early 1900s.
5. Kokoro by Soseki Natsume
Another novel by one of Japan’s most famous authors: Soseki Natsume. You don’t need a lot of knowledge about Japanese culture to read this book, which makes it a perfect intro to Japanese literature (in my opinion).
The story follows the friendship between the young narrator and the older, more traditional Sensei. As well as personal themes as isolation and egoism, the novel heavily draws upon its backdrop of the dying Meiji period. The characters reflect the huge changes Japan was undergoing during this period, which the author has done in a beautiful and clever way.
It’s a book filled with life lessons and quotes that I wanted to highlight to glance over again in the future. I’d highly recommend reading this one if you’re just dipping your toes into Japanese literature.
6. Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
Even though this novella isn’t set in Japan, it shows us the lives of the picture brides (Japanese brides who were married to immigrant workers in Hawaii and West Coast USA in the early 20th century). It’s something that I hadn’t really heard about until reading this novella.
It’s just over 120 pages long and doesn’t follow one specific individual protagonist, but is packed with emotion and stories with a unique intimacy that will stick with you. It takes you through the women’s marriage, giving birth, work, the effect of the Pearl Harbour attack and WWII. These aren’t easy topics to learn about, but I think it’s important to be aware of history. Especially when you are interested in a culture or country – connecting with its history will automatically allow you to connect with a certain culture better because you’ll understand.
7. The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
Another novel that, just like Soseki Natsume’s work, started as a serialised story. It ran from 1943 to 1948. You may have noticed a pretty common theme in these novels, which is the clinging onto the traditional parts of Japanese culture that were sliding into modernity. The Makioka Sisters is no exception to this.
Set in Osaka before WWII, following the lives of the four upper-class Makioko sisters. They are trying to find the third sister – Yukiko – a suitable husband alongside their own issues and their struggles of being so caught up in old traditions when the country was moving forward so quickly. Because of the huge contrast between tradition and modernity being such a pillar of Japanese culture, I believe books like this are very important if you want to gain a better understanding of Japan.
8. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
If you’re looking for some real classic Japanese literature – The Tale of Genji is the novel for you. Written in the 11th century, it possibly is the first novel in world literature. The story was written by a noblewoman during the Heian period. Murasaki Shikibu was an intelligent woman and, despite being a girl, was well-educated alongside her brothers. Her knowledge of the Japanese court helped her write this novel, which became popular with both men and women.
Focussing on the Heian court, the novel follows Prince Genji (or shall I say ex-prince). He pursues a career as an imperial officer after the Emperor demotes him to a commoner. I have to say, this book is quite heavy and probably not for everybody – but I did really enjoy it (especially knowing it made such an impact on Japanese and world literature!). I would recommend reading a few other Japanese novels before starting this one. It’s definitely not the first piece of Japanese literature you want to read!
9. The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi
This historical novel was written by one of Japan’s most popular modern female writers, Fumiko Enchi. Set in the late 19th century, the story follows Tomo. Tomo is sent to Tokyo on a mission – a mission of heartbreak. She has to find her husband a new lover. Choosing out of many ex-geishas and daughters that have been put up for sale, Tomo has to choose a new mistress to take home.
The premise of this novel already shows the story is filled with heartbreak and pain. But it also shows the sister bond between women and female strength in a male-dominated society. It has been listed as one of the 500 Great Books by Women by Erica Bauermeister – showing you it’s definitely worth your time!
10. No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai
Technically, this novel lays on the edge of being contemporary fiction rather than historical – but because it deals with very similar topics as the previous books on this list, I decided to leave it in the historical section anyways.
Published and set right after WWII, No Longer Human shows the struggles of a young man named Ōba, who feels unable to fit into the break between traditional Japanese aristocratic families and the (then) newly introduced Western ideas on how to run society. With the alienation, the isolation and personal traumas, Ōba feels he is Disqualified From Being Human (the original title in Japanese).
11. Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima
This autobiographical novel by Yukio Mishima follows an adolescent boy struggling with his sexuality during Japanese wartimes. As a queer man, he just wants to feel “normal”. In an attempt to hide his sexuality, he tries to fall in love with a woman – but ultimately fails to do so
It’s a story of mental struggle, confusion and trying to fit in. Mishima did a wonderful job at translating this into a story. It isn’t to my surprise that he is one of Japan’s most acclaimed authors. If this novel is something that speaks to you, I’d also recommend reading Mishima: A Biography. This biography goes deeper into the life of the queer writer. It’s quite a shocking book to me, but therefore maybe even more important to be read.
Best Contemporary Novels About Japan
12. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
A list with the best Japanese novels won’t be complete with at least a couple of Haruki Murakami novels. On top of being a bestseller in Japan, his works have been translated into more than 50 languages and he has sold millions of novels all across the world. With more than 30 titles to his name, I’m including five of my favourite Murakami books that are a perfect introduction to his work for those who aren’t familiar with it yet.
1Q84 is one close to my heart, as it was one of the main inspirations for the dystopian novella I wrote as my degree’s dissertation. This book comes in three volumes following two soulmate heroes Aomame (a gym instructor by day, assassin by night) and her childhood love Tengo (math tutor by day, ghostwriter by night). They get involved with the Sakigake, a religious cult in Japan and have to figure out how (and why) they have entered an alternative reality named 1Q84 (the Q stands for a question mark). The story is quirky, unusual and a real page-turner.
13. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
Norwegian Wood is the first book I read by Haruki Murakami and it’s the one that got me hooked immediately. I think it’s one of the better novels by Murakami to start with, as it gives you a good impression of what he’s writing is all about.
Norwegian Wood centres around the life of college student Toru Watanabe in the ’60s. We follow his loneliness, the isolation he faces at college, the relationships he develops – especially those with Naoko (a beautiful girl who struggles with the responsibilities and pressures of life). Even though some parts of the story don’t seem like there is much going on, there is always a deeper meaning. That’s one of the things that made this novel stand out to me so much. The excitement of the common, the usual. Norweigan Wood is filled with emotions and it’s one of the few books I keep rereading.
14. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore feels like a literary puzzle. One with alternate realities and time travel. The story is very strange but therefore very Murakami. It takes some thinking to understand it all but that’s one of the things that I like so much about this book. That being said, it’s probably not the best first book to read by Murakami. Knowing Murakami’s style and what I was diving into helped me enjoy it a lot more.
The novel follows two characters. One teenage boy who ran away from home to avoid a prophecy to come true. He renamed himself after his favourite author; Kafka. Then here is Nakata, an older man who for some reason feels connected to Kafka. The story slowly unravels the reason their paths intertwined alongside some mysterious and strange happenings. It’s definitely a weird story, but it also is one to thoroughly enjoy.
15. Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
This one is probably as Murakami as you can get – it’s a strange one (but if you like Murakami, it’s definitely one to enjoy!). Therefore, I’d definitely wouldn’t recommend picking this one as your first Murakami novel. BUT – if you liked any of his other novels, give it a go!
This book actually contains two stories, “Hard-boiled Wonderland” and “The End of the World“. Even though they are slightly related, they don’t merge. One is reality, one is a myth. Murakami definitely is an author that likes to blend many different genres into one. These stories fall somewhere between sci-fi, detective and dystopian romance. It’s hard to tell much about the plot without giving too much away or making sense. But if you like Murakami and aren’t bothered by an open ending – I’d give this one a go!
16. The Wind-Up Bird Chronical by Haruki Murakami
Okay, okay, the last Murakami on the list – I promise! With a popular author like Murakami who has written more than 30 novels, it’s hard not to have at least a few on a list like this. This is another one of my favourite Murakami novels. One of his more tame ones, but reading it feels like living another life. It is so mesmerising, so captivating and there is always some new surprise waiting for you.
The novel revolves around Toru Okada. It’s a story about the search for his wife’s missing cat. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is about everybody he meets along the way and the strange things that happen to Toru. A story filled with magical realism, crazy characters and maybe even crazier situations. What I like about Murakami’s novels is that they are all unlike anything I’ve ever read. They are so original and it’s something that I greatly admire.
17. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
This short (163 pages) but the quirky story follows 36-year-old Keiko. She lives in Tokyo and has been working in a convenience store (surprise!) since she was 18. The story is slightly similar to the popular novel “Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine” in a way that Keiko also doesn’t quite know how to behave like a human in a way that’s expected from society.
She just wants to be a useful part of society and by working in a convenience shop, she feels like she is. Her friends and family (her sister in particularly) do worry about her, though. To get them off her back, she befriends a former colleague (another misfit in society) who moves in with her. Murata’s writing style is very funny which makes the book a fun, easy but kinda weird read with an important comment on social rules in society.
18. Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri
The protagonist of Tokyo Ueno Sation, Kazu Mori, is dead. He was born in the same year as the Emperor and their lives are tied by coincidences, which you will read about throughout this novel. Only is Kazu Mori’s life filled with a lot of bad luck. Unable to cross to the other side, his spirit haunts the park outside of Ueno Station in Tokyo.
At 180 pages, it’s another quick but intriguing read. Postwar Japan is often portrayed as a rich country filled with bright neon lights and an overload to all your sense. This novel portrays a whole different side of postwar Japan, one that deserves more attention, too. It’s one of those books to read for the second or third time on a rainy afternoon or on a long train journey – it sticks with you.
19. Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
Strange Weather in Tokyo captures the strange position post-war Japan found itself in perfectly. The story follows Omachi Tsukiko, a lonely woman in her 30s, and her old school teacher, who is about 30 years her senior. Their common love for food and sake makes the two starts gravitating towards each other. They start meeting to share food and old memories.
The novel misses a streamlined plot, it’s more a sweet story about two mismatched people and their relationship. What I loved about this novel is how real it feels. The characters are unique and have funny characteristics. But I also loved the passages about Japanese cuisine. While Omachi and Sensei share their food, the dishes are written about in an almost love-letter like way. It’s impossible not to crave any of it while reading it.
20. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Mikage is an orphan who was raised by her grandmother and works as a culinary teacher’s assistant. After her grandmother passed away, Mikage was taken in by her friend Yoichi and his transgender mother Eriko. The improvised family create a wonderful story about mothers, love, and the power of the kitchen and the home.
Yoshimoto takes the ordinary of day-to-day life and turns it into something exciting. Something worth reading about. Even the most ordain activities or setting make you want to continue reading. This is such a great example of contemporary Japanese literature. The minimalistic writing style of Yoshimoto fits in perfectly with a big part of Japanese culture, making it a great addition to this list.
21. Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto
If you enjoyed Kitchen, I’ve got another Banana Yoshimoto on the list: Moshi Moshi. The novel follows a girl named Yoshie. After her father died in a suicide packed with an unknown woman, Yoshie is haunted by nightmares about her father. Yoshi and her mother try to leave the past behind by moving to a traditional part of Tokyo, but the nightmares don’t stop. She starts to wonder whether his spirit is trying to communicate with her through her dreams.
This coming of age ghost story deals with grief, loss and healing in a very charming way. Yoshimoto’s descriptions left me quite eager to visit said part of Tokyo if I ever get the chance to return to this beautiful city.
22. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
A short novel (at 181 pages long), The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is a quick but intense read. It follows a group of 13-year old boys that form a group rejecting the adult world. Noboru (the leader of the group) start idolizing his mother’s new partner, who is a sail’s officer. But he and his group are, however, disappointed to find out he doesn’t quite live up to their expectations.
The red line of the struggling identity between the ancient Japanese culture and the newer technologies that entered the country after WWII is also notable in this novel. Noboru’s mother is an obvious representation of westernisation, whereas Noboru himself fits in with the ancient traditions. It is, therefore, a good novel to read alongside any of the historical novels that line up with these themes.
23. The Sound of the Waves by Yukio Mishima
The Sound of the Waves is a beautiful coming of age story. Set in a small fishing village in Japan, it follows the story of a young fisherman called Shinji. He falls in love with the daughter of the richest man in town, Hatsue. Even though it’s known in the small coastline community that Hastue is supposed to marry someone else, they continue to meet.
This impossible love story is amplified by the simple life of the rural town. It reminded me slightly of Romeo and Juliet, but with a much happier and more optimistic undertone. Like with many other Japanese authors, the writing style is something that spoke to me. The detailed descriptions and beautiful way of storytelling in this novel is one of the reasons it deserves a place on this list.
24. In the Miso Soup by Ryū Murakami
Time for a different Murakami. Maybe even weirder/stranger than Haruki’s novels – so get ready. In the Miso Soup is a novel about an American tourist Frank who hired 20-year-old nightlife guide Kenji to show him the best of Tokyo at night. We are welcomed to the sex-trade and red-light district, where sex, drugs and crime play a major role. If that wasn’t enough – Frank’s motives turn out to be different from just wanting a fun New Years Eve in Tokyo. He’s a serial killer.
In the Miso Soup is a very strange, but quick read. You get sucked into the fear and events that occur. I think it’s probably best read without any (or at least little) breaks because it’s so captivating. The uncanny-ness of the novel is something that made me put it on this list. It’s one of those books you kinda have to read.
25. Almost Transparent Blue by Ryū Murakami
A raw tale about 19-year-old Ryū (is it autobiographical in some sense? Who knows) and his friends. Living in a small Japanese town that’s home to an American air force base, their lives revolve mainly around sex and drugs. It’s quite an intense story, filled with graphic descriptions of violence, drug-enhanced hallucinations, sex and pretty much anything that relates to those topics.
The way the novel captures the desperation, the call for help and the feeling of not being loved is somehow mesmerizing. Murakami did an amazing job capturing it, which makes you wonder how much of it really is autobiographical. It was the author’s first novel and with it, he won the Akutagawa Prize. The novel was also turned into a movie, for which the script was written by Murakami himself.
26. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Nao is a 16-year-old American-Japanese girl who lives in Tokyo. Because she identifies as an American but has moved back to Japan with her parents, she struggles to fit in her environment. To deal with her inner struggle to relate to the Japanese side of herself, she decides to keep a diary. In it, she documents the life of her grandmother, a Buddhist nun who has lived for over a hundred years.
Ruth, a novelist living in British Colombia, finds a washed-up Hello Kitty lunchbox (debris of the devastating tsunami that hit Japan in 2011) inside, Nao’s diary. As she’s struggling to finish her own novel, she’s intrigued by Nao’s story and starts to wonder what happened to the girl who wrote it.
For it not being a very long novel, the story contains so much and feels like a very fast read. I’d highly recommend this one!
27. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa
If you’re looking for a short (180 pages) and original story, The Housekeeper and the Professor may be the perfect Japanese novel for you.
The story is narrated by the housekeeper. She has been sent to look after a former mathematician professor. Due to a head injury, the professor is only able to remember new memories for 80 minutes and therefore struggles to look after himself properly. The enchanting story follows the relationship that blossoms between them.
Even though he can’t hold on to memories for long, you can see there is more to him than just his love for numbers. When he learns about the housekeeper’s son, he tells her to let the son come over after school. This way he doesn’t have to wait at home alone until his mother comes back from work. It’s an endearing, original story. A perfect quick read for your reading list.
28. Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson
This book follows Canadian travel writer Will Ferguson on his hitchhike through the entire length of Japan. On his way, he meets tons of interesting people which he writes about in Hokkaido Highway Blues. It’s an absolute wonderful travelogue filled with funny conversations, life lessons and somewhat unusual situations the curious, liberal American finds himself in when looking into the more private lives of the Japanese.
It’s a real eye-opener. I’d highly recommend reading this novel if you’ve already been to Japan and want to explore it a bit more. Or if you simply want to enjoy a lighthearted story and learn more about the Japanese culture. A true gem!
29. The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
The Guest Cat is a story about a couple who work as freelancers. Because they both work from home, they don’t have much to say to each other anymore. Until one day, a cat joins them in the kitchen. The cat returns every now and then, giving more life and enjoyment to the couple. They start falling in love all over again – going on walks, sharing stories and filling their own lives with much more light and love.
A cute, short novel that is very Japanese. Very Japanese in the sense that the plot is quite minimal. The descriptions go on for quite a while but are beautifully told. They really paint a scene and helped me enjoy it even more. It’s definitely not for everybody, because of the limited plot. But I greatly enjoyed it.
30. Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami
Ms Ice Sandwich is a great start for diving into the world of Japanese literature. At only 92 pages, this novella offers you a quick, fun and light read. Ms Ice Sandwich is about a boy who has a crush on a supermarket employee. She sells ice sandwiches. Even though he never gains the courage to speak to her, the story reminds us of our first loves, growing up and how tough it can be.
Kawakami did such a great job writing in the boy’s voice. Even though it seems a bit childish at times, the book reminded me so much of Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo and Totoro. It has a lovely feel of hopefulness. The gentle storytelling definitely helped with that too. Therefore, I think this is such a great first novel to read when starting your journey of Japanese novels.
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