Which books to read about Japan, its history, its novels, its poetry? We asked experts to recommend the best Japan books in their field or area of interest and you’ll see some of their choices below.
For a short book that gives a very insightful history of Japan we highly recommend Inventing Japan by Ian Buruma. The book covers the period from 1853 to 1964, the dramatic period in Japanese history that saw the Meiji Restoration, World War II and the American occupation as well as the beginnings of the astonishing Japanese economic miracle that catapulted Japan into one of the world’s economic powerhouses.
If you’re looking for one of the classics of Japanese literature, the book you’re looking for is The Tale of Genji by the Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikubu. It is a doorstopper, so if you’re only mildly interested, the manga version of The Tale of Genji by Waki Yamato might be a better fit. If, on the other hand, you fall in love with it, you might enjoy Melissa McCormick’s The Tale of Genji: A Visual Companion, which is illustrated with photos from the Genji Album, which dates from 1510 and is the oldest set of Genji illustrations known to exist.
Of the big names of the 20th century, it’s the Japanese author Kenzaburō Ōe who won the Nobel Prize for literature, back in 1994. Haruki Murakami is probably better known outside Japan, and his books, including the brilliant The Windup Bird Chronicle, have been recommended on Five Books.
If you’re travelling to Japan and looking for a lighter read or a book to read on the plane, a detective novel is no bad place to start. A major work in the Japanese crime fiction genre that’s been translated into English is Inspector Imanishi Investigates by bestselling Japanese crime writer, Seicho Matsumoto (1909-1992).
Performing the Great Peace: Political Space and Open Secrets in Tokugawa Japan
by Luke Roberts
The Taming of the Samurai: Honorific Individualism and the Making of Modern Japan
by Eiko Ikegami
Tour of Duty: Samurai, Military Service in Edo, and the Culture of Early Modern Japan
by Constantine Vaporis
Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai
by Teruko Craig (editor and translator)
Lust, Commerce, and Corruption: An Account of What I Have Seen and Heard, by an Edo Samurai
Mark Teeuwen and Kate Wildman Nakai (eds)
The samurai, Japan’s warrior caste, have been embraced by popular culture and made their way into films, comic books and video games. But who were they really? Michael Wert, professor of East Asian History at Marquette University and author of Samurai: A Concise History, recommends the best books to learn more about samurai, literally ‘one who serves.’
To the western eye, Japan often appears as a surprising combination of very advanced development, and extreme cultural peculiarity. Linda Flores, Associate Professor of modern Japanese literature at the University of Oxford, guides us through this discovery with five great works of modern Japanese literature.
Many people have heard of manga and anime, but would be surprised to learn how deeply this niche is steeped in Japanese tradition and culture—or how often manga features strong, smart female leads, says Susan Napier, anime expert and Professor of the Japanese Program at Tufts University. Here, she picks five books that encapsulate manga and anime as both forms of art and cathartic re-workings of Japanese history.