8 Books That Will Transport You Directly To Japan

8 Books That Will Transport You Directly To Japan

Wednesday, 22 January, 2020

Rooted in tradition and family, the culture of Japan provides rich fodder for stories that grab a hold of you and won’t let go.

The books we’ve chosen introduce you to very different characters and celebrate the language, the customs, the pop culture, and the challenges of modern Japan, as well the dramatic events of the 20th century that created the Japan of today.

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Number9Dream - David Mitchell

Number9Dream
> David Mitchell

Twenty-year-old Eiji Miyake has lost the two women who mean the most to him — his mother and his twin sister. Now he’s left his idyllic rural home on the Japanese island of Yakushima for Tokyo. He’s on a quest to find the father he never knew.

As he gets closer to identifying the father who abandoned him, he’s caught up in capers and conundrums he could never have imagined. Alone and troubled in an overwhelming city, Eiji finds himself in the unexpected care of new friends. And also in the crosshairs of dangerous enemies. There’s a yakuza crime gang, ‘the waitress with the beautiful neck,’ a video-store-clerk-turned-landlord, and a wealthy law student who is temptation incarnate.

A sweeping, sprawling, wandering adventure, this novel is a bit like Dickens’ Great Expectations reset in the heart of Tokyo and filtered through cos-players, karaoke bars, and video-game screens.

The novel is divided into nine chapters — Just what does the number nine mean?! — and each is written in a distinct narrative style: action-adventure, detective procedural, sweet romance, folklore, cyber-thriller, war story, and more. It’s an exhilarating thrill ride. But because it’s David Mitchell, there’s substance beneath the dazzle. {more}

Tokyo is too close up to see, sometimes. There are no distances and everything is above your head — dentists, kindergartens, dance studios. Even the roads and walkways are up on murky stilts. An evil-twin Venice with all the water drained away. — David Mitchell

A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony - Hector Garcia

A Geek in Japan
> Hector Garcia

What does a self-described geek from Spain know about Japanese culture? Turns out, quite a lot! Thanks to his engaging voice, insatiable curiosity, and an eye for intriguing details, Hector Garcia is a first-rate tour guide to all things manga, anime, J-pop, Zen, and everyday culture in Japan.

The author has lived in Japan since 2004. His abundant enthusiasm, coupled with a love of learning and all things Japanese, has made him an expert on the Japanese experience for people outside the culture. Think of this book as the most fun-to-read encyclopedia ever. The graphic design is colorful and built for scanning, so you can dip in and out at will. The writing is breezy and conversational, punctuated with hundreds of photos and appropriately cute illustrations.

On his romp through Japan, Garcia explores its history, religion, and philosophy with a light hand. He explains the codified elements of the temple and includes helpful tips for how to visit a shrine without feeling like a fish out of water. He also digs into the idiosyncracies of Japanese language, demystifies the everyday behavorial differences between Japan and the West (why do Japanese women cover their mouths?), and celebrates the food, movies, TV, music, and cute animals that make Japan the touchstone for stimulating (and sometimes quirky) entertainment. {more}

Trains in Japan are a phenomenon; there are trains everywhere, there are thousands of different kinds, there are train enthusiasts, magazines and books about trains, and I’ve even seen stores that specialize in selling only train-related products. One of the things I like most about Japanese trains is that they are incredibly punctual, and when I say incredibly I mean it…. For instance, the average delay for Shinkansen trains over the last 20 years is only 18 seconds. — Hector Garcia

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms - Gail Tsukiyama

This sweet and sad multi-generational family saga spans from 1939 to 1966, taking us — along with the unforgettable Matsumoto family — through the worlds of sumo wrestling, traditional Noh theater, and the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo.

When the story opens, two brothers — orphaned by their parent’s tragic death — are being raised by their grandparents. The boys are very close and polar opposites: Hiroshi is strong and outgoing, with dreams of becoming a superstar sumo wrestler. His younger brother Kenji is slim and quiet, nicknamed ‘Kenji the ghost.’ He’s a sensitive, artistic soul who longs to become a mask-maker for the Noh theater.

As the novel weaves the threads of the boys’ and their grandparents’ lives, it branches off to share the stories of the other people who become important to them: friends, lovers, spouses, co-workers. It’s a bit folkloric in tone, and Tsukiyama is adept at knitting the stories together in a way that keeps the pages turning and keeps us invested in the characters.

With rich detail about the world of sumo and Noh theater and vivid descriptions of Japanese food, the culture, and the landscape, this book is evocative, sweet, sad, optimistic, and heartbreaking — just like real life. {more}

He heard Fumiko inside cooking dinner, the scent of rice wine and sugar in the air letting him know that he was still alive. He tilted his face up toward the warmth of the setting sun and closed his eyes against the dull throbbing in his head. He hadn’t forgotten the footsteps, feeling someone standing right there beside him, even if he refused to acknowledge their presence. Yoshio wasn’t ready to go yet. Life was too long and too short at the same time. — Gail Tsukiyama

Showa 1944-1953: A History of Japan - Shigeru Mizuki, Zack Davisson (translator)

Showa 1944-1953
> Shigeru Mizuki

With kinetic black-and-white art and a narrative that’s both sweeping and intimate, this autobiographical manga is a time machine to Japan in the late stages of World War II.

Award-winning author Shigeru Mizuki is one of the most beloved and respected manga artists of all time. But before all of the books and acclaim, he lived through the events described in this historical (and personal) account of Japan’s Showa period. Named for Emperor Hirohito, this era stretches from 1926 to 1989, encompassing the second Sino-Japanese War, the final years of WWII, the Korean War, and the Cold War.

As we follow along with his larger-than-life experiences, we get an inside look at Japanese culture, particularly the notion of ‘the noble death’ — and just what that means for the living and the dead.

This is a powerful anti-war novel wrapped in the engaging and affecting guise of a graphic novel. Mizuki, as a human and as a character, is a charming, loveable man; you will grow to care about him. His story, and all the others his story represents, will stay with you. {more}

panel of elephant in the jungle with a Japanese soldier on its back

A Tale for the Time Being - Ruth Ozeki

Prepare to meet three amazing women: a 16-year-old in Tokyo, a middle-aged Japanese-American in British Columbia, and a Zen Buddhist nun, who also happens to be 104 years old and an anarchist. They populate a story that’s all about the small moments that add up to the meaning of life.

Ruth is a former New Yorker now living in rural Canada. One day, she finds a mysterious diary and letters inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the beach — part of the detritus from the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan. Its author is Nao (pronounced ‘Now’), a teenager living in Tokyo. She’s bullied, lonely, disillusioned, and emotionally abandoned by her father, and the reasons for all of this slowly become clear via her diary entries.

The only person in her life who doesn’t let her down is her elderly great-grandmother (and radical feminist) Jiko. She lives in a Zen temple on a mountain and delivers delightful moments of levity and beauty to the narrative.

As Ruth reads Nao’s words on the other side of the ocean, she slowly grows attached to the girl, even though their relationship is out of sync — the events Ruth experiences in the present are the plot points of Nao’s past. So what is happening to Nao now?

Mystery, coming-of-age tale, family saga; this novel is a moving examination of the various meanings of time and how we choose to spend our precious days. {more}

Old Jiko is super careful with her time. She does everything really really slowly, even when she’s just sitting on the veranda, looking out at the dragonflies spinning lazily around the garden pond. She says that she does everything really really slowly in order to spread time out so that she’ll have more of it and live longer, and then she laughs so that you know she is telling you a joke. — Ruth Ozeki

The Great Passage - Shion Miura, Juliet Winters Carpenter (translator)

The Great Passage
> Shion Miura

This is a sweet and gently told story set in Japan that speaks lovingly of the power of words and the emotions contained in the particular arrangement of a few letters.

Not much happens — a group of people toils for more than a decade on a new 2900-page (!) dictionary called The Great Passage — but everything happens: people fall in love, live and die, question themselves, make friends, break up, succeed, and fail.

Our hero is Mitsuya Majime, a young book collector with a background in linguistics and a personality wholly unlike his mentor Kohei. Majime devotes himself to parsing the true meaning of words for the epic dictionary, including left, right, man, woman, and the most important of all — love.

The action gets sparky when Kaguya, the daughter of Majime’s landlord, shows up. She’s a chef, and the scenes at her restaurant are packed with food descriptions that add a richness to the story without drawing undue attention to themselves. She’s also the recipient of one of the most awkward love letters ever written in any language. {more}

‘A dictionary is a ship that crosses the sea of words,’ said Araki, with a sense that he was laying bare his innermost soul. ‘People travel on it and gather the small points of light floating on the dark surface of the waves. They do this in order to tell someone their thoughts accurately, using the best possible words. Without dictionaries, all any of us could do is linger before the vastness of the deep.’ — Shion Miura

The Devotion of Suspect X - Keigo Higashino; Alexander O. Smith, Elye J. Alexander (translators)

The Devotion of Suspect X
> Keigo Higashino, Alexander O. Smith

In this super-twisty thriller set in Tokyo, Japan, a mild-mannered math teacher might be a criminal mastermind. There’s no doubt who committed the crime; the suspense is in watching the police and their consultant, known as Professor Galileo, try to unravel the knot of the crime.

The story begins with a seemingly average woman. Yasuko is a single mom who works at a bento shop and lives a quiet life in a Tokyo apartment building. But when her violent ex-husband shows up unexpectedly one day, circumstances spiral way, way out of control. He’s dead, and she’s falling to pieces.

Her neighbor Ishigami — the unassuming teacher who’s literally just on the other side of the wall — comes to her rescue. He’s been in love with her from afar, and this tragedy is his opportunity to show his devotion. Ishigami’s solution creates a dangerous bond between the two of them and sets off a shocking chain of events that attracts police attention.

As Ishigami schemes to outsmart the police, the tension is almost unbearable, but deliciously so. This is a hyper-intelligent blend of police procedural, character study, and logic puzzle. The twists as the story heads into its denouement are dizzying — and make perfect sense. {more}

Kusanagi had met plenty of good, admirable people who’d been turned into murderers by circumstance. There was something about them he always seemed to sense, an aura that they shared. Somehow, their transgression freed them from the confines of a mortal existence, allowing them to perceive the great truths of the universe. At the same time, it meant they had one foot in forbidden territory. They straddled the line between sanity and madness. — Keigo Higashino

Convenience Store Woman - Sayaka Murata, Ginny Tapley Takemori (translator)

Convenience Store Woman
> Sayaka Murata

This weird and wonderful novel focuses on the microcosm of a Japanese convenience store and expands it into the entire world of our heroine, Keiko. She’s 36 years old, she’s never had a boyfriend, and the convenience store is her safe place.

Keiko’s entire life revolves around the store where she’s worked for 18 years. She finds solace in the repeating rows of products and the routine of her work shift. She takes pride in re-stocking the shelves just so. She cheerfully greets each customer with a perfect cadence, just as she was instructed in her training video.

Her friends and family — a devastatingly normal sister, snarky friends, ambitious co-workers — don’t understand her: Why she doesn’t crave a more respectable job? A husband? Babies?

In her own way, Keiko makes sense; her world is compact but complete. Then a new employee invades her life and upsets her equilibrium in ways that she — and we — could never have anticipated. {more}

I love this moment. It feels like morning itself is being loaded into me. The tinkle of the door chime as a customer comes in sounds like church bells to my ears. When I open the door, the brightly lit box awaits me — a dependable, normal world that keeps turning. I have faith in the world inside the light-filled box. — Sayaka Murata

Do you have a favorite novel or nonfiction set in Japan? Share in comments!

Top image courtesy of Clay Banks.

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