From samurai to sumo and calligraphy to cos-play, Japan is a fascinating mashup of hyper-modernity and traditional culture.
Visitors to Japan can still sleep on futons, meditate with monks, drink matcha tea, and wonder at ancient theater, like noh and kabuki — while also riding on bullet trains and time-traveling to the future with the latest electronics. More than two-thirds of the country is mountains, and there are also ancient cedar groves, tropical beaches, and fields of wildflowers. And hot springs, lots of bubbly, irresistible, relaxing hot springs.
Rooted in tradition and family, the culture of Japan provides rich fodder for stories that grab 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, and the challenges of contemporary Japan.
In this episode, we take a deep dive into WWII-era Japan with a family saga and a nonfiction manga comic — both populated by unforgettable characters, sweeping historical events, and big feelings. We’ve also got a culture guide to all things geeky, a workplace-romantic comedy about making a dictionary, and a slim novel with a mighty impact.
We also chat with award-winning graphic novelist Tillie Walden about her extended stay in Japan and manga, the Japanese comics form that made her fall in love with comics.
Read the full transcript of Episode 03: Japan.
It was comforting in Japan to see how normal [manga] was there. Especially being a cartoonist, there’s still a lot of weird stigma with that. You’re a cartoonist? You make comics? … And in Japan, seeing manga all over the street, seeing people reading it on the trains, and seeing the way art integrated with society there – it was hugely comforting, and made me really fall in love with it as a place. — Tillie Walden
Tillie Walden is an American cartoonist from Austin, Texas and a graduate from the Center for Cartoon Stueis in Vermont. She’s the author of five graphic novels, and in 2018, she won the Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work for her book Spinning. To commemorate International Women’s Day, Walden’s piece Minutes was featured as a Google Doodle on 8 March 2018. In addition to being an award-winning author, she’s also a stunningly kind human being.
Books mentioned by Tillie
Book she’d like to be transported into: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
That super-awesome insulated coffee cup she mentioned: Zojirushi Stainless Steel Mug
The Candy or Not Candy Game Show:
KitKat bars in Japan: There are hundreds of flavors of KitKats in Japan. Enjoy photos of the brightly-colored packaging, a massive list of all available flavors, and an explanation of why they’re good luck for Japanese students.
A Geek in Japan: Hector Garcia is the author of the recommended book A Geek in Japan. Be sure to visit his wildly informative and entertaining blog A Geek in Japan.
Statues of characters by Shigeru Mizuki: Sakaiminato is the hometown of manga artist Shigeru Mizuki. The Mizuki Shigeru Road is a street dedicated to all the characters that appear in his manga works. From JR Sakaiminato station to Motomachi arcade, more than one hundred bronze statues of his characters line both sides of the street.
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Top image courtesy of Tianshu Liu.
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Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.
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