25 Best Books About Japan to Read Before Traveling to Japan
Alright, grab your coziest blanket and a cuppa because we’re diving into the mesmerizing world of Japan – all through the magic of words.
Ever thought, “How do I become a Japan whiz without boarding a flight?” Well, we’ve stitched together a delightful tapestry of novels and must-reads straight from the Land of the Rising Sun. Because let’s face it, what better way to cozy up to a culture than through its tantalizing tales?
From gripping historical sagas to fantastical journeys that might just have you believing in dragons and samurai wizards, Japanese literature is your ticket. So whether you’re looking to deep dive into the culture or just want a fantasy escape with a Japanese twist, we’ve got the perfect literary journey mapped out for you.
While reading some of the best novels on Japan can be entertaining it can also give you insights and help you understand the way of thinking and living in Japan in a way no history books could.
However, there are plenty of important and entertaining books on Japanese history, design, and even tea drinking that will help you be more open-minded and thoughtful during your travels.
Here you can explore stories about samurais, geishas, wonderlands, ancient and modern Japan, and much much more that will feed your wanderlust and your curiosity about Japan.
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Best Modern & Classic Books About Japan
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25| The Book of Tea by Kakuzō Okakura | 1906 – Cookbook, Treatise, Reference work
If you would like to learn more about the importance of tea in the Country of the Rising Sun, then The Book of Tea will certainly be a useful read.
If you want to pick up some books about Japanese culture then you should choose Kakuzō Okakura’s which allows you to get a good grip of how and why Teaism became so important in the country.
Despite it being published over a century ago, there are many parts that remain the same.
Among all the books to read while traveling in Japan, The Book of Tea is a remarkable writing about the importance of tea and religion in Japanese culture.
The Book of Tea by Kakuzō Okakura is a very informative and easy to digest book to read before visiting Japan.
24| Reflections on Japanese Taste: The Structure of Iki by Kuki Shūzō | 1930 – essay
Kuki Shūzō was an extraordinary person of many talents; he was an educated man who took an interest in philosophy and arts.
He had spent some time in Europe influencing a number of great figures in the academic world of the continent while also soaking in some of the culture there.
What is Iki? It is an aesthetics that mainly reflects simplicity, sophistication and originality. Thanks to Kuki Shūzō’s piece in 1930, it became popular in intellectual circles. It is among the good-to-read books about Japan to get a better understanding of how current ideals have evolved.
Reflections on Japanese Taste: The Structure of Iki is one of the best books about Japanese culture.
23| In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki | 1933 – essay on Japanese aesthetics
This is another great read that was published almost a hundred years ago, yet, it is among the most telling books about Japanese culture. There are 16 chapters discussing traditional aesthetics and how they are changing in modern times.
You can learn a lot about Japanese culture and traditions and how they formed in the 20th century.
Jun’ichirō Tanizaki himself is regarded as one of the most influential modern authors. He is also known for being among the most open writers about sexuality and related obsessions.
If you are looking for interesting books to read before visiting Japan, In Praise of Shadows must make your list.
22| The Poems of Nakahara Chuya | 2017 – Poetry
Another great Japanese artist was Chūya Nakahara (1907-1937), who was known for his beautiful symbolist poems that touched everyone’s heart. This fantastic collection most definitely contains at least one piece that speaks to you.
Before his early passing (at the age of 30) he was productive enough to be regarded as one of the most influential modern Japanese poets.
There is no better way to befriend this magnificent person than reading his life’s works. You are going to fall in love, smile and feel a little melancholic on this memorable journey.
The Poems of Nakahara Chuya is a great collection to be added to your books to read while traveling in Japan list.
21| Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edogawa Rampo | 1956 – Mystery, horror, fiction
Hirai Taro is the Japanese Edgar Allen Poe you could say, even his pen name Edogawa Rampo derives from the beloved horror writer’s Japanese pronunciation.
He is known to be the first modern Japanese mystery writers and his style has captivated many horror lovers around Japan and the world.
Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination contains a number of short stories that will bring Japanese culture closer to you while chilling your bones. If you are looking for fiction books about Japanese culture offering a unique perspective, then Rampo’s collection will definitely be a great read.
Edogawa Rampo’s short stories are among the scariest and most entertaining Japanese fantasy novels.
20| Dragon Sword and Wind Child by Noriko Ogiwara | 1988 – Children’s literature, Historical Fiction, Fantasy Fiction, War story
The Jade Trilogy is most definitely among the most exciting Japanese fantasy novels you can find. Noriko Ogiwara’s first book is going to take you to the land of Toyoashihara, where a devastating war has been dragging over decades between the God of Light and the Goddess of Darkness.
This fascinating story follows fifteen-year-old Saya, who was found in the woods when she was a baby. The elderly couple takes good care of her, but it soon turns out she has a much more significant destiny than she ever thought.
Dragon Sword and Wind Child is an extraordinary Japanese fantasy book, that is entertaining for readers of all ages. It’s also a great book to give to your little ones to get them more familiar with Japanese culture and literature before the big trip.
19| Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation by Michael Zielenziger | 2006 – Non-fiction
Shutting Out the Sun is a very important read no matter how deeply you would like to dive into current Japanese social trends. Reading Zielenziger’s study-like book about modern Japanese society will help everyone adopt to changes all around the world.
This book is trying to find out how and what formed the current issues Japan is facing. Despite being one of the economic leaders, Japanese people are struggling with a number of alarming social habits and trends.
If you have ever visited Japan, you may know what the book is getting at. A large portion of society is living secluded, desocialized and unfortunately, Japan has the highest suicide rates of all industrialized countries.
Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation is among the best nonfiction books about Japan, which helps understand current social issues in the country.
18| The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami | 1993 – Fiction, Short story collection
Best selling author Haruki Murakami is one of the most known and acclaimed contemporary Japanese writers.
His works have been appreciated all around the world and The Elephant Vanishes collection contains 17 short stories he has published between 1980 and 1990.
Each of the short novels is going to make you get lost in your thoughts and it is also a great book to read before visiting Japan.
There are some absolute fantasy novels and a few fairly realistic telling a bit about Japanese habits and every day.
The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami is among the best books to read while traveling in Japan as there are real places in some of the stories.
17| Lost Japan by Alex Kerr | 1993 – Travel Literature
Alex Kerr had fallen in love with Japan during his time in the 60’s as a naval officer. His love extended to a real passion and he still spends half of every year in that beautiful country.
Lost Japan is a fantastic book for everyone who wants to know the country better or actually planning to visit.
While Kerr knows plenty about Japanese culture, you will feel like reading a book about the country from a foreigner’s perspective. Naturally, the author is almost like a local since he has spent decades exploring and getting to know all aspects of life in Japan.
Lost Japan is one of the most informative nonfiction books about Japan you must read before visiting.
16| Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa | 1915 – Fiction
Despite dying at a young age (35) in 1927 (suicide), Ryūnosuke Akutagawa was very productive and his works remain relevant in the 21st century.
Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories is among the must read fiction books about Japanese culture for sure. You will find very interesting samurai tales and about people making bad decisions.
Every story has a moral teaching that will definitely help you become more considerate and understand more about yourself.
If you want to read about the history of Japan from fiction books, then this collection is a perfect start.
Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is a fantastic collection of some of the best novels on Japan.
15| No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai | 1948 – Novel, Fiction
Second Japanese best seller book ever No Longer Human is a very interesting read, but be prepared, it can be triggering to some.
Osamu Dazai had a fairly dark vision and he himself was struggling with severe depression, and he eventually committed suicide in 1948 not long after the book was published.
Through this book’s protagonist Ōba Yōzō we get to learn a lot about Dazai’s life and feelings as well. Ōba is incapable of showing his true self to others, living in a sort of isolation behind the mask of a playful person.
We get to live his life from his childhood to his late twenties.
No Longer Human is deservedly regarded as one of the best Japanese novels everyone should read.
14| Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto | 1988 – Novel, fiction
Dealing with the loss of a loved one is never easy and is a long process that is done differently in various parts of the world. Through the heart warming story of Mikage Sakurai losing her grandmother, we can see a little more about how Japanese people approach death.
There is a strong western influence in the writing, still, it is a relevant contemporary Japanese novel. Besides the always actual subject of death, Banana touches other important topics by making one of the main characters transgender.
Banana Yoshimoto or Mahoko Yoshimoto is one of the most important contemporary Japanese authors.
Kitchen is a fantastic read you should add to your list of books to read while traveling in Japan.
13| Confessions of a Yakuza by Junichi Saga | 1989 – Novel, Biography, Memoir
We have seen movies, heard grim stories about the Yakuza, but rarely had the opportunity to learn about it first hand by a member. Even better; Dr Junichi Saga was the physician of Eiji Ijichi, who had risen to the top of the gang in the first half of the 20th century.
The book was published many years after his death in 1991. You can learn a lot about how life looked like in the Japanese capital at that time, what prisons, nightlife, and gang life were like in Tokyo.
It is more than an honest confession; these are the final words of a man in his last weeks to a friend.
A very interesting fact about the book; Bob Dylan borrowed a few lines from this book creating quite a buzz around the novel.
Confessions of a Yakuza is one of the best books about Japan and Tokyo in the early 20th century.
12| Battle Royale by Koushun Takami | 1999 – Novel, Thriller, Horror fiction, Alternate history, Dystopian Fiction
Just a year before the turn of the millennium, a shocking book got published that definitely deserves its publicity.
Battle Royale is probably one of the most known modern Japanese dystopian horrors one can think of. It was quickly adopted into a movie and manga series following the book’s success.
Reading this book you are going to be taken to a fictitious Japan in 1997, where life is by far not as loose as it actually used to be. There are laws against all sorts of immoral activities.
The country is led by a dictator who remains unknown to most controlling the country with combined police and army forces.
As part of a research fifty classes are kidnapped from different schools and forced to slay each other until only one student of each class survives.
Battle Royale is one of the most horrific Japanese fantasy novels you should read if you love horror books from around the world.
11| The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa | 2003 – Novel, Psychological Fiction
This comforting and warm novel sheds a light on modern Japanese culture. The Housekeeper and the Professor is incredibly well written and thoroughly crafted. A brilliant math professor in his sixties suffered a terrible injury almost two decades ago causing him to have only an 80-minute short term memory.
The story is told by the housekeeper hired by the prof’s sister-in-law, who has difficulties connecting with the odd man.
It is a beautiful story and sometimes a little sad but is definitely a great way to learn more about Japan in the wake of the 21st century.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is one of the most interesting Japanese psychological fiction novels.
10| The Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama | 2007 – Romance novel, Historical Fiction
Japanese-American best seller author Gail Tsukiyama’s works are known to speak to the heart and captivate all their readers. The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is another touching work of hers.
It is most certainly one of the most lovable books on the history of Japan. It is set in the times of the devastating Pearl Harbor, beginning in 1939.
Following two orphaned brothers living with their grandparents who want the best for the children while keeping Japanese traditions.
Hiroshi becomes interested in Sumo and proves to be talented, while the younger boy Kenji wants to train to be a mask carver for actors.
Through this fascinating book, you can explore Japanese culture and learn more about the terrible times of the second world war.
The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is among the best fiction books about Japanese culture.
9| Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami | 1985 – Novel, Science Fiction, Speculative fiction, Fantasy Fiction
Another remarkable read written by the highly esteemed Haruki Murakami. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is definitely among the best Japanese sci-fi books that will blow your mind.
There is a little bit of a mystery, love and investigation making this book not only exciting but easy to fall in love with.
There are two parallel stories, one taking place in Hard-Boiled Wonderland narrated by Calcutec, a human data processor system. The other one is set in End of the World, a secluded town introduced by the Newcomer.
It is a refreshingly odd, yet incredibly complex book that will definitely cause problems for you to look up from its pages.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami is surely one of the most captivating Japanese novels you can find.
8| The Japan We Never Knew: A Voyage of Discovery by Keibo Oiwa and David Suzuki | 1996 – Non-fiction, Society
Keibo Oiwa and David Suzuki did a quite thorough research to bring to you issues that are often being swept under the carpet both in Japan and around the world.
They have traveled the Country of the Rising Sun and managed to interview activists, common people and experts to help you understand more about Japanese culture and current social difficulties.
It is certainly one of the best nonfiction books about Japan that takes a different approach than most pieces.
You are going to hear about communities that have been discriminated against and problems that need attention but somehow have been hushed.
It is a very important read for everyone to get a better understanding of Japan’s social environment.
The Japan We Never Knew: A Voyage of Discovery is one of the most revealing books about Japanese culture and history along with current social issues.
7| Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata | 2016 – Novel, Fiction
One of the most remarkable Japanese novels that is a must read for everyone who doesn’t feel to be fitting into society. Convenience Store Woman is a fantastic book that helps all misfits embrace their weirdness and feel free to be themselves.
Through Keiko’s story you can also learn about Japanese culture and current atmosphere but most importantly it is a great book to help you deal with being different.
This contemporary piece was published in 2016 and Sayaka Murata deservedly received acclaim and love. It is praised all over the world and mentioned as on if the best novels on modern Japan.
Thanks to Nancy Wu’s fantastic read, Convenience Store Woman is also among the best audiobooks about Japan.
6| Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami | 2001 – Romance novel, Fiction
Another fun and curious read written by critically acclaimed Japanese author Hiromi Kawakami. She is often mentioned as one of the best contemporary Japanese writers.
Strange Weather in Tokyo is a heart-warming, quaint novel with an odd romance and plenty to laugh about. The unlikely friendship of thirty-eight-year-old Tsukiko and her former high school teacher forms when bumping into each other after a long time.
That friendship slowly grows into something much deeper and intimate. It is an incredibly entertaining book that allows its readers to get a deeper look into current Japan.
Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami is one of the best books to read while traveling in Japan.
5| Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata | 1937 – Novel, Fiction
Snow Country was one of three books that earned Kawabata a Nobel Prize in 1968, showing how great this piece is.
Geisha have been very interesting for most of the world as they have an elegant mystery around them.
Kawabata’s Snow Country is most of all crushingly sad but also teaches us to be able to love without worrying about the circumstances.
The doomed love story of the wealthy Shimamura and the rural geisha Komako brings tears to everyone’s eyes for sure.
Besides the touching plot, it is a fantastic book if you want to look into how the early to mid 19th century Japan worked.
Yasunari Kawabata’s masterpiece is one of the best fiction books about Japanese culture.
4| A Brief History of Japan: Samurai, Shogun, and Zen by Jonathan Clements | 2017 – Travel Literature
If you are in search of well written and informative history of Japan books, then you have just found on the best ones. As the title suggests you can learn about the most well known traditions of Japan and some of the lesser known too.
There is a chapter dedicated to myths and religion, another one to historic inner wars and the last one goes into how the modern society is forming.
You can read about the country’s natural landscape and get deep into the fascinating and colorful history of Japan as well. There are a very few books on history of Japan that are written so perfectly to serve its readers making it a great book to read before visiting Japan.
A Brief History of Japan is definitely among the best nonfiction books about Japan.
3| Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki | 1914 – Novel, Fiction
Natsume Sōseki was one of the highest regarded 18th-19th century Japanese writers. His works are still among the most read and recommended books for a good reason.
When reading Kokoro you are going to embark on a journey of loneliness giving you a strange feeling in your heart. The characters are quite strange, still very easy to relate to.
The Narrator, a young man befriends a person during his holiday in Kamakura and while he is distant, the narrator wants to visit Sensei in Tokyo as well.
After graduating the narrator returns home, where his father is ill and his mother pushes him to find a job. All when the Emperor has passed away and terrible news devastates the whole empire.
Kokoro is a little melancholic but amazing read that is surely one of the best Japanese novels.
2| A Geek in Japan by Hector Garcia | 2019 – Humour, Guidebook, Travel literature
Spanish software engineer Hector Garcia is a real geek, who lived in Japan for long enough to explore the coolest stuff around in the country. Thanks to his collection of fun, you can find everything amazing and geeky in one book.
Garcia hasn’t just collected all the fun stuff, but also asked and answered some of the biggest questions about them.
So if you are looking to explore and understand Japanese modern culture, you have just found one of the best books about modern Japanese culture for sure.
Dive into the colorful, flashy and often extreme art and hobbies Japan has to offer.
A Geek in Japan is definitely among the best nonfiction books about Japan.
1| Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa | 1935 – Novel, Historical Fiction, Epic
The nearly 1000-page long Musashi is based on the famed 17th century swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. This odyssey is rather fictitious but some of the real events have inspired Eiji Yoshikawa, who is know for his historic novels.
Reinventing some of the biggest classics in Japan had brought him love from all around the country.
Mushashi himself had written a book about martial arts and swordsmanship serving as a great platform for Yoshikawa to get in the head of the legendary warrior.
Through this fascinating writing you can explore 17th century Japan and learn about major events as well as Japanese fighting methods.
Mushashi is certainly one of the best fiction books about Japanese culture and history.
Thank you for reading!