This year, Japan has a birthday. Isn’t it 150 years since the Tokugawa Shogunate was overthrown by samurai? They marched a young Emperor into the new city of “Tokyo” and made him their figurehead as they tried to change the country. Recently, Western warships had been threatening the Japanese shores, not so much offering friendship as threatening to shoot them if they didn’t. New leaders in Japan needed to quickly modernize their country if they didn’t want to become the next thing on the colonial to-do list. This meant making factories and weapons; building mines and offices; making trains, trams, and trade; and so on.
How do you get people who think in regional rather than national terms, and who have no idea who you are, to work together? What do you want them to do? In one way, you can tell stories. About how Japan is blessed, maybe even by the gods. As long as people put in the work now, this country could become a model of modernity in Asia one day – if they did now.
In Japan Story, I tried to find out how these two stories shaped modern Japan and its image around the world over the past century and a half. I also wanted to look into the wide range of alternative stories that people in modern Japan have told about their country. These stories range from politics and music to art and philosophy to family and work, dance and religion, literature, folklore, and film.
Here are 10 books that give you a taste of this rich, diverse, and always new place:
Legends of Tōno by Kunio Yanagita
Japan’s first folklorist gathered these stories of the strange, the supernatural, and the monstrous from people in Tno, a village in the north. They were told by people who lived there at the time. It was Yanagita’s fear that the modern city’s problems, like drudgery at work and a sense of me-first individualism, would soon take over these rural people, too. So he wanted to record their way of living and seeing the world before it was too late.
Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki
In some ways, he was like Charles Dickens for Japan, writing about how his country met the modern world early on. Sseki was a clever and sophisticated chronicler of how his country met the modern world early on. He said that anyone who tried to live a civilized life in the midst of Japan’s hasty and superficial attempts to catch up with the rest of the world would soon lose their minds. Which he did, too, when he was in London to study. It was a great psychological novel by Sseki, called “The Heart of Things.” It tells the story of a group of Tokyoites who are torn between old ways and the new one.
Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
At the age of 35, Akutagawa took his own life. He was already a well-known author when he died. The “vague anxiety” about the future that he wrote about in his suicide note later turned out to be a turning point for Japan, which went from a time of experimenting with democracy and cosmopolitanism to something darker and more inward-looking, which led to terrible war. This book has a great introduction to Akutagawa and his time by a well-known author from a later time: Haruki Murakami. The short story “Spinning Gears” is a terrifying (self-)portrait of a man who is at the end of his tether. He is rifling through bookshop shelves “like a compulsive gambler,” riding Tokyo trains and taxis back and forth, and trying to make life more bearable for a little while longer. In the end, it didn’t take long. Akutagawa died soon after he finished this last story.
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
Sei Shnagon, who lived almost a millennium ago, wrote The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji, which some think is the world’s first novel. Sseki and Akutagawa used a style that was based on this tradition. During the 11th century, a lady of the court in Heian (modern Kyoto) wrote a book about an impossibly perfect prince. She also made sharp observations about the people who were around him about their psychological flaws and social failings.
Kyoto: A Cultural and Literary History by John Dougill
In this great guide to Kyoto, the “City of Genji” has its own section. It’s the perfect mix of history and culture and religion and architecture and the everyday. Dougill has a way of mentioning things like Geoffrey Chaucer and what was going on in Europe at the same time as big events in Kyoto’s history happen.
Shogun by James Clavell and The Shogun’s Queen by Lesley Downer
This page features two great examples of a hard-to-read type of book. They both tell the story of Japan’s first and last Shoguns. An English sailor in late 16th-century Japan becomes part of a feudal lord’s plan to take over the whole country. Clavell tells this story. Tokugawa Ieyasu was a friend of William Adams. He was the first Tokugawa Shogun, so this story is about their friendship. Downer looks at how women played a big role in shaping the last years of the Shogunate. She tells the story of Atsuhime, a young samurai girl from south-western Japan who ended up at the center of the action in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) in the 1850s, when foreigners started to move in and the world started to fall apart.
Embracing Defeat by John Dower
One of the most important works of modern Japanese history. After World War II, this book tells the whole story of how a country came back from its knees. It’s a vivid, all-encompassing story. For example, Dower talks about how Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Tokyo were damaged after they were firebombed. He also talks about how hungry people came up with creative ways to survive. And he talks about how the US tried to make Japan look like it did when it occupied the country from 1945 to 1952.
A Tokyo Romance by Ian Buruma
A book about Japanese counterculture in the 1970s, written by someone who was young and impressionable when he saw it. Buruma hangs out with a theater group that wants to fight against the plush, hushed soullessness of modern kabuki performances. Instead, they want to go back to the “riverbed beggar” tradition from which it all started. One of the world’s best-known choreographers named Tatsumi Hijikata created the “Dance of Darkness” called Ankoku Buto. This young man’s name sounds very much like “bloomers,” so Hijikata is very happy. He won’t stop calling him “Pants” after that.
Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan by Alex Kerr
Kerr, one of the most well-known Western critics of Japan’s construction boom in the late 20th century, has written a powerful book about how Japan’s economy was propped up by huge and unnecessary infrastructure projects. Roads to nowhere and bridges to uninhabited islands; sterile concrete tetrapods that look like they belong on a sterile beach. Kerr has since found success as a restorer of traditional homes, bringing tourism to parts of rural Japan that had been on the verge of dying out. This has helped bring back people who used to live there.
Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
A modern love story, between a woman in her late 30s and her old high school teacher. One of Tokyo’s many small bars is the setting for this drama, which is made up of beer, saké and miso soup as well as humour, poetry, and warm, comforting conversation.