At first sight, I was smitten. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with Tokyo, Japan, thanks to its gorgeous design aesthetic, an abundance of friendly people, and an emphasis on quality in every aspect of life. I’ve grown to love the city more and more as I’ve come to understand how deeply woven its streets and alleys are with the stories of people’s families, identities, social structures, and history.
Since my initial trip to Tokyo, I’ve made the most of any occasion to return. In reality, I had planned to attend the Summer Olympic Games in 2020. Of course, the pandemic had other plans. To prepare for and recover from the Games, I did the next best thing: I immersed myself in Japanese culture through reading. Besides, what better way to get lost in a country than through the eyes of others who share my passion for it, including many #OwnVoices authors?
I contacted Debbie Rowland, a Japanese-American book lover and lifelong friend who was born in Japan and spent summers there as a child, and who also lived in Tokyo as an adult for 15 years. For anyone planning a trip to Japan, Rowland has compiled this list of books about Japanese culture that she thinks everyone should read before they go. Specifically, I questioned her for her thoughts on how the title represented Japan’s distinct culture for each book.
Check out these fiction and nonfiction books about Japanese culture while you’re getting ready to cheer on your favorite athletes in Tokyo.
Fiction Books About Japanese Culture
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Even in her own family, Keiko Furukura always felt like an outsider. However, the Tokyo resident finally feels at home when she accepts a job at Smile Mart, a convenience store. With her newfound understanding of how people connect with one another, she is more prepared to navigate the social world. Dressing like her coworkers and sounding like them became second nature. After 18 years, she is 36 years old and still working happily at the store. Because of this, Keiko finds herself torn between pursuing what she truly enjoys while also meeting the demands of her family and workplace, which is difficult for her.
Rowland’s Opinion of the Woman from the Convenience Store: Rowland informed me that “convenience stores are surprisingly influential in Japanese culture.” Tourists and locals alike frequently find themselves in convenience stores without even attempting to seek them out, according to Ms. Yamamoto. In fact, I’ve been to Japan a number of times and can attest to the fact that my first convenience store visit occurred as soon as we exited the airport.
Before your first visit to a Japanese convenience shop, Rowland recommends reading a few chapters of this book so you can get a sense of what to expect, and then again later to see if the experience was as enjoyable as you had hoped. It’s a “feel for current Japanese work culture and the demands of conformity,” she explains.
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
For many years, the Makioka family name in Osaka, Japan, was synonymous with wealth and influence. Family finances and social standing deteriorate rapidly in the years leading up to WWII. Tsuruko, the eldest of four sisters, and her husband have relocated to Tokyo, so the other three sisters and Sachiko, the third sister, are now living together. When it comes to Yukiko, Sachiko will stop at nothing to make sure she gets the marriage she wants, and she’ll go to any lengths to protect Taeko, who’s taken up with a paramour and has big plans for a life in France. The sisters’ struggle to hold on to an aristocratic status that is becoming increasingly obsolete presents challenges and complications in all of their lives.
The Makioka Sisters: Rowland’s Opinion: “The transient splendor of the cherry blossoms” is something that Rowland believes readers will want to experience with the Makioka family on a spring outing. That Tanizaki’s descriptions of Kyoto and Osaka city scenes, festivals, and nature are still relevant today was what she told me, Rowland, on the other hand, was a fan of this book because of its picture of pre-war Japan’s daily life.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
A wealthy stranger on the Korean beach at the beginning of the 20th century falls in love with Sunja and promises her a life together. Instead of marrying her sweetheart, Sunja marries a priest who happens to be passing through town on his way to Japan when she finds out she’s pregnant and that her lover is married. She moves to Osaka with her new husband and learns firsthand what it’s like to be a Korean immigrant in Japan, with all of the unique problems that come with opposing cultures, social class differences, and expectations from one’s own family. It’s a life she hopes to pass on to future generations.
Pachinko: Rowland’s Opinion Rowland adds that learning about the hardships of Koreans in Japan and the underground world of pachinko parlors was eye-opening. She suggests it as a window into a different part of Japanese culture.
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker
Onsen (hot spring) on Japan’s icy west coast is a favorite retreat for Tokyo resident Shimamura, who is wealthy and married. Although it is against the geisha’s rules to become emotionally attached to their clients, Shimamura meets young geisha Komako on one of his visits and falls in love with her. Despite Shimamura’s inconsistency, Komako is completely devoted to Shimamura, revealing her most private thoughts and feelings to him. The lovers, understanding that their relationship is doomed from the start, chose to continue it and accept whatever repercussions it brings.
As Rowland puts it, “the perfect companion for a local train excursion in the snow area along the Sea of Japan,” this story is “the perfect companion.” You haven’t planned anything yet, have you? It is still highly recommended by Rowland because it gives a true picture of the emotions of a Japanese person experiencing “love, solitude, and loneliness.”
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
An author named Ruth is working on her memoir in British Columbia when she comes across a mysterious Hello Kitty lunchbox that washed up on the shores of Japan in 2011. After opening the box, she finds Nao’s diary, a diary of a teenage girl living in Tokyo. The 16-year-old is so depressed and isolated that she has written of her desire to end her life, but not before chronicling the life of her great grandmother, a nun. Ruth, driven by a desire to learn more about Nao before time runs out, embarks on a journey to uncover the truth about the enigmatic adolescent — and along the way, she learns something about herself.
Take on A Tale for the Time Being by Rowland Rowland recommends this book as a more accessible alternative to nonfiction books about Japanese history if you are interested in learning about Japanese culture and modern history, including World War II, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, religion, family, and schools. It’s “easy to familiarize yourself with some particular characteristics of Japanese living” by reading this narrative, she says.
The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby
Originally written by a Westerner who worked in a Japanese geisha house, “The Tale of Murasaki” relates the life of poet Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the ancient tale “The Tale of Genji,” who lived in the 11th century in Japan. To be a lady-in-waiting for the Empress, Murasaki, a young girl in Dalby’s tale, tells stories about a prince named Genji. Murasaki’s life becomes more complicated after childhood, but she continues to write. Her hard work pays off when the empress notices her stories and allows her to live out her fantasies.
The Tale of Murasaki: Rowland’s Perspective As you stroll through Kyoto’s temples and shrines, Rowland believes that you’ll be thinking about this story. The novel, set in 11th-century Japan, “will give some background and perspective to the historical monuments visitors will see,” she told me. “In addition, Liza Dalby’s The Tale of Murasaki is a beautiful story.”
Nonfiction Books About Japanese Culture
A Beginner’s Guide to Japan by Pico Iyer
Pico Iyer, a travel writer who has lived in Japan for more than 30 years, provides readers with an insight into the country’s culture. Iyer uses anecdotes and observations to depict the unique essence of Japan as he comments on his trips, conversations, and readings.
A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Rowland’s Opinion: Rowland suggests the following book if you’re looking for something to read on your travel to Japan: “This collection of brief observations and anecdotes is a breeze to read.” Iyer’s opinions and observations on Japan and Japanese culture resonate with her. “His perspective is distinctive and trustworthy as an experienced travel writer and long-term resident of Japan.”
Lost Japan: Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan by Alex Kerr
Alex Kerr’s 30+ years of living in Japan inspired him to write this tribute to the country he fell in love with. He discusses Kabuki culture, Tokyo’s boardrooms, and the mystery behind the secret valley he called home in this fascinating book. Kerr is also saddened by the disappearance, which he perceives to be gradual, of natural beauty and cultural significance.
A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Rowland’s Opinion: Despite the author’s “passion of Japanese culture and heritage,” Rowland advises delaying reading this book until after your first trip to Japan if you aren’t ready to embrace some of the “bad features of modern Japan.”
Even if you can’t visit Japan in person, reading these books will give you a feel of what the world will be talking about when the Olympics begin in a matter of weeks. Rereading these titles prompted Rowland, who returned to the United States in December, desire to reread them all and travel to Japan “as soon as feasible.”