23 Books Set in Japan You Need to Read.

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While I love reading physical books, buying a Kindle a couple of years ago was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Since then I’ve read more books than I can count and can continue to travel with an extensive library at my fingertips.

So, because I’m such a book nerd I decided to write a gigantic list of books that are set in Japan which I think are worth reading. This going to be the first (and main) article in a series of book lists I’m writing so the entries on the list will vary in genre, but all fall under the general theme of Japan.

Over the coming months, we’ll do a few deep dives on all sorts of different genres to make sure you get your paperback fill of Japanese content! If you can get through these lists without buying anything, well done!

Anyway, whether you’re a first-time traveler, an avid fiction reader, or simply want to understand Japan better, there’s a book on this list for you.

1. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

books set in Japan Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Best for: Those interested in the traditions, artistry, and lives of geishas.

Genre: Historical Fiction

What is it about?

Memoirs of a Geisha offers readers a fascinating journey that follows the life of a young girl and her journey from a small town to become a Geisha in Kyoto. You’ll get a glimpse into the intricate traditions, artistry, and secrets of geishas in pre- and post-war Japan.

Why should you read it?

If you’re curious about the hidden world of geishas and want to immerse yourself in their captivating stories, this beautifully written book is a must-read. While the book itself is fiction Golden’s vivid descriptions and meticulous research bring the world of geishas to life. Through Sayuri’s eyes, you’ll witness the struggles, sacrifices, and triumphs of a remarkable woman in a society bound by tradition.

2. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami books set in Japan

Best for: Readers who appreciate surreal narratives and enjoy exploring the interplay between dreams and reality.

Genre: Magical Realism, Surreal Fiction

What is it about?

Let me introduce you to Toru Okada, the protagonist of this mesmerizing novel set in Tokyo. As Toru searches for his missing wife, he encounters a series of mysterious and fantastical events that blur the lines between reality and dreams. Trust me, it’s a thought-provoking journey.

Why should you read it?

For some reason, I’ve only recently stumbled upon the worlds of Haruki Murakami, and everyone and their long-lost aunt seems to be talking about him. After reading only a few chapters of Kafka on the Shore, I can understand why.

If you love imaginative storytelling and want to get lost in a world where magical elements blend with everyday life, this book is perfect for you. Murakami’s unique style weaves together complex characters, philosophical musings, and mysterious plotlines, creating stories that are hard to put down until the very end.

“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” invites you to explore the depths of human existence, the nature of memory, and the profound connections between seemingly unrelated events. Good luck not getting hooked!

3. The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth

books set in Japan The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth

Best for: Travel enthusiasts, those interested in Japan’s rural landscapes, and individuals seeking personal journeys of self-discovery.

Genre: Travelogue

What is it about?

Alan Booth, a British travel writer (hailed by some as the best in the world), walks the length of Japan, from Cape Soya in the north to Cape Sata in the south. Along the way, he encounters diverse landscapes, meets interesting characters, and reflects on the cultural and social aspects of Japan.

Why should you read it?

“The Roads to Sata” is a compelling travelogue that offers a richly detailed account of Booth’s experiences and observations. His lyrical writing style and his deep appreciation for the country’s traditions and Japan’s beauty make this book a winner.

I’ve read this book as a way to improve my travel writing but also happened to stumble across many places in the book that I fancy visiting. It’s not the most conventional way to figure out where to visit in Japan, but it’s certainly the breath of fresh air that my digitally fatigued eyes craved.

4. Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein

Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein books set in Japan

Best for: True crime enthusiasts, fans of investigative journalism, and those interested in the underbelly of Tokyo’s society.

Genre: Memoir, True Crime

What is it about?

Jake Adelstein, an American journalist, provides a gripping account of his time as a crime reporter in Tokyo. He delves into the dark underbelly of the city, covering the yakuza, human trafficking, and corruption within the Japanese police.

Why should you read it?

If you’re looking for a book that skips the flashy, wacky, and crazy side of Japan that’s so often thrust upon us on social media, this book may give you a different view of the country.

“Tokyo Vice” offers a thrilling and eye-opening perspective on the crime and investigative journalism scene in Japan. Adelstein’s firsthand experiences and his exploration of the cultural nuances make this book an engrossing read for those interested in crime, journalism, and Japanese society.

It’s a raw, and gritty presentation of Tokyo that you may not be ready for, though highly worth the read. One of the best purchases I’ve made this year!

5. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

books set in Japan Norwegian wood by haruki Murakami

Best for: Readers seeking a contemplative exploration of love, loss, and the complexities of youth in Japan.

Genre: Coming-of-Age, Contemporary Fiction

What is it about?

Norwegian Wood follows the journey of Toru Watanabe, a young man navigating love, loss, and self-discovery. This emotionally charged novel delves into themes of melancholy, sexuality, and the pressures of Japan’s societal expectations.

Why should you read it?

If you’re looking for a poignant coming-of-age story that explores the complexities of human relationships, this book won’t disappoint. Murakami’s introspective writing style paints a vivid portrait of Tokyo’s counterculture scene while delving into the depths of emotions experienced by the characters. “Norwegian Wood” may well resonate with your own memories of youth, as it explores the universal themes of love, longing, and the search for identity in a changing world.

I find Murakami’s books pretty hard to sum up and anyone whos tried reading them before will know what I mean. I saw someone on Reddit class his writing as “dreamlike, surreal, confusing, and yet really emotionally charged”.

It’s best to just give it a read if you can. It’s the only way to know if his unique writing style will work for you.

6. Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

Books set in Japan snow country by yasunari kawabata

Best for: Those who enjoy classic literature and appreciate evocative writing that explores the complexities of the human spirit.

Genre: Classic Literature

What is it about?

Snow Country is a piece of classical Japanese literature where the delicate (and socially unacceptable) relationship between a man from Tokyo and a geisha from a snow-covered onsen town unfolds. This lyrical novella beautifully captures themes of longing, beauty, and the fleeting nature of life.

Why should you read it?

If you appreciate poetic prose and want to experience a deep sense of atmosphere, “Snow Country” is a great choice of book to understand Japan.

Kawabata’s Nobel Prize-winning work will transport you to a world of fleeting emotions and profound introspection. Through his delicate and evocative descriptions, you’ll feel the weight of unrequited desires, the beauty of untouched landscapes, and the fragility of human connections.

“Snow Country” invites you to reflect on the transient nature of existence and the complexities of the human heart. It’s a little hard-going, but well worth the read to better understand Japanese culture (and the desire to visit a snow-covered onsen town!)

For some reason, it definitely gives me Oshino Hakkai in the snow kind of vibes!

7. The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon

The pillow book by sei shonagon books set in Japan

Best for: Literature enthusiasts, fans of classical Japanese literature, and those interested in the cultural and social life of Heian-era Japan.

Genre: Classic Literature, Diary

What is it about?

The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon is basically a diary. Sei Shonagon was a court lady to Empress Consort Teishi during the Heian era in Japan and we’re lucky enough to have an insight into the fashion, privilege, conversations, and general daily life during that time.

Why should you read it?

“The Pillow Book” is a remarkable historical document that provides a rich and intimate portrait of an era that none of us were exposed to. Readers interested in Japanese history, cultural practices, and the art of writing will find this book enlightening, immersive, and well-written.

8. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Kafka on the shore by Haruki Murakami

Best for: Readers who enjoy surreal narratives and philosophical explorations.

Genre: Magical Realism, Surreal Fiction

What is it about?

Kafka Tamura, the teenage protagonist of this captivating novel, embarks on a quest across Japan after running away from home. Throughout the book, you’ll be drawn into a world where reality intertwines with dreams, and fate entangles with free will. Murakami’s masterful storytelling will keep you hooked till the last page.

Why should you read it?

Guess who’s back!? Yup, it’s another Murakami, and this time it’s the book that I’m currently reading. …Well, it’s the Murakami book that I’m currently reading anyway.

If you crave a thought-provoking narrative that blurs the boundaries of reality, “Kafka on the Shore” is the perfect choice. Murakami’s rich and imaginative writing invites you to contemplate the nature of identity, the mysteries of the subconscious, and the interconnectedness of lives across time and space.

Like many of his other books, this is another one I’ve found exceptionally hard to put down.

9. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

books set in Japan A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Best for: Readers interested in multi-layered narratives that touch upon big problems in Japanese society.

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

What is it about?

Immerse yourself in the lives of two interconnected characters—an American writer named Ruth and a teenage Japanese girl named Nao. Through Nao’s diary, you’ll uncover her struggles with bullying and her great-grandmother’s captivating stories. Ruth’s discovery of the diary raises questions about time, existence, and the power of storytelling.

Why should you read it?

“A Tale for the Time Being” skillfully weaves together multiple narrative threads to create a poignant meditation on life, death, and the search for meaning. Ozeki’s exquisite writing and intricate character development make this novel a compelling and thought-provoking read. It’s a perfect choice for those who appreciate stories that blend cultural exploration with profound philosophical themes.

10. Hiroshima by John Hersey

Hiroshima by John Hersey

Best for: Readers interested in World War II history and those seeking a deeper understanding of the human impact of the atomic bombings.

Genre: Non-fiction, History

What is it about?

Hiroshima” tells the devastating true stories of six survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. Through their personal accounts, Hersey provides a harrowing and poignant depiction of the immediate aftermath and long-term effects of the atomic bombing.

Why should you read it?

This groundbreaking piece of journalism offers a firsthand glimpse into human tragedy and resilience in the face of unimaginable devastation by the people of Hiroshima and Japan. By exploring the experiences of those who lived through the bombing, “Hiroshima” encourages empathy, remembrance, and an understanding of the profound impact of nuclear warfare.

It’s definitely on my reading list, and what makes this so interesting for me is the personal accounts. The one thing that struck me when visiting Hiroshima peace memorial park was the personal stories in the museum.

Instead of a place that just stated the facts of the event, it humanized the whole situation and made it all the more personal. By far one of the most heavy-hitting things I’ve ever seen, and I would imagine that ‘Hiroshima’ by John Hersey is just as intense.

11. The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima books set in Japan

Best for: Those seeking a heartfelt romance set against a backdrop of traditional Japanese culture.

Genre: Romance, Coming-of-Age

What is it about?

Set on a small island in Japan, this tender love story follows the journey of Shinji, a humble fisherman, and Hatsue, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy family. Mishima’s delicate prose portrays the obstacles they face, including societal expectations, class differences, and personal sacrifices.

Why should you read it?

“The Sound of Waves” is a timeless tale that captures the innocence and purity of first love while offering a glimpse into the traditions and customs of a fishing village in post-war Japan. Mishima’s lyrical writing and his exploration of themes such as honor, resilience, and the power of nature make this novel an enchanting and heartfelt read.

12. How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow

How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow book set in Japan

Best for: Travelers who are planning a trip to Kyoto or have already fallen in love with the city. It is also a great choice for those who enjoy heartfelt memoirs that delve into the emotional connections we form with places and people.

Genre: Travel memoir, Cultural exploration

What is it about?

If you’re seeking a deeply personal and introspective exploration of Kyoto, “How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart” is a must-read. In this memoir, Florentyna Leow invites you to join her on a journey of love, loss, and self-discovery in the ancient capital of Japan. Leow shares her own experiences and encounters with the city’s fleeting beauty, its layers of history, and the profound emotional impact it has on those who wander its streets.

Why should you read it?

Leow’s poignant storytelling and raw vulnerability make “How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart” a captivating read. Her honest reflections on the challenges of adapting to a new culture, the complexities of relationships, and the bittersweet nature of fleeting moments will resonate with anyone who has experienced the profound beauty and heartache of travel.

This is also a great book to read if you’re thinking about moving to Japan. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, the reality of sometimes incredibly different. It also discusses the issue of tourism in Kyoto (perhaps with the wider ark of Japan), a topic many people won’t be exposed to, but something that becomes apparent after living in an area for a lengthy amount of time.

Structured like a collection of mini-essays that feed into an overarching narrative, Leow’s love letter to Kyoto captures the city’s essence while offering a unique perspective on the challenges and difficulties faced by living in Japan.

13. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee book in Japan

Best for: Readers interested in exploring the historical and cultural dynamics between Korea and Japan, and those who enjoy immersive family sagas.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Family Saga

What is it about?

Brace yourself for a multigenerational epic that spans several decades, starting in 20th-century Korea and continuing in Japan. “Pachinko” follows the lives of a Korean family as they navigate discrimination, love, and the pursuit of the Korean immigrant experience in Japan.

Why should you read it?

“Pachinko” is a powerful and engrossing novel that delves into the themes of identity, sacrifice, and the struggle for acceptance. Through vivid characters and meticulous historical research, Min Jin Lee provides a sweeping narrative that explores the complexities of immigrant life, cultural clashes, and the resilience of the human spirit.

This remarkable story will leave you with a deeper understanding of the Korean-Japanese experience and the challenges faced by marginalized communities.

14. Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa book set in Japan

Best for: Those who enjoy thought-provoking and concise narratives that offer a glimpse into the complexities of human nature in Japan.

Genre: Short Stories

What is it about?

Enter the intriguing world of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, a master of Japanese short fiction. This collection brings together some of his most celebrated stories, including the iconic “Rashomon,” a tale of conflicting perspectives surrounding a murder.

Why should you read it?

Akutagawa’s stories are renowned for their psychological depth, vivid imagery, and exploration of human nature. Each story presents a unique narrative, offering a glimpse into the dark recesses of the human psyche. “Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories” is a literary gem that showcases Akutagawa’s mastery of storytelling and his ability to captivate readers with his profound insights into the human condition.

15. Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

Kokoro by Natsume Soseki book set in Japan

Best for: Readers seeking a profound and introspective exploration of human relationships and societal shifts.

Genre: Classic Literature

What is it about?

“Kokoro” delves into the themes of friendship, guilt, and the clash between traditional Japanese values and Western influence. Through the relationship between Sensei, a reserved intellectual, and the young narrator, Soseki provides a nuanced exploration of loneliness, regret, and human connection.

Why should you read it?

If you appreciate introspective and philosophical literature, “Kokoro” is a must-read. Soseki’s elegant writing and his ability to delve into the inner workings of the human mind make this novel a timeless masterpiece. It offers a profound reflection on the human condition and the struggle to find meaning in a changing world.

16. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

book set in Japan convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Best for: Those looking for a quirky novel that offers social commentary and explores the difficulties of identity.

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

What is it about?

36-year-old Keiko Furukura is a socially awkward woman who finds solace in her job at a convenience store. Murata’s novel explores themes of societal expectations, conformity, and the meaning of personal fulfillment, all through the lens of a seemingly mundane setting.

Why should you read it?

“Convenience Store Woman” is a witty and thought-provoking book that challenges societal norms and celebrates the power of embracing one’s individuality. Murata’s writing is sharp and insightful, providing a unique perspective on the pressures of conforming to societal expectations for someone in Japan. Through Keiko’s character, the novel encourages us to question the value systems that define success and happiness, and it’s not always what we’re led to believe.

17. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto book set in Japan

Best for: Readers who enjoy gentle narratives that celebrate the healing power of food and human connections.

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

What is it about?

“Kitchen” is a heartwarming and tender novel that explores the themes of grief, healing, and the importance of human connection. The story revolves around Mikage Sakurai, a young woman who finds solace and comfort in cooking after the death of her grandmother.

Why should you read it?

Yoshimoto’s ability to capture the complexities of emotions makes “Kitchen” a delightful read. The novel is a soothing exploration of the power of food, friendship, and finding solace in the simple joys of everyday life.

18. Out by Natsuo Kirino

out by Natsuo Kirino books set in Japan

Best for: Readers who appreciate atmospheric and gritty crime novels that explore the darker side of society.

Genre: Mystery, Thriller

What is it about?

“Out” is a gripping and dark thriller that delves into the lives of four women working night shifts in a Tokyo factory. When a murder occurs, they are drawn into a web of deception and violence, and their lives are forever changed.

Why should you read it?

If you enjoy suspenseful and gritty crime fiction, “Out” will keep you on the edge of your seat. Kirino skillfully explores the complexities of female relationships, Japan’s societal expectations, and the underbelly of urban life in the country’s capital. The novel offers a unique perspective on crime and its consequences, challenging traditional gender roles and social norms.

19. Lost Japan by Alex Kerr

Lost Japan by Alex Kerr book set in Japan

Best for: Cultural enthusiasts, Japanophiles, and those interested in understanding the challenges and changes faced by traditional Japanese culture.

Genre: Memoir, Travelogue

What is it about?

Alex Kerr, an American writer and Japan expert shares his experiences and observations of living in rural Japan. Through vivid anecdotes and cultural insights, he explores the rapid changes and vanishing traditions in contemporary Japan over the space of 30 years.

Why should you read it?

“Lost Japan” offers a fascinating outsider’s perspective on Japanese culture and the challenges it faces in the modern world. Kerr’s deep appreciation for the country and his ability to convey its beauty and complexity make this book a compelling read for anyone interested in visiting Japan or even moving there.

20. Pure Invention by Matt Alt

Best for: Pop culture enthusiasts, fans of Japanese entertainment and media, and individuals interested in globalization and cultural influence.

Genre: Pop culture

What is it about?

This is a fascinating exploration of Japan’s influential pop culture phenomena and their global impact. Alt delves into the origins, evolution, and widespread popularity of various Japanese creations, including anime, manga, video games, cosplay, and more.

Why should you read it?

If you’re captivated by the vibrancy and creativity of Japanese pop culture or curious about its global reach, “Pure Invention” offers a comprehensive and engaging look into this cultural phenomenon. Alt provides an in-depth analysis of how these forms of entertainment have gained a devoted following around the world, shaping the way we consume media and influencing popular culture across continents.

If those aren’t enough reasons for you to grab this book, I’ve actually spoken to Matt a few times and he’s a great guy!

21. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima book set in Japan

Best for: Readers interested in delving into the psychological depths of Japanese characters and exploring themes of beauty and obsession.

Genre: Historical Fiction

What is it about?

Inspired by true events, “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” tells the story of Mizoguchi, a young acolyte at a temple who becomes obsessed with the beauty and impermanence of the Golden Pavilion. Mishima’s novel explores themes of beauty, obsession, and the destructive nature of desire.

Why should you read it?

Mishima’s incredible writing and his deep exploration of the human psyche make “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” an incredibly compelling read. The novel delves into the complexities of beauty and the destructive power of obsession, offering profound insights into human nature. Through Mizoguchi’s journey, you’ll question the boundaries between art and madness, and witness the consequences of unbridled desire.

22. The Inland Sea by Donald Richie

The Inland Sea by Donald Richie book set in Japan

Best for: Travel enthusiasts, introspective readers, those interested in Japanese landscapes and culture, and individuals seeking a contemplative exploration of the Inland Sea region.

Genre: Travelogue

What is it about?

Donald Richie, an American writer, and Japan enthusiast, embarks on a journey through the Seto Inland Sea, a region of Japan dotted with islands. He captures the beauty of the landscapes in his writing, encounters local inhabitants, and contemplates the passage of time in this poetic and reflective travelogue.

Why should you read it?

Originally published over 50 years ago, “The Inland Sea” offers a lyrical and immersive account of one of Japan’s most enchanting regions. Richie’s deep knowledge of Japanese culture, combined with his keen observations and profound insights, makes this book a valuable resource for anyone traveling to Japan.

One of the main reasons I like to recommend this book to people before they visit Japan is due to the attitude Donald Richie takes with his traveling. We’ve already established just how much I love traveling around Japan without a plan, and this is one such account that does that perfectly.

23. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada book set in japan

Best for: Mystery enthusiasts who enjoy intricate puzzle-solving and atmospheric crime novels.

Genre: Mystery, Crime Fiction

What is it about?

“The Tokyo Zodiac Murders” is a classic locked-room mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end. When a famous artist’s gruesome plan to create a zodiac-themed artwork by killing his daughters and reassembling their bodies is eerily executed years later, a young mystery writer takes on the case to solve the puzzle.

Why should you read it?

If you’re a fan of intricate and puzzling mysteries, “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders” will test your detective skills to the absolute max. Though it may just be his first novel, Shimada’s intricate plotting and clever twists make it a thrilling page-turner that absolutely deserves a place on this list.

As you try to unravel the secrets behind the Zodiac Murders, you’ll be immersed in a suspenseful and atmospheric tale that showcases the brilliance of Japanese crime fiction.

Jonny Gleason

Jonny is the founder of A Day of Zen and has an unhealthy obsession with Japan. In 2022 he moved to Japan on a mission to give his audience the best possible information. He's helped over 300,000 plan their trip so far, and is eager to make that number much bigger!

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