The best books for a sweet journey into Japan

Marian Frances Wolbers Author Of Rider
By Marian Frances Wolbers

Who am I?

I’ve been enjoying Japanese stories from the moment I first found them, a direct result of living, studying, and working in Japan for five years, from Imari City (in Kyushu Island) to Tokyo (on Honshu). The pacing of Japanese novels—starting out slowly and deliberately, then speeding up like a tsunami out of nowhere—totally appeals to me, and feels infinitely more connected to exploring the subtleties, complexity, and beauty of relationships. This is especially true when compared to Western novels, which seem overly obsessed with splashing grand, dramatic action and injury on every other page. I just love revisiting Japan through reading.


I wrote...

Rider

By Marian Frances Wolbers,

Book cover of Rider

What is my book about?

Mai Asahikawa, the protagonist of this oddly affecting first novel, rides Tokyo's subway trains. She rides the rails from six in the morning to past midnight, breaking only for quick noodle-shop meals on the larger platforms. Sitting on the molded-plastic chairs, she lets her observant eye rove over the salacious billboard advertisements, the subtle merits and detractions of each line, and the behavior of others, often giving subtle attention to the differences between women and men.… The narrative has a pleasing caliper shape: the beginning is detailed and reflective, while the novel's final 40 pages are hell-bent for leather. In no time, Mai becomes the top suspect in a murder investigation, which is interrupted by a massive earthquake.

The books I picked & why

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The Sound of Waves

By Yukio Mishima, Meredith Weatherby (translator),

Book cover of The Sound of Waves

Why this book?

This is a gorgeous coming-of-age novel about a young, poor fisherman named Shinji who falls head over heels in love with a new girl on the island of Utajima. Japan’s most famous writer, Mishima, sets his romance in post-WWII where the innocence of Shinji and Hatsue is as pure and passionate as can be. The wind, the waves, the sea, the kiss that tastes of salt—all of nature intertwine with human life. The problem: Hatsue is actually the long-gone daughter of a major family who wants her to marry someone of equal social standing. With its humorous episodes, close descriptive imagery, and a plot that displays Mishima’s unabashed devotion to old-style traditions and customs, this little novel is one of my all-time favorites. 

The Sound of Waves

By Yukio Mishima, Meredith Weatherby (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Sound of Waves as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Set in a remote fishing village in Japan, The Sound of Waves is a timeless story of first love. A young fisherman is entranced at the sight of the beautiful daughter of the wealthiest man in the village. They fall in love, but must then endure the calumny and gossip of the villagers.


Convenience Store Woman

By Sayaka Murata, Ginny Tapley Takemori,

Book cover of Convenience Store Woman

Why this book?

This contemporary, quirky tale centers around the life of Keiko, a young woman who has never done anything in a conventional way and has her mother very worried that her daughter will never find a man and settle down into a conventional life. No, Keiko’s ways of thinking are startling and odd in ways that are both amusing and somewhat horrifying, as she really does fall outside the realm of conventional thinking and socially rewarded behavior. The reader comes to love her as she grows into womanhood (and personhood) as a worker in a fast-paced convenience store, where she memorizes hundreds of products and practices behaving more “normally” by mimicking the actions and words of her co-workers. Then a man named Shiraha enters the picture, for a new twist.

Convenience Store Woman

By Sayaka Murata, Ginny Tapley Takemori,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Convenience Store Woman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Meet Keiko.

Keiko is 36 years old. She's never had a boyfriend, and she's been working in the same supermarket for eighteen years.

Keiko's family wishes she'd get a proper job. Her friends wonder why she won't get married.

But Keiko knows what makes her happy, and she's not going to let anyone come between her and her convenience store...


Kwaidan: Ghost Stories and Strange Tales of Old Japan

By Lafcadio Hearn, Yasumasa Fujita (illustrator),

Book cover of Kwaidan: Ghost Stories and Strange Tales of Old Japan

Why this book?

Whether a fan of anime and video games, or an admirer of ancient Noh drama and Kabuki dances, one can’t really know the heart of Japan without reading Lafcadio Hearn’s translations of ghostly tales, all contained in this amazing volume. There are demons and goblins that exist way-y-y beyond the average Westerner’s mind. There are legends that send chills up and down the spine, creatures without faces, a man who marries the love of his life only to lose her after just five years because she is really the soul of a tree… Enjoy these stories of the bewitched and karmically affected characters.

Kwaidan: Ghost Stories and Strange Tales of Old Japan

By Lafcadio Hearn, Yasumasa Fujita (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Kwaidan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A blind musician with amazing talent is called upon to perform for the dead. Faceless creatures haunt an unwary traveler. A beautiful woman — the personification of winter at its cruelest — ruthlessly kills unsuspecting mortals. These and seventeen other chilling supernatural tales — based on legends, myths, and beliefs of ancient Japan — represent the very best of Lafcadio Hearn's literary style. They are also a culmination of his lifelong interest in the endlessly fascinating customs and tales of the country where he spent the last fourteen years of his life, translating into English the atmospheric stories he so…


Kitchen

By Banana Yoshimoto, Megan Backus (translator),

Book cover of Kitchen

Why this book?

Kitchen is an utterly charming short novel by a modern writer whose protagonist, Mikage, is a young woman who must find a way to carry on after the death of her beloved grandmother who served as her sole caregiver-guardian. Her voice engages immediately: “The place I like best in this world is the kitchen.” Orphaned amidst the bustling world around her, Mikage hesitatingly accepts an invitation to move in with Yuichi, a boy who’d worked part-time in her grandmother’s flower shop. His situation is also unusual, as he lives with his trans mother—an elegant woman who actually is his biological father. Food serves as a compelling bond and plot twister. Expect lots of food and cooking in this novel, plus generous doses of pure kindness and unconditional love. 

Kitchen

By Banana Yoshimoto, Megan Backus (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Kitchen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Kitchen juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, bereavement, kitchens, love and tragedy in contemporary Japan. It is a startlingly original first work by Japan's brightest young literary star and is now a cult film.

When Kitchen was first published in Japan in 1987 it won two of Japan's most prestigious literary prizes, climbed its way to the top of the bestseller lists, then remained there for over a year and sold millions of copies. Banana Yoshimoto was hailed as a young writer of great talent and great passion whose work has quickly earned a place among the best of modern…


The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories

By Theodore W. Goossen,

Book cover of The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories

Why this book?

Looking for a well-curated, wide variety of Japanese short stories written by nearly all the famous modernist novelists revered in Japan? This collection contains everything from Kawabata’s "The Izu Dancer" to Satomi Ton’s marvelously deep story called "Blowfish", wherein the hero—a famously talented Kabuki actor succumbs to the kind of brain-fogging, body-busting death that only blowfish poison can deliver. The author manages to get inside the head of his character, uncovering what transitioning into death feels like, with humor sprinkled here and there, and an emotional recollection/revelation about his own actor-father dying in a theater fire. 

The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories

By Theodore W. Goossen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This collection of short stories, including many new translations, is the first to span the whole of Japan's modern era from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day. Beginning with the first writings to assimilate and rework Western literary traditions, through the flourishing of the short story genre in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Taisho era, to the new breed of writers produced under the constraints of literary censorship, and the current writings reflecting the pitfalls and paradoxes of modern life, this anthology offers a stimulating survey of the development of the Japanese short story. Various indigenous…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Japan, romantic love, and World War 2?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Japan, romantic love, and World War 2.

Japan Explore 371 books about Japan
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