The best books that have inspired me to write about Japan

Who am I?

Frederik L. Schodt is an award-winning author of non-fiction books on the convergence of Japanese and American cultures, and he has written on subjects including manga, technology, acrobats, history, and religion. He is also a well-known translator of Japanese manga and literature, and a veteran interpreter. In 2009 the Emperor of Japan awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, for helping to introduce and promote Japanese contemporary popular culture. In 2017 he also received the prestigious Japan Foundation Award.


I wrote...

My Heart Sutra: A World in 260 Characters

By Frederik L. Schodt,

Book cover of My Heart Sutra: A World in 260 Characters

What is my book about?

The Heart Sutra has been beloved by millions in East Asia for over 1,400 years. It is used as solace, protection, and a gateway to another mode of thinking. My Heart Sutra: A world in 260 characters is about both the sutra and my lifelong fascination with it. It covers its mesmerizing mantra, its ancient history, the “emptiness” theory, and the way it is used around the world as a metaphysical tool to overcome chaos and confusion and reach a new understanding of reality—a perfection of wisdom.

For a modern context, I write about journeys to caves in China, seeing American beats reciting poetry, current academic theories about the sutra’s mysterious origins, and a visit to a Kyoto temple where a robot Avalokiteśvara explains the sutra’s meaning.

The books I picked & why

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The Chrysanthemum and the Bat: Baseball Samurai Style

By Robert Whiting,

Book cover of The Chrysanthemum and the Bat: Baseball Samurai Style

Why this book?

This book, Whiting’s first, appeared around 1976/7 and went through several editions. The title was a subtle parody of anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s 1946 classic, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese culture. I read it around the time I was writing my first book, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese comics, and it was a great inspiration. It did with baseball what I was trying to do with Japanese comics—show how Japanese were interpreting something with which North Americans were very familiar (baseball and comics) in very different ways.

In my case, manga provided an entertaining, non-didactic way to look not only at Japanese use of comics but at some broader cultural issues. Conversely, it could even be seen as a way to look at American comics and culture.


Giving Up the Gun

By Noel Perrin,

Book cover of Giving Up the Gun

Why this book?

This very short book came out in 1979, and it had quite an impact on me. It showed how writing about Japanese history and culture could not only be entertaining and fascinating, but extremely useful. The book focuses on how guns were imported into Japan in 1543 and spread widely, but were then largely abandoned. At a time during the Cold War, when nuclear weapons seemed to be proliferating endlessly, it also hinted at a different future, where what seemed so inevitable, might not be so.  


Hojoki: Visions of a Torn World

By Kamo-no-Chomei, Michael Hofmann (illustrator), Yasuhiko Moriguchi (translator), David Jenkins (translator)

Book cover of Hojoki: Visions of a Torn World

Why this book?

This book is by a Japanese poet and Buddhist priest in the 12th century, who rejected life in the capital of Kyoto for a tiny hut in forested mountains. At a time when Kyoto was wracked by earthquakes, storms, fires, and political unrest, he records his life and his opinions about both human misery and the advantages of simplicity. It has always been an inspiration to me. It’s a small book of fewer than 100 pages, easy to carry around, but always somehow calming.


Ranald MacDonald

By William S. Lewis (editor), Naojiro Murakami (editor),

Book cover of Ranald MacDonald

Why this book?

At the start of the 1990s, I discovered a dusty, original edition of this book at my local library. Published in 1923 and reprinted in 1990, it tells the story of Ranald MacDonald (1824-1894)—a half Chinook and half Scot from today’s Astoria, Oregon—who may be the first North American to go to Japan alone, of his own volition. Heavily edited and annotated from his original manuscript, it is a complex story, partly because many of his words were posthumously re-written by a friend. This created a twelve-year obsession for me—to research and untangle the true story as it relates to Japan. MacDonald became my hero. In 1993, I dedicated one book (America and the Four Japans: Friend, Foe, Model, Mirror) to him. In 2003, I finally finished my own book about him: Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan.


Phoenix, Vol. 4: Karma

By Osamu Tezuka,

Book cover of Phoenix, Vol. 4: Karma

Why this book?

In Japan, Osamu Tezuka is often referred to as the “God of Manga.” And Phoenix may be his greatest manga series of all. He created twelve volumes between 1954 and his death in 1989. Around 1971, a friend in Tokyo lent me the first five and I became hooked on manga and their potential as a medium of expression. The story converges on the present from the past and the future and deals with reincarnation and the quest for eternal life. My favorite volume is Karma, which has a strong Buddhist theme, and spectacular page layouts. With a group called Dadakai, I translated the first five volumes around 1977/78. After collecting dust for nearly twenty-five years, Jared Cook and I translated the remaining volumes, and the whole series was then finally published by Viz Communications between 2002 and 2008. This work changed my life.


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