The best books on Japan’s postwar years

Nadine Willems Author Of Ishikawa Sanshiro's Geographical Imagination: Transnational Anarchism and the Reconfiguration of Everyday Life in Early Twentieth-Century Japan
By Nadine Willems

The Books I Picked & Why

Tokyo Year Zero: Book One of the Tokyo Trilogy

By David Peace

Tokyo Year Zero: Book One of the Tokyo Trilogy

Why this book?

Tokyo Year Zero follows detective Minami on the hunt for a serial killer in the immediate post-war period. It is a haunting and addictive journey inside the underbelly of Japan’s shattered capital city in the glaring light of defeat. There is crime, gang warfare, desolation, corruption, and decay. But Peace is above all a master of language, and his prose – fragmentary, truncated, hallucinatory – produces an idiosyncratic rhythm that mirrors the mental disintegration of a man and the convulsions of an entire city. A novel that will stick to your skin years after reading it.


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Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

By John W. Dower

Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

Why this book?

The American Occupation between 1945 and 1952 helped to lay the building blocks of a new era for Japan, and nobody tells that story better than historian John Dower. From the utter exhaustion of the population to the making of a new democratic constitution and the war crime trials, his account explores the challenges and contradictions of these years for both the Japanese and the Occupiers. Most of all, Embracing Defeat is written with intelligence and empathy, which gives it the signature of a classic. 


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Floating Clouds

By Fumiko Hayashi, Lane Dunlop

Floating Clouds

Why this book?

Floating Clouds tells the story of a young woman who returns to Tokyo from Japan’s ex-colony in Indochina after the war and resumes the love affair with the man she met there. Their relationship is tormented and ultimately broken, like Japan’s dreams of empire and the promises of youth. The author, who had experienced destitution when she was young, weaves into the story the contrasting luxuriance of the colony’s tropical forests and the grime and spiritual emptiness of post-war Tokyo. This is such an honest and heart-wrenching novel.  


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An Artist of the Floating World

By Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist of the Floating World

Why this book?

It is a few years after the war and an elderly painter, who is also the novel’s narrator, recalls his role as an artist before and during the war. His memory slowly unfolds, with shadows and twists, and hints that some things are better left unsaid. The artist’s mind plays tricks to cover up the past, distorting recollections, and refashioning events to conform to a more acceptable version of reality. The novel is a powerful meditation on responsibility and what it means to be an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. As such, it talks to us all.  


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Empire of Signs

By Roland Barthes, Richard Howard

Empire of Signs

Why this book?

Philosopher Roland Barthes visited Japan in the 1960s when it had rebuilt and reinvented itself as a global economic power. Empire of Signs, which he published a few years later, is a profound, yet entertaining reflection on “otherness” and how it helps us see ourselves. I read the slim volume – in the original French – in the plane that took me to Tokyo for the first time. It was a revelation and has inspired me ever since to look for the myriads of little things that fascinate and contradict all preconceived ideas. The book is a wonderful and subtle lesson in seeing the invisible!


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