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

Who am I?

I am an academic historian in the UK, and before that, I was a journalist in Tokyo, where I lived for twenty years. To me, Japan is one of the most intriguing and sensuous places on earth. I never tire of its smells, sounds, signs, and flavours. The language is mesmerizing. The landscapes are stunning. The culture is endlessly surprising. I research and write about Japan’s past – its transformations, upheavals, and traditions – to make sense of the incredible array of experiences I have encountered while living there. 


I wrote...

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

By Nadine Willems,

Book cover of Ishikawa Sanshiro's Geographical Imagination: Transnational Anarchism and the Reconfiguration of Everyday Life in Early Twentieth-Century Japan

What is my book about?

My book traces the travels, encounters, and intellectual discoveries of Ishikawa Sanshirō, a political dissenter active during the first half of the twentieth century. Ishikawa spent several years in Belgium, France, and England. He was a keen explorer of ideas – from European anarchism and geographical thought to anti-Darwinism and ecological living. Acutely aware of his country’s gradual slide into authoritarianism, he strove to counter it in words and actions. He didn’t succeed but lived long enough to see Japan re-emerging from the ashes after a devastating war and defeat.

His life and writings bear testimony to Japan’s undercurrent of political resistance during those tumultuous times. Geographical Imagination documents the “hidden side” of Japanese history, one that I enjoyed investigating and find well worth telling! 

The books I picked & why

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Tokyo Year Zero: Book One of the Tokyo Trilogy

By David Peace,

Book cover of 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.


Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

By John W. Dower,

Book cover of 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. 


Floating Clouds

By Fumiko Hayashi, Lane Dunlop (translator),

Book cover of 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.  


An Artist of the Floating World

By Kazuo Ishiguro,

Book cover of 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.  


Empire of Signs

By Roland Barthes, Richard Howard (translator),

Book cover of 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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