The best memoirs by foreigners in Japan

The Books I Picked & Why

At Home in Japan: A Foreign Woman's Journey of Discovery

By Rebecca Otowa

At Home in Japan: A Foreign Woman's Journey of Discovery

Why this book?

Otowa, originally from California, who later moved to Brisbane, Australia, has lived in Japan for over thirty years. When she married the eldest son of a prominent Japanese family near Kyoto, she became the lowly yome-san, or “bride,” of the household. Later, after the death of her in-laws, she inherited the role of chatelaine of a large, traditional Japanese house with a 350-year history. Through a series of vignettes, Otowa dives deep into the minutiae of Japanese country-living and family life. Otowa, who has also published a children’s picture book and a collection of short stories, provided the delightful illustrations for her memoir herself.


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In Search of the Sun: One Woman's Quest to Find Family in Japan

By Leza Lowitz

In Search of the Sun: One Woman's Quest to Find Family in Japan

Why this book?

Lowitz, a poet, and novelist who founded a popular Tokyo yoga studio, writes of her journey from a broken home in Berkeley, California to love, marriage, and motherhood in Japan, stopping off at an ashram in India along the way. She endures the pain of infertility in a country where motherhood is revered, and contemplates adoption in a society where bloodlines are valued above all else, After obtaining permission from her Japanese father-in-law, Lowitz, and her Japanese husband successfully adopted a Japanese toddler, who becomes her greatest teacher. This is a beautiful and deeply moving book, written by a prize-winning poet and novelist.


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The View From Breast Pocket Mountain

By Karen Hill Anton

The View From Breast Pocket Mountain

Why this book?

Anton, a former columnist for The Japan Times, grew up in New York City, one of three children raised solely by an African American father. (Her mother was institutionalized due to mental illness.) She studied dance with Martha Graham, modeled for the pages of LOOK magazine at a time when African American models were few and far between, and copy-edited for Joseph Heller. Later, she traveled to Europe where she met Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton when she interviewed to be their house-sitter in Gstaad, fell in love and gave birth in Denmark, then later journeyed overland from Europe to Asia with her childhood friend and future husband, Billy. Any one chapter of her life could have been the basis for an entire book. Anton is an engaging storyteller with an exceptional story -- an unbeatable combination. I highly recommend this memoir to anyone interested in Japan, multicultural families, travel, or just how to live a rich, meaningful life.


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The Wagamama Bride: A Jewish Family Saga Made in Japan

By Liane Grunberg Wakabayashi

The Wagamama Bride: A Jewish Family Saga Made in Japan

Why this book?

When Wakabayashi first arrived in Japan, as a journalist and curious traveler, she was not particularly religious. She met and married a Japanese acupuncturist with an affluent background, and began a family of her own. Later, she began to seek meaning in Judaism, even managing to engage with a small Jewish community in Tokyo. The heart wants what the heart wants, but Wakabayashi shows how difficult it can be to reconcile the conflicting desires of the mind and soul in an interfaith and intercultural family. Her deeply engaging story provides insight into rarely-scene subcultures in Japan, while detailing her spiritual development, and her eventual decision to leave. Wakabayashi is a skilled, veteran storyteller, with a story absolutely worth reading. This book is for anyone with an interest in Judaism, Japan, motherhood, marriage, and/or intercultural relationships.


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The Only Gaijin in the Village

By Iain Maloney

The Only Gaijin in the Village

Why this book?

In 2017, Scotsman Iain Maloney and his acerbic Japanese wife Minori decided to buy a house in rural Japan. This was no small decision, as Japan houses begin to depreciate almost as soon as they are built. Nevertheless, the author is resigned to spending the remainder of his days in Japan and is ready to commit. The book is ostensibly about one year in rural Japan, but Maloney veers frequently from the narrative path, flashing back and forth in time, riffing on, among other things, soccer, crowded trains, and tired tropes in memoirs written by foreigners.

While many have written about their experiences in Japan, few have taken readers quite so far off the beaten path – literally. Maloney’s understanding of the Japanese language and his immersion in Japanese culture (he’d first arrived in 2005) add credibility and depth, while his self-deprecation and humor make this an entirely enjoyable read.


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