The best memoirs by foreigners in Japan

Who am I?

Japan is endlessly fascinating. Many foreigners who have spent a year or two engaging with Japanese culture have published memoirs. But there are also many who have lived here longer, perhaps marrying and raising families and retiring in Japan. The stories of long-term foreign residents dig deep into the culture and share unique challenges and triumphs. My own memoir, Squeaky Wheels is about my experience raising a biracial daughter who is deaf and has cerebral palsy in off-the-beaten-track Japan. It also details our mother-daughter travels around Japan, to the United States, and ultimately to Paris. It is ultimately a story of my attempt to open the world to my daughter.

I wrote...

Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair

By Suzanne Kamata,

Book cover of Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair

What is my book about?

Squeaky Wheels is a mother-daughter travel memoir woven with comparative culture and accessibility awareness. Kamata’s adventures with her teen—who happens to be deaf, with cerebral palsy, and in a wheelchair—through subterranean Tennessee, to the islands of Japan, and to the top of the Eiffel Tower ultimately lead to a daughter’s increasing independence, a mother letting go of expectations, and advocacy for travel which prohibits discrimination.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of 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.

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

By Rebecca Otowa,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked At Home in Japan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"This portrait of Japanese country life reminds us that at its core, a happy and healthy life is based on the bonds of food, family, tradition, community, and the richness of nature." -John Einarsen, Founding Editor and Art Director of Kyoto Journal

What would it be like to move to Japan, leaving everyone you know behind, to become part of a traditional Japanese household? At Home in Japan tells an extraordinary true story of a foreign woman who goes through a fantastic transformation, as she makes a move from a suburban lifestyle in California to a new life, living in…

Book cover of 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.

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

By Leza Lowitz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In Search of the Sun as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“A new EAT, PRAY, LOVE.”—Graceful Passages

“A poignant, inspirational and moving ‘Made in Japan’ love story that demonstrates the power of persistence and never giving up on your dreams.”—Wendy Tokunaga, author of "Love in Translation"
"Before reading Leza Lowitz’s memoir Here Comes The Sun, I knew nothing about yoga. But her engaging writing hooked me: Now, I’m intrigued. What I do know about is adoption. And the story of how Leza opened her heart to become mother to her son touched me deeply."—Jessica O’Dwyer, author of "Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir"

At 30, Californian Leza Lowitz is single and travelling the…

Book cover of 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.

The View From Breast Pocket Mountain

By Karen Hill Anton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The View From Breast Pocket Mountain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

GRAND PRIZE Winner 2022 Memoir Prize
GOLD PRIZE Winner SPR Book Awards (2020)
Book Readers Appreciation Group (B.R.A.G.) MEDALLION (2021)

Crossing Borders and Cultures, Creating Home
The View From Breast Pocket Mountain is a unique and previously untold story, a treasure trove of experiences crossing borders and cultures, creating a life, and finding contentment in a far-off country.

To those who've ever wondered what their lives would be if they'd taken that road without a map, this is the book you need to read. The View From Breast Pocket Mountain gives us a glimpse of a life not designed or…

Book cover of 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.

The Wagamama Bride: A Jewish Family Saga Made in Japan

By Liane Grunberg Wakabayashi,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Contrasting wedding ceremonies—a lavish Imperial Hotel Shinto affair for his side, a modest Jewish wedding for hers—set the stage for a fascinating union between two spiritual seekers, who raise their children in Tokyo with Jewish and Japanese roots.

Wagamama means "selfish" in Japanese, but not in the sense of hoarding cookies. Having an opinion that goes against tradition can be viewed in Japan as selfish. With the author coming from a line of feisty, opinionated, secular Ashkenazi Jewish women, friction was inevitable—despite the fact that she married into a remarkably peace loving family, who respected her need to connect to…

Book cover of 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.

The Only Gaijin in the Village

By Iain Maloney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Only Gaijin in the Village as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 2016 Scottish writer Iain Maloney and his Japanese wife Minori moved to a village in rural Japan. This is the story of his attempt to fit in, be accepted and fulfil his duties as a member of the community, despite being the only foreigner in the village.

Even after more than a decade living in Japan and learning the language, life in the countryside was a culture shock. Due to increasing numbers of young people moving to the cities in search of work, there are fewer rural residents under the retirement age - and they have two things in…

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