The best quirky books on modern Japan

Who am I?

As a teenager, I became fascinated by Japan – by the mysteries of Zen, the exotic atmosphere cooked up by its great novelists, the serene beauty of the countryside captured in old photographs. Then I moved to Tokyo and for eleven years was immersed in Japanese culture. It was like getting to know a complex human being, I went from bafflement and revulsion through fascination and infatuation, arriving at a degree of understanding and affection. I love Japan and feel I know it quite intimately. But the variety of books on my list give an idea of how many different ways this great, elusive civilization can be approached.

I wrote...

Tokyo: The City at the End of the World

By Peter Popham,

Book cover of Tokyo: The City at the End of the World

What is my book about?

I arrived in Tokyo as a callow 25-year-old and was plunged into culture shock – unable to speak, to read, to understand, helpless as a baby. And staggered by the chaotic ugliness of the civilization I had so much admired from a distance for its aesthetic sense, its serene wisdom. 

Putting the seductive image and the brute reality together and making sense of them took seven years. This book was the result, one that is impossible to categorize, but which has changed people’s lives. ‘The best account I have ever read about how it feels to live and think’ in Tokyo, wrote one of them. ‘The best book about Japan that you have never read.’ Thirty-six years after its first publication, it still packs a punch.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Roads to Sata: A 2000-mile walk through Japan

Why did I love this book?

A loud-mouthed, liquor-loving British expat, Alan Booth was the last person you would imagine feeling at home among the shy, polite, self-effacing Japanese – and that’s the secret of the book’s charm, as this eccentric barbarian sets off to walk the entire length of Japan, from the top of Hokkaido to Cape Sata, the southernmost tip of Kyushu. Everywhere he goes his over-size personality evokes the best and most characteristic in the people he meets along the way, and he records the whole mad escapade with the pen of an angel. 

By Alan Booth,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Roads to Sata as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A memorable, oddly beautiful book' Wall Street Journal

'A marvellous glimpse of the Japan that rarely peeks through the country's public image' Washington Post

One sunny spring morning in the 1970s, an unlikely Englishman set out on a pilgrimage that would take him across the entire length of Japan. Travelling only along small back roads, Alan Booth travelled on foot from Soya, the country's northernmost tip, to Sata in the extreme south, traversing three islands and some 2,000 miles of rural Japan. His mission: 'to come to grips with the business of living here,' after having spent most of his…

Book cover of The Old Sow in the Back Room: An Englishwoman in Japan

Why did I love this book?

Every society has its seamy underside but few foreigners have focused on it with the laser-like intensity of Harriet Sergeant, who spent just enough time in Japan to get closely acquainted, but not so long that she ever felt cozy. Want to know just how miserable is the lot of Japanese women? The bleak saga of Japan’s almost invisible, unmentionable caste of untouchables, the Burakumin? The endemic corruption that underpinned the economic miracle? The torments endured by young children whose parents demand perfection? It’s all here, beautifully written and laced with mischievous humour.

By Harriet Sergeant,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Old Sow in the Back Room as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Japanese manufacture myths as efficiently as they do televisions, and are as adept at selling them to men who visit their country. Since it is men who write most books on Japan, those myths are perpetuated in the West. Women, though, do not count in that most foreign of countries, and no one is interested in selling myths to them. Harriet Sergeant, who lived in Tokyo for six years, took advantage of this to slip behind the scenery. In this book she provides a glimpse of backstage Japan. From her early collision with a sumo wrestler in a public…

Book cover of An Artist of the Floating World

Why did I love this book?

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist’s second book centers on the life and ‘crimes’ of an elderly artist whose graphic talents in the service of Japanese Fascism, creating powerful works of militaristic propaganda, helped send tens of thousands of young Japanese to their death in war. Yet such a description belies the measured, gentle, apparently inconsequential narrative style which carries the reader along like a sleepwalker until the cruel moral dimensions of the story quietly reveal themselves. A sustained attempt to drill down into the way a profoundly different culture experiences defeat and humiliation.

By Kazuo Ishiguro,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked An Artist of the Floating World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

*Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel Klara and the Sun is now available*


1948: Japan is rebuilding her cities after the calamity of World War II, her people putting defeat behind them and looking to the future. The celebrated painter Masuji Ono fills his days attending to his garden, his two grown daughters and his grandson, and his evenings drinking with old associates in quiet lantern-lit bars. His should be a tranquil retirement. But as his memories continually return to the past - to a life and…

The Shogun’s Queen

By Lesley Downer,

Book cover of The Shogun’s Queen

Why did I love this book?

Japan was ejected from centuries of tranquil isolation by the arrival of the American Commodore Perry’s menacing ‘Black Ships’ in 1853, and then began the tumultuous decades from which modern Japan emerged. With deep knowledge born of many years living in Japan, Lesley Downer has wrested four wonderfully romantic yarns from this fascinating era, of which The Shogun’s Queen is the first: the tale, rooted in true events, of how a brave woman from Japan’s deep south risks all to save the old regime.

By Lesley Downer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Shogun’s Queen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The year is 1853, and a young Japanese girl's world is about to be turned upside down.

When black ships carrying barbarians arrive on the shores of Japan, the Satsuma clan's way of life is threatened. But it's not just the samurai who must come together to fight: the beautiful, headstrong Okatsu is also given a new destiny by her feudal lord - to save the realm.

Armed only with a new name, Princess Atsu, as she is now known, journeys to the women's palace of Edo Castle, a place so secret it cannot be marked on any map. Behind…

Book cover of Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan's Disaster Zone

Why did I love this book?

Northern Japan was struck by one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded in 2011, followed by a disastrous tsunami in which thousands died. Lloyd Parry spent years visiting and interviewing the survivors, bringing back riveting accounts of what it means to have your life shattered by such a catastrophe and to live among the debris. These include one man’s description of being swallowed alive by the giant wave then spat out into the house of a relative which reads like a modern myth.

By Richard Lloyd Parry,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?


'The definitive book on the quake which killed more than 15,000 people.' Mail Online
'You will not read a finer work of narrative non-fiction this year.' Economist
'A breathtaking, extraordinary work of non-fiction.' Times Literary Supplement
'A future classic of disaster journalism.' Observer

On 11 March 2011, a massive earthquake sent a 120-foot-high tsunami smashing into the coast of north-east Japan. By the time the sea retreated, more than 18,500 people had been crushed, burned to death, or drowned.

It was Japan's greatest single loss of life since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. It…

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