The best quirky books on modern Japan

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Alan Booth

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

Why 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. 


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The Old Sow in the Back Room: An Englishwoman in Japan

By Harriet Sergeant

The Old Sow in the Back Room: An Englishwoman in Japan

Why 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.


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An Artist of the Floating World

By Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist of the Floating World

Why 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.


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The Shogun’s Queen

By Lesley Downer

The Shogun’s Queen

Why 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.


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

By Richard Lloyd Parry

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

Why 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.


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