The best books to peer into the traditional and modern Japanese mind

Why am I passionate about this?

I have always been fascinated by family histories, and am the self-selected historian in my family. I wrote my mother’s memoir, I Turned a Key and the Birds Began to Sing, put together a newsletter for aunts, uncles, and cousins near and far, and became a ghostwriter to help other people mine their personal and family stories. I’ve worked with company CEOs, survivors of the Holocaust; World War II U.S. veterans, and Hollywood celebrities. In the midst of writing books for other people I turned my sights on my husband who was born in Osaka, Japan and asked his permission to write his family’s story.  


I wrote...

All Sorrows Can Be Borne

By Loren Stephens,

Book cover of All Sorrows Can Be Borne

What is my book about?

Inspired by my husband’s family history, All Sorrows is a historical novel whose heroine, Noriko Ito, takes center stage. Surviving the bombing of Hiroshima, she dreams of becoming an actress. Her hopes are dashed and she ends up a waitress in a fancy tearoom in the Namba district of Osaka, where she meets and marries the mysterious and handsome manager. She gives birth to a little boy. During her pregnancy, her husband is diagnosed with tuberculosis. Unable to hold down a job, he forces Noriko to give up their only son to a couple living in the badlands of Montana. One sorrow after another piles up and Noriko regrets ever having agreed to this decision. 

Some eighteen years later – long after her husband dies – she is reunited with her son. Her son, Hiroshi, is my husband. In writing this book I uncovered family secrets that are woven into the novel. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Makioka Sisters

Loren Stephens Why did I love this book?

A doorstop of a book over 800 pages, covering the time period 1936-41, the novel explores the waning fortune of the well-to-do Makioka family and the lives of four women, who each represent changes in the female psyche. The plight of one of the sisters to get married before she is deemed an old spinster is the major challenge facing the family. Written in lush and poetic prose, the reader is drawn into the daily concerns of this family.

By Jun'ichiro Tanizaki,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Makioka Sisters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Tanizaki's masterpiece is the story of four sisters, and the declining fortunes of a traditional Japanese family. It is a loving and nostalgic recreation of the sumptuous, intricate upper-class life of Osaka immediately before World War Two. With surgical precision, Tanizaki lays bare the sinews of pride, and brings a vanished era to vibrant life.


Book cover of Hiroshima

Loren Stephens Why did I love this book?

Originally published in the New Yorker, this is a first-hand account by a skillful reporter of the horrifying aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. Hershey interviews a selection of survivors and takes his reader into the city to see the devastation that the bomb wrought. Hersey portrays the resilience of the Japanese people and their ability to come together as a community to face the unimaginable with courage and resolve.

By John Hersey,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Hiroshima as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“One of the great classics of the war" (The New Republic) that tells what happened in Hiroshima through the memories of survivors—from a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. 

On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atom bomb ever dropped on a city. This book, John Hersey's journalistic masterpiece, tells what happened on that day. Told through the memories of survivors, this timeless, powerful and compassionate document has become a classic "that stirs the conscience of humanity" (The New York Times).

Almost four decades after the original publication of this celebrated book, John Hersey went back to Hiroshima in search…


Book cover of Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

Loren Stephens Why did I love this book?

Winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction, this book gives the reader an in-depth analysis of the effects of World War II on the political, economic, and social life of the Japanese people. It depicts the ways in which Japan moved into the twentieth century and gave up many of its feudalistic habits – some for the better and some for the worse. 

By John W. Dower,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Embracing Defeat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Drawing on a vast range of Japanese sources and illustrated with dozens of astonishing documentary photographs, Embracing Defeat is the fullest and most important history of the more than six years of American occupation, which affected every level of Japanese society, often in ways neither side could anticipate. Dower, whom Stephen E. Ambrose has called "America's foremost historian of the Second World War in the Pacific," gives us the rich and turbulent interplay between West and East, the victor and the vanquished, in a way never before attempted, from top-level manipulations concerning the fate of Emperor Hirohito to the hopes…


Book cover of The Commoner

Loren Stephens Why did I love this book?

A historical novel based on the true story of a commoner who marries the Japanese Crown Prince. She is treated so cruelly that she eventually loses her voice. When her son intends to marry a commoner history repeats itself. The novel portrays Japan’s reverence for the Imperial Crown, which lies heavily on the head of those who wear it. Beautifully written, it is a surprising endeavor following on the heels of another of Schwartz’s novels – a murder mystery set in a small Connecticut town – Reservation Road.

By John Burnham Schwartz,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this national bestseller from the author of Reservation Road, a young woman, Haruko, becomes the first nonaristocratic woman to penetrate the Japanese monarchy.

When she marries the Crown Prince of Japan in 1959, Haruko is met with cruelty and suspicion by the Empress, and controlled at every turn as she tries to navigate this mysterious, hermetic world, suffering a nervous breakdown after finally giving birth to a son. Thirty years later, now Empress herself, she plays a crucial role in persuading another young woman to accept the marriage proposal of her son, with tragic consequences. Based on extensive research,…


Book cover of Memoirs of a Geisha

Loren Stephens Why did I love this book?

The premise of this book is that the author interviews a former geisha now in her nineties and living in New York. She recounts her early childhood born in a fishing village and sold into slavery. She is groomed to become a geisha and discovers her own power and freedom. World War II intervenes and she must reinvent herself when many of the geisha houses close. To her amazement, she falls in love. The book is filled with rich details of life in Kyoto. This novel was my first introduction to Japanese culture, its economy, and social mores, and the author gives his readers a dramatic heroine to root for, just as I have given my readers a dramatic heroine to cheer on in All Sorrows Can Be Borne.

By Arthur Golden,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Memoirs of a Geisha as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'An epic tale and a brutal evocation of a disappearing world' The Times

A young peasant girl is sold as servant and apprentice to a renowned geisha house. Many years later she tells her story from a hotel in New York, opening a window into an extraordinary half-hidden world of eroticism and enchantment, exploitation and degradation and summoning up a quarter of a century of Japan's dramatic history.

'Intimate and brutal, written in cool, lucid prose it is a novel whose psychological empathy and historical truths are outstanding' Mail on Sunday


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The Unproposed Guy

By Bhavik Sarkhedi, Suhana Bhambhani,

Book cover of The Unproposed Guy

Bhavik Sarkhedi Author Of The Unproposed Guy

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Why am I passionate about this?

Author Wanderlust Film Aficionado Bibliophile Solo Traveler Movie Buff

Bhavik's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

The Unproposed Guy is a captivating journey through the life of Kevin, a character stuck in a mundane existence and unfulfilling relationships, who discovers his passion for stand-up comedy and rapping amidst an existential crisis.

This contemporary fiction is peppered with humor, sarcasm, and poignant insights into modern relationships and societal expectations. Kevin's struggles and transformations offer a unique blend of comedy and emotional depth, making it a must-read for those seeking a fresh, humorous perspective on love, life, and self-discovery. Dive into Kevin's character of failed relationship and who portrays himself as "Every guy's best friend and every girl's worst nightmare".

The Unproposed Guy

By Bhavik Sarkhedi, Suhana Bhambhani,

What is this book about?

There has been no significant change in the life of Kevin—a monotonous routine, ordinary family, and miserably failing relationships—until he finds out he is going through something abnormal: 'Existential Crisis'.

He has always been a marvellous entertainer, but has a mysterious way of putting off girls. The talent in him is growing creatively, and abundantly, but his inability to impress a girl keeps pulling him down slowly. He realises he can be any guy’s best friend, but he also seems to be every girl’s worst nightmare.

Hop onto the rollercoaster journey of Kevin’s life, as he navigates through mocking friends…


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