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

Loren Stephens Author Of All Sorrows Can Be Borne
By Loren Stephens

The Books I Picked & Why

The Makioka Sisters

By Jun'ichiro Tanizaki

The Makioka Sisters

Why 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.


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Hiroshima

By John Hersey

Hiroshima

Why 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.


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Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

By John W. Dower

Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

Why 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. 


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The Commoner

By John Burnham Schwartz

The Commoner

Why 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.


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Memoirs of a Geisha

By Arthur Golden

Memoirs of a Geisha

Why 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.


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