The best books to explore otherworldly Japan

The Books I Picked & Why

NonNonBa

By Shigeru Mizuki, Jocelyne Allen

NonNonBa

Why this book?

Shigeru Mizuki is the late, great god of alternative manga (or gekiga). Suffused with personal experience and reflections, his work by turns playfully and powerfully explores pre-war childhood, near-death war-time experiences, politics, and – most importantly – the world of Japanese yōkai monsters. Nononba tells the story of his childhood education by his grandmother into the world of supernatural Japan, leading the way to his great yōkai series GeGeGe Kitaro. A memoir of love and loss, childhood innocence and imagination, Nononba was, in turn, a great education for me. Funny, strange, tender, and wise. And in places it freaks you out too!


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Fukushima Devil Fish

By Katsumata Susumu

Fukushima Devil Fish

Why this book?

This collection of Katsumata’s manga for legendary gekiga magazine Garo and others is a powerful graphic bridge between the politics and reality of this world, and the creatures and legends of the other. Katsumata takes us from the transitory and dangerous lives of nuclear workers at Fukushima Daiichi (decades before the 2011 disaster) to the tough and haunted lands of Tohoku (North East Japan) in the early twentieth century. Lonely kappa monsters, tanuki, and fox spirits feature as sympathetic lead characters, shapeshifting and conjuring a version of Fukushima and Tohoku that dazzled and inspired me.


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Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things

By Lafcadio Hearn

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things

Why this book?

On my very first night in Japan, some twenty years ago, my friend told me a local ghost story as we ascended a deserted, dark back street of Tokyo. It featured no-face ghosts (nopperabo) and, memorably, the chills merged with my jet lag to bring me face-to-almost face with the world of Japanese spirits in my first hours in the country. A couple of days later my friend gifted me a copy of Hearn’s Kwaidan and it remains a treasured book to this day. Hearn’s retellings of classic Japanese ghost stories are as valued to this day in Japan as in the West. He’s a great writer. More importantly, Hearn was a sensitive, thoughtful, and wonderful chronicler of other cultures, particularly supernatural Japan. His life and work continue to be an inspiration to me.


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Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey

By Marie Mutsuki Mockett

Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey

Why this book?

A journey through both her own grief and the suffering of the March 2011 disaster, Mockett’s book is a personal exploration of the after-effects of loss and trauma, set against Japanese Buddhist, Shinto, and folklore beliefs around death and the afterlife. Like travelling with a wise and inquisitive friend, she leads the reader to memorable encounters (some of which echoed my own experiences in Tohoku) with tsunami survivors, Zen priests, and blind mediums. Thought-provoking and tender, the book reverberated in my head long after I finished reading. Hugely recommended.


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Just So Happens

By Fumio Obata

Just So Happens

Why this book?

Away from the 2011 disaster itself, Fumio Obata’s Just So Happens is a wonderful graphic novel again exploring that borderland between konoyo (this world) and anoyo (that world). And it just happens to be another story that bridges Japan and the West, this time Japan and the UK. Central character Yumiko travels back to Japan for a family funeral, and is immersed in a world of ritual, Shinto temples, Noh theatre – at once both familiar and strange to her. Word and image combine beautifully to draw on themes that have obsessed me for years. 


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