The best books on Tokyo’s essence

The Books I Picked & Why

Empire of Signs

By Roland Barthes, Richard Howard

Empire of Signs

Why this book?

This book is probably the reason I’ve lived in Tokyo for two decades and counting. It analyzes the symbolic structures that underlie the experience of the city. Without any grounding in the Japanese language, French literary theorist Barthes descended on Japan and started contemplating the meanings of the “signs” he encountered. Instead of academic blather, though, he spun out short, intense, and reflective writings, each a couple of pages long. It’s the diary-like reflections of a literary scholar meeting a meaning-laden city. I find his symbolic reading of bits and pieces of Japanese culture a fresh, fascinating approach to finding meaning and seeing the city.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake, 1867-1923

By Edward G. Seidensticker

Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake, 1867-1923

Why this book?

This marvelous history of Tokyo focuses on the transformative 50 years from the end of the Tokugawa (Edo) period in 1867 to the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Translator and Japanologist Seidensticker tells the history like the grand journey it was. His narrative is fascinating, with more insights than facts, and it flows with the skill of someone who translated the great Japanese novelists Junichiro Tanizaki, Kafu Nagai, and Yasunari Kawabata, among others. Seidensticker includes thoughtfully chosen details as Tokyo emerges from a feudal society into a modern, industrial state. Seidensticker’s follow-up Tokyo Rising is also recommended.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Tokyo: A Biography: Disasters, Destruction and Renewal: The Story of an Indomitable City

By Stephen Mansfield

Tokyo: A Biography: Disasters, Destruction and Renewal: The Story of an Indomitable City

Why this book?

This biography by writer and photographer Mansfield is probably the best guide into Tokyo’s vibrantly organic nature. To get a thorough line on the largest city in the world isn’t easy, but Mansfield carefully selects the most relevant, and interesting details. Inevitably, it’s a work of exclusion as much as inclusion, but is magnificent for that. Seeing and understanding Tokyo requires getting past the cascade of small details that keep you from seeing the whole forest. Mansfield keeps his biography flowing with the right balance of telling details and insightful summary. His companion volume, Tokyo, a Cultural History is also excellent, as are his beautifully photographed books on Japanese gardens.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Tokyo Megacity

By Donald Richie, Ben Simmons

Tokyo Megacity

Why this book?

If you have to buy only one book on Tokyo, you’d be missing out on a lot, but this might be a contender. Organized by areas of Tokyo, the short essays are written by Donald Richie, Tokyo’s pre-eminent foreign resident, film historian, essayist, novelist, and translator. Having lived most of his life in Tokyo, he understood the city as well as anyone, Japanese writers included. He packs in fantastic quotes from Japanese writers, western theorists, and early foreign chroniclers amid his own quietly elegant prose. Picture books tend to make me roll my eyes, but Ben Simmons’ photographs are a lesson in how to look at and understand the essentials of Tokyo. Unlike many books, the photo captions are precise and informative. Simmons has numerous other photography collections on Japan, so he’s chosen some of his best work to include here.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Tokyo Totem - A Guide To Tokyo

By Christiaan Fruneaux, Edwin Gardner

Tokyo Totem - A Guide To Tokyo

Why this book?

Tokyo can be a quirky place, which of course requires a quirky guidebook. This collection of essays, illustrations, photos, and photo essays are a good way to delve into the unique elements of Tokyo. The chaotic approach of the book ranges from photos to personal musings to sketches to abstract concepts about everything from sidewalk markings, bathhouses, urban building design, aerial views, nature, fashion, family homes—the entire range of Tokyo’s interiors and exteriors. In short, the book doesn’t really cohere, but then, neither does Tokyo. That’s what makes the city so fascinating, and so confusing. This is less a guide in the traditional sense than an intriguing series of suggestions about the overwhelming experience of Tokyo.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Random Book Lists