244 books directly related to Japan 📚

All 244 Japan books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

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

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

By Alan Booth

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. 

From the list:

The best quirky books on modern Japan

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Book cover of Tonoharu: Part 1

Tonoharu: Part 1

By Lars Martinson

Why this book?

I recommend this three-part series of graphic novels for their beautiful artwork and painstaking attention to detail. Illustrator Martinson has a superb knack for observing the smallest aspects of the Japanese environment, with every frame bursting with the minutiae of everyday Japan.

The story follows ‘Dan’ a downbeat American, working as an English teacher in Japan who is experiencing severe isolation in his host country. Dan’s attitude to his new life is at the very extreme end of the culture shock spectrum, whereas in my experience, most foreigners embrace life more than he does, and therefore enjoy a more balanced…

From the list:

The best travel books about life in Japan

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Book cover of Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan

Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan

By John Grant Ross

Why this book?

This anthology contains a collection of 18 different accounts by non-Japanese authors who have all spent extended time living in rural Japan. Arranged geographically, from Okinawa to Hokkaido, the book offers a diverse view of pastoral Japan, allowing readers to get insight into some of the less commonly known aspects of the country.

The topics covered range from Buddhist pilgrimages, to pottery; abandoned Shinto shrines to record snowfalls; romance to ryokan. This is a great book for anyone who’s interested in learning about life outside of Japan’s megacities. Most of the authors included have written other works, so it’s a…

From the list:

The best travel books about life in Japan

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Book cover of Emperor Hirohito and the Pacific War

Emperor Hirohito and the Pacific War

By Noriko Kawamura

Why this book?

At last (2015) there is a balanced and carefully researched study of a central figure in the modern history of Japan and the war in the Pacific. The substantial utilization and integration of Japanese sources enhances the work but does not lead to any distortion of the real picture.

From the list:

The best books on WW2 from a military historian

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

Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

By John W. Dower

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. 

From the list:

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

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Book cover of The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War

The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War

By Louise Steinman

Why this book?

After Steinman’s parents passed away, she found a trove of WWII-era letters her father wrote along with a silk flag inscribed to a man named Yoshio Shimizu. In this book, Steinman recounted her years-long quest to learn who Shimizu was, a search that resulted in a trip to Japan to return the precious artifact. At the same time, by reading her father’s letters, Steinman discovered a tender and expressive side of her father—a side that had been wiped away by trauma. Steinman’s book shines a light on the universal cost of war.

From the list:

The best books on contemporary WWII family searches

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Book cover of Japan at War: An Oral History

Japan at War: An Oral History

By Haruko Taya Cook, Theodore F. Cook

Why this book?

Oral history sources have always been central to my work, both as an author and a documentary-maker. Cook’s account of the experiences of ordinary Japanese people during the Second World War is one of the best. It is both powerful and a lesson about the utter tragedy of war.
From the list:

The best books about 20th century conflict

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Book cover of Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation

Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation

By Stephen Covell

Why this book?

Most books on Buddhism emphasise the monastic tradition, meditation and a life of strict morality, removed from the everyday world of ordinary people. Much of Japanese Buddhism, however, is conducted by married priests living modern lives in direct interaction with secular society. This book provides an important antidote to contemporary stereotypes.

From the list:

The best books on the spirit of Japanese Buddhism

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Book cover of Shapers of Japanese Buddhism

Shapers of Japanese Buddhism

By Yusen Kashiwahara, Koyu Sonoda

Why this book?

This book includes twenty full and seventy-five brief biographies of significant figures in the history of Japanese Buddhism, some of them orthodox, many of them eccentric, each contributing some unique genius to the living tradition from the sixth century up to modern times. An excellent way to enter the spirit of the tradition with many stories to enjoy.

From the list:

The best books on the spirit of Japanese Buddhism

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Book cover of Honen the Buddhist Saint: Essential Writings and Official Biography

Honen the Buddhist Saint: Essential Writings and Official Biography

By Joseph A. Fitzgerald, Harper Havelock Coates, Ryugaku Ishizuka

Why this book?

Honen Sangha (1133-1212) revolutionised Japanese Buddhism. Famous in his own time yet exiled near to the end of his life he introduced an approach to practice that embraced ordinary people and appealed to all ranks of society. His mould breaking innovation paved the way for the emergence of the several new schools that still dominate the Buddhist scene in Japan today. and his humanity and warmth of character still inspire.

From the list:

The best books on the spirit of Japanese Buddhism

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Book cover of Combined Fleet Decoded: The Secret History of American Intelligence and the Japanese Navy in World War II

Combined Fleet Decoded: The Secret History of American Intelligence and the Japanese Navy in World War II

By John Prados

Why this book?

A groundbreaking work of research that is at the same time a page-turning read that sheds new light on the epic battles of the conflict. Prados interweaves the intelligence successes and failures of the U.S. and Japanese combatants in a way that has not previously been attempted. The resulting work adds hugely to our understanding of the war in the Pacific.

From the list:

The best books about American code-breaking in World War II

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Book cover of Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman

By Sayaka Murata, Ginny Tapley Takemori

Why this book?

This is a book that some people have compared to my own book because it’s about a young woman whose family doesn’t understand her and thinks she needs help but she’s working it out herself, trying to live an authentic life. It’s dark, funny, tender, all the things I love. It’s about societal pressures, not fitting in, but also about how the everyday mundane things can save us.

From the list:

The best books for when you’re having an existential crisis that will make you feel better

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Book cover of Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India, China, Tibet, Japan

Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India, China, Tibet, Japan

By Hajime Nakamura

Why this book?

The book shows some of the remarkable ways that Eastern and Western thought differs. I read the book 10 years before a brilliant Chinese student named Kaiping Peng came to work with me and told me right off the bat that I thought linearly and logically and he thought non-linearly and dialectically. That sounded like an exaggeration, but Nakamura’s book encouraged me to take Peng seriously. Our research together showed he was absolutely right. East Asian thought was shown by our experiments to be radically different in many ways from Western thought.

From the list:

The best books on thinking

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Book cover of Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan

Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan

By Tsuyoshi Hasegawa

Why this book?

Using newly available Soviet sources, along with Japanese and American documents, Hasegawa fills a gaping hole in the vast literature on the dropping of the atomic bombs and the conclusion of the Pacific war in August-September 1945. For too long, western historians have told this story without reference to the immense Soviet role in the drama – or if they mention the Soviets at all, it is to use the Red Army’s last-minute intervention to argue either for or against the necessity of dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to break Japanese resistance. What Hasegawa shows is how…

From the list:

The best books on Stalin and the Second World War

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Book cover of The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master's Son

By Adam Johnson

Why this book?

Adam Johnson visited North Korea once as a tourist. Based on his keen observations during those weeks, he spins a fantastic tale about Pak Jun Do, an orphaned boy who uses treachery and deception to rise to a high position in the North Korean regime. Pak is part of a crew that kidnaps a little girl from Japan, and later marries North Korea’s most famous actress. The genius of the book is that Johnson imbues the characters with believable personalities, even as he moves them through a nightmarish reality most would find completely unbelievable. The book is so good that…

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The best books for understanding North Korea

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Book cover of Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan

Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan

By Ian Buruma

Why this book?

Buruma compares how the Japanese and Germans view their World War II behaviour and actions, with particular attention given to memories of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Nanking. While Germany was preoccupied after the war with atoning for its past sins, Japan swept them under the carpet. Buruma explains how, why and what this means for today's younger generation.

From the list:

The best books on Japanese history from the outside looking in

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Book cover of The Forgotten Highlander: An Incredible WWII Story of Survival in the Pacific

The Forgotten Highlander: An Incredible WWII Story of Survival in the Pacific

By Alistair Urquhart

Why this book?

Many British, Australians, Canadians, Dutch, and Americans have written about their appalling treatment by the Japanese as POWs during World War II. Urquhart's account is one of the more compelling, all the more so because he waited for more than 60 years to tell this harrowing, anecdote-rich story.

From the list:

The best books on Japanese history from the outside looking in

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Book cover of Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades

Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades

By William Pesek

Why this book?

Willie Pesek has had a bird's eye view of life in Japan for 20 years, most of which time it was suffering from a deep economic malaise. Japanization, subtitled 'What the world can learn from Japan's lost decades,' examines Japan's economic stagnation and offers some solutions that policymakers and others will find useful in the post-pandemic world, no matter where they live.

From the list:

The best books on Japanese history from the outside looking in

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Book cover of War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War

War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War

By John W. Dower

Why this book?

War Without Mercy is a seminal work in the cultural and military history of the Pacific War. In his aim to understand the formation of public consciousness in the United States and Japan during World War II, which is a consistent theme throughout his many works, Dower uses cultural and empirical sources to provide nuance and greater depth in the historiography on the Japanese modern era.
From the list:

‘The best books on Japanese postwar creative arts in their wider context

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Book cover of The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi

The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi

By William Scott Wilson

Why this book?

Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) has an almost mythic status as Japan’s greatest swordsman. As a teenager, he fought on the losing side at Sekigahara, and went on to become a renowned duelist. The two-sword style he created (nitoryu) is still practiced as part of modern kendo (Japanese sword fighting). It wasn’t just Musashi’s technical mastery that left mouths agape, but also his ability to psych out his opponents. If you’ve never heard of his famous duel against Sasaki Kojiro on Funa Island, you’re in for a treat. Wilson’s short biography captures Musashi in all his enigmatic glory.

From the list:

The best books about pre-modern Japan

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Book cover of Japan, a View from the Bath

Japan, a View from the Bath

By Scott Clark

Why this book?

After 40 years of bathing in onsen (hot springs), our local sento (public bathhouse), and all sorts of equivalents, I’ve come to understand that bathing in Japan is a lot more than a way of keeping clean – it’s an immersion in culture as well as hot water. I found Clark’s book fascinating and often found myself muttering “ah, yes, he’s right” to myself, as I looked back on my bathing experiences in Japan. Historically, bathing is not something to be undertaken alone, but in groups, be they family, friends, or workmates. Some of my best experiences in Japan have…

From the list:

The best books for understanding Japan and the Japanese

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Book cover of Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary

Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary

By Makoto Ueda

Why this book?

Matsuo Bashō is considered the most influential figure in the history of hokku (or haiku) poems and this book brings them to life with excellent English translations and commentary. I particularly enjoy Bashō because he was a traveller. He didn’t just sit and write poems in comfy surroundings. He hit the road and wrote about his experiences, be they good or bad. In many ways, they are the humorous, spontaneous, gritty writings of a fatigued experiencer of life. One of my favourites - “My summer robe, there are still some lice, I have not caught”. Ueda’s book is brilliant and…

From the list:

The best books for understanding Japan and the Japanese

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Book cover of Pictures from the Water Trade: An Englishman in Japan

Pictures from the Water Trade: An Englishman in Japan

By John David Morley

Why this book?

Morley writes from experience in this intriguing look at the “mizu-shōbai” – the “water trade”. “The water trade?” I hear you ask. “Mizu-shōbai” is one of those lovely euphemistic Japanese terms that has no meaning to the uninitiated foreigner, even if they have academically studied the Japanese language, but is a term that is infused in daily Japanese life – the night-time world of cosy bars, cabarets and dare we say it, brothels. This book is a look into the murky evening world that few foreign visitors get to see, even if they have heard rumours of its’ existence. It’s…

From the list:

The best books for understanding Japan and the Japanese

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Book cover of I Could Never Be So Lucky Again

I Could Never Be So Lucky Again

By James H. Doolittle, Carroll V. Glines

Why this book?

A leader, a pilot, and a scientist—and a top-notch salesman—James Doolittle was one of the most important figures in American aviation, having participated in virtually every aspect of research, manufacturing, and operations. Rather than being centered almost exclusively on air combat, this book describes Doolittle’s life, including his considerable achievements prior to World War II. Very importantly, it addresses the challenges associated with leadership at the very highest levels. This aspect is rarely ever addressed in other accounts of World War II air combat, and by itself is worth the read.

From the list:

The best personal accounts of World War II air combat

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Book cover of Tangled Hair: Selected Tanka from Midaregami

Tangled Hair: Selected Tanka from Midaregami

By Akiko Yosano (Shō Hō), Sanford Goldstein, Seishi Shinoda

Why this book?

Yosano was a Japanese author, poet, pioneering feminist, pacifist, and social reformer, active in the late Meiji period as well as the Taishō and early Shōwa periods of Japan. She is one of the most noted, and most controversial, post-classical woman poets of Japan.

Akiko, an imaginative, creative soul, succeeded in turning traditional tanka poetry, which had gotten lifeless and boring, into an unexplored, uninhibited dimension of passion and never seen before seduction. Being a pioneer with her tempestuous poetry, she makes you see the rawness and beauty in mundane things we take for granted. Sensational, authentic poetry from one…

From the list:

The best works from the world's greatest female poets

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Book cover of Japan's Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism

Japan's Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism

By Louise Young

Why this book?

When people ask for book recommendations on Japan’s empire, Louise Young's Japan’s Total Empire usually tops my list. Young focuses on the empire in Manchuria from 1931 to 1945, and highlights Manchuria as more than a Japanese military conquest—it was also a vast cultural project that mobilized the nation behind state intervention at home and imperial expansion abroad. To tell this story, Young focuses on much more than the army and civilian bureaucracy—she also shows how an ideal Manchukuo was imagined by multiple actors, from the mass media and business groups to intellectuals, settlers, and grassroots associations. Empire in Manchuria…

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The best books on the Japanese Empire

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Book cover of Heaven and Hell: A Novel of a Manchukuo Childhood

Heaven and Hell: A Novel of a Manchukuo Childhood

By Toriko Takarabe, Phyllis Birnbaum

Why this book?

In tandem with the "Manshû bûmu" [Manchuria Boom] in Japan from the late nineties until early aughts, numerous memoirs have appeared on the market by former Japanese settlers of Manchukuo. One of the more chilling and nuanced accounts is that of Takarabe Toriko, a celebrated Japanese poet, who was a child and preteen during the 1930s and 1940s in a family where her father served as a Kantô Army officer near Jiamusi in Japanese-occupied northeast China. She herself experienced and witnessed life under Japanese occupation, as well as the brutal revenge exacted upon Japan's overlords after defeat, where both Chinese…
From the list:

The best books on Manchukuo (Manchuria)

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Book cover of At Home in Japan: A Foreign Woman's Journey of Discovery

At Home in Japan: A Foreign Woman's Journey of Discovery

By Rebecca Otowa

Why this book?

Otowa, originally from California, who later moved to Brisbane, Australia, has lived in Japan for over thirty years. When she married the eldest son of a prominent Japanese family near Kyoto, she became the lowly yome-san, or “bride,” of the household. Later, after the death of her in-laws, she inherited the role of chatelaine of a large, traditional Japanese house with a 350-year history. Through a series of vignettes, Otowa dives deep into the minutiae of Japanese country-living and family life. Otowa, who has also published a children’s picture book and a collection of short stories, provided the delightful illustrations…
From the list:

The best memoirs by foreigners in Japan

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Book cover of In Search of the Sun: One Woman's Quest to Find Family in Japan

In Search of the Sun: One Woman's Quest to Find Family in Japan

By Leza Lowitz

Why this book?

Lowitz, a poet, and novelist who founded a popular Tokyo yoga studio, writes of her journey from a broken home in Berkeley, California to love, marriage, and motherhood in Japan, stopping off at an ashram in India along the way. She endures the pain of infertility in a country where motherhood is revered, and contemplates adoption in a society where bloodlines are valued above all else, After obtaining permission from her Japanese father-in-law, Lowitz, and her Japanese husband successfully adopted a Japanese toddler, who becomes her greatest teacher. This is a beautiful and deeply moving book, written by a prize-winning…
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The best memoirs by foreigners in Japan

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Book cover of The View From Breast Pocket Mountain

The View From Breast Pocket Mountain

By Karen Hill Anton

Why this book?

Anton, a former columnist for The Japan Times, grew up in New York City, one of three children raised solely by an African American father. (Her mother was institutionalized due to mental illness.) She studied dance with Martha Graham, modeled for the pages of LOOK magazine at a time when African American models were few and far between, and copy-edited for Joseph Heller. Later, she traveled to Europe where she met Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton when she interviewed to be their house-sitter in Gstaad, fell in love and gave birth in Denmark, then later journeyed overland from Europe…
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The best memoirs by foreigners in Japan

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Book cover of The Wagamama Bride: A Jewish Family Saga Made in Japan

The Wagamama Bride: A Jewish Family Saga Made in Japan

By Liane Grunberg Wakabayashi

Why this book?

When Wakabayashi first arrived in Japan, as a journalist and curious traveler, she was not particularly religious. She met and married a Japanese acupuncturist with an affluent background, and began a family of her own. Later, she began to seek meaning in Judaism, even managing to engage with a small Jewish community in Tokyo. The heart wants what the heart wants, but Wakabayashi shows how difficult it can be to reconcile the conflicting desires of the mind and soul in an interfaith and intercultural family. Her deeply engaging story provides insight into rarely-scene subcultures in Japan, while detailing her spiritual…
From the list:

The best memoirs by foreigners in Japan

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Book cover of The Only Gaijin in the Village

The Only Gaijin in the Village

By Iain Maloney

Why this book?

In 2017, Scotsman Iain Maloney and his acerbic Japanese wife Minori decided to buy a house in rural Japan. This was no small decision, as Japan houses begin to depreciate almost as soon as they are built. Nevertheless, the author is resigned to spending the remainder of his days in Japan and is ready to commit. The book is ostensibly about one year in rural Japan, but Maloney veers frequently from the narrative path, flashing back and forth in time, riffing on, among other things, soccer, crowded trains, and tired tropes in memoirs written by foreigners.

While many have written…

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The best memoirs by foreigners in Japan

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Book cover of Japan: A Travel Guide for Vegans

Japan: A Travel Guide for Vegans

By Jesse Duffield

Why this book?

I hesitate to recommend vegan guidebooks about specific destinations, because in most cases I find them unnecessary. If all you need are listings of veg-friendly restaurants, that kind of info is generally best found on the Internet or on apps like HappyCow, as it changes so quickly.

Japan, however, is one destination where it’s really helpful to have some background info about the local language and culture as it applies to vegan travel. Jesse Duffield has made multiple trips to Japan and offers insights that most foreign tourists simply wouldn’t know about.

The traditional food eaten in Japan is largely…

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The best books about vegan travel

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Book cover of Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan

Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan

By Jolyon Baraka Thomas

Why this book?

In this absolutely fascinating read, Thomas deftly explodes the myth that the United States brought religious freedom to Japan during the post-World War II occupation. The first part of the book explores pre-war notions of religious freedom in both countries and the second part looks at the various misunderstandings that ensued as the United States sought to impose its conception of religious freedom on Japan. Thomas offers a skilled reading of religious culture in both countries and ably explains the outcomes of U.S. occupation policies.

From the list:

The best books on the history of religion in U.S. foreign relations

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Book cover of The Book of Corrections: Reflections on the National Crisis During the Japanese Invasion of Korea, 1592-1598

The Book of Corrections: Reflections on the National Crisis During the Japanese Invasion of Korea, 1592-1598

By Yu Song-Nyong, Choi Byonghyon

Why this book?

This book is not a page-turner by any means, but what it does have is hidden information through imagination. It is an eyewitness account in Korean, translated into English concerning the 16th-century Japanese Invasion. It is a step-by-step recounting of how one administrator had to flee the Japanese army as they burned their way through his native lands. The hidden joy is knowing that the samurai army is on his heels and you can feel them in the shadow of the book all the way through. It was a joy to read because it allowed me to see how the…

From the list:

The best books on a hidden Japan and the real samurai

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Book cover of Samurai Invasion: Japan's Korean War 1592 -1598

Samurai Invasion: Japan's Korean War 1592 -1598

By Stephen Turnbull, Peter Dennis

Why this book?

This is a lavishly illustrated popular account by a prolific author of books about the samurai. It is written from the Japanese perspective in a very accessible style. The author tends to be somewhat uncritical about Japanese accounts and the book is not nearly as academic as some others on this list, but he presents a clear narrative that is easy to follow and could serve as a useful introduction for readers before moving on to more academic studies.

From the list:

The best books on the Great East Asian War of 1592-1598

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Book cover of The City as Subject, 13: Seki Hajime and the Reinvention of Modern Osaka

The City as Subject, 13: Seki Hajime and the Reinvention of Modern Osaka

By Jeffrey E. Haynes

Why this book?

Osaka became an industrial giant during the Meiji period, remaining one of the world’s fastest-growing cities throughout the later decades of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth.  The city outgrew Tokyo in both population and industrial production for a brief period during the 1930s.  This was a time when social displacement, horrendous public health and housing failings, and labor unrest threatened communal wellbeing.  The city responded with some of the most innovative social policies of the era, especially under the leadership of Mayor Seki Hajime.  As Hanes uncovers, Seki used his training as a social economist to…

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The best books for understanding Japanese urban history

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Book cover of Cigarette Girl

Cigarette Girl

By Masahiko Matsumoto

Why this book?

This is another of the early gekiga greats coming out in a big English edition for the first time. Matsumoto worked alongside Tsuge and Tatsumi in the late 50s, to push manga into more mature territory of what I’m calling literary manga. This book is from early 70s strips which show how people relate to each other in a big city in a simple, understated style. Again, it’s a balance to the image of manga being all about exaggeration. He considers alienation, longing, aimlessness, but with humour and a lightness of touch. It also shows various onomatopoeia which Matsumoto was…

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The best books to investigate literary manga

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Book cover of The Way of Whisky: A Journey Around Japanese Whisky

The Way of Whisky: A Journey Around Japanese Whisky

By Dave Broom

Why this book?

Dave Broom is an all-round drinks writer and presenter, not limiting himself to Scotch only. He has written a score of books on various libations and is also considered a rum connoisseur. In fact, he is also one of the true experts on Japanese whisky. His The Way of Whisky not only captures the spirit of the drink but also the spirit of Japan, in a tender, almost poetical way. In his recently released road movie The Amber Light he takes his audience through the world of Scottish Whisky in his inimitable manner, which makes him such a great presenter.…

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The best books to learn about whisky & whiskey

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Book cover of Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai

Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai

By Katsu Kokichi, Teruko Craig

Why this book?

There is samurai culture as understood by most people, involving bushido, loyalty, honour, and truth and then there is this book, an autobiography by a real samurai about the honest truth about actually being a samurai. Part criminal, part reluctant warrior, this man’s story is one of passion, hardship, and eventual love for his family. It is one of the greatest windows into actual Japanese life, and again, it is not a best seller and is maybe now out of print. If you want to know what a samurai’s life was like after the wars with nothing to do but…

From the list:

The best books on a hidden Japan and the real samurai

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Book cover of Spectacular Accumulation: Material Culture, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Samurai Sociability

Spectacular Accumulation: Material Culture, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Samurai Sociability

By Morgan Pitelka

Why this book?

Who could resist a book whose topics range from tea caddies, Chinese and Japanese tea bowls and paintings, severed heads, swords, falcons, and even a deified hegemon (Tokugawa Ieyasu)? This book about “things” and the famous people who collected them in the late sixteenth (before the onset of the Tokugawa period) and the first few decades of the seventeenth century uses material culture as a window into the politics and society of the military elite. It will entice those who are interested in non-linear history and the social life of things.

From the list:

The best books to excite your imagination about Tokugawa (early modern) Japan

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Book cover of The Old Sow in the Back Room: An Englishwoman in Japan

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

By Harriet Sergeant

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.

From the list:

The best quirky books on modern Japan

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

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

By Richard Lloyd Parry

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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The best quirky books on modern Japan

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Book cover of The Fox Woman

The Fox Woman

By Kij Johnson

Why this book?

I wish we had more dream novels out there about animal brides and bridegrooms! Instinctual and unbound by law, with access to wild places we could never reach, animals are such a perfect way to express the id-consciousness, the dream versions of ourselves. Based on a Japanese folktale, here’s a sweet, whimsical story of a fox who turns herself human to love a human man. Which form is real, and which is the dream, and how will she free herself to live both realities as a fully formed woman of her own?
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The best dream-like fairy tales books

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Book cover of The Book of Five Rings

The Book of Five Rings

By Miyamoto Musashi

Why this book?

A classic of the ages and essential reading for any martial artist, The Book of Five Rings is a guide to self-discipline and learning. But you have to read between the lines, listen to the silences, and practice the way of the warrior yourself in order to get the most from it. The legendary swordmaster Miyamoto Musashi is the blueprint for Jack’s sensei and guardian Masamoto in my Young Samurai book.
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The best books about samurai and ninja

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Book cover of Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan

Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan

By Giles Milton

Why this book?

This historical biography reads like an adventure story. A brilliantly researched and wonderfully written book on William Adams, one of the few foreign samurai to have ever been bestowed such an honour. This figure is not only the starting point for my series (with William Adams re-imagined as a boy in Japan) but also the template for the most classic samurai novels of all time, Shogun by James Clavell. There is so much in this book by Giles Milton that I can’t recommend it highly enough!

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The best books about samurai and ninja

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Book cover of Samurai: The World of the Warrior

Samurai: The World of the Warrior

By Stephen Turnbull

Why this book?

Stephen Turnbull is one of the foremost authorities on the samurai and this book covers all of their military history. Beautifully illustrated and full of intriguing facts about the samurai and their world, this was my go-to book when writing the Young Samurai series. A fascinating read, this makes a beautiful gift for anyone with an interest in samurai or Japan.

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Book cover of Kuma-Kuma Chan, the Little Bear

Kuma-Kuma Chan, the Little Bear

By Kazue Takahashi

Why this book?

These small, sparsely illustrated books are so charming and quirky! At the surface, there seems to be very little going on, but there is a soothing quality to the simple text that allows you to contemplate the little wonders of life. The naïve artwork works so well with the quiet, short musings by Kuma-Kuma chan and the narrator.

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The best children’s books about and from Japan

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Book cover of Japanese Children's Favorite Stories

Japanese Children's Favorite Stories

By Florence Sakade, Yoshisuke Kurosaki

Why this book?

As a little kid, I read the Japanese version of these stories and I was delighted when I found the English version to read to my then tiny daughter. “Momo-Taro,” or Peach Boy, is one of my favorite tales from childhood and there are so many others included in the book that I had forgotten about. These classic stories are a wonderful addition to any library!

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The best children’s books about and from Japan

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Book cover of They Came to Japan: An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640

They Came to Japan: An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640

By Michael Cooper

Why this book?

Japan’s first encounter with the West came with the arrival of Spanish and Portuguese merchants and missionaries in the mid-sixteenth century and dramatically ended less than a century later when the Tokugawa Shogunate closed the country to most foreign visitors. Luckily, the Westerners who visited Japan during this brief (by historical terms) window left many fascinating accounts of what they saw and experienced. This book is a kind of Reader’s Digest of the juiciest of those records. It’s old but has never been superseded and never will be. The book is super easy to read because each entry is just…

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The best books on early Japan in world history

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Book cover of The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932

The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932

By Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka

Why this book?

This skillful history links politics, economics, and military concerns to the development of Japan’s empire in Manchuria. Beginning with the end of the Russo-Japanese War and concluding with the takeover of Manchuria from 1931, Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka shows how Manchuria remained a looming presence within Japanese political life. More strikingly, he argues against the idea that Japanese imperialism in the 1930s represented a radical break from the past. Far from it, he shows the construction of Manchukuo and Japanese foreign policy “as the denouement of an older story as much as the beginning of a new.”  

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The best books on the Japanese Empire

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Book cover of The Making of Modern Japan

The Making of Modern Japan

By Marius B. Jansen

Why this book?

This was the first comprehensive academic history book of Japan that I read, and it is still the best. I go back to it regularly to check on details and refresh my memory. Jansen writes fluently and maintains reader engagement with a great pace, never too little information, never too much. His subject matter helps, as this period is well researched and blessed with plentiful source material to give a full picture. Highly recommended as a serious starter in Japanese history and culture.

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The best books to get aboard the rollercoaster world of Japan’s global history

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Book cover of The Samurai: A Military History

The Samurai: A Military History

By Stephen Turnbull

Why this book?

I would recommend anything by Stephen Turnbull, but I can only choose one, so I chose this. It is a blow-by-blow account of ‘The Age of the Country at War,’ Japan’s long 16th century, which ended with the unification of the country under the rule of Tokugawa Ieyasu. A key era in Japanese history, and there is still no other book in English to match it.

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The best books to get aboard the rollercoaster world of Japan’s global history

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Book cover of The Chrysanthemum and the Bat: Baseball Samurai Style

The Chrysanthemum and the Bat: Baseball Samurai Style

By Robert Whiting

Why this book?

This book, Whiting’s first, appeared around 1976/7 and went through several editions. The title was a subtle parody of anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s 1946 classic, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese culture. I read it around the time I was writing my first book, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese comics, and it was a great inspiration. It did with baseball what I was trying to do with Japanese comics—show how Japanese were interpreting something with which North Americans were very familiar (baseball and comics) in very different ways.

In my case, manga provided an entertaining, non-didactic way…

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The best books that have inspired me to write about Japan

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Book cover of Giving Up the Gun

Giving Up the Gun

By Noel Perrin

Why this book?

This very short book came out in 1979, and it had quite an impact on me. It showed how writing about Japanese history and culture could not only be entertaining and fascinating, but extremely useful. The book focuses on how guns were imported into Japan in 1543 and spread widely, but were then largely abandoned. At a time during the Cold War, when nuclear weapons seemed to be proliferating endlessly, it also hinted at a different future, where what seemed so inevitable, might not be so.  

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Book cover of Hojoki: Visions of a Torn World

Hojoki: Visions of a Torn World

By Kamo-no-Chomei, Michael Hofmann, Yasuhiko Moriguchi, David Jenkins

Why this book?

This book is by a Japanese poet and Buddhist priest in the 12th century, who rejected life in the capital of Kyoto for a tiny hut in forested mountains. At a time when Kyoto was wracked by earthquakes, storms, fires, and political unrest, he records his life and his opinions about both human misery and the advantages of simplicity. It has always been an inspiration to me. It’s a small book of fewer than 100 pages, easy to carry around, but always somehow calming.

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The best books that have inspired me to write about Japan

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Book cover of Ranald MacDonald

Ranald MacDonald

By William S. Lewis, Naojiro Murakami

Why this book?

At the start of the 1990s, I discovered a dusty, original edition of this book at my local library. Published in 1923 and reprinted in 1990, it tells the story of Ranald MacDonald (1824-1894)—a half Chinook and half Scot from today’s Astoria, Oregon—who may be the first North American to go to Japan alone, of his own volition. Heavily edited and annotated from his original manuscript, it is a complex story, partly because many of his words were posthumously re-written by a friend. This created a twelve-year obsession for me—to research and untangle the true story as it…

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Book cover of Phoenix, Vol. 4: Karma

Phoenix, Vol. 4: Karma

By Osamu Tezuka

Why this book?

In Japan, Osamu Tezuka is often referred to as the “God of Manga.” And Phoenix may be his greatest manga series of all. He created twelve volumes between 1954 and his death in 1989. Around 1971, a friend in Tokyo lent me the first five and I became hooked on manga and their potential as a medium of expression. The story converges on the present from the past and the future and deals with reincarnation and the quest for eternal life. My favorite volume is Karma, which has a strong Buddhist theme, and spectacular page layouts. With a group called…

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Book cover of Excursions in Identity: Travel and the Intersection of Place, Gender, and Status in Edo Japan

Excursions in Identity: Travel and the Intersection of Place, Gender, and Status in Edo Japan

By Laura Nenzi

Why this book?

Laura Nenzi’s book discusses the role of travel in the formation of identity, using primary sources that derive from travel accounts of Edo Japan. Nenzi looks at personal travel diaries and brings an anthropological view on the subject seeing travel as a self-discovery process, while also paying attention to differences in the experience of the literati travelers and the less educated commoners for whom, with the rise of the market economy, the roads and their pleasures became more accessible. This brings to life the changes in the earlier literati tradition of the meisho (famous places) with the rise of commodification…

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The best books on travel in premodern and modern Japan

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Book cover of The Meiji Restoration

The Meiji Restoration

By W.G. Beasley

Why this book?

This book is a deep dive into what makes Japan special. William G. Beasley (1919-2006), a long-time professor at the University of London, was one of his generation’s finest Japanologists. This book highlights the enormous achievements of the Meiji generation, who alone among non-Western leaders, positioned their country to win the game of economic catch-up.

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The best books to understand the origin of the Asian balance of power

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Book cover of Woman in the Crested Kimono: The Life of Shibue Io and Her Family Drawn from Mori Ogai's Shibue Chusai

Woman in the Crested Kimono: The Life of Shibue Io and Her Family Drawn from Mori Ogai's Shibue Chusai

By Edwin McClellan

Why this book?

Picture a woman just emerged from her bath, wearing nothing but a loincloth with a dagger between her teeth, confronting three thieves who threaten her husband. This was Shibue Io, born the daughter of a wealthy merchant in 1816, who chose as her spouse a scholar and samurai bureaucrat. He had already been married three times and was eleven years her senior. He had erudition and prestige; she had wealth and enough willpower for both of them. Her story takes the reader through the intimate details of daily life of well-placed Edo families, the intricacies of family alliances complicated by…

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The best books on amazing women during the age of the samurai

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Book cover of An Imperial Concubine's Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan

An Imperial Concubine's Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan

By G.G. Rowley

Why this book?

In recounting Nakanoin Nakako’s history, Rowley affords us insight into three worlds—the imperial court in Kyoto, a remote village on the Izu Peninsula, and a Buddhist convent. Born into a family of court nobles in early seventeenth-century Kyoto, Nakako’s life of privilege as an imperial concubine came to an abrupt end when the emperor discovered that she participated in wild parties and sexual escapades. Furious, he wanted her killed. Instead the shogun, his titular subordinate and de facto boss, sentenced her to exile on a distant island. She ended up working as a teacher for farmers before returning to the…

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The best books on amazing women during the age of the samurai

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Book cover of Floating Clouds

Floating Clouds

By Fumiko Hayashi, Lane Dunlop

Why this book?

Floating Clouds tells the story of a young woman who returns to Tokyo from Japan’s ex-colony in Indochina after the war and resumes the love affair with the man she met there. Their relationship is tormented and ultimately broken, like Japan’s dreams of empire and the promises of youth. The author, who had experienced destitution when she was young, weaves into the story the contrasting luxuriance of the colony’s tropical forests and the grime and spiritual emptiness of post-war Tokyo. This is such an honest and heart-wrenching novel.  

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The best books on Japan’s postwar years

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Book cover of Brokers of Empire: Japanese Settler Colonialism in Korea, 1876-1945

Brokers of Empire: Japanese Settler Colonialism in Korea, 1876-1945

By Jun Uchida

Why this book?

This is a masterful study of settler colonialism in Korea. Jun Uchida focuses on ordinary Japanese settlers, from petty merchants and traders to educators, journalists, carpetbaggers, and political adventurers who made a new home in the Korean peninsula between 1876 and 1945. These settlers were Uchida’s “brokers of empire.” The “brokers” cooperated with the state while pursuing colonial projects of their own, and helped shape Japan’s empire in Korea. Uchida has a meticulous eye for detail and highlights evolving dynamics between settlers, Koreans, the colonial government in Korea, and the Japanese metropole. This is a long book, but I simply…

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The best books on the Japanese Empire

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Book cover of Nation-Empire: Ideology and Rural Youth Mobilization in Japan and Its Colonies

Nation-Empire: Ideology and Rural Youth Mobilization in Japan and Its Colonies

By Sayaka Chatani

Why this book?

Sayaka Chatani begins with a simple question. Why did tens of thousands of young men from across the empire in the 1930s and 1940s enthusiastically embrace Japanese nationalism and volunteer for service in the Japanese military? She finds the answer in village youth associations, which served as a vehicle for youth mobilization in rural Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Her most original argument is that ideological campaigns mattered less than the social mobility and the chance for empowerment that youth associations offered. More strikingly, assimilation was not limited to the colonies. Japanese youths in Tohoku, Chatani shows, were “Japanized” in similar…

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Book cover of Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide

Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide

By Gouverneur Mosher

Why this book?

This was my introduction to the major sights of Kyoto. As well as providing essential information, there is an extra section suggesting how to value each sight on a deeper level. It helped me appreciate just how special Kyoto is. That it has stayed in print for so long is testimony to its worth.

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The best books for understanding Kyoto

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Book cover of The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto

The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto

By Pico Iyer

Why this book?

Pico Iyer is a noted travel writer with a gift for capturing the spirit of place. In this fictionalised version of time spent in the city, he captures many of its salient aspects. The seasonal round, the Zen tradition, the sense of transience, the allure of Japanese arts. I found myself nodding in recognition of the many insights that pepper his prose. The only book that compares with it is Kawabata’s Koto (The Old Capital), less substantial and wreathed in nostalgia.

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The best books for understanding Kyoto

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Book cover of Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha

Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha

By Lesley Downer

Why this book?

By reading this actual account by a woman who became a geisha herself, you will come to understand how far from reality the fictional book Memoirs of a Geisha, written by a man, really was. This is the best-ever portrait of this world and the women – far from the pining, love-besotted servants – who inhabit it.

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The best books about Asian women

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Book cover of The Commoner

The Commoner

By John Burnham Schwartz

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

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Book cover of Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha

By Arthur Golden

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…
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Book cover of Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms

Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms

By Fumiyo Kouno

Why this book?

I first heard of Kouno’s work through the animated adaptation of In This Corner of the World. Town of Evening Calm and Country of Cherry Blossoms are a short story and short series (respectively) about Hiroshima. Like many other shojo/josei artists, Kouno uses the natural world to impart tone and mood, but is particularly good at it.

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The best graphic novels that use environment as storyteller

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Book cover of The Art of Fullmetal Alchemist

The Art of Fullmetal Alchemist

By Hiromu Arakawa

Why this book?

This is an art book that showcases the masterful craft of an artist who knows how to weave souls into their characters and worlds. Her titles made me laugh, cry, jump up from my seat, and the characters and concepts in the pages of this book make me re-live these moments again and again. She uses a very unusual gouache technique, unlike any other manga artist I know of. The precision and determination in every stroke are stunning, and a book I believe any aspiring artist should have in their library.

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The best manga art books that have inspired me as an artist

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Book cover of NonNonBa

NonNonBa

By Shigeru Mizuki, Jocelyne Allen

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…

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The best books to explore otherworldly Japan

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

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

By Marie Mutsuki Mockett

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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Book cover of Just So Happens

Just So Happens

By Fumio Obata

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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Book cover of The Keeper of Night

The Keeper of Night

By Kylie Lee Baker

Why this book?

The Keeper of Night’s protagonist Ren Scarborough is the epitome of a character trapped between two worlds. Half-British Reaper, half-Japanese Shinigami, Ren starts off the book living in London but never quite feels like she belongs there. When she travels to Japan for the first time, she finds out that Japan isn’t quite as she expected it and ends up getting tangled in the affairs of Yomi, the Japanese underworld. Although a bit on the darker side, this is a fantastic book for anyone interested in Japanese mythology, anyone who likes their fantasy a little on the dark side,…

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The best fantasy novels with protagonists that are part of two worlds

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Book cover of Maro Up: The Secret to Success Begins with Arigato: Wisdom from the “Warren Buffet of Japan”

Maro Up: The Secret to Success Begins with Arigato: Wisdom from the “Warren Buffet of Japan”

By Janet Bray Attwood, Ken Honda

Why this book?

Known as the Warren Buffer of Japan, Wahei Takeda was a billionaire and investor living in Japan that passed away in 2016. He had a philosophy of life that built upon the concept of gratitude. A mentor of mine met and studied with this man, and he shared that every day, every day, he has a practice of giving 1,000 gratitude. Not figuratively, but honestly, living in a state of gratitude. I have tried this and go back to the practice of giving 1,000 when I need to shake myself out of a rut. It’s transformational, and it’s hard.…

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The best books that get you thinking

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Book cover of Silence

Silence

By Shusaku Endo, William Johnston

Why this book?

Japan’s Tokugawa Era was created by the first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, in 1603. Ieyasu withdrew Japan from international trade and relations and created a closed, feudal society.  For 250 years, the Japanese conducted international trade only with the Dutch and Chinese, and even then only in specially designated trading ports such as the manmade island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbor. Ieyasu also brutally suppressed Christianity and expelled European missionaries. 

Silence tells the story of a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Sebastiao Rodrigues, who is sent by the Catholic Church to Japan in 1639 to investigate reports that his mentor, a Jesuit priest…

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The best time travel novels that transport you to another time and place

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Book cover of Peasants, Rebels, Women, and Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan

Peasants, Rebels, Women, and Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan

By Mikiso Hane

Why this book?

In Peasants, Rebels, Women, and Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan, the social historian Mikiso Hane offers neglected insights on Japanese society from the margins. Hane’s people's history of modern Japan uses diaries, memoirs, fiction, trial testimony, personal recollections, and eyewitness accounts of peasants, factory and industrial workers, and outsiders to detail lived experiences of ordinary people. The perspective from the underclasses resonates with Hijikata’s butoh and his life experiences.
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‘The best books on Japanese postwar creative arts in their wider context

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Book cover of Overcome by Modernity: History, Culture, and Community in Interwar Japan

Overcome by Modernity: History, Culture, and Community in Interwar Japan

By Harry D. Harootunian

Why this book?

Readers interested in intellectual history in modern Japan could begin with Harry Harootunian’s Overcome by Modernity: History, Culture, and Community in Interwar Japan. Harootunian’s examination of a generation of Japanese intellectuals in the period between the two world wars explores how they sought to ‘overcome’ materialism and consumerism associated with the West. As Japanese industrial and urban development gave rise to mass culture, Harootunian shows how traditional values and mores were uprooted and replaced with those which embraced desire, fantasy, and spectacle in parallel with a wider process marked by both modernism and fascism.
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Book cover of A History of Japanese Theatre

A History of Japanese Theatre

By Jonah Salz

Why this book?

For a general overview of Japanese theatre, and more broadly Japanese culture, readers are encouraged to have a look through A History of Japanese Theatre edited by Jonah Salz. This encyclopaedic collection of essays by scholars on Japanese theatre history offers a rich and thorough survey of Japanese theatre for a wide readership. From ancient Noh theatre to Kabuki and Bunraku to modern literary theatre to critical theatre and performance, readers can glean how the performing arts have developed throughout Japanese history. As the book weaves together some of the intellectual concerns and artistic reflections of prominent artists in their…
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Book cover of At Last a Life

At Last a Life

By Paul David

Why this book?

An incredible story of one man’s journey through anxiety disorder and out the other side. It’s a simplistically written book that cuts through all of the jargon and fluff that can sometimes make it difficult to understand exactly what we should be doing to help ourselves. Incredibly relatable, it’s another fine example of one previous anxiety sufferer sharing their story to help you on your own recovery journey.

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The best books to manage and overcome anxiety disorders

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Book cover of The Pearl Diver

The Pearl Diver

By Sujata Massey

Why this book?

Sujata Massey is Indian and German. She has written a whole series of books set in Japan or featuring Japanese characters. This is her seventh featuring investigator Rei Shimura, and is set in Washington DC's restaurant world. Shimura's task: find a Japanese war bride who disappeared 30 years earlier. I love Rei Shimura’s wry humor and intelligence. My husband founded, and we owned, The Safe House, an espionage-theme restaurant in Milwaukee, so this book resonated with my experience.

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The best books by writers breaking cross-cultural boundaries

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Book cover of Starting Point: 1979-1996

Starting Point: 1979-1996

By Hayao Miyazaki

Why this book?

These are collections of writings by Miyazaki in translation: interviews, essays, production notes, doodles, and even poems. These are sometimes directly related to the films, and sometimes on general themes such as artistic integrity, the environment, and contemporary Japan. You get a picture of Miyazaki: deeply thoughtful, ethically engaged, and playfully child-like. Plus, lots of cool illustrations. The second volume goes up through Howls’ Moving Castle. 

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Book cover of SENSŌ: The Japanese Remember the Pacific War: Letters to the Editor of "Asahi Shimbun"

SENSŌ: The Japanese Remember the Pacific War: Letters to the Editor of "Asahi Shimbun"

By Frank Gibney, Beth Cary

Why this book?

Composed of letters to the editor in Tokyo’s highly respected Asahi Shimbun newspaper from 1986 to 1987, SENSŌ provides vivid insight into wartime life in Imperial Japan. Composed of honest reflections 40 years after the war, the topics covered (often with powerful emotion) include: life in the military, the Sino-Japanese War, Pacific War, home front, the bombing of Japanese cities, and post-war reflections. In the end, I was impressed how the Japanese experience and emotions during the war were not dissimilar to what I might imagine feeling as an American in a similar situation.
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Book cover of Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada

Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada

By James P. Delgado

Why this book?

What could be cooler than underwater archaeology? This book tells the incredible story of how Mongol emperor Kublai Khan attempted to conquer Japan, not once, but twice in the late twelfth century. Both invasions were unsuccessful, and Kublai’s second fleet was sunk by a “divine wind” or kamikaze in the waters off Kyushu island in western Japan—only to be rediscovered in modern times by underwater archaeologists.

From the list:

The best books on early Japan in world history

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Book cover of A Maritime History of East Asia

A Maritime History of East Asia

By Masashi Haneda, Mihoko Oka

Why this book?

OK, I had to sneak in at least one academic book; I’m a professor, after all. This book might be a little drier than some of the others, but it’s also the most up-to-date and comprehensive account of premodern Japanese international relations available in English. Most Japanese historians only publish in Japanese, so this book provides a unique window into the results of their studies for those who don’t read that language. It’s a treasure trove of information about diplomacy, war, piracy, trade, and cultural exchanges between 1250 and 1800. Who could ask for more?

From the list:

The best books on early Japan in world history

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Book cover of Himawari House

Himawari House

By Harmony Becker

Why this book?

I was absolutely delighted by this young adult graphic novel which details three Asian girls’ lives as they live and study in Japan. One is from America, one from Korea, and one from Singapore, and each has such a profound story to tell about their path to self-acceptance and personal freedom. 

From the list:

The best children’s and teen novels that perfectly capture Asian American identity

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Book cover of Shike

Shike

By Robert Shea

Why this book?

An oldie, but I loved this book! It was actually two books when originally published (Time of the Dragons and Last of the Zinja). Set mostly in Mongolia and Japan, it tells the story of a warrior monk who falls in love with a Japanese princess who becomes a consort to Kubilai Khan (Ghenghis Khan’s grandson). As a kid, I loved the TV show Kung-Fu with David Carradine and Jebu (the main character) is a much bigger, badder version of Cane. Like Cane, Jebu is a half-blood but his barbarian side is the one that shows through so…

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The best books with realistic fight scenes

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Book cover of Fu-Go: The Curious History of Japan's Balloon Bomb Attack on America

Fu-Go: The Curious History of Japan's Balloon Bomb Attack on America

By Ross Coen

Why this book?

It's probably good that we haven't heard more of Fu-Go, because if we had, it would mean the aerial bombs sent over from Japan succeeded in spreading fire and terror across North America. Near the end of World War II, Japan launched high-altitude hydrogen balloons armed with incendiary bombs. They were designed to fly westward on the winds of the upper atmosphere and burn both American forests and Americans. 

Made by Japanese schoolgirls who manufactured the balloons by the thousand, the exercise was ultimately a failure, causing only one reported incident. I suspect, though, that others were covered up to…

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The best books about the weirder side of World War II

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Book cover of Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man: 15 Years at Studio Ghibli

Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man: 15 Years at Studio Ghibli

By Steve Alpert

Why this book?

And here is your dessert course! 

Fluent in Japanese and with a background in Japanese literature, Steve Alpert worked initially at Disney in Japan and then for a number of years at Miyazaki’s Ghibli Studio and writes about his experiences in this delightful and frequently hilarious book. He gives us fascinating details about Miyazaki and his fellow director Takahata and producer Suzuki, especially in relation to what are perhaps the two most famous of Miyazaki’s movies, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.

The chapter on Princess Mononoke is particularly interesting as it includes a detailed and very funny account of…

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The best books if you really love animation and/or Japanese popular culture

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Book cover of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

By Natasha Pulley

Why this book?

Natasha Pulley’s grounded historical novel marries detailed research of late-19th-century England and Japan with something stranger and more fantastical – but these elements together heighten the narrative. Clerk Thaniel Steepleton’s relationship with clockwork-maker Keita Mori centers the story – they change one another in ways that even fate can’t completely anticipate. There’s a lot of tenderness between them, and it captures the way that falling in love can feel like meeting someone again, instead of for the first time. Also, there’s a pet clockwork octopus. That’s vital. 

From the list:

The best novels for when something queer’s afoot

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Book cover of Sunk: The Story of the Japanese Submarine Fleet, 1941-1945

Sunk: The Story of the Japanese Submarine Fleet, 1941-1945

By Mochitsura Hashimoto

Why this book?

Hashimoto was the Japanese sub captain of the I-58, who sank the USS Indianapolis shortly after it delivered the atomic bomb in the closing days of World War II. The story of the Indianapolis has been told in several excellent books including, “In Harms Way” and “Fatal Voyage” as well as the movie, “Jaws,” but never from the Japanese point of view. How Hashimoto and his crew survived the war is integral to this story which makes The Hunt for Red October seem like child’s play. And it’s all true!

From the list:

The best books about submarine warfare during World War II

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Book cover of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan

Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan

By Jake Adelstein

Why this book?

In stark contrast to Roads To Sata, Tokyo Vice is a grim and gritty exposé on the Tokyo underworld that shows there's much more to Japan than sumo, sushi and Hello Kitty. Written by Jake Adelstein, an American fluent in Japanese who spent 12 years working as a crime reporter for a leading Japanese daily newspaper, we get to see the dark side of Japan.

Following the exploits of the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia), Adelstein explores an underworld of murders, prostitution and human trafficking - a Japan that few people realise exists. Both fascinating and disturbing in parts, we learn…

From the list:

The best travel books about life in Japan

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Book cover of The Message

The Message

By Mai Jia

Why this book?

The Message is a novel about five codebreakers and one traitor. Set in China during World War II when the Chinese resistance challenged the Japanese backed puppet government, this is a complex counterintelligence novel, written by a Chinese storyteller, who is no stranger to the Chinese intelligence services. By telling the same story from two different perspectives, Mai Jia, as a colleague recently suggested, intentionally problematized the truth because both versions were plausible. I recommend this book because it provides insight into the multilayered intelligence story of wartime China, it is one of the few books on this topic, and…

From the list:

The best books on World War II intelligence history

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Book cover of The Master of Go

The Master of Go

By Yasunari Kawabata, Edward G. Seidensticker

Why this book?

Translated from Japanese, this 182-page novel originally published in 1951 is perhaps a little long to be included as a short novel, and a little old to be considered contemporary . . . but it’s a personal favorite! Both a novel and a piece of journalism, Master describes the final match of a man widely considered to be his generation’s greatest go player. Interwoven into this narrative/character study are arresting details about the game and those who have played it over the centuries. It reads so quickly, you’ll think it was only 100 pages.

From the list:

The best short contemporary novels in translation

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Book cover of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

By David Mitchell

Why this book?

David Mitchell's fantasia of life in the closed world of Edo Japan is a visceral, eerie, and profound novel that's also great fun, and it has everything: love, honor, treachery, bureaucracy, magic, a terrifying cult, a debauched ape, and the delightfully arch proto-scientist Dr. Marinus. As with many of his novels, it has the feel and richness of great cinema, and his depiction of life on an island in Nagasaki harbor where representatives of the Dutch East India Company are permitted to trade with a secretive nation they barely understand is so well-researched that you'll almost believe it happened.  

From the list:

The best books to take you to another world

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Book cover of Pachinko

Pachinko

By Min Jin Lee

Why this book?

The unplanned pregnancy at the beginning of Pachinko starts a generations-long saga. In the early 1900s, Sunja is a young, innocent Korean woman who is seduced by an older man, a gangster who already has a wife. Sunja is rescued from the shame of an out-of-wedlock birth by a pastor who marries her and brings her to Japan, where they have a second child. The novel brings to life the conflict between the Korean and Japanese people, through the lives of Sunja’s offspring, taking us through WWII all the way to the 1980s. Every sentence Lee writes is gorgeous, and…

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The best novels about unplanned pregnancy

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Book cover of Kansai Cool: A Journey Into the Cultural Heartland of Japan

Kansai Cool: A Journey Into the Cultural Heartland of Japan

By Christal Whelan

Why this book?

It is impossible to talk about gaming without mentioning the influence Japanese culture has had on the pastime. Specifically, Nintendo. This collection of essays and photos offers an anthropologist’s view to the Kansai region of Western Japan, and helps gamers (and travelers) understand the complex culture in which Nintendo is based.

From the list:

The best books for understanding the video game industry

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Book cover of The Forgotten Air Force: The Royal Air Force in the War Against Japan 1941-1945

The Forgotten Air Force: The Royal Air Force in the War Against Japan 1941-1945

By Henry Probert

Why this book?

Understanding the full scope of the air war in the CBI requires knowledge of Royal Air Force operations against the Japanese, and Probert’s book delivers. I regret that I am not aware of a similar book covering the CBI story from the point of view of the Japanese Army Air Force. Probert begins his book with the arrival of RAF flying boats at Singapore in 1928 and recounts in detail the events of World War II from the debacle in Burma and Malaya in 1941-42 to the hard-won victory in 1945. Substantial appendices, notes, photographs and maps complete the package.

From the list:

The best books on the Air War in the China-Burma-India Theater during WWII

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Book cover of Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present

Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present

By Christopher Harding

Why this book?

This is a thoughtful and well-written account of Japan's history since the Meiji restoration. The book is enlivened by multiple narrative themes, from feminism to socialism, most of which run counter to the official government version of the nation's history.

From the list:

The best books on Japanese history from the outside looking in

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Book cover of The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji

By Murasaki Shikibu, Edward G. Seidensticker

Why this book?

That The Tale of Genji is the world’s first novel is reason enough to read it, but it’s also a priceless insight into the lives of the aristocracy during Japan’s Heian period (794-1185). Genji chronicles the life and loves of Genji, the “Shining Prince,” an emperor’s son who isn’t high enough ranking to ever inherit the throne and spends his days plotting romantic conquests that bring sorrow as often as joy. A masterpiece of world literature.

From the list:

The best books about pre-modern Japan

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Book cover of The Tale of Murasaki

The Tale of Murasaki

By Liza Dalby

Why this book?

The perfect companion piece to The Tale of Genji, The Tale of Murasaki is a modern historical novel about Murasaki Shikibu (author of The Tale of Genji). Author Liza Dalby is a scholar of Japanese culture as well as the only Westerner ever to become a geisha. A meticulously researched, evocative window into Heian Japan.

From the list:

The best books about pre-modern Japan

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Book cover of The Tale of the Heike

The Tale of the Heike

By Royall Tyler

Why this book?

A masterpiece. Royall Tyler translates this tale, which had been recited orally by blind monks in the fourteenth century, into beautiful English; the rhythms of the language, its beauty, tragedy, and poetry become accessible to an English-speaking audience for the first time. One of the greatest accomplishments in translation and a must-read for all interested in medieval Japanese warfare and epic war tales.

From the list:

The best books from Medieval European history to contemporary Japanese literature

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Book cover of The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan

The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan

By Ivan Morris

Why this book?

The Japanese love underdogs. Ten are portrayed here, ranging from the 4th to the 20th centuries, with storylines that Shakespeare would’ve stolen if only he’d known about them. A terrific round-up that will inspire you to delve deeper into Japanese history.

From the list:

The best books about pre-modern Japan

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Book cover of The Garden of Evening Mists

The Garden of Evening Mists

By Tan Twan Eng

Why this book?

If you like books that open like a flower, as I do, you might very much enjoy this novel set mostly in and around an exquisite Malaysian garden designed by the one-time gardener of the Emperor of Japan. The author, himself Malaysian, hangs a heavy load on that little plot of land — love and pain through five decades, the Japanese occupation of the Malay peninsula during World War 2, the principles of existential gardening, and gnawing memory — but he keeps the focus tight while suggesting so much more. To describe the novel at greater length risks destroying its…

From the list:

The best books that tell a big story through a small lens

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Book cover of The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts

The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts

By Raúl Sánchez García

Why this book?

The Eastern tradition of "sports" is entirely different from the Western (indeed, many practitioners of martial arts in the East don't regard them as competitive sports at all, but disciplines where one competes, in a sense, with oneself). I wrote a piece on the history of karate for Smithsonian Magazine, since it is making its debut in Tokyo in August, and found this book (despite its dry and academic title) to be a fascinating introduction to the surprising growth of Japanese martial arts around the world.
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The best books on the classical world to accompany the 2021 Olympics

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Book cover of The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society

The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society

By Pierre François Souyri

Why this book?

A marvelously coherent and stimulating introduction to the turbulent politics and social and economic life of Japan between revolutionary changes in 1185 and the early sixteenth century, with much to say about cultural life as well. Souyri is as interested in the lives of peasants and traders as in that of shoguns and samurai.

From the list:

The best books on global history before the modern era

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Book cover of Japanese Pilgrimage

Japanese Pilgrimage

By Oliver Statler

Why this book?

After walking the length of Japan, I still wasn’t satisfied. I still needed to find more of ‘the real Japan’. Shikoku was the natural next step, and Statler enthralled me with the story of his personal search for enlightenment on the 88 Sacred Temples of Shikoku pilgrimage. Not only that, his book tells you how to undertake the pilgrimage in a traditional manner, delving into its history and ‘pilgrimage culture’. This book is entertaining, enlightening, and extremely inspiring – so much so, that after reading this, you might be heading off to Japan and Shikoku on your own search for…

From the list:

The best books for understanding Japan and the Japanese

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Book cover of The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education

The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education

By W. Edwards Deming

Why this book?

Deming’s work is classic. He understood how messed up the corporate world was getting way back in the 1960s. But we Americans wouldn’t listen, so he went and helped Japan, and most notably, Toyota. It’s fascinating to read his work that was way ahead of its time and notice the things we are just starting to implement today. It’s also a great prophecy of what’s to come.

From the list:

The best business books that make you better without tasting like medicine

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Book cover of Do Parents Matter?: Why Japanese Babies Sleep Soundly, Mexican Siblings Don't Fight, and American Families Should Just Relax

Do Parents Matter?: Why Japanese Babies Sleep Soundly, Mexican Siblings Don't Fight, and American Families Should Just Relax

By Robert A. LeVine, Sarah LeVine

Why this book?

The Levines have studied the Gusii of Western Kenya for decades and in this book, they look at childhood in all its glory and compare Gusii parenting and parenting philosophy to Western culture.

From the list:

The best books on the anthropology of parenting

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Book cover of Inheritance from Mother

Inheritance from Mother

By Minae Mizumura, Juliet Winters Carpenter

Why this book?

This expertly translated novel draws from the prolific Japanese writer Mizumura Minae’s experiences caring for her aging parents and eloquently exposes the vulnerability of women whose elderly family members require substantial care. To be sure, financial security mitigates precarity as does having professional caregivers who respect the family’s wishes concerning the medical treatment of their ailing loved ones. At the same time, Inheritance emphasizes that with so many younger individuals already overextended – whether because of their own health concerns, spousal conflicts, childcare responsibilities, employment challenges, and other factors – there are few reserves with which to compassionately care for…
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The best books on aging and end-of-life decisions and care

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Book cover of Manchukuo Perspectives: Transnational Approaches to Literary Production

Manchukuo Perspectives: Transnational Approaches to Literary Production

By Annika A. Culver, Norman Smith

Why this book?

In this edited volume with contributions from scholars from China, Japan, Korea, and North America, we investigate the intellectual climate of Manchukuo and interrogate how writers found both opportunity and peril in this new state under Japanese control. This study approaches Manchukuo literature from a transnational perspective, and most importantly, not all of the scholars in our collection agree with each other! We contest the "collaboration-resistance" binary that had been so persistent in much scholarship related to China under Japanese occupation by illuminating the complex choices made by cultural producers during their careers. One of our chapters features an essay…
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The best books on Manchukuo (Manchuria)

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Book cover of Empire of Signs

Empire of Signs

By Roland Barthes, Richard Howard

Why this book?

Philosopher Roland Barthes visited Japan in the 1960s when it had rebuilt and reinvented itself as a global economic power. Empire of Signs, which he published a few years later, is a profound, yet entertaining reflection on “otherness” and how it helps us see ourselves. I read the slim volume – in the original French – in the plane that took me to Tokyo for the first time. It was a revelation and has inspired me ever since to look for the myriads of little things that fascinate and contradict all preconceived ideas. The book is a wonderful and…

From the list:

The best books on Japan’s postwar years

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Book cover of China, Korea & Japan at War, 1592-1598: Eyewitness Accounts

China, Korea & Japan at War, 1592-1598: Eyewitness Accounts

By J. Marshall Craig

Why this book?

This book is valuable because it combines the first-person perspective of Yu Songnyong’s account with deft historical analysis. Craig chooses a number of interesting subjects for his work, including a Japanese Buddhist monk who accompanied the armies, a Korean scholar who became a war refugee, a Chinese doctor-spy, a samurai warrior, and a Korean diplomat. He translates excerpts from their works and adds historical context. This gives readers the opportunity to see the varying views of the belligerents side by side and it also offers a broader perspective on the effects of the war on different levels of the populace.

From the list:

The best books on the Great East Asian War of 1592-1598

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Book cover of In Praise of Shadows

In Praise of Shadows

By Jun'ichiro Tanizaki

Why this book?

An exploration by this famous novelist contrasts the Japanese and the west’s approach to what it means to dwell and inhabit. Light, texture, and culture are explored from an aesthetic point of view and as a design choice through various explorations of sensory experience be that of food, traditional Japanese toilets, or the impact of electric light. An evocative and practical essay for anyone interested in the way we inhabit our environments. This book was a powerful reminder that cultural differences and the history behind them need to be understood and welcomed for the contrast and the alternative view they…

From the list:

The best books exploring interior design and our understanding of it, as designers and occupants

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Book cover of Wabi, Sabi, Suki: The Essence of Japanese Beauty

Wabi, Sabi, Suki: The Essence of Japanese Beauty

By Teiji Itoh, Ikko Tanaka, Tsune Sesoko

Why this book?

This beautifully illustrated book is difficult to find now. The images effectively speak for themselves, however, and make up for the inevitable shortcomings of even the most informed attempts to sum up these concepts verbally.

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The best books on Japanese aesthetics

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Book cover of Shōgun

Shōgun

By James Clavell

Why this book?

Set in 1500, an English navigator’s ship crashes off the shores of Japan. He ends up falling into the hands of a determined warlord seeking to become the Shōgun, the ruler of Japan. Caught in a totally isolated, alien world, he struggles to both survive, and learn. Masterfully written, the story contains a classic, but tragic, love story, tons of action, and a life and death struggle for power. Clavell’s intense tale will lift you up and place you right in the center of the world of the Samurai. 

From the list:

The best oldie, but goldie, books of the past century

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Book cover of The Swamp

The Swamp

By Yoshiharu Tsuge, Ryan Holmberg

Why this book?

Tsuge is another of the early gekiga greats, who only recently allowed English translation of his classic work from the 1960s and 70s. Tsuge pushed the boundaries of what manga stories were about, into more abstract and surreal areas and visual presentation. This book is, like Tatsumi’s books, a glimpse of a little-known Japan beneath the common stereotypes. Its stories are told in an understated and sophisticated fashion. Literary manga indeed. Wonderful stuff, personally I love it.

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The best books to investigate literary manga

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Book cover of Kaempfer's Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed

Kaempfer's Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed

By Englebert Kaempfer, Beatrice M. Bodart-Bailey

Why this book?

This book first excited my interest in the Tokugawa period and directly led to my first two academic books on the subject. Kaempfer’s History of Japan was a best-seller from the date of its publication in London in 1727. The author was a German doctor in the employ of the Dutch East India Company, who were the only Europeans the Tokugawa rulers would allow into Japan until 1853. He was able to make two trips to the capital of Edo, likely the largest city in the world at the time, and thus was able to observe Tokugawa society broadly.

He…

From the list:

The best books to excite your imagination about Tokugawa (early modern) Japan

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Book cover of China in the Tokugawa World

China in the Tokugawa World

By Marius B. Jansen

Why this book?

This book pairs well with Kaempfer’s History, because it challenges the notion that Japan was cut off from the rest of the world except for its relations with the Dutch VOC. The author (disclosure: my Ph.D. adviser at Princeton) challenges this idea of seclusion through his focus on Japan’s relationship with its closest Asian neighbors, particularly China, through the port of Nagasaki. The book skillfully analyzes the impact of the China trade on Japan’s political, economic, and cultural history. Based on a series of lectures, this relatively short book (160 pages) is quite an enjoyable read, even for people…

From the list:

The best books to excite your imagination about Tokugawa (early modern) Japan

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Book cover of Partners in Print: Artistic Collaboration and the Ukiyo-E Market

Partners in Print: Artistic Collaboration and the Ukiyo-E Market

By Julie Nelson Davis

Why this book?

What best list would be complete without at least one volume centered on art? Going beyond a focus on single-sheet woodblock prints, this fascinating study takes a broad approach to the so-called “floating world” or demi-monde to consider printed books, including those of an erotic nature. As the title indicates, the book reveals that the collaborative process went well beyond the illustrator to include publishers, brothel owners, and other commercial interests. The author’s reflections on the status of art, the contemporary definition of beauty, and the physicality of the body as perceived by the Japanese will draw the reader in.

From the list:

The best books to excite your imagination about Tokugawa (early modern) Japan

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Book cover of China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival

China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival

By Rana Mitter

Why this book?

For years the major war waged in China by the Japanese armed forces was ignored or played down in standard histories of World War II. Rana Mitter’s book is the first to explore the war in full and to put it back into the context of the wider world war. This was the Japanese army’s largest conflict and it created the conditions for the emergence of modern Communist China. The use of Chinese archives long neglected or previously closed makes this an original and convincing history, essential reading for anyone who wants to know what happened in Asia during the…

From the list:

The best books about key events in World War II and the soldiers who fought in them

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Book cover of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

By Haruki Murakami

Why this book?

A deeply engrossing story, where characters are transported back into time from contemporary Japan to zoos in Manchuria on the eve of Japan’s 1945 defeat. Although the narrative is disjointed, its characters are haunting, and the work is unforgettable. A mesmerizing tale by the greatest living novelist of Japan today.

From the list:

The best books from Medieval European history to contemporary Japanese literature

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Book cover of Between Two Cultures: An Introduction to Economic History

Between Two Cultures: An Introduction to Economic History

By Carlo M. Cipolla, Christopher Woodall

Why this book?

Cipolla, a brilliant author, shows in this study how economic history and economic concepts can be used to study the past even when they did not exist at the time. Cipolla engagingly explains how economic concepts, even when unrecognized, can be useful tools of analysis. In order to demonstrate this principle, for example, he memorably explains how the clothes used to prevent plague in medieval Europe were effective for reasons totally different than contemporaries realized. Mistaken understandings could still lead to effective actions.  

From the list:

The best books from Medieval European history to contemporary Japanese literature

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Book cover of An Artist of the Floating World

An Artist of the Floating World

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Why this book?

The Nobel-prize winning laureate has written many more famous books dealing with the human condition, most notably The Remains of the Day and Never Let me Go, but this is, to my mind, his best rumination on humanity's familiar ache. Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day is a flawless book and similarly themed, but there is something about the post-war regrets, delusions, and self-justifications of the aging Japanese artist Masuji Ono that just slay me and make me want to weep. Ishiguro is of course the king of unreliable narrators, so I don't want to give away the big…

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The best novels to make you think deeper about the human condition

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Book cover of The Shogun’s Queen

The Shogun’s Queen

By Lesley Downer

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.

From the list:

The best quirky books on modern Japan

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Book cover of My Friends

My Friends

By Taro Gomi

Why this book?

All the books I’m drawn to have striking and beautiful illustrations and this one is no exception. I love the joyful and varied way that friendship is expressed in this board book. I purchased the book when my daughter was still in preschool (she’s in high school now), and the message of finding camaraderie in as many places as possible still resonates deeply.

From the list:

The best children’s books about and from Japan

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Book cover of Kamishibai Man

Kamishibai Man

By Allen Say

Why this book?

I grew up reading about and experiencing “kamishibai,” which is a Japanese storytelling format using illustration boards. This book by Allen Say gorgeously renders the life of a kamishibai man and what seems like his dying art of sharing stories. I remember trying to make my own kamishibai in elementary school and I’ve been toying with the idea of making one again. The book is a gem!

From the list:

The best children’s books about and from Japan

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Book cover of Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan

Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan

By Giles Milton

Why this book?

At the moment Yasuke - the Black Samurai is very prominent in the samurai enthusiast community, and rightly so, he was an African samurai who made his way up the ranks. However, not much is known about his story, so while it is fascinating, there is too little documentation to delve further. This is not the case with William Adams, a Londoner who made his way to Japan, who not only became a samurai but then also became a banner-man (Hatamoto) and leader of a small state. We have so much historical documentation about him and his story is captivating.…

From the list:

The best books on a hidden Japan and the real samurai

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Book cover of Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide

Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide

By Andrew Rankin

Why this book?

Who does not know about Seppuku, or Hara-kiri (also incorrectly said as Hari-Kari)? Andrew in his book gives a great in-depth discussion about its history, its customs, and its position in Japanese society. I have no idea why this book is not a best seller. I know I have used it in my own books more than once. People think they know about ritual suicide in Japanese culture, but more often than not it is “movie knowledge” and Andrew’s book is a solid piece of research on the subject, it should be in every samurai fan’s book collection. 

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The best books on a hidden Japan and the real samurai

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Book cover of The Company and the Shogun: The Dutch Encounter with Tokugawa Japan

The Company and the Shogun: The Dutch Encounter with Tokugawa Japan

By Adam Clulow

Why this book?

Histories of Japan’s encounter with the West typically start from the premise that prior to its “opening” by the American Commodore Perry in 1853, Japan was a “closed” society that shunned contact with the outside world. This book, which explores the relationship between the Tokugawa shogunate and the Dutch East India Company (the VOC), presents a radically different story: one in which one of the world’s most ruthless commercial operators was forced to humble itself before the shogun. It’s an essential corrective to anyone who equates “world history” with the rise of the West.
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The best books about East Asia in the age of empire

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Book cover of Chirri & Chirra

Chirri & Chirra

By Kaya Doi, Yuki Kaneko

Why this book?

In Chirri and Chirra, Japanese author and artist Kaya Doi captures the magic of best friendship with gorgeous colored pencil illustrations and a dream-like tale. When twins Chirri and Chirra head off into the woods for a bike ride they find themselves in a wonderland that blends the strangeness of Lewis Caroll with the sweetness of Goodnight Moon. Along the way they stop to enjoy chestnut coffee, clover blossom tea and jelly sandwiches, all served by forest animals. They swim in a lake, nap under a tree, and ride on to a cozy hotel just in time for a…

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The best books about best friends

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Book cover of The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives

The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives

By Christopher Harding

Why this book?

Twenty Lives is truly compelling. Very well written, a book you won’t put down. Anyone can pick it up and not be put off by academic terminology, complicated writing style, or as often happens with books about Japan in English, an overwhelming sense of Japanese ‘otherness.’ This book treats Japanese people as themselves, without engaging in over-the-top characterizations and stereotypes. A non-academic introduction to the full sweep of Japanese history.

From the list:

The best books to get aboard the rollercoaster world of Japan’s global history

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Book cover of Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World

Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World

By Matt Alt

Why this book?

In this book, Alt sets out a convincing argument as to how much of the modern world, the culture and products consumed, as well as niche but dangerously influential areas of the internet and modern politics such as ‘4chan,’ trace their birth and or roots back to Japan. It is full of facts that are commonly overlooked or ignored but are true nonetheless. I could not stop reading this, and I suspect that if you are reading this list, you won’t be able to either.

From the list:

The best books to get aboard the rollercoaster world of Japan’s global history

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Book cover of Tokyo, Form and Spirit

Tokyo, Form and Spirit

By Mildred S. Brandon, James R. Walker

Why this book?

Tokyo, Form and Spirit was the catalogue for an exhibition at the Walker Center in 1986 with contributions of the most important Japanese urban writers of the 1990s: Henry Smith, Kenneth Frampton, Donald Richie, Marc Treib, Chris Fawcett to name but a few. While I never saw the exhibition, the perspective of the authors created a mental scaffolding that shaped my understanding of the transition from the feudal to modern Japan. Henry

Smith is reading the city of Edo through a bipartite scheme characterized by the sky and the water, or how the city was viewed differently from above, as…

From the list:

The best books on travel in premodern and modern Japan

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Book cover of Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology

Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology

By Hidenobu Jinnai, Kimiko Nishimura

Why this book?

Tokyo by Jinnai Hidenobu was influential for me both as a source of information about the history of Tokyo and for its methodology of research. The author discovers the city via walking and traveling across its water routes, an experiential methodology which he first developed in his study of Venice. With the assistance of visuals, both historical and newly drawn based on his field observations, Jinnai explores modern-day Tokyo. His starting point is that Tokyo seems an anomaly when compared with other world cities in its lack of historical structures which is attributed to a series of wars and disasters…

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The best books on travel in premodern and modern Japan

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Book cover of Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan

Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan

By Marilyn Ivy

Why this book?

I was extremely lucky to conduct my PhD research on Tokaido road in the 1990s. Books by scholars of Japanese Studies like Marily Ivy were extremely influential and opened my eyes to aspects that would not have been visible to me otherwise. 

The Discourses of the Vanishing was one such book that dispelled deeply rooted myths of Japan, especially the belief that Japan is a fully modernized country, that Japanese society is monolithic, and that Japan’s most noteworthy locales are its highly urbanized areas. What brought me to the book was Ivy’s examination of the Exotic Japan campaign of Japan’s…

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The best books on travel in premodern and modern Japan

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Book cover of Japan and the Wider World: From the Mid-Nineteenth Century to the Present

Japan and the Wider World: From the Mid-Nineteenth Century to the Present

By Akira Iriye

Why this book?

Shakespeare commented that brevity is the soul of wit. No wasted words in this short book that provides a whirlwind tour of Japanese foreign policy from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1980s. Iriye starts with Japan’s emergence as a great power and takes the story through the end of the Cold War.

From the list:

The best books to understand the origin of the Asian balance of power

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Book cover of Stranger in the Shogun's City: A Japanese Woman and Her World

Stranger in the Shogun's City: A Japanese Woman and Her World

By Amy Stanley

Why this book?

The fascinating tale of Tsuneno’s journey from respectable daughter and sister in a family of Buddhist priests to a hand-to-mouth existence in Edo—now Tokyo—could well have been titled “down and out in the city.” And she chose her fate. A fiery, headstrong woman, she endured three marriages that all ended in divorce, and when confronted with the possibility of a fourth, she ran away from her home in the storied snow country region along the Japan Sea to try her luck working as a maid. She detailed her adventures and her demands for money and clothes in letters to her…

From the list:

The best books on amazing women during the age of the samurai

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Book cover of Tokyo Year Zero: Book One of the Tokyo Trilogy

Tokyo Year Zero: Book One of the Tokyo Trilogy

By David Peace

Why this book?

Tokyo Year Zero follows detective Minami on the hunt for a serial killer in the immediate post-war period. It is a haunting and addictive journey inside the underbelly of Japan’s shattered capital city in the glaring light of defeat. There is crime, gang warfare, desolation, corruption, and decay. But Peace is above all a master of language, and his prose – fragmentary, truncated, hallucinatory – produces an idiosyncratic rhythm that mirrors the mental disintegration of a man and the convulsions of an entire city. A novel that will stick to your skin years after reading it.

From the list:

The best books on Japan’s postwar years

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Book cover of The Makioka Sisters

The Makioka Sisters

By Jun'ichiro Tanizaki

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.

From the list:

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

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Book cover of A Man and His Cat

A Man and His Cat

By Umi Sakurai

Why this book?

This heart-melting story of an unusual-looking cat and the widower who adopts him will bring happy tears to the eyes of any animal-lover. Fukumaru is a cat who isn’t conventionally cute, and worries he’ll never be adopted. When an older gentleman takes him home, they begin a new life together, introducing love and laughter into their days. An uplifting story, but make sure to have tissues handy when reading this!

From the list:

The best cat-themed graphic novels and manga

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Book cover of The Pinch Runner Memorandum

The Pinch Runner Memorandum

By Kenzaburō Ōe, Michiko N. Wilson, Michael K. Wilson

Why this book?

An ex-nuclear researcher takes his mentally handicapped son out of school because he fails to convince the teachers and parents that the children should be trained in combat for when society inevitably decides to kill all handicapped children in Japan. So, naturally, they set off on a divine mission concerning warring student political factions, an atomic bomb, terrorism, and a shadowy mastermind named Big Shot. Their adventure is absolutely absurd, a demented dark comedy. Yet Ōe uses his profound ability to write with dire seriousness, which results in a mind-bending story.

From the list:

The best books to violently bludgeon reality

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Book cover of The Travelling Cat Chronicles

The Travelling Cat Chronicles

By Hiro Arikawa, Philip Gabriel

Why this book?

Who would expect a stray cat to be such a fine philosopher and insightful observer of human nature? How deeply affectionate the relationship between a man and his cat could be? This book provides amazing perspectives. Not only is the feline companion of the main character a witty, funny, loving being, but he’s also a witness to what happens in his caretaker’s life, mirroring friendship, love, loss, and standing by his human’s side through unexpected trials. I like how the author personifies the cat and how he uses the travels of the surprising pair (cat-man) to metaphorically picture the main…

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The best books on relationships that define us across time

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Book cover of Kira-Kira

Kira-Kira

By Cynthia Kadohata

Why this book?

This beautiful, bittersweet novel tells the story of Katie; her sister, Lynn; and their brother, Sammy. Growing up in 1950s Georgia, in one of the few Japanese families in their town, the kids stand out and must struggle against prejudice, economic hardship, and Lynn’s eventual illness. What could be a bleak story is redeemed by Katie’s dry humor and the author’s portrayal of the deep bond between the children and within the family and the Japanese community. Lynn teaches Katie that however difficult life becomes, one must look for Kira-Kira—the things that glitter like the stars above. This book…

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The best books about bothersome brothers and sisters

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Book cover of Fukushima Devil Fish

Fukushima Devil Fish

By Katsumata Susumu

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.

From the list:

The best books to explore otherworldly Japan

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Book cover of The Complete Japanese Joinery

The Complete Japanese Joinery

By Yasuo Nakahara, Hideo Sato, Koichi Paul Nii

Why this book?

This book, first published in 1995, is a detailed how-to guide that answers a lot of questions about how carpentry is practiced in contemporary Japan. The drawings and plans are fabulously informative. It does not focus on tool use per se, but beautifully conveys the structural logic and reasoning that lie behind the joints and connections themselves. I keep it handy as a reference.

From the list:

The best books on Japanese carpentry and construction

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Book cover of Measure and Construction of the Japanese House

Measure and Construction of the Japanese House

By Heino Engel

Why this book?

This book is a classic and is a beautifully informative excerpt from the author’s longer and more extensive The Japanese House: A Tradition for Contemporary Architecture which is long out of print. The drawings and plans are wonderful, and illuminate the Japanese House layout, modularity, proportions, and many structural and ornamental details. I particularly love the white-on-black visual treatment used for many of the plans. 

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The best books on Japanese carpentry and construction

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Book cover of The Art of Japanese Joinery

The Art of Japanese Joinery

By Kiyosi Seike

Why this book?

This is the book that got me hooked on Japanese carpentry when I was in college in the late 1970s. There’s not much explanation, really, but the black-and-white photos convey the sheer beauty of Japanese joinery in an evocative and compelling way. The drawings resolve some of the mystery. 

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The best books on Japanese carpentry and construction

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Book cover of Building the Japanese House Today

Building the Japanese House Today

By Len Brackett, Peggy Landers Rao, Aya Brackett

Why this book?

Len Brackett trained with superb carpenters in Japan and returned to the US West Coast to create exquisite Japanese-stye houses and other buildings. His work is in extremely high demand. This book shows how high-quality Japanese-style design and construction can be adapted to our current lifestyles without sacrificing either aesthetically or functionally. Brackett’s descriptions of his design and construction process, as well as of the wood material he uses, are enticing and provide a lot of technical and philosophical insight.

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The best books on Japanese carpentry and construction

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Book cover of I Am a Cat (Bilingual)

I Am a Cat (Bilingual)

By Soseki Natsume

Why this book?

The original, and still unsurpassed! First published in Japan in 1906, this gleeful skewering of the foibles of Japan’s upper-middle-class during the Meiji era—told in first-person narration from the perspective of an eminently observant and sardonic housecat—manages to feel fresh and modern more than 100 years later and reads like something that could have been published last week. When I first set about writing my own novel from a cat’s perspective, Love Saves the Day, this was the first book I turned to for inspiration. It was so good, it almost left me too intimidated to write mine. Almost.

From the list:

The best books with cats as characters

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Book cover of While I Was Away

While I Was Away

By Waka T. Brown

Why this book?

In my experience, a truly unique book is rare, and I’m always excited to find one that stands apart because of premise and setting. Waka is happy in her sixth-grade class in Kansasuntil her parents notice she’s losing her Japanese language skills and decide to take action. They send Waka to Tokyo to spend several months living with her grandmother and attending a local public school. In Japan, Waka struggles with reading and writing kanji, feels awkward around her reserved grandmother, and can’t figure out the social scene at school. Japan may be her parents’ birth country, but…

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The best middle grade books about families, changes, and challenges

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Book cover of A Wild Sheep Chase

A Wild Sheep Chase

By Haruki Murakami

Why this book?

Quite literally a bizarre animal adventure (the original Japanese title translates to “An Adventure Surrounding Sheep”), this charming novel was my first foray into the dream-like storytelling of Murakami. Sometimes sleepy and comforting, sometimes thrilling and sometimes downright brain-bending, this tale of a couple’s mission to track down a sheep of mythic proportions had me doing laps around my house, unable to put it down, but in desperate need to get up off the couch (who else spent the holidays in lockdown?).

Speaking of lockdown, and the lack of agency many of us feel right now as we enter the…

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The best books to take you on a bizarre animal adventure

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Book cover of Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art

Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art

By Susan J. Napier

Why this book?

This is an excellent “life in art,” or a series of chapters on the major works in a biographical context.

Napier discusses such questions as: his feelings about the fact that his family profited from the war, making fan belts for fighter planes; his feelings about his father compared to his mother; the relation of the works to his professional life—the studio, his collaborators, his periodic burn-out and work ethic.

From the list:

The best books on Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki

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Book cover of Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation

Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation

By Helen McCarthy

Why this book?

This is an excellent general review of the films from Castle of Cagliostro to Princess Mononoke, including plot outline, character studies, technical notes, and appreciations of the films. She is very insightful about the artistic technique. And there’s an interesting chapter at the end about Miyazaki merchandise. This would be a good starting point for a fan. 

From the list:

The best books on Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki

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Book cover of Spirited Away

Spirited Away

By Andrew Osmond

Why this book?

This short book is a detailed study of just one great film, scholarly but without jargon. 

Along the way, he points out many details I had missed. He also demonstrates the connections of Spirited Away to Miyazawa Kenji’s Night of the Milky Way Railway, and other sources and inter-textual references. Very interesting and revealing.

From the list:

The best books on Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki

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Book cover of One Man's Justice

One Man's Justice

By Akira Yoshimura

Why this book?

Set in the years immediately following Japan’s surrender in WWII, this less well-known novel offers insight into how some Japanese soldiers saw their behavior: not as war criminals, but as acting in retaliation for American bombing raids. The story should not be read as an exoneration of Japanese atrocities, but rather as a window into the much larger problem of understanding an enemy’s perspective. Warning: this perspective shift is sure to make you uncomfortable, forcing you to revisit some assumptions about the “Good War.” 

From the list:

The best books on knowing your enemy

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Book cover of Ennin's Travels in T'ang China

Ennin's Travels in T'ang China

By Edwin O. Reischauer

Why this book?

This book is also old but I have always loved it. It’s the best thing ever written by Edwin Reischauer, the pioneer historian of Japan and also US Ambassador to that country during the Kennedy administration. It follows Ennin, a ninth-century Japanese Buddhist monk, on his visit to the glorious and cosmopolitan Tang empire in China together with a group of Japanese diplomats. Travel then was very different from travel now; to go by ship across the East China Sea was to take your very life into your hands. What an adventure!

From the list:

The best books on early Japan in world history

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Book cover of Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People

Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People

By Arctic Studies Center (National Museum of Natural History)

Why this book?

This one might seem a bit of a stretch. If you are familiar with the Ainu you know they are an ethnic minority from Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido, whose culture exhibits many similarities to that of native Americans from the Pacific Northwest. So why would a book about the Ainu have anything to do with foreign relations or Japan in world history? Well, because Hokkaido was originally not part of Japan and the Ainu were independent of their southern neighbors. This book, an exhibition catalogue, is not only the single best source of information in English about Ainu history and…

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The best books on early Japan in world history

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Book cover of Weedflower

Weedflower

By Cynthia Kadohata

Why this book?

This book, while it takes place in America, made me think of my mother who grew up in Japanese occupied Korea―she was forced to give up her Korean birth name for a Japanese name; forced to go to Japanese school and bow to large portraits of Emperor Hirohito; forced into the war effort at age twelve only to lose a finger while sewing buttons onto Japanese Imperial uniforms; Meanwhile, in America, a similar and heart-wrenching story unfolds in Weedflower, a story of innocent Japanese Americans going about their lives when Japan bombs Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, Japanese Americans are no…

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The best historical children’s books that engage and enlighten

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Book cover of Japanamerica

Japanamerica

By Roland Kelts

Why this book?

This book has remained consistently influential and thought-provoking from the time it was written in 2006. Kelts uses the notion of the moebius strip to analyze the sometimes surprisingly rich and complex dynamics in the mutual relationship between Japanese and American popular culture. He explains how much each country’s art and entertainment culture has influenced the other in an interweaving tapestry of history, art, and inspiration. At a time when the question of cultural appropriation is still a provocative subject, Kelt’s book reminds us of how fruitful cultural interchange can be.

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The best books if you really love animation and/or Japanese popular culture

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Book cover of Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens: Design Principles, Aesthetic Values

Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens: Design Principles, Aesthetic Values

By David A. Slawson

Why this book?

I love that this book uses clear language to explain how design principles in Japanese gardens are transmitted from master to apprentice, the effect those principles have on the way we see and experience a garden, and the connection of the gardens to cultural values. The final section is a translation of a classical garden manual, and the descriptions of “reading” and placing rocks is fascinating – you will never see a rock in the same way again!

From the list:

The best books for digging into Japanese gardens

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Book cover of Sakuteiki: Visions of the Japanese Garden: A Modern Translation of Japan's Gardening Classic

Sakuteiki: Visions of the Japanese Garden: A Modern Translation of Japan's Gardening Classic

By Jiro Takei, Marc P. Keane

Why this book?

Not only does this book provide a translation of a nearly 1,000-year-old text on garden design – the oldest such text existing in the world, but it also includes extensive annotation and a carefully researched introduction to the cultural and historic influences on the development of Japanese gardens. This is a delightful combination of the technical detail and practical advice of the classic text with the author-translators’ descriptive explanation.

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The best books for digging into Japanese gardens

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Book cover of Japanese Gardens: Design and Meaning

Japanese Gardens: Design and Meaning

By Mitchell Bring, Josse Wayembaugh

Why this book?

The wonderfully detailed plan and section drawings of eleven important gardens in Kyoto are the stars of this book for me. The introduction situates the gardens in the climate and culture of Japan, later sections of the book discuss historic influences from within and outside Japan, and the final section is a very well-illustrated study of some of the important design principles and construction details utilized in Japanese gardens.

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The best books for digging into Japanese gardens

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Book cover of The Ninja

The Ninja

By Eric Van Lustbader

Why this book?

This was the first book I read twice. It was groundbreaking back in the ’80s. A mixture of cultures, assassins, adventure, thrills, love, sex, and passion. A huge bestseller at the time. His detail of Japanese philosophy, fighting styles, honor, and code in a modern-day world is beyond captivating.

While he went on to a huge success with dozens of bestsellers, nothing topped this. It was a lifetime of daydreaming and research that he poured out onto the page.

I read it in two days on the beach under the sun and stars. Five days later, I read it again.…

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The best thriller novels that break the mold, surprising you with their unexpected approach, characters and story

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Book cover of The Cat Who Went to Heaven

The Cat Who Went to Heaven

By Elizabeth Coatsworth, Raoul Vitale

Why this book?

I have read this book at least a dozen times. First published in 1930, it has become a classic, winning the Newbery Medal (the Oscar of children’s books!) and other awards. The story, which takes place in Japan, is about a poor, humble artist, who is working on an important painting. Though he has very little money and cannot afford another mouth to feed, his housekeeper brings a little white cat home from the market. At first, the artist is disgruntled, but nevertheless, the cat becomes known as Good Fortune, and indeed, through an act of selflessness, the cat does…

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The best children’s books about the loving bond between people and cats

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Book cover of Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan

Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan

By John Roderick

Why this book?

Minka is the true story of an American AP correspondent who, reluctantly at first, fell into buying a 250 year-old traditional Japanese farmhouse for a pittance (it was in an area soon to be flooded by dam construction) had it disassembled, transported, and re-built in the rural outskirts of Tokyo.

It's an insight into two aspects of Japan; firstly the rural, artisan side as Roderick befriends a family from Gifu and uses many of the rural folk from the prefecture for their carpentry skills, and secondly it provides us with an interesting view on some of the high society that…

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The best travel books about life in Japan

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Book cover of China and Japan: Facing History

China and Japan: Facing History

By Ezra F. Vogel

Why this book?

Until his death in 2020 Ezra Vogel was Harvard’s preeminent scholar on East Asia, and the author of classics on both China and Japan. This book is special, however, because in it Vogel uses his mastery of both Chinese and Japanese histories and cultures to explain each to the other. He relates how each has contributed to the core identity of the other. For outsiders like myself, reading Vogel’s grand narrative of the interaction of China and Japan is a reminder of the complexities of national identity. Civilizations do clash, and certainly China and Japan have done so. But they…

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The best books on China perspectives

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Book cover of A History of Tokyo 1867-1989: From EDO to Showa: The Emergence of the World's Greatest City

A History of Tokyo 1867-1989: From EDO to Showa: The Emergence of the World's Greatest City

By Edward G. Seidensticker

Why this book?

This new edition combines under one cover Edward Seidensticker’s colossal Low City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake and Tokyo Rising.  Few cities have been so fortunate as to have such erudite-yet-accessible books written about them; by an outsider, no less. A towering figure on late twentieth-century Japanese studies and letters, Seidensticker arrived in Tokyo weeks after General Douglas MacArthur had assumed control of the country. His work on major twentieth-century Japanese writers earned him graduate degrees and faculty appointments at major American universities; his freelance writing on Japanese life extended the reach of his work well beyond the…

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The best books for understanding Japanese urban history

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Book cover of Neighborhood and Nation in Tokyo, 1905-1937

Neighborhood and Nation in Tokyo, 1905-1937

By Sally Ann Hastings

Why this book?

Cities often look quite different from the bottom up than from the top down. The practical demands of making cities work often rest on the shoulders of the most local of officials.  Consequently, neighborhood officialdom often engages with citizens and residents more openly, even in authoritarian systems. Such engagement may hold the seeds of future democratic change. Hastings’ study of Honjo Ward and other proletarian Tokyo districts before World War II reveals a surprisingly robust participatory political and cultural environment across the early twentieth century.

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The best books for understanding Japanese urban history

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Book cover of Science Comics: Robots and Drones: Past, Present, and Future

Science Comics: Robots and Drones: Past, Present, and Future

By Mairghread Scott, Jacob Chabot

Why this book?

These educational comics are perfect for kids who devour non-fiction books and graphic novels! I especially liked this book because it touches on drones as well as typical robots. I read this book when I was doing research for my own book, T-Bone the Drone, and found it extremely helpful in seeing how another author explained robotics in a kid-friendly way.
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The best books about robots for kids

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Book cover of Breaking Barriers: Travel and the State in Early Modern Japan

Breaking Barriers: Travel and the State in Early Modern Japan

By Constantine Nomikos Vaporis

Why this book?

Vaporis’ Breaking Barriers gave me the background knowledge to understand how developed the system of travel was in Edo Japan. Both in relation to the infrastructure and the regulations imposed by the Bakufu under the Tokugawa regime. I was particularly impressed to learn about the sankin kotai, which is the travel expeditions of the regional lords (the daimyo) for their mandatory alternate residency in Tokyo, and the different protocols and checks across the roads.

Despite the harsh laws of the Tokugawa’s system of roads, barriers, relays, and permits, I was surprised to discover the social reality of the…

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The best books on travel in premodern and modern Japan

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Book cover of Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things

By Lafcadio Hearn

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…

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The best books to explore otherworldly Japan

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Book cover of Japanese Gardening: A Practical Guide to Creating a Japanese-Style Garden with 700 Step-By-Step Photographs

Japanese Gardening: A Practical Guide to Creating a Japanese-Style Garden with 700 Step-By-Step Photographs

By Charles Chesshire

Why this book?

My favorite garden style is the Japanese garden. It is a simple refined style that is so peaceful and over the years I have learned that you don’t need to turn the whole yard into a Japanese garden. What I do now is use elements of this style in various parts of the garden. The book, Japanese Gardening, will provide you with great insight into various styles of Japanese gardening and make it easy for you to do the same. Add a Japanese walkway into a normal garden and make it special. Or use some of the minimalistic plants…

From the list:

The best practical gardening books

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Book cover of The World of the Japanese Garden: From Chinese Origins to Modern Landscape Art

The World of the Japanese Garden: From Chinese Origins to Modern Landscape Art

By Loraine Kuck

Why this book?

Systematically tracing the origin and history of Japanese gardens back to China and the influences on Chinese gardens, this book provides a great basis for further digging into the foundations of Japanese gardens. It also carefully documents the historical development of gardens in Japan through the mid-twentieth century, situating Japanese garden design as a “vital artistic activity” that both connects to a particular time, place, and culture and transcends it.

From the list:

The best books for digging into Japanese gardens

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Book cover of Japanese Gardens

Japanese Gardens

By Gunter Nitschke

Why this book?

Focusing on how attitudes toward gardens and nature transformed over time, this book starts with the first gardens in Japan and ends with contemporary examples. The chronological approach emphasizes the transitions from one era and style to the next, while the author focuses in on the important influences and aspects of each. The wide range of ideas and examples draw the reader in and also provide ideas for further “digging in.”  

From the list:

The best books for digging into Japanese gardens

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Book cover of Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway

Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway

By Anthony Tully, Jonathan Parshall

Why this book?

Parshall and Tully have produced a reevaluation of the Battle of Midway which makes exhaustive and critical use of Japanese sources. To this point, the sole Japanese source was Fuchida Mitsuo’s Midway, which Shattered Sword shows was “irretrievably flawed.” In contrast to previous histories of Midway, Shattered Sword pays careful attention to the critical elements of naval warfare: ship design, training and tactics, decision-making. It also debunks eight further elements of “common knowledge” concerning Japanese planning and conduct of the battle. The result is a fundamentally new and detailed analysis of Midway.

From the list:

The best new revisionist military history books

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Book cover of Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home

Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home

By Burton Watson, Saigyo

Why this book?

Saigyo (1118-1190) was one of the most influential Japanese poets. His name means "Westward Journey" which implies moving toward the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha. The poems bring out the bitter-sweet quality of life, beauty and loneliness, blooming spring and frosty winter, cherry petals and tears that fall, echoing the deep emotionality and mystery of the spirit of Japanese Buddhism.

From the list:

The best books on the spirit of Japanese Buddhism

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Book cover of The Monk Who Dared

The Monk Who Dared

By Ruth M. Tabrah

Why this book?

A gripping work of fiction constructed around the known facts of the life of Shinran, the founder of Shin Buddhism which is today the largest denomination in Japan. The novel reveals a thorough appreciation of the social climate and circumstances while telling the tale of Shinran who - “neither monk nor layman” - carried forward the religious revolution of the Kamakura period.

From the list:

The best books on the spirit of Japanese Buddhism

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Book cover of Island Encounters: Black and White Memories of the Pacific War

Island Encounters: Black and White Memories of the Pacific War

By Lamont Lindstrom, Geoffrey M. White

Why this book?

Anyone interested in the War in the Pacific will find this collection of 175 photographs showing the variety of interactions of Islanders and foreign servicemen interesting. It goes beyond official military photos (though there are plenty of those) to include photos from Japanese sources and veterans’ personal photographs. The text gives insight into the conditions of war and how Islanders and foreign fighters perceived and dealt with each other. A beautifully produced book.

From the list:

The best books on indigenous experiences of WW2 in the Pacific Islands

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Book cover of The Island of Sea Women

The Island of Sea Women

By Lisa See

Why this book?

Island of the Sea Women is a work of historical fiction that takes place on the island of Jeju in South Korea. Although the focus is on the women divers who harvest the ocean floor for seafood (by hand and with no breathing equipment!!) it is also about connection. First and foremost the idea of connecting one’s heart to forgiveness. This is a theme throughout the book. But also the women’s positive connections to their fellow divers and teachers, their families especially their husbands, nature, and their spirit world burn bright with hope. But their connection to constant loss and…

From the list:

The best books on cultivating connections

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Book cover of Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945

Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945

By Ian W. Toll

Why this book?

The third and final book of the epic Pacific War Trilogy, Twilight of the Gods is the story of the crushing of the once venerable Japanese Empire. At just under 800 pages the book describes in the great detail the coming apocalypse for the Japanese war machine. While 1943 was pivotal with the war in the Pacific having essentially been won by the Allies, it was 1944 and 1945 where the real murder of empire happened. In these two years of horrendous fighting, hundreds of thousands died for what was clearly a lost cause. The Japanese tried one last time…

From the list:

The best books on the war in the Pacific 1941-1945

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Book cover of What Is Zen?

What Is Zen?

By D.T. Suzuki

Why this book?

As I began my search to make some kind of sense of my life, I started with philosophy and moved to religion. When I came across this book, I intuitively sensed that the author knew what I wanted to know. I had no idea what he was talking about but my heart sang with every page. This was my first experience of being taken to the “place” from which the author wrote. Reading it was like sitting at the feet of the Master, aware of a lack of comprehension while witnessing a living example of what the heart intuitively knows.

From the list:

The best books about Zen awareness practice

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Book cover of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes

By Eleanor Coerr, Ronald Himler

Why this book?

Sadako Sasaki was a real child, one who survived the bombing of Hiroshima but who died from its aftereffects a number of years later. Hospitalized and terminally ill, she folded origami cranes, hoping magically, and fruitlessly, that they would bring her luck and save her life. A statue of Sadako stands outside of the Peace Museum in Hiroshima; I visited there a few years ago and was reminded again of the tragedy of war.

From the list:

The best books on war through the eyes of children

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Book cover of The Matter of History

The Matter of History

By Timothy J. Lecain

Why this book?

I am recommending this volume because it shocked me with its ability to nestle humans into the world as an integral part of the natural world, not separate from it, not rulers over it, but clever animals that need the Earth more than the Earth needs us. It helps me to undercut the manufactured power of the divinely ordained rulers from ancient Egypt.

From the list:

The best books on power and the powerless

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Book cover of The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project

The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project

By Robert S. Boynton

Why this book?

Starting in the 1970s, several dozen Japanese civilians – everyday people – were abducted by North Korean commandos and sent to detention centers known as Invitation-Only Zones, where the Kim regime attempted to brainwash and turn them into spies in their service. When that failed, the abductees were turned into teachers instead, to teach North Korean agents how to live undercover in Japanese society. It’s the kind of thing so crazy a lot of people don’t even believe it can be true – Kim Jong-Il only admitted to some of the abductions in 2002, and even then only to thirteen…
From the list:

The best non-fiction books about North Korea

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Book cover of The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet's Largest Mammals

The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet's Largest Mammals

By Peter Heller

Why this book?

Paul Watson, the founder of the Sea Shepherd Society, inspired the character of Aeneus in The Tourist Trail. This book was my introduction to Paul and his colleagues and the passions they share for the oceans and their residents. If you’ve watched the TV series Whale Wars then you are already familiar with the risks these volunteers take to protect whales and so many other species. Paul Watson has also written a number of books that are worth reading. Learn more at Sea Shepherd.

From the list:

The best books about saving the oceans

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Book cover of Through Formosa: An Account of Japan's Island Colony

Through Formosa: An Account of Japan's Island Colony

By Owen Rutter

Why this book?

A delightful travelogue based on a brief trip Rutter made in the spring of 1921, from Kaohsiung up the west coast to Taipei. At that time, Taiwan was a Japanese colony and largely closed to tourists, and Through Formosa a rare glimpse. Rutter was an English colonial administrator and rubber planter in Borneo, so as well as typical travel descriptions of transport, accommodation, and sights, we also get informed opinions on matters such as how the Japanese colonial government was developing agriculture and trying to assimilate the aborigines. 

From the list:

The best travel books about Taiwan and why you should visit

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Book cover of House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories

House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories

By Yasunari Kawabata

Why this book?

Novellas are a perfect place to start for poets who are interested in writing longer, more narrative work. They’re slim, lyrical, and less daunting. I read this novella in college & haven’t stopped thinking about it since. It takes place in what I can only refer to as a “Sleeping Brothel” where elderly men pay to sleep beside young women. The story is haunting, but it doesn’t take cheap horror shots. Instead, it delves into the complexity of loneliness, the shared vulnerability of sleep, and the human need for comfort.

From the list:

The best books for poets who want to write fiction

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Book cover of Mistress of the Empire

Mistress of the Empire

By Raymond E. Feist, Janny Wurts

Why this book?

In a magical world, based in Japan, a young girl needs to rely on her wits to survive. A highly political intrigue-filled thriller. This book is easily one of the best examples of Asian fantasy done right. What I like about the book is the way the characters are brought to life. The female lead Mara of the Acoma starts the story in a desperately vulnerable position and finds a way to work within the rigidly hierarchical and misogynistic system she is part of to effect change from within. The challenges she faces don't appear contrived in any way and…
From the list:

The best fantasy books that are off the beaten path

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Book cover of P.O.W: Prisoners of War: Australians Under Nippon

P.O.W: Prisoners of War: Australians Under Nippon

By Hank Nelson

Why this book?

In 1942 about 22,000 Australians – an entire army division – were captured by the Japanese, mostly in Singapore. When the survivors returned from the Burma-Thailand railway and camps across south-east Asia and Japan, a third of them were dead. This ordeal, so much at variance with Australia’s tradition of victory in war, remained largely neglected. In the early 1980s academic historian Hank Nelson teamed up with Tim Bowden, a radio presenter, to interview hundreds of former PoWs of the Japanese, many speaking for the first time, and together they produced a powerful Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary series which told…

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The best books on Australian military history

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Book cover of The Book of Tea

The Book of Tea

By Kakuzo Okakura

Why this book?

Okakura links Taoist and Zen philosophy to the tangible world by way of the aesthetics of tea, which are actually the aesthetics of life itself.  The title of this slim volume is disarmingly understated, then. It is the most approachable book on aesthetics I know.

From the list:

The best books on Japanese aesthetics

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Book cover of Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern

Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern

By Prasenjit Duara

Why this book?

One of the first scholars to write a full-length monograph on Manchukuo, Duara delves into the Chinese and Japanese writers who viewed northeast China under Japanese occupation as a means to envision their own Pan-Asianist ideals. He analyses this in the context of a broader "East Asian modern" in Manchukuo, and utilizes political and literary sources to unearth previous connections with previous iterations and currents of Chinese nationalism tied to the Pan-Asianism of the early twentieth century.
From the list:

The best books on Manchukuo (Manchuria)

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Book cover of The Yokota Officers Club

The Yokota Officers Club

By Sarah Bird

Why this book?

I’m cheating a bit here because this book is set in the Japan and Okinawa, rather than Texas. But Sarah Bird is one of Texas’s most beloved writers, and this exquisite novel about the college-aged, Vietnam War-protesting daughter of an Air Force fighter pilot, is one of the finest novels written by anyone from Texas. Bird captures the mood of the Vietnam era with empathy and wonderful humor, but beyond that, The Yokota Officers Club is a deeply affecting story about families, about love, loss, and the hope of redemption. It’s a transcendent novel that feels both intimate and sweeping.…
From the list:

The best Texas books on the sixties counterculture

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Book cover of The Courage to Be Disliked: The Japanese Phenomenon That Shows You How to Change Your Life and Achieve Real Happiness

The Courage to Be Disliked: The Japanese Phenomenon That Shows You How to Change Your Life and Achieve Real Happiness

By Ichiro Kishimi, Fumitake Koga

Why this book?

A profound little philosophy book from Japan, communicating the psychology of Alfred Adler - a rival of Freud. Told as a conversation between an angry student and a patient teacher. A little book so good that I rushed home from other activities to keep reading it, and finished in a day. A surprisingly fresh perspective on how to live. (The “disliked” part is not the point, so don’t let the title distract you.)

From the list:

The best books to change how you understand the world

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Book cover of The Great Railway Bazaar

The Great Railway Bazaar

By Paul Theroux

Why this book?

Theroux pretty much invented the genre with this ground-breaking travelogue, first published in 1975, that went on to sell millions and establish his reputation as a train-travelling travel writer. As an account of the overland trip from Europe through Asia and back on the Trans-Siberian railway, it’s surprisingly hopeless for anyone looking for inspiration for the journey itself – the destinations are given fairly short shrift in favour of the recording of chance encounters and random conversations with a cast of highly memorable characters. It’s a bit of a period piece – highly literary, often acerbic, occasionally grumpy – but…

From the list:

The best books about rail journeys

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Book cover of The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic

By Julie Otsuka

Why this book?

The Buddha in the Attic is a novel about early 20th century Japanese “picture brides,” women who came to the United States to be united with husbands they’d never met. Otsuka writes their story in the first-person plural, which you couldn’t imagine would work, but it does—and beautifully. There’s a choral quality here, a sense of a shared history that transcends any one life. Like her (also extraordinary) first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, it’s written with an almost pointillist perfection. Every word feels chosen, radiant, radical.

From the list:

The best contemporary books that reimagine BIPOC history

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

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

By Edward G. Seidensticker

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.

From the list:

The best books on Tokyo’s essence

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

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

By Stephen Mansfield

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…

From the list:

The best books on Tokyo’s essence

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