The best books on Japanese culture

Many authors have picked their favorite books about Japanese culture and why they recommend each book.

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What Is Zen?

By D.T. Suzuki,

Book cover of What Is Zen?

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.


Who am I?

These books attempt to describe the indescribable, pointing to the unknowable, only the living of which makes living living. What they have in common is that they invite us to practice along with the author, not giving any answers, but inviting us to look. I fell in love with Awareness Practice in my youth and through the decades that love has only deepened. I continue to love this journey of exploration and I hope the books that I have written contribute to that same experience for others. There is nothing more magical than having a direct experience of encountering who we really are, beyond ego’s dualistic world of opposites.


I wrote...

There Is Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self-Hate

By Cheri Huber,

Book cover of There Is Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self-Hate

What is my book about?

If you have been successful with what you have been taught about how life works, and if you have been satisfied with what society has given you, please don’t read this book. It would be a waste of your money to buy it and a waste of your time to read it.

HOWEVER, if you have spent a good deal of time, energy and money trying to improve yourself, wondering what is wrong with you and trying to change yourself in order to make your life work, this is the book for you. We will attempt to explain that you have been unable to fix yourself because there is nothing wrong with you, but there is quite a bit wrong with what you have been taught to believe about yourself and your life. Most people live and die completely trapped in self-hate and never know it. So much more is possible. This book reveals how self-hate works and how to let it go.

Seppuku

By Andrew Rankin,

Book cover of Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide

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. 


Who am I?

I am not the type of person who likes to say “you are wrong” in fact I am the type of person who likes to say “let us add this to the whole story”. When you picture Japan you do not picture: slavery, snake dancers, or even samurai removing their shoes outdoors in a gesture of politeness to a superior, you do not imagine Italian Jesuits, western traders, pirates, and Chinese samurai, but they are all a part of actual samurai life. It is my task to add those lost items to our understanding of Japan and the samurai, but of course, in addition to this, I have to correct the story of the ninja, simply because it is a false one. The shinobi as they should be known were disfigured in the 20th century and I want to reveal their true face.


I wrote...

The Book of Ninja: The Bansenshukai - Japan's Premier Ninja Manual

By Antony Cummins, Yoshie Minami,

Book cover of The Book of Ninja: The Bansenshukai - Japan's Premier Ninja Manual

What is my book about?

The Book of Ninja was penned in 1676 by a ninja known as Fujibayashi Yasutake. Born in the post-civil war era of Japan, Fujibayashi collected and combined information from the ninja clans of Iga and Koka and compiled it into one book. Known as The Bansenhukai – the many rivers which become one - it is widely considered to be the 'bible' of 'ninjutsu', the arts of the ninja. It is considered as one of the three great ninja manuals and it has long since been the main source of information in Japan.

It was not fully published in any language (even Japanese) until 2013 when my team finally finished the colossal task and produced it in English. There are sections on capturing criminals, ninja tools, night raids, making secret codes and signs, and techniques for predicting the weather and using an esoteric Buddhist system of divination.

The Chrysanthemum and the Bat

By Robert Whiting,

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

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 to look not only at Japanese use of comics but at some broader cultural issues. Conversely, it could even be seen as a way to look at American comics and culture.


Who am I?

Frederik L. Schodt is an award-winning author of non-fiction books on the convergence of Japanese and American cultures, and he has written on subjects including manga, technology, acrobats, history, and religion. He is also a well-known translator of Japanese manga and literature, and a veteran interpreter. In 2009 the Emperor of Japan awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, for helping to introduce and promote Japanese contemporary popular culture. In 2017 he also received the prestigious Japan Foundation Award.


I wrote...

My Heart Sutra: A World in 260 Characters

By Frederik L. Schodt,

Book cover of My Heart Sutra: A World in 260 Characters

What is my book about?

The Heart Sutra has been beloved by millions in East Asia for over 1,400 years. It is used as solace, protection, and a gateway to another mode of thinking. My Heart Sutra: A world in 260 characters is about both the sutra and my lifelong fascination with it. It covers its mesmerizing mantra, its ancient history, the “emptiness” theory, and the way it is used around the world as a metaphysical tool to overcome chaos and confusion and reach a new understanding of reality—a perfection of wisdom.

For a modern context, I write about journeys to caves in China, seeing American beats reciting poetry, current academic theories about the sutra’s mysterious origins, and a visit to a Kyoto temple where a robot Avalokiteśvara explains the sutra’s meaning.

Japanese Gardens

By Mitchell Bring, Josse Wayembaugh,

Book cover of Japanese Gardens: Design and Meaning

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.


Who am I?

When I first saw an image of a Japanese garden, it was unlike anything I had seen before. I just knew I had to visit Japan to see the gardens and try to understand the culture that produced this artistry. I later had the opportunity to work for a small Japanese architecture firm in Tokyo. During those seven years, I explored gardens, landscapes, villages, and cities, trying to absorb as much of the culture as I could. Japanese gardens still fascinate me, and I love learning about contemporary designers and gardeners in Japan who are keeping the traditional spirit alive, while exploring what a garden can be in the present day.


I wrote...

Zen Garden Design: Mindful Spaces by Shunmyo Masuno - Japan's Leading Garden Designer

By Mira Locher,

Book cover of Zen Garden Design: Mindful Spaces by Shunmyo Masuno - Japan's Leading Garden Designer

What is my book about?

Zen Buddhist priest Shunmyo Masuno understands that today's busy world leaves little time or space for self-reflection, but that a garden—even in the most urban of spaces—can provide some respite. In his words, "The garden is a special spiritual place where the mind dwells." With this in mind, Masuno has designed scores of spectacular Japanese gardens and landscapes with the aim of helping people achieve a balanced life in the 21st century.

This book explores Masuno's design process and ideas, which are integral to his daily Zen training and teachings. It features 15 unique gardens and contemplative landscapes completed in six countries over as many years—all thoughtfully described and documented in full-color photos and drawings.