The most recommended books on Japanese culture

Who picked these books? Meet our 7 experts.

7 authors created a book list connected to Japanese culture, and here are their favorite Japanese culture books.
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Book cover of Japanese Gardens: Design and Meaning

Mira Locher Author Of Zen Garden Design: Mindful Spaces by Shunmyo Masuno - Japan's Leading Garden Designer

From my list on digging into 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.

Mira's book list on digging into Japanese gardens

Mira Locher Why did Mira love 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.

By Josse Wayembaugh, Mitchell Bring,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Japanese Gardens as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book contains wonderfully accurate and detailed plans and cross sections of the eleven gardens it discusses, and includes sections on Chinese and indigenous sources and influences, as well as principles of design and construction.

Book cover of Empire of Signs

Nadine Willems Author Of Ishikawa Sanshiro's Geographical Imagination: Transnational Anarchism and the Reconfiguration of Everyday Life in Early Twentieth-Century Japan

From my list on Japan’s postwar years.

Who am I?

I am an academic historian in the UK, and before that, I was a journalist in Tokyo, where I lived for twenty years. To me, Japan is one of the most intriguing and sensuous places on earth. I never tire of its smells, sounds, signs, and flavours. The language is mesmerizing. The landscapes are stunning. The culture is endlessly surprising. I research and write about Japan’s past – its transformations, upheavals, and traditions – to make sense of the incredible array of experiences I have encountered while living there. 

Nadine's book list on Japan’s postwar years

Nadine Willems Why did Nadine love 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 subtle lesson in seeing the invisible!

By Roland Barthes, Richard Howard (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Empire of Signs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now it happens that in this country (Japan),' wrote Barthes, 'the empire of signifiers is so immense, so in excess of speech, that the exchange of signs remains of a fascinating richness mobility and subtlety.' It is not the voice that communicates, but the whole body - eyes, smiles, hair, gestures. The body is savoured, received and displays its own narrative, its own text. Barthes discusses bowing, the courtesy in which two bodies inscribe but do not prostrate themselves, and why in the West politeness is regarded with suspicion - why informal relations are though more desired than coded ones.…

Book cover of What Is Zen?

Cheri Huber Author Of There Is Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self-Hate

From my list on Zen awareness practice.

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.

Cheri's book list on Zen awareness practice

Cheri Huber Why did Cheri love 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.

By D.T. Suzuki,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked What Is Zen? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From one of the most influential books ever written on Zen Buddhism: A fascinating study of this ancient discipline.

One of the leading twentieth-century works on Zen,D.T. Suzuki's Zen and Japanese Culture is an invaluable source for those wishing to understand Zen concepts in the context of Japanese life and art.

What is Zen offers a general introduction to the concepts and philosophy of Zen, including Mr. Suzuki's observations of its effects on Japanese art culture, and his explorations of Zen and the study of Confucianism.

In simple, often poetic language, enhanced by anecdotes and poetry, D.T. Suzuki describes what…

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

Frederik L. Schodt Author Of My Heart Sutra: A World in 260 Characters

From my list on inspiration to write about Japan.

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.

Frederik's book list on inspiration to write about Japan

Frederik L. Schodt Why did Frederik love 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 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.

Book cover of The Inland Sea

Jonathan DeHart Author Of Moon Japan: Plan Your Trip, Avoid the Crowds, and Experience the Real Japan

From my list on evoking a deep, personal discovery of Japan.

Who am I?

I’m a Tokyo-based writer who first came to Japan during university to live with a host family and study the language. After a stint in Shanghai, Japan brought me back in 2012 and I’ve lived here ever since. I’ve cycled across remote Okinawan islands, wandered Kyoto’s cobblestone lanes, and trekked to mountaintop temples in heavy snow. But some of my best memories have happened over homemade plum wine at a friend’s dinner table. I’ve written two books published by Moon Travel Guides and countless articles on Asia, with some being chosen for “best of” lists by The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and Real Clear World

Jonathan's book list on evoking a deep, personal discovery of Japan

Jonathan DeHart Why did Jonathan love this book?

Written by the 20th century’s leading interpreter of things Japanese, this travel memoir has a timeless, elegiac quality. Donald Richie lived in Tokyo, but he based this work on a series of trips through the waterways and fishing villages of the glittering Inland Sea. Beyond his beautiful sketches of the seascape itself, his warm, human interactions with fishermen, aunties, merchants, and monks give voice to a disappearing side of Japan. They also serve as a mirror into the metaphorical inland sea within himself––the good, bad, and ugly––which he freely reveals. Seeing the world Richie describes vanish evermore in the decades since, the book’s resonance only grows with age. This is why I find myself diving back into it again and again.

By Donald Richie, Yoichi Midorikawa (photographer),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Inland Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"An elegiac prose celebration ...a classic in its genre."-Publishers Weekly In this acclaimed travel memoir, Donald Richie paints a memorable portrait of the island-studded Inland Sea. His existential ruminations on food, culture, and love and his brilliant descriptions of life and landscape are a window into an Old Japan that has now nearly vanished. Included are the twenty black and white photographs by Yoichi Midorikawa that accompanied the original 1971 edition. Donald Richie (1924-2013) was an internationally recognized expert on Japanese culture and film. Yoichi Midorikawa (1915-2001) was one of Japan's foremost nature photographers.

Book cover of Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide

Antony Cummins Author Of The Book of Ninja: The Bansenshukai - Japan's Premier Ninja Manual

From my list on hidden Japan and the real samurai.

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.

Antony's book list on hidden Japan and the real samurai

Antony Cummins Why did Antony love 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. 

By Andrew Rankin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Seppuku as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A collection of thrilling samurai tales tracing the history of seppuku from ancient times to the twentieth century. The history of seppuku -- Japanese ritual suicide by cutting the stomach, sometimes referred to as hara-kiri -- spans a millennium, and came to be favoured by samurai as an honourable form of death. Here, for the first time in English, is a book that charts the history of seppuku from ancient times to the twentieth century through a collection of swashbuckling tales from history and literature.