5 Must-Read Books for Japan Lovers

  • This list should not be viewed as the 5 best books about or related to Japan because a) there’s just simply not enough time to read them all (of course), and b) in a hypothetical world where I have read all books related to Japan, whittling it down to a mere 5 would be a nigh-on impossible task. Instead, this list is 5 great books about Japan and Japanese culture based on my personal opinion, and in that regard, I think they are all worth your time. I have tried to broach as many different topics as one can with 5 books so hopefully, there is at least one book in here for everyone.

    1. The Meaning of Rice: And Other Tales from the Belly of Japan by Michael Booth

    Michael Booth combines the curiosity and acerbic wit of a travel book expert like Bill Bryson, with the culinary knowledge and expertise of a Michelin Star chef in this food log, come travel memoir. Booth’s book is essential for any serious Japanese food travelers, a whimsical yet informative account of an adventure with his family that spans the four main islands of Japan (Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku, and Hokkaido) and Okinawa. It contains detailed accounts of ‘must visit’ destinations and is littered with recommendations of where to sample food that is (in his eyes) of a quality unparalleled anywhere on the planet.
    Japanese cuisine was granted honorary UNESCO World Heritage status in 2013, and Booth goes to great lengths to honor the sheer dedication and artistry of those who are responsible. He dines at some of the most famous restaurants on the planet, tries almost every Japanese food under the rising sun, and shares his experiences of meeting a variety of culinary artisans. He chews the fat with superstar chef Jiro Ono after being treated to a sushi tasting menu in Sukiyabashi Jiro. He also visits family-run restaurant owners in small-town Japan, goes fishing with Hokkaido fishermen in search of the perfect sea urchin, takes a spontaneous detour across Honshu to plough the paddies that are supposedly the source of the finest rice in Japan, and of course, all of this is accompanied with sojourns to a shochu brewery and whiskey distillery to help wash it all down. Not to mention a liberal peppering (excuse the puns) of interesting historical tangents about the places he finds himself and the foods on which he dines.
    This book is the spiritual successor to Sushi and Beyond: One Family’s remarkable journey through the Greatest Food Nation on Earth by the same author. It only narrowly edges out its predecessor onto this list because it is a more contemporary account and therefore, the recommendations have more practical applications for the reader.
    ‘The essence of Japanese cuisine is this: the more simple, the more difficult it is to make’

    2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell

    While this book may not be rife with food or travel recommendations, it is a fantastically written and painstakingly researched by the inspired imaginations of David Mitchell. A must-read for anyone interested in Edo-period Japanese history. The story takes place during the Dutch occupation of Dejima (a man-made islet off the coast of Nagasaki) around the turn of the 19th century. A period where Japanese soils were still off limits to every and all foreigners.
    The narrative is told primarily from the perspective of the innocent, yet erudite Dutch East Indies Company clerk, Jacob De Zoet. It is based loosely around real European colonists that lived on Dejima towards the end of the 1700’s. Through these characters, we are provided with a unique perspective of the outsiders’ on the relatively unknown Japan at that time. During these years of isolationism, Japan’s view of the rest of the world was reciprocally one of trepidation and mistrust and it is this central dichotomy around which the story unfolds. It is a tale filled with deception, intrigue, forbidden love, and plot twists, not to mention the fantastic character development.
    This novel is extremely aware of the historical context in which it takes place, and perhaps that is where it shines brightest. Mitchell’s vivid descriptions and the large cast of characters seamlessly coexist. The characters range from Malay slaves to a Dutch doctor/botanist, from a scarred midwife to the highest members of the Nagasaki Magistracy and a mysterious Abbot, just to name a few. None of the characters feel tacked on or out of place. They add to the authenticity of Dejima. It is a fictitious tale, yet a world that existed. The book being a mere platform for the reader’s visitation.
    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is in short, a linguistic portrait of a by-gone era of Japan, not long before they opened their stony shores to the sweeping tides of foreign change.
    “’Act’, implores the Ghost of Future Regret. ‘I shan’t give you another chance’. [and so Jacob does] ‘Damned fool,’ groans the Demon of Present Regret. ‘What have you done?’”

    3. The Inland Sea by Donald Ritchie

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    Jasper Sharp on Donald Richie's The Inland Sea. Here's an excerpt – "If it weren’t for Donald Richie’s and Joseph L. Anderson’s invaluable The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (1959), the first book-length study on the subject in the English language, or Richie’s monographs The Films of Akira Kurosawa (1965) and Ozu: His Life and Films (1974), one wonders what the state of overseas appreciation or understanding about Japanese cinema might be. Curiously, Richie never regarded himself a film critic, but in more general terms as a writer, and more specifically a commentator and chronicler of the country that was his home for over 60 years until his death, aged 88, four years ago on 19th February 2013. Over the decades, Richie held court over such diverse topics as Japan’s history, literature, food, fashions, fads and phallic iconography. However, never one to play down his own presence in these mediations between East and West, some of his finest writing was on subjects with which he had a more personal acquaintance, such as Public People, Private People: Portraits of Some Japanese (1996) – the lyrical collection of character sketches of ranging from the esteemed novelists Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima, through movie icons like Toshiro Mifune and Zatoichi-star Shintaro Katsu, to the notorious pre-war femme castratrice who inspired Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976), Sada Abe. He also wrote a candid memoir, The Japan Journals: 1947-2004 (2005), a gaijin’s-eye account of Japan’s dramatic post-war reconstruction, and social changes spanning the period since he first arrived as an early-20-something clerk typing inventories for the US occupying forces, through to the early years of the new millennium." CONTINUE READING THIS AT OUR BLOG. Visit the link in our bio. #TheInlandSea #BookReview

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    The sweeping tides of change provide an apt segue into the next title on this list. In the early 1960’s American film critic and writer Donald Ritchie chronicled his journey of the Inland Sea (a body of water within Japan between Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku, technically part of the sea, appears and functions more like a large lake) and the accompanying islands therein, culminating at the famous Itsukushima Shrine. The result of this journey is The Inland Sea, a true travel book classic.
    Utterly unrestrained by any sense of self consciousness and armed with the often-misunderstood Japanese dialect of a foreigner living in Tokyo, Ritchie embarks on a quest that turns out to be as much one of finding the self, as it is of discovering and paying homage to the beauty of rural Japan that still remains unaffected by globalization and industrialization. This journey of isolated Japan viewed through a mid-20th-century lens, is as much about the people he meets, as the places he goes. Whether he’s giving sexual education lessons to a country teen in coastal Shikoku, stumbling upon an island almost entirely inhabited by lepers, getting mixed up with a poetic prostitute, searching the eccentric halls of a hulking temple built by a renegade priest on Setoda island, or star gazing with a young yakuza-turned-acolyte, Ritchie never fails to tug on your emotions. He beguiles and inspires, invokes laughter, sorrow and introspection, all the while revealing himself as somewhat of an admittedly flawed individual.
    Combine these real human elements with the wonder and beauty of the landscapes he ventures upon described with the prose of a poet, the insight of a philosopher, and the eyes of an artist, you have a timeless piece that belongs on any Japan enthusiast’s bookshelf.
    “The Japanese are the last people who stand in reverence of the natural world. Rather than attempting to eradicate it, they have successfully adapted themselves to it. They have offered themselves to it, come to terms with it.”

    4. Power Up: How the Japanese Video Game Industry Gave the World an Extra Life by Chris Kohler

    You can’t have a book list on Japan without referring to the 8-bit elephant in the room. Japanese video games are world renowned and single-handedly revived what was a dying industry in the late 1970’s. Japanese video game powerhouses such as Sony, Sega, and Nintendo have proliferated to all corners of the world. Popularizing cultural juggernauts like Pokemon, Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario, and not to mention their pantheon of flagship characters. The country is synonymous with video games and deservedly so. Bearing that in mind, it would be remiss of me to finish this list without mentioning what is one of the best and most well-researched books on Japanese video games.
    Chris Kohler, at the behest of his University Professor, turned his Tufts university thesis (The Cinematic Japanese Video Game) into a book, and the result was Power Up. He has a genuine appreciation for the art form of making video games, and a desire to pay homage to the country and people that are responsible for resurrecting the industry that he and many of us love. This book is a love letter, a treatise to the Japanese video game industry. And to boot, it contains excerpts from an exclusive interview with arguably the most critical individual in the history of video games, Shigeru Miyamoto.
    The book also includes an entire chapter on Akihabara, Tokyo’s pop culture mecca, with pro tips on where you can nab yourself some retro video game hardware, classic rare titles, and swoon over a panoply of games never released outside of Japan. These tips also extend to other areas of Tokyo and indeed elsewhere in Japan.
    The original edition was written in 2004, so I recommend the 2016 edition of the book which has been updated in parts and includes a lengthy bonus chapter at the end of the book.
    “’Japan, while maintaining a competent standard in many industries, and intellectual or artistic pursuits, does not lead the way in any single field’…… perhaps the Japanese video game is the exception that proves the rule”

    5. Battle Royale: Remastered by Houshun Takami (translation by Nathan Collins)

    So, we come to the last book on this list, and a bit of a wild card at that. Another novel, yet one that is in stark contrast to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, the previous novel on the list. ‘Battle Royale: Remastered’ is a hyper-stylized, ultra-violent, Japanese thriller, and is indicative of the type of storytelling that has been popularized by certain forms of manga and anime. The novel is also the source material for the classic cult film of the same name. It is a controversial tale of a class of Japanese High School kids who are sent to a remote island (on the inland sea) and ordered to fight to the death, the last boy or girl standing being crowned victorious. In essence, this is the Japanese Hunger Games, with the bloodshed and violence ramped up to R-rated levels. More appropriately, the Hunger Games (being written chronologically later), is the Western version of Battle Royale.
    The story takes place in an alternate reality version of 1997, a kind of Orwellian dystopia where Japan has conquered many of its bordering countries, the totalitarian state going by the name of The Republic of Greater East Asia. The main protagonist is teen heartthrob Shuya Nanahara, who is driven by the bonds of friendship and a ‘never give up’ attitude. However, through shifting perspectives, we are also exposed to some fleshed outside characters, who are used both to deepen the historical context of this world and to add an air of unpredictability to the events that unfold.
    While ‘Battle Royale: Remastered’ should at times be taken with a pinch of salt (if not a handful), it’s still an interesting allegory of the lengths of violence that humans will go to in the face of desperation, in the fight for survival. Although this is ultimately a thriller that is drenched in a sea of blood, there are undertones of a High School teenage drama woven into the story with cliques, jocks, bullies and secret crushes that you would expect from the genre. This juxtaposition of two starkly contrasting ideas would seem to not work as a story, but yet it does.
    For fear of spoilers, I shan’t divulge any more information but, even after having watched the movie several times, I found the ever-building tension to be utterly palpable, a real page-turner. If you’re a fan of over-the-top, zany, violent Japanese story-telling or if you just want to read something that’s a little bit different, then Battle ‘Royale: Remastered’ might just be what you’re looking for.
    *I cannot personally attest to the quality of any other translations of Takami’s original Battle Royale, but I can’t fault Nathan Collins version. Going by forums online, it seems to be the most reputable.
    “You all have your own distinct personal backgrounds. Of course, some of you come from rich families, some from poor families. But circumstances beyond your control like that shouldn’t determine who you are. You must all realize what you’re worth on your own.”

    So There You Have It!

    That brings an end to my list of 5 recommended books for those of you who, like myself, have a deep interest in Japan. Of course, there are many notable omissions, for example, there’s nothing from the vast collection of Haruki Murakami’s work or many other celebrated Japanese authors. I haven’t included anything that’s directly about the ubiquitous Anime and Manga industries. However, what I have included is a brief overview of 5 great, easily accessible books (in ebook form at least) that you can enjoy on your commute, your flight to Japan, or just in the comfort of your own home. Enjoy!

    *For those of you living in Tokyo, who are interested in paperback versions of any of these books, I recommend checking out Kinokuniya Bookstore in Shinjuku, where there’s vast array of books in English.

    Kinokuniya Bookstore Website*Japanese

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