Whenever I am thinking about a trip or on a trip I look for books set in those places. Japan is high on my list, so I have been reading novels about Japan. Since there are so many books set in Japan, I reached out to fellow travel bloggers to find out what they’ve read set in the Land of the Rising Sun.
This list is primarily fiction books about Japan, but there is at least one biography included. I’ve included the Japanese location of the books so you can read about specific settings if you are planning a trip to Japan.
Let me know your favorite Japan books in the comments so I can build my reading list.
After reading these novels set in Japan you may be ready to plan your trip. Whether you want to explore Japan through outdoor adventures or relax in Japanese ryokan onsens (hot spring inns), I have a Japan trip planning article for you.
Best Japanese Novels
- by Gail Tsukiyama
- Japan Location: Tokyo
The book is set in 1939 and revolves around two brothers. One trains in, and is focused on, sumo wrestling; the other is enthralled with the art of Noh theater masks. Learning about these two very Japanese traditions is one of the reasons I found this to be one of the best books about Japan. I didn’t know I was interested in sumo or Noh until I read this.
While these cultural arts are interesting, the book is really about the inner and outer lives of the characters, how they navigate WWII and the new Japan that emerges after, and how the boys’ upbringing by their loving grandparents encourages them to live in the modern world rooted in tradition.
- by Kenneth Harmon
- Japan Location: Hiroshima
If you are looking for lesser-known indie book set in Japan, don’t miss In The Realm Of Ash And Sorrow by Kenneth Harmon. A WWII historical fiction novel, head to Japan right before the bombing of Hiroshima.
Micah Lund dies suddenly as his bombing plane crashes over Japan. His spirit remains trapped in Hiroshima. He has unfinished business.
Over time, Micah learns more about the enemy that he has been bombing and falls in love with a young Japanese mother. In a poignant story about redemption and war, Micah comes to understand his own racism and anger. Can he rest in peace?
In The Realm Of Ash And Sorrow is filled with atmospheric intensity at a slower pace. For readers who love magical realism and slow burn WW2 books, this title is for you.
— Christine from The Uncorked Librarian
For more books set across Asia, don’t miss Christine’s books set in Indonesia reading list.
- by Haruki Murakami
- Japan Location: Takamatsu, Shikoku Island
Kafka on the Shore is surreal and dreamlike, in true Haruki Murakami style. It follows two threads of story, bound by metaphor and set on the Japanese island of Shikoku, with odd numbered chapters telling fifteen year old Kafka’s story, and even numbered chapters sharing the tale of the older Nakata, finder of lost cats.
Kafka is out on a quest to find his mother and sister, escaping an Oedipal curse, meanwhile Nakata is out on the road for the first time in his life – unable to read a map or to understand where he’s headed. A series of random occurrences tie the story together, and make sense of the different, seemingly irrelevant themes of Shintoism, classical music, Colonel Sanders, and Jonny Walker.
The book is set in a lesser known prefecture of Japan, and paints a picture of everyday Japanese life – sometimes mundane, often unusual, and always fascinating.
Murikami himself has referred to this story as a series of intertwined metaphors, a story that needs to be read multiple times to understand and uncover the true meaning. This is an excellent book for lovers of surrealist fiction, magic realism, talking cats, and novels with many layers of uncovered meanings hidden beneath their depths.
— Anna from Anna Meanders
- by Yukio Mishima
- Japan Location: Tokyo
Spring Snow, the first book in a four-novel series, is widely recognized as one of the greatest Asian novels ever written. It’s not a light read by the pool, but a rich piece of exquisite prose that presents the reader with conflicted characters whose relationships mirror the tensions between tradition and change confronting Japan in the early 20th century as Westerners first infiltrate aristocratic Tokyo society.
An upper-class teenage boy’s love-hate relationship with encroaching Western culture spills over into a yo-yo relationship with a young woman whom he loves, then hates, then loves again when it’s too late to marry her after she becomes engaged to a prince.
As the two dive into an illicit love affair, it could be described from here as a classic romantic tragedy, but this is no goopy, bawdy romance novel.
Mishima envelopes the reader in the complexity and sometimes irrationality of human emotions, and in philosophical debates about the nation’s cultural legacies in conversations between the love-struck boy and his best friend.
The setting of 1912 Tokyo itself is as much a player in the novel as the human characters. This is the primary reason I picked the book up — I was intrigued by the historical and cultural context which I knew little about. Anyone with an appetite for distinguished literature and an interest in Taisho-era Japan will delight in Spring Snow.
Although Mishima’s literary prowess is unchallenged and includes a Nobel Prize nomination, his political views and actions were more controversial. After a failed coup attempt in 1970 the author took his own life in the grisly public ritual of seppuku.
— Shara from SKJtravel
- By Koushun Takami, Yuji Oniki (Translator)
- Japan Location: a dystopia near future Japan called “Greater Republic of East Asia.” The action takes place in the Kagawa prefecture.
Battle Royale is set in a very different Japan that the one with the Hello Kitty bullet train and the Pokémon themed cafes. There is nothing cute going on in this near-future Japan, rather it’s a dark dystopic totalitarian state that’s willing to do anything to keep the citizens in line.
The action centers upon a group of ninth grade students from the Kagawa Prefecture. On their way to what they think is a class trip, they are gassed, abducted, taken to a deserted island and told to kill one another, or else.
The book is dark and very violent, which would be too much if it were only that. But Battle Royale is a gripping psychological drama that explores how normal kids respond to fear, some twisting into madness and others finding their true moral compass.
Much has been made about the similarities between Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. Collins did more world-building with The Hunger Games but both books inspire sympathy and Battle Royale has the edge by being both twisted and plot-twisty.
— Carol from California Crossings
- by Hiromi Kawakami
- Japan Location: Tokyo
Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami is a fictional novel set in Japan’s capital. First published in 2001 and translated into English by Allison Markin Powell, the novel earned its Tokyo-born author a shortlisting for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012.
The story follows Tsukiko, a middle-aged office worker who crosses paths with her old high school teacher one night in a bar. As the pair continue to meet and grow closer, their acquaintance blossoms into an unexpected romance.
The book is arranged like a Haiku, with each chapter incorporating subtle references to the changing seasons (hence the name). As the cherry blossoms bud, then the fall mushrooms come into season, so the two characters’ relationship deepens and morphs.
Described as an ‘old romance set in modern Japan,’ the novel blends themes of love, loneliness, and loss that transcend time and space, while carrying an unmistakably Japanese feel. Evocative descriptions of the weather, the city and the food give the reader and insight into Japanese culture and customs.
Some have compared the novel to the film Lost in Translation, and there are indeed some similarities to the storyline.
— Emily from Wander-Lush
- by Jonelle Patrick
- Japan Location: Tokyo
While the mysteries themselves are totally compelling – I book out a day for reading one of Patrick’s books cover to cover – what makes this series an essential read before you go to Japan is the way it explains the intricacies of today’s Japanese culture.
From matchmaking and relationships to cultural elements like host clubs – where young women pay to drink champagne with coiffed young men and idol culture – manufactured singing groups and the pressures they are put under.
Oh, and you’ll also find some amazing destinations to check out too – I would never have found the Nezu Shrine in Tokyo (which is rather like a mini Fushimi Inari with lots of red tori gates) if I hadn’t read this book before my first trip to Tokyo.
— Helen from Japlanease
- by Sara Backer
- Japan location: near Mount Fuji
American Fuji, by Sara Backer is a fictional novel set in Japan. It is centered around two Americans. One, Gaby Stanton, who has lived in Japan for years and has a deeper understanding of the culture, but doesn’t understand why she was fired from her university position. The other is a man, Alex Thorn, who is visiting Japan to attempt to come to terms with the death of his son in the country.
The two become connected as they both are trying to find answers. The book includes an interesting look at expat life in Japan and the cultural differences between America and Japan. It’s a good mix of culture, romance and mystery.
American Fuji is a great travel book to read if you are interested in what life is like in Japan. It probably will not make you want to pack up your bags and move to Japan, but it will keep your attention!
— Elizabeth from The Fearless Foreigner
- by Arthur Golden
- Japan Location: Kyoto
Memoirs of a Geisha is gripping historic fiction that transports you to the secret world of geishas in Japan. This is a debut novel written by Arthur Golden, where he becomes the narrative voice of Sayuri.
Set in Japan between 1900s through the WW II, the novel takes you to an era that is so distinct and different culturally.
Chiyo and her sister Satsu live in the fishing village of Yoroido on the coastal Japan. Their father sell both the daughters: one ends up in brothel, and the other in a geisha house.
The novel focuses and revolves around the life of Chiyo who leads a rather miserable life in the Okiya (geisha house).
Rivalry and enmity from Hatsumomo, a primary geisha, leads to Chiyo becoming a maid for two years. Luckily, Chiyo lands in the good hands of Mameha, another geisha, who becomes her mentor and guardian.
Mameha trains Chiyo on arts, music, dance, and the intricacies of a geisha life. Against all odds, Chiyo transforms into Sayuri, one of the most sought after geisha in Japan.
One of the most compelling reasons to read this book is the way the narrative is and how intricately the life of a geisha is portrayed. From the way geishas paint their faces, wrap the kimonos, keeptheir delicate hair dos, to the traditions of Mizuage, every bit of it is intriguing and totally engrossing.
— Anuradha from Country Hopping Couple
If you think this is one of the best books Japan has to offer, check out the next book, the real life story of the geisha this one is based on.
- by Mineko Iwasaki
- Japan Location: Kyoto
Iwasaki had started her training as a geisha at the young age of 5 (in 1954). She quickly became one of Gion Kobu’s most famous geisha. (Gion Kobu is the famous geisha district in Kyoto, Japan.)
Iwasaki is also the geisha who inspired the famous fictional book/movie Memoirs of a Geisha. Her biography, Geisha: A Life was published in response to Memoirs of a Geisha.
If you’ve ever been curious what it’s like to be a geisha or what goes into spending an evening being entertained by a geisha, Geisha, A Life is an incredibly interesting and informative look at the life of one of Japan’s most famous geisha – from the start of her training, through her illustrious career and ending with her retirement at age 29.
— Lindsey from Have Clothes, Will Travel
- by Banana Yoshimoto
- Japan Location: Shimokitazawa, Tokyo
Moshi Moshi is a beautifully-written book about a young woman’s experience dealing with grief after the unexpected and somewhat scandalous death of her father. It is a thought-provoking take on death and grief, with a nod to the traditional ghost story.
Set in the artsy neighborhood of Shimokitazawa in Tokyo, Yoshimoto acknowledges the role of place and new beginnings in overcoming loss. The story takes the reader on a surreal and fluid journey through Yocchan’s thoughts as she and her mother come to terms with their feelings and start their new lives without Yoccan’s father.
The result is an enjoyable yet poignant story, which also manages to evoke a sense of everyday life and experiences in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo. The Shimokitazawa neighborhood is vividly described, along with the variety of restaurants, tea houses and quirky shops. Food is also extremely important to Yoccan and the descriptions of food and how people eat are fascinating in themselves.
A surprisingly easy read, Moshi Moshi skilfully navigates the tangle of emotions and memories Yocchan struggles with, while keeping a light, coming-of-age feel about the story. Perhaps the best achievement of the book is the way the characters somehow manage to give voice to their meandering and confused thoughts and feelings. Food and community are inextricably linked in the book and it’s easy to slip into this vision of everyday life and imagine yourself as part that world.
— Roxanne from FarawayWorlds
- by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
- Japan Location: Tokyo
Before The Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (translated by Geoffrey Trousselot) is a fictional and fantasy novel set in a cafe in Tokyo where along with your coffee, you get the option of traveling back in time.
As with all time traveling escapes, there are fundamental rules and the most absolute rule when traveling to the past, is that you must finish your entire cup before the coffee gets cold.
You would want to read this because, mainly, the story sounds so interesting and also because the plots that unfold tell us about the lives of four people eager to return to the past and we follow their subplots separated by chapters.
Of course, nothing is ever as it seems. You get to enjoy all the expected Japanese components like cherry blossoms, matcha, kimonos as well as learn about Japanese customs, history, dress and festivals like Tanabata Festival.
This was my first book that I’ve read by a Japanese author and was my first translated novel. If you want something different to the usual western tales, then this short book (just over 200 pages) can give you a glimpse into Japanese literature.
— Shireen from The Happy Days Travels
- by Min Jin Lee
- Japan Location: Osaka and beyond
Pachinko, the novel by Korean-America author Min Jin Lee, follows four generations of a Korean family who move to Japan in the 20th-century. This richly detailed novel is an emotional and historical saga which follows the immigrant experience during a turbulent time in history.
Most of the book takes place in Osaka, and the famous Japanese game of Pachinko becomes a theme throughout.
You are sure to see Pachinko parlors during your visit to Japan and the book gives a much-needed perspective to the experience of emigrating to a new country, There are also scenes set in Tokyo and a nail-biting chapter in which one character goes to work in Nagasaki in Kyushu.
Over a period of Korean colonization by Japan and two World Wars, we see it all through the eyes of one family. In Japan, their experiences of racism at times have devastating consequences, and under this pressure we see their relationships fail, falter, or at times grow strong in incredibly touching bonds.
This is one of my favorite novels and a genuinely enriching experience to read.
— Cass from Cassie The Hag
I also loved this book and highly recommend it. In addition to being an evocative story, I found this to be one of the best books on Japan and their highly contentious relationship with Korea. — Mel
Let me know what you would add to this list of best Japanese books!
Join the Book Club!
Don’t miss these other book reviews and suggestions perfect for both the armchair traveler and those who like to read books set in the country in which they are traveling.
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