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Destination Reads: The Best Books to Transport You to Japan

Posted on 18th June 2019 by Mark Skinner

There is nowhere quite like Japan. The juxtaposition of the ancient rituals and traditional customs of its countryside with the all-out sensory onslaught of its neon cityscapes leads to a creative tension embodied in much of the nation’s great literature. The list below delves deep into the Japanese psyche, as well as shining a light on faded historical eras and revelling in gaudy pulp horror and sci-fi anime. If that all feels a little overwhelming, don’t worry, because we have also included some crisp and lucid non-fiction to help you navigate your way through a frequently baffling cultural maze.

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A quirky, wryly humorous slice of Japanese fiction that smuggles a scalpel sharp dissection of gender politics and social expectations in amongst the deadpan lines and off-beat dialogue. Keiko finds her new job stacking shelves both rewarding and enjoyable, but her friends and family soon begin exerting pressure to force her down a very different path.
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Will Ferguson’s singular odyssey to chase cherry blossom from one end of Japan to the other is a charming and revealing travelogue, rich in humour and unexpected insight. Hitchhiking his way across the Land of the Rising Sun by any means necessary, our tireless narrator encounters fascinating figures normally pushed to the margins of society.
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The clash between the ancient traditions of the rural village and the dazzling lights of the big city is a popular topic for Japanese authors, and Sanshiro is a prime example of the adaptable genre. With gentle comedy and sage wisdom, Soseki traces his hero’s rite of passage through metropolitan Tokyo. A gem of world literature.
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A captivating double-header that propelled Yoshimoto to literary notoriety, Kitchen tells two short stories about the nature of loss and the process of grief, in sensitive, fluid prose. With piercing emotional truth, Yoshimoto illuminates the tortured lives of Mikage and Yumiko and delivers an important – and very Japanese - message about the kindness of strangers.
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A resident for over 30 years, Alex Kerr delivers an intensely personal tour through the cultural, social and political history of Japan. Lost Japan is both an encomium for the rites, traditions and ceremonies that are fast disappearing from Japanese life, and a warning about the relentless threat that globalisation represents to a unique world culture.
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Ishiguro’s subtle unpacking of Japanese militarism and the disorientation that accompanies widespread change, An Artist of the Floating World looks back at the trauma of the early 20th century through the eyes of a once lauded painter. Never cheaply judgmental or crudely melodramatic, Ishiguro interrogates the politicisation of art and the relinquishing of pride in a mature and balanced novel.
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One of the landmark Japanese novels, Tanizaki’s immense family saga is as reliable a record of 1940s Osaka as any history book. Winningly affectionate yet bitingly critical, the horror and excess of the Second World War and Japan’s subsequent reconstruction are brought to simmering life through the titular female quartet.
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Peter Carey and his Manga obsessed son traverse Japan in an effort to reconcile their respective feelings about the influential art form. Driven by Carey’s questioning, incisive nature, Wrong About Japan is an educative yet warmly affectionate examination of a nation’s history, through the cartoon image and the speech bubble.
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Wistful, delicate and beautifully understated, Snow Country is the finest achievement by a figurehead of Japanese prose. Kawabata’s novella of doomed love and the caprices of the human condition may be slight, but there is more emotional resonance buried in its 100 pages than in a dozen state-of-the-nation-sagas.
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Not only the archetypal Japanese ‘monogatari’ but arguably the world’s first modern novel, The Tale of Genji is the Don Quixote, War and Peace and Middlemarch of Asian literature. A tantalizing glimpse into the aristocratic court of eleventh-century Japan written by a contemporary noblewoman, Genji is not only an enthralling historical document but a sumptuous piece of epic storytelling as well.
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Giles Milton has always had an eye for history’s eccentric and bizarre sidebars and, with this delightful curio about a seventeenth-century English navigator going native in shogunate Japan, he has truly excelled himself. Endlessly fascinating, drily witty and packed with evocative trivia, Samurai William is a hugely enjoyable read.
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Triumphantly gory and unashamedly provocative, Kirino’s high-octane, ultraviolent crime thriller spins every sensationalist trick it can think of to keep you frantically turning the pages. Four female factory workers get embroiled in a murky world of murder, dismemberment, yakuza hitmen and psychotic hoods, in this gleefully transgressive slice of Tokyo Noir.
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A history of modern Japan that focuses on the national ability to roll with the punches of economic and climatic catastrophe. Dense with information yet lucid in argument, Pilling argues for resilience as one of the core concepts of Japanese identity of the last 50 years.

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A runaway teen and an ageing cat whisperer collide in this fabulist extravaganza that showcases all of Murakami’s philosophical playfulness and surreal exuberance. Kafka on the Shore effortlessly siphons the legacy of magic realism into Murakami’s own hypnotically skewed version, leaving the reader enthralled and intoxicated by the novel’s close.
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Rendering a post-apocalyptic Tokyo as a neon-lit, cyberpunk dystopia, Otomo unleashes biker gangs, government spooks and paranormal teenagers in a pulp starburst of artistic frenzy.
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