Books to Read if You're Going to Japan

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What do you think of first when someone mentions Japan? Is it Mount Fuji, the ‘Hello Kitty’ culture, manga, the food? (Hmmm, sushi, yum!) The years Japan spent closed to the world preserved its traditions and behaviours making it a very unique and interesting country. Fortunately, especially while travel is restricted, the works of many Japanese authors have been translated into other languages, making them accessible to the non-Japanese audience, and providing a fascinating window into this world. 

Perhaps I ought to start with a disclaimer. You see, unlike the other posts in my ‘Books to read before you go’ series, I’ve never been to Japan. If it weren’t for Covid-19, I would have visited last month, but my much-anticipated trip had to be postponed. So, I cannot claim any title is ‘exactly how life is like in Japan’. Known authenticity aside however, in my excited preparation for the upcoming trip, I read a lot of books by Japanese authors, and that reading really opened my eyes to a lot of the cultural differences between Japan and the European culture I grew up in.

In the meantime, while travel has escaped our reach, here, in no particular order, are some reading recommendations from me. 

Convenience Store woman – Sayaka Murata
Quirky 36-year-old Keiko is very happy working in a convenience store but faces constant judgement and criticism from her family and others, for not being ‘normal’, and not sharing their pressures and expectations. This book highlights the hypocrisy of judging certain professions as less worthwhile than others, and offers an amusing glance at modern Japanese behaviours.

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
If you want talking cats and other weirdness read another of Murakami’s novels. This is one of his more straightforward books, but dealing with grief, love, lust and mental health, it is a deeper love story than some, and makes you really feel for the characters.

Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
Following one girl’s journey from impoverished childhood to geisha, this story provides a great introduction to geisha and Japanese culture for foreigners. I enjoyed the character development and what felt like a privileged insight into the secret world of geisha.

The Makioka Sisters – Junchiro Maziaki
Set in Osaka just before World War II, this book paints a literary family portrait centring around four sisters. The story follows the attempts by older sisters to secure good futures (ie. husbands) for their younger sisters, and the somewhat contradictory attempts by one sister to break free from traditional ways. It struck me as almost a Japanese version of Pride and Prejudice.

Strange Weather in Tokyo – Hiromi Kawakami
This tender love story tells of the blossoming relationship between a woman in her 30s and a much older man who was once her teacher. The book is peppered with references to food so, if the romance doesn’t draw you in, the delicious food descriptions will.

The Sound of Waves – Yukio Mishima
Set in a remote fishing village, this sweet book follows two young people’s story of first love, their fight to be together, and the impact of the gossip and interferences of their community. There are pearl divers too!

Pachinko – Min Jin Lee
This wonderful book tells the tale of a Korean girl who moves, with her husband, to Japan just before World War II. It is a sweeping family saga spanning generations. The characters are well developed and I enjoyed learning more about the experiences of Koreans in Japan during that period.

Fear and Trembling – Amelie Nothomb
This short book describes the experiences of a 22-year-old Belgian woman working in Japan, and is quite eye-opening regarding the work culture in Japan. However, her efforts to make the book amusing make Japan sound like a nightmare, so perhaps it is a worthwhile read for those planning to work in Japan, but it is unlikely to inspire a trip! 

Hiroshima – John Hersey
Written in a simple journalistic style, and based upon the memories of several survivors, this important book tells the experiences of Hiroshima residents in the aftermath of the atomic bomb being dropped on their city. The book shares horrifying stories from first-hand accounts. It is a shocking, disturbing and very worthwhile read.