What to Read About Japan and Why

BY EJP April 15, 2013 • 0 COMMENTS

Japan isn’t always an easy place to understand. Sometimes, for the innocent and unknowing foreigner, it can seem all but impossible. What he needs is knowledge, and prodigious reading can only help. So, at the risk of sounding pedantic, I offer here a list of books that I think should be read first.

This list is selected for relevance, accuracy, importance, fairness, readability and entertainment value. The last two of these have knocked a good number of scholarly works out of contention. We’re not interested in academia for its own sake here. We’re not interested in big words either. We’re not even interested in big sentences. We’re interested in big ideas.

And for us non-Japanese living and working in Japan, the biggest idea we have to deal with every day is that extra large elephant loose in the tatami room. I’m talking about World War II, of course, or The Pacific War, as they call it here.

There’s a reason why Japanese find it difficult to talk with non-Japanese about the war. And the reason is simple. Among Americans, for example, those who have any awareness of the Pacific War at all only see it as a sideshow to a much larger event that lasted less than four years and was followed by unprecedented good times.

To the Japanese it was an all-consuming exercise in futility that lasted an entire generation. It started in 1931 and ended in 1945. But not really. In June of 1946 a radio program called Missing Persons began airing in Japan. Its purpose was to locate missing persons and reunite families. This program continued to run till March 31st, 1962. The last Japanese soldier to surrender was Lt. Onoda Hiro. That happened in The Philippines in 1974!

 What Japanese people think about when they think about the war and what non-Japanese people, especially Westerners – gaijin – think about are two different things. And I think that disparity is exactly what lies at the source of the strange distance that Westerners so often feel between themselves and Japanese people when they try to interact.

I don’t believe it’s possible for a Western resident to fully understand his position here, why he is regarded how he is regarded, or why he is treated the way he is treated without an understanding of the war, what it did to Japan, how it has framed the current Japanese mind-set, and how that mind set effects us gaijin. Accordingly, this list begins with the war, and much of it is focused on the years of its aftermath. I’m aware that several million things happened here before World War II, and I know all of those things had a hand in forming contemporary Japanese society, but it’s those chaotic years of the war and its aftermath that have most informed the Japanese people we deal with everyday.

Much that is esoteric and trivial is left off of this list, including Nicholas Bornoff’s Pink Samurai: The Pursuit and Politics of Sex in Japan, though I loved the book, and sex, of course, is normally among my favorite topics.

Here is the list:

The Makioko Sisters by Tanizaki Junichiro (Edward Seidensticker translation)
This is a novel, but a great one. It’s set during the early years of the war – tempered hope walking hand in hand with an impending feeling of doom. It’s translated by one of the best J/E translators ever.

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict
Highly influential. Highly criticized. Written from a distance during the war, it remains the source of much of what we believe about the Japanese. It has also influenced what the Japanese believe about themselves.

The Rising Sun by John Toland
The one essential account of the Japanese war, written from the Japanese perspective. One of the best war books I’ve ever read. It won the Pulitzer Prize

At Dawn We Slept by Gordon W. Prange
The attack on Pearl Harbor. Well documented from both sides of the affair.

War Without Mercy by John Dower
It was a racist war, plain and simple.

Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman and the Surrender of Japan by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa
How the war ended. This is the latest version. Make your own decisions about the bomb and what if . . . If you want to talk about that with your Japanese friends go ahead and try, but you should at least be informed.

Black Rain by Ibuse Masuji (John Bester translation)
Another historical novel, this time set in Hiroshima at the end of the war. Heartbreaking. But not maudlin. This is how the Japanese—almost every one of them—see it.

Embracing Defeat by John Dower
It was from this book that I learned about the radio program, Missing Persons, along with much else. I think this is the single most important book on this list. It’s another Pulitzer Prize winner.

The Clash: U.S. – Japanese Relations Throughout History by Walter LaFeber
Exactly what the title suggests. This story starts well before WWII and ends well after it. Full of things you probably didn’t know, but probably should. A lot that’s in this book came as a surprise to me.

Sazae-san by Hasegawa Machiko
This charming comic strip appeared in 1946 and ran till 1972—the entire post war period, really. It tells the whole story through the eyes of Sazae-san and her family. She was a left leaning liberated woman often considered shocking in contemporary society—she even talked back to her husband. Every Japanese person knows Sazae-san. She’s Japan’s answer to America’s Blondie Bumstead.

Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace
I loved this book. It’s an historical novel based upon a series of murders at the end of the war. The author is an Englishman. The research is brilliant, and so is the writing.

The Master of Go by Kawabata Yasunori (Edward Seidensticker translation)
Written in 1951 but set in 1938, this is the Nobel Prize winner’s last novel and his best. It’s one of the most sublime stories I’ve ever read. Ostensibly based on a game of go, it’s about change and what is lost when something else is gained. This is by no means the novel that Kawabata is known for. But it should be. This one was also translated by Edward Seidensticker. Maybe he should have gotten a Nobel Prize, too.

The Wages of Guilt by Ian Buruma
How the Japanese have dealt with their own responsibility for the war, and how the Germans have.

The Inland Sea by Donald Ritchie
The best travel book about Japan that I know. Donald Ritchie came to Japan during the Occupation, and he’s still here. He’s a compassionate but earthy, non-academic writer with a lot to say about Japan.

You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting
Baseball, baby! A great read. Most of it’s about the foreigners who played here in the early years. American author, David Halberstam, has said of this book, “What you read is applicable to almost every other dimension of American-Japanese relations.” Another worthwhile read by Whiting is Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan.

Doraemon created by Fujiko F. Fujio
This is another comic strip, now moved aggressively into TV and film as a Japanese media franchise. Since 1969 every Japanese childhood has begun with this witty robotic cat, and the popular culture is overflowing with references to him.

The anatomy of dependence: The key analysis of Japanese behavior by Doi Takeo (John Bester translation)
About the Japanese by a Japanese psychologist. Don’t get involved in a personal relationship here before you read this book.

Japanese Society by Nakano Chie
About the Japanese by a Japanese sociologist. The group society. The inner group vs. the outer group. And the importance of the relative positions of any two individuals in the hierarchic society. Don’t settle into a job here before you’ve read this book.

Kurusu by Robert Smith
There have been three or four seminal studies of small Japanese villages by foreign anthropologists. This is the best of them. I was so taken by this book that I went to find the village in Shikoku. I went to the village office, and this being Japan, it took them a while to find anybody who even knew about the book, but once they did find the right guy, of course, I got the grand tour. It was cool.

Shadow Shoguns: The Rise and Fall of Japan’s Political Machine by Jacob M. Schlesinger
If you don’t understand how Tanaka Kakuei happened, you don’t understand Japan.

The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation by KarelVan Wolferen
If Japan feels like a ship without a rudder most of the time, there’s a reason. This is a must read for anybody with any interest in Japanese politics. Great research.

Lost Japan by Alex Kerr
A very personal and sensitive look at the rapid pace of change in post-war Japan by another long time foreign resident. Full of nostalgia and regret. Beautifully written.

The Weight of the Yen by R. Taggart Murphy
The Japanese bubble. When the circle of land within 25 kilometers of Tokyo Station carried a higher price tag than all of California. If you weren’t here in the 80s you missed it!. Tells about the bubble, what happened to it, and how it affected both Japan and America. Not as heavy a read as the title sounds.

The Secrets of Mariko by Elizabeth Bumiller
There are lots of books written about Japan by gaijin who spent about a year here. Some of them are fun, but very few have any value beyond that. This one does. It’s my favorite of them all. The author follows a typical Japanese housewife and tells her typical yet poignant story.

Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan’s Next Generation by Carl Taro Greenfield
This book doesn’t describe where Japan has come from so much as where it is now. This is the Japan that you see every day, though you may not quite know what you’re looking at.

The Couch Potato’s Guide to Japan: Inside the World of Japanese TV by Wm. Penn
This book, too, was written by a long-time foreign resident. It’s an invaluable sociology lesson in front of the boob tube, and immensely more interesting than it sounds.

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami Haruki (Jay Rubin translation)
I arrived in Japan in 1988 and everybody was reading Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. A year and a half ago everybody was reading his IQ 84. And during the years in between, everybody read six other of his novels. He is easily Japan’s most well recognized author. I don’t like him as much as I wish I did, and to be honest – full disclosure here – I haven’t read this particular book, but I have it on authority from a trusted friend who has read every book Murakami has written that this is by far the best of them. I believe him. Of the Murakami books I have read, I liked Wild Sheep Chase best. At any rate, born in 1949, Murakami is a child of the occupation, and his is Japan’s quintessential post-war voice.

Japan’s Modern Myth: Language and Beyond by Roy Andrew Miller
This selection is only for those who have learned the Japanese language well. It explains why they may have even more trouble communicating with Japanese people now, rather than less. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult book to read. It’s academic, dense at times, and always angry. Professor Miller is a grump. This is quite likely because he’s been so disparaged in many linguistic circles. But nevertheless, he’s right.



about the author


I was born in a tiny town in Oregon. Now I live in Japan. I travel here. I write about it.