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Japan: recommended books (or movies)

Books are what have largely inspired my travels
thus far, movies to a lesser extent. I really appreciate the recommendations RS makes in each country’s overview as to what to watch and read to get to know a country better & would be grateful for suggestions that give a good sense of Japan, it’s history, culture &/or geography.

Thanks!

Posted by
101 posts

David Mitchell's historical novel The 10,000 Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is fabulous. It's set in the late 1800's and focuses on the Dutch trading relationship with Japan during this time. He is an amazing writer, and this book--which didn't strike me initially as appealing--grabbed me and didn't let go!

I assume you've heard of Haruki Murakami? I've only read The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, but it's a bizarre (in a good way) novel of contemporary Japan--tied up with fictional flashbacks of the mid-20th Century tension between Japan and China/Mongolia. Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84 are supposed to be excellent.

Alice Steinbach's memoir Educating Alice has a wonderful chapter on Kyoto, Japan, with astute observations on contemporary Japanese culture--especially from the female aspect.

I've also read good essays in many of those travel anthologies. One I recall was about a young woman solo hiking on a temple route. This book came up in a quick search: Writings from Japan: an Anthology (Travel Library, Penguin), but there are probably more. Traveler's Tales series (which are generally very good) has a Japan-focused one too.

Posted by
12086 posts

Any work by E. O. Reischauer...scholarly, competent, enlightening.

Posted by
5616 posts

Book: “Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back”Janice P. Nimura. Excellent read.
Do you have Amazon Prime and or Netflix?
We watched several series before we left for Japan. And now that we've returned, we have watched some of them again and get a lot more from them.
Netflix
Samurai Gourmet- love this one.
Midnight Diner- Tokyo Stories
Amazon Prime
Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Posted by
1859 posts

Here are some that I liked:

The Book of Five Rings - a good insight into some aspects of the Japanese psyche, written by the most famous Samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, a bit like the "Art of War" by Sun Tzu.

Memoirs of a Geisha - both the book and film, follows the life of a fictional geisha in the old capital of Kyoto around the time of WW II.

Shōgun - by James Clavell, both the book and t.v. miniseries, loosely based of the rise Tokugawa Ieyasu, the greatest Shōgun, through the eyes of the English sailor, also loosely based on a real person.

My Neighbor Totoro - a charming animated film from the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, gives a good artistic view of 1950s Japanese countryside and folk culture/nuances, an all around fun film.

Sonatine - an award-winning film about a Tokyo-based Yakuza who is sent down to Okinawa to "sort out some things", interesting insight into the Yakuza and their culture in the 1990s, also shows some of the cultural differences of parts of Japan i.e. Tokyo vs Okinawa.

Posted by
10237 posts

I'm a gaijin but was born in Japan. In planning a Japan trip, it should be remembered that Kyoto (and nearby Nara) are the cultural and spiritual capital of Japan. Most Japanese cities were fire-bombed in WW2 and the historical buildings (mostly constructed of wood) burned. But Kyoto was spared by the US bombing targeters, through intervention of a key person in the US State Dept.

Posted by
1859 posts

That's really cool Kent! I visited Japan for the first time last year and I really liked it, very easy to travel, great friendly people, and really delicious food, definitely will be back!

P.S. don't forget about Nara, which was the capital before Kyoto, worth a visit if you are also going to Kyoto :)

Posted by
10237 posts

Ah Carlos, my Catalan language consultant of several weeks ago: gracies for reminding me to add Nara to my post, which I've done.

Posted by
6027 posts

Shogun is one of my all time favorite books - much better than the mini-series made from it, at least in my opinion - although the mini-series was enjoyable to watch.

For pure fiction - Teahouse of the August Moon - again the book is much better than the comedy movie.

Sayonara (James Michener) - both the book and the movie are quite good.

Posted by
10237 posts

Teahouse of the August Moon is set in the island of Okinawa, an island prefecture about a thousand miles south of Tokyo. I lived in Okinawa for several years, a long time ago.

Posted by
6027 posts

Teahouse of the August Moon is set in the island of Okinawa, an island prefecture about a thousand miles south of Tokyo.

But it is part of Japan, right?

Posted by
793 posts

When I was planning a trip to Japan, someone recommended the book Confucius Lives Next Door, by a reporter who was Washington Post bureau chief in Tokyo for several years in the 1990s, with his wife and kids. Very interesting insights!

Posted by
12086 posts

Stimson spared Kyoto from being on the A-Bomb target list because as a young man in his 20s he had spent some time in Kyoto.

Posted by
625 posts

Ah, Kent, all gaijin in our house also but my two oldest were born in Japan. Lived there 8years. :)

Posted by
10237 posts

Travelmom, thanks for your post! I'm guessing your two oldest were not, by any chance, born at Tokyo Army Hospital?

Posted by
10237 posts

Nancy, answering your question about Okinawa, at the time the Teahouse of the August Moon novel and later film were written and filmed, Okinawa was actually not part of Japan. From 1945 to 1972 Okinawa was basically a US possession that was governed by a US military government. What happened is that after WW2 the US decided to retain governing rights and control of Okinawa for use as a large US military base. In 1972 the US agreed to return/reversion of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty, so it is now and once again a part of Japan.

Posted by
10237 posts

Fred, not only was Kyoto spared from the A-bomb target list, it was also one of the few major Japanese cities not bombed during the conventional (non-nuclear) 1944-1945 intensive US fire-bombing of Japanese cities.

It could have easily been burned to the ground, but was not. This is just one reason why Kyoto should be visited, since it is probably the only major cultural center of Japan that had its major significant structures intact after WW2.

Posted by
257 posts

I would recommend

"An Artist of the Floating World" by Kazuo Ishiguro. It is set in the aftermath of World War II.

Posted by
225 posts

Thank you all so much for the great suggestions. Much appreciated!

Posted by
233 posts

I've been lucky enough to visit Tokyo twice for work, and to be hosted by Japanese colleagues, which was a wonderful experience. I'd love to go back and see Kyoto, Nara, Fuji. Here are some book recommendations.

I agree the The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is excellent, and Shogun is entertaining. I'd also consider:

The Makioka Sisters, about a family in Osaka before WW2, considered a classic
The Street of 1,000 Blossoms and The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama
IQ84 by Murakami--I really liked it but it's very long and isn't for everyone
Kitchen by Banana Yashimoto (quirky modern story)
The Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa
The mysteries set in the late 17th century by Laura Joh Rowland, starting with Shinju

If you are interested in darker sides of Japan consider:
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Posted by
24 posts

Yukio Mishima was a very important author in post-war Japan. I'd look into some of his work. Temple of the Golden Pavilion could be a good choice if you'll visit Kyoto. It's based on a true story tied to one of Kyoto's most visited sites.

I second the Jiro Dreams of Sushi recommendation. It's a story about one guy and his son really, but you will get a lot of insight into Japanese culture. I also liked the Last Samurai with Tom Cruise, which, yes, is just a Hollywood romanticization of a time and place but it is (sorta) about real people too. Maybe it'll spark your interest.

In terms of other movies, you should watch a few by Akira Kurosawa. He was very influenced by Western movies but his body of work is still very Japanese. Try Seven Samurai or Ikiru.

Posted by
225 posts

Based on your suggestion, I am reading and loving "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" . Thank you so much!

Posted by
12086 posts

If it's movies you are interested in, don't forget the great Japanese classic.."RAN" I am sure you have seen it.