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Ten great books set in Japan
27th May 2018
Ten great books set in Japan
Japan is the latest country for us to visit in our ‘Ten great books set in…’ series. ‘Ten great books set in Japan’. Japan is a fascinating, yet alien, society to most Westerners. The first couple of times you visit you think you have cracked the people and the culture – and feel quite pleased with yourself. Then as you visit more (and I have been to Japan the best part of one hundred times) you begin to realise that your are only scratching the surface of something very complex. Japan is a very foreign place with very different ways of behaving. From temples to the most amazing food, to the most gentle and polite of peoples, it is a great place to get to know. Reading some of the books below will help you on the journey… All the books we have selected are strong on location and what Japan is about – from historical novels, to tense thrillers, to travelogues.
The books below are some of those most highly rated by members of the TripFiction community.
Ever since Westerners arrived in Japan, they have been intrigued by Japanese womanhood and, above all, the geisha. This fascination has spawned a wealth of extraordinary fictional creations, from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly to Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha.
The reality of the geisha’s existence, though — whether today or in history — has very rarely been addressed. The real, hidden history of the geisha — and the contemporary reality of this intensely private and disappearing world — is here fully and brilliantly explored by an award-winning writer.
Lesley Downer describes the history of the practise, one which is endangered in the modern era. By speaking to geishas and those who spend time with them, the author gives a well-rounded portrait, which is at times unsettling and at others enthralling.
Florent Chavouet, a young graphic artist, spent six months exploring Tokyo while his girlfriend interned at a company there. Each day he would set forth with a pouch full of colour pencils and a sketchpad, and visit different neighbourhoods. This stunning book records the city he got to know during his adventures. It isn’t the Tokyo of packaged tours and glossy guidebooks but a grittier, vibrant place, full of ordinary people going about their daily lives and the scenes and activities that unfold on the streets of a bustling metropolis. Here you will find salarymen, hipsters, students, grandmothers, shopkeepers, policemen and other urban types and tribes in all manner of dress and hairstyles. A temple nestles amongst skyscrapers, the corner grocery store anchored a diverse collection of dwellings, cafés and shops.
A young peasant girl is sold as servant and apprentice to a renowned geisha house. She tells her story many years later from the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Her memoirs conjure up the perfection and the ugliness of life behind rice-paper screens, where young girls learn the arts of geisha – dancing and singing, how to wind the kimono, how to walk and pour tea, and how to beguile the land’s most powerful men. This story is a rare and utterly engaging experience, summoning up a quarter century of Japan’s dramatic history, and opening a window into a half-hidden world of eroticism and enchantment, exploitation and degradation.
Only weeks into their marriage a young couple embark on a six-month period of separation. Tom Cavendish goes to Japan to build lighthouses and his wife Ally, Doctor Moberley-Cavendish, stays and works at the Truro asylum. As Ally plunges into the institutional politics of mental health, Tom navigates the social and professional nuances of late 19th century Japan. With her unique blend of emotional insight and intellectual profundity, Sarah Moss builds a novel in two parts from Falmouth to Tokyo, two maps of absence; from Manchester to Kyoto, two distinct but conjoined portraits of loneliness and determination. An exquisite continuation of the story of Bodies of Light, Signs for Lost Children will amaze Sarah Moss’s many fans
5. The Silent Dead by Tetsuya Honda
Twenty-seven-year-old Detective Reiko Himekawa has an impressive ability to solve crimes. When a gruesomely slaughtered body wrapped in plastic is discovered, Reiko soon uncovers eleven other murders with a similar ‘signature’ and a reference to something called ‘strawberry night’, a group that recruits victims and murderers on the internet. To solve the case, Reiko is forced to reach back into her own troubled past.
Inspector Kosuke Iwata, newly transferred to Tokyo’s homicide department, is assigned a new partner and a secondhand case. Blunt, hard as nails and shunned by her colleagues, Assistant Inspector Noriko Sakai is a partner Iwata decides it would be unwise to cross.
A case that’s complicated – a family of four murdered in their own home by a killer who then ate ice cream, surfed the web and painted a hideous black sun on the bedroom ceiling before he left in broad daylight. A case that so haunted the original investigator that he threw himself off the city’s famous Rainbow Bridge. Carrying his own secret torment, Iwata is no stranger to pain. He senses the trauma behind the killer’s brutal actions. Yet his progress is thwarted in the unlikeliest of places.
Fearing corruption among his fellow officers, tracking a killer he’s sure is only just beginning and trying to put his own shattered life back together, Iwata knows time is running out before he’s taken off the case or there are more killings . . .
Veteran Japan Times columnist Amy Chavez guides you through the complex culture of Japan through essays, cultural tips and useful Japanese phrases to make learning about Japan as fun as possible. Chavez tells you why you should go to a naked festival, how to avoid the Japanese mafia, and how to order “Spaghetti–hold the seaweed.”
8. The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
A couple in their thirties live in a small rented cottage in a quiet part of Tokyo. They work at home as freelance writers. They no longer have very much to say to one another.
One day a cat invites itself into their small kitchen. She is a beautiful creature. She leaves, but the next day comes again, and then again and again. New, small joys accompany the cat; the days have more light and colour. Life suddenly seems to have more promise for the husband and wife; they go walking together, talk and share stories of the cat and its little ways, play in the nearby Garden. But then something happens that will change everything again.
The Guest Cat is an exceptionally moving and beautiful novel about the nature of life and the way it feels to live it. Written by Japanese poet and novelist Takashi Hiraide, the book won Japan’s Kiyama Shohei Literary Award, and was a bestseller in France and America.
An ambitious warlord leaves his nephew for dead and seizes his lands. A stubborn father forces his younger son to surrender his wife to his older brother. A mysterious woman seeks five fathers for her children. A powerful priest meddles in the succession to the Lotus Throne.
These are the threads of an intricate tapestry in which the laws of destiny play out against a backdrop of wild forest, elegant court, and savage battlefield. Set in a mythical medieval Japan inhabited by warriors and assassins, ghosts and guardian spirits, Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn is a brilliantly imagined novel, full of drama and intrigue – and it is just the beginning of an enthralling, epic adventure: The Tale of Shikanoko.
10. Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson
There are two common starting points for travelogues. One is a desire to pursue ancestral roots. The other is a drunken bet. Hokkaido Highway Blues is the latter. After too much saké, Canadian travel writer and English teacher Will Ferguson finds himself following the Cherry Blossom Front, the route Japan’s celebrated pink sakura follows. It announces spring, flowering in a wave from the southern tip Cape Sata, through Kyushu, Honshu and Hokkaido islands, to Northern extremity Cape Soya.
Zen says that, “To travel is better than to arrive”. This is something people Ferguson encounters cannot comprehend. They offer to pay his train fare. People tell him the journey is impossible, since Japanese never pick-up hitchhikers. Naturally, they’re wrong. “When you are a hitchhiker, people spill their lives into your lap,” Ferguson says, “because the hitchhiker is a stranger, a fleeting guest, a temporary confidant”. He meets tens of fascinating characters, from priests to golf enthusiasts. Their stories are used to explore Japanese culture better than a guidebook, from Shinto to sea gods, pachinko to senpai/kohai (teacher/student roles).
Which other titles would you add for Japan? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below, there are 100 books in the TripFiction database that will transport you to this excellent location.
Other posts in our ‘Five great books set in…’ series include:
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For many more books set in JAPAN, search the TripFiction database