Japan Reading List

One of the best parts of giving tours of Japan is the excitement and eagerness our guests have to learn about this unique culture. I am always asked if there are any books I would recommend to gain a deeper insight into the people and their customs. The answer is always YES, and here is my personal Japan reading list.

Japan Reading List

I have read each and every one of the books recommended below. I believe they provide an insight into the country’s culture, through both fiction and non-fiction, allowing you to get a glimpse of what to expect on your journey through The Land of the Rising Sun.


The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (1995)
The story follows four sisters during the period of 1936 to 1941 before World War II. The sisters struggle with the decline of the upper middle class, the prestige of their family name, Japanese rituals, and domestic life. The Japanese version, Sasame-yuki, was first published in 1943
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (1999)
This story follows the life of Sayuri, a geisha in Kyoto, from the age of nine when she is sold to a geisha house in Gion. While reading, keep in mind this a work of fiction perpetuating the stereotype of geisha being prostitutes. Because of cultural misrepresentations, many Japanese people did not appreciate the film of the same title released in 2005.
The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby (2000)
The story takes place in 11th century Japan during the Heian period and follows the life of Murasaki Shikibu, a female poet and author of the world’s first novel The Tale of Genji. The story explores life in ancient Japan and its culture and customs.


Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946)
Originally appearing in The New Yorker in 1946, John Hersey tells the story of six people who lived in Hiroshima at the time of the atomic bomb. In the updated edition, he follows up with their lives 40 years after the event.
A Concise History of Japan by Brett Walker (2015)
Japan has a unique history dating back thousands of years. This textbook-style book starts at the beginning and goes in chronological order leading up to the events that bring us to modern day Japan: imperial court, rise of the samurai, civil wars, encounters with the west.
The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett (2003)
Psychologist Richard Nisbett researches human behavior in Asia and the west, and shows how people in different cultures think and see the world differently.
Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki (2002)
The retired geisha interviewed by Arthur Golden in Memoirs of a Geisha wrote an autobiography showing the real life of a geisha.
Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival by David Pilling (2015)
The Asia editor of the Financial Times, David Pilling, explores Japan’s recovery from crisis, such as the economic bubble and the 2011 earthquake. He writes from experience living in Japan and touches on social, spiritual, financial, and political points of view.
The Lady and the Monk by Pico Iyer (1991)
A travelogue following Pico Iyer’s experiences of living in a monastery in Kyoto, learning about Zen Buddhism, and trying to understand Japanese culture.
Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan by Bruce Feiler (1991)
This book offers an interesting look into Japanese society and education by an American teaching English at a junior high school in rural Japan. The government cultural exchange program started in 1987 and is the same one I participated in after graduating from college.

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