Ask a Book Question: #75 (Murakami and Books to Read in Japan)

September 4, 2009 | 3 books mentioned 9 2 min read

Former Millions contributor Emre writes in with this question:

I’m flying to Japan on Saturday and, shamefully, have never read Haruki Murakami. I’ll be visiting Tokyo and other destinations for two weeks, what do you recommend I read that’ll be both a good intro to Murakami and teach me something about japan, too?

coverIf you have your heart set on Murakami, I recommend you start with Norwegian Wood, the bittersweet love story that propelled him to superstardom. It lacks the fantastic elements of much of Murakami’s more popular work, but it contains perhaps the best depiction of modern Japanese life that Murakami has ever written.

To be honest, though, Murakami isn’t a great place to learn about Japan. As much as I like him, he doesn’t have much of interest to say about Japan as a country. His obsession with the West, rather than honing his eye for dissecting his own culture, has led him to cut it out of his stories almost entirely. As a result, Japan never plays a major role in his books. His characters tend to be culturally ambiguous and many of his novels could have just as easily taken place in, I don’t know, Sweden.

coverIf you really want to learn more about what it means to be Japanese, you might consider picking up a copy of Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki. Kokoro is a, perhaps the, great modern Japanese novel (at least most Japanese would tell you that) in much the same way that The Great Gatsby Is a great American novel. Kokoro trades Gatsby’s wit and panache for a solemn melancholy that I, frankly, find off-putting, but it’s unquestionably one of the most “important” Japanese novels, and a great introduction to the soul of modern Japan.

covercoverOn the non-fiction front, I highly recommend Ian Buruma’s Inventing Japan, which provides an excellent, entertaining encapsulation of Japan’s modern history. At a mere 174 pages, you can read it on the plane ride over, and still have time for two terrible movies. For a bleaker take on modern history, you might consider Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons, a dystopic look at Japanese bureaucracy and the country’s appalling environmental legacy. It can be a bit of a downer, but it provides an insightful behind-the-scenes look at what makes the country run.

Have a safe trip!

is a Washington correspondent for the Japanese news service Kyodo News. He writes on US-Japan relations, reporting from the White House and the Pentagon. In his spare time, he works as a translator. He is currently writing a police noir set in Japan. Follow him on Twitter @benjamindooley.


  1. Thanks a lot Ben! Any recommendations on historical fiction? I’m usually a sucker for those. Kokoro sounds intriguing, too.

  2. But can’t Murakami’s obsession with the West be seen as the crux of post-war Japan? The US occupation force-fed consumerism to the Japanese and I have always read Murakami as the standard bearer of that incredibly complex legacy. If the anxiety and conflict present in Yukio Mishima novels wrestle with how to cope with the loss of certain cultural traditions, the way Murakami’s characters embrace Western tastes speaks to how Japan has changed during the intervening years. Yes, Murakami’s characters love American music and films but their crises of self, as I see it, reflect many aspects of contemporary Japan, especially among the young urban set.

    The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima is a wonderful historical fiction based on the true story of a monk who sets fire to a Kyoto temple.

  3. The Housekeeper and the Professor (novel) and The Diving Pool (3 novellas) by Yoko Ogawa. I had to wait months to get the novel from my library despite there being 8 copies and a short book–really special book.

  4. I’m going to have to agree with Buzz; you can learn a lot about Japan from Murakami. I’ve both lived there, and lived with Japanese friends in America and Murakami was a way towards mutual understanding for sure.

    I’d second his recommendation of Mishima, though I’d maybe give a heartier recommendation to The Sound of the Waves

    I’d also recommend (and I’ve mentioned it here before) The Road to Sata by Alan Booth. It’s a travel book by a Brit who lived in Japan for most all of his adult life and he really gets at all different aspects of Japanese culture.

    And why not read the first Nobel prize winner, Kawabata. Snow Country or The Old Capitol is a good place to start with him.

  5. Kawabata is good… but maybe The Master of Go? Semi-sort-of-non-fiction-fiction about a single Go match which took place just before WWII, stressing both the differing styles and the physical and mental vulnerabilities of the players.

    Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, perhaps? The Makioka Sisters is wonderful (and is sort of historical fiction in that it deals with Japan’s changing culture post-westernisation through the differing actions and reactions of the sisters), but you might get a lot from his essay In Praise of Shadows, which is short and deals illuminatingly and concisely with the differences between western and traditional Japanese aesthetics.

    I strongly recommend Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short stories, particularly ‘In A Grove’ and ‘Spinning Gears’.

    If you wanted to look at something older, you could take a crack at The Tale of Genji, the sweeping and psychologically fascinating eleventh-century novel by Murasaki Shikibu. That’s rather a long read, though, so maybe instead try the Penguin selections from the Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, which is a sort of diary, a collection of her funny and insightful remarks on the characters and quirks of the Heian court of which she was part.

  6. I was actually in this exact situation a few months ago–visiting Japan for the first time, never having read any Japanese literature, and polling my friends as to which books I should bring. I decided to read “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” for my first experience with Murakami, because the back cover described it “as an attempt to stuff all of modern Japan into one book,” or something like that. While I agree that for long stretches of the book the characters don’t seem “Japanese” (they could be the alienated inhabitants of any large city), some of the best writing in this novel is an attempt to reckon with Japan’s militaristic legacy and the atrocities of WWII. I recommend it and am looking forward to trying more Murakami soon.

    I was interested in also reading something by a female author, and a friend suggested Banana Yoshimoto–unfortunately, I cannot recommend her. I tried her novella “N.P.” and it was terrible–flat writing in a bad translation.

    And to supplement things with a foreigner’s perspective on some aspects of Japanese culture, I enjoyed “Fear and Trembling” by Amélie Nothomb, a young Belgian woman’s memoir/novella of working at a big Japanese corporation.

    And another friend suggested reading the Pillow Book in conjunction with the “Hagakure” or samurai tales, to get an idea of what life was like for aristocratic men and women in feudal Japan.

  7. Marissa, before you dismiss the Banana altogether pls try KITCHEN. NP I agree is fairly weak. It’s been years at this point, but I remember KITCHEN, particularly the last novella, as being fairly transcendent. I feel a lot of affection for that book.

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