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?
If 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.
If 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.
On 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!