There’s nothing like a good book to truly get to know a city – and with a city as complex and rich in history and culture as Tokyo, there’s a lot to unearth. Tokyo is a book-lover’s mecca: commuters grip paperbacks on trains, the former publishing neighbourhood of Jimbocho is filled with shelves of tomes spilling out onto the streets, and you can even sleep in a library. Here we’ve picked ten books, published between 1908 and 2018, written by domestic and international voices that tell the story of Tokyo through their engaging narratives and characters.
RECOMMENDED: Pick up these books and more at these foreign-language bookstores.
It’s hard to find a character as infuriating and difficult as Naomi. The titular character is the love interest of the protagonist Joji, who marries Naomi as a teenager in the attempt to turn her into a woman. The book was released in the 1920s at the height of the ‘modern girl’, a young Japanese woman who strives for independence by eschewing the mainstream kimono for Western-style clothing and bobbing their hair, similar to American flappers.
Tanizaki criticises the Westernisation of Japan through his depiction of Naomi, with her Eurasian features, saucy demeanor and control over traditional Joji who kowtows to her commands. The ending of the book takes place in the melting pot of Western and Japanese culture in the city of Yokohama, reflecting the people that Naomi and Joji have become.
Literary tip: The majority of the novel takes place in Ginza where Naomi and Joji indulge in yoshoku cuisine (Japanese-western fusion). However, Yokohama is where all the action happens, and you can still see the Western-style architecture that captivates Naomi’s heart.
Shimokitazawa native Banana Yoshimoto has been turning out bildungsromans featuring cerebral female protagonists for decades. ‘Moshi Moshi’, a love letter to Yoshimoto’s hometown, is about Yoshie, a young woman who recently lost her father to suicide.
Yoshie moves from her lush home in Meguro to bohemian Shimokitazawa where she works in a bistro and flirts with a boy who works in an underground live house. Yep, very Shimokita. Right when her life begins to flow smoothly again, her grief-stricken mother moves in with her. While the novel covers volatile issues such as grief and growing up, the writing is quite light, capturing the playful and slightly twee aesthetic of the small town.
Literary tip: There is no shortage of light-filled cafes in Shimokitazawa, where you can sit back and finish this slim novel. Shimokita was also named the number two coolest neighborhood in the world – clearly Banana has great taste.
‘Sputnik Sweetheart’ takes place in the college town of Kichijoji, a town unfortunately overlooked by tourists who often favour bigger cities in Tokyo. The novel is quintessentially Kichijoji; the story revolves around two college students: aspiring novelist Sumire who is fond of wearing oversized clothing (likely purchased at one of Kichijoji’s many vintage shops) and writing in coffee shops, and K, the unnamed narrator in love with Sumire. Sumire falls hard for an elegant older woman named Miu, leaving K to observe their whirlwind romance from a distance. This Murakami work is much like Kichijoji – overlooked by his more famous books.
Literary tip: Sumire, being a cool college hipster, would probably grab drinks with K or Miu in Harmonica Yokocho, an alleyway of tiny bars. It’s also easy to imagine them wandering around Inokashira Park, an area crowded with college students both day and night.
‘My Year of Meats’ interweaves two stories: one of Jane, a Japanese-American filmmaker working on the set-in-the-US Japanese TV show ‘My American Wife!’ which spotlights the lives of American wives and their home cooking, and another of Akiko, the Japanese wife of the volatile CEO of Beef-Ex, the company sponsoring Jane’s TV show.
American and Japanese cultural values intertwine with Jane and Akiko fighting for their independence in the workplace and at home. While Jane reveals the dark side of the American meat industry through Japanese television, Akiko writes letters to Jane detailing her abusive marriage. The story does sound bleak, but there’s actually hope for the characters and their unfortunate situations.
Literary tip: You’ll be craving some vegetarian restaurants after finishing this one.
Mystery books are quite popular in Japan and the more morbid the better. Keigo Higashino is one of the kings of contemporary mystery and his most famous novel, ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’, has been adapted into four different movies.
The case covers the lower-class life of Yasuko, a single mother, and her daughter who reluctantly accept help from Tetsuya, her too-friendly neighbour, after she finds herself in a morbid pickle with her abusive ex-husband. It’s hard to put the book down, the Hitchcockian twists wind through the novel until the climax, which takes place on the Shin-Ohashi Bridge over the Sumida River.
Literary tip: Don’t worry, Sumida isn’t home to creepy math teachers bent on saving their beautiful neighbour; it’s home to the iconic Tokyo Skytree though. Go up to the top or relax in one of the parks nearby.
Japanese convenience stores are nothing like their western counterparts: the food is edible, the candy section is stocked and you can even send packages, pay bills and buy household supplies here. It’s basically a well-oiled machine, similar to Keiko, the protagonist of ‘Convenience Store Woman’.
Keiko is quite the eccentric, and she dedicates her life to stocking onigiri and yelling ‘irasshaimase’ at Smile Mart, her workplace. When she encounters the misogynistic Shiraha, she decides to team up with him and the two become an oddball un-couple.
The oldest book on this list, ‘Sanshiro’ was published in 1908 and covers the titular character’s journey at the University of Tokyo. Originally from Kyushu, Sanshiro feels out of place in his prestigious new life at first, and much like a tourist visiting Tokyo for the first time, is overwhelmed with possibility.
Being out of his hometown and comfort zone, Sanshiro finds both love and a critical perspective towards his country, which is the reason we all go to university, right? Sanshiro and the reader learn together about the Meiji era unease and about living in the big city for the first time.
Literary tip: Sanshiro’s alma mater is open to walk through and even sports a secret Hachiko statue. Be sure to stop by the ‘Sanshiro Pond’, where Sanshiro first laid eyes on his lover.
Yoko Tawada, a Japanese writer who has spent her adult life in Berlin, Germany, writes stories in both languages, giving a critical insider’s perspective on Japan. ‘The Last Children of Tokyo’, or 'The Emissary', published in English in 2018, is a slim novel about a post-disaster, closed-border Japan where the ‘aged-elderly’ (people over 100 years old) thrive and children falter, and the now-private government strictly monitors foreign language and imported goods.
It’s a dystopian alternative of a post-Fukushima nuclear meltdown Japan, a country where residents are wary of their own government and there is a constant underlying unease of another impending disaster – manmade or natural.
Tanizaki gets another shoutout on this list with ‘In Praise of Shadows’, a thin book about the writer’s love of Japanese aesthetics. The chapters are divided into topics such as toilets, light and lacquerware, where Tanizaki expresses his not-so-humble opinions on the beauty of Japanese design and the increasing popularity of Western design influences.
Tanizaki’s works hover between criticism and awe over the Westernisation of Japan, and this book balances the physical conflict between the two different schools of design. You’ll definitely be looking at Japanese architecture, especially the play on light and shadow, differently after reading this one.
Literary tip: If Tanizaki were alive today, he’d approve of some of the best modern architecture in the city, which represent the coexistence of Japanese and Western aesthetics.
‘Granta 127: Japan’ is an anthology of Japanese and international writers that captures the country as a whole. You won’t find any domestic heavy-hitters here (aka someone with the family name Murakami); the Japanese writers are mainly up-and-coming in the English language and some of their first works are translated here.
Sayaka Murata, known for the aforementioned ‘Convenience Store Woman’, contemplates a sexless marriage in ‘A Clean Marriage’, one of her few short stories translated into English. David Mitchell, the author of the hit novel ‘Cloud Atlas’ and a former English teacher in Hiroshima, writes a multiperspective story about a former veteran in ‘Variations on a Theme by Mister Donut’. Best of all, some of the stories can be read online for free here.
Always more to read
Being a literary city that still adores the printed word, Tokyo’s bookish attractions range from book hotels to writers’ bars and private libraries
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