The best books set in Japan

Explore postwar Nagasaki, go on road trip with a cat, and meet Japanese mythological creatures in these five books that take place in Japan

books set in japan
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There are plenty of ways to discover Japan from the comfort of your own home. You can binge on Netflix shows, see VR cherry blossoms and even learn Japanese for free online. However, we still think the best way to travel Japan without actually visiting is through its fine literature. We've collected stories written by a member of the Japanese diaspora, a young Singaporean who studied abroad at the University of Tokyo, and Japan's answer to Edgar Allen Poe – a broad range of works to represent Japan as a whole. 

RECOMMENDED: The best books about Tokyo

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A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

Nagasaki-born and United Kingdom-raised Nobel Peace Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro rarely writes about his native country but when he does, it’s a treat. His first novel, ‘A Pale View of Hills’ is a great introduction to the themes of memory that recur throughout his works. This is a story of two relationships: one of Etsuko, a young woman living in Nagasaki, her reckless neighbour Sachiko and Sachiko’s disobedient daughter Mariko; and one of an older Etsuko and her relationship with her UK-born daughters as she recalls one fateful postwar summer.

Kappa Quartet by Daryl Qilin Yam

This novel by Singaporean writer Daryl Qilin Yam explores the lives of kappa, frog-like creatures from Japanese mythology. In ‘Kappa Quartet’, Yam imagines kappa living regular human lives. The only difference? They want to eat your soul. Each chapter jumps to a different point of view, whether that's a young Japanese woman working in a Nakameguro café, a woman in love with her best friend’s crush, or even a Singaporean fish monster.

The stories connect in an intricate web of a plot that results in an incredibly satisfying ending. From a ryokan hotel in Yamanashi to a mysterious bookstore in Nakameguro and as far away as the humid cityscape of Singapore, different jazz-loving kappa infiltrate lives for better and for worse in this selection of stories that fit together like a puzzle.

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The Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

It’s no secret that Japan has a love affair with cats. From Natsume Soseki’s ‘I Am a Cat’ to Tanizaki’s ‘A Cat, a Man and Two Women’, felines have long appeared in Japanese literature. Hiro Arikawa’s ‘The Traveling Cat Chronicles’ is a wholesome tale of man and feline. Told from the perspective of Nana the cat, owner Satoru and Nana's road trip through Japan explores different parts of Satoru’s past. The story overall is light and joyful – the strong relationship between Satoru and Nana might remind you of your own childhood pet. It’s a simple tale, but it was a huge bestseller in Japan and was even made into a feature film in 2018.

Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edogawa Ranpo

If you say Edogawa Ranpo fast five times it begins to sound familiar. Ranpo Japanified the name of the author who inspired his unsettling gothic works – Edgar Allen Poe. Similar to Poe, Ranpo’s works are dark but tend to have a humorous edge. ‘Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ is the first collection of Ranpo’s stories translated into English.

‘The Human Chair’ is a now-classic story about a woman who receives a letter from her alleged stalker, while ‘The Red Chamber’ is a horror story within a story starring a social group who meet up and tell scary stories, until they realise they might just be in one. The most disturbing of them all is ‘The Caterpillar’, about a man who loses his arms and legs but not his sex drive. The stories were originally published in the 1920s and '30s but they haven't lost their ability to creep into your nightmares.

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The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories

Edited by Jay Rubin, best known for translating Haruki Murakami, this hefty tome is the perfect introduction to Japanese literature for a modern audience. Organised into themes rather than chronological order, this collection encourages you to familiarise yourself with classic and contemporary Japanese literature.

Up-and-coming writers have stories alongside more established names, such as international favourite Haruki Murakami (who also wrote the book’s introduction), Banana Yoshimoto and Yoko Ogawa. Authors Motoyuki Shibata (a superstar translator who has brought the works of Paul Auster to Japan) and Mieko Kawakami make rare English-language appearances. The last chapter, ‘Disasters, Natural and Man-Made’ features translated stories covering the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

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