31 Best Books on Japan, Recommended by BIJ Community 

31 Best Books on Japan, Recommended by BIJ Community 

As part of our continuing series where we get insights directly from our readers, we asked Jason Ball's Business in Japan members to recommend a book that deepened their understanding of Japan

Get ready—you'll want to bookmark this list for the best books on Japan, as recommended by Japan's expat and executive community. 

This list covers 5-star Japanese literature, serious examinations of Japan's history, traditional Japanese culture, Japanese language, Japanese folklore, politics, governance, and more! Here are 31 book recommendations to fill out your summer reading list. Enjoy.

Japanese Classical Literature

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, written in the eleventh century is an exquisite portrait of courtly life in medieval Japan and widely celebrated as the world’s first novel. Genji, the Shining Prince, is the son of an emperor. He is a passionate character whose tempestuous nature, family circumstances, love affairs, alliances, and shifting political fortunes form the core of this magnificent epic. (Amazon)

“Genji Monogatari, Kojiki, Nihon Shoki (all in EN translation). Between them they encapsulate a lot of the underlying structures and ethics of modern Japan. Know where you have been to understand where you are going!” 

—Recommended by Mark Berghan, Owner, A2ZTranslate Limited

The Kojiki: An Account of Ancient Matters

The Kojiki: An Account of Ancient Matters is Japan's oldest surviving narrative. The eighth-century Kojiki, chronicles the mythical origins of its islands and their ruling dynasty through a diverse array of genealogies, tales, and songs that have helped to shape the modern nation's views of its ancient past. (Amazon)

—Recommended by Mark Berghan, Owner, A2ZTranslate Limited

The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi

Composed in 1643 by the famed duelist and undefeated samurai Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings analyzes the process of struggle and mastery over conflict that underlies every level of human interaction. For Musashi, the way of the martial arts was a mastery of the mind rather than simply technical prowess—and it is this path to mastery that is the core teaching in The Book of Five Rings. (Amazon)

“Executives in companies are the modern-day samurai.”

—Recommended by David Grieshaber, Ship Lofts | CIO at Gamerz Golf 

The Pleasures of Japanese Literature by Donald Keene

The Pleasures of Japanese Literature by Donald Keene introduces Japanese culture, and discusses the aesthetics, poetry, fiction, and theater of Japan. (Amazon)

—Recommended by Peter Jaeger, Senior Director, Japan at Medley Global Advisors

Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697

From its early stories of gods, monsters, and mischievous mythical creatures to its more grounded recountings of historical events, Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697 is a classic collection of the first literary efforts of the Japanese people is the preeminent source of knowledge about Japanese antiquity. (Amazon)

—Recommended by Mark Berghan, Owner, A2ZTranslate Limited

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Japanese Works of Fiction

Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War by Shiba Ryotaro

An epic portrait of Japan in crisis, Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War by Shiba Ryotaro combines graphic military history and highly readable fiction to depict an aspiring nation modernizing at breakneck speed. Best-selling author Shiba Ryōtarō devoted an entire decade of his life to this extraordinary blockbuster, which features Japan's emerging onto the world stage by the early years of the twentieth century. (Amazon)

“An absolute must-read is this historical novel written by THE historical novelist, Shiba Ryōtarō. The novel follows the upbringing and military career of the two Akiyama brothers who both became officers and key figures in the Japanese military, one in the army, the other in the navy. It tells their personal journey within the context of a Japan that out of fear of becoming colonized by Western powers and thirsting to become respected among them, threw in all the energy and resources they could mobilize to become a modern industrial nation-state within less than one generation.

“I think it explains what makes Japan sometimes appear so contradictory and strange. You see well researched/planned and executed things (how the Japanese navy was) and on the other hand, the illogical prestige-oriented decision-making by a few old men on the top with little knowledge of what is needed and actually works (how the army was). Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

“It's pretty long, but if you read it like a book about Japanese history on decision-making and management cultures like I did, you'll love it.  

“I was pretty lucky in my professional career in Japan when it comes to meeting and being managed by (sometimes very tough) but thoughtful intelligent Japanese managers at the consultancy firm and SoftBank. ALL of them had read it and we used a lot of metaphors and analogies from this book in our conversations.”

—Recommended by Fuminori Gunji, Chief Executive Officer at TokyoMate

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata 

In Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka MurataKeiko has never fit in, neither in her family, nor in school, but when at the age of eighteen she begins working at the Hiiromachi branch of “Smile Mart,” she finds peace and purpose in her life. In the store, unlike anywhere else, she understands the rules of social interaction―many are laid out line by line in the store’s manual―and she does her best to copy the dress, mannerisms, and speech of her colleagues, playing the part of a “normal” person excellently, more or less. (Amazon)

“Perhaps a somewhat unusual book recommendation--but if anyone wants to read something that touches on the societal expectations that Japanese women face, I recommend this one. This is a work of short fiction about a woman who is content to work at a convenience store but must deal with family/friends who feel this isn't enough for her. There's not much going on plot-wise, but it's an excellent satire on the state of Japanese norms/society's ideals for Japanese women.”

—Recommended by Tomoko Matsuoka, Japan-Focused Researcher & Copywriting Specialist

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama was named one of the best books of 2017 by The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Literary Hub. Winner of the Best Japanese Crime Fiction of the Year Award. One of Vulture's 10 Best Thriller Books of 2017. (Amazon)

“A very good crime story and probably the best book to understand how Japanese bureaucracy works (as well as the press).”

—Recommended by Jean-Denis Marx, Baker & McKenzie partner advising foreign companies in Japan

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami is a magnificent coming-of-age story steeped in nostalgia, Norwegian Wood blends the music, the mood, and the ethos that were the sixties with a young man’s hopeless and heroic first love. (Amazon)

“Why Murakami? Because he shows how important tradition is for Japanese … and discover important answers to how cultural changes from the West pushed Japan into a civilization trap. Also because the style of his sentences shows how Japan’s mind extracts the essence from impressions of reality, and those impressions focus on natural phenomenon on the path of searching for harmony and beauty.”

—Recommended by Sławomir Bochuta, teacher, gardener, craftsman 

Advice and Culture Tips on Conducting Business in Japan

Made in Japan by Akio Morita

Sony is one of the most powerful and respected multinational corporations in the world, and Akio Morita is its outspoken chairman. From his global perspective, Morita in Made in Japan provides an informative and highly entertaining look at how Japanese business really works. (Amazon)

“I'm old school… A great, firsthand account of an entrepreneur leading Sony into the US market.”

—Recommended by Steve Spence, Director, Delivering Trade and Investment Services to Global Companies Expanding in the US

The Japanese Negotiator: Subtlety and Strategy Beyond Western Logic by Robert March 

The Japanese Negotiator: Subtlety and Strategy Beyond Western Logic by Robert March 

Negotiating with Japanese businessmen is not just a cup of tea! It is a challenge. Now international consultant Robert M. March provides the winning edge. Includes case studies of actual successful and unsuccessful negotiations in The Japanese Negotiator: Subtlety and Strategy Beyond Western Logic. (Amazon)

—Recommended by Kevin Bowers, Director of Field Service Research at Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA)

Japanese Business Culture and Practices by Isao Takei, Jon P. Alston

Japanese Business Culture and Practices by Isao Takei, Jon P. Alston focuses on the traditional and nontraditional business-related practices, including the internal mechanisms of promotion and decision-making in Japanese corporations. From advice on how to avoid cultural misunderstandings and how to develop trust with Japanese colleagues, readers will gain insights on how to communicate, negotiate, entertain, and socialize with Japanese as well as the minutiae of correct behavior. (Amazon)

—Recommended by Luke Bradshaw, Co-Founder, South Australia Japan Synergy Alliance

Discourse on Japanese Society and Culture

Japan Unmasked: Understanding Japan and Its People by Kiyoshi Matsumoto

Japan Unmasked is a guide to Japan’s geography, history, culture and society – written for a western market by long-term Japanese expat Kiyoshi Matsumoto. The book examines the many diverse yet interrelated themes that make up this unique and ancient culture. It delves into the past and surmises why today’s Japan is not simply a mirror of the west, having managed to fiercely maintain its own peculiar identity in the face of homogenous westernisation. (Amazon)

"Explains often-discussed themes with elegance, historical context, and a great amount of research that helps each topic feel fresh and newly discovered. The book is divided into 4 parts, which cover Japan’s history, traditions, people and society, and nature’s influence on the Japanese psyche."

—Recommended by Tomoko Matsuoka, Japan-Focused Researcher & Copywriting Specialist

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The Japanese Mind by Roger J. Davies, Osamu Ikeno

An easy-to-use introduction to the distinguishing characteristics of Japanese society; an invaluable resource for anyone—business people, travelers, or students—perfect for course adoption, but also for anyone interested in Japanese culture. (Amazon)

—Recommended by Luke Bradshaw, Co-Founder, South Australia Japan Synergy Alliance

Culture Shock! Japan by Rex Shelley, Reiko Makiuchi 

Whether you travel for business, pleasure, or a combination of the two, the ever-popular "Culture Shock!" series belongs in your backpack or briefcase. (Amazon)

“Before I first visited Japan in 1995, I remember Culture Shock Japan was one of the most fun to read and useful guides. I had studied Japan for a few years by that time but still learnt a lot about day-to-day norms and behaviours from the book. I still managed to commit the faux pas of walking on the tatami in slippers in a friends house during my first visit, but luckily didn't have many other serious blunders. Being published in 1992 it may be a little dated but still worth checking out.”

—Recommended by Andrew Shuttleworth, Head of Business Development, APAC, Agorize

Les Japonais by Karyn Nishimura-Poupée 

Au Japon, mégapoles surpeuplées, transports saturés, violences des rapports sociaux côtoient créativité, solidarité nationale, perfectionnisme et politesse. Terre de contrastes, l'Archipel s'enorgueillit de marier technologies de pointe et coutumes ancestrales. (Amazon)

—Recommended by Slimane Zouggari, Senior Project Manager & Agile Coach

Japan Through the Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane

This entertaining and endlessly surprising book takes us on an exploration into every aspect of Japanese society from the most public to the most intimate. A series of meticulous investigations gradually uncover the multi-faceted nature of a country and people who are even more extraordinary than they seem. (Amazon)

—Recommended by Joren van den Eng, Account Manager and Customer Engagement at Konica Minolta Business Solutions Nederland BV

Empire of Signs by Rolland Barthes

With this book, Barthes offers a broad-ranging meditation on the culture, society, art, literature, language, and iconography--in short, both the sign-oriented realities and fantasies--of Japan itself. (Amazon)

—Recommended by Yves-Martin Boisclair, Vice President, Custody & Trading Services Operations Oversight at J.P. Morgan Bank Luxembourg 

Autobiographical Accounts of Life/Travel in Japan

The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth

Traveling only along small back roads, Alan Booth traversed Japan’s entire length on foot, from Soya at the country’s northernmost tip, to Cape Sata in the extreme south, across three islands and some 2,000 miles of rural Japan. The Roads to Sata is his wry, witty, inimitable account of that prodigious trek. (Amazon)

—Recommended by Graeme Lawrence, Japan business specialist, supporting UK & Japanese executives. Interpreter/translator at Honda (F1 Racing), Hitachi & Panasonic

Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan, Donald Keene

Keene traces the movement of his passions with delicacy and subtlety, deftly weaving his love for Japan into a larger narrative about identity and home and the circumstances that led a Westerner to find solace in a country on the opposite side of the world. Chronicles of My Life is not only a fascinating tale of two cultures colliding, but also a thrilling account of the emotions and experiences that connect us all, regardless of our individual origins. (Amazon)

—Recommended by Peter Jaeger, Senior Director, Japan at Medley Global Advisors

Angry White Pyjamas: A Scrawny Oxford Poet Takes Lessons From The Tokyo Riot Police by Robert Twigger

Adrift in Tokyo, translating obscene rap lyrics for giggling Japanese high school girls, "thirtynothing" Robert Twigger comes to a revelation about himself: He has never been fit nor brave. Guided by his roommates, Fat Frank and Chris, he sets out to cleanse his body and mind. Not knowing his fist from his elbow, the author is drawn into the world of Japanese martial arts, joining the Tokyo Riot Police on their yearlong, brutally demanding course of budo training, where any ascetic motivation soon comes up against bloodstained "white pyjamas" and fractured collarbones. (Amazon)

—Recommended by David Armstrong, Founder, LinguaHabit.com, pioneer of the Professional:Professional (Pro2Pro) English language accelerator program

Dave Barry Does Japan by Dave Barry 

Not since George Bush's memorable dinner with the Japanese prime minister has the Land of the Rising Sun seen the likes of a goodwill ambassador like Dave Barry. Join him as he belts out oldies in a karaoke bar, marries a geriatric geisha girl, takes his first bath in public, bows to just about everyone, and explores culture shock in all its numerous humorous forms. (Amazon)

—Recommended by Michael O.B. Krähe, Business Owner at Cyclyng Bike & Café

Max Danger, the Adventures of an Expat in Tokyo by Robert Collins

Follow the adventures of Tokyo’s favorite expatriate Max Danger, as he weaves his way in and out of the intricacies and dilemmas of living in Japan from baffling bilingual breakfast meetings, through the mind-boggling enigmas of doing business in Japan, to the dubious pleasures of late-night hostess clubs. Max Danger seems to exhaust himself just trying to make it through the day. (Amazon)

“When I arrived in Japan 31 years ago, the Max Danger, Adventures of an Expat in Tokyo, and Further Adventures.... by Robert Collins were recommended to me. They are humorous, and may be a little dated now, but put a few things in perspective for me in my early days.”

—Recommended by Stephen Turner, Representative Director & President / 代表取締役 at TS Japan Railway Travel Planning Company Limited / TS日本鉄道旅行企画株式会社

A Look at Japanese Politics and Government 

Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr

A surprising assessment of the failures and successes of modern Japan. (Amazon)

—Recommended by Graeme Lawrence, Japan business specialist, supporting UK & Japanese executives. Interpreter/translator at Honda (F1 Racing), Hitachi & Panasonic

The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation, Karel Van Wolferen 

A full-scale examination of the inner workings of Japan's political and industrial system. (Amazon)

—Recommended by Thomas P. (Tom) Logan, Multilingual; 40+Years Experience With & In Northeast Asia

Precarious Japan by Anne Allison

In an era of irregular labor, nagging recession, nuclear contamination, and a shrinking population, Japan is facing precarious times. How the Japanese experience insecurity in their daily and social lives is the subject of Precarious Japan. (Amazon)

—Recommended by John S. Rajeski, Global Educator & Coach | Former Silicon Valley Start-up Co-Founder & Business Leader: Bridging human connectivity at the intersection of learning, entrepreneurship, and technology

Jews & the Japanese: The Successful Outsiders by Ben-Ami Shillony 

In The Jews and the Japanese, Professor Shillony describes how these two peoples, both rich in cultural heritage and historical experiences, have interacted with the Christian West, their outstanding achievements and immense tragedies, and their attempts to integrate with the West and its repeated rejection of them. (Amazon)

—Recommended by Yael Grafy, COO at Crossroad of Civilizations Museum

Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan by Lafcadio Hearn

In 1889, Westerner Lafcadio Hearn arrived in Japan on a journalistic assignment, and he fell so in love with the nation and its people that he never left. In 1894, just as Japan was truly opening to the West and global interest in Japanese culture was burgeoning, Hearn published this delightful series of essays glorifying what he called the "rare charm of Japanese life." (Amazon)

Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan by Lafcadio Hearn. A tough read at times, but fascinating eyewitness accounts of 19th century Japan. Focusing on some of my personal favourite regions of Japan. That reminds me.... have to visit the former residency of this author... Next trip.”

—Recommended by Gerald Bimann, Day Trading

Japan: A Short History by Mikiso Hane

Balancing economic and political information with new insights into the twin spheres of art and religion, Mikiso Hane offers authoritative coverage of all aspects of Japanese life. (Amazon)

“My understanding of Japan deepened significantly after reading [this book]. I would recommend it to anyone interested in a broad view of Japan's history.”

—Recommended by Isaac Borras Alcaraz, Colocation Engineer at Amazon Web Services (AWS)

Japan and the Shackles of the Past by Murphy, R. Taggart 

Japan is one of the world's wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations, and its rapid ascent to global power status after 1853 remains one of the most remarkable stories in modern world history. Yet it has not been an easy path; military catastrophe, political atrophy, and economic upheavals have made regular appearances from the feudal era to the present. (Amazon)

“The Korean translation version was released in the early of this year. I could learn many things about Japanese culture, history, society, politic, economy, etc., from this book. As a foreigner, I believe that this book is a good introduction to understanding Japan."

—Recommended by Eugene(유진) Kim(김), Carbon Prepreg Marketing Manager, SK Chemicals

A Brief History of Japan by Jonathan Clements

This fascinating history tells the story of the people of Japan, from ancient teenage priest-queens to teeming hordes of salarymen, a nation that once sought to conquer China, yet also shut itself away for two centuries in self-imposed seclusion. (Amazon)

“In my school days I did not like history, but as you get older, I find that history often helps explain today, particularly when you are living in a country where you did not go to school and learn some history. A book I would recommend is A Brief History of Japan by Jonathan Clements.”

—Recommended by Stephen Turner, Representative Director & President / 代表取締役 at TS Japan Railway Travel Planning Company Limited / TS日本鉄道旅行企画株式会社

Frequently asked questions

Read the recommendations for books that will help you understand Japan, compiled by long-time expats in Japan published by MailMate.

What are some top books about Japan according to The Guardian?

"Legends of Tōno" by Kunio Yanagita, "Kokoro" by Natsume Sōseki, and "Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories" by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa are among the top 10 books about Japan.

What are some of the best books on Japanese culture?

"Pure Invention" by Matt Alt, "Lost Japan" by Alex Kerr, and "Fifty Sounds" by Polly Barton are recommended for understanding Japanese culture.

What are some essential books to read before visiting Japan?

"Pure Invention" by Matt Alt, "Fifty Sounds" by Polly Barton, and "Hokkaido Highway Blues" by Will Ferguson are some of the books suggested to read before traveling to Japan.

"The Lotus and the Robot" by Arthur Koestler and "Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War" are among the expert-recommended books about Japan, according to FiveBooks.com.

In closing

Whether you're an executive navigating the complexities of Japanese business culture, a traveler seeking to enrich your journey, or simply a curious reader who loves Japanese authors, these books are your companions, guides, and gateways to Japanese art, pop culture, tea ceremonies, and much more.

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