With apologies to Ruth Benedict and Edwin O. Reischauer, who wrote “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” and “The Japanese Today” respectively: Although those books appear on every “must read” list out there, they won’t be appearing on mine. They are wonderful case studies about a distant, unknowable or somehow inaccessible Japan, but they don’t speak to me about the place I’ve called home for the better part of 15 years. Here’s a brief list of my favorite books on Japan, from the serious to the silly, that should get you started on your own journey.
Geisha, A Life
by Mineko Iwasaki
Mineko Iwasaki was apparently the real geisha upon whom Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” was based, and in her own memoir, she makes it clear how unhappy she was with that book and its American author. She challenges Golden’s perceptions of geisha and tries to correct them by laying out the story of her life in the profession, painting a compelling portrait of women who are true artists rather than slaves to their male customers. Apparently she had to break a vow of silence to reveal what she did about the world of the geisha, and that certainly makes for good drama. But the fact that she actually has more than one book out tells me that that silence wasn’t so hard to break, after all.
Memoirs of a Geisha
by Arthur Golden
By all means, read Mineko Iwasaki’s memoir on her real life as a geisha–but don’t forget to pick up Arthur Golden’s fictional one as well! Critics can say what they must, but this book about the life of a poor girl in Kyoto and her rise to prominence as a geisha pre and post World War II is excellent. Of course there are embellishments, but then, it is fiction after all. Arthur Golden somehow perfectly captures the voices of his female characters, and the period details shine through. Forget the movie and read this instead.
Confucius Lives Next Door
Written by T.R. Reed during a temporary assignment, this heartwarming tome is helpful if you want some insight into how Japanese society functions day to day and how people think about things. Written with wit and humor but without pretension, this is the book that I would recommend for people who want to “get” Japan and feel fuzzy inside afterward. It’s the not-quite-a-guidebook that my parents read before coming to Japan to visit me the first time, if that helps.
by John Dower
This is the most insightful book I have ever read on the socio-psychological state of the Japanese during and right after World War II–it is also dramatic enough to be a novel! Dower gives detailed analysis on everything from the complex reasons behind Japan’s acceptance of the American presence to an inside look at the creation of the Japanese constitution by the occupying forces. “Embracing Defeat” is more than a historical document–it gives important insight into where the US-Japan relationship is today. History buffs, unite!
Dave Barry Does Japan
by Dave Barry
So we go from the most important book on my list to what is certainly the least important, Dave Barry’s guide to Japan. I’ve read Dave Barry forever and find his stuff irreverent and biting without being mean; this was no exception. Barry himself makes the disclaimer that he was only in Japan for a few weeks and therefore can’t be held accountable for what’s “wrong” in the book, and for that we should all be glad! It’s a humorous account from a foreigner out for a jaunt, someone who doesn’t plan to stay but nonetheless enjoys all the weirdness. No doubt this is funny–I still laugh–but just don’t stop with this book, OK?
Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan
by Alex Kerr
Alex Kerr, a longtime resident of Japan, writes with obvious disappointment about what he sees as Japan’s crumbling state from the economic, infrastructural and artistic perspectives. The whole outlook is pretty doomy-gloomy, but worth reading for the compelling way in which Kerr charts Japanese ruin. Within his narrative there are also bright spots, specifically a love of Japanese traditional arts and culture that he’d like to see propped up and revived for the next generation. I agree that Japan’s creative forces are often tamped down by various pressures, but I’m not sure it’s all as bad as he portends. Read the book and decide for yourself!
Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose
Where Kerr sees a dying, static state, Kenneth Pyle charts the path of a nimble Japan that has managed to morph and change in step with the times. It’s a rousing account of Japan’s continued importance in Asia and the world, backed up by interesting historical evidence and a neat premise. I think his conclusions are a bit too final to be true at this point, but we shall see.
by Haruki Murakami
Because it eschews the magical weirdness of many of his other books, “Norwegian Wood” is probably Murakami at his most accessible. Some might call it light, but I call it his best! This is the story of a young university student in 1960s Japan and the various women that come in and out of his life over the years. “Norwegian Wood” is infused with a deeply repressed sense of regret and longing that is devastating even when nothing is happening in the story. Murakami was a student in the 60s, so how should we take this one? I wouldn’t worry about it too much; just read and enjoy.
Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics
by Frederik L. Schodt and Tezuka Osamu
This book is a visual feast that also gives insight into the history and evolution of manga, or Japanese comics. The late Tezuka Osamu, who many literally credit as “The God of Manga” has some cool passages in here, as well. “The World of Japanese Comics” is an excellent study of manga up through the eighties and a good way to understand it’s roots. People looking for more contemporary accounts need to buy another book…or just start reading some manga! That may be too much to ask, but it was worth a try.