Japanese publisher Kodansha International (www.kodansha-intl.com) has probably published more books on Japan in English -- including Japanese-language textbooks -- than any other company. Available at major bookstores in Japan, they are also available at www.amazon.com.
History -- The definitive work of Japan's history through the ages is Japan: The Story of a Nation (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991) by Edwin O. Reischauer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan. Ivan Morris's The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (Kodansha Globe, 1994) highlights the golden age of the imperial court through diaries and literature of the Heian Period (794-1192), while Everyday Life in Traditional Japan (Tuttle, 2000) details the daily lives of samurai, farmers, craftsmen, merchants, courtiers, and outcasts during the Edo Period.
For personal accounts of Japan in ages past, there's no better anthology than Donald Keene's Travelers of a Hundred Ages: The Japanese as Revealed Through 1,000 Years of Diaries (Holt, 1989). Written by Japanese from all walks of life, the journals provide fascinating insight into the hidden worlds of imperial courts, Buddhist monasteries, isolated country inns, and more. Lafcadio Hearn, a prolific writer about things Japanese, describes life in Japan around the turn of the 20th century in Writings from Japan (Penguin, 1985), while Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman who traveled in Japan in the 1870s, writes a vivid account of rural Japanese life in Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (Cornell University Library, 2009). Autobiography of a Geisha (Columbia University Press, 2003), first published in 1957, is Masuda Sayo's account of being sold to a geisha house as a child, working at a hot-spring spa, and living under harsh conditions during and after World War II.
Society -- Reischauer's The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity (Belknap Press, 1995) offers a unique perspective on the historical events that have shaped and influenced Japanese behavior and the role of the individual in Japanese society. A classic description of Japanese and their culture is found in Ruth Benedict's brilliant The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (Mariner Books, 2006), first published in the 1940s but reprinted many times since. Debunking theories that have long shaped the outside world's views of Japan (many of which are espoused by the books abovex) is Japan: A Reinterpretation (Pantheon, 1997) by former International Herald Tribune Tokyo bureau chief Patrick Smith, who gives a spirited reinterpretation of Japan's economic miracle and demise; and Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Modern Japan (Hill and Wang, 2001), who writes a scathing, controversial indictment of a country he loves but says was ruined by corrupt bureaucracy. Jake Adelstein, a former Tokyo crime reporter, writes a gripping account of his run-in with Japanese mafia and the threat on his life in Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan (Pantheon, 2009).
A more entertaining look at the Japanese psyche is provided by English translations of Japanese articles that never made it into the Japan Times in Tabloid Tokyo: 101 Tales of Sex, Crime, and the Bizarre from Japan's Wild Weeklies (Kodansha, 2005), edited by Mark Schreiber, and its sequel, Tabloid Tokyo 2 (Kodansha, 2007).
Culture & the Arts -- For a cultural overview in one book, see Introduction to Japanese Culture, edited by Daniel Sosnoski (Tuttle, 1996), which covers major festivals, the tea ceremony, flower arranging, kabuki, sumo, Japanese board games, Buddhism, kanji, and much more. Elizabeth Kiritani's Vanishing Japan: Traditions, Crafts & Culture (Tuttle, 1995) covers a wide spectrum of traditional Japanese crafts and professions that were once a part of daily life, from potato vendors, shoe shiners, and tatami makers to Japanese umbrellas and handmade paper, many of which are fast disappearing in today's Japan.
The Japan Travel Bureau puts out nifty pocket-size illustrated booklets on things Japanese, including A Look into Japan, Living Japanese Style, Eating in Japan, Festivals of Japan, and Japanese Family & Culture, which covers everything from marriage in Japan to problems with mothers-in-law and explanations of why Dad gets home so late. My favorite is Salaryman in Japan (JTB, 1987), which describes the private and working lives of Japan's army of white-collar workers who receive set salaries.
And while some might argue it's not art, there's no denying the power manga (Japanese comics) has over Japanese readers. The best primers on manga history and its various genres are Paul Gravett's Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics (Collins Design, 2004) and, though dated, Frederik L. Schodt and Tezuka Osamu's Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics (Kodansha, 1988), with a follow-up provided in Schodt's Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga (Stone Bridge Press, 1996). Likewise, travelers new to Japanese animation should check out Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle by Susan J. Napier (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
Contemporary Chronicles -- For contemporary experiences of foreigners in Japan, there's the inimitable Dave Barry, who describes his whirlwind trip to the Land of the Rising Sun in the comical Dave Barry Does Japan (Random House, 1992) and solves such puzzling mysteries as why Japanese cars sell successfully (they're made of steel!). A delightful account of Japanese and their customs is given by the irrepressible George Mikes in The Land of the Rising Yen (Penguin, 1973). Traveler's Tales Guides: Japan (Traveler's Tales, 1999) relates the firsthand experiences of Dave Barry, Pico Iyer, and other writers who tackle such issues as sand bathing and Washlet toilets. A book seemingly from another era is Geisha (Vintage, 2000) by Liza C. Dalby, which describes her year living as a geisha in Kyoto as part of a research project. The Japan Journals: 1947-2004 (Stone Bridge Press, 2004) by film scholar Donald Richie provides personal insight to Japan's transformation from a postwar nation to a cultural and economic powerhouse.
Fiction -- Whenever I travel in Japan, I especially enjoy reading fictional accounts of the country; they help put me in tune with my surroundings and increase my awareness and perception. The world's first major novel was written by a Japanese woman, Murasaki Shikibu, whose classic, The Tale of Genji (Knopf, 1978), dating from the 11th century, describes the aristocratic life of Prince Genji.
Tokyo bookstores have entire sections dedicated to English-language translations of Japan's best-known modern and contemporary authors, including Mishima Yukio, Soseki Natsume, Abe Kobo, Tanizaki Junichiro, and Nobel Prize winners Kawabata Yasunari and Oe Kenzaburo. An overview of Japanese classical literature from the earliest times to the mid-19th century is provided in Anthology of Japanese Literature (Grove Press, 1988), edited by Donald Keene. Likewise, The Showa Anthology: Modern Japanese Short Stories (Kodansha, 1992), edited by Van C. Gessel and Tomone Matsumoto, covers works by Abe Kobe, Mishima Yukio, Kawabata Yasunari, Oe Kenzaburo, and others written between 1929 and 1984, while Modern Japanese Stories: An Anthology (Tuttle, 1962), edited by Ivan Morris, introduces short stories by some of Japan's top modern writers, including Mori Ogai, Tanizaki Junichiro, Kawabata Yasunari, and Mishima Yukio.
For novels, you might read Mishima's The Sea of Fertility (Knopf), a collection of four separate works, the last of which, The Decay of the Angel, was delivered to his publisher on the day of his suicide; or The Sound of Waves (Knopf, 1956), about young love in a Japanese fishing village. Other famous works by Japanese authors include Soseki Natsume's first novel, I am a Cat (Tuttle, 1972), which describes the foibles of upper-middle-class Japanese during the Meiji Era through the eyes of a cat; and his later novel, Kokoro (Regnery Gateway Co., 1985), as well as Kawabata Yasunari's Snow Country (Knopf, 1956), translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. Although not well known in the West, Enchi Fumiko wrote an absorbing novel about women in an upper-class, late-19th-century family in The Waiting Years (Kodansha, 2002), first published in 1957. Tanizaki Junichiro's Makioka Sisters (Vintage, 1995) is an epic tale of four Japanese sisters during the turbulent 1940s and 1950s.
Oe Kenzaburo gained international recognition when he became the second Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994. One of his best-known novels is Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (Grove Press, 1996), a disturbing tale of a group of reform-school boys in the waning days of World War II. A Personal Matter (Grove Press, 1968) is about a man in search of himself after the birth of a handicapped son. Hiroshima Notes (Grove/Atlantic, 1996), featuring personal accounts of atomic bomb survivors, is a moving commentary on the meaning of the Hiroshima bombing.
Favorite writers of Japan's baby-boom generation include Murakami Ryu, who burst onto the literary scene with Almost Transparent Blue (Kodansha, 1977), and later captured the undercurrent of decadent urban life in his best-selling Coin Locker Babies (Kodansha, 1995). He wrote a shocking exposé of Tokyo's sex industry, In the Miso Soup (Kodansha, 2003). Murakami Haruki's writings include Dance Dance Dance (Kodansha, 1994); Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (Vintage, 1993); The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Knopf, 1997); South of the Border, West of the Sun (Knopf, 1999); and Norwegian Wood (Vintage, 2000), a coming-of-age story set during the 1969 student movement in Japan. His After the Quake: Stories (Knopf, 2002) centers on fictional characters in the months after the 1995 Kobe earthquake.
For works of fiction about Japan by Western writers, most Westerners are familiar with James Clavell's Shogun (Dell, 1975), a fictional account based on the lives of Englishman William Adams and military leader Tokugawa Ieyasu around 1600. The best-selling Memoirs of a Geisha (Knopf, 1997), by Arthur Golden and also a movie, is the fictional autobiography of a fisherman's daughter sold to a geisha house, later becoming one of Kyoto's most celebrated geisha of the 1930s.
For fictional yet personal contemporary accounts of what it's like for Westerners living in Japan, entertaining novels include Ransom (Vintage, 1985) by Jay McInerney and Pictures from the Water Trade (Harper & Row, 1986) by John D. Morley. Pico Iyer taps into the mysterious juxtaposition of the old Japan vs. the new in The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto (Knopf, 1991). Audrey Hepburn's Neck (Simon & Schuster, 1996) is Alan Brown's poignant portrait of Japan's mishmash of Western and Japanese culture, as seen through the eyes of a confused young Japanese comic illustrator. Mystery fans should read Sujata Massey's 10 novels following the adventures of Japanese-American Rei Shimura; her Girl in a Box (HarperCollins, 2006), follows Rei's cross-cultural escapades as she works undercover in a Japanese department store.
The classic samurai film is probably Kurosawa Akira's The Seven Samurai (1954), remade into the western The Magnificent Seven. Other films by what some consider to be Japan's greatest filmmaker include Rashomon (1951), about a murder and a rape and that raises as many questions as it answers about human nature; Kagemusha (1980), about warlords battling for control at the end of feudal Japan; and Ran (1985), an epic drama set in 16th-century Japan and based on Shakespeare's King Lear. For a look at Japan's mountain people in the 1880s, nothing can beat Kinoshita Keisuke's Ballad of Narayama (1958), with its unsentimental portrait of an elderly woman who goes off into the snowy countryside to die, as was the custom of her people.
Director Oshima Nagisa created a stir in the film world with In the Realm of the Senses (1976), a story of obsessive love so graphic and erotic it remains censored in Japan. Juzo Itami, a famous Japanese director who purportedly leapt to his death in Tokyo in 1997 (the circumstances are mysterious), is remembered for his humorous satires on Japanese life, including Tampopo (1985), about sex and food and a Japanese woman who achieves success with a noodle shop; The Funeral (1984), which takes a comic look at death in Japan, including the surviving family's helplessness when it comes to arranging the complex rituals of the Buddhist ceremony; and A Taxing Woman (1987), about a female tax auditor.
Love and Pop (1998), by director Anno Hideaki, best known for anime films, is a low-budget film based on a novel by Murakami Ryu about "compensated dating," in which teenage girls are paid to go out with older businessmen. Another film dealing with this phenomenon rarely covered in the Western press is Harada Masato's Bounce Ko Gals (1998), which presents a shocking but heartfelt story of sexual exploitation and loss of innocence.
A commentary on Japan's economic woes on a personal level is Tokyo Sonata (2008), directed Kurosawa Kiyoshi, about a father who loses his job but is too ashamed to tell his family and thus pretends he's going to work every day. Departures (2008) is Takita Yojiro's moving Academy Award-winning film (for best foreign film) about a musician who takes a job preparing corpses and eventually comes to see it as a deeply rewarding profession.
Probably the most internationally well-known film shot in Tokyo in recent years is Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003), in which two lost characters take solace in each other's company as they drift through an incomprehensible -- and at times hilarious -- Tokyo, while The Harimaya Bridge (2009), by Aaron Woolfolk, is a moving story about a man whose hatred for Japanese (his father died in a Japanese POW camp) slowly dissolves when he travels to Kochi to pick up his dead son's belongings.
One of Japan's most famous animated films is Miyazaki Hayao's Spirited Away (2001), about a young girl who must call upon her inner strength to save herself and her family.
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