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Books on Japan

[This is my June 2022 project. I will be adding books in groups by category. Just like Sei Shonagon I’m a list maker!]

When I first got interested in Japan there were very few books I could get my hands on. After my first year of studying Japanese, I think I’d read everything on Japan—both fiction and nonfiction—that I could find in the library. That meant I’d read Shogun. And Japanese authors such as Mishima Yukio, Kawabata Yasunari, Natsume Soseki, Tanizaki Junichiro, i.e. the classics. These days newly translated authors are appearing in libraries everywhere. And the so-called gaijin lit genre has also increased for better or for worse. My tastes may not be your tastes. But here are some of the books that have stayed with me over the years. For newly published books on Japan, please visit my book review site and use the tags to navigate to Japan or Japanese-American reads.

10 Books I read in the 1970s

ShogunJames ClavellAn oldie but goody that got many of us interested in Japan. And then it was a movie or a tv special. Just google it.
Beauty and SadnessKawabata YasunoriI loved this book which is set in Kyoto. But it ended so abruptly that I thought maybe someone had torn out the last few pages. Little did I know that I was often going to have that thought when I finished a book by a Japanese author.
The Tokyo-Montana ExpressRichard BrautiganAll the old hippies read Brautigan. And I certainly read him in high school. Looking at the wikipedia entry for him now, I see he had a second marriage to a Japanese woman and he was also in Japan in 1976. Oh lordy. Maybe our paths actually crossed! A lot of nostalgia value here for some of us. It could be this book or any other of his works. Go look for it in a used bookstore…. or at the library
The Temple of the Golden PavilionMishima YukioThis also takes place in Kyoto so of course I wanted to read it. And because it is Mishima I endeavored to read any book of his I could find. Like it or not.
The Book of TofuWilliam Shurtleff & Akiko AoyagiAnd The Book of Miso. I really wanted to learn to like tofu. That didn’t happen until I went to Kyoto and ate good tofu. The tofu back then in America always tasted rancid probably due to preservatives? But this book kind of started a movement… I still have a copy.
The Makioka SistersTanizaki JunichiroI loved this story about a wealthy family in post-war Osaka. It’s very unlike his other work, but yet very representative in writing style.
Almost Transparent BlueMurakami RyuA novel from the other Murakami. I was sucked in by the title and the daring description. Did I understand it? Not too much….
Japanese Culture: A Short HistoryPaul VarleyI wasn’t all that interested in Japanese history. I appreciated that this book was short compared to other monstrous tomes available at the time. (I’m looking at you George Sansom!)
Meeting With JapanFosco MarainiDid I really read it? I’m not sure. I do know I was supposed to read it and had a copy because he was to be a guest lecturer at our university one semester and I was enrolled in his class. But it fell through. And instead we got Faubian Bowers which is a whole other story!
The Anatomy of DependenceDoi TakeoHad to read it. He was speaking at Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas and we did a short road trip to hear him speak. A lucky opportunity! I’ve consulted this book often.

Did Somebody say Meow?

I Am a CatNatsume SōsekiFirst published in 1936, but not the first or last time for cats to tell stories.
The Travelling Cat ChroniclesHiro ArikawaI like cats. I like Japan. It’s charming, sweet, deep but not heavy.
Kawaii Kitties: Learn How to Draw 75 Cats in All Their GloryOlive YongThe cats are adorable and the instructions are very detailed and seem easy to follow. There is also a lot of variety in the cats themselves. Kawaii means cute in Japanese and that is exactly what you get.
The Cat Who Saved BooksSosuke NatsukawaThis book gave me everything I needed in the moment. Cats, books, Japan… three of my favorite things. But wait—there’s more. So MUCH more! Read for the fantastic story or read for the message. Yes, many messages on how to live life, but not the least bit preachy. Is it corny if I say it is Zen? The word Zen comes up precisely zero times, but empathy and compassion are mentioned. Again, not in a preachy way at all. The points of the book are proven by dialogues and puzzles. Is it Good vs. Evil? Again, kind of.
She and Her Cat: StoriesMakoto Shinkai, Naruki Nagakawa, translated by Ginny Tapley TakemoriThis book just hit me in the right spot. The book is about cats and the relationships they have with their people, surrounding neighborhoods and with each other. Each story deftly connects with another and both the people and the cats have voices here. Admittedly I am curious to read the original Japanese and see how the translator interpreted the different voices! There are some cultural elements that may not resonate with readers unfamiliar with Japan. But for me, it was like coming home.
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