Japanese literature is known for its poignancy, simple yet elegant prose, and interesting concepts.
Many Japanese language novels have been translated into English and have become very popular in many countries across the world.
If you are interested in reading Japanese literature, there are a lot of different books that you can choose from, spanning a range of genres.
This guide is a collection of 25 of the best Japanese books that you should read. There is something for everyone, from romance to historical fiction to fantasy and more.
Each one comes highly recommended by readers and is fantastic exposure to the genre of Japanese literature.
The list includes books by Japanese authors, books originally written in Japanese and translated into English, books set in Japan, and books that explore Japanese culture.
The Best Japanese Books
This is a list of 25 of the best Japanese books that you should read, with pros and cons to help you decide if you will enjoy it.
This novel is set in 1957, after the second world war, and deals with the theme of arranged marriage.
Naoko is supposed to marry her father’s business partner but she has fallen in love with an American sailor.
She is scared to follow her heart and bring shame on her family, but when she learns she is pregnant with the sailor’s child she is disgraced and put in a difficult position.
In the present day, Tori finds a hidden letter that changes her perspective of her dying father.
Her search for answers takes her from America to a remote village in Japan where she will learn the truth about her past.
- This book is inspired by true events and is set in a period of Japanese history that often gets overlooked. It is emotive and has an interesting contrast between the past and the present.
- The book is a little slow to get started and some readers didn’t like the pace. Switching between the present day narrative and the past narrative made it hard to keep up with the storyline at times.
This is the English translation of a very popular Japanese language novel.
At the end of World War Two, three soldiers vow that their souls will return every year to the village of their youth on the anniversary of Jewel Voice Broadcast that announced Japan’s surrender to the allied forces.
Seventy years after they made that vow, three men are fulfilling that vow.
They are an unlikely trio – an American missionary, a gunner’s mate, and a local soldier – but their lives are tied together by one woman, Ah Yan, the swallow.
Each man tells his tale, and the story of her tragic yet vibrant life is revealed.
- This book is moving, with interesting characters and genuine human emotion. Learning about the life of Ah Yan through other people’s experiences of her is an interesting concept.
- Some of the narrative is long-winded and slow at times. It lacked a female perspective to balance out the book.
This is a Japanese novel translated into English. It has a simple premise but explores the deeper emotions and personalities of the characters in a profound way.
Tsukiko is a young woman drinking alone in a sake bar. She bumps into her high school teacher and failing to remember his name calls him ‘Sensei’ as she used to. They talk and drink together, and then part ways.
After this initial meeting, Tsukiko and her ‘Sensei’ continue to spend time together. They drink beer, eat good food, and even take a trip to the mountains.
The connection between them grows stronger, but there is something holding them back – some unexplained difference between them that is keeping them apart.
- The style is simple yet the book is perfectly executed, conveying just enough emotion without over-explaining. It deals with complex feelings through straightforward interactions.
- The age difference between the characters might put some readers off or make it feel unrelatable.
In a Tokyo back alley, there is a 100 year old cafe that offers a unique service to its customers – along with their carefully brewed coffee, they are able to take a trip back in time.
But going into the past is risky business and there are rules that need to be followed – you must sit in the right seat, you cannot leave the cafe, and you must make sure that you return before the coffee gets cold.
This book follows four different characters as they travel back in time for their own reasons- to find answers, to make a connection, to see a lost loved one – but will they get the outcome they were hoping for?
- This is an interesting take on time travel with well developed characters. The premise is simple yet well executed and the plot is intriguing.
- Some of the storylines feel a little conservative in their attitudes and a few of the plot points are very predictable. This is a fun read but is not particularly poignant.
This is a Japanese language novel translated into English. Norwegian Wood is a coming of age story set in 1960s Tokyo, which captures the mood and the essence of the decade perfectly.
The main characters are Toru and Naoko, a young couple whose relationship comes under strain.
Naoko is beautiful with an introspective nature, and Toru is quiet and serious.
They were trauma-bonded by the death of a close friend, but their grief still casts a shadow over their relationship.
Naoko finds herself withdrawing more and more from Toru and into herself, struggling to cope with the pressure of her life.
Meanwhile, Toru is craving connection and is drawn toward an independent woman who teaches him about sexual liberation.
- This is a well-written romance novel with an emphasis on 60’s music and culture. It explores the pressure put on relationships as you grow and develops into different people
- There are some unusual erotic scenes that involve assault and some readers may find them disturbing.
This is a debut novel from Asha Lemmie that is set in post-World War Two Japan.
Nori is an 8 year old living in Kyoto in 1948. She has been abandoned, and remembers the last words her mother spoke to her before she left – ‘do not fight, do not question, do not resist’.
She is confined to the attic of her grandparents’ house – Japanese aristocrats who are ashamed of their daughter’s illegitimate child with an African American soldier.
Nori is an outsider, forced to take chemical baths to lighten her skin and never allowed to live a full and normal life.
This changes when her half-brother inherits the estate and the two of them form a strong bond.
He gives her the opposite advice of their mother and encourages Nori to question the world and her place in it.
- The story spans several decades and is an emotive and heartbreaking book that leaves a lasting impression. It emphasizes the importance of family and deals with challenging issues of racism.
- Some readers found that the ending was disappointing compared to the rest of the book. There was also a very mature theme in the book that is not suitable for all readers.
Shusaku Endo is one of the most popular novelists in Japan and Silence is considered to be his best piece of work.
This classic novel is a New York Times bestseller and has been adapted into a film directed by Martin Scorcese, with an all star cast including Andrew Garfield, and Liam Neeson.
Two Jesuit Portuguese priests in the seventeenth century travel to a country that does not support their religion.
They are captured and treated cruelly, forced to watch their Japanese brothers in Christ lose their lives for their faith. The harrowing events cause them to question their own beliefs.
- This is an incredibly moving and emotive story based on real life events. It is not entirely factually accurate but captures the overall idea of what was happening to Japanese Christians in the Seventeenth century.
- Some readers may find this book too upsetting, especially given that the cruel and violent acts actually happened to real people.
This emotive Japanese novel has been translated into English and has since been nominated for several awards.
A quiet, withdrawn high school student is bullied by his peers. He finds solace in another student who is also being bullied, and their friendship offers them a new perspective on their circumstances.
This is a simple but relatable plot. The author takes the time to explore the reasons for violent behavior and bullying in a profound and sensitive narrative that will leave you feeling enlightened yet filled with sorrow.
- This book is very well written with a brilliant ending. It offers a fresh and much-needed perspective on an issue that has impacted teenagers and young people for a long time.
- Some of the dialogue does not feel very realistic at times as it seems too profound for the age group of the characters.
This debut novel has been nominated for the best science fiction novel and is a very impressive book.
It begins in 2030 when archaeologists unknowingly release a virus that had been preserved in the body of a young girl uncovered in the melting permafrost.
This Arctic Virus spreads around the world, changing life and society as we know it.
People are forced to confront this change and continue to adapt to the plague for centuries into the future.
The story spans centuries and has elements of science fiction and fantasy as well as the morbid elements of terminal illness and disease.
It is insightful and inventive with a diverse cast of interesting characters.
- This is a unique book that is unlike anything you will have ever read before. It has an unusual style that is refreshing to read and the characters are varied and genuine.
- The book is structured as a series of short stories which some readers may struggle to get on with, as it does not flow like a standard novel.
This Japanese novel has been translated into English and has been nominated for various literary awards.
It is set in present day Tokyo and follows the main character, a 36 year old woman called Keiko.
She has been working at the ‘Smile Mart’ store since she was 18 years old, and it is the only place where she has ever felt like she fitted in.
The employee manual gave her most of the information she needed about how she should behave in the store, and she picked up the rest from watching and mimicking her colleagues. Staff come and go, but she remains.
Keiko is happy with her simple life, so when her family and colleagues start suggesting that she should look for a new job and try to find a husband, she takes drastic action to ensure her life remains the same.
- This clever and well-written novel has a fascinating protagonist and explores interesting psychological themes
- Some readers found the dialogue a little repetitive
Nao is a 16 year old living in Tokyo. She is being relentlessly bullied and decides that the only way to make it stop is to end her life.
But there is one thing she needs to do beforehand – she is going to document the life of her great grandmother.
Her grandmother is a Buddhist monk who has lived for over 100 years. Nao keeps a diary, as the only outlet for her struggles.
In another part of the world, Ruth is living on a remote island working as an author.
When a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing some curious items washes up on the beach, Ruth is drawn into the life of a young girl she never knew.
- This is a moving and profound story with interesting characters
- Nao’s narrative is much more compelling than Ruth’s, which gives the book an uneven pace
Kazuo Ishiguro is a Nobel Prize-winning author and this particular novel also won the Booker Prize and has been adapted into an award-winning movie.
It is about Stevens, a butler who has served at Darlington Hall for 30 years.
In the summer of 1956, he took a drive through the country, reflecting on past events.
He is seeking reassurance that serving Lord Darlington was also a service to humanity but finds himself questioning Lord Darlington’s character and his own.
The career of Stevens spans three decades and two world wars. The novel deals with themes such as fascism and lost chances at love.
A simple drive takes on a deeper meaning as it becomes a journey into the past.
- This book is a beautiful reading experience and Ishiguro has a certain way with words that is simply wonderful
- This book relies heavily on the main character’s inner narrative and less on dialogue and interaction
This is not a novel, but a book that delves into Japanese mythology, history, and culture through folklore creatures. However, the narrative is very accessible and it is an entertaining read.
More than fifty creatures are explained, with stunning illustrations and an impressive amount of research.
Readers will learn about the cultural roots of the creatures, their meanings, and also how they have impacted popular culture in Japan and across the world.
They will also learn about the people who hunted these creatures.
This is not just a book about mythical creatures, it is also a study of how Japanese folklore is embedded into the tradition of storytelling and creativity in Japan.
- The book is split into two parts which makes it easy to understand and process
- People looking for a simple book on mythical creatures will not appreciate the social study element
This psychothriller has been translated from Japanese into English. It is about an American tourist who pays for a guided tour of Tokyo’s nightlife – the darker and seedier the better.
As the night progresses, Kenji begins to wonder whether his client has sinister intentions. He gets drawn into a night of evil which changes his life in ways he could never have imagined.
Will Kenhi’s girlfriend, Jun, be able to save him? Or has he gone too far?
- Some readers may find portions of this book too gruesome
Yasunari Kawabata is a Nobel Prize-winning author and this Japanese language novel (translated into English) is considered their best work.
It is a heartbreaking love story set in the beautiful, isolated landscape of Western Japan in deep winter.
Komako is a geisha who gives herself to Shimamura, a wealthy art enthusiast. They meet at a hot spring in the Mountains, surrounded by a blanket of snow. Their romance is passionate yet doomed to fail.
- The words flow effortlessly yet are used sparingly to create an emotive novel
- The characters seemed a little under-developed
This is an English translation of a Japanese novel. It is about a group of 13 year old boys who have lost touch with reality.
They reject what they have been taught about the sentimental and hypocritical adult world and come up with their own way of thinking – objectivity – a cold and callous perspective.
One of the boy’s mothers begins an affair with a sailor, and the boys idolize him, to begin with.
But once they realize that he is emotional, romantic, and soft even, they turn against him. They react to their disappointment with violence with ominous consequences.
- This feels like more than just a novel – it is a psychological study, partially driven by the difficulties faced by the author in their personal life
- There are some disturbing scenes in this book that some readers may find upsetting
The brilliant math professor has been left with only 80 minutes of short-term memory after a traumatic brain injury.
Every morning he meets his housekeeper again for the first time, the woman who was hired to assist with his care.
The housekeeper and her young son are fascinated by the professor and his mind full of numbers and exciting questions about the world, and they form an unlikely yet moving friendship.
As his memory worsens, the professor finds more and more ways to connect the housekeeper to his life using numbers.
- The premise of the book creates opportunities for interesting dialogue and an unusual connection between the characters
- The story is charming but does not leave a lasting impression
Banana Yoshimoto is a very popular author in Japan and Kitchen is her first novel to be translated into English.
Mirage is an orphan who was raised by her grandmother. When her grandmother passed away, Mikage felt totally alone.
She is taken in by her friend, Yoichi, and his mother Eriko. They form a make-shift family, but no family is safe from tragic loss.
This book is sad yet uplifting, with touching relationships between the characters. It shows how complicated families can be, yet how simple it is to love.
- This book takes ordinary scenes and turns them into something profound and almost magical
- Some of the dialogue between the characters feels slow and interrupts the pace of the book
This is a self-help, lifestyle book that teaches you all about Ikigai. Everyone has an ikigai – a reason for living, a purpose – and getting in touch with yours is the key to a long and happy life.
This school of thought comes from a Japanese village that is home to the longest-living people in the world.
If you can find what you love and turn it into a hobby, or better yet a career of sorts, then you will feel more fulfilled.
This is thought to be the reason why many Japanese people don’t retire! There is no word in the Japanese language that means ‘retire’
- This is an interesting book that will change your outlook on life and give you a deeper insight into Japanese culture
- This is not a novel and some readers may not enjoy the non-fiction style
This book is considered to be an international classic as well as one of the most important Japanese novels of the twentieth century.
It takes place in the years immediately before the second world war.
Three sisters struggle with the decline of their family and the gradual progression into modern life.
Taeko is rebellious and promiscuous, bringing scandal to the family name.
She has dreams of studying fashion in France, unlike her sister Yukiko. She is shy and quiet and feels trapped by the expectations of her family.
Tsuruko is the oldest and desperately clings to the honor of the family name despite being aware that their reputation and status are crumbling apart.
Sachiko, the second oldest, is prepared to make many sacrifices to ensure that her sisters have a bright future.
- This is a moving story about the struggles of women and is also a study of modern history and societal changes
- Some readers found that the pace of the book was a little slow
This is an unusual and heartwarming story and is a very popular Japanese-to-English novel.
Rintaro inherits his grandparent’s strange second-hand bookshop, a place of refuge for him when he was younger.
He spent many hours reading the books that were stacked from floor to ceiling.
He is sad at the thought of closing the shop, but then a cat appears before him. A talking cat called Tiger.
Tiger needs Rintaro’s help – there are books that are being mistreated, and the two of them need to rescue those books.
The unlikely pair end up on an adventure to rescue three different books, each one posing more of a challenge than the last.
This magical story is unique and exciting and perfect for book lovers.
- The wise words of Rintaro’s grandfather echo throughout the book giving it a deeper meaning
- Tiger’s character is not very likable
Nana is a stray cat with an interesting kink in his tail. He is rescued by Satoru, who takes Nana on a road trip across Japan in a silver van.
They see beautiful scenery, experience the changing seasons, and meet some of Saturo’s friends along the way.
Yoshimine is an unsentimental farmer who only sees cats as rat catchers. Sugi and Chikako are cat lovers who run a quirky B&B.
Kosuke is a widow mourning the death of his wife, who was very fond of cats. But why is Saturo taking Nana to meet these people?
- This is a beautifully written story with wonderful prose and a heart-breaking twist
- Some of the dialogue seems awkward, possibly due to the translation
In the suburbs of Tokyo, a young mother strangles her husband to death.
She asks her co-workers to help her cover up the crime. The women she works with are facing struggles of their own, all desperate to find a way out of their dead-end lives.
They work together to help the young mother, whilst trying to solve their own problems.
This book is a mix of dark humor and tension. The women are caught in a game of cat and mouse with the detectives investigating the case which builds a lot of suspense.
You find yourself rooting for the criminals, and the book is excellent at exploring the psychology behind violent crime within the context of Japan’s Yakuza.
- The women share a strong bond through their shared experiences and the characters are very well-written
- The second half of the book feels more chaotic and a little rushed compared to the well-structured first half
This is an unusual and mind-blowing book that offers a unique reading experience.
Kafka Tamura is a teenager who runs away from home and Nakata is an aging veteran who has never fully recovered from a brain injury.
Kafka is searching for his lost relatives whilst also trying to avoid the outcome of a disturbing prophecy.
Nakata isn’t really sure what he is doing, but he is drawn to Kafka for reasons he can’t explain and the two of them embark on a mysterious journey together.
There are lots of fantastical and bizarre elements in this book- talking cats, a ghostly pimp, an enchanted forest, ageless soldiers, and animals falling from the sky.
There is also a murder mystery plot intertwined with the story. It sounds ambitious, but the book has a satisfying ending that leaves no question unanswered.
- This award-winning novel follows no rules and is very abstract, which makes it a creative masterpiece and a truly original book.
- Some readers may find this style of writing too unfamiliar and unusual, and difficult to connect with.
How To Choose The Best Japanese Book
If you are struggling to decide which Japanese book to read first, here is some advice that you can follow.
Whilst Japanese literature could be considered a genre, there are lots of different genres that are included in this category – romance, drama, horror, thriller, action, mystery, etc.
You need to choose a book with a genre that you are interested in. It helps if you have read something in that genre before and you know that you will enjoy it.
Remember to think about why you are choosing to read Japanese Literature.
Do you want to experience a Japanese novel that has been translated into English? Are you keen to learn more about Japanese culture and history? Or are you just interested in reading a book that is set in Japan?
This will impact which type of book you choose, and which author’s work you read.
Within a genre, there can be lots of different themes. For example, a romance novel might include the theme of enemies to lovers or second-chance romance.
A mystery novel could have a murder mystery theme or a classic detective theme.
You will find yourself more enticed by certain themes, and you should always choose the one that interests you the most as you are more likely to enjoy the book.
Some Japanese novels can be quite fantastical or magical, even if they are not advertised as such.
Japanese writers have a talent for finding the magic in everyday situations, or for using an unusual concept to present a new perspective.
This makes for excellent literature but can be tricky to pigeonhole the books into one theme or genre.
Another way to decide which book to read is to consider the characters. When you read the synopsis, are there characters that you are intrigued by?
A mysterious character with a dark past, or perhaps a down on their luck protagonist who must defy the odds in order to succeed?
Connecting with a character and finding them relatable can make a big difference to how much you enjoy reading a book.
Some readers prefer a book that is short and snappy, while others like to read something longer and less rushed. Make sure you consider this when you are choosing which book you want to read.
There are many reasons why people want to read Japanese books.
Some readers are fascinated with Japanese culture, others want to gain exposure to books written in different languages and translated into English to see how they are different, and others just enjoy reading a range of different books to get the variety.
Whatever your reasons for wanting to delve into the world of Japanese literature, these books are the perfect starting point.
There are different categories and styles for you to try so you can find out which type of Japanese book suits you best.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some frequently asked questions about Japanese books.
Are English Translations Of Japanese Novels Accurate?
Each language has a unique structure and special cultural phrases, which means there are some elements of a novel that can possibly get lost in translation.
However, a good translator will be able to capture the mood of a novel in the translation.
What Was The First Japanese Novel To Be Translated Into English?
The first novel written in Japanese and translated into English was The Tale Of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, which is also thought to be the oldest Japanese novel, and possibly the oldest novel in the world. It was written in the year 1008.
Is Reading Important In Japanese Culture?
Reading is a big part of Japanese culture and has an important social value. It is seen as a positive element of individual development, but also an opportunity to join a shared consciousness as a nation and to share knowledge and experience.
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