Reading books from other countries is a wonderful way to transport yourself to international places while you wait for your actual trip to happen. These Japanese books will transport you straight to Japan. They were all originally published in Japanese by Japanese authors for an authentic glimpse at Japanese life, society, and characters.
As you make your way through this list of Japanese books, you’ll learn about Japanese cultural norms and quirks, and read thrilling stories that captivated millions of Japanese (and now international) readers.
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Japanese Books by Japanese authors - Skip to Section
Japanese Books about Contemporary Japanese Society
1. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
This book is about a woman, Keiko, who feels like a social outcast in Japan compared to her cookie-cuter friends and sister. When she walks into a Japanese convenience store she feels re-born and like she’s finally found a purpose in life.
Her new job as a convenience store worker engulfs her entire identity. When her sister presses societal expectations and ideals around marriage onto Keiko, she finds herself a deadbeat boyfriend, another social outcast. This starts a downward spiral for Keiko, away from her version of the ideal life that she had already discovered.
2. Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
This gentle novel centers around an unlikely friendship that forms between a 38-year-old woman and her old high school teacher who she bumps in to at a bar. They meet frequently at the same bar near Tokyo station, and their relationship deepens about as slow as the seasons change in the city.
This easygoing narrative showcases the development of an old-fashioned Japanese relationship. Strange Weather in Tokyo is a great book to read before going to bed, because it’s sure to relax you.
3. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Kitchen contains two novellas, both centered around loss and love. In the main novella, Kitchen, a student Mikage has just lost her grandmother, the only parent figure in her life. She finds solace and comfort in the kitchen of a family friend and rekindles her love of food and cooking.
The second novella, Moonlight Shadow, is about a woman who’s boyfriend just passed away in a tragic accident. She’s made aware of a potential opportunity to meet him again at the edge of two worlds.
4. Breasts & Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
The novel Breasts and Eggs provides an intimate look into the lives of women in Japan, and how Japanese society treats (and mistreats) the women who want to stray from the status quo.
From negative body images, to mother and daughter relationships, to decisions about having children and getting married, women everywhere will be able to relate to these universal female struggles. Some Japanese male readers have labeled this novel as “unpleasant”, but that may be because it boldly explores topics such as sperm donation, menopause, and menstruation.
Quirky Japanese Books by Japanese Authors
5. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
No list of quirky Japanese books is complete without Haruki Murakami, arguably the most famous Japanese author of all time. His books will transport you to Japan, but it might be Japan in a parallel universe.
1Q84 takes place in Tokyo in 1984, but the main character Aomame starts to notice dystopian differences to the Tokyo she’s witnessing and experiencing. Her life starts to intertwine with Tengo, a male author, who may or may not be in the same dimension as Aomame.
6. The Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa
The narration of a stray cat, Nana, is intertwined with the stories of the humans he meets in this charming novel.
Nana is an intelligent and sassy cat, who cares about his human, Satoru, although he’d be reluctant to admit it. Satoru and Nana travel in a van across Japan, meeting and reminiscing with Satoru’s old friends, while making many new memories along the way.
The Traveling Cat Chronicles reminds you to appreciate the little things in life, because one day they’ll be the big things.
7. Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
This quirky Japanese novel Before The Coffee Gets Cold takes place in a dark basement cafe in Japan, which also serves as a portal to time travel. Like the rest of Japanese society, there are some rules attached to time-travel. The most important rule is that you need to return to present day before your coffee gets cold.
The novel consists of four short stories where a diverse set of characters want to time travel for personal reasons. By the end of the book you’ll be asking yourself what you might want to travel back in time for too. Tales from the Cafe, also translated to English, is the second volume of the series.
8. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
During lockdowns I read a number of different Haruki Murakami books, and A Wild Sheep Chase was one of my favorites. The story mostly takes place in Hokkaido, when the main character is tasked with finding a mysterious sheep with a peculiar birthmark.
He’s given minimal clues as to where to go, but encounters many fantastic illusions and bizarre characters along the way, typical of Murakami novels.
Japanese Thriller and Mystery Books
9. Out by Natsuo Kirino
Just a few decades ago, female Japanese authors were boxed into writing one type of genre only: romance novels. Natsuo Kirino is one of the first female Japanese authors to break the mold in a big way. Her crime thriller novel Out is has gore, suspense, and even *gasp* a wife who kills an abusive husband.
This novel follows four Japanese housewives, all struggling in their personal lives while working the night shift at a Japanese bento-making factory. When an accidental murder implicates all four of them, their lives start to spiral in unimaginable ways.
Grotesque is another great Natuso Kirino novel that will have you breaking out in a cold sweat.
10. Puppet Master series by Miyuki Miyabe
Miyuki Miyabe is a famous Japanese author known for her crime fiction books. The Puppet Master series, which consists of five volumes, follows the story of a brutal serial killer who taunts and escapes the police over and over.
If you like stories like the Zodiac, the serial killer who heckled the San Francisco police in the 1960’s, you’ll enjoy Puppet Master as well. In this fictional series, the novel unfolds from the perspective of the killer, the police and detectives, and the family members of those who were murdered.
11. Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada
This locked-door murder mystery is every armchair detective’s dream. A demented painter is found murdered in his locked art studio, and the bodies of his female relatives are found one by one all over Japan.
The author discloses at the beginning of his book that readers will be given all the clues needed to solve the Tokyo Zodiac murder mystery on their own.
I didn’t manage to solve it – will you?
12. Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
This book is one of Keigo Higashino’s most popular thriller novels, for good reason. An accidental murder and subsequent cover-up pits two brilliant minds against each other in the Devotion of Suspect X.
A reclusive but quick thinking math teacher tries to stay one step ahead of the famous Detective Galileo throughout the novel. The reader will find themselves rooting for both sides, as the line between good and evil is blurred.
13. Confessions by Kanae Minato
In Confessions, elementary school teacher Yuko Moriguchi’s world is shattered when her young daughter is found dead at her school. The death was no accident however. The day Yuko resigns from her teaching position, she makes an alarming confession outlining her revenge on the students who were involved in her daughter’s death.
The novel follows Yuko and the students who were the subject of her revenge. As the story continues, even more alarming confessions will be made.
14. Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuki
Fans of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel And Then There Were None will rejoice at The Decagon House Murders, the modern Japanese answer to it.
Students of a university detective club, Agatha Christie fans themselves, travel to a remote island where, you guessed it, one by one they are murdered. Can the brilliant minds of mystery-loving university students solve the case before they’re killed themselves?
Japanese Books about Historical Japan
15. Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
Transport yourself to a hot springs town in one of the snowiest parts of Japan, in Snow Country. In these rural country towns, second-class geishas entertain ski lodge guests.
This story takes place in 1930’s Japan, where a down-on-her-luck geisha and a businessman from Tokyo fall in love with one another (never mind his wife and kids back in Tokyo). The businessman, Shimamura, comes to visit the onsen lodge multiple times per year, and their forbidden romance unfolds.
The desolate setting in the remote, snow-covered town is a perfect backdrop for this story of hopeless love.
16. The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikibu
The Tale of Genji is thought to be the first Japanese novel ever written, back in the 11th century. The story centers around Genji, the son of an emperor, and his many romances and affairs.
The book depicts the lifestyles, hierarchies, and societal customs of Japanese aristocrats at that time, and takes place in what is present-day Kyoto.
17. Geisha: A Life by Mineko Iwasaki
Geisha: A Life is the true story of the life of Mineko Iwasaki, one of the most famous Kyoto geishas of all time. Her experiences as a geisha were first told in the novel Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, but unhappy with the many inaccuracies and how she portrayed, Mineko wrote her own version of the story.
She tells her life story from beginning training as a geisha, all the way to her retirement after World War II at 29 to get married. She also describes the different societal and political pressures around geisha culture in Kyoto.
Japanese Books to Transport You to Japan - Honorable Mentions
I promised at the beginning of this post that this list would encompass only Japanese books originally published in Japanese. However, I wanted to include these honorable mentions of wonderful books published in English, but that still can transport you to Japan.
18. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro is a British author most famous for his Nobel Prize-winning novel Never Let Me Go. His historical fiction novel An Artist of the Floating World is based in his native Japan, and centers around an elderly painter. The painter played an esteemed role during World War II when he pained propaganda posters for the Japanese Imperial Army. After Japan’s surrender, he struggles when hearing of others like him atone for their war-time sins, and he sees the younger generation embrace more Western ways of life brought to Japan by the Americans.
The novel explores the changing landscape of post-war Japan, and how its citizens changed, or didn’t change, along with rapid globalization in Japan.
19. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes
The story of Sadako, a 12-year-old girl affected by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, might be one of the most widely known Japanese stories outside of the country. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes is a children’s historical novel written by Canadian Eleanor Coerr, based on the true story of Sadako Sasaki who developed leukemia from radiation exposure from the Hiroshima atom bomb.
In Japanese folklore, someone who folds 1000 paper cranes is granted one wish, and of course Sadako’s was the most important wish of all – to live. At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, a statue and peace bell have been built in her honor, and thousand-paper-crane mobiles from around the world are hung here as a powerful reminder to people of all ages of the cost of war on innocent lives.
20. Hokkaido Highway Blues
This novel by Canadian man Will Ferguson showcases his travels across Japan, when he hitchhiked from the southern tip to the northern tip in time with the changing cherry blossoms. During his pilgrimage he meets a wide variety of characters in rural Japanese settings. They live up to the Japanese term omotenashi, which means to provide wholehearted hospitality to guests, by going way out of their way on multiple occasions to show him local points of interest.