“As in China, the Japanese literati were an unstable combination of two opposites – Confucian scholar and free-minded Taoist – so they tended to lean to one side or the other. Beian and Bosai represent the two poles. Beian was a strict moralist who refused to teach dubious people like geisha or Kabuki actors, and as the result of his high standards of conduct attracted thousands of disciples, including many feudal lords. He was a great art collector and scholar, and wrote a book of calligraphy quotations that is still a standard text today. He wrote a crisp, classic style of calligraphy which he learned from a Chinese merchant in Nagasaki. Bosai, sometimes called ‘the literati of the downtown’, was constantly drunk, and his calligraphy was completely unreadable. He loved to give parties, to which geisha and Kabuki actors came in great numbers. Bosai habitually walked around his home naked, even when guests were present…” Alex Kerr

This month I read exclusively books about Japan or by Japanese authors*. I found and purchased more than I could hope to finish but long train trips and travel always give one more time to read than usual. There’s an overwhelming number of books that’d I’d like to read, especially translations of the very earliest Japanese texts and 20th century literature but also non fiction books about walking ancient trails. There are many new literary paths to explore.


My reading this month covered a period from the 14th to the 21st century. I placed the date the book was originally published after the title, even though, in some cases, the English translation came long after.

Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction (2014) edited by Jim Hinks, Masashi Matsuie & Michael Emmerich includes some interesting contemporary short stories but the link to Tokyo is often tenuous. Very few of the ten stories are genuinely satisfying but my favourite is definitely the opening one by Hideo Furukawa, Model T Frankenstein and Banana Yoshimoto’s Mummy, which is also the weirdest, most disturbing. Furukawa deftly explores the nature of identity in Japan with a really clever story that was more entertaining and thought-provoking than any other in the collection. Miss 12 was agitating to read this collection and I let her read this opening story which she loved. That was that though. Many of the others are too challenging and sexually charged for a 12 year old.

Kitchen (1988) by Banana Yoshimoto was recommended by Deb Moore before I left the country and I could not find it at to read before flying. I found it in Sapporo though and read it in a sitting. It is a real reader’s read and Mikage Sakurai, the young female protagonist, joins the pantheon of memorable characters in literature as her voice is so clear and authentic. Mikage loves kitchens and one notes in the preface that the author thanks her former Boss, when she was a waitress trying to finish her first novel, for letting her write when she should have been in the kitchen working. This novel explores love and loss and you will find yourself thinking about it long after the book has been closed. Highly recommended and I suspect many teenagers would really enjoy it.

The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine (1971) by Nosaka Akiyuki is a collection of short stories linked by the date Japan surrended. The 15th August, 1945 was the also the day the Japanese people first heard their emperor on the radio. Now it is the date for the annual National Memorial Service for War Dead.

Peace came to the town and the streets were again lit brightly but, lost in his grief, the boy hardly noticed.

As you would expect, these are sad and affecting stories about the devastation of WWII for the Japanese people, especially children. The author wrote Grave of the Fireflies which was adapted to be one of the most profound anti-war films ever made. He experienced the end of the war and lost his sister to starvation. I have never been able to track down the English translation but would value one highly. Only watch the film when you are feeling strong; it is quite devastating.

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Silence (1966) by Shūsaku Endō is the story of a Jesuit missionary sent to 17th century Japan and is widely considered to be a masterpiece of 20th century literature. I had high hopes that it would be a satisfying read and finished it in one sitting on a long train journey. The story of the author’s own personal challenges and loss of faith, along with Martin Scorsese’s introduction turned out to be more interesting than the novel which I found predictable although beautifully rendered, especially the setting. It is a good book but the philosophical speculations are not genuinely engaging or thought-provoking. I suspect that the inner turmoil of losing God was just not something I could truly relate to and the writing was not successfully in drawing me into Father Rodrigues’ world. I suspect that a non fiction account of the historical figure the story was based on may have interested me more. Father Ferreira was by far the most interesting character but was not on stage for long enough for my liking.

I am certain the coming film will be visually spectacular. As I was reading the novel I did wonder what Scorsese would do with particular episodes. His adaptation will be released later this year, probably at the Cannes Film Festival in May. The cast includes: Liam Neeson as Father Ferreira; Andrew Garfield as Father Rodrigues; Adam Driver as Father Francisco Garrpe; and, Ken Watanabe as Kichijiro. Here is an article about the coming production and if you are really keen, Approaching Silence: New Perspectives on Shusaku Endo’s Classic Novel.

The Secret of the Blue Glass (1959) by Tomiko Inui is an anti-war book written for children that will likely appeal more to adults. I loved it from the opening pages which played homage to Wind in the Willows and The Little Prince and placed itself in a similar magical realm with the following passages:

Everyone has their own special place, a place somewhere on Earth that is theirs and theirs alone—a magical place wherein dwell those important to them, those they love the most. One such special place was a small valley amidst the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, a magical setting out of bounds to anyone other than the person who created it, a little prince from an asteroid, a rose and a fox.

Another special place was the delightful riverbank shimmering with the silvery undersides of willow leaves where, far from the dusty world of humans, a small water rat had made his spotless home and a faddish toad had his grand hall—and where, one summer’s night just before dawn, the water rat and his friend the mole heard the clear strains of a piper, and found themselves drawn along the river by the beauty of the music ultimately to encounter the luminous figure of Pan in the hush of daybreak.

Generations of the Moriyama children have had the duty of looking after a tiny family who live in a cardboard box in their library. This duty, until war arrives overhead in Tokyo, mostly entails providing fresh milk, served in a blue goblet. This Tom Thumb sized family are English in origin and arrived with Miss MacLachlan:

“You know, Miss MacLachlan decided to come to Japan because she had heard it was a small, peaceful country where the ‘pure heart’ that Westerners had forgotten still existed. That was in about the twentieth year of Meiji, around 1888. She left her native England to come all the way to our country with the intention of dedicating her life to being an educator here. But instead of this ‘pure heart’, what she found in Japan was an intense, almost insane drive to catch up with Western civilization. During her twenty years here, the Japan she had sought gradually disappeared. She couldn’t bear the fact that the poor, who were pure of heart, were oppressed by the military, government officials and the rich. She wrote about this for a magazine, and as a result she was forced to leave the country.

Thematically, the novel is an allegory that explores liberal beliefs and patriotism. Although the historical context is mid-20th century Japan, this tension translates to our contemporary or any era. It is a wonderful story and deeply engaging. It would be interesting to see how teenage readers respond to the translation.

Kappa (1927) is a very interesting satire written by Ryunosuke AkutagawaI loved it from the opening lines, especially the authorial cheekiness and descriptions of the Kappa, mythological creatures from Japanese folklore. The author, may have been a little mad but I will let you explore his biography. Highly recommended.

Before I go any further with my story, I think I ought to give you a brief description of the Kappa. The Kappa is a creature about whose existence there is still considerable dispute. But surely there can no longer be the slightest room for such doubt now that I have personally lived among them.

I am led to believe that the 1949 edition has illustrations and I am tempted to buy it.



Kokoro (1914) Natsume Sōseki was first published in serial form in a Japanese newspaper and explores isolation and loneliness. The narrator is a university student who is fascinated by an older man who he calls “Sensei” (which means “teacher” in Japanese). Sensei is bit of an enigma and misanthrope. Symbolically, his failure to receive his inheritance seems to relate to the most popular theme in Japanese literature, tradition and modernisation. It is absolutely excellent novel and reminds me a little of one of my favourite novelists, at least from my younger years,  Herman Hesse, who is more or less a contemporary of Sōseki (although he lived much longer) and certainly explore similar themes. Highly recommended.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North (1689) by Matsuo Bashō I have read before but this time had the hedonistic experience of soaking in a private onsen hot spring while listening to the audiobook. Which is an absolutely perfect way to go on his epic walk through Edo Japan in the late 17th century. While listening I started to think about Thoreau’s Walden. The American transcendentalist must have read Bashō. I have ordered a secondhand book, Morning Mist: Thoreau and Basho Through the Seasons Through the Seasons by Mary Kullberg which may shed some light on how much Thoreau new about this Japanese text.

Non fiction

Lost Japan by Alex Kerr is a great read and is highly recommended if you are travelling to Japan. Make sure you get the updated, most recent edition as it was originally published in the early 90s in Japanese and the author had the challenge of translating his own writing. Kerr is a Japanophile but also highly critical of aspects of Japanese approach to life and their culture. I highlighted dozens of quotable quotes while reading the book. He is very blunt and has many contentious opinions, most which I found sensible. Here’s a comment about education to whet your appetite:

It has often been pointed out that the Japanese educational system aims to produce a high average level of achievement for all, rather than excellence for a few. Students in school are not encouraged to stand out or ask questions, with the result that the Japanese become conditioned to a life of the average. Being average and boring here is the very essence of society, the factor which keeps the wheels of all those social systems turning so smoothly. It need hardly be said that this is one of the major drawbacks of Japanese life. However, in watching the pottery class at Oomoto, the weak points of the American educational system became evident as well. Americans are taught from childhood to show creativity. If you do not ‘become a unique person’, then you are led to believe you have something wrong with you. Such thinking becomes a stumbling block: for people brought up in that atmosphere, creating a simple tea bowl is a great hardship. This is the ‘poison’ to which David was referring. I sometimes think that the requirement to ‘be interesting’ inculcated by American education might be a very cruel thing. Since most of us lead commonplace lives, it is a foregone conclusion that we will be disappointed. But in Japan, people are conditioned to be satisfied with the average, so they can’t fail but be happy with their lots.

Hitching Rides with Buddha by Will Ferguson was recommended by someone who only goes under a nom de plume online. It was a good tip Unkle Cyril! Ferguson is genuinely amusing and trenchant when analysing life in Japan for an expatriate. I found he had many insights into the Japanese, culture and language that were just that, excellent insights. Miss 12 read it and really laughed so hard aloud she was banished to read it somewhere away from the rest of the family. Highly recommended.

Sumo: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Japan’s National Sport by David Benjamin is terrible self-indulgent rant. He should blog. I learnt little about the traditions of the sport and after reading the most amusing book by Ferguson, Benjamin’s sense of humour is not really that. I would re-title, Sumo: A Guide for the Unthinking Sports Fan. Hopeless.

The Japanese Mind edited by Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno is a textbook for undergraduates. It has reflective questions and even explores issues to do with corporate ethics, corruption and the challenges doing business in Japan. It is not a fun read and I have not yet finished, dipping into it willy nilly.

Photography in Japan (1853-1912) by Terry Bennett is wonderful visual record of what it purports to be, photography in Japan. The text is very boring and I only dipped into it while looking at the photographs. I am glad I bought a heavy hard copy though as I think it will be one of those coffee table books that keeps being re-opened many years after purchase.

Travel Guides

Tokyo Totem is not really a guidebook but more of a philosophical speculation into the nature of geography, culture and living in a metropolis by making it your own. There was an exhibition late last year which would have been interesting. It certainly influenced my thinking about Tokyo in a positive way. As an aside, I notice a trend where books are published in dual Japanese and English language, as is my copy. Highly recommended.


Lonely Planet: Japan is always the guidebook one thinks wont be necessary but proves useful.

Japan by Rail helped us plan our first trip to Japan and is still useful when navigating the rail system with a JR Pass.

Monocle Guide to Tokyo has some great essays and different information compared to other travel guides. I am a fan of this series of guides own the New York and Tokyo ones too.

From Edo to Tokyo: Traveling through Time with a 200-Year-Old Map we purchased at Tokyo Museum. It really assisted me to think about Tokyo practically while navigating on the subway and trying to get a sense of the past. I am considering having the beautiful map framed.

The Japanese Spa: A Guide to Japan’s Finest Ryokan and Onsen will be an ebook I flick though next when missing Japan. We did not use it to plan this trip (I read it at the airport and on the plane home) but maybe the next one.


It is clear that bookstores in Japan are appealing to their customers by doing more than just selling books. Often the spaces are very large and well-laid out but we noticed how many have a cafe, restaurant or even a bar where you can sit and browse. Tsutaya Books is the model that may appeal to many as it is very sophisticated and includes a huge selection of cool magazines and quarto sized books. It is not really something that appeals to me (I want a massive range of titles) but feels like the future.

The big chain bookshops in Japan often have very impressive collections of English language books in stock. They are particularly good for finding translations of Japanese classics and more contemporary literature as well as non fiction tomes about Japan. The three big cities we visited this year – Tokyo, Osaka and Sapporo – had truly excellent store to explore. I love how Japanese bookstores cover purchases with quality paper.

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If you are in Japan, the Big 5 (and please correct me if I have missed any) are: Kinokuniya (and we love the Australian store in Sydney); Sanseido (we visited the one in Jimbocho); Shosen (which we also visited in that same neighbourhood); Maruzen (founded by Yukichi Fukuzawa in 1869, the year following the Meiji Restoration, “to contribute to Japan’s enlightenment and prosperity through the introduction of Western knowledge and technical expertise”); and Junkudō (where you can even stay overnight). In Osaka, these two ‘behemoths’ of bookselling have joined forces and trade as Maruzen & Junkudō. If in that city you must visit, it is an awesome store. If you just want one convenient store to visit in Tokyo, Kinokuniya Shinjuku South Store Foreign Books would be the one I recommend.


Pre-loved Books

The neighbourhood of Jimbocho is a treasure. Located near the University of Tokyo, this area is a place where bibliophiles can spend countless hours, days, wandering the antiquarian bookstores. Reputedly there are 170 in close proximity but the one that captured my imagination was Kitazawa which opened in 1902.  There were countless unusual books and rarities to discover. I have spent my life in bookstores and libraries and came across many, many books I had never had an inkling existed.

The owner helped me by writing a message in Japanese for other bookstores so they would understand what I was seeking (books about onsen culture). We got chatting about the challenges for antiquarian booksellers, especially since the rise of the internet. Her strategy was to open a new section for children. The decor was made parent friendly and kids can sit around and read, play with the stuffed toys. The other agenda was to support the next generation to find printed literature. Check out the slideshow, which includes a photo of customers in the early 20th century, when the store first opened.

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Good Day Books – in Tokyo is also a great secondhand book store with a helpful owner. Any English speaking expatriate working in the capital would visit regulalry if they wre a reader.

Book yet to read…

I have a rather large number of kindle samples and ebooks to read along with some tomes that will be delivered in the mail via in coming weeks. Chief among this books to be read include some gems. Here’s some of the list.

Teaching Embodied: Cultural Practice in Japanese Preschools by Akiko Hayashi and Joseph Tobin should help me understand more about the Japanese education system, especially how tradition and group consciousness is formed. I have started.

I have also started Essays in Idleness (or The Harvest of Leisure) which was written circa 1330 by the Japanese monk Yoshida Kenkō

Japan’s Cultural Code Words by Boyé Lafayette De Mente is a book I should have read prior to travelling, if I’d known about it.

Walking the Kiso Road: A Modern-Day Exploration of Old Japan by William Scott Wilson is probably the book I am most keen to read along with One Hundred Mountains of Japan by Kyūya Fukada (1903-1971). If there is to be a next trip to Japan it will be a walking one. These books will guide what is possible and if any of you reading, especially Japanese speakers, want to walk the Kiso Road, please be in touch. BTW You can read more about those Japanese mountains here.

I bought some guidebooks about potential onsen to visit on some future journey. They are in Japanese but it is easy enough to work out where they are located by the maps. Hopefully some of them are on the Kiso Road.

The Long Defeat Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan by Akiko Hashimoto; Something like an Autobiography by the Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa and A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics by Donald Richie (recommended by Victor while I wrote this post) are also particularly high on the teetering, metaphoric pile of ebooks.

Final thoughts

This is my final post inspired by our month in Japan. Thank you for reading.

I love to read your comments or posts/links about Japan, challenges or insights. I am particularly keen to learn from those who have good understanding of Japanese literature. Travel tips about walking in Japan, especially in the mountains or along the Kiso Road are also particularly welcomed.

Thanks for reading right til the end of this lengthy post. Here are all my Japan travel posts, if you have the strength.

*This blog originally started, almost a decade ago, as a place to write about education, especially edutech but increasingly, I write about whatever takes my fancy. For those who subscribe to read about technology and teaching, I will have a series of posts that should interest being posted in coming weeks.

Featured image: iPhone snap in bookstore


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