Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden, 1997
This poignant tale of Chiyo Sakamoto’s time as a geisha in Kyoto during the mid 20th century is a stunning work of literary art.
Norweigian Wood, Haruki Murakami, 2000
A moving novel about a young friendship and romance that changes in the wake of a shared tragedy.
Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami, 2002
Pick up any book by Murakami and you enter the surreal world of his fertile imagination. This one has a runaway-schoolboy hero, a baseball-obsessed trucker and talking cats. Though odd, Murakami’s books are totally beguiling. The author used to run a Tokyo jazz bar in Kokubunji before decamping to live and work in the United States, so his fictional oddballs may well be based on real-life urban encounters.
Samurai William, Giles Milton, 2002
The amazing true story of an English sailor in Elizabethan times who was shipwrecked in Japan and went on to become a local hero. William Adams was astounded to find a world where people bathed regularly (not common among Londoners at the time), ate raw fish and lived a life of elaborate daily rituals. Funny and heartwarming.
Shogun, James Clavell, 1975
It is fashionable to sneer at Clavell, but his rip-roaring action thrillers are historically accurate. A primer in how things were done in more bloodthirsty days, when the samurai code of honor was everything.
A Thousand Cranes, Yasunari Kawabata, 1952
This 1952 Nobel Prize–winning novel by Yasunari Kawabata is a tale of deep emotions. At a tea ceremony where Kikuji mourns the death of his parents, he finds himself in the midst of an unexpected relationship that leads to further misfortune.
The Elephant Vanishes, Haruki Murakami, 1993
This collection of 17 short stories demonstrates Murakami’s ability to fuse the real with the surreal, while focusing on the themes of loss and solitude.
Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology, Hidenobu Jinnai, 1995
The author, an architecture historian, traces the development and spatial design of Tokyo through manmade and natural impacts.
Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant Garde, Michio Hayashi, Miryam Sas, Mika Yoshitake, Doryun Chong, 2012
This book reveals the cultural transformation that occurred in Japan after World War II and focuses on the development of Japanese modern art.
Feel and Think: A New Era of Tokyo Fashion, Motoaki Hori, Yoko Takagi, Hiroshi Narumi, Mariko Nishitani, 2011
Tokyo’s unique approach to avant garde fashion is featured in this book through interviews, images and the narratives of up-and-coming designers as they try to navigate Tokyo’s fashion world.
Book of Tea, Kakuzo Okakura, 1906
The Book of Tea links the role of tea to the aesthetic and cultural aspects of Japan. Although the themes of the book are central to the Japanese way of life, Kakuzo wrote the book to address a Western audience. Kakuzo’s interpretation of the tea ceremony demonstrates the parallels between tea and Japanese simplicity, which can be seen most clearly in the country’s art and architecture.
In a Japanese Garden, Lafcadio Hearn, 1892
This essay, written by Irish author Lafcadio Hearn, gives an outsider’s perspective on the Japanese garden in the late 19th century.
In Praise of Shadow, Junichiro Tanizaki, 1933
This essay focuses on Japanese aesthetics, describing subjects from architecture and food to the esoteric, like patterns of grain in old wood or lacquerware in candlelight. Tanizaki uses these descriptions, coupled with the themes of light versus dark and modern versus traditional, to explain the differences between Western and Japanese aesthetics.
Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola, 2003
A clichéd and patronizing take on the city in which the Japanese characters speak no-so-gleat Englees but Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are outstanding.
The Last Samurai, Edward Zwick, 2003
It is hard to take Tom Cruise seriously with a topknot and battle armor, but the film is jolly good fun for the flavor of feudal Japan, with its strict code of honor and rigid morals. The honor-and-morals bit must have been particularly mystifying for the Hollywood executives at the screenings.
Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, 1982
Tokyo’s streets are said to have been one inspiration for the futuristic Harrison Ford–Ridley Scott thriller.
Babel, Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006
A rather disjointed film but notable for a stunning performance by Rinko Kikuchi as a deaf Tokyo girl trying to both communicate with her widowed father and make sense of the crazy world around her.
Tokyo Story, Yasujirō Ozu, 1953
Usually included among the all-time classics, this 1950s movie concerns the younger and older generations of a family failing to understand each other. Some things don’t change.