Books on Japanese Culture and Society

This past semester I taught a class on Japanese science fiction and fantasy, and I was surprised by how interested my students were in learning more about the social and cultural context of contemporary Japan. I therefore put together a list of recommendations for popular-audience books that are smart and specific yet still accessible to a casual reader. I decided to share this list here with the hope that it might prove useful outside the classroom.

If you’re interested in social issues facing contemporary Japan…

Dreux Richard’s Every Human Intention: Japan in the New Century (2021) tackles two of the most significant demographic concerns in Japan, immigration and rural depopulation, as well as a major environmental concern, Japan’s aging nuclear reactors. Richard approaches these topics by conversations with people who are directly involved, from Nigerian immigrants to census workers to nuclear regulatory officials. The writing is remarkably rich and features a large cast of characters with interlocking stories.

If you’re interested in learning more about the “Triple Disaster” of March 2011…

Richard Lloyd Parry’s Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone (2017) tells the stories of people who survived, as well as the stories of people who didn’t. There are elements of true crime in Parry’s journalism, which seeks to understand what happened, how it happened, and how it affected those involved. Parry is never needlessly dramatic or unkind, but he is justifiably critical of the decisions of elected officials at all levels of government.

If you’re interested in a deep dive into the “Lost Decade” of Japan in the 1990s…

John Nathan’s Japan Unbound: A Volatile Nation’s Quest for Pride and Purpose (2004) was written at a time when people were just beginning to understand the causes, repercussions, and long-term effects of Japan’s prolonged economic recession. Although it was published almost twenty years ago, this book remains relevant. Nathan is a professor and a literary translator, and reading each chapter is like listening to a fascinating class lecture.

If you’re interested in the dark side of Japan’s postwar economic miracle that emerged in the 1980s…

Norma Field’s In the Realm of a Dying Emperor: Japan at Century’s End (1991) is simultaneously an academic study and an intensely personal memoir. It’s also a genuine work of literature, and it won an American Book Award in 1992. Field’s prose is impeccably beautiful and a true pleasure to read, and her critique of the rise of neoliberal capitalism in Japan is penetratingly sharp. This book doesn’t feel the least bit dated, and it’s actually somewhat uncanny how all of Field’s predictions for Japan’s future came true.

If you’re interested in the history of how Japanese pop culture has been exported and received in the United States…

Matt Alt’s Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World (2020) is recounted from the perspective of an active working professional in the field of cultural exports from Japan. Alt begins in the immediate postwar period, and the scope of this book is impressively expansive. Alt regularly writes intriguing longread pieces for the New Yorker, and his 2018 essay “The United States of Japan” is a fascinating preview of an equally fascinating book.

If you’re interested in the American anime explosion during the early 2000s…

Roland Kelts’s Japanamerica: How Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. (2006) feels charmingly retro in its perspective on Japan’s anime industry, especially when it comes to Kelts’s optimistic enthusiasm. This book captures the excitement of the mid-2000s anime boom fueled by DVD sales and anime conventions, which were springing up like mushrooms in North America. Kelts hits all the high points of the conversation at the time as he discusses topics ranging from anime auteurs to otaku fandom subcultures.

I also want to mention Jonathan Clements’s Anime: A History, which was published in 2013 by the British Film Institute. This is a muscular book that might be a bit too powerful for a casual reader, but it’s exquisitely well-researched and absolute required reading for anyone’s who’s serious about studying anime in the context of the creative industry that produces it.

If you’re interested in how the gaming industry developed in America during the 1980s through the 2000s…

Jeff Ryan’s Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America (2012) is a lot of fun. Very few people knew how to write about video games back in the early 2010s, but Ryan has perfect pitch. Nintendo is an apt focus of Ryan’s exploration of how the gaming industry underwent numerous rapid shifts during a twenty-year period, but the book is still interesting and accessible even to people who don’t particularly care about Nintendo games.

If you’re interested in landmark speculative fiction and sci-fi anime from the 1980s and 1990s…

Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime (2007) is an academic essay collection, but most of the essays are fun, interesting, and easy to read. There’s a lot of intriguing analysis here, as well as a great deal of literary and media history that you can’t find in English anywhere else.

If you just really love Hayao Miyazaki…

Helen McCarthy’s Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation (1999) is a classic, with beautiful summaries, insights, formatting, and screenshots. Susan Napier’s essay collection Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art (2019) is published by an academic press but still accessible and enjoyable, and it has the added bonus of covering Miyazaki’s manga in addition to his films.

If you’d like to do some armchair tourism of otaku subcultures in Tokyo…

Gianni Simone’s Tokyo Geek’s Guide: The Ultimate Guide to Japan’s Otaku Culture (2017) is filled with incredible photos and a wealth of interesting recommendations. It also includes several illustrated essays on the history and cultural context of various subcultures, from comics to cosplay to pop idols to anime musicals.

If you want to learn about Japanese folklore while doing some armchair tourism of rural Japan…

Cécile Brun and Olivier Pichard’s Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter (2016) is a collection of comic nonfiction essays about the artists’ travels to various points of interest in the Tōhoku region of north Japan. There is indeed ample discussion of ghosts and yōkai, but this book’s true charm is its depiction of small rural towns and the colorful human characters who live there.

If you want to learn about Japanese urban legends and the true stories that inspired them…

Tara A. Devlin’s Toshiden: Exploring Japanese Urban Legends (2018) is self-published on Amazon, but that doesn’t make it any less well-researched. This book covers many internationally well-known Japanese urban legends, as well as a few that are infamous in Japan but aren’t yet widespread on the English-language internet. It’s much longer and denser than you might expect, but every chapter is extremely entertaining.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This post’s header illustration was created by Marty Tina G., who goes by @geezmarty on Twitter. You can check out their portfolio (here) and download their short fantasy and sci-fi comics (here). Marty is an expert at bold character designs and bright color palettes, and I trusted them to capture the energy and excitement of reading an interesting book that expands the world.

Magazines and the Making of Mass Culture in Japan

Magazines and the Making of Culture in Japan
Author: Amy Bliss Marshall
Publisher: University of Toronto Press
Publication Year: 2019
Pages: 221

Magazines and the Making of Culture in Japan is an in-depth historical treatment of two of the most influential magazines in twentieth-century Japan, Kingu (King) and Ie no hikari (Light of the Home). In this monograph, Marshall argues that magazines, perhaps more than any other medium of communication, shaped the population of the Japanese archipelago into a mass audience that could be marketed to and mobilized. It was through the pages of these magazines, both of which had a clear ideological agenda, that people came to share a sense of common “Japanese” values.

Marshall describes how the editors of these two magazines envisioned and created publications with a range of written material and illustrations that appealed to broad audiences in the rapidly developing cities (in the case of Kingu) and in the rural countryside (the target of Ie no hikari) in the opening decades of the twentieth century. These magazines were patriotic without being propaganda. As Marshall puts it, “The commonality of the mass audience did not require empire, even though it was created and coexisted comfortably within it” (79).

The topic of this study may seem to be specialist in its scope, but the monograph is beautifully written, nicely edited, and a pleasure to read. Each chapter is like a guided tour through an archive, with Marshall providing overviews of each magazine’s content while selecting interesting textual materials and editor interviews to expand on each point. Although each archival excerpt is fascinating, Marshall never gets lost in the details and continually situates the discussion within its broader historical context. Magazines and the Making of Culture in Japan is marvelously well-structured, with each topic flowing neatly into the next to form a larger narrative about the creation of mass media culture in early twentieth-century Japan.

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure

Horses Horses

Title: Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure
Japanese Title: 馬たちよ、それでも光は無垢で
(Umatachi yo, sore demo hikari wa muku de)
Author: Furukawa Hideo (古川 日出男)
Translators: Doug Slaymaker and Akiko Takenaka
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 147

Furukawa Hideo, born in 1966 in Fukushima prefecture, is a prolific author who has won numerous awards for his work, which ranges from mystery to sci-fi to literary fiction. Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure is a memoir that defies genre as it responds to the March 2011 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.

Horses is the story of a road trip that the author makes to Fukushima almost immediately after the disasters. Furukawa lives in Tokyo, and he was in Kyoto when the earthquake hit. He describes himself watching the news on the television in his hotel room, unable to process what he was seeing but unable to look away. “That’s when that period of steady gazing began,” he admits (19). Furukawa describes his continuing shock as living in “spirited-away time,” as if “the dates of the calendar disappeared” (6).

He is shaken from his torpor by the voice of a character from a novel he has recently published, The Holy Family (Seikazoku). This character, who is from the Tōhoku region, tells the author to go there and see it for himself. Furukawa therefore gets in a car with three other people who are identified only by letters (as in, “Young S was driving”) and heads north from Tokyo, all the while commenting on the seemingly normal state of traffic, gas stations, and convenience stores. When he arrives at the affected area, however, nothing is normal. As Furukawa explains it…

We were overwhelmed by the sense of how powerful it was. The scene spread out before us, everything wiped clean away. There are no words for it. We didn’t just feel it, we were pummeled by it. I am ashamed to admit it – I want to spit at myself in disgust – but I was looking at the scene as if it were a great spectacle. I thought of air raids. And atomic-bomb sites. It hit me like a smack to the side of the head: it’s just like a city in wartime. I couldn’t help it. I exploded: “This scale, it spreads too far.” (41-42)

Although the disasters are never far from Furukawa’s mind, descriptions of its aftermath don’t form a particularly large portion of his narrative. Instead, he is concerned with his identity as a writer and his responsibility in chronicling what has happened. Throughout the book, Furukawa seems almost narcissistic in the way he dwells on the process of writing, as well as the invitations he receives to discuss it. This is not unique to Furukawa, of course; very rarely is an artist’s statement anything other than a validation of the artist’s ego. It’s what these meditations evolve into halfway through Horses that makes the book so interesting. Specifically, Furukawa tries to pick apart the various strands of meaning tangled up in the knot of Japanese identity, repeatedly returning to the question of how to approach Japanese history and myth. For example, he ponders…

How does one sing praises to this national land? Especially now, given that there is a second sun in the nuclear core? A meltdown that has taken its name from Fukushima. Can a name be given to this particular sun deity? (65)

Furukawa goes on to discuss how the vaunted warrior class and the great military leaders of the sixteenth century were brutal and pitiless murderers. “Our history is nothing more than a history of killing people,” he concludes (78). When he reflects on how he wrote about Japanese history in The Holy Family, Furukawa claims that he was therefore writing “for the horses.” If the history of humans is a history of killing people, then the history of horses is a history of being killed in human wars. Just like the animals around the Fukushima reactor, the lives of horses are affected by events that are only tangentially related to them. Although the author never makes this parallel clear, he suggests that there isn’t a great deal of difference between the “otherness” of domestic animals and the “otherness” of the people who fall outside the political center of Japan.

Furukawa’s memoir is not challenging in the traditional sense of being difficult to understand, but reading it can be challenging at times, as the author follows his train of thought without stopping for a full 140 pages. His style is not quite stream-of-consciousness, but he makes no attempt to order his thoughts or to impose structure to any sort of argument he might be making. As a response to the disasters, then, Horses feels less like a polemic and more organic and sincere. Furukawa ends his narrative on a somewhat surreal note, but Doug Slaymaker’s concise “Translator’s Afterword” neatly ties together the disconnected themes of the work, and I would recommend that the reader glance over it before embarking on the main text.

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure is a trenchant and often surprising work of literary ecocriticism. Furukawa transforms both the immediate disasters in Fukushima and the broader historical currents that flow around them into deeply personal experiences, resisting large narratives as he argues for the validity of individual stories, especially those that rarely make it into official histories. The smooth and well-considered translation gives the text, in all its complexity, a compelling sense of forward momentum. Furukawa’s memoir is just as engaging as it is important, and it will be of immense interest to anyone concerned with how views regarding the relationship between human beings and the natural environment have shifted during the twenty-first century.

Gate 7

Title: Gate 7
Artist: CLAMP
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Shūeisha
Pages: 180 (per volume)

There is a haiku by Bashō that goes something like “even in Kyoto, I miss Kyoto” (Kyō nite mo kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu). I love Kyoto, and I think I know what Bashō was talking about. Kyoto is a special place. The food is delicious, the city is filled with countless shrines and temples, all sorts of interesting historical stories happened in Kyoto, the tea and vegetables grown just outside of Kyoto are amazing, there’s a vibrant nightlife catering to the students who come to the city’s numerous universities, tons of artists and craftsmen make their homes in Kyoto, and the local sake is out of this world.

Almost every grade-school student in Japan gets dragged on a class trip to Kyoto at least once, and even adults make pilgrimages to Kyoto to see the sights (especially during the spring and fall, when the cherry blossoms and maple leaves are at their best). Since Kyoto is only about two hours away from Tokyo by bullet train, the city also has a reputation as a good place to go for romantic getaways and weekend partying. Kyoto is totally awesome, and almost everyone in Japan has been there at least once, so it’s always been surprising to me that there aren’t more manga set there. CLAMP’s new fantasy series Gate 7, however, is like a love song to the ancient capital.

Gate 7’s teenage protagonist, Takamoto Chikahito, is just as much in love with Kyoto as I am, but he has somehow managed to make it almost all the way up to high school without having ever been there. He saves up enough money to make a solo visit to see the sites; but, on his very first trip to a famous Kyoto shrine called Kitano Tenmangū, he is suddenly transported onto a magical battlefield. Chikahito witnesses a beautiful young warrior with an enormous sword defeat a strange creature before passing out. He wakes in a house near the shrine, where he is attended by the child, named Hana, and her two older companions, Sakura and Tachibana. Sakura, a kind-hearted and cheerful young man involved in the world of geisha and maiko, and Tachibana, a serious and sullen college student, discuss how strange it is that Chikahito was able to enter the magical realm. Tachibana then attempts to erase Chikahito’s memory but fails. In the final coup of strangeness, the androgynous Hana kisses Chikahito and tells him that s/he’ll be waiting.

At the beginning of the second chapter (actually the first chapter, as the previous chapter is considered a “prelude”), Chikahito has somehow been transferred to a high school in Kyoto. As soon as he gets off the train that has brought him to the city, he sets off for a famous soba restaurant, where by chance he encounters Hana, who is as happy to see him as s/he is to eat bowl after bowl of noodles. Chikahito is soon dragged into another magical fight with Hana, in which it is revealed that all creatures are affiliated with either light (陽) or darkness (陰). Sakura is affiliated with darkness, Tachibana is affiliated with light, and Hana, for some mysterious reason, can fight using the power of either. By the end of the day, Chikahito finds himself invited to live with the trio in a traditional Kyoto townhouse in the Ura-Shichiken district (the hidden side of the Kami-Shichiken neighborhood around Kitano Tenmangū), an invitation which he ends up accepting, to his own consternation. It turns out that, during their first meeting, Hana had cast a spell on Chikahito that would cause him to return to the Ura-Shichiken.

The second and third chapters of the volume develop this fantasy version of Kyoto a bit further. The reader learns, for example, that major historical figures have been reincarnated in our own time, and that these personages are battling over both the position of head of their respective families and the possession of the legendary familiar spirits called “oni” that are connected to these positions. Chikahito also learns that Hana unique in not being affiliated with light or darkness, and that he is special in the same way. Furthermore, he can see oni, which normal humans cannot. In other words, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes in Kyoto that most people don’t know about, and Chikahito has somehow found himself right in the middle of a conflict spanning hundreds of years and multiple dimensions.

Gate Seven moves quickly through both plot points and battle scenes, but I found it to be a perfect balance between an action-oriented title like Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle and an exposition-oriented title like xxxHolic. Backgrounds, dialog bubbles, and movement between panels are all handled effectively and artistically. The character designs are appealing and seem to be drawn from a wide range of CLAMP styles, such as those on display in series like Legal Drug and Kobato. Veteran readers of CLAMP’s work should find themselves right at home:

Chikahito is appealing as a hapless yet loveable protagonist, much like Hideki from Chobits. Also reminiscent of Chobits is the character Hana, who occupies a strange liminal position between ontological dualities. Is Hana a boy or a girl? Is s/he a child or an adult? Is s/he a person or a pet? Is s/he innocent and weak or completely in command of the situation? Is s/he even remotely human?

There is a lot of magic and mystery contained between the pages of Gate 7, as well as some interesting historical revisionism. The series plays with questions such as: What if Buddhist magic (妙法), as well as the principles underlying Taoist divination and geomancy, were real? What if the Shinto gods were real? What if the major figures of Japanese history were somehow more than human?

The city of Kyoto, with its temples and shrines and traditional houses and narrow alleys and delicious soba restaurants, provides a pitch-perfect backdrop to the story. At the end of the volume is a section called “Wandering Around Kyoto” (ぶらり京めぐり), which provides addresses, websites, and other information about the real locations visited by the characters. Dark Horse has the North American rights to the manga, and I hope they’ll include lots of Kyoto trivia (as well as historical and cultural information) in their own translation notes when they release the first volume this October. Gate 7 is shaping up to be a good story, and it’s interesting just as much for its setting and its take on history as it is for its fights and its handsome male characters.