Japan is a place that has impacted me greatly. I’ve spent a total of six and a half years of my adult life there, including stints as a research scholar, an English teacher and an editor-proofreader-translator for a translation firm in Tokyo. It’s the place where I began my freelance writing career, a place that continually fuelled my creative fires and a place that still occupies a lot of intellectual and psychological real estate in my mind – even after three years back on the terra firma of Canada. It was a great country in which to be a writer, and indeed it took my quite some time to find my stride again as a freelancer after returning to my native country. And it goes without saying that Japan has been even more on my mind since the terrible events of March 11 of this year, making me feel more compelled than ever to write about the place.
I’m also far from the only westerner to have this experience. Somebody once told me that Japan was the world’s most written about country, and while I have my doubts about this (How would you even calculate this?), the amount of writings purporting to explain the place is nothing short of phenomenal. Look up Japan on Amazon.com and you get 324,424 results. That’s a lot of ink. Part of that is that Japan is a big, wealthy and influential country in the world, but there’s definitely more to it than that. Japan’s beautiful and beguiling traditional arts and culture, fascinating and complicated history and always intriguing modern day idiosyncrasies continue make the country an absolute goldmine for the expatriate scribbler. Just when you think the well has been exhausted, another bucket of fresh ink is dredged up from the bowels of the Japanese archipelago.
There are literally thousands of English language books out there that purport to explain Japan to the outside world. Many of them are not particularly good and some are frankly annoying, particularly after you’ve stayed in Japan long enough to realize that many of the west’s stereotypes about the place hold little water in reality. However, there are some truly wonderful books about Japan that I would recommend to anyone planning on spending any time in the country or is otherwise desirous to learn more about this fascinating country. Here are my top ten – in no particular order.