Best Books on Japanese Culture to Spark Your Interest

The best books on Japanese culture either encompass several facets or focus on specific subjects about what Japan has to offer.

To get you started on the right track, we’ve compiled these interestingly good reads for you.

They are some of the best books about Japan under different categories.

Each of the choices is unique, and all of them offer far better content than other books in the same category.

Best Books on Japanese Culture Reviews

1. Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World

Pure Invention, authored by Matt Alt, talks about how Japan conquered the world using its pop culture.

The book will take you on a chronological journey through the many contributions of 20th century Japan and how its pop culture flew into the 21st century.

It is one of the best books on Japanese history and a must-read for someone looking to understand Japan’s pop culture.

About the Author

Matt Alt was a translator for the US Patent and Trademark Office when he started translating Japanese video games as a side job.

He developed a passion for writing about the Japanese heroes, robots, and monsters that inspired him as a child.

In 2003, he co-founded AltJapan Co., Ltd., a company specializing in producing the English-language versions of popular Japanese forms of entertainment.

With his background and connections, he has pooled a massive resource for understanding Japanese pop culture.

What It’s About

The book will tell you about the people responsible for inventing revolutionary technologies and taking charge of cultural and fashion trends.

For many outlanders, material and intangible exports from Japan served as essential factors affecting their childhood.

The book discusses the important people who spearheaded Japan’s jump from World War II into economic and cultural prosperity and how the world watched in awe for decades.

The export of things like the tinplate toy cars by Matsuzo Kosuge and the animations by Hayao Miyazaki gave a major boost to Japan’s post-World War II economy.

Matt Alt’s research for the book is astounding, and it must have taken countless hours for him to find the ripples from the simple actions of a single toymaker.


Pure Invention has two essential components.

One part tackles the post-war, pre-bubble-burst Japan that steered the world to design and innovate.

The other part talks about the post-bubble Japan that did it all over again.

As the economic bubble exploded in the ‘80s, Matt Alt explains how the world changed for the Japanese generation that thrived during the post-bubble era.

While women took solace in all things kawaii, men became fascinated with video games the same way the toys of their childhood drew all of their attention.

You can find fascinating facts about Japanese traditions, aesthetics, and language in every single chapter of Pure Invention.

The only thing we found problematic about the book is that readers with a passion for Japanese pop culture might like some chapters more than others.

2. Lost Japan: Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan

Lost Japan is also probably one of the best books on Japanese history.

It examines the various aspects of Japanese society that are slowly vanishing.

It is a book by Alex Kerr, another outlander who has been a long-term resident of Japan.

Alex Kerr explores the parts of centuries-old Japanese traditions that seem to be disappearing due to Western influences and modernization.

About the Author

Alex Kerr lived in Japan when the US Navy posted his father in Yokohama until 1966.

He returned to the US to pursue Japanese Studies at Yale University, after which he continued taking up Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford.

After his studies in 1977, he moved back to Japan full-time and started a career as a writer and a Japanologist.

As he returned, he became deeply involved in restoring and preserving Japan’s vanishing arts, culture, and traditional lifestyle.

Today, he is an expert on Japanese art and culture, and he frequently writes lectures in Japanese.

What It’s About

The work on Lost Japan begins in a house called the Chiiori, one of the oldest houses in the Iya Valley of Western Tokushima.

Alex Kerr purchased the house in 1973 and began hands-on work to preserve and restore it as his home using traditional, centuries-old techniques.

The book moves on to talk about tea ceremonies, Kabuki, and Kyoto’s hatred for itself.

It also discusses the continuously waning role of the literati and how Wabi influenced life and art.

Think of Lost Japan as a memorial for many things that are fading or have already faded away in present-day Japan.


Lost Japan contains chapters filled with an incredible collection of Japanese ephemera tied in with a little dose of regret.

It skips from one topic to another, just like a multi-faceted work of art that encourages different reactions from varying angles.

While the book is a subtle cry for help, it is a highly affectionate volume meditating on what has been lost and what could have been.

3. Fifty Sounds

Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds is an intellectual, personal, and somatic approach to learning the Japanese language from scratch.

Whereas other introductory Japanese language books begin with hiragana and katakana, Fifty Sounds only uses the Roman alphabet with mimesis.

It opens up the Japanese language through immersion, making it one of the best books about Japanese culture.

About the Author

Polly Barton taught English on a remote island in Japan, where she began to learn Japanese.

After earning her master’s degree in Theory and Practice of Translation, she worked for a stint at Nintendo Europe.

Later on, she received a first prize award in the inaugural Japanese Language Publishing Project (JLPP) Competition for her translations of Natsuki Ikezawa and Kobo Abe.

Today, she is a freelance Japanese-to-English translator residing in the UK, specializing in non-fiction books, literature, and art-related texts.

What It’s About

Fifty Sounds lets you pay attention to every feeling you might encounter when learning the Japanese language.

It also gives you the option to decide whether to confront these feelings or ignore them over other emotions.

Furthermore, the book will make Japanese for beginners a whole lot easier, even subconsciously.

Learning a new language can be somewhat embarrassing if you consider mispronunciations, misspellings, diction, and accent.

The book pushes you to take mimicry seriously and accept all of the feelings you may encounter when learning the language.


Fifty Sounds resembles a dictionary, listing mimetic words from the Japanese language written only in the Roman alphabet.

Each mimetic word comes with its own definition, some of which could appear incorrect or sound crazy, especially for native speakers.

Every definition takes you to through Barton’s journey of learning the Japanese language, with citations of her personal experiences as she remembered.

Some of the definitions seem like jokes or witty explanations built around emotional complications.

The book offers funny and weird content that will make readers stop, relate, and even share.

4. Japanese Tattoos: History, Culture, Design

Getting something as permanent as a tattoo involves putting a lot of thought into what gets inked onto your skin.

For the creative mind, coming up with a self-made, all-original tattoo design can come naturally.

However, those seeking to use images off the internet can benefit from a little more research.

With all the authentic traditional Japanese designs to choose from, Japanese Tattoos by Brian Ashcraft and Hori Benny will help you come up with a decision.

About the Authors

Brian Ashcraft is an award-winning journalist based in Osaka, Japan.

He works as the Senior Contributing Editor for Kotaku, an online video game site.

Co-author Hori Benny is a tattoo artist based in Osaka and specializing in Otaku tattoos.

What It’s About

Japanese Tattoos is a complete discussion of the different types of imagery present in Japanese tattoos.

It is a good read for someone who wants to avoid getting tattoos that they don’t understand or might regret.

The book traces the history of Japanese tattooing while putting the kanji symbols and iconography in proper context.

It is one of the best books about Japanese culture specializing in the world of irezumi, a highly distinctive style of tattooing.


Japanese Tattoos is a book heavily packed with photos of tattoos, from traditional hand-poked designs to modern works.

You will find anime-inspired tattoos, kanji tattoos, Japanese landscape tattoos, animal and demon tattoos, and everything in between.

The book gives an informative, visually attractive, and authoritative manner of purring together the elements of Japanese tattooing.

5. Forest Bathing: The Rejuvenating Practice of Shinrin Yoku

Forest Bathing is a guidebook for exploring peace and replenishment in any space.

It helps us bring the experience of being in the forest to our homes, even when we live in a bustling city.

With history, science, and philosophy behind this age-old therapeutic tradition, Forest Bathing is one of the best books about Japan and the delineation between its forests and cities.

About the Authors

Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles are both Spanish writers.

They have collaborated on some of the best-selling books about Japanese culture, including Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.

What It’s About

Shinrin Yoku means taking in the forest atmosphere.

Forest Bathing dwells on the practice of having the sense of being in the forest as a form of therapy.

From simply turning off your mobile phones to having more plants surrounding you, you can find peace and replenishment in almost any space.


The book explains the traditional Japanese concepts of forest bathing, a foundation of health care and healing in Japan.

It talks about our living experience of the world around us, the interplay of sunlight and foliage, and the happiness we can get from imperfection and impermanence.

Final Thoughts

If you are looking for nostalgia to kick in, the best books on Japanese culture among the options are Pure Invention by Matt Alt and Lost Japan by Alex Kerr.

On the other hand, if you need to read about a more specific topic, read Japanese Tattoos by Brian Ashcraft and Forest Bathing by Garcia and Miralles.

Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton will help you explore the Japanese language with an intimate approach.

It will give you awareness of how the Japanese culture manifests in their language.

Whichever book you choose, you are in for a joyride into the facets of Japan’s vibrant culture.

As you move on to reading books in the Japanese language, you might want to consider some of the best Japanese light novels.

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