If you are staying at home and wondering what you can read or watch, here are some amazing Japanese books and literature, Japanese movies and TV shows that you can enjoy right away!
If you’ve never read books by Japanese authors before, or you have and you want to read more, check out this list we’ve put together.
These are Japanese books and literature from ancient Japan. The language used might be archaic but their stories are worth the effort it takes to get through them!
The Tale of Genji is the world’s first full-length novel. This Japanese book was written between the years 1000 and 1012 by Shikibu Murasaki, also known as Lady Murasaki. As the title implies, it tells the tale of Genji, a prince-turned-commoner playboy. While the novel focuses on his life and his various love affairs, there are a bunch of other interesting storylines with around 400 other characters, all set in Japanese aristocratic society in the Heian period.
It’s a longer novel than most with 54 chapters and around 1,300 pages, but it’s got everything: drama, romance, mystery and more. If you’re a fan of Japanese literature or you just want something different to read, then give The Tale of Genji a shot.
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Kojiki and Nihon Shoki
The Kojiki, translated as “Records of Ancient Matters” is a compilation of Japanese myths, legends and folklore, written around 711 or 712. It tells the stories of numerous Japanese gods and how they created Japan and Japanese practices and beliefs.
Not long after the Kojiki, a similar text was published in 720: The Nihon Shoki, sometimes called the Nihongi, and often translated as “The Chronicles of Japan”. It, too, chronicles ancient Japanese myths and legends but is more detailed and covers a wider time range (its accounts continue till the 8th century, the Kojiki ends mid-7th century),
If you like fantasy tales, or tales about the supernatural and godly, then give these two a shot. While they’re both compilations of short stories, some stories may make references to others so you may get lost if you skip chapters. I recommend reading all the chapters in chronological order.
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If you don’t want to commit to just one text, or you want to cover a wider range of classic Japanese literature, then consider this Japanese book. It is a compilation of poems, short stories, theatre scripts, and specific chapters from novels, from all the years between ancient Japan and the Tokugawa period (mid-19th century). It includes the works of famous poets, scriptwriters and authors like Basho, Chikamatsu Monzaemon, and Lady Murasaki.
If you’ve never read classic Japanese literature before, then this book is a good place to start. It’s not for everyone and it may be challenging to get through (then again, aren’t most classic texts?) but it’s definitely an interesting read and a good way to learn about Japanese values of impermanence, honour and shame.
Fiction Japanese books
The story is set in the future, in a bizarre world that we are introduced to in bits and pieces by the titular character, Sayonara, Gangsters. When I say this story is bizarre, I mean it’s the epitome of bizarre.
There’s a ferris wheel that commits suicide, a prison guard that one day realises he isn’t actually a prison guard, names that kill people, a ‘Gila Monster’ that changes form every time you try to describe it, Virgil from Dante’s Inferno reincarnated as a refrigerator, and so much more.
Despite how out-of-the-world this story is, it is hauntingly and beautifully familiar. There are values and emotions that we can all relate to: beauty, death, heartache, redemption, shame… The aforementioned ferris wheel screams and bleeds just like we do, and Virgil the Refrigerator retains his human consciousness and then goes on to question it, just as our poets and philosophers have.
This story is a reflection of our world and our beings, but in one of those silly mirrors that make us look all out of whack, though still recognisable.
Many people know Haruki Murakami, but this is the other literary Murakami: Ryu Murakami. Most of his books are violent, gratuitously gory, incorporate drug use, and have psychotic characters. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then check out his novels, In the Miso Soup, Audition and Piercing (this one made me so sick at one point that I had to put it down for a few minutes).
But the book I want to write about here is one that deviates from his usual formula: From the Fatherland, With Love. It’s set in 2011, and a small group of highly-skilled, trained North Korean special forces troops have invaded Fukuoka and taken its residents hostage. If they are not stopped, 120,000 more troops will soon join them.
The story is about how the North Korean troops operate, how the Japanese government works behind the scenes, and how a small gang of misfits, each specialising in a special type of warfare, seems to be the only hope for resistance against the invaders.
These days, you can’t talk about Japanese books without mentioning Haruki Murakami. He’s arguably the most famous Japanese author now, and will probably receive the Nobel prize for literature someday.
My favourite novel of his is the 925-pages-long 1Q84. Briefly, it’s a story about an assassin and a novelist who both find themselves in a world with two moons and with “little people”. And there’s a religious cult somewhere. While the plot is a huge draw (there’s mystery, conspiracy, surrealism, romance), what I really love about this book are the characters, all so well-developed with complex histories and presents, and with honest, deep and beautiful connections with one another.
Non-fiction Japanese books
This is the true life story of Eiji Ijichi, a yakuza boss. The author of the book was his doctor who, whenever he made a house visit, would sit and have tea with Ijichi. During those conversations, they would speak of Ijichi’s past. At some point, the doctor began taping their conversations and used those tapes to write this book.
The Japanese book is about Ijichi’s life experiences: his love affairs, receiving treatment for syphilis back when modern procedures weren’t available yet (I cringed just reading about it), his military service in occupied Korea, joining a yakuza gang, becoming a yakuza boss, his time served in prison, his experiences during and after WWII, and more. He has a fascinating tale from a captivating era (early 1900s) and it’s interesting to learn about Japan in those days.
A disclaimer: I am not the biggest fan of Japanese movies. Oftentimes, I find them overdramatic to a comical level. However, here are some I truly cherish! They are great Japaense movies and some of the best films I’ve ever come across.
Outrage is a Japanese movie about yakuza, the Japanese mafia. It’s directed by Takeshi Kitano, also known as Beat Takeshi, who is the yakuza film guy. He’s directed and starred in many yakuza films, most with his brand of black humour and violence. Outrage is not one of those movies. While there’s definitely violence—and a lot of it—it has fewer funny moments and more dramatic and suspenseful ones.
This Japanese movie centres around a large yakuza syndicate that controls the entire Kanto region, and follows various members as they all vie for power and safety. Another syndicate is briefly in play but it’s mostly about how the members of one syndicate conspire with and betray one another. It’s a slow burn, but when things get going, they go fast.
Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen (2015)
This is another Beat Takeshi movie, also about yakuza. This one, unlike Outrage, is a comedy and will have you laughing from start to end. It tells the story of eight retired yakuza members who long for the good old days when they were strong and feared. They decide to come out of retirement—some of them literally out of retirement homes—and decide to start a new yakuza syndicate of their own.
But it’s been a long time and yakuza syndicates are dying out and giving way to younger, more modern criminal organisations. To take back their turf and their dignity, these retired and feeble yakuza, in their 70s and 80s, have to take on the younger generation of “punks” with their traditional, outdated ways.
Any film by Studio Ghibli is likely to impress. It is a famous animation film studio that produced various hit films such as My Neighbour, Totoro (1988); Grave of the Fireflies (1988); Princess Mononoke (1997), and more. Many of their movies get an 80-90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but my personal recommendations are the following, which are more exciting, set in more fascinating worlds and have more creative characters.
Spirited Away (2001)
Spirited Away is about a girl who gets trapped in the spirit world and ends up working at a Japanese bathhouse. The movie follows her encounters with the weird characters that show up at the bathhouse, and her quest to get back to her own world with her parents, who were turned into pigs.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
How’s Moving Castle is a Japanese movie that is loosely based on the novel of the same name by Diana Jones. It’s set in a fictional world where magic exists and follows a young girl who gets cursed by a witch and turns into an old woman. She befriends a wizard named Howl and they, along with odd characters like a talking frying pan, try to escape the war and find peace.
Both these moves are vibrant, action-packed and heartwarming and you won’t regret watching them.
Perfect Blue (1997)
A personal favourite of mine! Perfect Blue is an animated film by the late Satoshi Kon, who often incorporates elements of surrealism in his films and anime series. Though they’re all wonderful (and I highly recommend all of them), I chose to write about Perfect Blue over the others because I’m a fan of horror, and Perfect Blue is chilling. It follows Mima, a young pop idol who decides to quit her pop idol group to pursue a solo career as an actress, disappointing many fans, and one obsessive one in particular. To make matters worse, there appears to be an imposter Mima that posts blog entries online, with detailed information that only Mima herself could have known. Throw in some threatening faxes and letters, and you have one compelling, scary mystery.
Perfect Blue blends reality, dreams and Mima’s acting role on a TV show perfectly. There are transitions between scenes that leave you unsure of its true nature, and entire events that make you wonder if they did or did not actually take place. This is one film that will keep you guessing and curious for more, so definitely check this one out!
An iconic series in manga and one of the first few Japanese animated films to find success and gain a huge following outside of Japan. It’s set in dystopian Neo-Tokyo in the year 2019 and tells the story of telekinetic members of a biker gang taking on a corrupt, power-hungry Japanese government and military.
Though it was made in 1988, its visuals are still admired today, and it is still widely regarded as one of the best animated and sci-fi movies of all time. It is a Japanese classic that everyone should watch at least once.
Battle Royale (2000)
Think of this Japanese movie as the first Hunger Games. Battle Royale kick-started the trend of, well, battle royales. The film takes place in an alternate reality where Japan won WWII, and the government now has control over everything. The totalitarian government establishes a military program where they place a randomly selected class of junior high school students (15 years old) on an island where they have to fight to the death.
It’s a dark Japanese movie with bits of black humour and graphic violence, and it’s interesting to see how Japanese people would approach a battle royale differently from Westerners.
It received wide acclaim, and famous director Quentin Tarantino even said it was the best film he had seen in two decades, and that if there’s one movie he wished he had directed himself, it was Battle Royale. Despite these accolades, Battle Royale also received a lot of criticism, especially from the Japanese government who called it “crude and tasteless”, and was banned in many countries until recently. Give it a shot and decide for yourself if it’s a good film!
Japanese TV shows
Besides anime and manga, there are a lot of highly entertaining Japanese TV shows. Similar to the Japanese movies, they tend to be quite dramatic and emotional, so if you’re looking for a good tearjerker, Japanese TV shows are it. Here are some of our favourite binge-worthy Japanese TV shows.
Long Vacation (1996)
Long Vacation is a classic with impressive ratings, known by almost every Japanese household. It follows the life of a model, when her fiance disappears on the day of their wedding, is forced to live with a dull pianist. The show explores realistic difficulties in life and relationships broken and made.
One Litre of Tears
This series is based on the true story of a 15-year-old girl who suffered from degenerative disease. It explores her struggles and difficulties, and connects with audiences’ hearts. Prepare tissues for a good cry.
Japanese TV shows received the highest viewership ratings in 25 years. The plot follows a prosecutor working for the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office. He often works in unconventional ways that causes a lot of drama and incidents, with unintended consequences.
Terrace House is one of the few Japanese reality TV shows. It follows three Japanese men and three Japanese women temporarily living in a house together. Drama and romance ensue as these strangers meet and cohabitate with one another. It’s an interesting show that reveals how Japanese people interact with one another and how they approach love and relationships.
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Let us know in the comment section which ones of these Japanese books, Japanese movies and Japanese TV shows you’ve seen, which ones you are curious about.
Want to find out more about Japan? check out How to travel to Japan from home: 12 ways to travel virtually