Japan: A Longform Reading List of Longform Writing

Armchair travel is more important than ever, now that pandemic has forced us to stay indoors. Reading can take you across the ocean.

Before I traveled to Japan for the first time in 2014, I read as much about the country as time allowed. Japanese culture and ecology had interested me since I discovered anime in the fifth grade; I read books by Pico Iyer and Donald Richie, novels by Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, and collected countless online stories about everything from Japanese architecture to history to customs. I wanted to understand more about this island chain that has been inhabited since at least 30,000 BCE. I wanted to know more about this aggressively innovative culture simultaneously committed to tradition, a country that is famously easy to navigate by train but difficult to integrate into as an outsider. I wanted to understand Tokyo, the world’s largest city, whose allure comes partly from its incomprehensibility.

My library was filled with anthologies on my other passions California, the American South, jazz. But while I had stellar fiction anthologies on Japan, like The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction and Tokyo Stories: A Literary Stroll, the nonfiction book I wanted didn’t exist.  I couldn’t find a single, English-language anthology collecting longform nonfiction about Japan. So I made it.

I gathered all the longform stories on Japan I could find and, like the obsessive that I am, cut and pasted their text into a single document that soon swelled to nearly 400 pages. I called the document Through Outside Eyes: Writings About Japan. It wasn’t an anthology designed for publication. I just wanted these stories in one place for myself, to let me share other Westerners’ experience of Japan as a visitor. That’s how I thought of the collection: Stories about Japan written from the perspective of curious outsiders. The pieces came from publications like Harper’s, AFAR, Bon Appetit, Roads & Kingdoms, and The New Yorker. Soon I added stand-alone sections from longer books, including excerpts from jazz pianist Hampton Hawes’ autobiography Raise Up Off Me, crime reporter Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice, even Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour. Many of the writers had intimate connections to Japan. Marie Mutsuki Mockett and Karl Taro Greenfeld were bicultural, with roots in the U.S. and Japan. Some gaijin, like Kelly Luce and Pico Iyer, had been touched by Japanese culture deeply enough to write about it. Some, like writer-producer John Nathan and editor Ian Buruma, lived in Japan briefly. Others, like Richie, Adelstein, Alex Kerr, and Alan Booth chose to make Japan their homes.

In 2016, my wife and I spent our honeymoon in Japan. We were in the Osaka airport, going home, when we ran into Mutsuki Mockett on the light-rail transport. I loved her personal travelogue Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey, so it was a treat to talk to her in person, and to meet the son and mother who I’d read about in her book. Pure chance had put us on this crowded train at the same moment. As we all mourned our imminent return to American toilets with their archaic toilet paper, she told us about the essay she’d written about the marvels of Japanese toilets. I’d missed it in my research, but it found me in Japan. Here is that story, along with some other favorites.

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The Japanese Toilet Takes a Bow: A Personal History (Marie Mutsuki Mockett, The Rumpus)

Too many American friends still casually mention how they don’t “get” bidets, because who wants water spraying up your backside? Loosen up: It’s just a localized shower. And look at the paper waste we generate wiping ourselves over and over until we’re sort-of clean but never clean enough. Enter the Japanese toilet.

Even if you’ve never used a bidet, you’ll appreciate the brilliance of the Japanese toilet and Mockett’s singular essay. The Japanese toilet’s incredible modernization came partly as a reaction to their old toilets, which were dirty, pungent affairs — often just holes in the ground — called boton benjo. During the 1980s, the country systematically installed a modern sewer system along with the sit-down toilets frequently known as “Western-style.” “The new toilets mutated,” Mockett writes, “like those characters in comic books who are accidentally injected by some experimental elixir in a top-secret laboratory and wake up able to walk through walls or grow icicles in lieu of fingernails.” You will not find a more informative story about defection and toiletry. If you do, it will not be this entertaining, this smart, this personal.  She raises questions about why such a high-tech, convenient machine isn’t as popular in the U.S. as in Japan, which is a pooping paradise where everyone’s derriere is clean, warm, and dry, as long as you can find the right button to push on the toilet’s control panel.

Sweet Bitter Blues (Amanda Petrusich, Oxford American)

After one of America’s greatest music writers goes to Tokyo to see a Mississippi Blues musician perform, she tries to figure out why American Blues music is so popular in this city. The answer involves the ways cultures imitate and integrate into each other, and the relationship between appreciation and appropriation. These dynamics are particularly apparent in a curious, edacious society like Japan, which has famously adopted food, fashion, technology, and music from all over the world — sit-down toilets, blue jeans, whisky — and made them not only better, but distinctly Japanese. 

Hiroshima (John Hersey, The New Yorker)

Published as the entire contents of the August 31, 1946 print issue, stretching literally to the final page, Hersey’s 31,000-word article tells the story of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima through the experiences of six survivors. Hersey removed himself from the story so that, in his words, “the reader’s experience would be as direct as possible.” With very little authorial omniscience, “Hiroshima” shows us the unbelievable suffering and the ethical dimensions of the bombing. This sympathetic account contrasted strongly with mainstream American media’s matter-of-fact, nationalistic depictions of the bombing as a successful, necessary way to end the war. In a way that seems unimaginable today, Hersey’s story became the talk of New York City. Every copy of the issue sold out the day it hit newsstands. The BBC read the entire story on-air, without commercials. It transformed The New Yorker’s reputation from a humor magazine to a place of serious journalism, but more importantly, transformed the bombing’s victims into human beings for American readers. As one reader commented, “I had never thought of the people in the bombed cities as individuals.”Ben Yagoda’s New Yorker biography calls it “the most influential magazine article in the history of journalism,” because it loosened magazine publishing’s conventional notions of style, story structure, and acceptable length. It also became a stand-alone book that remains in print.

The Yellow Negro (Joe Wood, Transition)

Like so much music, modern Japanese music and youth culture owes a great debt to the innovations of Black artists. Japanese DJs sample American jazz and hip-hop. Concert fliers and record covers borrow colorful reggae motifs. Clothing is influenced by American graffiti art and street style. But some well-meaning Japanese people cross a sensitive racial line that they don’t, and often can’t, fully understand, by darkening their skin and fro’ing their hair. 

When scholar Joe Wood traveled to Tokyo for the first time in the late 1990s, he experienced an intense othering that was painful and distinct from the othering he experienced as a Black man in the US. He was shocked but curious. Why did so many Japanese people treat him so badly? Why did some try to look “Black” like him, when there were so few actual people of color around? This powerful, probing essay appeared in 1997 in Transition, Indiana University’s culture journal exploring “the freshest, most compelling ideas from and about the black world.” In it, Wood examines racism, appreciation, and cultural appropriation in a county that has perfected the act of perfecting cultural imports. This is a rare and insightful examination of the Black experience in Japan by a Black writer. Others have tackled this complicated subject: Eric L. Robinson, who has run BlackTokyo.com for the last 20 years, and Brooklyn-native Baye McNeil in his books, blog, public speaking, and activism, not to mention his day-to-day life teaching high school students in Yokohama. Each has a different voice and perspective, and both are worth reading after you read Wood’s essay.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File

Truth, Lies, and Videotape (Kelly Luce, New York Magazine)

After graduating from college, a young American moved to Japan to teach English. When a retail store security detained her on suspicion that she was about to shoplift an item she had no intent to shoplift, she learned very hard lessons about culturally relative ideas of justice, forgiveness, and the Japanese notion “sho ga nai,” meaning, “It can’t be helped.” Luce’s story not only conjures the terror of wrongful imprisonment, but the sense of vulnerability travelers often feel in someone else’s country — a sense that our freedom can be taken suddenly and randomly, and that no matter the nature of our visit we are only conditional guests.

Ladies Night: Circling the Bases on Okinawa (Akemi Johnson, Kyoto Journal)

Akemi Johnson spent a few years researching the multicultural towns that lay around the U.S.’s many military bases in Okinawa. This is a tense landscape shaped by violence and the horrors of occupation. Many locals want the U.S. military out. Others make their income from the servicemen, or find their fun among them. Johnson focuses on the women living near the bases, whose stories illustrate  the ongoing impact of U.S. military presence in a sovereign nation’s affairs. “In Okinawa,” Johnson writes, “there’s a word for women like Eve: kokujo, women who like black men. The umbrella term is amejo, women who like Americans. Hakujo like white men and spajo prefer Latinos. The terms are derogatory, mostly; I had never heard someone use one to describe herself. An amejo is the other girl at the club — similar, maybe, but less classy or genuine or smart. An amejo is a rival. An amejo is a trashy bitch.”

Forever Foreign (Pico Iyer, Smithsonian)

Pico Iyer first fell under Japan’s spell in the mid-1980s while wandering Kyoto’s historic geisha district, a place whose architecture and secrecy seemed both from another time and another world. When he moved to Kyoto in 1987, it took years for him to feel like he even faintly belonged there. In this essay, he explores the distance between a resident’s experience and a visitors’ experience, that push and pull of being attracted to a culture, accepted by the people into certain strata and situations, but destined to ultimately remain forever on the outside. All tourists are outsiders, but in Japan, outsiders exist even further outside, no matter how long they’ve lived there. Because outsiders can never fully understand Japan, they can never fully belong. “After 22 years of living here,” Iyer writes, “I’m still known as a gaijin (outsider or foreigner) and generally feel as if I’m stumbling through the city’s exquisite surfaces like a bull in an Imari china shop.” And that is okay.

How Can We Find More People Like You? (Sara Corbett, The New York Times Magazine)

For good or for bad, Airbnb disrupted the hospitality industry and revolutionized tourism. But even though Tokyo, a city of 13 million people, may have looked like a promising market, Airbnb struggled to take hold there. Corbett examines why. Her mix of absorbing narrative and thoughtful analysis reveal fascinating aspects about Japanese culture and Western ideas and business practices. As one Tokyo Airbnb host told Corbett, part of the trouble wasn’t the idea of sharing personal quarters with strangers, it was about being unfamiliar with outsiders. “I mean, Japan is an island,” the host said. “It’s like, foreign people…What do they even eat?”

When Cuteness Comes of Age (Neil Steinberg, Mosaic)

The Japanese word kawaii translates to “cute,” and it applies to a large, complex range of images, aesthetics, and iconography, from fashion to design to the mascots that are so integral to Japanese society. Kawaii is about how something makes people feel. It’s a bit like umami: it’s there providing a sense of satisfaction, even if you can’t easily identify or describe it. Steinberg explores the origins of kawaii, what cute things do to the human brain neurologically, and why it’s so central to Japanese culture.

Daibo Dreamed of Coffee (Matt Goulding, Roads & Kingdoms)

For 38 years, Katsuji Daibo lived his dream of applying the complex, ancient Japanese tea ceremony to coffee. His setup, in a hidden bar in Tokyo’s upscale Omotesando District, was arguably the most involved coffee brewing system in the world, and by all accounts yielded a singularly tasty brew that Goulding says “condenses 25 grams of dark-roasted coffee into four transcendent sips.” But Tokyo is always changing, and real estate is expensive. In December 2013, Daibo and his wife Keiko brewed their last labor-intensive cup. This is a portrait of Daibo and his technique, which is also the story of how the Japanese have mastered mastery itself, with craftspeople called shokunin who dedicate their lives to creating the best versions of one object, one dish, one drink. 

The Perfect Fit (David Sedaris, The New Yorker)

If you need a little lighthearted fun, come shopping in Tokyo with Sedaris, his partner Hugh, and his sisters Amy and Gretchen. The family dynamics are a framework for exploring his own fascination with Japanese clothing stores, and his surprising love of what would be hideous, impractical clothing to him back home. In a store called Kapital, he marvels: “The clothes they sell are new but appear to have been previously worn, perhaps by someone who was shot or stabbed and then thrown off a boat. Everything looks as if it has been pulled from the evidence rack at a murder trial. I don’t know how they do it. Most distressed clothing looks fake, but not theirs, for some reason.” This is classic Sedaris: a warped, comic lens with just enough depth to satisfy.


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Finding Serenity on Japan’s San-in Coast (Francine Prose, Smithsonian)

Gushing about Japan’s Shinto shrines and calming Zen gardens graced by banzai and gurgling fountains is cliche… but Japan is still a place with Shinto shrines and calming gardens graced by banzai and gurgling fountains. Like all great writers, Francine Prose approaches her subjects with a fresh eye. The nimble, versatile novelist, essayist, and literary critic offers proof of her talent as a travel writer. She visits a remote, unspoiled stretch of Japan’s west coast, where she revels in a region that few tourists visit: place you can’t reach with the Shinkansen bullet train, whose slow pace and history provide a welcome contrast to the country’s heavily industrialized landscapes and an opportunity to experience rural, traditional Japan. 

Japan: It’s Not Funny Anymore (Tim Rogers, Kotaku.com)

As a contrast to Iyer’s abiding love, this foreigner who has lived in Tokyo for many years examines all the reasons he no longer enjoys his adopted home, from the quality of films to the formulaic conversations, the ubiquitous cigarette smoking to the mandatory work parties. And yes, he braced himself for the inevitable hate mail, since many people mistake Kotaku for a site about Japan. 

Japan’s Whisky Rebellion (Jim Frederick, Roads & Kingdoms)

Before Japanese whisky became the hottest liquor in the world, driving prices far beyond the reasonable, Japan had a lot of neglected domestic whisky. Frederick profiles Ichiro Akuto, a distiller who recognized the value of distilling, and who bought full barrels of now-legendary whisky from the shuttered Hanyu, Karuizawa, and Kawasaki distilleries. Akuto has grown his Chichibu distillery into one of the most revered, and priciest, in the world. More than a beverage story, this is the story of a person dedicated to craft.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Invisible and Insidious (William T. Vollmann, Harper’s)

The famously prolific author tackles one of the most terrifying disasters of our time: the 2011 nuclear spill along Japan’s east coast. As he does with much of his reporting, Vollmann fully immerses himself in his subject. Here he wears questionable protective gear to venture into the so-called exclusion zone to get as close to the failed Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant reactor as he can, common sense aside, and tells us what he finds. It isn’t settling.

After the Tsunami (Matthew Komatsu, Longreads)

After the 2011 disaster, which killed the author’s grandmother and laid waste to his ancestral home, an American journeys to Japan to search for what the tsunami left in its wake. It’s a powerful mixture of personal narrative and reporting, and one that we were able to translate into Japanese for readers.

How to Stay at a Love Hotel in Japan (Lisa Gay, World Hum)

For those who don’t know — and why would you — a love hotel is a legitimate business in Japan where couples can pay for private rooms by the hour, to have sex or hang out. Sex workers and their customers use them, but romantic couples do too, especially since many working Japanese adults still live with their parents to save money in expensive urban areas. Love hotels are unavoidable inJapanese cities. The thing is, most visitors only experience their exteriors, and their nonsensical names like “Hotel Tiffard” and “Bron Mode” and imposing concrete walls reveal nothing about how they look or work on the inside. Lisa Gray went in to show us this unique business. Her story is fascinating exploration of culture in a country where young people often opt out of dating, where the birthrate has dropped significantly, and where sexual mores and public intimacy are different than in many Western countries. 

Selling Vintage Records in Tokyo (Aaron Gilbreath, Longreads)

When I first visited Tokyo, I was researching a failed book about the way crowding shapes human life. While I was there, I also shopped for mid-century jazz albums. In the process I met Koya Abe, a passionate listener who runs a vintage record store in Tokyo’s hip Shimokitazawa neighborhood.Meeting him was like meeting an old friend for the first time. Our short time together listening to music and sharing meals proved how those intimate experiences create bonds that  bypass the lack of shared language. I wrote this essay because I needed to process and celebrate this visceral experience of the universal language of music, and only wanted what I wrote to earn its place next to some of the stories I’d read before visiting Japan. I hope it does.

The Incredibly True Story of Renting a Friend in Tokyo (Chris Colin, AFAR)

Are you lonely? I am — I’m in week seven of COVID-19 self-quarantine. In 2016, Chris Colin reported on a thriving industry where Tokyoites could hire platonic companions to do everything from go shopping to watch TV to impersonate a fiancé. Tokyo’s companionship economy had nothing to do with sex and everything to do withe motional connection, socializing, and maintaining appearances, and it reveals a lot about the enormous stress and smothering social obligations many Japanese people live with. As one rent-a-friend told Colin, the companionship economy “says something profound about her country.” Yes, it does. But it’s only part of a complex picture, and this story offers an important reminder that too many outsiders fixate on the sensational or unusual stories about Japan, and generalize that these are what Japan is: a “weird” place full of robots and sex hotels and tentacle porn. Colin’s story — and this whole reading list — shows that Japan is so much more than that.