Your Summer Reading List 2024

Your Summer Reading List 2024

Our best new recommendations from Tokyo’s literary scene


In “tell me you’re out of touch without telling me you’re out of touch” news recently, former Manchester United and England soccer player Gary Neville explained his theory of “mini-retirements” which involve taking a few days off work to rest and relax. While the other 8 billion inhabitants of the world call these “holidays,”, it’s always nice to see someone who retired from his day job a multi-millionaire at 36, share his tips on how to avoid workplace burnout. For the rest of us, a few days at the beach, in the hills, or curled up on the sofa with the lights out and the air con on is the best we can hope for. To make the escape all the more complete, here are a few Japanese and Japan-related books to help keep reality at bay for a few more hours. 

Kappa – Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda and Allison Markin Powell produced a new translation of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s satirical classic Kappa last year, published by New Directions. The kappa is a mythical creature that lives in rivers and in this novella, a patient in a psychiatric hospital tells the story of how he got lost in the mountains and found himself in the land of the kappa. Similar in tone and intent to Gulliver’s Travels, it is witty, silly, and incredibly scathing about the state of humanity. The book, which features a suicidal poet kappa, took on a new level of meaning when Akutagawa took his own life the same year it was published. One of the absolute pillars of modern Japanese literature.

Mischief of the Gods – Itsushi Kawase 

Itsushi Kawase is an award-winning filmmaker, writer and visual anthropologist at the National Museum of Ethnology in Tokyo, who specializes in Ethiopian musical culture. Mischief of the Gods, translated by Jeffrey Johnson (Awai Books), is a collection of photographs and pen-portraits of people Kawase has met in Ethiopia during his time living and studying there. The stories and images themselves are fascinating, but as always with these books the real treasure is in what their choices and interpretations reveal about the writer. Every page burns with the passion of a man whose experiences are so rich and meaningful, he can’t help but share them with the world.

Abroad in Japan – Chris Broad 

Talking of sharing things with the world, YouTuber Chris Broad has more than three million subscribers to his “Abroad in Japan” channel and just released a memoir under the same name via publisher Transworld last year. Charting his journey from newbie on the JET program in rural Tohoku to munching pizza with Ken Watanabe, this is a refreshing update of the foreigner-in-Japan trope full of anecdotes, self-deprecating humor and interesting insights.

Four Seasons in Japan – Nick Bradley,

Another English Japanophile, Nick Bradley, follows up his hugely successful novel The Cat and the City with Four Seasons in Japan (Penguin). Set in Tokyo, it follows the disillusioned Flo who finds a mysterious book in the subway that begins to fascinate her. As she begins to translate it, she becomes obsessed with the couple at the heart of the story and decides to seek out the author.

Finger Bone  – Hiroki Takahashi

Not exactly beach reading but definitely worth diving into is Finger Bone by Hiroki Takahashi, (translated by Takami Nieda; Honford Star). Set in the jungles of Papua New Guinea in 1942, Akutagawa-winning author Takahashi pulls no punches in this minimalist portrayal of the horrors of war. The title comes from the practice of removing a dead soldier’s finger, burning off the flesh and sending the bone back to his family in Japan. Brutal, moving, often dryly funny, a must-read.  

The Butterfly Café – Diane Hawley Nagatomo

Also set in Tokyo, Diane Hawley Nagatomo’s debut novel, The Butterfly Café tells the story of American Jessie Yamada. When her husband dies, freeing her from an abusive relationship, she begins to uncover a web of lies, and everything she thought she knew unravels.  

Tree Spirits Grass Spirits – Hiromi Ito

After the success of The Thorn Puller, Hiromi Ito’s latest, Tree Spirits Grass Spirits (translated by Jon L. Pitt) is a collection of poetic essays that cover such diverse topics as immigration, language, gender, travel, and philosophy, all linked together by the author’s love of nature. As Ito was never one for pigeonholes, the publisher, Nightboat, has had to invent a new genre to describe it: phyto-autobiography: “a recounting of one’s life through the logic of flora.”

The Japan Lights – Iain Maloney

Finally, from autobiography to memoir, my latest book The Japan Lights is out on Tippermuir Books. It is a non-fiction account of my travels around the coasts of Japan visiting the 20+ extant lighthouses built in the 1860s and 1870s by Scottish engineer Richard Henry Brunton. Part-travel memoir, part history, part biography, if you enjoyed The Only Gaijin in the Village then this should light up your summer.