I love reading books set in Tokyo, a city that effortlessly melds tradition with cutting-edge modernity and has long been a muse for writers seeking to capture its vibrant spirit. From the bustling streets of Shinjuku to the serene gardens of Rikugi-en, Tokyo’s diverse neighbourhoods offer a rich tapestry of inspiration for literature. In this list of books set in Tokyo, we’ll explore ten wonderful books set in Tokyo that transport readers to the heart of Tokyo, each crafted by authors who bring their unique perspectives to the city’s dynamic landscape, without the inclusion of the ubiquitous Haruki Murakami.
Books Set in Tokyo
Out – Natsuo Kirino
In the Tokyo suburbs, four women work the draining graveyard shift at a boxed-lunch factory. Burdened with chores and heavy debts and isolated from husbands and children, they all secretly dream of a way out of their dead-end lives.
A young mother among them finally cracks and strangles her philandering, gambling husband then confesses her crime to Masako, the closest of her colleagues. For reasons of her own, Masako agrees to assist her friend and seeks the help of the other co-workers to dismember and dispose of the body.
The body parts are discovered, the police start asking questions, but the women have far more dangerous enemies -a yakuza connected loan shark who discovers their secret and has a business proposition, and a ruthless nightclub owner the police are convinced is guilty of the murder. He has lost everything as a result of their crime and he is out for revenge. An interesting one among books set in Tokyo.
Out is a psychologically taut and unflinching foray into the darkest recesses of the human soul, an unsettling reminder that the desperate desire for freedom can make the most ordinary person do the unimaginable among books set in Tokyo.
Tokyo Cancelled – Rana Dasgupta
Thirteen passengers are stranded at an airport. Tokyo, their destination, is covered in snow and all flights are cancelled. To pass the night they form a huddle by the silent baggage carousels and tell each other stories. An interesting read among books set in Tokyo.
Robert De Niro’s lovechild explores the magical properties of a packet of Oreos; a Ukrainian merchant is led by a wingless bird back to a lost lover; a man who edits other people’s memories has to confront his own past; a Chinese youth with amazing luck cuts men’s hair and cleans their ears; an entrepreneur risks losing everything in his obsession with a doll; a mute Turkish girl is left all alone in the house of a German cartographer.
Told by people on a journey, these are stories about lives in transit. Stories from the great cities – New York, Istanbul, Delhi, Lagos, Paris, Buenos Aires – that grow into a novel about the hopes and dreams and disappointments that connect people everywhere. Love interesting stories? You’ll love this among books set in Tokyo.
As a work of post-tsunami literature and a protest against the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, this one among books set in Tokyo is of utmost importance to this moment, a powerful rebuke to the Imperial system and a sensitive, deeply felt depiction of the lives of Japan’s most vulnerable people among books set in Tokyo.
Kazu is dead. Born in Fukushima in 1933, the same year as the Emperor, his life is tied by a series of coincidences to the Imperial family and has been shaped at every turn by modern Japanese history.
But his life story is also marked by bad luck, and now, in death, he is unable to rest easily, haunting the park near Ueno Station. It is here that Kazu’s life in Tokyo began and ended, having arrived there to work as a labourer in the run-up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics before ending his days living in the vast homeless villages in the park, traumatised by the destruction of the 2011 tsunami and enraged by the announcement of the 2020 Olympics.
Kitchen juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, bereavement, kitchens, love and tragedy in contemporary Japan. It is a startlingly original first work by Japan’s brightest young literary star and is now a cult film.
When Kitchen was first published in Japan in 1987 it won two of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, climbed its way to the top of the bestseller lists, then remained there for over a year and sold millions of copies among books set in Tokyo. Banana Yoshimoto was hailed as a young writer of great talent and great passion whose work has quickly earned a place among the best of modern literature, and has been described as ‘the voice of young Japan’ by the Independent on Sunday.
In the Miso Soup – Ryu Murakami
It’s just before New Year, and Frank, an overweight American tourist, has hired Kenji to take him on a guided tour of Tokyo’s nightlife. But, Frank’s behaviour is so odd that Kenji begins to entertain a horrible suspicion: his client may in fact have murderous desires. Although Kenji is far from innocent himself, he unwillingly descends with Frank into an inferno of evil, from which only his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, Jun, can possibly save him. A cult one among books set in Tokyo.
One of my faves among books set in Tokyo. The Little House is set in the early years of the Showa era (1926-89), when Japan’s situation is becoming increasingly tense but has not yet fully immersed in a wartime footing. On the outskirts of Tokyo, near a station on a private train line, stands a modest European style house with a red, triangular shaped roof. There a woman named Taki has worked as a maidservant in the house and lived with its owners, the Hirai family.
Now, near the end of her life, Taki is writing down in a notebook her nostalgic memories of the time spent living in the house. Her journal captures the refined middle-class life of the time from her gentle perspective. At the end of the novel, however, a startling final chapter is added. The chapter brings to light, after Taki’s death, a fact not described in her notebook. This suddenly transforms the world that had been viewed through the lens of a nostalgic memoir, so that a dramatic, flesh-and-blood story takes shape. Nakajima manages to combine skillful dialogue with a dazzling ending. The result is a polished, masterful work fully deserving of the Naoki Prize among books set in Tokyo.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold – Toshikazu Kawaguchi
In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a cafe which has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time.
In Before the Coffee Gets Cold, we meet four visitors, each of whom is hoping to make use of the cafe’s time-travelling offer, in order to: confront the man who left them, receive a letter from their husband whose memory has been taken by Alzheimer’s, see their sister one last time, and meet the daughter they never got the chance to know.
But the journey into the past does not come without risks: customers must sit in a particular seat, they cannot leave the cafe, and finally, they must return to the present before the coffee gets cold. A cute one among books set in Tokyo.
The Tokyo Zodiac Murders – Soji Shimada
‘If you like your crime stories to be bloody and bizarre, then this one may be for you among books set in Tokyo. The winner of several major awards… the solution is one of the most original that I’ve ever read’ Anthony Horowitz A bestselling and internationally-acclaimed masterpiece of the locked-room mystery genre Japan, 1936. An old eccentric artist living with seven women has been found dead – in a room locked from the inside. His diaries reveal alchemy, astrology and a complicated plan to kill all seven women.
Shortly afterwards, the plan is carried out: the women are found dismembered and buried across rural Japan. By 1979, these Tokyo Zodiac Murders have been obsessing a nation for decades, but not one of them has been solved. A mystery-obsessed illustrator and a talented astrologer set off around the country – and you follow, carrying the enigma of the Zodiac murderer through madness, missed leads and magic tricks. You have all the clues, but can you solve the mystery before they do? An exciting one among books set in Tokyo.
A band of savage thirteen-year-old boys reject the adult world as illusory, hypocritical, and sentimental, and train themselves in a brutal callousness they call ‘objectivity’. When the mother of one of them begins an affair with a ship’s officer, he and his friends idealise the man at first; but it is not long before they conclude that he is in fact soft and romantic. They regard this disallusionment as an act of betrayal on his part – and the retribution is deliberate and horrifying. One of my faves among books set in Tokyo.
The Hare With Amber Eyes – Edmund de Waal
264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them bigger than a matchbox: Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first encountered the collection in his great uncle Iggie’s Tokyo apartment. When he later inherited the ‘netsuke’, they unlocked a story far larger and more dramatic than he could ever have imagined.
From a burgeoning empire in Odessa to fin de siecle Paris, from occupied Vienna to Tokyo, Edmund de Waal traces the netsuke’s journey through generations of his remarkable family against the backdrop of a tumultuous century.
These books set in Tokyo offer a diverse and compelling exploration of Tokyo, showcasing the city’s multifaceted identity through the eyes of talented authors. From crime and mystery to introspective journeys, books set in Tokyo provide a unique lens through which to experience the captivating energy and complexity of Tokyo. As you embark on this literary journey, you’ll discover a Tokyo beyond Murakami, a city that continues to inspire and captivate readers around the world.
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Are there any books set in Tokyo you’d like to add to this list? Would you please share in the comments section below?