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10 Books Set in Tokyo: Reading the Motley City

Picture of Minami Goto
Minami Goto
Updated: 30 September 2016
Tokyo has been a subject of literature for centuries, and continues to inspire writers today. These ten fiction and non-fiction works capture Tokyo’s unique character, revealing multiple aspects of the city from its arts scene to its pop culture, and down to the depths of its underworld.



After Dark, Haruki Murakami

Internationally acclaimed Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami has published many works set in Tokyo, including Norwegian Wood, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and After Dark, which was originally published in 2004. In After Dark, Murakami depicts one night in the city from midnight until dawn, using a third person perspective to portray the many characters which occupy this night time sphere. From Denny’s Restaurant to a ‘Love Hotel’, the locations of the novel are reminiscent of the seediness of a bustling street in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho. Murakami captures the urban midnight landscape of Tokyo where different people’s lives interlink and where the boundary between today and tomorrow, reality and dream are blurred.


Almost Transparent Blue, Ryu Murakami

Ryu Murakami’s Almost Transparent Blue is based upon events from the author’s own life during the 1970s in Fussa-city, Tokyo, when he was in his twenties. Ryu, a hero of the novel, is living in an apartment located near the American military base in Fussa. On the margins of this base, Ryu and his companions lead a life of sex, drug and violence without any hope for the future. Although the story is depicted through Ryu’s perspective, Murakami maintains a sense of objectivity about everything which occurs, and relates it without any trace of empathy. Through the novel’s haunting emptiness, Murakami achieves a poetic depiction of the devastating life of the Japanese youth during the 1970s.


OUT, Natsuo Kirino

Natsuo Kirino’s OUT, the first Japanese novel shortlisted for the Edgar Awards Best Novel prize, is a story about four women working for a bento factory in the suburbs of Tokyo. Plagued by problems in their families and jobs, they are desperate to get out of such a tedious and repetitive life. This desperation manifests itself in a tragic form, as they are suddenly led into the violent underworld of Japan after one of them impulsively kills her abusive husband. In OUT, Kirino depicts the dark side of modern Japanese society with a profound insight into the reality of ordinary people’s lives right after the collapse of the ‘bubble economy’.


The Idiot, Ango Sakaguchi

Set in Kamata, on the outskirts of Tokyo just before the end of World War II, The Idiot depicts an abnormal relationship between film director Izawa and an ‘idiot’, the mentally handicapped wife of his neighbor. Hidden in the closet of Izawa’s house, ‘the idiot’ does nothing but wait for him to appear everyday. There is no proper conversation between them, and they communicate with each other only through sex. When an air raid attack threatens Tokyo, Izawa run away carrying ‘the idiot’ on his back. Their sexual instinct, which they maintain despite the chaos of war, symbolizes their craving for life and their persistent desire. Encroaching on many taboo subjects, The Idiot had a sensational impact on Japanese post-war society in 1946. (available in Modern Japanese Stories: An Anthology, ed. Ivan Morris)


Sanshiro, Soseki Natsume

Soseki Natsume, one of the greatest Japanese writers in the early 1900s, captures ordinary people’s lives during that period in his life. In Sanshiro, he depicts the story of the title character, who moved to Tokyo from the countryside of Fukuoka to study in university. After moving to Tokyo, Sanshiro encounters a lot of differences between the city and his hometown, and discovers three conflicting worlds that he wants to explore: home, study and love. Right after the Russo-Japanese War, there was a mixed atmosphere in Tokyo that combined the pre-modern traditions of the Edo period and the influence of Western culture. In Sanshiro, Natsume takes a critical view of Japanese society at that time as expressed through Sanshiro’s eyes.



Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology, Hidenobu Jinnai

In Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology, Japanese architecture historian Hidenobu Jinnai explains how the city of Tokyo came to be from a historical and geographical point of view. Carrying a map of old Tokyo, Jinnai wanders the city and explores the traces from the Edo period that have become the foundation of today’s Tokyo. Jinnai argues for the rationality of Tokyo’s spatial structure in the Edo period and how natural disasters such as earthquakes as well as the development of modern society brought about the city’s changes. Through this virtual adventure through old Tokyo, Jinnai suggests that the memory of old landscapes help him to understand contemporary Tokyo’s urban space.


Tokyo Underworld, Robert Whiting

Robert Whiting, the author of You Gotta Have Wa, an insightful account of the Japanese baseball world, documents the post-war underworld of Tokyo when it was still under the occupation of the US military. Whiting focuses on American mafia boss Nick Zapetti who moved to Tokyo after the end of World War II and opened a pizza restaurant in Roppongi, where various important people gathered from politicians and yakuza to artists and wrestlers. By exploring Zapetti’s life in Japan, which was full of ups and downs, a lot of shocking truths about the dark side of Japanese society are scandalously disclosed, which no Japanese journalist had discussed before.


Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant Garde, Various Authors

Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant Garde is the catalogue of the exhibition of same name, which was held in Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2012. The exhibition explores the creations of the artists who were engaged in artistic activities during the post-war period in Tokyo, when the city was transforming itself from the devastated capital of a defeated nation to the center of international art, culture and business in East Asia. Japanese and American curators and critics cover a range of works within various mediums, from the artists of this new generation such as Jikken Kobo, the Gutai group, Yoko Ono and Daido Moriyama. This is the first English publication that studies Japanese modern art, with a focus on the avant-garde movement of this chaotic and energetic period in Tokyo.


Cruising the Anime City: An Otaku Guide to Neo Tokyo, Patrick Macias, Tomohiro Machiyama

Written by Patrick Macias and Japanese film critic Tomohiro Machiyama, Cruising the Anime City: An Otaku Guide to Neo Tokyo is a comprehensive guide for Japanese pop culture geeks living outside of the country. Instead of introducing popular tourist attractions in Tokyo, it contains plenty of information on must-go places related to animation, comics, and games including the location of certain animations, ‘cosplay’ cafés, and anime cinemas as well as detailed maps of Akihabara, the mecca for ‘otakus’.


Feel and Think: A New Era of Tokyo Fashion, Various Authors

From Issei Miyake, Yohji Yamato to COMME des GARÇONS, Tokyo has been sending unique and innovative designers to the international fashion world for many decades. Feel and Think: A New Era of Tokyo Fashion addresses the designers of a new generation who are trying to follow the achievements of such precursors. The book consists of the images of works and interviews by ten selected young designers who are standing out in the Tokyo fashion scene, including Keisuke Kanda, matohu, Theatre Products and mint designs. Through the words of these designers, who have all launched their own brands, this book reveals their sincere and independent attitude towards fashion.