Top 10 books about Tokyo | Nick Bradley

From quiet stories of domestic life to accounts of horrific crime, these books introduce the reader to a vast, almost unknowable city

Tokyo: an elusive fictional character in its own right, the subject or stage of many a novel, anime, film or song. It’s a vast city, almost impossible to know entirely. When I lived there, I worked for a Japanese company as a “salaryman” and would commute to my job for two hours every day on the busiest train lines in the city. I began to see familiar faces on my route, and like Sherlock Holmes I’d sneak peeks at people and look for clues to indicate each person’s life story. With that many people running like clockwork to schedule around me, everything felt so interconnected. I wondered how I might recreate this feeling of interconnectivity in a literary form.

My debut novel The Cat and the City follows the adventures of a stray cat in Tokyo who brushes up against a wide variety of characters. They at first feel unrelated but as the narrative progresses we start to see how their lives are all intertwined. The final chapter takes place on what would have been the day of the 2020 Olympic Games opening ceremony.

We’ll have to wait for the Tokyo Olympics, but in the meantime, here is a list of my favourite Tokyo books to better acquaint readers with my favourite Tokyos, fictional and real.

 1. The Little House by Kyoko Nakajima (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
A fictionalised memoir, this novel is the diary of a former maid, Taki, who moves to Tokyo in 1930 to work for a rich family. Her narrative follows daily life working in the household of the Hirais, until the end of the second world war. Coincidentally, the book also contains references to the first cancelled Tokyo Olympics, originally scheduled for 1940 but abandoned because of the war. The quiet narrative style from the perspective of a maid, and the subjects it circles, have led many to compare the book to The Remains of the Day.

2. Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri (translated by Morgan Giles)
Kazu, a homeless man born in 1933 who worked as a labourer for the Tokyo 1964 Olympics, recounts his life from early days in Fukushima, through the familial losses he has experienced, up until the final days he spent in Ueno park as part of a homeless community. The book also captures the seething rage felt by some at the announcement of the 2020 Olympics seven years ago, despite the country still being in trauma from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The author is a Zainichi Korean and is presumably no stranger to feeling marginalised in Japanese society.

3. Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki (translated by Meredith McKinney)
I struggled whether to pick this book or Sanshirō. There had to be at least one Sōseki book on this list! Sōseki was “a child of Edo” – a Tokyo native – and set most of his books in the city. But this is perhaps his finest, dealing with love, honour, friendship and loyalty. Written in three distinct sections documenting the evolution of an intellectual relationship between a young man and an elder he calls “sensei”, this may well be the perfect novel.

4. number9dream by David Mitchell
For me, this is the best and most electrifying depiction of Tokyo by a non-Japanese writer. It follows the quest of Eiji Miyake, coming from the rural island of Yakushima in order to find the father he has never met. Mitchell depicts Tokyo as an exciting, sprawling city, replete with neon and yakuza.

Holding a poster with Lucie Blackman’s picture, her sister Sophie Blackman appeals in the Roppongi district for help tracing her sister in September 2000.
Holding a poster with Lucie Blackman’s picture, her Sophie Blackman appeals in the Roppongi district for help tracing her sister in September 2000. Photograph: AP

5. People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry
This true crime book, while horrific, masterfully documents the disappearance of a 22-year-old British girl, Lucie Blackman, who had been working as a hostess in a Roppongi bar in the year 2000. It follows the family’s involvement, the police investigations and the terrifying discovery of Lucie’s dismembered body, buried under a bathtub in the sands of a seaside cave roughly 30 miles south of Tokyo. Gripping, fierce and compelling, the book merits comparisons to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

 6. Out by Natsuo Kirino (translated by Stephen Snyder)
Published in 1997, Out is gritty and thrilling – and certain scenes are not for the squeamish. The story follows the lives of four women who work the night shift at a bento factory together, while having even worse home lives off the clock. One of them commits a murder, and they are tested in the manner of Crime and Punishment as to how they will go on living with this shared crime.

7. Underground by Haruki Murakami (translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel)
If you’re listing novels about Tokyo, how can you not choose something from Haruki Murakami? Since I’m allowed nonfiction in this list, I’m choosing his interview documentation of the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack, perpetrated by the cult Aum Shinrikyo. Love him or hate him, it cannot be denied that Murakami deftly documents this terrible incident.

The Tokyo metropolitan government building in the city’s Shinjuku district.
The Tokyo metropolitan government building in the city’s Shinjuku district. Photograph: Itaru Chiba/AFLO/Rex/Shutterstock

8. In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami (translated by Ralph McCarthy)
Ryu Murakami (no relation) is a criminally overlooked but compelling writer. He captures the sordid Tokyo experience best in this blistering, brutal novel. Set in the seedy reaches of Shinjuku, it follows a strange plastic-skinned American, Frank, taking the young Japanese narrator, Kenji, on a wild and psychotic ride through all levels of gruesome Tokyo nightlife and abandoned, decaying buildings.

9. Friendship for Grown-Ups by Nao-cola Yamazaki (translated by Polly Barton)
This chapbook is part of a series written by contemporary Japanese writers. The three short stories in this release are part of a longer set of connected stories published in Japanese, but these three work extremely well together. They depict three female protagonists negotiating their varied lives in the big city, pondering questions of gender roles and existence itself. To me, the stories also successfully capture the melancholic isolation of the city perfectly. It’s worth mentioning that the translator, Polly Barton, is one of my favourite Japanese-English translators working now. If you see her name on anything, I highly recommend reading it.

 10. Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (translated by Geraldine Harcourt)
First published as a series of 12 essays/stories in the literary monthly Gunzō from 1978-79, the book charts a year in the life of a single mother who moves into a modern Tokyo apartment with her two-year-old daughter. Despite the new light-filled environment, the narrator’s thoughts take a darker turn, as she tries to escape the influence of her extremely irritating ex-husband. While the other books I’ve chosen on this list represent a gritty side to Tokyo (which is in reality such a safe city), this book instead shows us the plight of the average Japanese woman struggling to stay afloat as a single mother.

  • The Cat and the City by Nick Bradley is published by Atlantic Books (£14.99). To order a copy, go to

Nick Bradley

The GuardianTramp

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