Haruki Murakami – Norwegian Wood, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Underground
Easily the best known Japanese author overseas if not necessarily that representative of Japanese literature. Expect accessible and emotive surrealism, featuring cats, teenage love, jazz and elements of science fiction. Norwegian Wood was the book that deservedly made him famous, a beautiful coming of age tale, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle remains by general consensus his masterpiece, and the non-fiction Underground is possibly his most moving and powerful book, a disturbing insight into Japanese culture. I’m also very partial to What I Think About When I Think About Running, for its insights into his writing process, and more obviously his running, and while 1Q84 is probably not the best place to start, it remains compelling throughout it’s nine hundred pages.
Alex Kerr – Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan
A long time resident of Japan, first known for his charming Lost Japan, provides pretty scathing insights into the real Japan, a place of stifling and corrupt bureaucracy, poor or non existing regulations, and wholesale devastation of the natural environment. A far cry from the usual public image of Japan, and one worth understanding.
David Mitchell – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
One of Britain’s most highly regarded and award winning authors (unfortunately sharing his name with another rather well-known person), David Mitchell lived in Japan for a number of years, and has featured Japan in parts of many of his books. This is the only book fully set in Japan though, a fascinating and beautifully written story of the first Western settlement in Shogun era Japan.
David Peace – Tokyo Year Zero
A fellow British author who lived in Japan at the same time as David Mitchell (though they mainly compare notes on visas and paperwork rather than writing). Best known for his Red-Riding Quartet (1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983) and The Damned United, this, the first part of his Tokyo trilogy, is for me his masterpiece so far. I’ve read few books which convey an atmosphere so well, with a writing style clearly influenced by James Ellroy but arguably applied to a more interesting subject (to me at least) of crime in ruined post WW2 Tokyo.
Will Ferguson – Hokkaido Highway Blues and Tim Anderson – Tune in Tokyo: The Gaijin Diaries
Two of the better travel books of the comic / informative variety on Japan, both very entertaining in places and you’ll probably learn something new, if not to the depth of Alex Kerr.